Kim Chernin's extensive body of work spans many genres, including fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Crossing the Border, written at the intersection of memoir and fiction, explores life on a Kibbutz in Israel; it concerns itself with memory, experience, and the inevitable dissimilarity between them. In My Mother's House tells the stories of four generations of Jewish women in Chernin's family. The Flame Bearers describes an ancient sect of Jewish women who inherit the necessity to pass on a sacred women's knowledge from generation to generation. Chernin's most recent novel is The Girl Who Went and Saw and Came Back. She lives in Northern California with her life companion, Renate Stendhal.
My First Year In The Country
Cooper The Horse
I caused some consternation in our village when I let it be known I was thinking of buying a three-year-old horse. I hadn't realized until then how many people bred, rode, trained, rescued horses and had opinions. Our village is in a wilderness that belongs to the National Park Service, an hour or so from the metropolitan area where I lived for thirty years. I had no difficulty leaving my home in the Berkeley hills and moving out to the country. I'd been coming here since I was seventeen years old; it was the first place I'd made love with my soon-to-be first husband on the beach that later was called Heart's Desire when it became part of the Park Service. I know the good places to hike, the best beaches for gathering shells and rocks, how to enter the Vedanta property where there is a beautiful herd of white deer grazing calmly beneath the oak trees as if they were domesticated animals. One day I came upon a family of white deer in a remote woodland clearing. The young males were leaping on all fours, butting heads, backing away from each other with their heads lowered, kicking their heels. They rose up on their hind legs in a precocious, playful rutting while the does lounged indifferently in the grass and the pale mothers took off after them when they raced just before sunset across the clearing.
People in our village let you know how long they've been there; a lot of people have proudly been here twenty, thirty years, and some were born here, and some have families still living here that date back several generations in the same house. They don't much like it when I tell them I first came here when I was seventeen years old, before the land was bought by the Park Service, which takes me back further than a lot of them, but of course I wasn't living here, so it doesn't really count. I've taken to saying that I feel at home with the spirits of the place. That's true and it stops the conversation.
Word got around that a fairly new person in the village, who was not exactly a young person, was thinking of buying a three-year-old horse. My riding instructor heard about it. I ran into her outside Palace Market. “Novice rider and young horse is not a good combination,” she said when I went over to hug her. “I don't advise it.”
“Well, what if he's an unusual horse? He's looks special to me, very gentle and his owner says he is. She's had him since he was four months old.”
“And why is she selling him?”
“She has three other horses and has realized she doesn't have time to train him.”
“So she says.”
“I don't see any reason not to believe her.”
“Well, I don't think it's a good idea. I think it's a very bad idea. I'm not going to train him for you.”
“There's a possibility she'll keep him for a few months if I pay for a trainer. She knows someone down there…”
“Where? Down there, where?”
“It's near San Diego, a place called Ramona.”
“Do you have any idea how much it is going to cost to transport a horse up here? First, you'll have to go down to see him. However much that costs. And you'll probably have to stay over night. And then, once you've seen him, what will you know? You don't know anything about horses.”
“I thought you might come with me.”
“Not me. Count me out. I'm not going to put a novice rider on a young horse.”
“I thought I'd get a lot of training between now and the time he comes up here. He'll be trained and I'll be trained, and…”
“Kim, he is three years old. Do you know the kind of energy a three-year old horse has? What is he? What kind of horse? I don't think Mara will be willing to board another mare.”
“He's a gelding, an apoloosa, he has orange ears and mane and tail. He's gorgeous.”
“You're not going to bed with him. You're going to ride him. What you need is an old, reliable horse who can take care of you. Apoloosas are stubborn.”
“His owner says he comes running when she comes out to the paddock. He comes even when he's in the pasture. And when she brings a bridle he lowers his head.”
“Aren't there any exceptions?”
“I had a friend who insisted on buying a young horse. She went to a horse camp for a month and had thirty days of training. I warned her about it and it didn't turn out well.”
“Believe me, it did not turn out well.”
“Well, I have a feeling about him. I just think he's the right horse for me.”
“Think about it, think about it…”
That same day I heard from Mara, who owns the ranch. She'd heard about the three-year old horse and wanted me to know that on no condition was she willing to have a three-year-old on the ranch. “I have five horses and not one of them is rideable. Anyway not now and certainly not that one. I hope it's not a mare?”
“He's a gelding.”
“I don't want another mare on this place. In fact, no more horses, I don't want any more horses.”
“I suppose I could find another place to board him, but actually, I wouldn't want to because I would love to go riding with Antonia, not that we can ride together now because she doesn't want to ride Arndy, he's too ornery.”
“If you think Arndy's a problem…”
“But there have got to be exceptions. Every three-year old horse can't be like every other three year old horse.”
“Yes, they can be; yes, they are. Sandy said you don't even know how to hold the reins properly.”
“I used to ride Western when I was a kid. This English style is a whole different thing. I'm just learning it and we're starting out slowly…saddle, brushing, bridle, reins. No one seems too eager just yet to get me up on a horse.”
