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Black Fields, Black Horses

by Nance Van Winckel

I. A Feeling Like Something’s in the Eye

Across from the B.C. Eye Clinic is the Willow Motel. An orderly walks you back to your room when the surgery’s over. He opens your door and if you answer yes, you’d like some sound, he turns on the TV or the radio. He’ll get you a cup of tea, or a Coke. He leaves you a pager, first placing your fingers over a special button so you can feel the bump there of a piece of tape. Just press that, and he’ll be back in a flash.

And so all one’s needs are met. Lie back now and rest, he says.

I was coming awake in Canada and there was snow coming down. Or maybe there was only a mirage of snow since my sight, these days, wasn’t to be trusted. I was seeing starbursts. Earlier I’d seen haloes around the heads of the horrible motel dogs and the unctuous orderly.

That’s completely as it should be, the orderly said. That’s par for the course.

Up Highway 1 is the Kokanee Glacier. Ten million years ago it got this far south and west and gave up. I’ve walked on it. Stood on the Precambrian rubble: frozen scat from wooly mammoths. Extinct berries. Amid this primeval trash are lime Jell-O boxes, red rubber bands, and a mutant ninja turtle whose legs are pinned in the ice but whose arms seem to struggle upwards, reaching out stubby ninja hands. All this under my feet. Under the murky frozen crust and a hot noontime sun.

The orderly suggests more drops for my eyes. Tears, he calls them. Artificial tears.
Is there snow? I asked. Real snow?
Isn’t it weird? It’s nearly May.
How will I drive back to the States?
What driving? he said. Surely you jest.

I try to make my breathing slow down. Try to push back at all that crowds in to suggest what may soon no longer be seen. The list assembles itself up one motel room wall, then spills across another: Ice on the Walk, The Walk, The Curb. The Ferry Coming In. Trees Slumped under Snow. What’s in My Salad. What’s in My Stew. Hairdos, Streetlights, Mold on the Cheese. The Ferry Going Out. Sparks, Tools in the Tool Chest, A Man’s Hands as They Reach for Me. Wild Onions Shooting up near the Aspens. The Aspens.

The orderly knocking. The orderly’s spiels. Cokes, sugar in my tea, and don’t, under any circumstances, rub your eyes. The orderly going away.

The laser’s pulse had made a ticking sound when it hit the eye. Then the smell like hair burning. The doctor’s voice as if speaking from inside a metal pipe. The microkeratome is just cutting a flap. Now we’re folding the flap back. Now we’re remaking the flap. Just keep looking directly at the blinking light.

In the motel, I’m awakened by the call of an animal. A dog, I think. It’s hurt. Its agony is a high vowel lapping at the room. My heart loudly running away with itself. The dog’s stepped into a trap. I’ve heard such stories up here in Canada. The traps are set for the wolves. Any dog who steps in one is considered too stupid to save.

Do not, repeat, do NOT rub your eyes.

If unable next week or next month to see the glacier, am I simply to stand there in memory? With memory? Memory grows sharper, brighter. That’s what the sightless are told by the sighted.

The dog steps out of the trap and limps toward the glacial sludge, sips at its edges, tastes an extinct berry. Sharper now. A brighter red: that gnawed place where his paw had been.

In the parking lot Waylon Jennings drifts out from someone’s truck when the door’s thrown open. Down his voice, America slides into Canada.

Lie back now and rest. Here’s the button. Here’s your tea.

Does the dog live? He’d been most unwise to eat that berry. The berry makes him lie down. Perhaps it was a short nap that turned into a wild, raucous sleep. Maybe the dream became his demise. Now the cold brightens. Now the cold gathers more cold; it gathers more everything into its glittering glacial freeze.

 

II. Ab-So-Lutely: A Time of Too Much Money

I loved seeing the Slovak girl in my red and navy plaid suit. Years ago those cross-hatched stripes made me dizzy when I stared down at my knees. The skirt was too short. I didn’t like seeing my own knees, though this girl’s were nice—not knobby. She and her friend walked past me. This was the era of my old glasses, and I could see the place where the skirt’s hem had come loose, making one side sag so the girl seemed to walk at a tilt.

American adjectives—awesome, hilarious, kid-you-not—punctuated the girls’ hurried Russian.

They’d come out of the crumbling old church where the day before I’d dropped off three boxes of clothes—boxes I could barely see over and had to carry, slowly, one by one, down the broken stairs into a cellar rank with mildew. Setting the first box down, I saw why: damp hymnals in teetering towers against one wall.

