Carole Waterhouse

Night Horses

Ally wakes in the middle of the night to see a stark blue light coming from the window, one that draws a harsh line across the room. Her husband Dan’s arm reaches out, searching for her in his sleep. She folds the arm back and replaces it under the sheet that a moment ago covered them both. Thick and muscular yet capable of a gentle touch, it’s a good arm, one that has always protected, but for some reason she feels drawn to the sharp blue bands of light instead.

         Outside she hears a gentle blowing sound, the cracking of twigs, a quiet snort. The horses. She is used to their sounds coming from the nighttime pasture, always finds comfort in them. She gets up and looks out the window and can see their grey shadows, faint under the moonlit sky.

         The house feels cool. It is early September, the days still quite warm, but with nights that are beginning to chill. They keep forgetting, going to bed with the window slightly cracked to rid the house of the day’s stuffiness, only to wake up mornings with their throats scratchy and dry. The windowsill where she rests her hand feels rough, as though its surface is about to peel. She thinks of the horses outside and her fingers begin to feel something else, the prickly, scratchy sensation of the stubble in the pasture, not pleasant, exactly, but familiar.

         Is she dreaming now while standing? She watches the shadows in the field moving, hears the creaking of knees and branches, another quiet snort. The sensation she just had in her hand—it must be what the horses feel.

         She closes the window, but her thoughts still stay on the outside. She knows the horses better than anyone, their habits and ways. Earlier in the year while waiting for the foal to be born, she slept in the barn for weeks. The veterinarian suggested it. “It’s important for someone to be there, to pull the placenta over the foal’s head. It’s heavier than you think, and just born, sometimes they can’t push through. It’s heartbreaking when they die that way, just because someone wasn’t there.”

         Heartbreaking. A simple word people use so casually. Farm life, she has found, is if anything heartbreaking in so many ways. Muscles that constantly ache, hands swollen thick from the never-ending work, the feeling always that so much is at stake. It mixes with the other kind of heartache, the one that comes from the sheer beauty of it all, the faint colors of early dawn, the quiet rustling of unseen animals around her, a sense of belonging so strong she finds herself crying sometimes for reasons she can’t understand.

         It was one such morning Dan found her on the back porch, an untouched cup of tea in her hand. She wasn’t crying, but he could see it in her anyway.

         “I told you there’d be times when it would be hard, when you’d be alone, that the work was never ending.”

         She wanted to tell him that she wasn’t crying, that she liked their life, the stark beauty of it. It was just that the reality of this world apart from everything else was so strong sometimes that she felt something she couldn’t explain. Tears were just a part of it.

         “We could breed the mare, make a little foal. There’s nothing like watching something like that grow.”

         She understood what he was thinking, what the offer was meant to be—a substitute for the child they hadn’t yet discussed, the one they both knew wasn’t right for them now. With all the hours he spent on the road away from her, driving truck to keep the farm going, a child was something she thought of only in fleeting moments, a vague possibility, nothing near a longing or want.

         “I feel bad about you spending so much time alone.” She had found comfort in his big arms when he said it, lingered in his soft words and strong touch, pretending for a moment. It didn’t seem right to tell him she never felt particularly lonely when he was gone. Instead those days held the possibility of sleeping in, if only for an hour, or reading late into the night, or spending time with the mare, taking long rides that made her feel guilty afterwards, then hurrying to do all the work she had neglected. It wasn’t that her life was more full when he was gone, it was just that time somehow passed more quickly.

         “He’ll always be there to protect you.” That’s what everyone said. Only a few years older than her, Dan gave the impression of being more settled. “Rock solid” was the way her father described him. People meant these observations as a compliment, but they made her wonder why others saw her marriage so differently than she did. She always thought of her move from city to farm as an adventurous one, a complete break from everything she had ever known before, a choice for openness instead of sectioned off lots and measured blocks. She had a clear picture in her mind of how it would all work out. They would be vegetarians, grow only organic foods, bathe with the soap she made herself. In her spare time she would become the artist she had always imagined herself being, taking photographs of a life that was pure and simple and good.

         None of it has turned out like that. Her new life, she has found, focuses on the practical, but she’s certain all these possibilities still exist in her. And though she rarely takes pictures, much less photographs, Dan tells her she has the eye of an artist. She suspects the real art, though, is in the details of their life, isolated moments that are indefinable. It exists in bitter cold mornings when steam floats up from the animals’ mouths, in whiskers coated with ice, or watching Dan handle the newborn calves, the sense of security she feels seeing them delivered into such capable hands.

