Mother’s Gift


 Ana had to get out. Erupting, Mt. Shasta incarnate, she ran past the staleness of cigarettes and coffee on her mother’s breath and clothes, the sickly sweet Jean Nate she used to cover them up.

Bang! Hurtful words followed through the back door that slammed against the sill as if shot from a slingshot. They didn’t stop her. She jumped down all four steps off the porch, dashed out the back gate, and hit the pavement running. The slap, slap of her tennis shoes echoed like buckshot fired across the river.

Her mother called her name, once, twice, but Ana was too far along her escape route for the sharpness of her mother’s voice to pin her in place. Stares from three blocks of curious neighbors goose bumped the hair on her arms. She ran until she reached the field. There she crumbled, resting shaky and sweaty palms upon the pricks of the barbed wire. Somehow, the pain felt right.

He nickered when he looked up from grazing in the middle of the pasture. Green drooled from his mouth as he lipped a wad of succulent grass past his teeth. He shook flies from his sides, and his earthy scent beckoned.

She pulled open the wire gate and slipped through.

He took three lazy steps toward her and stopped.

She stopped and gazed at him.

He lowered his head, unsure of her intent.

She whispered his name.

He shook his head. His ears flopped from side to side. He licked his lips.

She softened and slowly walked toward him. When she reached him, she slipped her fingers under his thick mane. The soft warmth of his new, coppery, spring coat underneath the long, black, stranded curtain soothed her in ways she had yet to define, wouldn’t define, could not define. His salty scent spoke of dark woody roots, freshly turned fertile Earth, hugs, and safety.

He took another step, offering himself.

She wrapped her fingers around a handful of mane, jumped, and threw her leg over his broad back.

He sighed, lowered his head, and continued to graze. Muscles on his shoulder twitched, releasing tension between them.

She leaned back until his round rump became a welcome pillow.

The blue, Spring sky was all she could see. For a long time he rocked her with his gentle search across the field for the choicest clumps of grass.

Her heartbeat slowed. Flies buzzed. His tail swished, and flies scattered. A flock of tiny, brown birds landed in the arms of the big oak beside them, chittering from branch to branch, appearing in sunlight and then disappearing into shadow. Traffic rolled down the main road. Neighborhood boys played a rollicking game of dodgeball in the church parking lot down the street.

It seemed like just yesterday that she used to play too, not as one of the guys but not separate either. That had all changed with this awful, crushing metamorphosis.

For a moment, anger rose its ugly head like a rattler coiled at the base of a rock, daring her to come closer. But the clouds were so fluffy, so starkly white against the blue. They rolled into passing sailing vessels, which sent her dreaming about faraway places. An ostrich rose up, then melted just as fast. A wave of rolling boulders tumbled toward the Sierra Nevadas. Anger gave her up and slithered back under its rock. Beneath her, her horse shifted his weight as he grazed, swaying her back to sanity.

As the sun slipped behind a bank of heavy clouds, her thoughts turned to “mother.” Mother took bits of Ana’s soul with her words of warning: You have to watch your weight. We have to do something with that stringy hair. Must you sniff like that? Boys won’t like it. Your belly is getting too round. Put on that bra.

Why was her body betraying her? Why did her mother constantly point it out?

Her horse jerked, raising his head to watch a dog snooping around the edges of the field. For a moment, Ana’s mind blanked as she prepared for the possibility that her horse would chase the dog. But, the dog moseyed on, and her horse lowered his head to graze. She settled back onto the pillow of his rump.

Hadn’t “mother” also given her this refuge? Hadn’t she insisted upon it, even after the first mare died of extreme old age, and the second one met her fate in a tragic, heartbreaking, trailering accident? Hadn’t Mother brought the Goddess into herself to fight for this union of girl and horse?

Maybe the bits she stole were nothing more than unneeded facsimiles of self, little girl bits that would no longer serve who Ana was to become. Could that be true?

Her horse snorted. He stamped his back left foot, shaking her off the center of his back.

She scooted back into place.

Maybe this was truth, right here, on this warm, rocking back with cool breezes gentling past her under a clear, blue, Spring sky. Maybe this was all she needed. Nothing more.

The sweet scent of freshly broken grass under his feet that sent a warm, welcome rush of pleasure through her body was a portent to womanhood. Nothing more.

