Beggars Do Ride
by Christi Mastley
You don’t remember learning to ride anymore than you remember learning to breathe. You do remember seeing your first horse race on television: 1978. Affirmed takes the Triple Crown with Steve Cauthen riding. The jockeys are fleas, clinging to their horses with every finger and toe, brilliants fleas bestriding stallions like Colossus bestrode Rhodes. The horses are huge and the jockeys are dwarves but they move them as instinctively as they move their own bodies. In your memory, even the TV screen glowed gold, as though the sunlight at the track was so strong it could transmute itself through the television.
The horses run like fire. They fly down the track, sparking in the sun, manes flickering, flames stretched out in the wind of their own passing. The TV is an old one, big and battered, but you can hear the thud of thirty-two hooves pounding down the track. The race ends and your parents turn the TV off, but you can still hear it. The rhythm of drumming hooves. It doesn’t leave you. You hear it as you strain towards the sky on the family swing set that afternoon. You hear it as you eat your cereal the next morning. You hear it in the dead silence of your bedroom after midnight. Eventually, you put your hand to your ear, trying to isolate the sound, and feel your pulse fluttering below your earlobe. That’s where it’s coming from. Goose bumps ripple up your arms as you slide your hand down your chest and feel your heart beat thudding through your body like hoof beats.
Of course you become a jockey. You’re a bug boy girl-of-the-world, sauntering around the track stables with your hands shoved in your breeches, before you have your nineteenth birthday. On the day of said birthday, your parents look at you, standing with your feet apart in a be-pinked, be-poofed party dress, your sparse hair scraped up into a bun, and cringe. “What,” you say.
“You’re not much of a girl,” says your father bluntly.
Transcendentally, you stop growing at five feet. A height perfect for a jockey, but comically short, dwarfish. The grooms, the trainers, the owners, the janitors, they all get a kick out of you, out of this silent, bite-sized woman who has somehow fallen into the male heartland and just won’t leave. So you get slapped on the ass a lot, punched in the arm a lot, given noogies every once in a while. And you grin, open your mouth real wide and show all your teeth, eat it up, because no one wants to hire an angry bitch to ride their horses, not even one who can wave a wand over a roughy in the straight and blow a race out of the water without blinking an eye.
The racing makes up for everything. You slip into silks, jog to your mount’s stall and time your breathing by the second hand on your watch, trying to keep your hammering heart from knocking the air out of your lungs. It doesn’t do any good. The instant someone throws you up on some seventeen-hand tree of a Thoroughbred, your heart starts rapping its own crazy beat out of pure love. There’s something about the earnestness of these horses that makes you want to cry every time. That wiry mane kicking up over those bony withers, those big ears straining straight ahead—it puts a lump in your throat every time. You might trot by a spent horse and catch a whiff of old leather soaked in sweat and then you really have to pretend you got something in your eye, because that’s the sweet-salty smell of earnest, eager sacrifice.
At the beginning of a race, they lead you to the gate and shut you in the starting box. You shift your weight back and forth on your stirrups, testing their balance. It shudders through your mind that you are poised on stirrup irons as thin as bracelets over half a ton of coiled muscle controlled by a brain you could fit in your fist.
For thirty seconds, there is nothing to do but be. Not wait. Waiting means thinking forward, standing in one place but wanting to be in another. You can’t wait in the gate. When the horse busts out of there, you have to be on top of him. You can’t let your mind wander. You can’t let your body wander. You have to be exactly where the horse under you is, and he lives in nothing but the simple present. You don’t think about the race. You don’t strategize. You don’t hope you win. You IS.
The bell rings. The gate opens. You move out so fast the only thing you feel is a chill—the wind whipping warmth away from you like it whips the sound of the crowd away. When your horse’s gait steadies and your mind steadies, you take back your humanness, your standing as the dominant species in this relationship. You spread your feet in the stirrups, and start talking. You read every twitch and shiver in the body rocketing beneath you and talk back with your hips and hands and heart. It’s like dancing so fast the world’s a blur. Closer than dancing. Faster than thinking. This is where the myth of the centaur comes from, from this merge of bodies no jockey can ever find enough words to explain.
Maybe you win the race, maybe you don’t. Mostly you don’t. You win, you get cash in a brown paper wrapper and go out and eat big, until you can’t fit anything else in your stomach, then you throw it up in the toilet so you can make weight on your next horse and wish it tasted as good coming up as it did going down. You lose, you get nothing, you throw up to get the taste of losing out of your mouth. Then you run until you can’t run anymore because you got to move down a weight category if you want to ride enough to make rent.
You could get a real job. You’ve got a nursing certification, and someone would hire you in an instant, because your wiry strength would serve just as well to heave floppy polio patients in and out of their wheelchairs as it does to hold in a Thoroughbred panting for the win. You could afford to buy new clothes. Get some friends. Get a man to keep you warm at night, maybe.
Sometimes you see beautiful women at the races, come to watch with their husbands or lovers. They’re voluptuous, with skin that practically radiates light and smiles like egg white. They wear dresses, lace, organza, shell pink, pistachio green, all cut to show off the women they are. Sometimes you pass them, sitting in their boxes, on your way to the winner’s circle. They might flick a glance down at you as you walk by, taking you in from your mud-caked face to your chapped hands to your thick, stubby legs. You know, as you pass them, that they’re thanking their stars they’re not you. Their easy scorn follows you all the way back to the stables.
Some nights, when everyone’s left the track but you, you walk softly up to the old mirror in the dressing room bathroom and look in. You see your skin, wrinkles weathering in even though you’re only twenty two. The hitch in your shoulder where you smashed it in your first fall. Your tits, lack of them really, nothing more than little crescent moons on your chest. You turn sideways, look at your body in profile. You’re getting a gut from all the binging and vomiting. Your thigh muscles stick out awkwardly.
You’re ugly. You can see that.
You cock your head at the mirror and wonder if you should feel bad. Probably. You’ve sort of screwed up your life. You’re poor, you’re alone, you’re wearing out your body too fast. You know it.
Problem is, you love riding your body into submission. You love riding your mind into submission. You love poising yourself over twelve hundred pounds of trap-spring muscle and letting it run until the sweat flies off it in curds. You love falling into bed at night in your clothes with nothing left to give. This is making love to being alive. This is the centrifugal force of pure passion.
Christi Mastley lives and works in Minnesota, surrounded by Lutherans and snowdrifts. She’s been published in Potluck Literary Magazine, Horsepower Magazine, the Rapids Review, BlazeVox Literary Journal and Parachute Magazine.