         When they told the vet about breeding the mare, he seemed to make the same assumption about loneliness, the need for a child, treated her as though she were the pregnant one. On a cool, spring morning when the mare was artificially inseminated, Ally was the one who was allowed to insert the semen with a long syringe, felt proud when the vet praised the quality of the sperm, as though she was the one who had produced it.

         For eleven months she kept track of the foal’s growth in the womb, when its tail was being formed, when it was starting to grow fur, making special note of the features that defined it as horse rather than human. And it was her job to get the mare, a nervous, slightly skittish animal, ready to accept her baby, to touch her teats to make sure that she would be comfortable with the sensation, wouldn’t shy away when the foal tried to take its first crucial milk. And when he was born, she had been there to lift the placenta over his wet nose, the heaviness of it surprising her after all, the texture smooth but thick, completely unlike the filmy membrane she had expected. And then he was there, exactly as she had imagined, the markings, the color of his coat, all precisely the way she had thought they would be, as though she really had been there with him all that time in the womb.

         And the mare seemed to sense something, too, accepted her presence as a natural part of their routine. When it was time to be led into the barn, she would stand there patiently as Ally fixed her lead around the baby’s haunches, using it and her cradling arms to usher them both inside, the foal lunging and jumping, a squirmy pile of energy.

         And sometimes a longing to be with them would come over her so strong, a desire to look into the mare’s soft eyes, feel her breath and the velvet of her muzzle in her palm, that Ally would stop whatever she was doing and go to them. She would watch them in the pasture and feel the energy of the run building up within, as though she could gather herself up the same way, take a breath and be all energy moving forward, the flash of trees and light and the steam of her own breath rising around her.

         She feels it now, standing there looking out the window. The moon is full. Outside everything looks silvery and alive, not like the starkness of the room, and she wants nothing more than to be with them, to feel space opening around her. She slips her jeans on, stuffing her nightgown inside. The house creaks with each step, a reminder every inch that it doesn’t really belong here, its wood and plaster an intrusion on the world outside. She pulls her boots on in the dark, slips a jacket over her shoulders. Under the cool September sky, she has no problem finding her way. The moonlight is clear enough that she could ride if she wanted to. She keeps expecting the grass to crunch under her feet, then realizes it’s the color, the moon bleaching it a sharp grey blue that reminds her of a late evening snow.

         The horses hear her coming, make their way to the gate and wait, most likely surprised by the unusual time of her visit, but willing to accept it. They nuzzle her for treats as she enters the pasture, take turns checking out her pockets, then spin around and walk away with heads up, ears pinned back when they realize she has brought nothing. In this light there are long grey pillars across the ground and the horses’ backs turn into a tapestry of leaves reflected from the surrounding trees. In the distance the hills look silvery blue and flat, the sense of space between her and them indefinable.

         She looks up at the sky. The moon appears extra large, bright and separate-looking as though it has been pasted over the rest of the sky. She thinks of herself as part of its silvery glow, wonders if someone watching would see her as being transformed. And then for a moment she feels as though she has been. She looks at the moon again and it actually looks closer. She laughs to think of it. Alone in her pasture with just the horses by her side, she’s experienced a moon embrace.

         She glances at the window where she half expects to see her husband’s shadow looking down at her, but it remains dark and empty. Still, her visit to the pasture is something she doesn’t want to have to explain. She opens the gate and slips outside, carefully checking the chain she uses to fasten it, tying it shut with a lead rope, too, just to make sure. Having them get out, escape into the dark where all kinds of dangers exist. It’s the worst she can imagine.

         Back in the bedroom she feels chilled. Could it really have been warmer outside? She nuzzles up close to Dan and he slips his arms around her, still not waking. As she lays her head against his chest, shaking slightly from the cold, she thinks she notices the faint scent of crisp leaves, raises her hand to her face and breathes in the slightly acrid scent of horse that lingers on her fingers.

She isn’t tired the next day despite her interrupted sleep. She makes Dan pancakes for breakfast, his favorite, then kisses him goodbye. It’s a short trip this time, just three days, and as she walks to the barn to complete her morning chores, she feels round and full, has to resist a temptation to touch her own belly.

         During the day a longing builds, though for what, exactly, she isn’t sure. The pastures look the same as always, yet somehow she suspects they aren’t, as though her nighttime presence has changed everything.

