by Ginger Gaffney
Edmundo trembles as he greets me. I reach out for his hand, the vibration of him quivers up my arm. His sentences are run-on, out-of-breath monologues. He tells me he has six months on the ranch, three years before that in prison, and two more to go to fulfill his term. He asks me if I think he can learn how to care for the horses.
“It will be good for me,” he says. “Calm my anxiety.”
Edmundo kicks at the dirt. He rocks back and forth like a nervous child. We need the help, I say, and ask him to go before his supervisor for permission. His shoulders and neck round forward, pushing his face out of my sight. He nods to the ground.
With his supervisor’s approval, I show Edmundo the curry comb. The bottom ridges will scratch away the dust embedded into Luna’s one-inch-thick winter coat. I place it in his hand, lay my hand on top of his, and start to comb. We make swirling circles across her chest, belly, topline. I stand behind him, close. Our bodies touch like dancers. We move along her black-and-white spine, down to her rump, parallel with Luna’s powerful body. Edmundo stands a few inches away from her. I can feel the back of his breath on my chest. I give him directions, whisper in his ear. Luna exhales and blows out through her nostrils. Tiny droplets of misty snot hit the pipe corral fencing and give a faint ring like a faraway bell. Edmundo stops for a moment. He checks her eyes. They are shut. She is in that standing-up, resting place.
Edmundo sits at his desk, in front of the phone lines, every day. Hello, this is the DS Ranch. How can I help you? Under the desktop his legs pop up and down, heels tapping in rapid fire. His eyes dart around the room. The phone job is teaching him how to talk, to greet people, to care about others. Can you hold please? I will get you that information. He takes a long exhale after each call, audible sighs heard across the room. In between calls he holds his breath. Bites his nails.
Edmundo chooses Luna every day. He will share her with anyone who wants to help. She slows him down, he tells me, he’s starting to feel calm. He picks up the hair conditioner and works it into his palms. Spreads it, with his fingers, between the twisted knots tying up her long, white mane. He looks like a father preparing his daughter for school. He pulls the knots out, one by one, holding down the roots with his other hand. He is worried he may be pulling too hard. Luna stands perfectly still. She cocks one leg and chews in a circle with her mouth. Edmundo picks up her hooves. She bends her knee and flips her leg into the air, offers her body to him. He picks at the rocks and clay caked into the crevices. One hoof at a time, he places them back down. He pulls the curry comb from the grooming box and starts his deliberate journey across her body.
Edmundo has ulcers high up into his chest. He eats small meals, half a peanut butter sandwich. Snacks on cookies all day. Carries their crumbles in his pockets. He is alone. No family left. Parents gone to addiction. He is illiterate at the age of 35. Charlotte helps him with reading on Tuesday nights in the library. He hopes to take his GED test in about a year.
Edmundo leans against the top rail of the round pen.
“Get in there,” Tony says.
“Leave me alone,” Edmundo says.
Luna roams around the pen. She’s distracted. Alone. The rest of the horses are turned out to pasture.
“Work her, dude. She needs it.” Tony can never leave anything alone.
Edmundo moves away. He walks over to the cottonwood tree, plants himself beside it, looking away from Luna. Tony gives him the what the fuck look, turns and heads off to get Hawk. I am over by the pipe corral fence trimming Willie’s hooves. Bent over, I look up to see Edmundo from my upside down view. He has that downward slump of a body that wants to fold into nothingness. His legs are spread, shoulders hunched, his head is tipped to the left. He looks like the eternally disappointed child. What he wants most is in that round pen, but he has no idea how to get it. Tony is no help. He is too aggressive. I have heard Edmundo say this before. Edmundo wants to be close to Luna, loose inside the pen, but he needs help.
Luna stares at Edmundo’s back. She tries to smell between their bodies, no scent. He is too far away. She waits for some movement. She wants his body to turn, to move an inch, to show some sign of life. The emptiness of him confuses her. Ears pricked forward, chest pressing against the treated wooden slats of her enclosure, she is transfixed by Edmundo’s disappearance.