The awful burden of budding Goddess scared the desperate little girl living inside. Nothing more.

Her steady companion, who swayed beneath her, was a fearless steed who could carry her away from the mischief-maker of puberty for one more day.

Maybe this was all she needed. Her steed was a Mother’s gift. 

Nothing more…nothing less.

W is for Wish…

Turgid clouds grumbled above me, stuffing the September morning sky with angry threats of rain. Ugh. I trudged down a tree-lined street of a new town toward school and ‘tremendous possibilities’. At least that is what my parents kept telling me. As the storm built overhead, I held back the tempest in my mind dreaming of horses. I wanted one, but that possibility was not on the horizon. I walked toward the nebulous future of fifth grade in a new school, and fantasized about riding free on the back of a horse.

It wasn’t that imagining carried me into fantasy land, though one could say that the very act of living in one’s imagining was the definition of that. I was reasonable. I paid attention to my surroundings and fit my dream into them. My dreaming was modest. There was no magnificent destrier to carry me past the dragons of life and into the arms of Prince Charming. Instead, my wish was simple, a friendly, little horse that fit me perfectly, and was a good friend. He would stand in my yard gleaming in the sunlight, even when it was hard to imagine ever seeing the sun again. It didn’t matter. I was a sun child, so that was how I colored the pictures in my mind.

A couple of neighborhood kids who I’d hooked up with over the summer, caught up to me for the last leg of the short walk.

“Got a horse, yet?” said Alvin, in a mocking voice.

“Be quiet. You know I don’t.” He lived right next door.

“Leave her alone,” said Patsy, and added in the same mocking sing-song, “Are you a famous race car driver, yet?” She lived on the corner.

Alvin huffed at us and said, “I’ll see you there, slow pokes.” Then he ran ahead. I guess he wanted to get to school. More power to him.

The rain cancelled outside recesses. I needed to run and snort, to gallop free like a horse. Alvin and Patsy often joined me in the game, racing around the neighborhood, pretending to be herd of wild mustangs. Today I sat alone, in a corner with a book about the different breeds of horses. What would it be like to take care of and ride a horse in the rain? Did horses enjoy squishing their feet into the mud?

Another clap of thunder shook the room and a flash startled everybody. Would the horse be afraid? Did he run when lightning slashed the sky, or was he brave and wise? I hunkered down against the wall, and reread an entry that I’d read three times already, but hadn’t really seen any of the words. That kind of thing happened often. It annoyed me, but, what is there to do when your mind takes off into dreamland?

On the way home, I thought about my little horse. As I turned the final corner to my block, I held my breath hoping to see him in the yard, but then reality proved otherwise. I simply picked up the dream. There he was, grazing some grass. He looked at me sweetly as I approached and nickered, “Well, you’re finally home. Where have you been all day?”

I opened the gate, and walked to the side of the house facing the wide expanse of lawn that my father kept mowed to keep away the snakes. I sat on the side porch to finish my dream. “Oh, you need a brushing,” I said, out loud. Then I imagined brushing his coat, and actually sneezed as if dust flew into my nose. I combed his long tail and mane pulling tangles from the course hairs. When I was done, I ran my hands over the heated glow on his freshly burnished back and smiled.

“You’re so handsome,” I said.

“Ha, ha,” said one of my brothers, squealing to his twin. “She thinks Alvin is handsome.”

Alvin had just walked past.

“Leave me alone,” I said, reluctantly giving up the dream to chase after brothers.

Every day, without fail, I rehearsed the details of life with this horse. It didn’t consume every moment, but I spent enough time to alert my mother that I was dawdling. Finishing my chores, I dreamed. It wasn’t complicated, but real magic never is.

The autumn air began to chill. It would be nice to ride a horse to and from school instead of battling the cold on foot. In my mind, I put a foot in a stirrup while speaking calmly. I swung my leg over the saddle and settled down gently. I could hear the leather squeak, the bridle jingle. While walking home, the ripe leaves cascaded about us in crimson and gold. Interestingly, my imagining of riding ended as I came to the last corner and instead envisioned my horse flicking an errant leaf off his shoulder while munching hay.

Reality was always a harsh rebuff.

Winter came. I galloped home, sailing over puddles painted by the sky. What if my horse had arrived and needed a warm blanket and a bucket of oats?

