Off the Shelf: Rider at the Gate

Right now, I think I have at least four books going, two on my bedside table, that I’m reading before falling asleep and four in my office, two of which I need to read for work, one which I started on a day off this summer and never finished, and one which I put there because that’s where I meditate. Only one of all these books is fiction, a mystery.

And this morning, while I was meditating, I thought of another book I love. I feel like one of those women who has a dozen lovers on a string. (Are there really women like this? And are they as happy as the movies want us to think they are?) The book I was thinking about while meditating was C.J. Cherryh’s Rider at the Gate (and, to be truthful, the sequel, Cloud’s Rider).

When I was growing up, we would have called these books Science Fiction because Fantasy felt like something with Wizards or Faerie. Now they call them Fantasy because there’s no science involved, other than the premise that the people living on this world came there by spaceship, which is only alluded to as an event in the distant past, the way we think about the Mayflower.

This world that this colony of humans has come to feels like earth – like the Rockies in the late 1800s, to be specific. But don’t be fooled. The creatures of this planet are connected via a telepathic web – I’m not even sure telepathic is the right word, perhaps telempathic. They are aware of each other’s presence, see through each other’s eyes sometimes, transmit thoughts in pictures to each other. Imagine being a mouse and feeling the presence of a cat, the cat’s hunger and predator instincts, and then seeing the cat seeing you just before it pounces.

The humans are outside this web, unable to feel the other animals safely, overwhelmed by the feelings, certain as the first pictures come flooding in that they are going mad. And vulnerable to the many predators of this world. One of whom, drawn to the rich human psyche with all it’s strange thoughts and obsessions, decides to adopt them.

The humans call these creatures horses and choose to ride and treat them like horses, but they aren’t horses. They’re predators who often hunt and kill small animals and eat them. But they are horses for the bonds that they share with humans and for the way they pick up on and magnify human emotions.

The first book follows Danny, a young man who rides a horse named Cloud. Danny is immature, he grew up in an abusive home in the inner city where the righteous live, protected not just by the city walls that distance themselves from the wilderness with all the beasts that inflict their desires on people but by the riders that make that distance possible. It’s unusual for Danny to have become a rider and he has none of the skills that a rider would have – none of the wilderness survival skills or experience of riding through the wilderness, none of the skills needed to manage his emotions which are so surface, so transparent that he’s vulnerable to any other rider. An older man, sympathetic to his plight, takes pity on him one afternoon and gives him some basic advice about gear and his horse. When this older man gets into some kind of mysterious trouble later, Danny wants to help him and soon finds himself deep in the wilderness and in way over his head.

This book, to me, is so clearly about meditation. The horses are our thoughts, running away with us, magnifying our thoughts back at us, leading us into a deep feedback loop that causes us to be unaware of what is going on around us. A simple thought – what’s that noise – triggers fear which feeds back to us and sends our thoughts racing: why am I feeling fear? What if he’s out to get me? Echoed back as rage: I should get him before he gets me! And then carried between the horses to the other people until they’re all in one big overwhelm of emotion.

The other riders in the books – even the bad riders, the ones with bad intentions, out to use Danny or careless of his death, the ones out to lie to and steal from his hero, give Danny the same advice: you have to get control of your horse. You have to get control of yourself. Settle your thoughts down. Stay cool.

When Danny is cool, he pictures his horse’s name as Clouds Reflected in Water, a peaceful reflection, calm, the water unrippled. And he finds that his emotions don’t run away with him, that his horse doesn’t send pictures to the other horses and they to the men he hides from. He gains power.

When Danny lets his teenaged emotions run away with him, Cloud is dark storm clouds scudding across the sky, a portent of lightning and the kind of rain that falls so hard it hurts.

Every time I read this book I fall in love with it anew. I love stories set in new worlds, where people must figure out how to make a place for themselves among the native alien fauna. People often compare space operas to Westerns – think Episode 4, the early part so obviously influenced by a fare of childhood Westerns – but this book is literally a Western. You could pick up any of these characters and drop them into Unforgiven or The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly or Gunsmoke – until you get into the high mountains where the women have a little more power to live free than they are given in Hollywood Westerns.

But it’s still the meditative aspect that comes back to me – usually when I am supposed to be meditating. My thoughts scud across the sky, dark and ominous, and a voice says to me, “Calm water. Clouds on calm water. Clouds reflecting on the water, big cumulous clouds in a blue sky, lying peacefully on the surface of the water.”

And I become calm.

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