Horses look for life in a body. That’s how they communicate. In the inner and outer shuffling of intentions, the body moves both in space and in water. Animals feel the absence of that water; the stagnation, the crippling death of no motion. Luna stares across the short distance, watching a body that has no life. I finish with Willie, put him back in his corral. I skirt past Edmundo, close enough he can feel the brush of air between us. I know not to pull or push on him to get what I want. Luna breaks her gaze from Edmundo and meets me by the round pen gate. She stands a few feet away. I wish her to move closer, raise my arm and reach out to scratch her neck. Don’t touch, she says. She leaves. Wanting anything from Luna sends her into retreat. I put my arm back down. She returns. Just close enough to wave her nostrils in and out. She takes in my scent.
Edmundo pads across the dirt driveway and comes up behind me without a sound. I feel him on my back. He’s waiting for me to notice him. Why won’t he speak? He haunts me when he leaves his body like this. I want to shake him, rattle his shoulders, shout into his face. But I know better. I don’t turn around. Luna shifts her feet, slants her body in his direction. Ears pushed forward. One blue, one black eye, both are on him.
“I want to go inside the pen,” Edmundo says.
“You want me to stay?” I say.
It was six weeks after Luna’s accident when the ranch first called me. One of the residents, masquerading as a cowboy, had attempted to rope Luna around the neck. Using a stiff old lariat that could barely hold a loop, he cornered her in a dark stall, the overhanging roof beams just a few feet above her head. He tossed the loop, it caught halfway around her face. She reared up and slipped out of its grasp, smacking her face on the twelve-inch beam, splitting her face wide open. Blood everywhere. She tore out of her corral, broke through the metal gate and caught her right leg on a T-post. Ripping open another hole in her hip. The residents spent the next two months chasing her, uncatchable and damaged, into corners, attempting to help but always failing. The chase became Luna’s nightmare. An obsession. No one in charge. No one knowing what they were doing.
Luna outlasted and outwitted them. And even now, eight months after we finally got a halter on her, she still trusts no one. She is “broke” just enough. She lets us groom her mane and tail. Clean her hooves and trim them. But otherwise she wants nothing to do with us.
Edmundo climbs through the wooden slats of the round pen. He has his white high top sneakers on, black jeans two sizes too big with a rope tied around the waist band, and a bright yellow hoodie pulled over his head. Luna spins away when he enters and sets herself against the opposite wall, parallel to Edmundo, her blue eye on him. I watch them from outside the pen. The wind picks up a dust devil and spits itself around us. Dust, manure, and small pebbles clink against the rails. Luna startles. Edmundo, nothing. Not even the slightest flinch. I close my eyes. The dust stuffs itself up my already dried out sinuses. I open, scratch away the dirt from my lips and wipe my face with my palm. Edmundo looks like a stone.
I am going to wait. Not say a word. Edmundo will ask for what he needs. I know that about him now. Luna lengthens her neck toward the ground, it arches defiantly. She is not interested in eating. She throws her front left hoof into the air, smacks it down into the dirt and starts pawing. Is she mad? Does she want him out of there? Snort. A gruff, blunt blow from Luna’s nostrils and her neck straightens. Her head rises. She twists towards Edmundo, expectant. She wants him to move. She wants him to be alive. She picks up her left hock, bends it underneath her body and it turns her left hip off to the right. Perpendicular now to the rail she faces Edmundo straight on. She has that look again. Worried about the lifeless man in front of her. She takes a step forward, right at him. They are thirty feet apart. Edmundo backs up, his butt hits the rail. He stumbles. Luna stops. He moved. He’s alive.
“What does she want?” Edmundo asks.
“She wants you to move,” I say.
Luna has on her purple and red halter. She has had it on for the last eight months. She won’t let us take it off and I decided maybe that was best. Who knows, if we take it off we may never get it back on.
“Go somewhere. She doesn’t know what you are. You have to move!”
Edmundo walks off to the left, staring at the ground. With his yellow hoodie and black pants he looks like a giant yellow-headed blackbird inching his way around the pen. His white sneakers are shaded to the color of orange as he shuffles, not much bend to his knees. He drags his legs along like ancient walking sticks. Luna turns on her haunches. Her ears are darts that follow Edmundo around the pen. She is fine with Edmundo doing all the work. She pivots easily. Like a coach studying her player, critical and assessing each mechanical movement: his breath becoming short and fast, his right toe stubbing the dirt harder than his left, his left arm swinging half the distance of his right. As he passes me I can see he feels ridiculous. He rolls his eyes up to his brow and pinches his lips downward. He wants to touch her, to hold the intimacy he feels when he grooms her. He wants her close, but if he advances she will run. Her old habits still work in her favor. Edmundo looks up from under the hoodie. Three of his dorm mates are cruising by and he feels embarrassed. He looks back down.
