Was Russet to live her life between the legs of horses? She could get kicked sometime, although I’m sure Russet never expected that. It’s a job she had for a long time. Russet had big hands. Her hair cut like a duckling’s tail caught in a twister. She was a farrier. With an uncommon but musical name – Russet. That’s what she told me.
We spoke while rummaging through old books on sale downtown where they’d let us take a bagful for a dollar. Shivering in the line outside on the cold concrete, for it was late November in this little Upstate New York town, I rubbed my bristly palms inside fleece gloves to a frigid drop falling from above, listening to the drone of a man explaining to someone the intricacies of a Russian fireplace. Once inside, we rummaged and I saw she held this Alberto Moravia I wanted, Two Women. Like a predatory animal I eyed her. Silently pointed towards the Moravia. She eye-browed towards the flat thin book I was holding.
“Horses.” She said. “You like horses?”
“I don’t mind them.” I said. Why talk of horses? This isn’t a farm fest. It’s a book sale.
“You’ve a horse here,” she said, leaning over and touching the book I was holding. Tock tock. She knocked on the cover twice.
The flat thin cover indeed had a horse snorting in a yellow-green cornfield. I had no idea if horses liked corn. Suddenly it hit me why horses were the topic.
“Okay,” I said, sheepishly. She handed my book to me. “This is about women,” I explained.
“You like women?” She asked the same way she had asked if I liked horses.
Yes. No. What do I say? I’m a man! I nodded. I liked women only because they are there, all around. Not in the same way I’d adore a race car. It was tough to explain.
“He’s a European writer, this Moravia. He must like women a lot … he writes a lot about them,” I said.
“In Europe they make cheese at home,” she said tilting her funny looking head to one side. “They also name their women Nana.”
“No, that’s Zola.” I said, trying to be polite, adding, “A writer by the name Zola called his heroine Nana. In fact, his book is called Nana.”
At that point she abruptly announced that she was a farrier.
“What’s that?” I was sure I had heard the word but I’d never met a farrier before.
I noticed she had big hands, a bizarre hairstyle, plus she walked with webbed gait and the stolid expression of a bored farm animal.
“Russet,” she said, holding out her right hand.
I thought she was talking about the evening sky, which we couldn’t see it from inside this book-filled musty hall.
“Fall evenings are great, especially evenings,” I said. “Do you take walks with your horses on russet evenings?”
She looked at me as if I were a silverfish worm who eats away old book pages. Tiny slithering insects you want to thrash whack whack whack, until you’re satisfied not a single one exists among your priceless collection.
“I spend most evenings working with horses,” she said. “And my name’s Russet.”
I squirmed like that silverfish worm. Oh, that was her name.
Before I could say my name she spoke about the evenings she had spent under and between horses’ legs, shoeing them. This triggered some strange scenes in my mind. Horses’ legs were spindly and long. Not human-like. They even had hooves. Russet could get kicked. Between human legs it was different. Humans didn’t require shoeing. Still one could get kicked, even with humans.
“But of course,” she said. “I could get kicked even between human legs!”
I didn’t comment. We roamed the hall filling our plastic bags. I noted her choice of books about farming and automobiles. She told me she drove an old truck and managed a farm alone. I pictured this slightly Mohawk-haired woman on a farm, grime and mobile oil all around, the hay smelling of horseshit, and her banging thud thud thud on a horseshoe.
“You do that for a job?” I said. “Shoe horses?”