The following morning our local hair stylist called to say that if I came for a cut on such and such a date she'd have to fit me in and wouldn't have time to comb out and blow dry my hair. I said it didn't much matter, I would be going riding after our appointment.
“Riding? With who? When? Where do you ride?”
“I have a friend here in the village who has a friend who has a ranch in Forest Knolls. I've been learning how to bridle and saddle the horses sort of and we've been looking forward to riding together but now we can't because one of the horses is ornery and my friend doesn't want to ride him anymore.”
“I didn't know you could ride.”
“I can't, but I did a lot of riding when I was a child. I was crazy about riding then and now I'd like to get back into it.”
“Do you know Falka? She's a wonderful, wonderful trainer. I'll tell her about you. She's loving and patient and has been riding horses since she was born. Her mother was a famous horse-breeder in Denmark.”
“Good. I'll ask her about this horse I've seen on-line. He's for sale and he's beautiful.”
“Where is he? What kind of horse? How old is he?”
“He's an appaloosa with an orange mane, tail and ears. I've only seen a picture of him but I've fallen in love. The owner says he's very loving and gentle.”
“If you can believe her.”
“I do believe her; she's an honest woman; I've spoken to her and I have no doubt about it.”
“How was he trained?”
“He hasn't been trained yet. He's only three years old.”
“Kim? Are you kidding? You don't know how to ride and you're going to buy an untrained, three year old horse?”
“Well, I thought I could learn with him. I wouldn't try to train him myself. “
“Kim, you are not exactly a spring-chicken. You call Falka. Don't do a thing until you call Falka. I'll give you her phone number. She lives in Inverness, up on the hill. You know Anita, don't you? Anita trains everyone and every horse in the county, except the ones trained by Falka. She's an expert in dressage, she goes all over the county helping people with difficult horses. Why don't you talk to Anita about it?”
“Sure, when I get a chance. I'll probably run into her at the post office.”
It was beginning to remind me of that game we had played as teen-agers. You sat in a circle, whispered in your neighbor's ear, she repeated what she thought you had said and so on around the circle until the last person spoke out loud what she had heard from the person sitting next to her. What came out at the end of the circle was nothing like what had been said in the first place, so it was fun to wonder at the dramatic changes that go along with human communication. In our village, although the information stayed the same it was the drama that grew as the news made its rounds.
I sent an e-mail the following day to Antonia, my riding companion. “Dear Antonia, Anita got a haircut yesterday and heard from Catherine the Snipper that I was planning to buy a three-year old horse. This morning a voice comes over the phone machine. I hear it from the back of the house and run to get it. Meanwhile, it says, 'Kim, are you crazy? Are you out of your mind? I was just at Village Snipper and Catherine told me…Kim, call me right back. Are you listening? Call me. Are you completely out of your mind?'
This did not sound very English to me but it showed the concern I had aroused in our village so I was happy to pick up the phone and reassure Anita. We agreed to have tea and discuss something else.
I wasn't surprised when a day or so later a call came through from Falka. She'd been talking to the Village Snipper, who'd told her about me and Cooper, the three-year-old horse I'd fallen in love with. Falka had a new approach to this affair; she invited me to watch her train horses at the big house overlooking the reservoir. I knew which house she meant, you could see it from the road, far off, up high, solitary, oddly disturbing. Who in the world would want to live up there in so much isolation, even given the spectacular views?
Falka has given me good instructions: take the Petaluma Road out of town, take the Nicassio Road, turn right at the first turning, pass the open gate, pass the closed gate, keep going up and up and around until you get to the end of the road. At the end of the road is the terra-cotta house with the view over the reservoir and the great sweep of newly green hills quietly trailing off into a reliably misty distance. A place that makes you think of everywhere you've ever wanted to be, cherished, remote, evocative, but then the whole county is like that in the right weather. I have the feeling I'll probably never be invited there again and right away, even before I get out of my car, I feel regretful.
Danish Warm-bloods are an unusual variety of horse, they can be used successfully for dressage and also for hunting. They are long-legged, perfectly configured, carrying their unmistakably aristocratic heads on upright necks with clipped manes. I see, in the corral next to the barn, a delicate filly keeping an eye on us but mostly the horses roam freely on the hundreds of acres of pasture above the reservoir where they have all been bred within the last ten years.
The owner of the house comes striding over when she sets eyes on me, a tall, very slender, dark-haired woman in high boots and jodhpurs; she leans forward, looks me in the eyes and comes to the conclusion that she and I are soul-mates. She says this in a finely modulated Danish accent, leaving me bewildered that anyone so finely bred, her hair smoothed back in a simple chignon, could find me in my rubber muck-boots and muddy trousers, straw visor, unruly curls, a desirable companion. Still, her liking for me brings tears to my eyes and she notices it. “Oh, you are emotional, just like me,” she says, taking my hand. Then she invites me to ride out with her on a mount that would be perfect for me, a tame and responsible horse named Morris.
