Casey Clabough is the author of the travel memoir The Warrior's Path: Reflections Along an Ancient Route as well as four scholarly books about contemporary writers. He serves as editor of the literature section of Encyclopedia Virginia and as general editor of the James Dickey Review. His first novel, Confederado, will appear in 2012, as will his fifth scholarly book, Inhabiting Contemporary Southern & Appalachian Literature: Region & Place in the 21st Century. “Satyr” was the winner of the 2011 Emma Bell Miles Prize in the Essay from the Mountain Heritage Literary Conference.
“And here it may be randomly suggested, by way of bagatelle, whether some things that men think they do not know, are not for all thoroughly comprehended by them; and yet, so to speak, though contained in themselves, are kept a secret from themselves? The idea of Death seems such a thing."
--Herman Melville, The Ambiguitie
"Marvellous!" a character once exclaimed—a British character to be exact, hence the double-L spelling of the word. "The marvellous beauty and fascination of all wild things! The horror of man's unnatural life, his heaped-up civilization!" As it is the magical essence of the former exclamation I wish to get at, I shall say again something of my own relationship with nature, for I have written on it more than once but never seem to get it exactly right. Too often I fear I dwell on its darker, wilder manifestations—the storms, the predation, the ahumanism—since it is they which have left the deepest marks on body and mind alike, shaping them in the process. Yet in truth I have loved just as well and been molded by a great host of harmless, benign representatives of the natural world, having always possessed, for instance, a pronounced fondness for flowers: whether admiring the uniform arrangements of rare varieties in gardens or watching the wild natural sort sway and bob on a windswept field. Even the manmade manifestations have proven attractive and moving to me on occasion, in particular those which grew beneath Grandmother’s needle as I sat at her feet holding the quilt and watching.
Though it was home to three separate fenced-off pastures—the wire of which I had spent many a weekend and summer day running tree to tree or post to post, or some mixture of the two—my family's farm was covered mostly in woods. I am well aware I am not alone in having always felt there is something about a forest, any forest, when considered as an entity of its own, that remains primal, enigmatic, and majestic. It resembles a vast dark sea in the mysteries it conceals and the manner in which it envelops you. One may judge by its sounds how it senses and greets your approach—the scattering and silencing of wildlife, the modulations in bird song, the give of the ground and the old decaying matter beneath your feet. Though I have always found that greeting reassuring, as though returning to a beloved homeland or other sacred place, it is a response which nonetheless forces you to sense your insignificance. You do not matter to a forest. Yet the knowledge is comforting to the extent that it also renders your modern trials—paying a bill say, or quarreling with a coworker over some forgettable trifle—into their proper place of insignificance. In a forest the synthetic human communities and accompanying rules which modern life forces us to function within and observe are made to appear ridiculous. Stay there long enough and your concerns give way, consciously or no, to the old animal verities of food, shelter, water. Your shoes and clothes begin to look and feel increasingly out of place, ridiculous even. Our bodies make themselves known to us again and, in doing so, move us a little closer to the stripped down essence of ourselves.
I have found it a great joy and privilege in the woods merely to sit and listen. Doing so over the course of your youth develops within you certain gifts: the ability, for example, to close your eyes and tell what time of year it is solely by the manner in which the leaves rustle. So precious were the woods to me during my own youth that I went through periods during which I loathed to leave them at all and would spend the entire weekend, day and night, within their confines. In preparation for a night's slumber in the forest I would always try to find the thickest bed of bracken to lie down on—often set on the north face of a hillside beneath a dense stand of mountain laurel or rhododendron. If I had heard tell of rain or knew of its coming by other means, I would choose a spot where the leaves on the overhanging branches were thickest so that they might shield me. Otherwise, I slept beneath an opening in the canopy where I might contemplate the moon’s cataract or the slow sweep of the stars. Then I would fall into an untroubled yet attuned slumber known only to hunters and other forest folk. Sometimes it seemed to me as though the ragged brittle leaves and sharp pine needles I had heaped about and upon my body were the forest's version of the protective wings of some great loving bird which sought to enclose me in a downy safety. And I loved how the pale white sycamore branches, rising from the low watery places and visible sometimes even in a moonless dark, called to mind bone or silk depending on my mood. They came to be a second home to me, those woods, though a full understanding of them would always evade me. I never felt fearful or restless there, but rather loved that long silence which has been likened to death but in truth was merely the life of the place.
