A lesson in courage
written february 2, 2011
They call him Pete. And he's the local asshole. He has light brown hair, angry eyes and a nasty habit of charging down anyone who so much as looks at him. Which wouldn't be the most intimidating thing ever, if he didn't weigh somewhere north of 1000 lbs. Yes. Pete is a horse, and while most of the kids avoid him, I am unwaveringly drawn to him.
I have other duties, so at first I was only able to steal away every so often to watch him, the blazing sun beating down on us both. There is only one tree out there, but there are usually so many kids beneath it that the horses avoid it. The more I watch Pete around the kids, the more I feel that their relationship, and the restoration of understanding, is a duty in and of itself. So now, you could say, I'm determined.
There are two other horses, more amicable than Pete by far, who they call Astrix and Cookie. There is a boy who spends most of his time with them. His name is Arturi. He is young and shy, and quiet, but he rides with confidence. I like him. He helped me chase the horses (who really hate being caught) around the property until we finally got them into a makeshift pen that had been built out of long, stripped wood sticks ages before. Parts of the pen are falling down, but it will do. It was only until him and I were drenched in sweat, having followed the horses - who seemed to ever be just out of reach - up the hill to the back property, that I realized how big the place actually is. *Mental note to start penning the horses every evening to avoid such antics again.
At this point I've worked Pete a handful of times. And he has lived up to every tale told in broken, accented English by the kids who come to watch me work. They laugh a lot, whether at me or at Pete as he bucks and pulls at the end of his rope, I'm not sure. I guess I'm glad they are enjoying it, either way. One of the boys, who I recognize as a close friend to Arturi, shakes his head at me and walks off nearly every time, as if it's a lost cause, but this time I know a secret he doesn't: Pete and I have come to an understanding.
He is an interesting boy. The one who shakes his head at me. He can't be more than 15 but he feels strong. Sure of himself. And brave. He has a grounded nature about him, even in his youth. It's no doubt attributed to the fact that all the kids here are orphans. That sort of thing hardens you, begs you to grow up before you're ready, and I guess that is what maddens me the most. It feels wrong for him to shake his head -- it feels like lost hope.
The sun was fading, giving way to the brilliant pink and purple sky that is most evenings in Africa, and Pete's breathing was heavy at the end of his rope. He is still fussy when I ask anything of him, occasionally kicking up his heels and throwing his head, as if he needs to prove to me that there is still a bit of wild in him, but he is listening and at the very least willing. The boys had gathered in a group, leaning against the rickety stick-pen, two of them inside it. I beckoned them closer but they shook their heads and pointed to Pete, then they pointed to where they stood, saying "safe". We all laughed, but I was serious. I asked Pete to stop and after a second of childish objection he did. I pointed to the one boy, the brave boy, who was standing a little off from the others and waved him over. He shook his head, eyeing me. We don't speak the same language but everything about him read as clear as day, are you crazy? I nodded.
It only took a second for my challenge to meet the courage and tenacity I know lives deep within him. He dropped his stick and made a wide arc around Pete, eyeing him, then walked in toward me. I had to motion him closer a few times before he was close enough for me to grab. I positioned him in front of me, facing Pete and offered him the rope. He looked up at me over his shoulder as if to say, what the hell am I going to do with that? but reluctantly took hold of it when I didn't allow him room to balk. A funny mix of wonder and fear was spattered across the other boys faces as I showed the boy how to ask Pete to move off.
Pete seemed to know exactly what I was trying to do as soon as we allowed him movement. And he was dead set on making the boy work for his prize. A giant leap jerked both me and the boy forward, but somehow we stayed in control as Pete began to move in a more steady circle around us. I encouraged him to keep Pete's feet moving. A horse has to listen when his feet are moving. He has to focus. I was only vaguely aware that some of my words might have been lost in his understanding of English, but I had to trust that Pete will do the real teaching. After all, we'd come to an understanding.
Time passed in jerks and turns and several moments where I thought it might be over for the lot of us. Laughter rang out from the knot of boys as Pete repeatedly asked us how invested we were, but then I saw it. The ever so slight twitch of his inside ear. I smiled to myself as Pete's muzzle got an inch or two closer to the earth and, yes! there it is I thought as Pete began to chew. Horses are the strangest creatures, but this is was our moment. I whispered, "step back" and the boy did. Pete came to a 1 ton halt in seconds. His sides heaved, he was completely out of shape. His dull bay coat, falling out in areas from rain rot and sun damage, was spotted in sweat and foam. But he wasted no time in turning in toward us. Every part of the boy stiffened in front of me; frozen like a deer in headlights. The boy knew that look. He knew this was his cue. When Pete locked eyes with you, you ran, or were trampled. I took my right hand off the rope and wrapped it around in front of him. Some part of me wanted to protect him, but also steady him. I believed in Pete in that moment, and I believed that if the boy simply gave Pete a chance, everything could change. My other hand held his secure to the rope. The boy backed a step into me, his little chest heaving under my hand, "Just wait. Don't run." I whispered, over and over.
I swear time stopped in that moment as a wild snort resounded in the dim light. There was nothing in that moment but us three. Pete watched us and then took one giant step toward us, testing the space. His eyes, normally angry asked Am I allowed here? No one moved and the big bay took another step and another step until he was only a foot away. The boys heart felt as if it would explode from his chest, but he didn't run (even if his muscles felt like they would at any moment). Pete watched us, bobbing his head, curious. I whispered to the boy. Timidly he reached out his hand and brushed it along Pete's whiskered, velvet nose -- and then the most amazing thing happened. A smile broke across the boys face. The world seemed to suck in breath in that moment. Time again picked up it's pace. I lifted my hand from his chest and he giggled, running back to his crowd of friends.
And that was it. It was over. The boys ran off in a riot of laughter, leaving me standing in the last few moments of African light with Pete and we just looked at each other. The whole thing was nothing more than a simple moment of connection, and while I'm not sure what will happen in the coming days, or weeks or months in this country, I like to believe something changed. I like to believe that the moment that boys fingers brushed the muzzle of this once was violent and misunderstood creature, that boy had seen something, felt something, that changed what he had formerly believed was truth. That Pete, who had been but a lost cause in his mind, was now something altogether different. A mutual partner is change. A brother in courage. Maybe even a friend. Tonight growth required courage, and both parties said yes. and it was perfect. and it was beautiful.