A week before I moved to Florida, my dad had a heart attack. It was the first time I ever saw him afraid. John, my older brother, and I went to visit him in the hospital after his surgery at 10:41 pm. I was hiding behind my brother. My mom kept trying to get me to walk closer to my dad’s hospital bed, but I kept seeing Grandpa in hospice so I couldn’t move. Then Dad said, “Laura, she’s fine where she is.” His voice was as calm as it was when I rode a horse for the first time. He reached out to me and held my hand so gently. I could feel he was shaking.
“I thought I wasn’t going to see you guys again,” Dad said looking at me and John.
It reminded me of the fear I felt seven years ago when I told my dad I wanted to ride horses. Anyone in the horse world will use the phrase ask, tell, kill as a misdirected way to establish control and a dominant relationship with a horse. My horse Cody was honest but terrified of the world. His strength scared me, but it made his beauty even more endearing. He had everything he needed to be wild.
When my older brother John was little, he loved the movie Spirit about the wild horses. The soundtrack was the first album he bought on the iTunes store. I watched it with him every time. Last week, I gave him a sticker featuring Spirit and the horse he falls in love with in the movie while we were watching Criminal Minds.
“Here homie, because you love Spirit, or used to love Spirit.”
“I still do, thanks, guy,” John said.
Years earlier, I rode a horse for the first time. Cody was a chestnut quarter horse with a white blaze on his forehead. Fear, love, and a wild side flowed through his blood like a river inside him. Cody was my spirit horse. His eyes told me every story I needed to know. He was kind but scared of the world as I had been too at that time, but I never understood where my fear came from. The thing about Cody was that he had been neglected and forgotten his whole life. He needed kindness and a gentle heart, and I needed a home.
My home was supposed to be the house with the light blue front door across the street from the lake. I never sit on the porch anymore, silently watching the water sparkle in the afternoon sun, taking in the perfect amount of beauty to make the day feel complete. Dad yells in the kitchen, and I still feel the need to go outside to find something safe. I’m twenty-one, and I still don’t understand what he’s angry about. Anger lives in my house with an overwhelming and unrelenting presence. The house was silent, but anger whispered inside it like ghosts that were never seen. This invisible monster must live inside me too because I’m so much like my dad. He says I look like his mom. I asked him about her for the first time months ago, and he told me I reminded him of her. He said she had long black hair, she was beautiful, creative, and loved horses. There have been many times when he has asked me what I’m so afraid of, and I’ve wanted to say “Dad, I’m afraid of you.” My dad never answers when I talk about horses. We used to talk about horses all the time when we went on drives on country roads—
another thing we never do anymore.
Cody’s body was round and warm and felt more like home than home ever had. Whenever I come back from college, I want to go to the barn, but Cody’s standing in a field in Indian Trail alone, and I have learned how to pretend I don't miss him. A year after I started riding horses, Cody took off as he had done three or four times before. He was a rocket. Fear looked beautiful on him. But on me, fear was invisible because it was constant.
My first ride on Cody didn’t go well. My trainer, Jane, yelled at me across the ring: “He’s very green, you gotta kick him, hard.” I did, he took a few steps and stopped. I kicked him again, and he took a few more. I could feel his fear. That’s the thing about horses, they show you how they feel. His head was high, his ears were back, and the white part of his eyes was visible. His neck was strong. But I also felt something I never felt before in my early moments with Cody. I felt safe and needed.
When I do come home from college, I feel like I need to hide. My dad is yelling in the kitchen or at his desk. I can feel pieces of me fall away. Anger is easy. It never asks for anything, just a reaction. But it’s a taker. It causes an uproar and leaves damage in its wake. My dad’s rage is no different. My dad will tell you he’s in pain, and I believe that he is, but I also believe pain doesn’t breed anger. It breeds acceptance.
Horses can feel your legs, your body, and the way your weight shifts in the saddle. After three months, I was trotting off the lunge line, so I was completely on my own. Just me and Cody in the ring with Jane on one end. I pushed Cody forward and turned him without using the reins. The ease of this moment informed me that Cody and I had everything we needed. It was also when I realized my dad and I didn’t. I barely moved to the left in the saddle, and he turned left. I didn’t have to ask, tell, or kill. I had to trust and let him do his job. I told my dad about that moment, and he said, “that’s a beautiful thing.” That was the last time we talked about horses.