For all their subtle teeming life, it remains forests are places which know death constantly, that rely on it in fact for the ongoing promulgation of their life systems. The most notable human participation in death's function in a wood or grove presents itself nowadays via the mostly lamentable pastimes of logging and hunting. The former most often takes the form of outright annihilation—the severe alteration of the environment into a non-forest: something unrecognizable, or even just “not”—while the latter, though distasteful to many forest lovers, visits a far more negligible impact. Yet the endgame of both actions is "caused death," which is really a form of murder. I continue to count a number of hunters and loggers among my friends, despite the fact I consider them death dealers by virtue of their craft. And I myself—having grown up on a farm and cut short the life of many a tree and creature—would be remiss not to acknowledge my complicity in such actions. But then we might say something similar of undertakers and doctors who specialize in terminal maladies. There is, after all, an art in the way a being chooses to render death; there is too an art of dying. And at least one of those blank canvases will be set before each of us, ready or not, at a certain time, appropriate or not, during the course of one's life.
The stallion was my father's great love among all the creatures of the farm. He was, by designation, a rescue horse, delivered from a situation in which his owner could no longer afford to feed him and had grown weary of the expenses, along with the animal's exasperating stubbornness and frequent propensity for loosing the gate hitch with his teeth and liberating himself so as to tear at the rich orchard grass which grew beyond the fence of his own wanting, grassless, dirt pasture. Starved as he was at that time—bones protruding here and there amid the sunken places in his sides—there remained great lumps of muscle about his shoulders, chest, and neck which somehow refused to diminish even after such a prolonged period of wanting care and nutrition.
Malnourished as he was there clung within him a power he refused to abdicate—which he had secreted away somewhere in his soul and translated itself proudly in certain portions of his body. In that condition he had borne the elements beneath leafless trees, without benefit of a barn or even a rough old shed, and yet never known a veterinarian's touch. It was these things, I believe—these manifestations of the spirit of the animal in the face of his privations—which led my father to buy him and, later, love him: just as I would come to in time.
There was something flinty and familiar about the stallion which inaudibly spoke to us: a gaunt, stoic, brutal survivalism harkening back to the nature of my father's Smoky Mountain people, clinging precariously to their hollows and mountainside soil, doing battle with the slope's rock to eke out what crops they could. "Who on the hills," inquires a poem of Robert Penn Warren's, "have seen stand and pass/Stubbornly the taciturn/Lean men that of all things alone/Were, not as water or the febrile grass,/Figured in kinship to the savage stone." I count it a unique and priceless gift to have known such men early on in my life. The stallion was like them.
When he first came to the farm I took to watching him for long periods of time on account of how different he was from the mares and geldings—even other stallions—I had seen. He cropped the grass in short jerks, shifting his hooves, never leaving his head down long but raising his long neck frequently, ears pricked like daggers, directing the furnace of his gaze out over the world that was his pasture, that he naturally considered his, and every inch of which he would come to learn—more by heart than mind. Even in the confused jumble of dirt, dust, and mud around the stables he would learn to gauge and recognize all the little prints: which people and which of his herd had passed—and when and at what rate of speed, even under what circumstances.
The establishment of his ownership was a natural affair and peaceful as there were no other stallions on the farm, though he would find it necessary to kick an overproud dog or two. When I saw him shake his dark red mane in the snow-covered pasture of his first winter on the farm it was as a flag unfurling, a standard waved to and fro—a banner of sovereignty and challenge. And he guarded what he took to be his with a jealous fury as demonstrated by the carcasses of untold wild dogs, even a beautiful grey fox, he stomped to death beneath those sharp, quick, heavy hooves. Much as a cat will torture its prey so as to convey to it or its owner a meaning, or simply to amuse itself, the stallion did not always kill trespassing animals outright, such as the hunting beagle he left whimpering, dragging its useless hindlegs, every inch a new agony, toward the fence line where I stood waiting with a rifle.
