That peak used to be snowcapped, our horse guide tells us. That was the mountain in the Paramount logo, until the planet got warm and melted its icy hat, and now it’s just a brown nub of earth lanced by pines. It might make a good parable about the dangers of global warming, but instead I am thinking: a mountain, like anything else, begins with the idea of one. At ground level, and then we build ourselves upward.
I only learn years later that this mountain isn’t called Sugarloaf, as our horse guide, Wally, claims, and it isn’t even the one in the Paramount logo, which is some jagged knife-edge thrust into the Peruvian sky. In the shadow of its imposter, Eleanor’s sleek Mercedes rental slides us through the morning, all along the tortuous roads that snake up the Malibu hills, and empties us out into a flat of tall, yellow grass. Horses. When I open the passenger door, it’s all I smell. Their musk, and their shit.
She climbs out of the car after me, and I think it’s funny, what a city girl she is. Black hair slicked into a sartorial ponytail, she even has a white button-up that’ll collect dirt as the day wears on. As if she wants the badge of nature on her. Me, I don’t do well in nature; city girl too. We’re only here because Eleanor has always wanted to be an equestrian, despite her serious demeanor. She rode majestically until about the age of ten, which was when Christopher Reeve had his accident and the dream was aborted early. Our mother never let her on a horse again. Since that moment, Eleanor has been trying to find a way to get back inside that dream.
We squint against the bright, California sun. Three horses graze in a nearby clearing, necks bent at the side of a long trailer. Wally, rounding the corner with a bucket, sets it down and waves at us. “The Wu sisters!” he greets with a sly grin. He says it like it’s like some nickname and not our exact and apt description. “C’mon over!” he shouts. “Don’t be strangers.”
Walking closer, I can see the sweat on him start to catch light from the sun. Like spots of sea in an arid desert. His brown stubble crawling against his tanned, Caucasian skin is exactly what you might expect from a mountain man. The wilderness is part of him, he likes to say. Immediately I can imagine him splitting wood with an axe, even though he probably lives just a mile or two down the road in one of those stout ranch-style houses we passed on the drive up. He looks at us: what does he imagine on his end? His smile reveals no sign of it. He beckons me towards the smaller, dun-colored mare. “You remember Pearl?” Pearl nudges my hand, laid flat on her broad, warm muzzle. Yeah, she remembers me.
Wally has a lot of smart things to say as a man who’s worked with animals his whole life. Horses, he continues, are like big dogs. They thrive with structure and purpose in their lives (though the same, he jokes, could be said for humans). And they are constantly testing their riders to see how much they can get away with, so you can’t cut them any slack. A master needs to exercise a stern hand. If they start nibbling at plants along the trail, he warns, just tug at the reins until they face forward again. They know they’re not supposed to do that.
A woman who was on the trail with us yesterday did very poorly with this direction. When her horse turned to munch on a sprig of new leaves or leaned towards the wild grass, she let him, or else tugged on her reins very shyly. She was afraid, I think, to hurt him. But the horse grew bolder and bolder, he started to hold up the single-file procession with his brazen grazing. I was the rider right behind her, and my already-thin patience wore thinner. “Lady,” I finally snapped, “fucking go already!” In retrospect, some loose, wild hormones surged inside me. Today, on our solo lesson, Wally is teaching me and Eleanor how to trot and canter, everything short of a full-on gallop. He helps me onto Pearl, seating me securely on the saddle, and she shifts her weight beneath me, muscles rippling against the clasp of my legs. How powerful to feel another animal so close, I already love her. That too, the hormones. “You look nervous,” Wally says to me. I’m almost certain that pointing out someone’s anxiety only begets more anxiety. “I’ve never been on a horse before yesterday,” I half mumble. “What was that?” he asks. “Speak up,” says Eleanor.
I think now would be a terrible time to tell her about you. I hold onto my belly, say, “Nothing,” and she believes it, turning away to mount her own horse, beige and lanky on four bony legs. Try harder, I want to beg her. I’m your sister, you should know me. But that’s not how it is between us. When is it too late to turn back the clock? To fix a childhood of withheld secrets and old resentments?
“Are we ready?” Wally yells, atop a reddish-brown horse who’s dancing around in impatience. Her name is Harlow, after the actress.
Sure, I nod. Here we go.
Like a gate out of folklore, the way into the mountains is through the arching forest that rises out of the ground with them. Horses and earth are just different shades of each other, and we start to disappear, all of us, into the thickets of leaf and shadow. The cliffside paths are so narrow you could stumble off them, easy. We fall into a single file: Wally first, to lead the way; then Eleanor on her horse, Apple; lastly me and Pearl, watching the bunched hair on the back of Eleanor’s head bounce with Apple’s gait.
