A Fear Story in Three Generations
When Pete leads Willie out of the stable, he holds onto the reigns just a bit too tight. Willie fights him even now, gently, straining and twitching at his restraints. Willie is massive. He looks Pete right in the eyes as he sputters into his face. Willie knows he can never be completely free, but he does all that he can do: try to make his fear heard and understood.
Pete is 69. Willie is 17. They live on a farm in Northern Maine and have been working together Willie’s whole life.
Five years ago, on the kind of fall day when everything is tight and loud, Pete was leading Willie across a stream when Willie saw a chipmunk out of his left eye. He bucked, cried out, and for a moment none of his hooves were touching the ground. The sun shone with a sickening yellowness through his mane and tail as he was airborne, and a second later, he came an inch from landing on Pete’s skull.
Willie has been fearful since he was a colt, and fear is something Pete understands. Over the past few months, Pete has been watching his own face disappear in the mirror. Any tremor in his fingers or moment of forgetting is a sure sign that it’s happening, the ugly slide into infirmity, following his mother’s jagged path. He’s been forgetting small things: how to tie an infinity knot, the name of that actress from Ghost, the Russian words for “pleased to meet you.” The doctor said the symptoms were real as anything but brought on early because of his own worries about aging. Meaning: it is all in his head. Meaning: he doesn’t remember what.
Pete supposes he has two options, fight or flight. He learned this in grade school, before Harvard, before the naval academy. He imagines throwing himself against a giant clock that is striking midnight to make it stop. Or running backwards in time, feeling his hair grow thicker as he runs. But he can’t do either, so he talks to his horses.
He does it for them as much as for himself; the only way to calm a nervous horse is to tell it what’s on your mind. He’s been learning this with Willie. You go up to the horse and put your nose to his nose and breathe in and out together. You use a soft, sweet voice and tell him exactly what you’re afraid of. Today, I am afraid of losing my mind. Today, I feel outside myself. Today, I am afraid that you will hurt me again. And maybe you’ll both still spook, but at least you have spit out the bitter seed, and it cannot grow outside of you. You have spoken the bad dream aloud, and you wake up through the telling.
Part of the reason for the chipmunk incident, Pete thinks, is that he hadn’t been honest enough with Willie. His worries about his memory had been tying up his mind, a knot of rope, fuzzed green and sealed iron-tight with salt water and time. And Willie could sense the distance, the fact that Pete was elsewhere, and maybe he wanted to join him there, or maybe he wanted to drag him back, by jumping like that.
Although Willie’s demons were close to the surface, he could not articulate them. They crawled beneath his skin and swung his neck in impossible circles. But he could never say what exactly made him act this way, reckless with his fearful body. So Pete hired an animal medium to tell him about Willie’s past lives.
The medium sat down at a typewriter in her kitchen at 6 AM on a Monday and stopped typing three hours later, soaked in sweat. It turned out Willie had died again and again, without ceremony or grace. And each time he was born with his mane knotted more and more tightly. During one life, Willie had a master who would beat him against a blue sky and during another, Willie pulled a cart with a loud chain that echoed in his ears. So Pete stopped wearing blue and got rid of every chain on the farm but he still couldn’t fully understand Willie.
But Pete understood muteness. His mother was lying in a hospital bed with only gums between her lips and a lifetime of wordless screaming behind her. Her life had been ruled by fear. Pete remembers her sprinting scared around the house until the drugs kicked in and slowed everything down. She had enacted her own fights and flights, rages and disappearances. And, like Willie, she always did some damage.
As Willie hit the ground on that fall day, Pete put a hand to his head and realized that fear tries to make itself heard in all sorts of ways. It manifests through the body: a shaky hand, a million nerve endings on fire, two legs running circles around a split-level Tudor. And suddenly he felt grateful for his capacity for words. To calm and be calmed by telling his story – to his horses, his friends, his prolific journal. The fear lived in his body, but it had a way out, whereas it was trapped in Willie, pushing the bones of his back up to the sky. And in Pete’s mother, pushing hers down to the earth.
So Pete decided to forgive. He hugged Willie’s neck and cried. Willie smelled like oats and molasses, and his side was so soft if you stroked it in the right direction. And he feared Willie like he feared his mother like he feared God: with a reverence that was all love. Pete knew that Willie could easily kill him, but he also knew that Willie was stuck in his animal reflexes while Pete was lucky enough to have another option, to speak.
Pete decided to visit his mother in the hospital, who was not so lucky. When he got there, Pete did the talking, which he was used to. He had learned ways to communicate with those who couldn’t respond. He put his nose to her nose and they breathed together. He told her how scared he was of dying, both hers and his. He put his mother, flashing a yellow-toothed smile, in a wheelchair and wheeled her outside and then started pushing her very fast, past the parking lot and the garden and into a wide field filled with oak trees. And Pete gripped the chair and ran faster and faster, right up to an oak tree until it looked like they were about to crash until vroom, he swerved and saved them both. And they laughed and laughed out all the bad dreams and bitter seeds, mouths open to the sky.
Abby Holtzman is a rising senior at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA, where she studies clinical psychology and English literature. At Swarthmore, she organizes live storytelling events about the intersections of faith, family, and mental health. She also writes and edits for the daily newspaper, works as a writing tutor, plays guitar at Jewish events, and works as an interfaith intern. In addition, she recently took a semester at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, ME, where she studied multimedia production and creative non-fiction writing. She will be learning more about journalism later this summer in Prague, where she plans to produce a piece about the Terezin ghetto. She is currently working as an intern at Narrative 4.