Riding the stallion afforded the impression of a force of nature that seemed not quite animal. He was not overlarge for a horse, but something in the way he assumed command of an outing—the manner in which he adjusted the tack to his liking through a series of powerful shakes, elected where to place his feet, and exhibited a nearly human forethought—made him unlike any others of his kind I had encountered. Sometimes when he ran it felt like clinging to a falling stone, or, at other times, being borne as by a great gust of wind. Even at rest he seemed to emit a dark, invisible fire, the depths of his eyes stretching away into a labyrinth of stern, cruel memories, which—if one stared long enough—collapsed eventually into a wild blur of darkness.
The stallion was the same age as me, my father’s favorite, and so I called him brother. Because he was my elder in life experience, I learned far more from him than he from I. For his part, he did not consider me his sibling or equal; he cared about me about as much as the forest did. But he became in time one of my great teachers, whether he wished it or not.
For reasons still unclear to me, Mama had at last resolved to go back to teaching. She did so at Sweet Briar, a woman's college not far from where we lived in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She took me with her sometimes, partly I think to keep an eye on me but also to keep her company during the drive and perhaps afford me some subtle introduction to the world of higher education which was second-nature to her but an alien realm to my then largely barbarian teenage self.
The college reeked of wealth for reasons I could not immediately discern in their entirety at the time. Part of it was all the nice cars in the parking lots, although a greater portion of the impression seemed to stem from more pervasive, albeit subtler, sources. The architecture, for example, was one such element. It was dominated by the work of Ralph Adams Cram, who had also lent his expertise to the campuses of Princeton and West Point. His signature look whispered an elite understated Gothicism which made for a curious effect amid the bright, rolling pastoral landscape surrounding the college, the holdings of which spanned more than three thousand, mostly wooded, acres and included two or three mountains.
I had read somewhere the institution owned part of Bear Mountain, which I knew was where some of the Monocan lived still. I was excited about hiking to it until Mama told me it was nearly ten miles away and cut off from the rest of the school's land by sizeable chunks of private property. At first I thought she was trying to dissuade me out of concern for my safety by making it sound farther than it really was. But when I looked it up in the college library I discovered what she had said was true, though the mountain lay not quite so distant as she had suggested. I developed an immediate fondness for the names of the other nearby places I discovered on the maps in the library—Fern Woods, Merry Woods, Kentucky Ridge—and resolved to visit them all while Mama taught her classes and held her office hours.
Mama must have sensed in me my plans for exploring, for she took me aside by the arm before departing for her first class and instructed me to stay out of trouble. Then she sighed, which I took to mean she had understood the hopelessness of her imperative even as she had uttered it. I do not believe I was an especially bad boy, but expecting a heterosexual teenage male to keep from getting underfoot on a campus made up of several hundred mostly well-to-do, mostly attractive, young women must be considered a tall—if not downright unreasonable—order by most any standard.
I did alright for a while, keeping to the trails and paths for which I had discovered maps in the library. Mama had said nothing—purposefully, I believe—of the strong equestrian tradition at Sweet Briar. Probably she feared I would leap on the first horse I saw and gallop it around in the unsubtle, uncouth manner that was mine in those days—that was indicative of my man, or not-quite-man, versus beast mentality. And, of course, that is precisely what I did when I discovered the animals of my own accord, peacefully grazing in a hillside pasture. As manicured and well-groomed as their owners, I thought to myself, when I glimpsed their shiny sleek forms for the first time. I took turns trying out different ones, riding them about the fields bareback as furtively as I might, out of sight of the stables.
Then I became bolder and began letting the ones I liked best out of the pasture through a rear gate so as to gallop them up the Paul Mountain trail. That is how it all came to an end. One early afternoon as I stood trailside behind a stand of dense mountain laurel, one hand hanging on to the halter, the other otherwise occupied, I finished and turned, leaning out of the bushes, abdomen and lower body still obscured, to behold a young jogger, face a mixture of curiosity and fear, as her eyes drifted from the upper part of me protruding—frozen, in fact, at the sight of her—from the privy hedge back along the density of foliage to the place where it terminated and where stood partially obscured equine haunches, tail swishing about them.
Without uttering a word she took off down the mountain at a dead sprint, long ponytail bobbing not unlike a horse's tail. When I regained the pasture perhaps half an hour later, I discovered a buxom woman who must have been the stable master—at least that is what I took her to be—striding toward me across the field, hard face offset by the fact that her body appeared rounded in all directions. I noted, as most any teenage boy would, that she was possessed of a big round bust, and in this description no insult is meant. There was nothing plural about her great curved breast: it loomed in its roundness armpit to armpit, swaying as she came on. When she turned suddenly to look back toward the stables, perhaps for the purpose of signaling a coworker, I discovered the same was true of her bottom—it exhibited the identical lack of pluralness as her bust, only there was much more of it.