“Hey Mundo, what you doing, dude, playing ring around the rosy?” they laugh.
Edmundo doesn’t look up, says nothing. He’s getting anxious. Holding his breath. Wagging his torso back and forth as he walks, he’s having a conversation inside his head. From around the corner, by the cottonwood tree, the ranch dogs come running. Barking and chasing four wild kittens underneath the old chicken coop. Luna flies across the pen. Edmundo runs away from her. Tony and a few of the other guys run over and pull the dogs off, take them back to the dining hall to pen them up. Edmundo walks up to the rail which faces the falling down coop, just a few feet away from the round pen, and calls for the kitties. We have been trying to catch them for weeks, their mother no longer around.
“Kitty, kitty,” Edmundo sings.
He has forgotten all about Luna for a moment as he calls out to the kittens.
“Here kitty, kitty.”
I walk around the outside of the pen, close to the chicken coop. Luna takes a few steps towards Edmundo as he continues his song.
“Kitty, kitty, kitty.”
The kitties come out from under the coop. Four black and one white with black socks. Luna has moved in closer to see them. She is about five feet behind Edmundo with her neck pushed forward and her haunches bunched up underneath, ready to spring back in reverse if needed. She takes a few last steps and comes alongside Edmundo’s shoulder. She reaches her neck over the top rail and stretches down to touch the kittens. Edmundo turns his neck to the right, the corner of his eye meets hers. He turns back to the kitties. They are curling their backs upwards and scratching themselves on the fence posts down by his feet.
“Ginger, can you go get the cat carrier from the barn?” He whispers.
I head over to the barn and pick up the carrier as fast as I can.
Edmundo bends over and picks up a kitty. He starts walking towards me. I have the carrier in my arms. Luna walks behind him. Her nostrils are back to work. Poking her nose into Edmundo’s arms full of kitty, trying to get a good sniff. He hands me the kitty and chuckles. Turns and goes back for the other three with Luna in tow.
All four kittens are in the carrier; purring, scratching, and crying. Edmundo goes to the center of the pen and Luna follows. He takes his time. Turns and faces her. Reaches out to scratch her, and she stays. She drops her head. He removes his hoodie. He grooms her across the neck and up to her withers. Using his nails to scratch the itch beneath her thick coat.
“Can I take her halter off?” he asks.
I wait with surprise. He can’t take off the halter. We’ll never get it back on. I had to rope her in the round pen the first time just to get it on her. Over the last eight months we haven’t come very far with Luna. I wonder if this is the time to try something new. I don’t want to rope her again. I look at Edmundo and Luna, standing as a pair now.
“Well, maybe. Unbuckle the halter, slide it off her nose part way and then put it back. I want to see how she’ll do.”
Edmundo scratches Luna under the halter, behind her ears where the hair is matted down into thick clumps. He lifts the nose band and scratches the bald space where the halter has rubbed the hair away. White flakes of dry crusty skin flick into the air. Luna is rolling her tongue around in her mouth like a lollipop. She swallows. She yawns. She drops her head some more. Edmundo reaches for the brass buckle and pulls out the metal pin that locks it in place. He slides the nose band down her face and then raises it again, buckles it. He looks at me, see it’s fine. I nod to go ahead. He releases the buckle again, slides the noseband off Luna’s face and places the halter on the ground. The scar is now visible. Six inches in a zig zag crack that goes from the middle of her nose to the left of her eye. Some hair has grown back, scar tissue fills in the blank spaces. Edmundo rubs her face with the blunt end of his fingertips, touching her like she has not been touched for a thousand years.
About Ginger Gaffney
Ginger Gaffney is a horse trainer and writer living in Velarde, New Mexico. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This story is from her recent collection that chronicles her experience working with horses and the residents at a prison alternative ranch. Witness Magazine published a different story from this collection in their March 2016 issue.