Showpony wrestled himself from the matted hay, exhaled a cloud of steam and walked to the door. The rolling morning mist rose two feet off the dew-tipped grass which meant the ground was warm, like him. But across 81 behind the mountains, the sky was pigeon gray and hung low like a wet sheet on the clothesline. It told him snow was coming, and his legs ached from the wetness already. He’d seen so many winters. Thunder was already half- across the field, his head submerged in a bit of short frosty clover.
The Rockbridge County school bus clamored down the farm lane, past a herd of snoozing Herefords. Its axels bouncing and squeaking over the pot holed road, which propelled the schoolchildren into the crisp wintry air. Showpony followed his worn path to the fence to see if Man was inside the house eating breakfast; after that, his grain would come. He never tired of thinking of the soft molasses laiden grain and the way it felt on his nose and whiskers in the bucket. Thunder looked up from his grass, ears forward. The kitchen light was on and Man was drinking his coffee and reading the paper. The flash of the black and white television screen was across the room. It was what Man did every morning, but he took longer in the winter. Soon Showpony would hear the rusty ache of the barn door sliding open, and Man would enter and reemerge with two metal buckets of grain. The waiting was difficult on cold mornings like this, and Showpony stomped his foot and exhaled.
“You said a double-latte, miss?” the pretty Starbucks server with cayenne pepper hair asked. “What else?” Caroline eyed the almond biscotti in the cup by the cash register.
“Just the latte, thanks.”
The department meeting was in twenty minutes. She didn’t need the crumbs stuck in her teeth while trying to ask an astute question pertaining to hot stock options. Nodding, she paid with her Starbuck’s gift card and rushed into the stream of commuters making their way down snowy LaSalle Street. The Chicago wind sliced through any nook or cranny of one’s clothes with laser precision. The lake in the distance was ice capped and sullen. She felt her eyeballs freezing, her vision blurred, and although she had no sensation, knew mascara was dripping down her cheeks. Cowering against the stiff wind, she looked down and watched her boots trudge through fresh-fallen snow when suddenly and hypnotically, her boots became as hooves. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. The memories came in between the intermittent stress of life, which seldom paused. The cadence of her feet took on a slow trot; onetwo, onetwo, onetwo…. And she recalled cantering up the driveway as a child; onetwothree, onetwothree, onetwothree. And then the jump; one-two-three-boom. He almost felt her hands against Showpony’s withers, braced and ready for takeoff. He was so reliable. He never dumped her- not once. No matter how poor her position was, the handsome chestnut pony always improvised and delivered her safely over the jump. “What a nice pony!” her teacher would say.
What Caroline did not know, and never would, was that Showpony was actually in love with her. Something inside him made him want to take care of her. When they were horse and rider, he felt comfortably complete with his role in life. Even when her bouncy legs jabbed him in the side, he was fine with that- and even modified his gait to be smoother to make her look better in her lessons. “Good job!” her teacher would call, and Showpony’s heart felt large. It was only on a certain morning that he couldn’t help her. Although he could not see what was transpiring beyond the large barn doors, he sensed her unease and felt anger.
January morning, 1994. Ten inches of snow and still mightily falling, like a child scattering cotton balls. It was the kind of snow that was fun to be in- not too cold, strangely warm in fact. The type of snow in which someone might stay out too long, fall asleep, and wake up dead from exposure. Schools were closed- they didn’t even need to see the news of television to know- and Caroline walked to the stable down the road with two fat carrots in her pocket. From a distance she could already see the horses galloping and kicking in their winter playground. They’d be frisky to ride. Caroline trudged up the gravel driveway and noticed footprints toward the barn; different footprints then Man.
Showpony trotted toward the gate to meet her. His hoofs lifted sparkling snow in the air. He gobbled a mouthful of it and blew it out his nose. Caroline unlocked the gate and took a lead rope from the fence post, and threw it over his neck. Together they trudged to the barn, the pupils in their eyes small in the light of the sun. Entering the barn, she was momentarily blinded by its darkness. Something shifted in the hay and a heavy segment of snow slid off the metal roof.
The cows were up munching on a gigantic hay bale in the far end of the barn, and the Man’s abandoned farm equipment and collection of antique cars wore snow covers. Showpony’s feet clattered on the cement floor and he quietly stood as Caroline haltered him and snapped on crossties. Icy balls had already started to melt in his mane and stuck like hair beads. She opened the tack room door smelled the sweet pine chips, sawdust, and leather. He’d need a longer girth to accommodate his luxurious winter coat, that made him look like a wooly bear caterpillar, with long brushy hairs that protruded from his ears like a windshield brush. And she’d need a curry comb. Outside in the aisle, she heard him nicker and toss the crossties. As she grabbed his well-worn bridle she noticed him:
He was asleep on the couch by the wall- the couch that served a place for one to sleep in proximity to the maternity stall behind the wall: an oversize stall provided for delivering mares. Above the stranger’s head, was the small window cut out for observing imminent equine deliveries. She couldn’t place him as anyone she recognized from the hundreds of times she’d been in the barn, and when he rolled over and she saw his scruffy face and red eyes, an intuitive fear washed over her that made her knees buckle.
