Of the many chores she had to finish each day, laundry was something Ona looked forward to doing. It was work that would come to something, tattered shorts or jeans made presentable, the shirts Arliss wore rinsed of grime and a rich tang of sweat, her own blouses brightened. Things were made right again. Ona hummed to herself as she filled the washer tub with suds. She wondered if Arliss suspected she occasionally washed a few clean things just to feel the satisfaction that came from washing, drying, folding, stacking. It was one more thing that replenished a well of peace for days when she needed more.
They had replaced the machines during winter, money that could have gone to other things, Arliss liked to remind her. She often hung the damp items on a line behind the house, less to appease him than to give her more reason to be outdoors. Spring had brought breezes that grazed her skin, butterflies that teased. The bees were like noisy royalty though she closed her eyes if they circled her too long.
“I’m going down to the alpacas,” he said. He slapped his leather gloves on a calloused palm and frowned. “You’re not done?”
She closed the washer lid on the last load. “I still have the garden. And clothes to hang.”
He left her with the familiar refrain. “I told you that dryer was a waste. But that garden will help pay for it.”
But it was spring going on summer, not winter, Ona wanted to retort. It wouldn’t matter. He was in one of his moods again. If she was lucky it’d pass sooner this time. He’d smiled at her in the morning. She’d been close to sitting down and chatting with him. Then he’d gotten up and taken the strong coffee, along with a plate of eggs made with dill and onion, to the porch. Hank trotted after him. The loyal mutt had been named after his brother, serving in the Army. Ona knew he loved that dog more than her, though he might deny it on a good day. It was his brother he missed.
It hadn’t always been this way. Arliss Jameson had been a different person in high school, all tousled hair and smiling eyes, quick to make a friend, slow to stir things up. She’d come from the city and knew how to play basketball hard and well. That impressed him, as did her unfettered laugh. But by the third year of their marriage he’d turned surly. The house was filled with silence and anger for days, sometimes weeks. She’d patiently waited for it to pass. Ona understood he’d hoped to leave like his brother, but to do bigger things, though she was never sure what. She had a few other dreams, too, but was pragmatic about it. After some research she’d suggested they get alpacas–she’d heard they were smart, good-natured and would make them money. His haunted look was replaced by a benign acceptance; dark introspection was curtailed. But it hadn’t ended. It could come back like a bad wind from nowhere over the years. He didn’t mean to be hard on her but being caught in his long shadow of misery made her feel caged. Uneasy. He forgot she was there or threw words at her that landed like small stones. She increasingly wondered why she’d fallen in love.
Ona settled the clothes basket on her hip and pushed open the back door. A rush of warm wind unfurled her long auburn hair. Treetops swished, rustled. The sunshine smelled like a small slice of lemon. Arliss would’ve told her that was foolish but nothing was impossible, she thought. If caterpillars became butterflies, why not lemon-scented sunlight? She pegged white socks and t-shirts, her flowered panties, his slacks and her long mint green skirt. Watched them flutter. They were already drying in an unusual May heat wave. And waiting for bodies. For a minute Ona imagined Arliss and herself slipping inside pants and skirt, swinging away. Two fools dangling, toes grazing the earth.
She smiled and shaded her eyes with her flattened palm. She could barely make out Arliss as he passed their oak grove. He’d be with gone an hour or more. If she just made a big salad with leftover chicken she’d have time to slip away. She grabbed her sandals and headed to the other side of the house.
The Clearing is what she called it even though there was more open land elsewhere. But that is what it did for her–cleared her mind and soul. This was where she put aside work and financial worries and a thorny fear that snagged her when she wasn’t on guard. There was her little pond, really a muddy puddle until rain filled and sweetened it and frogs proliferated. There were the oaks and elms growing in such a way that they sheltered without isolating. She had seen deer graze here before moving down into the meadow. Ona suspected God paused here, grasses and wildflowers welcomed her, frogs sang out for her ears. She kept all this close. It delivered her.
