Secrets Horses Keep

Photo by Mary Ellen mark
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

She was in the middle of the park, for goodness’ sake, sitting there with that odd little horse, cuddled up close like a pet she had taken out for a good walk. She was otherwise alone, it was clear there was no one accompanying her. Is that what parents still ordinarily do these days or not?–accompany their charges? I had a nanny; Magdala never let me out of her sight and if I tried to make a getaway she managed to nab me before I could shout “freedom at last!” But it was the way it was. This child was perhaps twelve or so, but she also ought to have had someone there, hadn’t she? When I saw her sitting as with purpose after fifteen minutes, I also stayed put. My bench was kitty corner from hers and I had nothing better to do. My days are endless pages unscrolling at their leisure as if meant to be tarried over, full of illuminated wonders as in the Book of Kells. But they do not, anymore. Not since Paul David’s decision.

And so she sat on, as well. She didn’t seem abandoned, exactly. After about fifteen minutes she looked about, as if searching the entire block but not with urgency, not with any alarm. I can’t say if she looked right at me then; I had my book and after noting her sweeping gaze, looked down until I thought it acceptable to look toward her again. She was holding the brown, plush-coated horse up to her, its nose bumping her own, and she kissed its head twice. I did wonder how many times she did that. It appeared to be beloved in that way children adore an inert yet companionable creature, transferring their secrets and powerful fondness to it. Yes, it almost seemed that they were visiting the park together. So I was not that concerned but interested in a sidelong way. My book was worth reading, a collection of poems and essays by someone no one knows of, anymore. It gets taken out once every year for a glad once-over, then is set back among neighbors with their shredded spines and fading covers. The library could use a thorough clean-up, even renovation, I admit, but it isn’t truly worth expense or bother. I’m not going to live forever. Not many borrow from it anymore, either.

This girl, this young lady, I would prefer to say but cannot quite manage, seemed to own that bench. She sat sideways for a bit, legs stretched out and head leaned against the back, horse on her lap. Eyes closed until I imagined she was asleep and I thought, how peaceful a picture that makes when in a flash she sat straight up and looked out over the pond, eyeing it carefully. I casually glanced that way, as well, and saw two couples and a third unattached young man making their separate ways around the park, towards us. The girl–might I call her Miss Emma? I always liked that name but had no use of it since I did not have the pleasure or grief of my own children–sat up in attention. I wondered which of the five she might be waiting for as they moved closer. But they all passed us by, busy talking, the single male intent on deciphering his cell phone content.

No, she leaned toward an invisible thing, peered at–what? I leaned forward, too, then caught myself, sat back with book up once more. I observed her watchfulness from over the top, how could I not? It was an odd puzzle, what she was doing on a park bench on a late fall day, no coat or satchel, no adult, no little friends.

A clump of bushes about twenty feet away shook and out sprang an urchin. It was a he of uncertain provenance. Not that the young man was utterly frayed or unconscionably dirty, but his hair was roughed up and his pants too short and his tennis shoes were wrecked beyond wearability. Alright, not that being disheveled or even dirty is a crime, of course, or even avoidable at times. But still I felt uncertain of his intentions. He moved quickly and with confidence toward her, as if he, too, claimed a seat at that bench, as if it was theirs to occupy and no others.

He punched Emma’s shoulder upon sitting down; she grabbed her horse and whacked him on the head. It took imagination to consider them friends. It seemed they knew each other, though, as their heads came together then apart. I began to read off and on, deciding the girl had been waiting to see this one, a  boy perhaps two or so years her elder. But there was a manner about him that suggested he was more far worldly than she. He had perhaps been out and about on his own more, or had the wiles and underhanded ways for a common pickpocket. Or worse. It began to creep into my mind in a Dickensian way that this was not a laudable association.

I was correct, at least to some degree.

She nudged him as they laughed and he then pulled out from his too-large Army surplus jacket  pocket a misshapen half-empty package of cigarettes. He put two of them between his lips and lit them with a lighter with a sort of élan, as if this were a debonair moment to share with his young love. I winced and put my book down. He then removed one and placed it oh so carefully between her own and she, rather than toss it in laughter or disgust, left it. Inhaled enough that I expected a cough; she frowned. It could not have been something she relished. Or perhaps I was wrong, as the second inhalation then the third seemed easier, perhaps faintly enjoyable to the intrigued and intriguing Miss Emma. Or at least the idea of it.

