Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Excerpts from White Horses by Douglas Milliken


He always calls her at work. Like a faint insectile whine—while in the drafting room explaining a layout to a trainee or sorting out a plan, while in the cloakroom or walking down the hall to the bathroom—her name will drone over the PA. You’ve a call on Line 2. Then a pause, always a pause, implying the opinion of everyone listening. It’s your husband. Always needing to ask an irrelevant question. Always pulling her from her work. It’s embarrassing. If she’s on the road with her partner, viewing a site or just catching a bite to eat, her cell-phone will vibrate in her pocket or chirp like a lost bird from inside the hermetic confines of the truck, from where she’s left it behind.

He likes to know what she’s up to, he says. Little red pushpins on a map. He likes to know she’s okay. Meanwhile, April holds forth its war of attrition, floods the culverts with runoff and rain, chokes the gutters, makes a mess.

It’s not that he’s jealous, she thinks, suspicious or fearful of an imagined usurper. He’s just needy. Like a baby and its bottle. Never secure if too long apart. His voice is a hand on her shoulder. From her drafting table, she watches her co-workers as they come and go, protected from the elements by rain-lashed vaulting glass. She watches the way they move their legs, the way they flash their teeth, speaking in muscle and skin, and she wonders if this problem is pandemic. If men are always needy when they ought to be jealous. And if men are always jealous when they ought to be alone.

Sequence III: Night Country

The moon sets behind the silver hillside of your shoulder, spilling night over your heath and moor, your harbor and mountain range in slumber—knees drawn up and hands folded to your breast—as I lie in our bed beside you, reading the shadow map of your back-turned body’s keyhole silhouette. The tide of your breathing ribs. Clouds rising from your arctic lips. I lie beside you and yearn to sink into you. To ease my hand from the cool dark into the warm tangle of hair at the nape of your neck, to find and unbraid the stitching zipper woven along your spine. Pull you open and step inside as if into a labyrinth of root and stone, allowing your continents to draw me in and embrace me with their gravity. I press my feet through the inside of your feet. My hands through the inside of your hands. Feel my lungs inflate as your lungs inflate, your ocean engulfing the whole of my sea. Feel my eyes blending with what your sleeping eyes see. Feeling the distinction fade.

from A Broken Leg or Broken Wing

I found my cat in the hayloft above the horse stalls, above the snorts and knickers and hard clumping hooves. Above the lattice of girders and beams, the sweet smell of oats and cold manure, I found him: all narrow-ribbed and matted in the belly, striped in snow leopard grey. Over a foot of snow had worked its way in between the clapboards, sweeping in a single great drift over and among the heaps of loose straw, and on this drift my dying cat slept.

I trudged through the calf-bracing snow and knelt beside my cat. I wanted to touch him but did not want to wake him. I watched his belly slowly rise and slowly settle with cold breath, watched his twitching tail, watched his fur ripple with a chill as the needle pricked his skin. Watched the poison merge with and become his blood. Watched his twitching tail still.

Afterward, I didn’t know what to do with him. How can you bury a cat when the ground is frozen and buried in snow? So I did nothing. Left him where he lay. Curled in a cue in the misplaced snow of the loft. I told myself I’d come back in the first thaw, bury him then when the frost momentarily slipped away. But the truth was, I didn’t dare touch him. I was scared he might not feel alive.

Somehow I managed to avoid the loft for a week. The horses got oats and water and were fine with oats until the farmer found out and made me shuck down more straw. Wide-set eyes and chapped hands clutching a pitchfork, thrusting to pass it to my hands. The steps up were drifted over again, no trace of my last climb up or down, but in the loft my cat lay still uncovered. A curl of grey on the white. And before I shucked the frozen straw down through the empty center of the barn, I knelt again beside my cat and finally touched him, stroked him as I should have stroked him before the needle bit in—before I fed him to the pinprick—and when he looked up at me with cold black eyes, not angry but simply accusing, it was not horror I felt but regret. I shouldn’t have treated him that way. I should have treated better this small thing that I loved.

His name was Brick. Like in the play about the hurdle jumper.

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