His father sent young Grant to purchase the colt. “Offer him fifteen,” his father said, “and let him bargain you up if you must, but don’t go over this twenty-five I’m giving you.” And Grant, buttoning the money in his breast pocket, galloped to Maysville. He was always the fastest boy with a team, the handiest with a wild mare; his mother always said, “Horses understand Ulysses.” When he arrived he was nervous, never before having been asked to handle his father’s business.
Grant looked up at the horse’s owner, a hammer-headed man with blacksmith’s hands. Behind the man’s head the sky was bright blue, with a dark tree branch reaching across like an eager hand. Grant opened his mouth and blurted out everything his father had told him.
“And so I’m supposed to bargain with you for this here colt up to but not over the twenty-five I have in my pocket.”
You can imagine what he paid for the animal.
Two years later the colt went blind and Grant sold it, glad to be free of a reminder of the incident.
Years after that, stepping off the train for a smoke, he saw the animal. It was pulling with a team of blind horses, working the treadwheel of a ferryboat on the canal. Pulling, all the muscles in its legs corded tight—pulling in absolute darkness. His stomach surged with shame.
Grant too died diminished, swindled by his own son’s company. He wrote his life’s story not to delight in its triumphs, but because he needed the cash. What would Julia live on? His throat began to ache. He recounted the tale of the colt. We are children, he wrote. Sent on men’s errands.
“I urge you not to fixate on this particular episode,” his doctor said. “How, then, will you ever complete your book?”
Who asked for your opinion? Grant replied. Certainly not I.
But Grant’s throat had swollen shut like a stoppered sink. He could no more retort than eat a steak. He tore a sheet from his notebook and wrote, with a shaking hand: Please just a little more cocaine.
A LESSER-KNOWN HORSE OF HIS
You’d know Cincinnati from the photograph, the famous one where General Grant stands with one hand on my stablemate’s neck. Grant appears quite small, and though his stature (lack thereof) is well known, it was only pride in his war horse that kept him from suppressing wide release of the likeness. Finest of battle chargers, seventeen hands tall, Cincinnati carried Grant to Appomattox. How Traveller steamed, the green old goat! But Cin Cin never gloats and is so benign (or, might I say, banal?) it’s hard to resent him. Grant let no one to ride him, save Lincoln, who did so every day in the last weeks of his life. Of course, he didn’t know those were the last weeks.
I’m just a little black pony. My first master was the brother of Jefferson Davis, from whose stables I was stolen as a gift for Grant’s son Frederick. But I am discerning in my choice of friends; I love only Grant. I once heard someone call him the “low-voiced man in the blouse and straw hat,” and that seems apt. He is so tender, for a man of war. He approaches me eyes askance and whispers in a voice too low to be overheard. Wouldn’t they like to know what he says, that I don’t bite or kick!
He says: Jeff Davis, you have a lovely gait. When the sun is but the slit of one eye opening, the bugle sounds, and up you go. Oh, dread it! World tours are overrated, my friend, and so is public office. The most beautiful thing I ever saw was a band of wild horses on the plains of Texas in 1847. An ocean of horses larger than the state of Rhode Island, I’ll never forget it. Never invest your money anywhere. And you’re worth some money, Jeff Davis. You’re no two-bit pony. You’re a White House horse.
HORSE FOUND AT THE MOUTH OF THE RIO GRANDE (MEXICAN CONFLICT)
A lieutenant just to my right: cannonball clipped his head, quick, like a flower snapped from its stem. Bits of his brain rained down on us. Another man was killed by a flying bone. And another to my left: cannonball through the chest like a train boring through a dark tunnel. Still we advanced, our shells felling enemy by the dozens. What kind of country encamps an army on another man’s land and waits for that man to fire a warning shot, then declaring it a war of aggression? No country my father knew.
A cannon takes a single man, maybe two, but a shell explodes, lets loose a thousand shards of killing metal. Though we were outnumbered three to one, we took their men doubly, bodies everywhere.
Captain McCall, knowing my love of horses, gave me one for next day’s march. I protested that I was a foot soldier, but as his servant rode aloft, he could not bear to see his lieutenant walk. And truth be told, I did not protest enough; I liked the look of the animal. It was a fine horse who, after just a few disagreements, fell in with the column and never ate a thing but pure pasture.
We had ridden out to see a band of wild horses crossing to the west, and that night I dreamt I left the army and joined them and was Lieutenant of Horses. It was a straightforward post. I urged my charges to rest, to drink from the river, to gallop like the wind across plains where they had no enemy. They had no enemy anywhere. The sky did not end.
It hadn’t been a total failure. Bolls of cotton flourished like the white heads of old men, shifting quietly in the Missouri sun, and there was a fine tomato or two.
But they didn’t have a dime to buy seed. Ulysses pawned his watch for twenty-two dollars. The children were still too small to do any picking, and Julia’s slaves were strictly house slaves, she made that quite clear. He picked alongside the black freemen he had hired, sweat filling their shirts like rags, light burning his pale eyes. And as he saw the unharvested crop turn a seasick green, deflate, and recede into the mud from whence it came, and the perfect soil unsown for lack of seed, he felt the money deserting his family freely as blood.
In school, Grant had seen generals in full regalia and admired their posture, their total command. It occurred to him that he could be like them one day, could be one of them. But he said nothing to his schoolmates. Too fresh was the memory of the horse purchase he’d botched as a boy, and how his friends had teased him. At thirty-five, then, he was a farmer. A lousy one.
He remembered the day he swam the creek on horseback (Indomitable, what a horse! The finest in his papa’s stables) to visit Julia at her father’s house when they were courting. The creek had swollen with rain and she thought he’d never make it. How she looked at him, when he did!