It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking. She isn’t, as always, smiling much today. It puts me on edge. Her composure is what makes her such a successful attorney, but with me, it means that I never know where her anger will spring from. There’s so much I’m not doing enough of. Not the right job, not the right line of work, not enough income. Never a good enough man that I’ve attached myself to. Our mom wasn’t much of a mom, so Eleanor took that job to heart. You’re always making mistakes, Grace, she tells me. I wish you’d take your own life a little more seriously.
Clop, clop, clop goes the climb. I love the dapple of sunlight finding safe passage through the dense network of foliage and onto the horses’ rumps, leaving bright spots like the changing surface of ocean waves. Like how mare in another language is sea; in ours, follows night to steal dreams. . . .
Once we emerge onto even, unbroken dirtland, out of the thick forestry, the three of us find each other to ride side-by-side. “We’ll start out slow and easy with a trot,” Wally yells in our direction. “It might feel fast, but you’re not actually going that fast, so don’t be scared. You’re in good hands, ladies.” He starts telling us about how he trained Chris Pratt to ride horses for his role in The Magnificent Seven, which is a movie neither Graham nor I liked. Wally says that Chris was a genuine guy, and that they got along well, which makes complete sense as they seem to share the same disposition. I don’t know if I like Wally. He’s too young and cheery. Eager to teach out of love. I feel bad for not liking him yet.
We bob and pulse up and down with the horses. It’s comforting and soothing, like how a mother bounces her baby on her knee to rock it to sleep. Inside, my body responds, seething like something alive under my cotton T-shirt, and I glance over at Eleanor, who’s frowning, lost in thought. Is she upset? Her face is all lines. An ideograph of ancient tongues. Though it’s less like a language, more like the cracks in an oracle bone.
So I know that my growing belly, with her, portents a storm. And so Cassandra can scarcely tell her visions to a nonbeliever. It’s the root of fear.
Wally wants to get us started on the canter now. “Remember, strong and steady is the key,” he says, holding out a hand, as if staying us. “Clench your thighs. It’s all about your thigh muscles. You’re getting a workout today, aren’t you, ladies?” He leads the pace and Pearl follows, hooves thunderous. My heart bounces in my chest. Everything starts with the idea of a thing. Fear is one of them. You are another, or were supposed to be, anyway. Graham and I used to talk about this idea together. We held our hands over my stomach, his over mine. The pee stick came back positive. Graham and I used to be in love. If I wasn’t sure of anything else, I was sure of him. Five weeks from now, I will end up getting an abortion, because he will have second thoughts, because he will not believe in the idea anymore, we are only twenty-six, Grace, yes, but I was ready. I was ready. But I don’t know all this yet.
“How are we feeling?” Ever energetic, Wally shouts back at us, expecting us to match his effervescence. Eleanor, for her part, cracks a grin, lifts the corner of her lips for this man we hardly know. She looks over at me, for corroboration. But I, I am breathing heavy. I am about to break. How do I tell her?
“I’m great,” I yell back, meeting her eyes. We look so alike—and not in that way that white people like to joke. I could find my mirror in her, if I wanted. But somewhere in the womb, we diverted. Five weeks from now, Eleanor will receive an unexpected call from the hospital, her silence a seal, and my secrecy will ruin me. This will cause oceans to open up between us. A schism between sisters will split open the earth.
“What’s wrong?” she mouths at me. I want to tell her, but I can already see the future. There’s no pivoting the path of what’s to come. Wally waves us forward. “Let’s keep going, ladies.”
We cross a four-lane thoroughfare, a truck stopped on one side for us to pass through. Its driver’s expression is stoic. Is he perturbed, or amused? Do horses cut across here often? There’s fields of yellow grass on either side of our traverse. Another landscape change, and the mood shifts with it.
Now an old Western town pulls into a view, the way a large schooner appears over the curvature of the earth sails-first, then is slow to reveal her grand architecture beneath it. It looks like every cowboy’s fantasy. General store, hotel, the signs mark the ramshackle wooden structures. Sheriff reads a rustic police box station.
“Here it is, ladies,” Wally announces with pride, as if he owns the place. “Paramount Movie Ranch. They used this lot to shoot films and TV shows and the like. They shot Gunsmoke here. Have you ever seen Gunsmoke?”
No, we reply. We’re not that American, I guess. The movie town keeps swelling up out of the beautiful earth before us, all umber bones, and we trot down mock Main Street like three outsiders ready to make some trouble.