Five years ago, Cody trampled my left thigh. We were in the ring on a spring day, and he was on a lounge line. There were poles on the ground from a previous lesson, and I was moving him around the poles. He barely took a step and bolted. My foot caught in the stirrup, and I was dragged a few feet before I ended up beneath him. He trampled the inside of my left thigh. I didn’t see Cody again until months later, but this time I was afraid of him, and it broke me. But I have his mark on my thigh. Nerve damage and bruising and residual swelling that won’t go back to normal. He’s permanent. I remember the fear in him. I remember that he was still looking for a home.
Dad’s anger turned home into a place I went sometimes but left every chance I could. Every time I walked out the front door, freedom fell inside me gracefully. I used to sit in my room in the house by the lake watching the days waste away in front of me. Marking days off my calendar as I waited to return to college, my definition of home skewed by where I was and where I wanted to be. Every year before I turned eighteen, Dad wrote me a letter on my birthday that held advice and the possibilities of what I may face during that year of my life. Except on my eighteenth birthday, Mom sent me a card and a package in the mail, Dad signed the card I love you, I’m proud of you, John sent me a text. The letters stopped coming. No advice from Dad. That was the first time saying I love you wasn’t enough.
I stopped riding after I fell off.
With my leg too swollen to wear jeans, I wore gym shorts to school, propped my leg up on a chair during class, and used crutches. A month later, Dad and I were in the house alone. An ace bandage held my leg in place and put pressure on my thigh. I didn’t realize until much later that I couldn’t feel my hand on my own leg, which meant I couldn’t feel Cody, a result of permanent nerve damage. Every time I took the bandage off, it tore my skin. Being alone in the house with Dad made it nearly impossible for me to hide from him. I limped out of my room, finally off the crutches, and sat at the kitchen table.
“Anything you want to talk about?” Dad asked.
“No, I’m okay,” I said.
“I don’t think you are, Kiley. I know you, any time you say that you’re not really okay.” He poured a glass of wine and sat across from me. “Would you like a glass?” I was fifteen years old, so I shook my head no. I come from a line of addiction, mostly among the women on my Dad’s side, and I watched my uncle in the caverns of withdrawal from alcohol abuse. We sat in silence as we always used to when we drove down country roads together. I used to look out the window watching the Carolina foothills rise and fall in an intricate pattern that looked rehearsed. I looked in every field searching for horses.
In an audition, they call it the moment before, and silence was my moment before every time. “I miss Cody so much,” my voice broke as if I didn’t expect to mean those words as much as I did. “My leg aches, but Dad I don’t care. I need to go see him.”
“Your Grandpa John was the same way,” he said. I expected him to push. To pull more out of me, but he didn’t, he let me go. Dad called Jane the next day. Dad grew up on a farm in Honeoye Fall, New York. A town similar to one I’d see in John Wayne westerns. One main road, fields of livestock, barns for horses, and fall leaves wrapped around the countryside like hands. Grandpa John had thirty-two horses on his land at a time, most with behavioral issues or residual effects of abuse, they needed to be saved and Grandpa John saved them.
Talking to Dad that night felt like I was talking to an old friend. Looking back, I wonder if that was part of the reason I was crying. Something felt lost. We went to lunch with Jane the next day, and I sat in silence pushing hurt and tears down my body so hard my face hurt. I could feel the rubble inside me, a broken building. I smiled, but it felt forced. A beautiful form of denial. Dad spoke for me as he always did, and I always let him. I went back to the barn one time to see Cody. A week later, he went back to his home, a field in Indian Trail, North Carolina. My relationship with horses fizzled out after that into a memory from someone else’s mind. I tried to convince myself that my love for horses was an early and failed attempt to please my father. While in reality, my affinity for horses was the first time I trusted love. For the remainder of high school, I pretended horses didn’t need to be a part of my life.
Dad drove me to my first lesson. I wanted him to stay, but I never said it out loud.
The first time I saw Cody, he was standing in a field alone, but there was something wild about him. The motion in his body showed me he was ready to gallop away. Fear lived in his eyes behind layers of truth and desire. He was made of fear. I saw it working itself inside him like a dark cloak. The spring air threatened rain, but the riding ring was covered. I searched for a reason not to ride him.