What if he never became anyone at all, and Julia always looked at him as she did now? Squinting, as though searching a crowd for the man she had married.
ALWAYS AS A BOY HE HAD THE LEISURE
We fired at dawn. The advance was easier than expected, with heavy casualties on their side. Don’t believe what they’re saying in the press, Julia. It was a miscommunication. Lieutenant Boggs was injured in the leg, mortally we feared. Five thousand dead or missing on our side, but twelve thousand I should guess for the Rebels. Father, I ask you again not to credit what you read in the papers. It’s political, and you know I harbor no ambitions there. I will send home Little Rebel for you, Julia; a good horse and easy to manage; take the children out in the sled, I loved that as a boy. Always I had the leisure of taking a pony and the sleigh for the weekend. Yesterday we lost Knox. His spleen came full out of his body, a lopsided jellyfish. I must write a letter to his wife. How will I write it? Father, I shall not address your letter except to say that you never give Julia a chance and damn you she is doing the best she can.
A CITY HORSE CALLED WILDFLOWER
There were some people I’d visit in Washington who had a long-throated, dark-eyed horse I loved. As I flirted with his owners, an older couple from Ohio, a man in a strange hat would sometimes go by. Later the man, Whitman, sent me many letters. He was a writer with a brother under my command. But who didn’t have a brother under my command? I wondered why he never stopped to see that spectacular horse. Maybe he was nervous to approach the President. But I never could trust a man who didn’t love horses.
Julia. She tends me in my cancer, saying, “Stop crying now. There.”
I remember coming home one day to a new horse in my stables. I shouldn’t say new, for it was old as sin: a scraggly roan so thin its hipbones showed through like white fish in shallow water.
I found my wife at tea with a tall man, broad of shoulder, eyes so brown they looked black. An ill-shaven face, whisky on his breath, and a habit of talking without pause on the most dreadful subjects. Julia introduced him as Charles Page, an old friend from Louisville, who had come to visit her on the occasion of the death of their mutual friend so-and-so, I cannot remember the name. Over Page’s shoulder my wife winked, almost invisibly. By this signal she told me I had nothing to fear: the man was no threat, only someone I should help her to entertain and dispatch. Though we were unsuccessful, and the oblivious prattler stayed ’til morning.
That’s my wife. The woman now bent over me, sometimes a smudged and shadowy figure, sometimes only a kind and far-off voice, like a letter read aloud in the next room. I wish I could speak to her! I take out my notebook and write: Thank you. Now you. Stop crying.
Sophia is dead as I’m sure you have heard. Visit me in shared mourning at your earliest convenience. Come any day at two o’clock on a shabby horse. Scuff your boots. Drink too much the night before. When my husband arrives I’ll give him a wink, so small you’d never see it. But he will. He’ll understand that you are one of those old friends, an imposition and a colossal bore. Thus reassured, he’ll humor you and even send me from the room that you two may share a pipe—sparing me the tedium of your presence. Carry on as though you mark it not. Digress at length upon some engineering principle. Digress at such length as to stay for dinner. Stay too late to ride home on that sodden horse.
Meet me later. Ten o’clock, anywhere but the stables. The icehouse, where I might have gone for milk. And if we have done exactly as I say, I may see you thereafter in the open, may visit your home with my husband’s pitying accord. Oh, that I should be forced to endure such company over the mere fact of a deceased friend in common! Such are the thoughts of my husband, to whom death is a commonplace.
I’ll meet you and hold you. These hands have grown older, and this face too, and I wonder if you should like them. I’ll not think that. You’ll like them enough. I’ll open my mouth just a little and your mouth will come close. That hot breath I remember
Come soon if you remember,
UNTITLED, WITH IMAGINED CURE FOR CANCER
I think of all those people in beds like this one. They knew so much about pain and the chemicals set as ballast against it, they started to believe they were doctors.
What will we become when aching isn’t the gauzy shape of our hours? We’ll see the world clearly again: every leaf will be green as thunderous applause. The ocean blue as tinder sparking, the sky a white flame. But where shall I stand to look upon it? And how will I go back to life now, when I have become head surgeon in my silent universe? It will be hard to give up control of these life-or-death decisions and to take up the burden of other decisions, more ordinary and so, more difficult. Like the end of a war so long one has forgotten how to be anything but a general.
Still, it will be a great joy to finally take up the career I have dreamt of, as a trainer of horses.
I FEEL VERY BADLY PROBABLY BECAUSE OF A CROSS FIRE BETWEEN OPIUM AND LAUDANUM
I leave Julia, promising to return by lunch, and I go in search of it. The building that used to house it, however, is hosting an exposition with vendors in foal stalls selling whirligigs and life insurance. I’ve always hated this sort of thing, but my pockets fill with business cards. One must cross the building by swinging from a series of dangling loops, arm over arm, like a monkey, and just looking at them, I know I am too weak for it. Out on the street, I have no idea where I am. I look for an information booth, but find only street after street of old houses leaning into one another for support. These are the houses of the South, which we promised not to loot and did not loot, unless there was someone I couldn’t control. There were one or two horses in my life I could not control, and those I sold, or loved. At last I find a restaurant, though looking in the window, it is not a restaurant at all, but instead the commissary of a school for girls. All the girls wear white dresses with high lace collars and white ribbons on their bonnets. Their faces are black. I ask them, Where is an information booth, Please I need a map, I have to find my wife, but they only laugh. They point and laugh, and I remember: my mouth is plugged with snow. As it melts, the ice weeps down my hot throat.