         “Why don’t you come over for dinner.” It’s her neighbor, Jessica, calling as she often does when she sees Dan’s truck pass by her house. Older, with children grown, Jessica lives a life immersed in flowers and cats. Ally thanks her but declines. “There’s just so much to do.” Jessica talks a few more minutes and Ally begins to feel impatient, something that surprises her. Everyone says she’s always so understanding.

         Dinner turns out to be an array of items she takes from the refrigerator, some fruit, a slice of cheese, a buttered piece of bread. She eats while standing over the kitchen sink, staring out into the pasture that still looks so unbelievably ordinary. She turns the horses out, then reads while curled up on the arm of the living room sofa. It’s late into the night when she finally puts the book down. Instead of sleepy, though, she feels restless, even a little anxious.

         She doesn’t try to sleep, goes straight out to the pasture. The moon is still almost full, though dark clouds keep moving past, ominous lines that appear to cut the sky in two. The night is grey, dew already starting to form on the grass, and when she goes to the gate none of the horses are there. There is nothing but silence between her and the hills that seem farther away this time, visible more as grey clouds than the faint glistening blue of the night before.

         She calls the horses’ names, can hear the edge in her own voice. What if they aren’t there, have slipped out through a hole in the fence somewhere? It’s as though she can imagine the earth extending far and wide away from her and she feels it then, in this moment, the loneliness everyone seems to expect is with her all the time.

         She walks out into the pasture, calling for them again, but there is still silence. She listens closely and out of the nothingness sounds gradually start to emerge, the rustling of a leaf or two, the quiet steps of some small animal making its way through the adjoining woods, her own breath caught inside her chest. Then she hears branches cracking, the steady thud of their hooves touching the ground, and she knows they are coming toward her before she even sees them, visible at first by their movement alone, shadows fading lighter and darker, flickering with touches of grey.

         They are impatient when they see her, nuzzle her hands as they look for treats. She’s not sure why she doesn’t bring any on these visits. She would if she were coming to the pasture in the daytime. But here under the night sky she feels a longing to be more than just the provider of food.

         The mare turns when she realizes there’s nothing in her hand, backs toward the gelding with her hips gathering, ready to kick. He shies away, the mare still squealing throughout his retreat.

         Ally knows her presence has upset their order. After running the gelding off, the mare comes back toward her, running up dangerously close, offering a sideways kick that misses by a foot or two. She trots away, then stands by her foal, still keeping an eye on the intruder, her ears slightly pinned.

         The gelding approaches them again, quietly, submissively, and for a moment they all stand and stare at each other. It’s Ally who surprises herself by making the first move. She takes a step forward. Heads raise. The mare snorts, once, then a second time.

         There’s a sound in the distance, faint but steady. Ally listens carefully, her attention fully focused. It could be an animal coming, some train in the distance she has never heard before. Then she realizes it’s just the wind. She never knew it was possible to hear it that way, the sound before it was even there.

         The horses notice it, too, or perhaps react to her nervousness. They stand alert, on edge, full of expectation. Then she feels it, a simple understanding that she must run, and the next thing she is doing it, just a gentle jog at first, until her legs feel more secure. Then she lets herself go, faster and faster, is aware of her muscles stretching, her legs extending, her lungs sucking in the air. She hears the others coming up behind her, can feel the rhythm of their thundering hooves resonating through her, then the catch in her breath the moment they are beside her, when she’s aware of nothing but their sounds, their breathing, that heavy pounding until they are finally by, only the foal lagging slightly behind.
And then she stops, her own labored breathing pulling her down so that she feels one with the earth, as though she is taking in air for both herself and the ground beneath her. She lowers herself to her knees awkwardly, one joint at a time, then very slowly allows herself to fall. She rests there a moment, then rolls down onto her side. The ground is cool underneath her, its smell deep and musty, the wet odor of earthworms mixed with the sweetness of grass. She rolls easily from side to side, is surprised how soothing the motion feels. Then she stands again, carefully, shaking herself slightly to brush away any lingering dirt.

         She looks at the hills in the distance, inviting despite their grayness, a reminder of open space. She feels content suddenly, fully at peace. She has found her place among them.

         The horses begin grazing. She wants to follow their motion, but for the first time feels reluctant. Still, she knows this is something she has to do. She reaches down and picks a single blade of grass, in that moment feeling very human. Then she takes a taste. It’s bitter, as she expected, its acrid taste filling her mouth so that she wants to do nothing more than spit the horrible thing out. But a moment later, when the actual grass is gone, just the taste lingering, a longing slowly emerges, a desire for more.