When I turned to run back toward the woods, she called after me in a harsh voice, yet I kept on, running easily, knowing she possessed not the means to catch me.
To my knowledge there was never any fallout or publicity from the incident though I assume the campus's security must have been alerted. Of course, I mentioned nothing to Mama, who only became aware of it—or, rather, will only become aware of it—when, like you, she read/will read the account I have set down here.
I have found occasion to visit Sweet Briar a few times in recent years and those days of Mama's brief return to teaching and my even shorter pastime of horse-jacking come to mind whenever I do. And when I do think about that curious interval of my life it is the startled jogger, the look on her flushed face, I always end up dwelling upon the most. How I must have appeared to her on that forlorn mountainside: the protruding head and torso of a blemishless golden-haired adolescent boy followed, some yards behind, by the hind end of a horse. I wish I knew if she still thinks about that encounter (if in fact she remembers it at all). I'd like to know if she considered it something frightening or if for her it remains somehow a vision of unqualified wonder unlike anything else she has experienced.
I had sex for the first time not long after the events at Sweet Briar. It was with a girl who would never have any opportunity to attend an exclusive private woman's institution, or any other college for that matter. Perhaps she never even finished high school. I can't remember; I don't know what happened to her. Guilt rises in me on those rare occasions I recall her—guilt at not wondering about her more than I do.
Her face, childlike and round, had a certain immobile quality to it regardless of what happened to be going on around her, yet this dynamic was offset by her highly attentive, almost astonished, blue eyes which usually looked as though they had just witnessed something highly unexpected. Her full little mouth not only never smiled, but seemed altogether incapable of forming that expression. Lusterless mousy hair hung in clusters on either side of her head as if its intention was to appear as lifeless and flaccid as the expression on her face. Her shapely bosom breathed calmly like that of a wild animal lying at rest yet alert. Most any girl would have been something of an enigma to me in those inexperienced teenage years, but this one came across especially so. My initial response to her was neither one of attraction nor disinterest, but rather a kind of inquisitiveness I did not understand. Many girls might have possessed such qualities as hers without being remembered for them, but I remember on account of the part she played in my life.
The first time I ever took notice of her was in a class—the subject of which now escapes me—in which the discussion had drifted fancifully off topic toward the question of whether there was more grass covering the planet or more sand. Though I was dozing in the back, as was my custom, I remember one of the serious, scientifically-inclined boys asserting there most certainly was more sand on account of the size of the world’s oceans and that most all their deep dark floors were covered with it. But to this Emily—that was the girl's name—responded with something to the effect that those same deep recesses might instead lie covered in a dark waving grass that required almost no light: a grass that no one probably had ever even seen but that likely was as tall as trees and stood in stands that rendered miniscule the earth’s greatest prairies. Miles beneath the undulating surface, she maintained, it moved like corn in the wind.
The class had laughed at her when she had finished conveying her deep ocean vision and though I believed their opinions meant almost nothing to her, she had blushed nonetheless. I myself said nothing, did not move even from my drowsy reclining position, but in that moment Emily had won me as a devoted admirer and friend.
And we did become friends, our bond sustained by the most unlikely of variables and exchanges. I admired, for instance, how she smoked in the bathroom between classes, yet was never actually caught doing so even though everyone—teachers, janitors, students—knew her as the culprit. I liked the way in which the rancid tobacco odor would drift across the room to me in the one class I had with her. A student or two sitting close to her occasionally would wrinkle their noses in disgust at the smell, but for me, assigned to a seat on the far side of the room near the back, the wandering smell was a way for her to reach me. When it wafted my way and entered my nostrils it was as though she was sitting beside me so that we might witness the farce of yet another high school class session together.
When not at school we often frequented cemeteries. Why? “Because a lot of them are beautiful and no one’s usually around,” she said, “and sometimes the tombstones are flat so you can lay down on them and watch the sky.” There was more to this, of course, though I did not realize it until much later. Part of what had attracted me to Emily was her fascination with death: with physical being and its lack. Her mother, she said, had bore many children, some of them afflicted or dead on arrival, and one of Emily's favorite and most entertaining pastimes was musing upon alternative scenarios involving these doomed or damaged siblings.