“I’m gonna give him to you,” Jane said closing the gate behind us. “I’m right behind you.” I looked back, she wasn’t. Jane liked to push me so far beyond what I believed I could do. My breathing was soft, but shaky. It felt fake and hurried. When Cody’s hooves touched the pavement, he slid slightly. I jumped. He never picked up his front right hoof completely. “Put him in the grooming stall so we can get him tacked up. Be sure to turn him around completely.” His steps were as uncertain as mine. Cody was slow, but strong. He needed a leader. I believe this is where I failed him the most. The covered arena turned the outside into a place of haunting uncertainty. Every noise came from nothing. The space around us didn’t feel real. The wooden triangle ceiling created an echo that sounded otherworldly. My awareness of the world heightened while sitting on the back of a horse who was sensitive to sounds, quick movements, and light touches. He wanted to run, I could feel it rolling in his body.
An hour later, Dad came to pick me up. Anyone who watched my first lesson could tell that Cody and I weren’t a match. He was the first horse I rode and the first horse I fell off of. There was something inside him, something beautiful, something so fearful about him that drew me to him. I had the chance to ride a palomino named Nicky who was gentle and appreciated a kind hand, and I rode him a few times.
Nicky was kind and quiet. He needed kind love and a quiet rider. Nicky’s show name was Nick of Gold, and boy was he ever. He was my Nick of Gold. Cody needed a leader. A firm but tender hand. He needed someone who could let him run. That was his fear response. I froze and he ran.
“So, what did you think?” Dad asked when got in the truck.
“I was scared Dad,” I said.
“Of course you were,” he said turning left onto highway 150. “This is new, and the fear will fade. Fear always does.” It never did. I rode for two years before I lost feeling in my leg and fear turned my lessons into a circus act. A hoodwink. A misdirection. I went to the barn once a week. Sometimes I rode Cody. Sometimes I rode Cody’s brother Mikey. Sometimes I rode Nicky.
Six years passed between my accident and being around horses again. The summer before my junior year of college, Jane texted and asked to meet up for lunch. I asked about Nicky first. His owners sold him to be a lesson horse. I told her about Dad’s heart attack.
“You knew Cody is gone right?” she asked. I didn’t but I nodded anyways. Before I left my house to meet her for lunch, I knew Cody was gone. I felt it. I tried to call Dad on the way home, but he had just gotten out of heart surgery, so I called my mom, but she didn’t answer. I texted her. She responded with a red heart emoji. The only person I wanted to talk to was Dad. In an effort to go about the rest of my day, I turned on music and worked out outside. Another circus act. Mom’s car pulled in the driveway. A flashback to me in the barn outside Cody’s stall watching him. Memorizing his small movements that told me who he was. He loved peppermints, the round ones not the sticks. He loved being in the field with Mikey, his dressage saddle, one last pat on his nose before I left the barn, short goodbyes, and honesty. I stood against the barn door in the pouring rain waiting for my mom to come, watching Cody in his stall. Something about our distance left me longing for him in ways I’d never longed for anyone. She stopped the car, and Dad opened his door.
“I know,” he said. And I cried. “Now, I’m on a lot of pain medication right now so if I don’t say the right thing I’m sorry but I’m going to try.” He held my hand again, his soft touch reminded me of Grandpa John, the last memory I have of a grandpa I barely knew. “I’m sorry, honey.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” I said. He laughed a little. His eyes watered. For me and for Cody. He’s my dad.
“Why are you sorry?” he asked. Mom got out of the car and came up behind me. She offered a hug. I saw her out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t acknowledge her.
“Today’s not the day for this,” I said. “Cody’s gone and you’re not okay. And I can’t stop crying, and it’s not okay.”
“Hey, I am okay,” he explained his surgery to me. “Do you want to know why Cody was so special to you?” He asked I shook my head yes as all the reasons he could be special came into my mind.
“Because you love him, and that is a beautiful thing.”
Kiley Woods is a student at Eckerd College. She is studying creative writing with a double minor in history and journalism. When she isn't writing, she is taking photos, working out, or running into inanimate objects. Her work has appeared in Pomegranate Lit, Diet Water, Second Story Journal, and others.