I could note the promise of greater femininity on the verge of coming forward. An onset of redefinition, a hidden refinement of face, hand and limb that one day would be grown into and then it would be owned. I do have nieces and they surprised me, too. I know this is not how Miss Emma realistically would be described these days, that an insistent boyishness and even an obscured gender seem in vogue for many youth. That is fine but I imagined it that way, nonetheless. I saw her with the artist’s eyes I possess. A kind of forecasting. A wistfulness that became attached to her visage, perhaps.

But I did possess an acute vision, I must state that at least. I have had success with it. Before all that came and went regarding Paul David, and now is in tandem.

That boy had other things to do, I could see it in his abrupt ways, restlessness after they smoked their smokes. He stood, bent toward her for some exchange and walked away, then looked back and tossed her another cigarette. Ran off. She didn’t appear to be disturbed, although she watched him a bit longingly, perhaps wanting to join him as he made the next stops–where? To what ends did he roam? Perhaps–I half-hoped–they had been school mates, though what sort of school I didn’t hazard to guess. We were in a place, a neighborhood, that generally saw children less wayward in appearance and behavior. They were more worn about the edges yet also seemed in possession of themselves. I never displayed that at such an age. Which may have been a blessing if it meant I had to smoke and seek out other unknowns.

I knew what Paul David would have done at once: marched up to that boy, given him a dressing down that he would then take issue with. But Paul David would not be deterred;  he would run him off with his overbearing manner and height–he is only a bit taller than I am but it is the way he stands, as if he never bends his back or lowers his shoulders. He yet is an attorney and aspiring politician of sorts so used to swaying juries and other groupings.

Certainly commanding the home front. We often did not have a meeting of minds, I must be honest, as I am not one, either, to consider my own ideas and thoughts of any lesser report. It was what he first loved about me thirty years ago. What he said drove him to the estate gates and on to Mrs. Derrien, a widow generally well liked if a too-sweet mouse. I must forgive but I suspect her more copious socioeconomic virtues also held magnetic pull.

I said good-bye to my painting studio. It lost its allure. The studio I have rarely entered now that I have more time and lack of invasions from my husband. Ex-husband. Perhaps I also painted to annoy him or remind him of his own lacks. In any case, it has been too long and I felt the need sharply, though it came and went.

That is what I was thinking as I sat and tried to not so obviously watch Miss Emma: that it was time to take up canvas and oils again. I hadn’t had a show in over two years. I needed to get the feel of it again, and find the happiness that had so long eluded me.

And then she rose. Miss Emma’s horse rose with her and they made their way toward me. I felt a tremulous blush coming on so hid my face in my book.

“You’re watching me. You sure are, so don’t deny it.”

I couldn’t fathom such a rude way to approach an older woman so looked up, then at my book. “So you say.”

“I not only say, I declare it, there. And think you must’ve had quite a show. It’s sort of odd to have a stranger keep tabs on a person. But you seem harmless.”

I rearranged my loops of scarf to do something with increasing nervousness. A bold and unmannerly child can nearly do me in.

“I beg your pardon, dear. I was reading by myself awhile when you arrived, then became distracted by your activities and his.”

She glanced at the book page “Poems.” Looked at me again. “Well, okay.” Her horse, snug in her arms, bobbed a bit at me.

“You enjoy them, too?” I managed to smile a little.

“We like to read fantasy, right, Roan?” The horse emphatically nodded then he lay down beside her on my bench. “Do you come here a lot? I saw you three times before.”

This was more than surprising since I had not noticed her before. To be seen and not know it, unnerving.

“You did?”

“Last summer, this fall. Maybe more, can’t remember now. I see a lot of people when I pop over.”

“Why are you here often?”

“I just live right there.” She pointed up and across the boulevard.”I like the p ark and it’s the one place my father allows me to come alone. Sometimes.”

“Ah. Madrone Place. Lovely historical building. I know it well. My best friend lived there for years, then moved to the country.”

A shadow passed over her face. “We live at the top.” She put a hand at an angle to her brow as sunshine flared again. “You can see almost the entire city from there.” She picked up her horse and held it close. “You live nearby, too–Miss…?”

I held out my hand. “I’m Ms. Leonora Addington. And you are?”

The girl hesitated, then took my hand briefly. “Cassie Gershen. My father is George Gershwin.”

I was taken aback. “Whatever do you mean?”

She snorted, giggled a high giggle and then of course I saw the joke. “George Gershen, I see, many must hear it as Gershwin, how funny!”

“Well, he’s a composer, too, but he goes by GT Gershen and the T is for Thomas. So just ‘GT’, usually, George Thomas would be too much, he says.”