“What are you doin’ here?” he slurred, looking at her from the top-down. He wore loose khaki fatigues and a rolled-back snow face mask and scarf. His boots, protruding from a horse blanket, were caked in mud. Tom, the resident barn cat who normally slept there, and whose primary job was to acknowledge all barn visitors, was nowhere to be seen. “What’s your girl?” he asked, smiling in a way that was too friendly. He reached down for a pack of cigarettes under the droopy couch.
“There’s no smoking in the barn,” Caroline said, her stomach tightening.
“I didn’t see a sign. Where can I get some coffee around here?” Caroline heard Showpony shook the chain ties and stomped his foot. From the field, Thunder whinnied and Showpony answered. Caroline clutched the basket of brushes, bridle and saddle. She felt off-balance. His skin was grey and wrinkled and he looked unwell. It was look she felt embarrassed to see. She’d never seen a disheveled man and it made her feel unclean. An aching hollowness filled her stomach and she sorely missed the familiar sounds of trucks and cars pulling in and out of the stable, the thump of hay bales being dropped from the loft, Tom mewing to be scratched behind the ears. Only the snow padded lightly on the roof. The man coughed and stood up.
His black hair that stuck to his forehead and his height made her feel much younger than thirteen. “Go git me some coffee and don’t say nothin.”
“I don’t live here.” Caroline felt her physical body compress, as if it was an air mattress suddenly deflated. The stranger pulled off his tattered gloves and placed his large filthy hands on her chest. She could smell his stench of alcohol. He slipped his hands under her coat and then unzipped her jeans, forcing her onto the couch. The rape was fast and he smelled. Afterward, he collected his cigarettes, and stuffed them into a small duffle and walked out. Caroline looked out the small hole in the wall. A pierced cobweb flapped in the breeze. The room was barren like a decayed womb. A chill shook her and the snow that had felt warm seemed to be encasing her. Everywhere she smelled him. She began to cry soundlessly, stood up, pulled her pants up and zipped her coat. Her underware was wet and the insides of her thighs felt sticky.
Showpony was pawing at the floor now. He pinned his ears back and snorted. Trembling, she unhitched him and led him shakily back to the pasture gate. Showpony pulled on his halter, blowing steam. She tried to say, “Easy, boy,” but the words caught in the lump in her throat. A familiar voice pierced the snow-filled air and stung her ears. “Not gonna ride today?” It was the Man standing with the screen door open. How long had he been watching?”
“No,” she shook her head, unable to speak. She began to wobble down the farm lane but instead of the inroad, cut onto 81 and walked on the shoulder. Traffic was beginning to slow as snow accumulated on the wet pavement. A semi roared past, honking. The sound of slush under its sixteen wheels sounded like something cold poured into a deep fat fryer. By the time she got home, there was no sensation in her feet. Her leggings were grey with slush. She kicked off her rubber boots. Oatmeal was cooking in the kitchen where her mother was watching The Morning Show. Caroline padded by and up the stairs to the bathroom and started the shower. It took a great deal of energy to pull off her clothes. There was no sensation in her skin, which was swollen and white. When she’d finally got in, the hot water felt neither cold nor hot, but only a vibration on her body like a palm hitting a drum skin. Her mind was numb as well. She began to sob, put the stopper in the drain, lay down, and slowly let the water rise over her head. No one would know.
The day she left for college, Caroline couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye to Showpony. He was twenty-seven now, and only occasionally ridden by the Man’s grandchildren. Her parents drove past the pasture on their way toward D.C.and Georgetown University. She had an ache in her crotch and hoped they wouldn’t make any comment about her not saying good-bye. “There he is…,” her mother finally uttered. “There’s your Showpony.” It was then she hated her mother. “All those lessons you took. Remember, Caroline? And the shows, and the ribbons…. Remember Harvey?”
“Mmm… hmmm. Oh, yeah!”
“You father and I were starting to think you were part horse! You’d rather been in the barn with them than out with your friends, remember Harvey?”
“Mmm…hmmm, mmm hmmm….that’s how it was….”
“You sure you don’t to pet him good-bye honey?”
“I mean, we’re right here-.
“No, that’s ok.”
“I never understood why you stopped- riding, I mean. One day we couldn’t get you off a horse and the next day? Nadda. Did you fall off or something, dear?”
