A Morgan At Monterey
Again, the phone rang. And again, Eliza ignored its demands, staring instead out of the kitchen window in the direction of the tea garden. The flowers were sighing, convalescing in the aftermath of last night’s downpour. Dewdrops clung to the ferns and glistened in the early morning sun like crystalline tears floating on a deep ocean of green. Eliza sat spellbound, drawn in by the stillness, the disconcerting calm that lingers in the shadows of a storm.
The Rhode Island Reds were not yet cackling, the Cashmere goats not yet bleating, and the Morgan stood in his stall sleeping. All lay still on this cold April morning. All, that is, except Eliza: she had been wrestled awake by the pounding rain and the crackle of lightning. This had been the worst storm to hit Monterey in over a decade, and the man on the radio advised everyone to remain alert and stay inside, for this storm was not yet over. ‘Keep emergency supplies on hand: plenty of drinking water; matches for a fire; and batteries for your flashlights.’
Eliza was prepared. The animals were carefully secured in the barn, the tub had been filled with fresh water and she had gathered up all of the candles and kerosene lanterns on the small farm, but the Allens did not own a flashlight. Harold thought them to be a waste: batteries and bulbs and switches and things. Just more material to have lying around and more trash to throw away later. Furthermore, the mercury in the batteries was toxic. If the one of Cashmeres or the Morgan got hold of them, the animal may be poisoned and would have to be put down.
The phone ushered in again, “Brring! brringg!” “Persistent little pest, that one is,” Eliza muttered, still gazing out the window. The endless pounding of the raindrops gave way to the incessant nagging of the phone; its consistent, badgering ring storming the deafening silence that occupied the house. “Why must I be bothered so?” she complained.
In the oven a casserole hissed and moaned.
Having been unable to sleep, Eliza did what any fair-minded housewife would do – she baked. It would get dinner out of the way, warm up the house and provide some extra time between chores later in the day. Eliza picked the oven mitts up off the white Formica counter top and slid her hands into them, then she bent down and opened the heavy oven door. The thick, rich aroma of goat cheese and tuna fish swam through the shallows of morning air. But there was no joy in Eliza’s eyes; for tonight, again, she would be dining alone.
■ ■ ■
The house had lain empty for two years while Harold and Eliza completed an engagement in Papua New Guinea. Harold had been called out of early retirement to head up the reconstruction effort after a volcanic eruption had wiped out several tribal villages on the main island. Mr. Allen’s expertise with Melanesian culture and language prompted the Red Cross to pursue his involvement.
Eliza, though fearful of flying, insisted that she accompany Harold on this assignment, for in their twenty-three years of holy matrimony, she could not recall one in which she and Harold had spent an entire twelve months together. Eliza had grown weary of sharing her Harold with the world these many, long years and was therefore determined to make this journey, however demanding it may become.
The Allens made arrangements for Eliza’s brother, Thomas, to watch after the farm while they were away. Eliza packed a modest-sized travel chest with the barest of necessities and a few of her favorite books: ‘Fern leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio,’ (series one) by Fanny Fern: a collection of articles and essays concerning nineteenth century life in Boston; Frances Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ – a classic children’s tale of spiritual growth and redemption; and ‘The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague,’ depicting, among other things, her travels from England to Italy, Turkey and the Orient.
Harold packed a trunk of clothes and a chest of research materials, administrative utilities and essential instrumentation needed concerning his expected work on the islands.
When Thomas and his wife, Emily, arrived, the luggage was packed into the heaving trunk of his metallic gold, 1969 Buick Electra, a titanic automobile, but the smoothest ride for long drives. Emily and Eliza settled into their seats as Harold held opened the gate and, after the Buick had sailed through, closed it again behind. He then joined Thomas in the front seat.
The one hundred and seven miles to San Francisco went by quickly as Emily engaged everybody in conversation. They talked about the many orchards they witnessed along the way, the vast and beautiful ocean, and, the wonders of the islands in the South Pacific seas.
■ ■ ■
Eliza continued to ignore the phone and placed the casserole in the window to cool. After hanging the oven mitts on their hooks above the stove, she proceeded out to the barn to feed the horse and goats. She opened the barn door, securing it so as to afford the animals some fresh air and sunlight, and walked in to open the pens and enclosures.