Spring came, heralded by choruses of tree frogs chirping in the evening. Daffodils opened, reflecting promised sunshine. Birds twittered in the sun kissed trees. My horse loved Spring. The air was sweet and the grass was sweeter.

Summer passed with all its hoopla and star spangled madness. The horse was not really in the field next door, but I saw it there, startled by the loud raucous of summer.

School began again, and the wish faded for a moment until I understood what sixth grade wanted from me. After that, I let the imagining bloom. The air chilled, the trees began to shiver and drop their leaves to warm their roots. The wish warmed me as winter gusted in.

“Want do you want for Christmas,” asked my parents.

I thought, “Don’t you know by now?” However, preferring to be polite I said, “Anything is fine.” Surely, this Christmas, I would find a halter under the tree.

The evening before Christmas Eve, carolers on horseback jingled down the street. The clip clop of hooves sent their bells ringing. I sat on the porch watching them as they clattered past our house. When they stopped to sing, I sang with them. When they turned to go, I imagined my horse stamping his hoof. Did he want a cookie?

On Christmas morning, I threw on my coat and raced to the backyard. There was no horse. I ran into the house. My stocking held a tangerine and little girl cologne, but no promise of a horse. We exchanged gifts. I received a sweater set, which was lovely, two books, and a Barbie doll, which my younger sister immediately grabbed. For once, my mind could not dredge up any imaginings of a horse because my heart was too heavy.

There was one last package under the tree, a shoe-sized box. One of my brothers scrambled for it.

“It’s for her,” he said, and pointed to me.

“Santa must have left one more thing,” exclaimed Mama.

Was this it? The box was big enough for a halter, especially for a small, simple horse that would be a good friend. I held my breath, silently praying as my brother, acting as Santa’s helper, handed it to me. I slowly pulled off the ribbon. Carefully, I slipped open the tape on one end and opened the folds. I tugged the paper off the box.

Inside was a small, plastic, prancing gray with a removable saddle. I looked at my parents, still hoping it was a sign.

“We had to search everywhere for this model. Breyer horses are not easy to come by,” said Mama.

“Do you like it, Honey,” said Papa.

It was pretty, but it would never come to life. I knew how much it meant to them to make me happy. “I love it,” I said. “I can imagine what it might feel like to ride a horse like this.” Then I kissed them both on the cheek.

I played with it that day, and the next, but then I put the gray on a shelf above my desk, to take its place with the other statues that pranced there. I stared out the window, watching my real horse, the one that lived in my imagination, snort at them and their plastic foolishness. His breath frosted the air while he pawed the ground with impatience. “Me too,” I said.

Winter passed, rainy and dreary. The imagination habit continued but sixth grade was demanding. I was becoming a woman.

One day, in early spring, as I scuffled home, a warm breeze sliced the chill with a promise that burst into my heart. I couldn’t say what it was, but something had changed since this morning. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath when another feeling sizzled through me like fireworks exploding in the sky on the Fourth of July. I had to get home. With each step, the peal of change rang louder. My heart pounded and that frightened me. I reached in my mind to look at everyone I loved. Who was hurt, who was sick?

I rounded the last corner. I clamped my hands over my ears as the universe screamed, and at the same time, stared in wonder at my backyard. Munching on a flake of golden hay was a real horse. The dun-colored animal was shaggy with an unloved coat that did not disguise prominent ribs and backbone. The scruffy little horse looked up and snorted. I almost believed she was real when she nickered, “Well, you’re finally home. Where have you been all day?”

I stood at my gate, staring.

“Well, are you just going to stand there?” said Papa from the front porch.

“There’s a horse.”

“Yes,” he said.

I slowly opened the gate, stepped through, and closed it gently.

“Can I touch it?”

He said, “Well, I guess you had better. She’s yours.”

I walked toward the small horse, and reached for it. It nosed my hand. It was like moist velvet, and it tickled my palm. I patted the matted hair on its neck and sneezed as a cloud of actual dust flew off the homely, but friendly, little horse waiting for love. My vision blurred as fat tears zigzagged down my face. “Ooh, you need a brushing,” I said, as she horse leaned against me and bent her head to munch the hay at our feet.

My dream was now reality.

(Author’s Note: Names were changed, but this is a true story.)