"If that one hadn't died," she'd lament, "I'd have had a playmate almost just my age."
"What if he were right in the head?" she'd say, another time, of a younger brother who wasn't. "Wouldn't all the girls think he was handsome?"
Despite this sad family history, however, or perhaps because of it, Emily was not very sympathetic toward the shortcomings of other people and, in fact, took great pleasure in criticizing their flaws.
"Have you ever noticed how ugly most people are?" she asked me once. "You'd think they'd try to make up for it by being more agreeable."
Her fascination with death and critiques of others had led her to a profound fondness for the carnal aspects of existence: slumber, food, and—especially—sex. Indeed, as if vaulting beyond any ordinary natural impulse, Emily seemed determined to couple with as much frequency as circumstance and her impressive resourcefulness allowed. And so there would be a cold, hard tombstone beneath my back, bouncing breasts and blushing, grunting face above, while a blue sky, stars, or the clouds of night or day wheeled above.
"Emily, I don't want you just for this," I would say, believing I meant it, even as my bobbing cock nodded otherwise.
On one such occasion some lines came to me from the Jove and Europa story translated in my Latin class a week earlier: “Dignity and love are seldom known to go to bed together.” I wondered then and know now I did not love her. She was the first girl I had sex with, which for a fourteen-year-old boy seems like love, and we enjoyed some of the offbeat-young-couples-fun that made me think we might could be a couple. But for the most part I found myself shrugging off too much contemplation or misgiving and, as they say, simply enjoying the ride. Walking on jelly legs, surroundings a confusion, head and body reluctant to process them in the wake of what they had just experienced, I would absently consider her in retrospect.
"So this is having your brains fucked out," I would remark in my mind.
Though it disappointed me at the time, I have grown to be glad that she was the one who ended it. Of course, many of the clichés one expects of a terminating teenage relationship came into play, including the moment when she said, "We can still be friends."
When she said we could still be friends it served as the verbal articulation of an end of sorts, but only what might be termed a preliminary end. Young as I was, I realized it wasn't so much that she wanted to be friends as that she wished to preserve her claim on me. I had learned even then, even in that pre-sexual zone I had been inhabiting and can no longer recall or even imagine, that girls could be like that. So many of them, it seemed, were loath to let a boy go even when they had lost most of their interest in him or sworn devotion to another. I hadn't encountered any boys in my class who seemed cognizant of this quality in girls; indeed, most of them became angry or even abusive when subjected to such conditions. By contrast, I found this quality in girls very precious and endearing when it concerned me—this confused, groping, hanging on which made little sense to either of us. Most often I would treat it with levity or a slow steady vanishing on my part—a firm, gradual disappearance from their lives—as dictated by the circumstances.
Once removed from them, perhaps already nearly forgotten, I could then observe them quickly resigning themselves to the more immediate dynamics of their lives, before rousing myself and moving off toward the next chapter of my own existence, like the spectator who rises last with a yawn, having lingered in the dark of an auditorium long after the falling of the curtain and the departure of the other theatergoers. Upon the arrival of that point at which I sensed I might never even have existed for them, I wasted little time in disappearing from their hearts and minds forever as though sinking into the earth.
I can imagine quite a few readers shaking their heads at such an outlook and its accompanying behavior, but we were a strange people then in those desolate rural parts of the hill-South and there was an old saying among us: that we made good friends but worse enemies. I believed the saying to be true and thus tried to avoid the latter whenever I could help it.
"I believe I'll always have something of a weakness for girls like Emily on account of her," I told my friend S— when it was all said and done.
"It'll pass," she had replied with authority and conviction, tossing aside the whole thing as though it were a gum wrapper. "A lot of the girls in that family are pretty when they're young, but look at their mammas and you'll see they're a fat, unhealthy race of folks on the whole, and I know a fair number of them have like to died young."