The Rhode Island Reds began to cackle and bustle about, the cashmeres turned their heads in earnest and the Morgan stood at his gate anxiously waiting, snorting and visibly restless. Eliza unlatched the gate and let the stallion out of its stall, talking to it as if it understood her every word. She then went outside to drain and clean the troth, and then fill it with fresh water; as it had accumulated a rancid stew of leaves, twigs and feathers. A light skin of dust and green scum blanketed the rainwater, which had been unlovingly deposited there throughout the night.
As Eliza pumped fresh water into the troth, the sound of the water gurgling sent her dreaming again of the babbling brooks of Lancastershire, England and the swelling streams high in the Himalayan mountains soon after the snows had begun to melt. How real it all seemed; how expertly the authors had described the waters in their books.
How distant it had all been.
The stallion looked at her, snorted, and then bent down and lapped up a drink. He was of middle size, about fifteen and a half hands at the shoulder, and he had the lightest bay coat of any Eliza had ever seen, almost a shimmering blood-gold when the California sun would alight on it.
Harold had purchased the stallion in 1956 while attending a symposium at Wellesley College in Boston. There he met Alistair Morgan; the great, great grandson of Justin Morgan, who founded the breed. Harold had thought of Eliza, and imagined her riding the stallion back home in California. But first, he would need to be castrated. The bay was strong and spirited, much like his ancestors Sherman and Figure. His mane was a deep, dark black; and his equally dark tail shone like the obsidian one would find on the nearby shores. His eyes were like that of onyx, kind, deep and dark. The mane and tail were full; often floating on the lightest breezes that danced through the farm in the docile mornings of early spring. ‘She would be so thrilled,’ he thought, ‘to have a horse she could care for and caress while I am away. And she could learn to ride him, what a pleasure that would bring’.
When Harold had brought the stallion home, Eliza would not stand for the animal being raped of its manhood, no matter how cantankerous his character or severe his moods. It simply would not do. Further, she had no intentions of burdening the poor beast with so much as a saddle-blanket on his back, let alone ride him. Her tender heart could not bear it. Harold was deflated. He had so much wanted to bring her joy and some form of companionship.
The Cashmeres were a gift from the Sultan of Brunei to Eliza just one year prior to the trip to New Guinea. The she-goat was a personal favorite of the Sultan. He had said her milk was like that of the finest silk in all of Asia: light and smooth, while both rich and fragrant – a delight to the senses.
The Reds were busily cackling and scampering about at Eliza’s feet. The movement startled Eliza out of her reverie, and quickly she stopped pumping the water only to find that it had overflowed onto the tan, clay dirt. The Reds were anxious for their morning portion of mash, waiting for it to be strewn onto the dirt before them, no matter the ground was wet.
Eliza looked up and saw that the Morgan had made its way into the pasture and was now galloping and baying like a child cavorting with the Western wind. It’s a shame Harold had not been home often enough over the years to have seen its growing majesty and beauty. She turned toward the barn and headed for the barrel of corn mash so as to feed the heckling brood at her ankles.
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New Guinea was north of Australia and replete with tropical rainforests. Birds of every color painted the pale blue skies; snow-capped mountains held sparkling treasures of copper and gold deep in their bellies; and the indigenous peoples were filled with a zestfulness and zeal for life unlike any ever seen on the American continent.
Eliza trembled with excitement. In all of her forty-one years she had never traveled outside of the state of California, and now, she was on her way to sail over the giant ocean in a big silver bird. Hundreds of questions ran across her mind as the car rolled up the coastal highway, passing fields of garlic; and of broccoli; and of artichoke; and of brussel sprouts. Acres of orchard swam by in oceans of green and white; and orange and black; and brown and purple; and pink. At times, the scent of oranges or onions filled the valley air teasing the four appetites within the Buick. The pungent aroma of plums, cherries and lemons tickled their senses and every now and again, the car would stop and the foursome would disembark and stretch their limbs, taking in the cool, salty air; breathing in the fresh aromatic fragrances, and gazing out onto the far horizon. A few hours later, Emily and Eliza were standing at the edge of an airfield eying the American Airlines DC-10 that was to transport Harold and Eliza to Honolulu, Hawaii.