The last time I’d been in that church was to bid farewell to a young man. I’d heard the mortician ask the florist girl to move a spray of yellow roses up over the hands. The hands, he’d said.

The back of my friend’s left hand, I knew, bore a dragon’s fire-plumed breath, the right hand a sinking ship. The mortician told the florist he didn’t think those hands were the sort of things mourners wanted to see.

None of us could manage to sing over the loud organ or the sight of our friend not looking himself. His mother, by the casket, turned and refused to speak to Stan, the lover, who’d given the blessing of the final kiss and closed up her son’s eyes at the last.

The plaid-skirted Slovak girl stopped and looked up something in a small book, her brown eyes amber-flecked. I smiled as I went past. Her friend waited, nodding to me at the corner, at the crosswalk light I’d just missed because I was standing there gawking.

This came during a time when I’d accumulated too much money in too many accounts—up north in one country and down south in another. A time when I felt a lack of interest in interest. There seemed nothing to do with it, or for it, or to it—as if I lived in the tropics and had a barn out back stacked high with logs.

The girls bent close to the book, searching out some mystifying English word . . . apparently not there. Pages turning fast in their fingers. They frowned at each other. Shrug. So lutely, they said. Try lutely, said the one not holding the book.

After I’d taken the clothes to the church I’d gone home for my furniture. Then the dishware. I’d planned a complete “re-outfitting”—that’s the word that came to mind back then. Later, as my steps echoed through the empty house, I was delighted—like someone shipwrecked in a new, uninhabited world. Through the drapeless windows, the light seemed a never-before-seen light.

I still wore my big clunky brown glasses. With them I could see details in the distance. No doctor had yet scowled into an X-ray of my eye, a lit negative I couldn’t even see myself when he showed it to me. I stepped closer: a woman staring hard at the blur that’s made her world a blur.

Blanket. Books. Bed. I also kept the antiquated hi-fi system that played everything in a slowed-down tempo.

Nice suit, I’d whispered as the Slovak girls turned up Third Avenue. They would probably put their scarves on their heads before they got home. But right then the scarves were tied around their necks. Gold and black and purple. Absolutely lovely. The two girls brightening our blah Third Avenue for a few minutes that day.

It was a simple day of simple deeds. I hadn’t yet been left half-blind. Or poor. I hadn’t yet had to sue any doctors or dress in the dark or feel my way to the door. I had 29 books. Even the fast music had a slower, sweeter cadence. I had a sky-blue blanket.

III. Patrice and the Gnomes

Yesterday, in a lawn chair at the Willow Motel, an eight-year-old named Patrice read to me. A ridiculous story with gnomes and rocketing rocking chairs. But she read it well, never stumbling over any of the words that to me resembled pebbles in sand.

When the last gnome had blasted into space, Patrice led me across the parking lot. It’s number 17, I told her, and she counted backwards as we passed each shut white door.

Patrice’s family has a little cat-sized dog they call Boo. Boo! they shout when they put their heads out the door—a cry that unnerves me five doors down at noon in my dark number 17.

Her father, driving them here in a sleek silver van, came to get his eyes fixed. He’ll rest this afternoon and they’ll be gone tomorrow. I’d said I’d watch the girl, although “watch” may be overstating it.

I’m not what they want to see. Still here. Still unhealed. I was supposed to stay under wraps—in the room, in the dark. But I need some air today, I told the orderly, and yes, I’ll keep the patch on, and don’t worry, I’ll tell any patients I see that I’m an anomaly and I’m on the mend.

Bad Boo, Patrice scolds when the dog licks my ankles. She walks me to the edge of the highway. She is the eye of the day. This is the road to the United States, she says. But don’t go out there. She pulls me to the other side of the parking lot and points out a movie theatre, the high school, and the mall, which she says is a joke.

A semi-blind woman is likely to believe in gnomes; therefore, Patrice feels it’s important to point out that they’re not real. Just made-up, she interjects every three or four pages as she reads the book again. If something bad happens, she tells me, don’t think it’s for real.

In Chinese poetry, a river’s mist distorts vision. This is to remind us that in a realm of words, we reside behind a seer’s eyes, and that seer is mortal—and thus imperfect.