These were horses whose owners found them too old or useless, she explained. Farm horses that’d never again pull carts. Racehorses discarded after they got burnt out. Show horses whose mane grew coarse. Russet made them shoes to walk in and gallop and play and she didn’t mind as long as they didn’t roll on rain-soaked hay for her to clean too often. There were days when she drove to the city to browse shops. She wore her old work jacket because she had no dates these days. Her twister-caught hairstyle didn’t have to be trimmed because there was no one to appreciate. Coming to rummage book sales was the only thing she had permitted herself in a long time. Books made her put aside her grubby boots and stack away her ‘Fresh Corns’ sign at the roadside. Driving down the winding road, doing a casual fifty-five over the forty-five-mile per hour, swerving by blackened squirrels stuck on the yellow dividing line, she came down here for books. Meanwhile her horses lounged or dozed on fresh hay that had been spread out that morning while waiting to feel her big hands. They enjoyed sniffing her and responded in charged hee hee hees. While she worked between their spindly legs, hay stalks cut her fingers, mosquitoes bit her buttocks and ear lobes, and sawdust rose in little clouds due to hammering and hitting. And the horses neighed happily. What if the horses kicked her head or chest, I imagined, shuddering.
“I like it alone,” she said.
She had a man for six months. A man who preferred worn out camel leather gloves in winter and a lime-stained jacket smelling of wood rabbits. He didn’t like horses. “A farrier’s job doesn’t pay,” he grumbled. He wanted to sell horses, the cornfields and the truck to go do city jobs. He drank and fell asleep when she was off to town doing chores. The horses went hungry many times and the two fought bitterly.
“It had to be him or the horses,” she said. “I chose my horses.”
Her four-legged friends – brown and mustard and chestnut, a few velvety black, were joyous about that decision. Russet’s horse book reminded me of Le Cheval Blanc where the white horse looked painted green. Maybe Gauguin too had lived near a green cornfield.
“What’d your type of women do in this situation?” Russet asked me abruptly.
‘Your type’ sounded like she belonged to another world. This was my chance to tell her about my world, a college professor’s world. Well, my kind read made-up tales. Zola, Moravia. Normally, my type of women would want to keep a man. They’d try very hard. Shop for pretty dresses, colors for their cheeks and tiny shoes – human shoes – to please their man. For a man they’d re-do their entire life.
“Of course, they wouldn’t know the difference unless they kept horses for a few years,” I said. Quasi-apologetic.
She eyed my trimmed hair, my pleated professorial pants and my leather moccasins, my cheeks still fragrant from my morning shave. I knew she could smell my powdered chest – we stood so close– and feel my elbow brush her hard sides. Her eyes were wide realizing that a man like me, a reading and college-teaching type, was not someone she usually met. That hurt me. I pined to tell her I loved hay, but on a painted canvas. And horses were okay as long as I didn’t have to wash or shoe them. Le Cheval Blanc wasn’t to be touched and sullied.
“Yeah, it’s different elsewhere,” she said, as if farriers lived by a separate book.
I tried convincing her otherwise, this woman with big hands who could be made to feel good and wanted. A woman named Russet, like the fall evening. Our plastic bags were full and we’d part having spent only one dollar a bag. The conversation was several more bags full.
“Mind if I invite you?” She threw the words out of her mouth with the invisible stuff she was chewing. “Bring your Moravia book to my farm. Will ya?”
I stood on the wintry sidewalk not saying anything. Her truck spewed smoke in a volley of vroom vroom vroom.
She yelled: “Can I call you Vandyke, after one my horses?”
“My name’s Ludwig,” I yelled back and saw her gesture.
“Where did you get that? That’s a horse name too!”
Suddenly unspoken warmth surrounded me. Ah, she was joking. In a good way. All my life I thought my parents were silly to name me like that. As if they knew for sure I was gonna be a sad little professor.
The women in my life and in the books I read kept cats or dogs. Fluffy, silky creatures bathed in lavender shampoo. Coats combed to a perfect gloss, fancy ribbons tied round their necks. The women talked to them in foreign tongues – oh mon petit chou. Made love while their pets watched. None of them lived by a cornfield and heard neighs all night. Alone.
“So long Vandyke!” Russet sped up.
The pickup disappeared around the bend. A russet sun gobbled it up. Her hammer striking new metal, raw and chiming, the farrier would have a visitor soon.
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