“Eliza, are you certain that you want to go through with this?” asked Emily.
“That’s a find time to ask now, Emily. But there is nothing I want more than to be with my Harold.
I have grown weary of the chore of seeing my Harold off at the gate and patiently waiting for his return from who-knows-where. It is high time I faced my fears and lived a little.”
Thomas and Harold checked the baggage in with the skycap and exchanged final notes.
“Don’t worry, Harold, the stallion will be fine. We’ll take very good care of him. You just do what needs to be done and get back home. You’ve given more than your fair share to the world. Now give the rest to Eliza. She has sacrificed her joy these many years in earnest, awaiting your retirement,” implored Thomas, unsettled and hard.
Harold knew that Thomas was right. He had left Eliza home all these years while he went off to distant lands bringing Western knowledge and understanding to primitive cultures. He had asked Eliza once, early in their marriage, to accompany him, but she declined, feigning a complete disinterest, secretly fearing the embarrassment of her plainness and lack of sophistication. As time wore on, she confessed that she merely feared flying over the open ocean or living in primitive and hostile environs. After a while, Harold stopped asking and Eliza’s unsteady health following the miscarriage precluded her from embarking on any such travels.
The flights to Honolulu and to Australia went without incident; the weather was fair and Eliza passed the time reading and holding onto Harold’s strong hands. From Port Moresby they boarded a bush plane that would carry them to the island interior. The plane circled the western edge of the isle of New Britain and Eliza gasped in horror at the devastation below. Trees of every size and thickness were strewn about the ground like toothpicks thrown from a jar; herds of cattle floated in the open fields; and mounds of debris were being gathered and burned at the shoreline. The plane landed on a makeshift runway – a simple clearing really – and deposited the passengers in a field just north of the Mount Hagen foothills.
The plane came to a halt and the door swung open. A thick, heavy air stole Eliza’s breath. “My, how humid it is here, Harold.”
“Yes, my dear Eliza. We must make certain that you are adequately hydrated. The climate here in New Guinea can wrestle the fluids right out of you,” he returned.
A portly gentleman of about forty wearing black, plastic-framed glasses and having thick, brown hair extended his hand as the couple disembarked the tiny plane. He spoke with an accent Eliza found startling, charming and amusing all at once.
“G’day Mr. and Mrs. Allin, so pleesed to see tha’ you ‘ave arroived saefely. Pleese allayow moi men to take your baggage fore you. We ‘ave yore taent prepared and some refreshmeents whyting fore you. Oye amadgin ‘at you wood loike to taike a raest after two daiz o’ trav’lin, ‘ey ‘arold?”
“Yes, Matthew, a nice bit of rest sounds good right about now. Don’t you think so, Eliza?” replied Harold as the men shook hands and embraced.
“Mr. Matthew MacDonougle, please meet my lovely wife, Eliza. Eliza, this is my good friend, Matthew. He is master engineer. The finest on the planet,” said Harold.
Eliza extended her hand and bowed her head slightly. “Why hello, Mr. MacDonougle, Harold has told me many wonderful things about you over the years. I am so glad to make your acquaintance.”
“Oh, do go on ma’am, and you can call me Mac,” he begged and, with that, he bent forward to kiss her hand.
Eliza felt flush.
“He kissed my hand as if I were royalty,” she silently mused.
Eliza’s eyes sparkled and smiled as they walked along a serpentine path leading upward to the encampment.
“ ‘arold, we’ve a challenge a’fore us like none otha’, me boi. ‘ese troibes ‘ave lost a bit more ‘an ‘eir ‘omes, ay’m afraied. Entoier villages swept awaiy. ‘ey were doewnroight luckee to ‘ave maide it to hoi grouwnd, ‘ey were.”
Eliza took it all in: the lush foliage; an astonishing array of plants, land folk, and birds. Waves of color ebbed and rolled while the hypnotic roar of insects, birds and beasts danced through her flesh. It was more that she had envisioned. Her tiny heart pounded furiously, her tender lungs perspired and her consciousness waned.