The orderly gets out of the van with Patrice’s parents. I recognize the white pants and coat. Dad, Patrice calls, can you see me? He turns. He’s not even bandaged. Wow, he shouts, since when did you get so big? Boo! the mother shouts. A brown shadow stops at the side of the road. The shrill whine of compression brakes squeals around us. Boo, Boo, get back here.

IV. What the Pines Are Now

From the pasture, the five brown horses came to stand with me at the fence. We watched the new black horse jump hurdles, carrying a rider—a girl in a white helmet and tall tan boots. When she and the horse sailed over the rails and dropped down, the five brown horses stomped and whinnied and threw their heads.

The stable boys, my brother’s friends, kept shoveling. They used to be paperboys. They used to walk poodles. Now they work extra hours to support cars that sit on concrete blocks and drip and rust and stink.

Mid-morning, and the moon’s punched-in face was ghostly and low when the new black horse slid up under it.

Dust in our eyes. Me and the old horses. Twelve wide brown eyes staring. The girl had that white helmet—like a cartoon bubble waiting for words above the horse’s head.

Hey now, the boys called to me. Look at them lilies you threw out. They pointed. I tried, I called back. I had. I’d tried getting rid of those lilies. But now they’d sprouted—chartreuse shoots—in all directions from the mound of last year’s manure and weeds and old tomato vines.

The new horse circled and came ’round, heading fast toward another jump. At the fence we heard him panting as he passed. His rider urging Good boy, Good boy into his ear.

If he made it, a black arc—appearing like some suddenly simplified abstract Truth—would widen and hang in the air. His four white feet would fling it off the ground. Something the brown horses and I couldn’t believe we’d believe, but we would. We did.

One day last year the boys drank themselves silly and drove into trees, though they rarely speak of it. Shrugging if they’re asked. What-ever. The next week they brought saws and turned those trees into these hurdles.

A great black girth soon to be poised in the air over them. There. Like God’s eyebrow raised.

The rider with her head low, saying she knows he can do it, Good Boy, and the other horses all look up and me too and we expect him to do it, and the boys pause a minute and smoke and nod once at Good Boy . . . as he does it.

We let out our held breaths. Then I pound back a sagging fence rail into its nail. Even after all these years, I still carry a hammer in my handbag. This is a thing the boys tell their girlfriends in the dark.

V. Do Not Speak to the Captain

What issues forth from the great ripped-open torso of the ferry: moths and butterflies. They make clots of colors as they flutter ashore.

They who’ve disembarked are hell-bent on photographing anything picturesque. Ah, Canada is more a sigh than a sung thing. They’ve strapped on shiny black camera gear. They consult maps and devices that measure sunlight, water-light, mountain light. Later, heading up the switchbacks, they resemble a colorful scaffolding, newly installed, to hold up the mountain.

The morning air had a sweetness of hedge roses and the sort of damp pent-up stillness that suggests in any coming moment a storm. But the morning passed and there was no storm. The first ferry came and went.

Aunt Dot and Uncle Mel are to meet me. They weren’t sure which ferry they’d make. Uncle Mel wears a glass eye. He owns six or seven such eyes. I’ve seen him take them from a dresser drawer, hold them out, and ask Aunt Dot to pick one. He says the eye sets his mood for the day. The green eye brings luck; the blue one makes him wistful and serene. To all of this Aunt Dot rolls her own two watery gray eyes. He may as well wear the hazel one, she says, since it goes so nicely with the gold tie.

As soon as the ferrymen arrive, they plan for departure. Departing, they plan for arrival. They wear yellow rain slickers, even in perfectly good sunshine. Around the iron moorings they coil ropes in figure eights—signs of infinity—then uncoil them.

Over the great wheel that turns the ferry is a sign of Don’t Do’s. Topping the list is Don’t Speak to the Captain, but many people do. They ask to take his picture. They thank him for the lovely voyage. They offer him gum or chocolate. But he won’t be gifted or thanked. He won’t smile or speak or look you in the eye. He stares toward arrival. He pulls up to the dock like Columbus confronting the new continent.

Uncle Mel steps onto the dock, smiling. He is wearing his regular brown eye. Aunt Dot follows five steps behind, frowning. Her enormous black purse seems to weigh her down. They’re going to decide what to do with me. Perhaps take me across the border, maybe take me home with them, to my grandfather’s old cabin on another lake—southward, in the States—where they’ve been “camped” (their word) for thirteen years.

