A Place That Mattered

Rebecca Partington

The place where my son died had horses.

Only because when a dying boy asks you for a horse, you find more than one. You make your way away from the busyness of your town beside the wide river to land in the mountains that is not your own. There you watch the horses wander over bent, broken stalks of last year’s rice harvest searching for greener shoots to lip up and munch, hooves following muzzles bent close, kissing distance from earth. You live there where you can see the substance of their forms and listen to the rasp of their breath as they move in and out of morning mist and sunlit afternoons while your son’s bones push harder against his skin.

It was not our land until our friend heard that our son was so sick. May we have this place? We asked. Our son wants horses. These fields where you plant rice and black beans above the wide sweeping valley. This place where the distant horizon ripples with a line of hills will be good for him. And then with no more than a nod, it became the place where we waited and watched the horses.

The grass grew prickly out of the hard dirt, waking us quickly when we stepped down from the little wooden hut into the morning sun. Mostly our son stayed on the narrow porch, chattering while I crouched beside the water jars below, enamel dishes clanking into cold water, hands smoothing soap bubbles over them, listening to the music of his voice.

Or we sat together, quiet, spellbound by eagles that floated and fell and rose again below our own kind of eyrie on the cliff. He paged through the bird book, trying to match picture to life, but he didn’t worry much when he couldn’t. It was enough to see them making their timeless way through cloudless skies.

No matter the slope, their bones stood well stacked and sure.

When he felt strong enough, I bundled him into my arms. At six years old and fading, he was so light, I didn’t mind. I carried him down from the hut to be closer to the horses. Mongolians are a small breed, and ours were scruffy but strong as any of their kind. Their forms scattered across the hill beside the hut, making sense of the steep ground by shift of feet and bend of joints, so that no matter the slope, their bones stood well stacked and sure. The line of their bodies on so much uneven ground gave us a place to rest our gaze, solid stars in a land-locked constellation.

And standing there, his body cradled between my elbows, against my torso like so many times when he was first born and growing fast, I leaned back into the counterbalance of boy and gravity and tried not to wonder, tried to not think ahead. Head leaning against my collarbone, he exhaled audibly, as if relaxed by the proximity of the beasts, as if their size and motion released him for a time from the pain that gnawed at his bones and haunted our nights.

And when he tired, we turned for home, his silky hair smooth under my chin, fingertips fluttering on my forearm. “Horses are good, Mamma. Can we keep them forever?”

I looked across the golden fields, fallow now, at the valley falling away below us, jungle turning to blue and violet as the sun made its way down, stopped my trudging up the hill to look at him and answered, “Yes, of course, my baby.”


Image credit: Rebecca Partington, Hoof Shine, via Flickr


This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.


The Learned Pig


Catharine Murray

CATHARINE H. MURRAY, MFA is an author, poet and writing guide. Her memoir, Now You See the Sky (Akashic Books, 2018) was selected to launch Gracie Belle, an imprint focussed on grief and loss. Venues for her lectures and workshops have included the Ocean Park Writers’ Conference, Harvard University, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Maine State Prison, and University of New England. Murray earned her BA from Harvard University and her MFA in Creative Writing at USM’s Stonecoast Writing Program.