Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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Watchful, she held down the sand, back to the sea and flanks golden with sun. Against the slate of early sky, her warm brown coat cut a clean line. Her foal sat before her, legs folded and tucked beneath him.

I hadn't seen them at first. With the sun low and the breeze fair, I had trained my eyes on the Atlantic and the children in it, children I had responsibility for. They shrieked and giggled as they tumbled through the waves, their silhouettes lost now and then in the light that danced and played on the water. We had nearly the entire beach to ourselves, with most campers still beyond the dune sleeping, rekindling a campfire, or frying up some bacon on the Coleman stove. The waves curled and smashed, and the children ran toward and from them like plovers. I stared out at the strata of blues, pale and deep, sea and sky.

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter. See more of Jerry's work at

On Assateague Island and neighboring Chincoteague, wild horses roam freely, seasoned stock dating back to the colonial era. Whether or not the story is true, that the first herd swam to the island after a shipwreck, their descendants are considered royalty. They define the islands and go where they like, wandering into campsites, walking the road's double yellow line, resting on the beach, glancing at tourists with casual indifference. Because it's one of the few places you can still see wild horses in this country, they have a forty-foot restraining order.

One of the children, hair slicked and dripping, ran up to towel off and pointed out the mare and her baby. I turned and saw them, a good fifty yards away. A sweet sight, majestic and maternal. We had been fortunate on this trip; the horses had congregated on the beach in a way I had never seen in all my visits to the island. They lounged and rolled in the sand, relaxed and lazy, sauntering up the dune at sunset. They stood statuesque, staring into the wind for long minutes as it whipped and twirled their manes and tails.

It was a matter of space, I suppose. We had arrived just two weeks before the annual pony swim across the Chesapeake, a fundraiser that thins the herds, the very swim that countless children have taken vicariously while turning the pages of Misty of Chincoteague, following the untamable Phantom and her foal.

Perhaps the book remains a classic because the beauty of horses is not lost on children. The children I brought lost interest soon enough, but I never weary of the sight or the idea of these animals. There is magic in sharing a stretch of sand with them, something pure and Edenic. I might have a sliver of The Misfits' Roslyn Taber in me, filled to overflowing with the need to see horses be horses, for wild things to stay wild and free things to stay free. At least here no one is harnessing, hunting, or harming these creatures, and in their freedom, I find some of my own.

I had brought three children on the brink of adolescence to the island for their first camping trip. In my suburban DC neighborhood, these children, and others, are often left unsupervised in dark houses, told not to go outside or wander past the chain link fence. They kick around frayed, deflated soccer balls. They supplement irregular meals with what they buy at one of the ice cream trucks that circle like sharks. Parents spend long days beneath cars or behind industrial floor scrubbers for dollars an hour, the only jobs they can get without degrees or fluency in English. The children are hit with hands, spoons, belts. They are called fat, stupid, lazy. They are behind in reading, telling time, tying shoes. Mostly they are ignored.

The children are, however, allowed at my house, and they come nearly every day, perhaps because I believe children should be enjoyed. They come, and they bring their cousins, their friends, and the kids their mothers are supposed to be babysitting. I give them the key to my shed, which holds balls, Frisbees, and jump ropes. I feed them now and then, and let them insert pennies into my broken gumball machine, which might withhold or spit out the motherlode. We do creek walks and Target runs, and when I feel brave, I haul them through monuments and museums.

I have no children. The first husband left to have a baby with someone else. The second pulled the plug on adoption, twice. I have been trying to adopt a pair of sisters for a couple of years, but despite the legion of children waiting for their forever family, I still find myself motherless. Attempting comfort, people tell me that I am mothering these little neighbors. I smile politely and nod.

But I do feel nearly as invested in these neighborhood kids as if they were mine, and I'm after them with the kind of worry that knots my stomach. I fear their world is poked through with holes as they wrap themselves seductively around a pole or, during a game of dodge ball, toss around hateful words: bitch, nigger. I fear their world is too small, lacking the possibility of a future in which they do what they love and are made for, unafraid. I patch and stretch with abandon, knowing all the while that it's a hack job.

So I brought these kids to Assateague. I wanted them to feel the tug of a blue crab claw on their line, to play on a beach where the only music comes from the gulls and the brush of the tide. I wanted them to stack wood into a pyre and light it, to roast hot dogs plump and sweaty, to stare up at a smear of stars. I wanted them to glimpse what lies beyond the fence.

We had badly pitched an old tent, and after whispering scary stories, the children faded into sleep. I lay awake, listening carefully to one child's quiet wheezing, the flapping tarp, the popping of gentle rain on the roof. Beneath it all, the breathy hum of the surf rose and fell.