         She takes another taste and finds it more palatable this time, then tries a little more. Now that they are grazing, they seem less interested in her. She stands up. The air around her seems darker and grayer, the moon now completely clouded over, and she realizes it’s time to leave. She exits the gate, closing it carefully, then follows the familiar path to the house. Inside, back in her bedroom, she lies down on the bed intended for two, only vaguely thinks about changing her clothes as she drifts off to sleep.

Again she’s surprised how awake she feels the next morning despite two nights now of little sleep. As she walks down the hill toward the barn in the morning dew, her feet are damp before she is even halfway there. Instead of regretting this as she usually does, she feels a sudden longing in her mouth, remembers the bitter, but enticing taste of the grass the night before. The horses whinny when they see her just as they do every morning. They lead quietly, obediently, as though nothing has changed in their relationship. Once more she is simply their caretaker. Only the foal sniffs at her, seems to see her differently.

         Once they are in the barn she feeds the mare and gelding, offers handfuls of grain to the foal who takes only a few bites, using his nose to brush most of it off her hand. His mother turns, finished with her own grain, and eats what her baby has left behind. Ally feels envious suddenly of the guiltless way the mare looks out for herself.

         It’s peaceful in the barn, full of morning quiet, and she knows as soon as the horses have eaten enough to satisfy themselves that they will sleep for an hour or two, eyes glazed over, lower lips drooping. As she walks back to the house she thinks about how their sleep must feel, wonders if she has ever been that relaxed.

         In the kitchen she pours a cup of tea and takes it with her to the porch where she sits on a worn wicker chair, ready to plan her day. She sees the dust in the driveway before she fully recognizes Jessica’s car, feels a sudden tightening in her throat that she recognizes as regret.

         “I brought you a slice of my coffee cake.”

         It’s more than a slice, a good half of the cake placed in a plastic container. Jessica goes into the kitchen and gets the plates and forks herself, serves each of them a piece before seating herself in an adjoining whicker chair. “Cold for this time of year, isn’t it. Some are already talking about an early winter, but that seems premature. . .”

         Usually Ally is patient with these visits, realizing that the loneliness Jessica always talks about is most likely her own, but today instead of actually listening to her words, Ally finds herself focusing on the familiar hum of their sound, their up and down quality, soothing in some ways, at least not as unpleasant as sometimes. She rubs her hand gently against her own cheek, thinks what it would be like to have an outside hand touch. She wonders if she stokes them gently enough, thinks how she’ll have to remember to always do that. Then, through the up and down of Jessica’s voice, she hears something else. A thudding sound, a hoof stamping against the stall floor, a quiet exhale of breath, the long, steady chewing sound that never seems to stop. It’s as though the horses are right there beside her, their sound enveloping her. She feels her ankle twitch in response to an imaginary fly, gives a gentle toss to the hair that falls so annoyingly in her eyes. The hills in the distance, she same ones she looked at so longingly the night before, draw her focus again, this time glistening in the morning light, the sense of space between her and them now attainable, measured by a few visible fields.

         Jessica has finished talking. Ally recognizes the end of the conversation by the sound of Jessica’s fork scraping against her plate. She looks down, realizes she has eaten her own slice without even noticing. She knows she should say something, at least agree with the words she never heard. But then another urge arises, really she can’t explain it. She reaches over into the plastic container, breaks off a hefty chunk of the coffee cake with her fingers, and puts it into her mouth, chewing even before its all inside, the stray pieces falling down over the front of her jacket.

         Jessica looks surprised, for once has no words, though Ally knows these will come later, will be whispered from house to house. “So lonely. I always said so. . .” A few minutes later Jessica is on her way to her car, her good-bye registering in Ally’s thoughts as a pair of heals scraping their way down her front porch stairs.

         As Jessica drives off, Ally picks up another piece and puts it into her mouth. It isn’t even the taste she craves. It’s the chewing she focuses on, the satisfying feeling of her jaw moving up and down, a steady rhythm that seems to eliminate everything from her thoughts. She hears stamping again from the barn, a muffled snort. Everything around her is peaceful, the way it should be.