“I just lost interest, I guess.”
“Well, Mr. Stevens still only charges us twenty bucks a month for board- so there Mr. Showpony can stay. Tell you the truth, Stevens doesn’t often cash our checks! What a sweet man- just loves those horses. And Showpony looks good, too, don’t you think, Harv?”
“Mmm… hmmm….real good.”
“Not too skinny not too fat. Of course he doesn’t need shoes anymore- so that’s a savings. Have you seen the old riding ring, Caroline?”
“It’s a mess. They haven’t done a thing with it- it’s turned into a mud hole. Remember how nice it used to be?”
“Well, a farm needs upkeep, right Harvey?”
“That’s why we were happy you were boarding- too much work.” The black Lexus wove in front of a large horse trailer on 81, probably on its way to Lexington. Caroline noticed the eyes of horses peering out the window and thought how trusting they were to willingly enter a rolling death trap going seventy-five miles an hour on 81. It was that trusting spirit that hurt her most- how anyone could hurt such a beautiful willing creation.
The marble lobby floor of the Exchange was covered in tufts of snow, slush, orange cones and was brightly lit. Commuters pulled down their hoods exposing rosy cheeks and looks of relief. They stomped their boots on rubber mats and stuffed gloves in their pockets as they head toward the elevators.
It’d been ten years since college. Caroline was twenty-six, had an old apartment with bright windows, oak woodwork, two cats, and a view of Lake Michigan. It was that year when her parents decided to move away as well. Before the move, however, there was the business of allocating Caroline’s belongings to Goodwill. This included not only school mementoes, but a large collection of Breyer horses and riding wear.
“I just wanted to see if you wanted them,” her mother asked cheerfully over the phone. “They’re very nice riding pants.” Caroline felt a pain shoot through her groin.
“Why would I want them? I haven’t worn a size ten since high school.”
“That’s all right, I just wanted to make sure, honey. They cost sixty dollars, you know. And I also found that old prom picture of you and Darrel, oh, and your SAT scores.”
“Thanks but no thanks!”
“God, Caroline! I can’t believe he wore his hair like that! So did you get your Swine Flu shot yet, hon? we got ours at CVS this week.”
“Not yet-but I will.”
“So everything’s alright with you? Oh, and I got rid of your hot curlers. You don’t use them anymore, do you? That’s kind of an ‘80’s thing, right?”
“So when is the actual moving date, mom?”
“Next month. You know, your father always talked about owning a donut shop but I never took him seriously, You should see how excited he is, Caroline! He even looks ten years younger! Can you imagine at our age? A Duncan Donuts store?”
“I’m really excited for you, mom.” Caroline held the receiver away from her mouth and sighed loudly. “Let me know if there’s anything you need help with, ok? Listen, I’ve got laundry downstairs to pick up before someone else steals it, so I need to say ‘good-bye’.”
“Stealing laundry- that’s sad Caroline, really sad. Why are you still living in that apartment building anyway? By now you could get yourself a nice little house in the suburbs.”
“No thanks! Then I’d have to mow the lawn and worry about the roof leaking.”
“But not about anyone stealing your damn laundry. You know, you could even hang a clothesline- I used to do that- save you on your electric bill.”
“Gotta go, mom. Love you- call me.”
The Man stood up from the kitchen table. Showpony sighed in anticipation. Thunder trotted over to the fence. His swayback and bony withers gave him a comical look, like an old nag in a Three Stooges movie. Along with his pronounced swayback, his fuzzy white beard hadn’t been shaved and his eyes glowed like moonstone cataracts. Thunder was two years older than Showpony- thirty-one. Showpony grunted and knocked on the plastic trough. Birds were already arriving in quick, efficient teams to the birdfeeders in the back yard, swiping seeds and eating them in flight. The snow was coming- they could tell.
Thunder died first- caught his leg in a ground hog hole and had to be put down. The day Showpony died was noneventful. He’d had a normal breakfast, napped, and grazed. He didn’t come to the fence for dinner. The stomach pains started in the night, and by the morning, all he felt was the warmth of the man and the vet beside his body, stroking him, and made his life unroll in his mind. He mentally reached out to her.
A flush of warmth filled Caroline’s body and the morning buzz of the office faded strangely into television snow the way a screen does when it cannot pick up a channel. Her eyes fixed on her favorite George Stubbs horse print, “Bay horse and White Dog” she’d hung over the filing cabinet in her office. The muted, bucolic patina drew her in as always; the brown- grays of nature, and when the phone rang later that night, she somehow knew. The man had gotten her number-far away as she was- and sounded jovial as always. A fingering creep walked up her spine. When she hung up the receiver, she fell to the side of her bed and cried for the first time.