On the other side of the white fence was the Evans’ ranch. She sometimes saw the owner, Charles’, riding or his Appaloosas and Andalusians grazing. He rode every day, usually earlier, but sometimes later. He sat on his horse as if custom-made to fit. He was perhaps fifteen years older than Ona, his wife long gone to New Mexico, his son in the family horse business. Ona was attentive to Charles Evans’ maneuvers when he was in the field; he was said to have an uncanny way with horses. Her observations were unschooled. Ona wouldn’t have known what skills he had except that she felt his calmness and confidence as she watched from her perch by the pond.
This time she went to the fence, saw nothing but green pasture dotted with trees, topped by rich blueness, white clouds. It felt as though summer was taking over already. Heat found her and held fast. She knew she had only a few minutes so absorbed everything. She turned to face the clearing and leaned back against the fence. The verdant landscape cast its spell. Her eyelids lowered. The creek on the Evans’ side rushed and tumbled through its banks. Blue jays, robins, crows and those still unnamed called to each other in earnest.
Her chin hit her chest and she fell forward. Something had pushed her. She swung around, then stepped back so fast she fell to the ground. A mammoth gray horse was staring at her, thick mane half-covering intense eyes, heavy tail switching back and forth. Ona fought the urge to run. She had never been so close to such a large animal in its own element. Its muscular presence profoundly unsettled her. The horse exuded condensed power, a deeply quiet elegance. Its intelligent face was rugged but noble of design. She took one step forward and gazed back more calmly. The gray horse nodded at her, loped away, then began to trot, strong legs carrying him farther afield until hidden beyond tress.
But Evans was walking toward her. Where had he come from?
Ona thought she should go back to the house. She had the garden yet and dinner to make. Arliss would be looking for her. They knew of each other but they didn’t socialize. The Jamesons were just getting by, the Evanses thrived. And really, what did you say to a man who could speak the language of horses as if it was his own tongue? She had trouble enough with Arliss, the alpacas and a shaggy named for her brother-in-law. In fact, she didn’t talk much, anymore, and found it caem easy. Her aloneness had become a habit, and silence was an aura that surrounded them both too often.
Evans gave her a small smile, but his eyes were a friendly brown. He was tall but not as tall as Arliss, bulkier with muscle.
“That was an Andalusian, but you probably knew that, living out here.”
His voice was softer than she expected. She shook her head.
“I’m not a homegrown country girl. That horse scared me, to be honest.”
“That’s a shame, but if you aren’t familiar…I know you and Arliss live there. Alpacas are good animals. Nice place.” He gestured toward their red house and the barn, then adjusted his hat lower on his forehead. “I’ve seen you here sometimes.”
She felt embarrassed. Did he think she was spying on him? She didn’t mean to intrude; maybe she should stay far from his fence.
“My quiet place. I love this spot.”
Evans turned back to his land and she thought he was done so she looked back at the pond, finished as well.
“How about you and Arliss come by this week-end for barbecue? My son, Jack, knows your husband. We should’ve asked before.”
Ona took a breath and it stuck there a second. She looked right at him. Dinner at his ranch? She could make her coconut cake. She might peek at more terrifying, beautiful horses. Arliss and Jack and Mr. Evans could talk country business. She’d listen well.
He held out his hand. “Charlie Evans. Ask your husband and we’ll set a time.” He smiled widely. “And maybe you’ll make friends with my horses.”
“Ona here, sure, yes I will, Charlie. Ask Arliss, I mean. And check out your horses.”
Charlie Evans tipped his hat and strode off, whistling. The gray horse stepped from shadow and galloped toward him.
Ona returned to the pond–a swampy spot, really, but she liked it–and sat on a nurse log. Honeyed light streamed through the canopy. Spring peepers were in full chorus. The view of their house was nice from here. In truth, she hadn’t noticed for a while just how good it was. It could all get better. The alpaca business was turning a profit thanks to Arliss’ hard work and her research. She had to keep planting, hanging out laundry in fragrant air, visiting her Clearing but also reaching out to Arliss. Remind him she did still care even if he could be a hard case. Get to know those lovely alpacas better. And maybe Evans saw something in her, a hidden potential that suggested she might one day scale a horse and learn how to ride with it. Ona was so ready to round up more excitement, gather her courage. She still had what it took. Life was just waiting for her to say the word.