by Robert Marshall

(For V.L. Hartmann) 

I took care of Johnny’s horses. Johnny cared about them, and so he’d come and watch me, and it wasn’t possible for me not to imagine that he cared for me too. In part, at least, because we shared an object of affection. Perhaps love is always a three way—but the third must be an object. When another subject enters, that’s when the trouble . . . Of course horses are both . . .  Johnny would sit on a stool and watch, a quiet man/boy. Now and then he wore eyeliner. Perhaps he’d come from rehearsals. Sometimes he’d ask questions. The horses had only the normal horse problems. There was fungus, of course, and there were infections. And muscular skeletal problems, nothing out of the ordinary, easily taken care of, and the horses were patient, and so was Johnny.

I knew, though, that he’d come for more. This is often the case. They do not want to say it at first. We’ll talk about many other things, but it comes out. It came out: he did not feel he was connecting with his horse. To connect to his horse would also be to connect with me, this I knew. He knew I was a whisperer, though of course he hardly knew what this meant. He wanted my advice. Could he be initiated, I wondered? Should he be? I would be cautious: that’s our code. You can not reveal the true nature of whispering, not all at once. Slowly, if they are ready . . . We went out on the track. Several times. Now it seems like many, but it was likely just a few. We walked down the pine-lined path, past which the pond at moments shone. I wondered what other connection he desired, and what I desired. Due to my role, and the modest difference in age between us (we were both much younger then), I was cautious. I knew there would be time, though not what would be in it. It is a container, we’re inside, it’s not a thing which passes. We would, we did pass the fern grove, and came to the track. The grass just brushed by the dawn’s dew. I began, as gently as possible, to show him how to whisper. It is, in truth, a matter of harsh discipline. Most know this only vaguely. I believed he had it in him, I mean I felt it in my bones, my nerves, the way that I know their hearts—the horses'. I think I was then at the height of my powers (as one often is just before one receives recognition) and shared them—carefully—with him. I knew he was grateful. I wasn’t so sure of my own feelings. Whatever they were, I pushed them down, kept them in check. As if they were horses.

But there was another presence we were both aware of. Mrs. Depp. Out in the parking lot. In the Oldsmobile, pine-shaded, waiting.

Soon he would have to leave. I wondered what Mrs. Depp was thinking, while she waited if Johnny had told her I was a whisperer, what she knew about whispering, if this had wounded or angered her . . . I wondered what she imagined, as I imagine we all wonder what others imagine: I believe this is the world. I’d only glimpsed her. Never had we spoken. Johnny had to go. I sat quietly, then, with ------. For contractual reasons, I cannot reveal his horse’s name. Let’s call her “Dapple.” Then I could hear, piercing the barn the way shafts of light always do in stories with barns, their shouting, Mrs. Depp’s and Johnny’s.

One day I heard the shouting, and then he came running. He did not stop at the barn. What had happened? What had she said? What had he? He ran toward the pond. He passed the track, the pine trees and the ferns. For a moment he stood, plank still. He fell into the pond. Or jumped. The frogs were disturbed. There is a thin line between falling and jumping. Or no line. We have many verbs but far from enough. The emergency vehicles came. This of course disturbed the horses.

After the incident, Johnny came no more.  I wondered if he would contact me. If he needed to talk, if she would let him. The strength of my regret surprised me, though I did not know what I could have done differently. Along cantered time (or I in it). Sometimes dreams disturbed me. Dreams of “Dapple.” I knew full well what they meant, then—though now I’m not sure I can put it together. What had been beneath the surface of the pond? Wet darkness behind mirrors. Put such thoughts away. My career took me around the world. Try to live. I met princes whom I cannot name. I whispered to their horses. I stayed in their palaces. I lived. Horses had been my entrance into the whispering world, but in time I came to whisper more widely: to Lamas, concubines, dromedaries, advisors, sheep. I used assumed names. I had to. Regimes and fashions changed and I was less in demand. This was in a sense a relief. Sometimes I would read about Johnny. I wondered if he’d made use of our lessons. I wondered if he thought about me at all. To say I was happy for him would be to use an inadequate expression.

