How We Met the Barbarians
by Elizabeth J. Colen


There are horses in the distance. Say so.

There are nine lives spread out over a loamy, flooded beach. Which ones will we choose? Driftwood logs and large downed trees rumble as they knock together in the shallow surf. We skate across as the light fades blue and fire fills the sky. I wet my shoe when I slip. You laugh as I dip the other on purpose. Life about balance.

It’s the fourth of July, and we’ve been dating one week. It’s been one week since I kissed you. Sitting in your strange abode, cold tile floor beneath us, backs against the bed, the fire just started. Backs against the bed because you have no furniture but the bed and to sit there might mean something else, might mean too quickly. It’s been one week since, on this beach, the tide lower, the tide not dangerous in the half-light the way it is now, bursts of light breaking over us, while we compete for who is less scared, who will be the last to say, yes, let’s turn back now, one week since I saw the constellation of freckles on your exposed abdomen as you stretched out on a warm, white log.

The moment I thought, I could love her.

And, maybe I already do.


There’s a moment in every movie where the theme becomes apparent.


We stand looking at each other, both with eyes filled. My eyes have sadness, I fear yours hold frustration, anger, still. We’ve come too far for honest answers. I have no right any longer to ask. I want to cross the street. To get as far away from you as possible. If we can’t have this anymore I want none of it. Crosswalk stripes white thick and rolling under my feet.


I think I wanted to—

That moment in Sans Soleil when the girl looks directly at the camera, a flirtation of sorts. Who holds the power then?


There are horses in the distance, not running, smoke-still.


I think I wanted to move through all the stages of grief before we called it. Before we said, yes, this isn’t working anymore. Before the boxes and the lawyers and the post-it notes because talking burns our throats and eyes.

I watch the deer eat new shoots in the side yard, five of them, mottled with spring taking their thick fur, bad haircuts on all of them. Deer like a still life in the side yard when they catch me watching, all five necks craned to show all ten eyes black and wet. Time builds itself painlessly around them.

Not running yet. The idea of To run.

Then my dog barks and they split, three in one direction, two in the other, pause, then sensing the danger is irritating, but not imminent, they turn and leave all together, sprinting up the desire path into deeper woods.


Spring, when the young bucks separate themselves visually with velvet stumps of antler. What was once and will be.


There was that time in the desert we watched the wild horses. Both of us having forgotten to look for them. And then there they were. Raw brown against the red landscape. The sound of their hooves deep, thudding, of heartbreak, necessity.


The deer in the side yard eat everything, bulbs planted by previous homeowners try each year, but get chewed back to nubs. Then the rabbits appear. Black rabbits blanket the neighborhood. Where did they come from?

Velvet stump itchy on one deer, he rubs his forehead on tree bark, then his neck circles back to nip at uneven fur as it unravels. He shakes the excess off and it rises, catches light.

The horses stomp.

“Why do they do that?” you say. And I, not knowing, make something up on the spot, something plausible if I want to keep you close. Something ridiculous if I want you closer.

It is a thing you once liked about me. How I build the world around me, then fill in the facts and details later.

The house sold two weeks ago and no one has lived there in some time. It closes in two more weeks. I drive over to scatter ashes, to watch the deer, to exhaust myself with yard work I’ll never see the end results of, to let my dog bury and rebury things in the yard, as is her habit when life feels uncomfortable.

“Take it with you,” I tell her when we leave. “We won’t be back.”

Her nose is caked with dried mud and she looks stupidly at me. She knows a lot, knows leaving too, but not these words. “Go get it,” I say. And she unearths a ball from a stand of rhodies, drops it at my feet.

Not running but getting ready to run.


Once I sat in the backyard so long waiting for something I needed to know to appear in the trees, staring at the trees, waiting, book in hand, not reading, staring. Once I waited so long that when I returned to the book a spider, unseen, had attached a thread of webbing from the corner of the book to a low branch of the closest tree. The thread trembled in the soft movement of air, caught the light so brilliantly I started to sob.

There are NO horses in the distance, but say so.

I didn’t know what to do. To get up? To break the thread? Or wait for night to fall, for the cold to leave me no choice but to abandon the chance that she would come back to finish what she had started.

			There is smoke,
			or a fog that, from this distance,
			is any number of horses, not running.

(This essay borrows its title from Carl Phillips’s poem of the same name as well as a few lines from Carl Phillips’s poem “On Restraint.”)

Packingtown Review – Vol.10, Spring 2018

Elizabeth J. Colen is most recently the author of What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems. Other books include poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition, fiction collaboration Your Sick, and the forthcoming fiction collaboration True Ash. Nonfiction editor at Tupelo Press and freelance editor/manuscript consultant, she teaches at Western Washington University.