This was before the fires that burned it all away, this was before the fires, and we are traipsing in the old ghost town memory where the ranch is still upright and standing. Maybe somewhere in between I can even make my horse dance like in those old Westerns.
Several white tourists, pink-faced and blotchy from the sun, who are scouting the place on foot, gaze up at us in curiosity. What—have you never seen a Chinese cowboy before? Even though we were here in the West before most of you were. A Chinese woman, even rarer. You won’t find any mention of us in the history books. Marginalia in the stories of men who came over from the old country in search of gold and fortune but were swindled by promises and chased with stones and sticks by the whites who hated us so much they wanted us dead.
Me, I belong in a Western. I jumped out of a folktale with a peach pit beneath my tongue. The old country was in shambles, deep in the talons of a foreign delirium, so my destitute parents sold me off to a man who was to become my husband. This man happily imbibed on the dowry of his pretty young wife, but the money soon dried up, so he set his greedy eyes upon the golden mountain, peak shining like a beacon across a vast ocean. With me in tow, my husband brought us to this strange land of dusty open plains and harsh rock. The work was hard; every night he came back with the work painted on his face. And every night he threw the furniture around in frustration, and if work had exhausted him to immobility, he drank himself into stupor instead. One night the harsh rock of the country bore its way into his soul, and he ranted and raged at me with the fury of seven oxen. The peach pit in my mouth knocked around for a way out, and I spit it with such force that it pierced his forehead and found the dark, deep mine he dreamt would bring him glory. What was I to do? Otherwise I would have died.
So I lived, I found a way to live. When in the West, do as the outlaw does. After I left our pathetic hovel of a home, I wandered the earth. I begged, and when I could not beg, I sold the parts of me I could not take back. The rage that consumed my late husband found me too. Later I killed a man and stole his horse. His clothes, too, and his gun. They fit me well. Everywhere I went, eyes followed, grazing me with their cruel ideas. You don’t belong here, they said. But I did, more than anyone. I pillaged towns and freed the broken, I stole from the rich and gave to the poor. I killed and killed again in the name of justice. And yet the killing only emptied me, the blood I spilled returned to drown me in my dreams. You are not a savior, my horse whinnied and sang as it danced in the night. You are just carrying out the evils of a dead man, and you even wear his clothes.
So I took my horse into the mountains and didn’t look back. Left the humans behind. They didn’t need me, anyway. The towns and cities will fill with people, and they will commit the same crimes against each other over and over again until pain becomes its own language. I wouldn’t stay to watch. I shed my clothes, I didn’t need them. Only the trees could see me now. My hair grew long enough to cover my naked body, long enough to wrap myself in its loving embrace.
I walked barefoot along the river. I didn’t used to do well in nature, but now, the edges of me were fading into the edges of the woods. I didn’t know where nature ended and where I began. The water beside me seethed its primordial magic, so alive that I’d lose myself if I got too close. I walked until my feet ached and I was screaming for surrender, but I kept going. Like all the bossy carp in Chinese fables, the salmon swimming upstream were telling me, “Follow us, follow us back home. . . .”
Until the trees forget their names.
On the way back down the mountain, Wally points out to us: wild sage. “It was an important plant for the Natives who lived here,” he said, leaving out before they all went away, leaving out before they were all killed or chased out of their homes. Like ghost echoes, my fingertips skim over those soft, fuzzy leaves. Feeling everything that everyone has touched before.
He waves us goodbye at the trailer. In our rearview mirror, I can see him brushing down the horses. I imagine him standing there, combing through their long, sinuous hair until the end of time. Eleanor finds us a nearby restaurant, and we stop there for lunch. Seated outdoors in the hot sun, we’re in the middle of reading menus when the first specks of gray flutter down onto the table, onto our hands, onto all it can reach.
A waitress hurries by our table. “So sorry about that,” she says. “There’s been a large wildfire in the Santa Ana mountains and the wind’s been blowing ash here all day. Would you like to move inside?”
“No, it’s okay,” Eleanor tells her, “we can stay here.” The waitress looks at me to confirm, but my attention is already somewhere else, far away. Then she’s out of sight, as well, out past the vanishing point. I don’t know if she was ever real.
Eleanor is watching me watch the ash rain onto the table.
“It’s perfectly safe to eat ash,” she says, her eyes inscrutable, “you know.”
“I know,” I reply.
“Look up.” She’s pointing but I’m already turning. “Look up, Grace.”
You can see the column of smoke high above the mountains, snowing down its gray detritus in a realm that defies snow. We are marveling at a disaster so far away. At a fire that has not reached us yet, but it will.
Image credit: Chip Vincent