Wandering

Wandering

Wilke, Joanne
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If you ever see a bucking bull named Wander, scratch his horns for me. Don’t be intimidated by his enormous size, thick muscles and broad horns; just look into his eyes.

I was in the middle of a divorce when I applied for the barn job. I’d once worked as a groom and groundskeeper on an estate, and just loved it, loved working outside in all seasons, loved the animals. The owner there was a ‘hunt’ rider, but injuries forced her to gear back. Training Thoroughbreds from the race-track to do dressage (like the Lipizanner stallions) seemed much safer to her. Those horses were skittish, fiery, unpredictable, she called them hot. But also amazing. Dressage looks like dancing, but is actually the most graceful movements of a free, riderless horse done on command. All that energy and hysteria focused in each step, and so much power coming off the animal it practically bowls you over without a touch.

When I saw an ad for a similar job in Bozeman, I applied. I walked into the barn, introduced myself, and was attacked by a rooster—claws up. My automatic response was to kick him across the barn, too late remembering this was a job interview and their rooster. I apologized, she shrugged it off and hired me.

I soon found that there were regular barn creatures and temporary ones. The cat, who would not be house broken, was permanent. The rooster was not. The two studs were regulars in most seasons. Then there were the sick and injured--torn by barbed wire, a well placed kick, a difficult foaling--and the animals to be sold. I cared for them, fed them, gave them names—Shrek, Scarlett, Butthead, Blue.

But mainly I shoveled shit. Literal shit. A half ton or more each day, every day. Shoveling shit through divorce, the analogy is too obvious, but effective. I remember when my mother-in-law was dying. First the smell of cooking made her nauseous, then eating itself. The hospice worker said, “stop feeding her.” It was as if all the air left the room, the thought so alien, backwards, unnatural. And final. Like divorce. My heart felt like a crippled arthritic hand, grotesque and useless.

At the barn I could scream. I could kick things, break bales open with an axe. I could tell the horses every aggravation and deception, real or imagined. Blue rested his long nose on my shoulder as I raked, nibbled my shirt. Geese honked over a red sunset, cranes creaked in a warm breath of Indian summer, cows lowed not far away.

After work my clothing and hair reeked of manure, my eyes rimmed red from hay and dust. But I felt the relaxed tired that only heavy physical work can give. Working in the barn my mind and heart could wander without constraint. My healing progressed by the half ton.

Then came the bull. He was huge, with the muscular hump and low drooping ears of a Brahma, and horns thick as my lower leg. He was so long he could barely turn in the stall. I forked hay down the line and when I got to him he stepped forward, drooling in massive silence. One look into those soft brown eyes and I called him Bambi.

But there was no way I was going in there with him to clean. My great-grandfather was killed by a bull. That was my knowledge base. After a few days I decided to try moving him into a different stall and cleaning up behind. I set up barricades of wheel barrows and rakes to direct him, shook grain into a dish in the new stall, then opened his door. He could kill me and not even notice. For an instant we looked at each other in mirrored terror. Then he trotted to the grain and I slammed the door behind him.

It was later I learned his real name was Wander, and that he’d been a bucking bull. For him being released from a stall was equated with electric prods, shouting and spurs. Only one man ever rode him. Outside the arena his personality shone—friendly, sweet, just an enormous hamster. When they sold all their bucking bulls they kept him because the other bulls were mean to him. A gentle spirit, a real-life Ferdinand in a world of power, fear and rage. I could relate.

Now he was kept in a stall because no fence held him. He was a bucking leaping athlete, and cleared any fence, knees and hocks curled in tidy as a doe. The inestimable grace of pure power. Like a dressage horse dancing.

And now I was shoveling literal bull shit. I could laugh at that, without the constricted feeling in my throat. Fall turned to winter and the below zero weather froze manure to the barn floor. I chipped bull-pies free, tipped them on edge, and rolled them outside. If only I could do that with all my troubles.

At Christmas a heifer and early calf were brought in. I named them Mary and Jesus, and brought my kids to see them. Bambi/Wander lowered his massive head and brutal horns, so my children could scratch them.

Then one day I came and he was gone. I learned later he was sold back into bucking. A pet bull just didn’t make sense, and it was more cruel to keep him caged than to make him buck. But I will never forget how, whenever I threw the stall open, we shared that mortified, wide-eyed moment before he made his dash. Until one day he looked up at me and laughed. I swear he did, I know I did. Me laughing with a bull in the barn. I never got to say goodbye.
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