Things changed in my relationship with the stallion after Emily. He knew I had become sexually active long before anyone else in my family suspected. Something was lost between us. Whereas before I had been his collaborator and fellow adventurer on rides as well as a sibling who moved in another sphere, I now constituted—somewhere in the recesses of his masculine equine sensibility—a potential threat to his herd and livelihood. Likely his sensitive olfactories discerned an alteration in my biochemical processes and perhaps my general manner changed as well. Indeed, though I would have remained unconscious of the fact, I believe the latter probably did occur in the wake of the thrill and pleasure that accompanied my discovery of the new thing of which I was capable.
So it was that he came to watch me warily in the pasture and, if we went for a ride, would wait for my attention to wander before drifting toward the edge of a trail so as to bang one of my kneecaps on a passing tree. And then, one day, when I was turned from him to fetch his halter, he bit me on the shoulder, hard enough almost to draw blood. So shocked was I at this betrayal that when I turned back on him, I hesitated a second before delivering a roundhouse punch to his mouth that sent him snorting and stumbling backward out of his stall. When I held up his halter again and peered into his long face, his eyes—wide and unrelenting—never blinked. It was a sign of obstinacy I understood. I had seen the same expression in the mirror.
The stallion grew more irascible with age, even after I left the farm. Indeed, we both did. Even Mama, who had broken countless horses for Bert Allen in her youth and had learned the art of horsemanship from him and the best of the Meadow Farm and Warwick Stables crowd of the late 1960s, struggled with him, with us, sometimes.
Mr. Allen knew something of the stallion from the pictures Mama sent him along with her greeting cards and read the meaning of his lines, carriage, and disposition without ever having laid eyes on him as only a master trainer like Mr. Allen could.
"Every good horseman," he counseled her, "needs one good horse."
Mr. Allen was not evading the issue in this declaration, but rather underscoring the fact that the stallion's increasing violence and eccentricity remained ultimately of little moment in light of the remarkable thing he continued to constitute to the human who sat atop him—or rather would allow to sit atop him.
I rode him for the last time on a sunny late-November day, scent of light soot drifting on the air—a remainder of the woodstove's morning fire. The season's last clinging leaves hung flat and colorless.
We were, as I said, the same age, but he had grown old, ancient by equine standards, and I had been warned by Mama not to let him run. Yet when we had trotted out of the pasture and reached the first hill, he strained the reins with his old power and shook the harness. An understanding came to me and I gave him his head so that his great forelegs heaved forward and he sprang away, deep already in the old remembered thing he loved.
I knew I would catch hell if he died, but I knew too he would like nothing better than to die in the wake of one of his dead gallops. Perhaps it was even what he wished, what he was attempting, and so I let him gallop until he had run himself out. When we stopped running wisps of steam were rising from his flanks and I dismounted so as to lead him along and stretch my legs, which had grown cramped clenching the saddle as a result of my being out of riding practice.
As we made our way back toward the farm, a storm blew up suddenly, the wind cutting through my clothes and rending the air with despairing shrieks and groans as it assaulted the forest canopy. Limbs cracked apart from massive trunks and fell here and there like arms torn from sockets.
Through it all the stallion never spooked nor seemed much troubled. Whatever the decline in his physical being, his old spirit and courage were there intact. We reached home safely. That was not his day to die.
In the last few weeks which remained to him of that, his last, season of life, I saw the stallion but little. The trials of my own life kept me away.
When at last the day came when that beautiful strength settled itself to earth, it did so gently as though relaxing into a comfortable state of repose. The expression in his eyes I will never forget. The old labyrinth of stern, cruel memories—the wild blur of darkness—was gone and in its place was something contemplative, yet all its own: like if you threw a stone up in the air and it didn’t come down, but rather just stayed there. Perhaps he died marveling at the strange beauty of such a sight.
When he was dead a tractor with a backhoe dug his grave and a great rusty chain was wrapped about him so as to drag his great form to it. He lies there now in the fashion of a hundred other animals of that farm, having returned to the earth. I think of them sometimes, the various spots where they have been buried, spanning all the way back to my childhood, and how some of those places are covered now in saplings and thickets or mown over, or, in a few cases, marked each spring by the emergence of daffodils or tulips. Most farms are like that: landscapes of the dead, from which new things are always growing. But I don't like to dwell on that too much.
Yet when I do think of death—of how I would like to die—it is usually in the prone form of a large animal, yet such an animal as God must have saw when he first envisioned the creatures of the earth before all time. Never in my life have I known a being truer to the nature of itself.