         When she is done eating, she gets in the car to drive, the windows part way down even though the air is cool. She enjoys the sensation of the wind blowing in her face, her hair flying back. She thinks about the hills she sees every night from the pasture, but doesn’t go there, ends up in the parking lot for a trail she has hiked many times. Suddenly she can barely wait to get out of the car. As she starts down the trail, light from the sky registers as a series of flashes through the trees and the leaves become nothing more than a green blur around her. She’s running before she realizes it, more sure-footed over the rocks and stray branches than she ever would have expected. In a moment of spontaneity, she tosses her head, kicks her leg to one side, suddenly feels so very, very alive. And then she stops, is aware of an insatiable craving. She samples a leaf, and then another, nibbles at the edge of a mushroom, though the taste, even the texture, is all wrong, and she quickly spits it out. She follows the trail like this for what may be miles. There’s just her and an energy that keeps building and building. And then finally she stops, tired, out of breath, slightly sweaty, the cool air making her feel chilled but remarkably alive, aware of everything around her. And she just stands there, stone still, staring off into a distant point in space, not because there’s anything significant there, but because it’s as good a spot as any.

         Later when she arrives back home, the horses are waiting for her, hungry, their dinner late. After she feeds them, she turns them out for the night, then finishes her chores. This time it isn’t even fully dark when she enters the pasture. She’s tired, her muscles warm from overwork, and she’s content to stand quietly, paw at the ground once in a while, imagine the texture of the grass and leaves she’s too tired to eat. The horses follow her lead, graze quietly, but slightly separate, as though she is part of them but not entirely. Only the foal lingers closer, its attention focused on her. The light is blue and silvery, everything reduced to a shimmering monochrome, and in her tiredness she feels an unexpected contentment. She looks up at the moon. So many possibilities. Why does she feel safer suddenly, more protected, in all this open space? Seductive. The word just comes to her, one she never would have used to describe the moon. She stares a moment longer, thinking how it’s just one lopsided edge away from being complete, realizing at the same time that she feels remarkably full.

The next morning, after tending the horses, she sleeps a short time, wakes up feeling listless. Dan will be back later in the day. The sunlight through the bedroom window looks harsh. She’s aware again of the house noises, ones that have gone unnoticed these last few days.

         She works hard to make sure everything is in order for his return. Late in the afternoon she glances up from the barn and sees his truck in the driveway, his silhouette standing starkly by the front porch.

         He greets her with his usual affection, drawing her close as though his absence has been a long one. She shies from the gesture, hopes he doesn’t notice, holds her breath and tries not to think of his touch, his fingers running so lightly against her arm, as confining.

         When they go to bed that evening, he holds her for a long time, then rolls over. Within moments he’s asleep. She looks at the bands of light and shadow made by the moon reflecting on the wall, holds her breath, waiting. Finally, when his breathing has found a steady rhythm, she decides she can wait no longer. She gets up, dresses quietly, and goes outside.

         She runs down to the pasture. The horses, hearing her, are startled at first, then slowly recognize and accept. Tonight her presence causes no real disturbance. They lift their heads for a moment, then continue grazing. Only Ally stands with her head up, looking at the house where this time she does see her husband standing in the window. You’ll be safe with me. She knows he’s said those exact words. What she can’t remember is if he ever said anything about love.

         She looks at the horses, feels their peacefulness, then glances back at the window and sees her husband is no longer there. She hopes he has just gone back to bed, but tracing the pattern of lights that turn on and off, she knows he is coming outside. In a few minutes he’ll be there in the pasture with them. The horses see it too, or perhaps just trust her instincts. She glances at the silver-tinted hills in the distance that look more inviting than ever. She picks up a slow run and the horses follow behind her, trotting quietly, trusting her lead. At the gate she looks back and forth between the hills and the shadow of her husband walking across the yard, his big shoulders extending as he puts his coat on to protect himself from the cool night air. How far away her life with him suddenly feels. And in her belly she feels a twinge, a tiny movement. The foal looks at her with dark eyes, as though recognizing a kindred spirit.

         She tries to think of words to answer him. The moon doesn’t make life. I was there, saw your beginning. That’s just not the way it happens. But the foal continues watching her and she knows she feels it, a heaviness growing inside her.

         She understands then what she has to do, the very thing she has often stayed up nights fearing. She looks at the horses. All this time I thought I was protecting you. They circle around the gate, growing impatient. Then she slips the rope over the top, allows it to fall open. They push past her, slowly at first, testing the new territory, then pick up a slow canter, the quiet hills beckoning just as she knew they would. And she runs too, her muscles extended as they never have before, her lungs full, her body all light, experiencing a freedom she never knew existed. She can’t think, the exertion is so great, but knows she must keep going forward. She feels it deep within herself, in her breath and muscles, the pain of all of life’s possibilities surrounding her completely.