Equine self-mutilation syndrome is a condition involving a repetitive and seemingly dysfunctional sequence of movements. An otherwise normal horse could develop a habit of biting herself from flank to shoulder to chest. Another otherwise normal horse could start shaking her head repeatedly, as if to say no no no to whatever distresses her. Though self-injurious, “the performance of a stereotypy, no matter what the initial precipitating cause, is self- rewarding.” Stereotypies have been associated with a variety of factors, such as excitement, stress, boredom, and the scent of poop or piss.
A few years ago I developed the habit of grinding my teeth. A committee would call it bruxism. My mom noticed this when we shared a hotel room in Colma. “You grind your teeth,” she said as we ate breakfast. I stopped eating and looked at her. I didn’t know what it sounded like, so I looked it up. A woman recorded her husband grinding his teeth in his sleep. It is the worst sound a human can make.
I sit in front of a building and watch who opens the door for strangers. “She is nice,” I say, when she extends her arm to keep the door pried open. She is not a horse. “He is nice,” I say, when he opens the door for others before he walks in. He is not a horse. I can’t stop.
Colma, a short BART ride from San Francisco, is popularly known as the “City of Souls.” With most of its land dedicated to cemeteries, the population of the dead exceeds the town’s living population. I know exactly what it feels like to live among the dead. My job is to talk to the dead. My job is to undo the living.
Major was a horse tired of life. For Major, the inclination for self-mutilation evolved into attempts to end. From the railway, a dead lighthouse. Past the billets of azaleas, the trestle bridge. Here, Major attempted for the first time. Though he understood the physics of falling, he tripped and caught his hind legs on the trestle’s latticework. He hung like a hinged apple until someone saw the black mass curling and uncurling like a beckoning finger. It took two hours to lower Major into the river and return him to his stall.
Sometimes I hear so many hooves, I lose my way back home.
Major tried again. He was found in his stall with his halter wound around his throat. He was half dead, with a wrecked blood vessel in his neck. They brought him back again. To leave and be brought back is considered to be lucky. Luck is nothing but an empty canteen in a winding trail of escapes and returns.
In my teeth is a city of souls, scratching to escape and neigh. There are no known causes for bruxism, but many cite stress as a factor. “Did I grind my teeth last night?” I ask my partner.
“Was it bad?” I try to do it when I’m awake and I fail. The pressure required to mill molars against each other for even the slightest audibility is too difficult to reenact. I floss out bones and watch histories trample out. I ate too many horses on my way here.