This is my entry this week for therealljidol. I invite you to read and vote for the many fine entries. This week's topic is "Current Events." For it, we're supposed to write something inspired by a news story.
A horse, with a rider, dives off a platform into the water.
At first they look like they're flying: hooves pointed gracefully, manes streaming behind. Then, your eyes take in the water below them, and your imagination vaults forward to the splash. What happens between the flight and the splash is the difference between fantasy and cruelty.
That is why Atlantic City residents disagree about whether or not to bring diving horses back to the Steel Pier. According to one resident cited in a recent article about the topic, there's no evidence of cruelty from the many years when these horses mounted regular shows. Which is to say, I suppose, that there were no broken limbs, no formal investigations, no cringing horses suffering from PTSD. But unless you can read the horses' minds, you cannot know what they experience.
How many horses were prodded up the steps, how many hesitated until nudged forward onto the board, which then fell out from underneath, propelling them forward into the steep angle perfect for diving?
In those moments of falling, did the horse feel elation or fear? When it hit the pool, did it flounder to keep from drowning or swim sure strokes like a wild mustang fording a river? The horses will not say.
Is this act any crueler than my swimming instructor prodding me to dive off the diving board on Exhibition Day, with stands full of family and friends? Is it his fault I landed in the most spectacular belly-flop the world has seen? The air was completely drained from my lungs so that underwater, for a few seconds, I died. Bubbles of laughter brought me back to life. (Or did it only feel that way?)
Or perhaps in this story, I'm the horse who wants to be Pegasus, the flying horse. I have heard that you can fly if you only believe. Each week, I clomp up the ladder; the platform gives way. For a few seconds, I believe. Then the cheering distracts me; the water comes up fast.
Or perhaps I am the platform. My toddler son climbs on my back from the couch. I tell him, "Hold on, hold on," as he presses close. "I've got you," I tell him, though I know someday it will be my job to drop my arms and allow him to fly or swim.
Perhaps I am the showman who prods my son where he does not necessarily want to go. This morning, when I placed in front of him the same blueberry muffins he'd devoured yesterday, he dissolved in tears. Minutes of comforting would not soothe him. Sometimes, he's a horse who wants to be Pegasus; and sometimes he's Pegasus but wants to be a horse.
Recently, we were in a department store while I was trying to find an outfit for a special event. He reached for me and said, "Up! Up!" This is the same child who, in response to me calling him my baby, said, "I boy." So I asked him, as I carried him, "Are you a boy or a baby?"
He thought for a minute. "Baby," he said. "Baby, baby." In case I didn't get it the first time.
If we could only speak to each other. If only the showman could ask the horse: "So, are you up for another run?"
And the horse could say, "Not today, thank you." Or maybe, "Yes, I think this time I can really fly."
If only I could make my son understand what "later" means. When I tell him I'm making dinner and can't read him a book, it doesn't mean I've sworn off reading for all time. There is nothing more heartbreaking than a dejected toddler, slumping from the kitchen in tears, dragging "The Little Engine That Could."
If only he could tell me, "I don't want to eat this morning, Mama. I'm not hungry." Or "My tooth hurts where it's coming through the gum line." Or "That muffin smells funny. Could I have a Graham Cracker instead?"
He is learning, but so slowly. The other day, I said to him, "Use your words."
With a smile, he repeated, "Your words." And for two seconds, he flew.