Falka is there, in jeans and a vest, heavy boots and long braids, as down to earth, straight-forward and authentic as I would like to be but I have a long way to go. I am introduced to the horses by name and lineage. Danish Crown, from an illustrious background, standing sixteen hands high, is brought out of his stall to be bridled and saddled. Crown is a three-year old; he is the reason I have been invited up here. I am given the lead rope and invited to walk him out to the arena.
During this walk a number of things become apparent and I understand why everyone has been concerned about me and a young horse, I who have never managed to achieve a tall stature and am indeed not exactly a young person. This is what it is like to be harnessed to elemental power. I am dwarfed into insignificance by his presence, shaken out of my romantic dream-state. This is what Cooper will be like? This is what Falka has wanted me to experience?
Still, up here, no one seems to find me absurd. Perhaps it is the un-apologetic way I have shown the picture of my “mail-order-bride” as people down in the village have begun to call Cooper. Or perhaps, up here, Innocence is just one of the natural citizens in a mythical landscape.
Back home, I turn out to be a person who is not easily discouraged. It is not clear to me if this is a good trait, somewhat visionary in nature, or a blemish. I reason thus: in spite of everyone's certainty that there are no exceptional three-year old horses this cannot be true. Exceptions are the rule of nature. Perhaps I am perceptive in trusting Cooper's owner and not naive or gullible or easily fooled. In fact, I can't think of a single instance in my time as not-exactly-a-spring-chicken when I have made a serious mistake in judgment of this kind. Then too, I am a lot younger than people take me to be, even when they take me to be a good ten years younger than I am. I am one of those people who never outgrow their childhood. I have the impression that the universe, in spite of many indications to the contrary, is on the whole benevolent if you align yourself with its energies and passions. I would not wish to claim that I have achieved this alignment but I can testify that things go well for me. I have achieved everything I ever wanted. Except a horse. I have wanted a horse since I spent three summers on a guest ranch in New Mexico. Folks there used to say to my parents, 'That child never gets off a horse, she's going to grow a tail and gallop into the dining room.' Why shouldn't Cooper be the horse I have waited for since I first learned to ride when I was nine years old?
This is, of course, a densely metaphysical question. Are we living in a place where wishes are fulfilled, dreams come true, people get what they are after, life rounds itself out with a meaningful gesture? Take the woman of a certain age who lives in our village and falls in love with a young horse. Should her perception of this event be influenced by people whose lives may have had a different trajectory or by what she has learned of life from her own experience? For instance, one day she decided to go back to Paris to look up a woman she'd met in a cafe three or four years earlier. She'd come to the conclusion that this woman would be her perfect life-companion and persisted in this idea although her analyst talked to her about projection. For the last twenty-one years these two strangers in a cafe have been living happily together.
Well, yes, I agree, there are differences between a life-companion and a horse. To begin with, my experience of horses stopped in childhood when I no longer went to the ranch in New Mexico where I learned to ride. When I met the woman in Paris I'd had a succession of life-companions from whom I'd learned a good deal about life-companions. I was some twenty years younger than I am now, a time in life when you can still afford to make mistakes. Would a mistake about a life-companion be more or less dangerous than a mistake about a horse?
Falka, who seemed interested in this question, invited me to another ranch in my neighborhood where she trains horses. She wanted to see how I sat on a horse. Since I had only been up on a saddle for a few hours with Antonia and the stubborn horse this prospect was not particularly welcome but I felt that I had to be true to my quest for the perfect horse, which would inevitably involve tests of courage.
When I arrived Rin-tin-tin was out in the pasture.
“Do you know how to bridle him?” Falka asked.
“Sometimes,” I said and went off apprehensively with the bridle.
Tin, as he was called, sized me up from a distance. He was over twenty years old, had had his share of riders and knew as well as anyone that horses want a rider who can take command. Tin knew that I could not. Therefore, although he had been rolling in the grass and was covered with mud, he behaved like a gentleman and lowered his head. Back at the barn I also managed to get the saddle on in the right direction because a few weeks earlier I'd made a mistake and Antonia had come to my aid. And then, with other riders watching, I led Tin out to the arena, climbed up on the low stairs made available for that purpose, and threw my leg over this back. In this instance my failure to have left childhood stood me in good stead. I subsided solidly at the center of the saddle. Falka adjusted my stirrups, I held the reins in the new English-riding style I had practiced with Antonia, leaned forward and tried to remember how you get a horse to go. I couldn't remember so I whispered the suggestion in Tin's ear and there he was walking, then he was trotting and Falka was calling out to me, “heels down, heels down, Kim, don't trot, just walk him, Kim, that horse is reading your mind.” Suddenly, I remembered how to post and I didn't want Tin to stop trotting and I knew he was reading my mind and pretty soon we even cantered a bit before Falka came over trying not to smile approvingly and told me to walk that horse, walk him, Kim, and do not trot him until I know you're safe. She never let on if she approved of the way I sat a horse but I did hear from one of the other riders that she liked the calm energy I had while riding and I thought that was probably a first, someone thinking, in any circumstance, that I had calm energy.