William VanDenBerg

La Brea, or, How to Heal a Horse

The vet said, “Your horse is dying,” so the cowboy followed his instructions and fed his horse only young hay. It didn’t help the horse’s fever.

The cowboy’s friend told him about a vet that practiced holistic medicine in the desert. The cowboy brought his horse to see him. The vet said, “Your horse is dying.” The cowboy followed his instructions and fed the horse young hay and raw honey. It didn’t help the horse’s fever. The animal developed a rattling cough that produced bright flecks of blood.

When the horse was young, the cowboy had taught it to communicate “yes” and “no” through foot stomps. One for yes, two for no. When it got very sick, it only stomped in pairs.

The cowboy asked around for another expert, but his horse died before he could find one.

The cowboy told his wife, “I have begun to see my horse’s death as a moral failing on my part,” but she was asleep for this part of the story.

Years later, the cowboy went to the La Brea tar pits with his adult daughter. At the museum there, he saw the skeletons of animals that had fallen in: mammoths, sabretooth tigers, giant sloths. The skeletons were bright and clean. The cowboy wondered how they’d gotten all the tar off of them. Their bones were blinding white. Their tour guide described a vast pool that spread out below Los Angeles. While he moved along with the rest of the crowd, the cowboy thought of the moment the creatures knew they weren’t going to make it, the moment their limbs were stuck in the boiling tar without the chance of escape. Maybe they were more optimistic than I’m making them out to be, he thought. Maybe the possibility of death never crossed their mind.

The guide kept talking, but the cowboy wasn’t listening. He was struck dumb by the tour guide himself, his long nose, tall forehead, and shining hair. He raised his hand and asked the tour guide if he believed in reincarnation. The young man paused, cocked his head to one side, and stared at the deep crease of worry folded between the cowboy’s eyes. A silence came over the group. The cowboy’s adult daughter gave him a confused glance.

The guide said, “Yes,” blinked, and moved on to the next part of the tour. He began to explain that the small pools of bubbling tar around the skeletons were, for safety reasons, purely for show. If you stuck your hand into the thick liquid — a mixture of cornstarch, water, and ink — you would feel nothing but a lukewarm dampness interrupted by bubbles of air forced up from a compressor at the bottom of the viscous pool.

But he didn’t get to say that. Instead, the cowboy interrupted him. His face became red and he shook it from left to right. “No, no, not like that. That’s not how I taught you,” he said. “Once for yes, twice for no.” The tour guide’s mouth pursed. One of the members of the tour, a priest, picked at his teeth. Through a skylight overhead, the sun emerged from behind a bank of clouds. The cowboy’s adult daughter, embarrassed, grabbed his elbow and began to pull him away, but the cowboy wouldn’t budge. A child in the tour group, in his old age, would tell this story to a row of uninterested grandchildren. A person in the tour group had just had their nails done and raised them to their nose to smell them. A mouse living unseen in one of the displays chewed on a piece of fake grass. Outside the building, traffic idled on the boulevard. A bubble of fake tar in a nearby pool audibly burst. The tour guide emitted a sound made entirely of vowels and began to lift his leg.