I’ve walked to the dock from the Willow Motel. Three and a half miles. One eye sees double, and the other recognizes shapes . . . more or less. It’s been a challenge to keep to the road’s gravel edge and not step left into stumps or right onto the road itself up which logging trucks hurtle like silver-tipped arrows.

Recrossing Kooteney Lake, the ferrymen are already shrinking. When the boat veers behind the jut of the northern shore, the men appear to be swarming like yellow bees on a travelling hive.

The brown stationary eye of Uncle Mel’s seems to double as I reach to kiss him under his other eye, the good one that sees me and winks.

We think we won’t decide anything too soon. The daylight is so bright. We soak in a hot spring in a cave and when we come out it is night. I’m newly in love with the night sky. Unbutton the mother-of-pearl buttons on her billowing black dress, and the widow is secretly happy. Luminous and alone. She’s only pretended mourning.

Aunt Dot hums as Uncle Mel drives us back to town. Spanning the river that endlessly feeds the lake, the bridge is lined with statues. Two centuries ago a man used to come by and light acetylene in their stone crowns of wreaths. This did nothing to calm the river below. Nothing’s ever calmed it. All for it is transit, the water contorting itself—deeper, farther, harder—into more of itself.

 

VI. Halfway Home

Blindness may be one way out of the two countries. Freezing to death could be another. I’m guessing there are many, really.

I doze, sightless in my little gray car on a gravel lane—20 yards from Canada, 20 yards from the U.S. From their squat white guardhouses, the two border guards stare at my car. Neither boy will let me pass. I can’t see them, but I can hear their walkie-talkies click on and off. Roger, she can just sit there a while. Roger that, yeah, till she gets her head on straight.

The laser pulse had gone bad in my eye. In the recovery room the nurse stood rattling her rosary. Dr. Goof in the doorway: trying but not able to make her stop. Calamity, she’d said, thinking, I suppose, I was deaf, too.

I was asleep but dreaming myself awake and driving blind into Nelway and the border crossing there where they knew me and usually waved me through. But not today. No sir. Not with these bandages on my eyes.

Shouldn’t someone put her out of her misery? Was that what the nurse had said? To the rosary? To the doctor? All the patient (me) would have left—for all her time remaining on this earth—were her memories. Whatever the hell those were. The nurse was a white blur in the beige room. She said she wished it had turned out differently.

I had a great deal of cash—pretty blue bills in one pocket, and faded green ones in another—but neither of the guard boys wanted it. Did I have any smokes? they asked.

I was a no-go, they said. But I’ve driven this road a thousand times, I told them. I can absolutely feel it, I said, every curve. No worry, I told them. Those stop signs—I’ve got a good sense of them. And I’ll stop—sure, just in time. Everything will be okay.

The boys had to smoke for a while to think this over.

I don’t want to blame my mother. That’s my old way out of things. She’d been sure Canada was the place to go since the surgery was so cheap up there and if she paid for one eye, couldn’t I pick up the tab for the other? Wouldn’t that make a nice Christmas gift? Wasn’t that a sweet little plan?

The patient would have a headache when she woke. And the kind thing to do would be to get that head on a stump and bring the ax down swiftly. Was this the doctor talking?

The headache seems worse now. Is there something you could give me?
Something, yes, something, of course!

The doctor stuck his face into the hallway. Girl, he called. Or was it Gail? I was in a chair and had put my head back against the concrete wall. Gail, or girl, he told me, would make me comfortable. Tomorrow, after a slight alteration, I’d be right as rain.

Why did this patient have this fever? The doctor put his big hand on my forehead, then jerked it away. Yowzer, he said, that’s a hot tamale.

Over each white guardhouse, a flag flaps in the wind. I could hear them. The stars and stripes made a whooshing flap; the maple leaf was a whook-whook. Between them the gravel lane was full of potholes. No country owned it so no country was responsible for fixing it. Under my white bandages I saw the blind entering their own country. They held out their arms as if to embrace it. Their landscape was immense: rolling black plains, black hills, fast black rivers.

 

Nance Van Winckel’s most recent book of short stories is Curtain Creek Farm (Persea Books, 2000). Her fourth collection of poetry, Beside Ourselves, is just out with Miami University Press, 2003. Other new fiction appears in The Georgia Review, and new poems in AGNI 57, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, New Letters, and Doubletake. She teaches in the MFA programs at Eastern Washington University and Vermont College. (10/2003)


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