It came to mind that Paul David insisted on using his middle name. How it now irked me. The breeze swept about us and her bangs fluttered in the gust. Her eyes fairly sparkled as she smiled. Then she slumped back.

“He wouldn’t be happy if he knew I smoked so now you know his name, just forget it, please. He might even know. He’s at the piano all afternoon if he can be and also likes to look out the window. He spies on me, like you did, only from farther away. I try to stay out of sight; then he complains. I thought you might be a friend of his for a while. I mean, you live near here and seem like the sort he likes– you read a lot, for one thing.”

I tuned to better see her whole affect. It was sincere, perhaps, such disarming eyes and pleasing face composed, yet relaxed. “I do think it unhealthy and risky behavior that you have even tried smoking–at barely twelve? I was well into my twenties when I tried it. Awful taste and choked me.”

“He says just the same, see what I mean? But I’m thirteen–and older than you think.” She squeezed the horse’s puffy middle quite hard, then released it.

“You know where I live, did you say that?”

“I followed you once. Your house is quite large, made of stone and there is a gate at the drive that required a key or something before you went in. I liked it but I liked our nice place much more. Well, I might like our apartment alright.”

I suddenly questioned if this child was at all who she said she was, if her story was anywhere near the truth, and if she came to the park to learn how to steal with her street sidekicks. Her charm was considerable. But she carried about a stuffed horse, for goodness’ sake, and she kept an eye on me and knew my address, she talked too much to strangers. And there was that suspicious looking older boy. Cassie Gershen, as she’d announced herself, seemed perhaps less than a reliable historian. Muddled in one way while teeming with intelligent observations in another.

“Well, now we both know where the other lives. Information that may or may not be useful.” I picked up my book, considered leaving.

“I’d better go.” She hopped off the bench and looked up at her apartment building. “He’ll worry.” She craned her neck to the left, to see around a stand of evergreens. Sighed. “There he is. See? On the balcony?” She pointed. Waved wildly.

I stood, too, and sought the spot. There was indeed a long balcony protected with wrought iron and there was a man now scanning the boulevard, perhaps the park. He could be her father, in vest and light shirt, with darker hair, glasses. He must have seen her then, as he waved back and slipped indoors, satisfied. I wondered what he actually knew of her comings and goings. Not my business, of course, yet I was nearly moved to speak with him that moment.

“You don’t have some sort of dog?” she asked. We started to the street, weaving in between cyclists and joggers.

“A dog? No, I never have had one. I had two calico cats and before those, a beautiful canary. Now I have nothing but several flourishing plants and my own company, and occasional visitors, of course. You?”

“I do have a dog but he’s way too old to play much. My mom left us; we’ve lived in this place a few months.”

“I see. I’m sorry, Cassie.” We walked in an uneven rhythm; she about kept up with me. “Did she also enjoy horses?”

“Oh, yes, of course and…”

Her voice had grown softer; I leaned down to hear her better.

“We all did. I mean we do but…we did own three.”

“Must have been wonderful, dear.”

After we exited the park, she turned right. I turned left.

“Hey, um, thanks for being around. Nearby. I don’t really like Black Jack that much.”

“That shifty young man?”

She studied the little horse’s face, smoothed his coat.” He just hangs out. Hides places. I think he’s homeless, he doesn’t say. I’m not really a smoker. I mean, maybe some day but I just–I said ‘yes’ once… so now…he’s okay but I don’t know. Maybe not.”

I started to lift my hand to her–to what? smooth her flyaway hair? pat her shoulder?–then, confused by my disregard of polite remove, quickly dropped it. Stood taller with book before my chest.

“Good, you can quit before you get habituated to it. Right now, perhaps. Then your father might never know and you won’t have to pretend you like it. Next time, just tell that slippery Black Jack you aren’t available for more antics. Go home if necessary. Call your father. Or come to where I am, if I’m about. You must stay safe, my dear.”

She narrowed her eyes at me but not angrily or worriedly. Pondering things as she shifted from one foot to the other and held Roan in position atop her shoulder. I waited. Her features softened in relief. She gave me a real smile and then I could see her as a young woman, strong, vibrant and true. Fearless again.

“See you around, Ms. Addington.”

“Good day to you, too, Miss Cassie.”

When I got to the next corner and waited to cross, I looked up and over, where the Gershen balcony was. She was there alone, and reached out over the fancy ironwork as she caught sight of me. I waved both hands at her and she gave a fast flap back at me. I hurried off to my house, feeling lighter. To my studio, which longed for me I was certain, and I, it.

 

Views from Ona’s Clearing

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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.

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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.

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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.

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