In the dark, especially in the dark, against the pillow, I hear them. I hear them in the quiet and in the ruckus. I hear them when I am three and just beginning to remember, when I am eight and my mother lies on her back and stares at the ceiling and will not look at me. I hear them in steel and dirt and sidewalks, in distances and conversations. I hear them when the sky is the color of oil. I hear them in the blank sun and in the rushing of bathwater. When I run, I hear them loudest.
On the day of my birth, I’m sure they were there—thunderous, rhythmic, coming and coming: hoofbeats.
Icicles drip from the windows encircling the dressage arena, and as they melt, they grow longer. They are dazzling, glistening in the sun, but right now each one is a threat. The light would be dazzling, too—the brazen shaft of sun angling into the arena, catching the dust as if it were fog—but as we pass the sunray, Claret curves his body away from it. His horse brain is naturally wired to flee from any perceived danger, but for this horse, who has had real reasons to be afraid, anything unexpected is dangerous. He has no way of understanding why this shaft of light has suddenly appeared—why the sun’s journey on the ecliptic has just aligned itself with this particular window—but I know he trusts me, so I speak to him with the insides of my calves and keep our rhythm, steady, forward, one-two, one-two, one-two. I keep circling back to the light, each time getting closer. “You’re okay,” I tell him, leaning forward to pat his neck. I want him to feel my determination, solid as a ball of silver. And I want him to feel that my confidence is, in part, born of him, of his strength, of the many days he carried me through my own fears, those days when I wasn’t sure if he’d throw me off his back, those days when he had every reason to but didn’t. Eventually, we ride right through the light, our little triumph. And then, as if by conquering it, we have forced it to surrender, and like the melting ice, it disappears.
We are alone. The only sounds in the arena are our sounds: Claret’s feet hitting the ground, his breathing, my breathing, the slip of my breeches against the saddle. Outside the arena are the discordant sounds of the rest of the world: trucks rumbling by on the main road, water dripping, the barn workers speaking loudly as they drive the tractor around. I slip my outside leg back and ask Claret to canter. He steps up into the stride, and I ride the swing of him, powerful and deep. These are the moments when I feel free.
Claret and I are in constant conversation. With each gentle tap or shift of pressure, he knows what I’m asking of him. Usually he answers yes, and occasionally he answers no, but most of the time I go with him, and he goes with me. It is a kind of dance, and while we’re not always graceful, we have moments when we move together as one.
I have come to know Claret’s body better than I’ve known most bodies. I know when his back is supple or his hind legs are stiff, when he has energy or when he wants to stand still and gaze ahead dreamily. And I know when he’s distracted, when he has an itch, and—sometimes before he does—when he’s about to trip. I know that today he is more easily spooked than other days. I feel it under his skin, a frequency, like lightning close by. But I don’t focus on his fear because it’s amorphous and contagious, and because I’ve learned that while every flash of lightning doesn’t mean a storm, I’m ready for it when it does. So for now, I focus on the three beats of the canter, on this cool air rushing over us as we go faster down the long side of the arena.
Suddenly, one of the icicles crashes down, and Claret panics. He spins, bucks, spins, bucks. Though his erratic movements are swift, time slows. I’m acutely aware of the inexorable force of him, the adrenaline zinging through his fourteen-hundred-pound body. I know his impulse to flee as well as I know anything, because for years the same impulse ruled me. There was a time when my pounding heart would have matched his, when fear would have been the only answer for us both, but right now, as the irregular beats of Claret’s hooves mark an eerie uncertainty about where the next steps will land, I’m surprised to find that what would once have been fear is now a strange curiosity: will I fall? But it’s a distant curiosity because mostly I’m not thinking; mostly I’m a body following a body, and there’s a freedom—and even a kind of excitement—in that. As Claret jumps forward and yanks on the reins, I feel each degree of movement as if it were a snapshot, frame by frame. And between each frame and the next lives the smallest, almost imperceptible, glimmer of calm. “Whoa,” I say, softly. “Whoa.”
Claret stops then, and I pat his neck. We have survived the icicle. I tell him he’s a good boy, and he exhales a long breath. Then I ask him to canter again. I’m not going to worry about all the other melting icicles ready to come down. This is the only moment we’ve got, and everything about what we’re doing demands one thing from both of us: trust.
When we pass the window where the icicle fell, I can feel the pause in Claret’s body, his impulse to pull away, but with my body I assure him it’s safe. I can’t promise him it won’t happen again, only that when it does, we’ll get through it. And he listens. And we are safe. When we finish, I drape myself over his long neck and breathe into his mane, as his body softens against me.
There is no single way to tell a story. For me, Claret’s story begins many times; both of us hold many stories, and sometimes it’s hard to imagine there ever having been a time when Claret wasn’t part of mine. We’ve saved each other in countless ways since he entered my life, even when it didn’t feel like anyone was being saved at all. Sometimes parts of our story feel so immediate when I think of them that they trump the present moment. The story of my childhood is the same: those years of loss and wandering keep happening, as if they’re rewriting themselves on the inside of my body, zapping me afresh some days while I’m busy living my new life. They say memory is like that, that to the brain there is little to distinguish a memory from the actual event. So as resounding and complete as any present moment is, one side of it is always touching, even in the gentlest of ways, the past, where there is always a story inside the story, waiting to be told.
Let the Tornado Come
When Rita Zoey Chin was eleven years old, she began running away from home. Her parents’ violence and neglect drove her onto the streets in search of a better life, but what she found instead was a dangerous world of drugs and predatory men—as well as the occasional kindness of strangers. As she hits bottom and then learns to forge a new life for herself, all of her dreams of freedom and beauty pivot on a single, precious memory: a herd of horses running along a roadside fence.
A few years later, Rita—now a prizewinning poet and wife of a successful neurosurgeon—appears to have triumphed over her harrowing childhood, until she is struck with a series of debilitating panic attacks that threaten her comfortable new life. Ultimately, it is the memory of those hoofbeats, and the chance arrival of a spirited, endearing horse named Claret who has a difficult history himself, that will finally save her.
“A near euphoric ode to the human spirit” (Huffington Post), Let the Tornado Come is about pulling yourself up out of the dark and discovering that the greatest escape lies not in running from, but turning towards, those things that frighten you the most; it is “luminous…A haunting yet hopeful saga that shows how trauma and fear can transform themselves into enduring strength” (Publishers Weekly).
Horse Saves Troubled Teen
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When Rita Zoey Chin starts having panic attacks after moving with her husband to a bucolic Massachusetts town, she wonders: why now? After an abusive childhood and life as a teenage runaway, she has finally found stability and the love of a faithful and kind man. But the trauma of Rita’s past—a past that her husband, Larry, does not want to hear about—refuses to lie dormant. And at a time when it seems her life couldn’t be more peaceful, she is besieged by sudden terror: a racing pulse, shortness of breath, tunnel vision, and fear that her heart will explode. As her panic attacks increase in severity and frequency, Rita tries everything from cognitive behavioral therapy to cooking and pottery classes to an Oprah-approved healer to various psychiatrists and therapists. But it is not until she meets a horse named Claret—damaged and skittish in his own way—that she can finally heal. Let the Tornado Come is a triumphant story about love, about the transformative bond bet see more