by Robin Schauffler
When we were young my sister read a book where the heroine believed that if you could count one hundred white horses in a summer you would get your wish, any wish you wanted. This seemed like powerful magic. There were more horses around Portland then, in the ‘fifties; my cousins lived in a part of town now dominated by a huge Fred Meyer store, a neighborhood we used to call “Horse Country.” For many summers we counted white horses as my father drove the family in our square-faced gray-on-gray Willy’s Jeep over the rural roads of Oregon and Washington, sometimes as far as Montana, on the way to augment his teaching salary with a summer job roofing someone’s house, or to help a friend remodel the back porch. I’d press my forehead against the window, eyes scanning the fields.
Sometimes I would make my one hundred horses; sometimes I fell short, or forgot to keep counting. I don’t remember any wishes, or whether they came true. The game was the counting, the tingle of excitement as the numbers got higher, the sizzle of victory each time a white horse came into view. The suspense of approaching the finish line at the end of summer.
As we grew up we forgot about the game, of course, as one does, and decades passed without any counting of horses. But some years ago, one June, I started counting again. I was driving my parents over the mountains to Central Oregon—a horse-heaven part of the state, in my childhood and now—for my younger brother’s fiftieth birthday party. My father, who used to do all the driving, couldn’t drive anymore, although he forgot this and often said to me, “You think I oughta go back over to the DMV and see about taking that test again?”
I would say, “No, I don’t think you should.” He couldn’t have passed that test if they gave him the answer sheet to copy.
At a rest stop near the pass he said, “You want me to take the wheel for a bit?”
“No, thanks, I’m fine.”
My mother still drove then, but not on freeways, unfamiliar roads, at night, during rush hour, or with other people in the car. So I drove. Every twenty minutes my father said, “Now where are we off to?” I explained again about the birthday party, the baseball game, the cabin we’d be staying in, who else would be there: my sister, my husband, my brother’s friends from college. Yes, of course, my brother and his wife and her family: it was his birthday. Lines of Douglas firs flashed past the windows.
“Now where are we off to?”
We crested the pass and descended through lodgepole pine and broken lava.
“You want me to take the wheel for a bit?”
As we broke out of ponderosa forest on the east side of the mountains, we passed a field of horses, their coats shimmering in the long June sun. A white one sparkled out at me and without thinking my mind said, “One.” By the end of the weekend I was up to sixteen, and back in the habit.
A month later, driving alone out to Joseph in the northeast corner of the state, I cruised through the twenties and thirties, all the way to forty-eight white horses. Number twenty-seven was a big, powerful, pure white horse, facing west in tall green grass. The low thirties were a little shaky, possibly not the whitest horses in the state, far off across a field of golden stubble. Forty-two threw its head high and tossed a shaggy mane as I passed.
As kids my sister and I played with plastic horses, drew and painted horses, read book after book about horses, played that we were horses, traced and colored and cut out paper horses and wrote names on the backs and galloped elaborate herds of horse families across the olive-green plains of our living room carpet. We fell in love with Misty of Chincoteague and the Black Stallion and Flicka, and I learned the characteristics and markings of every breed and memorized all the Kentucky Derby winners from Whirlaway to Northern Dancer. But I never begged my parents for a real horse. I knew we were playing, and that a real horse was far out of reach. Reading about horses and counting horses were ways to make them mine.
There are rules to counting horses.
White is relative—some white horses are a tiny bit gray; some may have just a hint of yellow. You, the counter, know whether the horse is truly white. If you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself, as your grade-school teachers told you. A horse with one small brown spot on its belly is white; a horse with several spots is not. Appaloosas and palominos are not white, although they are often pale. White ponies count, but not white burros, and certainly not white cows—watch out. If you pass a white horse in a pasture, and half an hour later, after a stop at the grocery store, you pass the same pasture and a white horse is standing in that same place, cropping the same patch of grass, you really should not count it. But if you pass that pasture a few weeks or a month later, and a white horse is standing under the oak tree next to a bay horse, you can go ahead and count it, because, who knows? It could be a different white horse. And sometimes, especially near the end of summer, you really need one.
So why, that summer my little brother turned fifty, did I count horses again? Why did I care so much about getting to one hundred? I had most of what I could ever wish for. I didn’t wish that my father could by magic become himself again; I knew it was too late for that. I could count all the white horses on earth and I would not get that wish. But counting horses took me back to a time when I passed fields of horses every day, before there were so many shopping malls and parking lots and rafts of houses crammed so close together; when my nearest neighbors were two horses (though neither of them white), wandering a wood-fenced pasture; when I was not responsible for chauffeuring my parents, or for anything. When it was possible to pretend that counting one hundred white horses would get you whatever you wished for, would heal any pain.
The final weekend of that summer my husband and I took the last camping trip of the season. I called my parents to let them know we’d be back Sunday afternoon and we’d drop by for a visit. My husband drove over the pass to Central Oregon, and I counted horses… eighty-nine, ninety, ninety-one… and with each number clicked off, I felt that delicious zing of approaching magic. I had recaptured the joy of a simple quest and found its healing power.
We hiked off trail through stands of juniper and ridges of black basalt speckled with orange lichen. I leaned my head back to watch a red-tailed hawk circling on the updrafts. We pitched our tent on a rocky ledge looking west to the Cascade Range and watched the sun set over the gold and green horse country below. We could already feel the chill of fall in the tangy air.
When we pulled into my parents’ driveway back in Portland, my horse count was ninety-nine. The summer was over.
Perhaps my quest was unsuccessful. But when you try to count one hundred horses, your eyes stay very wide open. So that summer when my father’s mind was slipping away, and with it the world as I had constructed it, counting horses made me alert to every beautiful thing: thirty pure white geese in a gem-green pasture; one rattlesnake, ess-curved and beady-eyed, tiled in elegant black and tan under a warm rock in the sun; a swift flash of silver creasing the night sky.
And these small things were magic enough.
Robin Schauffler is a writer a in Portland, Oregon. She has recently finished a memoir of the three years she and her husband Peter lived and worked in Mexico, and several chapters have been published. Her writing on Mexico and other subjects has appeared in Open Spaces, Street Roots, Oregon English Journal, Voicecatcher, Cargo Literary, The Sun (Readers Write), online in Beautiful Things from River Teeth, and forthcoming in Aji. She has earned two Pushcart nominations.