I walked into Ernie’s & Jim’s Barbershop, clutching a stack of old issues of The Stockman Grassfarmer and Jim’s horse-training videotape, and arrived to find the shop empty except for Jim. He lounged in his barber chair, smoking a Marlboro, roosting in the window wall’s golden light like an old-time porch-sitter, doing nothing with palpable enjoyment, one of those people who can sit and think. I knew he was dreaming about his farm.
Jim had warmed to my proselytizing about grass farming—he liked the idea of his horses grazing, rustling the range like livestock did out west, instead of standing around all day in a stable waiting for him to feed them. Jim wasn’t the average horse trader. After his boyhood spent riding the roads and countryside around our farm, he’d participated for several years in the annual roundup of wild horses at Chincoteague Island; he’d admired the old-time cowboys he met there, listened to their campfire tales. He’d since become a serious student of how horses saw the world, reacted. People called him a “horse whisperer,” a trendy term he seemed to dislike, perhaps for its mystical pretense or its whiff of hucksterism. He’d been to workshops with the big names—John Lyons, Pat Pirelli, Peter Campbell—who emphasized infinite patience: slow is still too fast. Horse whispering was shorthand for whatever it was that such weathered gurus did and embodied. For their intuition. For their humble self mastery. For everything people like me didn’t understand about how humans, fragile creatures in the natural world, could meld with and bend to their will, without cruelty, big, strong, mercurial animals.
“That gelding I bought is stubborn,” I said. “And he’s worse with Tom. He hasn’t been ridden in a while and doesn’t seem to want to work.”
“Makes sense,” Jim said.
He fell silent, clipping and combing my hair. I felt agitated and wanted answers, keenly aware I’d disrespected him by getting that horse in the first place. I should have bought a horse from him, or at least have had him evaluate Dream. Now, still clueless why Diana’s cow Charlene had tried to kick me, I had a horse problem, and soon I’d be handling a grown ram.
“I’ve trained dogs, and feel like I understand them,” I said. “The video helped, but I guess I don’t know how to read hoofed animals.”
“It’s about body language, the human’s and the animal’s,” Jim said. “It’s a silent language.” He snipped at my hair, contemplative. “It’s all there, in that book,” he said, gesturing with his comb toward the shop’s magazine-covered table. A thick treatise was nestled among journals devoted to humans with large mammary glands. Jim pulled the book from under a copy of Playboy and handed it to me: Communication and Expression in Hoofed Mammals by Fritz R. Walther. It carried an Indiana University Press logo. I recalled one evening back in Bloomington, shortly after I’d started work for that scholarly press, telling Kathy over dinner in our new house that I’d read about the book in our catalog: “This German boy fell in love with gazelles in the Hamburg zoo, became a professor in Texas, and spent his summers on the African plains watching animals. Isn’t that cool?” Now, in a redneck barbershop the size of Diana’s milking parlor, his magnum opus lay in my hands. I opened it to Walther’s drawing of a couple of zebras interacting, their long ears and narrow shoulders set at telling angles.
The bell on the shop’s door jingled and Ernie entered, carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “Hi Richard,” he said, “I guess we’re going to be fenceline neighbors now that you’re adding Fred Paine’s place to Hidden Valley. You’ve been here what—a year?—and own two farms.”
“Oh, yeah, we’re negotiating to buy Fred’s,” I said, as if I’d been absentminded, as if we hadn’t reached agreement, aware of an edge in Ernie’s voice. I was impressed by his grapevine and embarrassed that I hadn’t mentioned it before. I’d been avoiding the barbershop. But Ernie might have seen us out planting the cornfield. His little house, a white clapboard structure with a satellite dish affixed to its blistered tin roof, was just around the curve from Fred’s hilltop, on the same side of Marshfield Road. Because we drove to the farm from the opposite direction, I could pretend that Ernie wasn’t going to be our closest neighbor. Even though we’d bought Hidden Valley, I was acting like we were just folks, not affluent outsiders.
“My land goes all the way to his northern border,” Ernie said. “Fred’s been telling everyone he sold out to ‘some dean.’ ”
He added, “Sorry about those junked cars—I’ll get them out of there.”
“I didn’t really notice them,” I lied.
“I just hauled them over there by his house to piss him off. That sonofabitch has tried to screw me and every other person up and down Marshfield Road. You watch yourself.”
“Thanks, I will.”
“He might try stuff with you,” Ernie said, glancing at me, draped in a plasticized black smock in Jim’s chair, “but he won’t mess with your wife, that’s for sure. I hear she’s plenty tough.”
This comment hung in the air. Like Diana’s view that I lacked the grit to persevere in Appalachian Ohio, Ernie’s assessment surprised me: I was a “nice” guy, harmless enough—that is, weak. How did I come across? Not like a farmer, probably, with my slight build, horn-rimmed glasses, and button-down shirts. And I’d never mentioned Kathy’s job to Ernie or Jim. So even Fred knew her title—of course he did. It sounded like a professor getting his hair cut had given Ernie an earful about Ohio University’s newest dean. But he spoke with admiration—his informant probably was our acquaintance who owned a stable, a senior professor who had welcomed Kathy’s ideas and energy. Claire had taken lessons at his place before I bought Dream.
“She’s making changes,” I said. “Kathy moves fast—she’ll have done six things before anyone starts second-guessing the first. They had a saying back in Indiana about people like her: She goes at it like a dog killing chickens.”
Ernie, sitting in his chair gripping his coffee, grunted appreciatively and said, “Fred has finally met his match.”
“Speaking of Kathy,” I said, slightly lifting my head to address Jim behind me, “she heard from John Baker”—the stable owner—“that one of her new professors got kicked in the face by his mare a couple of weeks ago. I guess he took a bucket of grain away from her and she whipped around and nailed him, caved in his cheekbone. He’s got to have surgery. Kathy’s worried because we’re now in the horse business ourselves.”
“She treated him like another horse,” Jim said.
“Probably not like the lead stallion, either,” I said.
“How do you avoid that, with all your horses. Some must get ornery.”
“I’m the dominant horse in the herd,” he said.
“What if one gives you trouble anyway?”
“I’m no rougher to a horse than a horse is to a horse. Sometimes that’s plenty rough. But you only have to do it once.”
Evidently, getting physical was a less-publicized backup tool in the kit of the horse whisperers. Jim swept hair off my poncho with a whisk broom. “In any relationship,” he said, summing up his philosophy and apparently irascible Ernie’s, “one is the hammer and one is the nail.”