She awoke staring at the heavy, green cloth of the infirmary tent dazed and delirious. Her eyes, though open, saw an ocean of blurred images violently thrashing about, circling above her head and screaming in her ears. A cacophony of sound and color reverberated in her head like a collective stampede of birds and beasts fleeing a crocodile at one of the isolated watering holes on the plains in the height of an African summer.
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The scent of tangerines floated on a lacey waft of perfume given off by the marigolds, and, with its charming allure, made its way to the barn. Eliza caught scent of the citrusy web and looked up toward the garden. A delicate smile began to form on her lips; her eyes glistened and she quickly fanned out the mash for the Reds before heading to the serenity of the garden.
Nestled among the variety of Cherry trees were snowy-white Easter lilies, velvety African violets, and a rainbow of roses and marigolds; begonias and button willows; and Chinese tea flowers. English roses paraded around the Weeping Cherry whose drooping dolly branches were beginning to bloom. The pink-blossomed Ichiro Cherry, with its luxuriantly broad and green leaves, stood awash in bluebells and bright orange poppies.
Eliza bid them all good morning, whispering softly and coddling gently their tender petals and stems while inhaling their fantastical fragrances.
She made do over the years sitting in the garden reading books and dreaming of the lands and cultures that Harold had visited while under contract with the University of California, first at Berkeley, and later, at Santa Cruz. Eliza would spend many afternoons in the garden dreaming of a multitude of sailing vessels, the vast, haunting Pacific and the joys of meeting elegant people who wore exquisite clothes and dined on exotic dishes. She would gaze through a gap in the rosebushes and out at the Monterey Bay, glimmering in the near distance. On quiet mornings, when the wind was still, she could hear the faint thunder of the waves crashing against the rocks and lapping at the shoreline. She would reminisce of those precious times she and Harold had picnicked on the brisk shores watching sailing boats zigzag in the wind, spying children sending homemade kites dancing high into the air and soaking in the moments when time would slow like the mellow lapping of the wind through the leaves, kissing petals of pink and yellow and blue.
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The next time Eliza woke, she saw Harold and Mac sitting at a makeshift desk conversing and contemplating, looking over maps or photographs or both. Harold was dressed in khakis and a nurse was at the foot of Eliza’s bed cot looking at a watch and writing something on a clipboard. The nurse motioned to Harold and he looked over to Eliza, and, upon seeing her awake, he straightway rose up and walked over to her.
“Well, there’s my pumpkin!” Harold exclaimed. “How do you feel, my dear Eliza?” He continued.
“I’m frightened Harold, really frightened.” she replied in anguish.
“There, there my Dear. You’ve just fell out from exhaustion, what with the plane rides and all. It’s perfectly normal. Not at all unexpected. Why, I, myself have fallen out on a number of occasions. You’ll be up and about in no time.” Harold assured her.
“I’m so sorry, Harold. I didn’t want that people should have to fuss over me.”
“Nonsense.” He replied, “I am sure that your nurse, Miss Susan, welcomes a mild fainting spell every now and again. You rest now for a few more hours and then we will join Mac for dinner. Rest now, my dear.”
Harold squeezed her hand and bent down to kiss her forehead; gazing in her eyes, taking in the delicate features of her skin, observing every nuance on her face – then he kissed her softly, tenderly. Eliza looked into his kind, dark eyes and was soon drifting off to sleep.
Not having any formal training, Eliza was assigned to providing domestic services for the camp administrators and engineers, the doctors and the dignitaries and the guests whom frequented the effort. Every now and again she would be asked to assist in the infirmary whenever the fever ran rampant.
She was especially lonely here, for there were few opportunities to socialize. It was rare that she and Harold joined in any card games, tea gatherings, or campfires. Her days would be filled washing laundry, cleaning tents and chasing stray rodents from the living quarters. Her nights were occupied reading. Her once favorite ‘Letters of Lady Mary Montague’ lost its magic. No longer did the exotic locales hold their appeal. Burnett’s ‘Secret Garden’ began to lose its luster, and ‘Fanny’s Portfolio’ was filed away to lament on the shelf. On the rare occasion when a new book entered camp, Eliza was sure to seek her opportunity to peruse it. Her longing for adventure had not been quieted, but here, in this tropical paradise, her imaginative spirit had met a harsh reality. Seldom did she see Harold before sunset, and frequently did she pine for the sweet fragrances of her tea garden and the crisp, cool breezes coming off of the Monterey Bay. She wondered of the Morgan, and the Reds, and the Cashmeres. The letters from Emily did nothing to satisfy her thirst for home. Inwardly, she despaired her decision to come. After all, Harold was having all of the adventure out in the field while she was laboring over laundry and cooking over open fires, not to mention the squalid heat and tempestuous monsoons that occasioned in winter.
Once a day the helicopters would bring in supplies from Cairns, on the northern coast of Australia, and Eliza would help sort out and distribute the materials among the stations within the camp. Most mornings a troop of workers would hike or ride out to the field immediately after breakfast, which routinely consisted of coconut milk and biscuits. Some days they would pack a hearty lunch to tide them over until they could enjoy a more conventional dinner at dusk. Most other days, they would eat lunch out in the field with the natives. Every Sunday there would be a chapel service prior to a scrumptious brunch of fresh fruits, roasted pork, eggs, and coffee.
Throughout the day, Eliza would hear the cawing of toucans and parrots and the screams of countless other bird species. There were times when the cacophony was so fierce, it sounded like a train wreck in the treetops. At night, crickets, mosquitoes, and a plethora of unknown voices poked through the pitch-black night, serenading the folk with ebbing waves of wonder and the solemn songs of survival.
■ ■ ■
In the house, Eliza gathered up the soiled linens, bedclothes and stockings. Making her way out to the wash basin behind the barn, tears began to well up in her eyes. She pulled and scrubbed at the laundry barely noticing if she were making progress in cleaning them or no. Her heart was heavy and she felt she could bear no more. Why had she not insisted sooner?
She walked across the yard and made her way to the clothesline. The bed sheets waved in the wind like the mainsails and jibs of ocean-going vessels dancing and darting over the waves off to the islands of the South Pacific. Eliza fell to her knees and bawled.
The scent of tangerines filled the air as storm clouds formed in the mountains to the south of Cannery Row. A breeze had picked up and the sky was quickly turning an ominous black and gray. Eliza would have to hurry if she were going to get the laundry in before the rains came pelting down or the wind whipped it off the lines. She raced into the house and then out to the barn to secure the animals. The goats and the Reds had already made their way into the barn, but the Morgan had disappeared. He was not in the field. Eliza looked all through the property and did not find the stallion anywhere. On the northwestern corner of the farm, it appeared that the fence had been damaged. Perhaps the horse was somehow spooked and had jumped the rail.
The wind began to howling and the rain was beating down pummeling the soil like a herd of elephants; thunder began to bang in her head and lightning lit up the farm like the hand of God striking a match against the sky. After securing the barn and checking for the Morgan one final time, she turned in toward the house and locked her self in. Quickly, Eliza secured the windows, taking the casserole down from the kitchen sill, and prepared to ride out the storm in the quiet of the great room, sitting by the fireplace with the afghan covering her legs while she ate alone reading herself to sleep.
The following morning Eliza went outside and surveyed the damage that had been done to the farm by the wind and the rain. Eliza gasped at the devastation the storm had wrought. The ground was saturated and resembled a collection of tide pools, except that the waters were steeped in a color of orange, yellow and gold; lacey pink and purple; velvety blue and snowy-white. The flowers had been stripped of their plumage. Twigs and branches were strewn about the ranch like straw thrown from a tornado. Piles of debris collected under the watering troth, alongside the barn and throughout the rose bushes and hedges.
Eliza’s mind immediately went to the Morgan. Could he have possibly survived such a menacing squall? She resolved to go out and find him as soon as she looked in on the Reds and the Cashmeres, making certain they were okay.
Once inside the house, she dressed in her riding gear and gathered up a basket stuffed full of fresh foods. She assembled a small crate of gallon jugs of fresh water in case the stallion, when she found him, might have suffered from thirst. She placed into the truck all the essential items she may need in order to bring the Morgan back safely: a lasso, the plain harness, a blanket, and, just in case, she placed the blinders down on the floor on the passenger’s side.
Driving north, she searched the entire valley west of the Salinas River. She asked neighbors and strangers alike praying that someone had taken the stallion in and sheltered him. The answer was a flat ‘no,’ no one had seen him. The man on the radio advised listeners to stay indoors and not go out unless positively, absolutely necessary. ‘Last nights conditions were expected to give a repeat performance.’
Her tiny heart pounded furiously, her tender lungs perspired, but her resolve grew in strength.
The truck was running low on fuel and she would have to head back to town and fill the dual tanks. The sun slid, hiding behind a gray blanket of cumulous, thundering clouds.
While at the gas station, Eliza inquired of the horse. Again, the answers were ‘no,’ no one had seen the bay Morgan. She headed north on River Ranch Road. There was little chance that the stallion would have crossed the river or the highway, so she began to scan the cliffs and beaches north toward Salinas. She was certain to spot the bay if he were among the fields of artichoke, or brussel sprouts or broccoli. The only places of limited sight, where she could not see, were at the dunes behind the scrub brush, and that would have provided some shelter for him.
Eliza put the truck in park and walked through the pungent fields, over a slight embankment, and to the shore’s edge. The wind was strong and fresh. The waves climbed high onto the rocks and sprayed thirty feet into the air. The shoreline was being pounded by ravaging walls of yellow-white foam and blue-green gloves scooping up all manner of shells, seaweed and driftwood. The magnificence was captivatingly beautiful, horrifyingly rich and yet mesmerizing and serene all the same.
■ ■ ■
Eliza was hanging the bedclothes and mosquito nets dreaming of the sailboats on Monterey Bay and picnicking with Harold, when the deafening thunder of the helicopters rung overhead and crushed in her ears. It seemed odd for them to be arriving at this hour of the day. The supplies had been delivered this morning just after the sun washed the sky in a fresh coat of purple, then orange, then gold and blue. A cadre of workers had left for the field an hour later and the luminaries from the United Health Organization were not due to grace the camp for a week. What could possibly be the reason for the helicopters visiting?
A crowd of doctors and nurses began to swarm at the landing area. Hands and arms were waving in the air hysterically; people were shouting to each other, yelling out instructions under the rotating blades of the helicopters; and as she returned a pillowcase to the wicker basket, she spied men coming from the infirmary carrying stretchers and medicine boxes. She saw the disfigured faces of people horrified and then she saw Mac climbing down from one of the helicopter’s platforms. Even from this distance she could see the painful look on his face. When their eyes met, something deep inside Eliza groaned, and time came to a crashing halt.
She felt a tugging at her chest. She felt her face go warm and flush, she felt her ears begin to ring incessantly. A nagging sound crawled up from the base of her spine, tortured her tingling neck and fell out of her mouth onto the thick, squalid air. In the deafening silence, her world went black.
■ ■ ■
She drove about and combed the shores for another two hours before finding him trapped in a cove, at the foot of a stunted cliff, no more than fifteen feet above the waters. The tide was rising and the shoreline was quickly disappearing beneath his hooves. Eliza called out to the bay, but her shrill voice would not compete with the fierce ocean winds.
Hesitating a moment, she stood in a silent stupor, taking it all in.
The Morgan did not appear spooked or anxious, but rather, he stood facing the beastly waters, holding his head high and neighing, as if he were talking to the gods of the South Pacific, staring off into the far horizon.
Scanning the cove, Eliza found a pair of routes she might take to reach the bay and ride him out. She raced back to the truck and returned with the harness and a basketful of carrots, cabbage and apples. She surveyed the path and eagerly made her way down the embankment to the shore and approached the stallion calmly, deliberately – talking to him as if he understood her every word. Setting down the basket, she gazed up at him and looked into is kind, dark eyes. In the deafening silence his eyes took in every delicate nuance of her tear-covered face, as if he shared every loving thought that rolled down her cheeks. He nuzzled her tears, snorted, and then beckoned her to follow.