Sometime after dawn, I had shuffled to the shower, where I rinsed off beneath an icy trickle the gummy coating of sand, smoke, and bug spray, then pulled on a clean t-shirt and pair of shorts. Now I sat watching the children, who had refueled on Pop Tarts and adrenaline. Every couple of minutes, as they flitted between me and the water, I looked over my shoulder. The foal had eased into a morning nap in his mother's shadow, lying on his side, but she stayed put, keeping watch. Then a horse appeared on the dune above: a white stallion with deep brown spots and a fleshy pink muzzle. Her lover. They had tussled in the campsite earlier, some whinnying and pawing, nothing serious. Now the mare swished her tail and stomped her back foot every few seconds, her gaze straight and unyielding. The foal slept, unaware.

The ranger said it was a spat, no different from that of any couple. The silent treatment, the don't-you-even-think-about-it treatment. The kind where the husband sleeps on the sofa. They locked in this standoff for a good 30 minutes.


Brown and white thundered in tandem, a family reunited and strong. I forgot my voice as I stared down the mare, all wild glory. She stared back, her dark eyes radiant and wide. I saw no malice, but she was coming, coming fast, coming now.


The kids ran up and dropped onto their towels, recounting their exploits with monster waves. I listened, smiled, commented. When I turned to look at the mare, something moved in the corner of my eye. The stallion. He was trotting down the dune toward the mare and the foal. When he reached them, they, having apparently resolved their differences, joined him in a gallop with a single fluid motion. Of all the directions they could have gone, they chose northeast: straight up the coast and straight at us.

Their manes flew, and their hooves, faintly rumbling above the breakers, sprayed sand in their wake. Bobbing rhythmically, their heads strained toward some unknown point. Every muscle and sinew radiated raw power, a power that enveloped me within the space of a breath. My mind thickened into a single thought: surely they will change course.

They did not change course. It had become a game of chicken. Slowly I stood. The commentary started up in the back of my head, muffled and distant, running like a string of Morse Code: they are coming they are coming they are coming surely they will change course they must change course. The children beneath me sat, stupefied. Every decision depended upon where the horses would go. If I knew, I could push the children the other way. But I didn't, and I couldn't, and still the horses charged.

Brown and white thundered in tandem, a family reunited and strong. I forgot my voice as I stared down the mare, all wild glory. She stared back, her dark eyes radiant and wide. I saw no malice, but she was coming, coming fast, coming now.

Relentlessly they surged. I must have stopped breathing, stopped blinking. The horses blurred into one force, eclipsing sand and sky. In an instant they would break our bodies. Legs would bend and snap. Skulls would knock against one another, brains sloshing like water in a basin. Crushed ribs would puncture lungs and mouths would fill with silent sandy screams—

Then, air.

A gust of air brushed my arms, neck, face, lifting the hair from my forehead. The horses were rushing past us, the mare and her baby on one side and the stallion on the other. I followed the wind, turning to see the horses reunite and continue down the beach. They left us within a ring shaped like an eye, the margin no longer than my forearm.

I looked down at the children, who suddenly seemed smaller than their years. They were still sitting, still dripping, and yet changed. They had faced off wild horses and won, but their uneasy grins betrayed how close we had come to a different ending. I felt the need to explain my inaction, but they seemed to know there was nothing to be done. Minutes later they were ten and twelve again. Two of them, content with the is instead of rehashing the might have been, forgot soon enough, distracted by the waves. The third kept saying they were right thereRight there.

I do not know why the horses charged at us while we sat, nor do I know why they shifted course just as they reached us. I have read a few lines here and there about equines who feel threatened, who take the easier path, but I believe that those horses charged to protect their child, and that they stopped because they believed I was protecting mine.

Guilt accuses me of endangering, not protecting, those children by slipping between them and disaster only my body and a flimsy faith. If anything had happened to them, I would not have been able to live with myself. To lose a child is one thing. To lose someone else's child is a pain I cannot begin to imagine.

I analyze from the standpoint of the motherless: I stood, but did not run. I did not mold myself into a shield or shove the children out of the way. No conscious prayers ushered from my lips. I did not holler at the horses, did not holler anything at all. Yet my body knew what to do.

Wordlessly, the horses spoke to one another, fusing their wills into single action with mystical precision. They just knew what to do.

I wonder now whether my instinct to stand was that of a mother, whether that's what saved us. Did the horses watch me stand, survey the little ones behind me, and recognize that I love those children with the same ferocity with which they watch over theirs? Did my eyes and ears convey the single thought in my mind, that they would change course, that the stories of the children in my care would not end this day in blood and fear? And did they understand me because I stood firm, just as the mare had when facing down the stallion and racing toward me, foal at her heels?

I think perhaps they did.

Wendy Bilen teaches full-time at the women’s college of Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC. She is thrilled to say she is now an adoptive mom of two tween girls.

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Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter. See more of Jerry's work at

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