On “rode” time. I came to work on a ranch, “The Mirage,” near Vegas. An investor’s. Once again, I cannot say who (or give the real name of his ranch). One day I received an invitation to a party.  A limousine came to pick me up. We drove silently past cacti, wrecked cars. The sun set. Ahead, the lights of despair. I rolled down the window, breathed the desert air. Then we arrived. Having lived in the Emirates, no hotel can surprise me. This one had aquariums. They were enormous, wall size: we were in their light. Large monitors overhead, text trotting across them. And now and then images. I had, per the invitation, worn blue. It took no time to realize that the top people “in the industry” were there. The close to the top people too. I was not a part of this hierarchy. But I knew. Johnny was there; I’d seen the tabloids, put the pieces together, and guessed—more than guessed—that he would be. He had changed, but not so much. I don’t remember if Mrs. Depp was present. Perhaps there is a reason for this. Perhaps not. Entropy and suppression are hard to distinguish. Had Johnny sent for me because he needed help? Was there something he wanted to tell me? I would bide my time, observe.  Johnny had, I soon understood, several managers. The division of responsibility was too complex, I judged. Perhaps this was why I’d been brought in. I had some other surmises. The managers, the whole entourage, they all wore blue. Different shades. Indigo. Cobalt. Cerulean. Did this indicate something? Electric eels swam past. I sat down in the booth with the others. No mention of Dapple or horses. Chat about pirates and politics. I looked in Johnny’s eyes. I could not tell what they said. Perhaps they said . . . Something terrible flashed on the monitors. The text began to gallop, there were images of smoke. Yellow smoke, green smoke, gray smoke. Terrorism? It took a moment for the conversation about the Caribbean to come to a halt.  One of the women in the entourage — people were standing, and sitting, around the booth—said we should drive out to the desert. Urgency in her voice. She was blonde, muscular. Johnny seemed uncertain. Perhaps he’d not yet let go of other plans. (This is natural in a crisis.) Perhaps he didn’t want to drive out to the desert, didn’t trust her. In memory (where all of which we can speak resides), it’s difficult to know whether I, on my own, didn’t want to go to the desert, or whether this was a way of showing closeness to Johnny. Or was it the other way around? Did he sense I did not want to go? Was he trying to reflect my feelings? Did I matter in this picture at all? I desired a connection, the kind we’d had in the barn, which had come about so easily, without machinations, so long ago. Perhaps we were both reluctant to leave a hotel with a wonderful aquarium. I kept many thoughts to myself. A dispute unfolded at the table between two of the managers. The blonde woman, in ultramarine, wanted to go, and another manager, a Joel Gray type, in a blue-gray suit, did not. I wondered if Johnny knew which of his managers managed what. The blonde prevailed.  We would go, five to a car. I had not spoken to the fifth, an elderly woman, in cobalt, white-haired, stern-eyed. I accepted this arrangement. I said I would go up to my room. I needed my sweater. I knew about the desert nights. Johnny, too, got up. He followed me; he wanted a sweater too. Maybe he didn’t want a sweater. Maybe he wanted to talk. My position was not what it had been. I had to let him initiate . . . I went to the coat check, he to his room. I’ll see you in the car, he said.

I moved quickly, but with some deliberation, glancing briefly into the mini-bar. The drive could be long. I found my sweater. Out the window, I could see explosions. Perhaps merely fireworks? I hurried to the elevator. It was slow to come. Which made sense if this was the end of the world. I reached the parking lot. I saw the four of them, Johnny, the blonde, Joel Gray, the white-haired woman, as it pulled away.

There have been many losses in my life. Although I could simplify them in the telling, subtract the peculiar colors, the complex and strange elements, so that you could understand--or think you did--some have been, in truth, specific, peculiar, as hard to convey as to fathom.

Robert Marshall is the author of the novel A Separate Reality, published by Carroll & Graf in 2006. His work has appeared in Salon, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Waxwing, Eclectica, Ducts, Alembic, Event and numerous other publications. He is the recipient of the 2016 Hazel Rowley Prize for his biography-in-progress of Carlos Castaneda. A visual artist as well as a writer, his artwork has been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe. His work can be found on his website: