This is a very old story that I wrote in my mid-twenties. I felt the need to exhume it from its place on a dusty shelf in the attic.
It rained that night in April, so much so that the torrential din compelled me to wake and go outside. The backyards were flooded and all sound was muffled by the steady crash of rain on rooftops. I was restless, unable to sleep, and when I had finally roused myself from the security of my bed, I went down to the back porch in nothing but my pajamas and the overcoat I keep at the bottom of the steps. I was afraid the flower beds I’d planted would wash away and nothing more than that was on my mind. It was pouring cold, directionless rain…heavy and hard, and I could see nothing but the tiny resemblance of fire lilies and tiger lilies and forgetme-nots, floating, helplessly atop the fury of waves that crashed through my backyard. I went around the side of the house to check on the morning glories, and that is when I saw her; the shadowy figure of an enormous beauty of a horse, breathing smoke and stuck between the low, twin trunk of the only historical oak tree left in Mason County. I was shocked, to say the least, witnessing such an absurdity, and I couldn’t imagine how a horse had managed to get stuck there. But there she was, black and wet, her belly lodged between the two huge trunks– as if she’d been dropped from the sky, haphazardly, losing the reins of some chariot. I thought about this and crept closer to the scene, still unsure if I was fully awake; my bare feet stuck in the cold mud like poles in quicksand.
She was obviously a wild horse, most likely from Beaufort; black, untamed, ravenous with life. Her hooves, which could barely scrape the surface of the earth, kicked, diligently, in a desperate attempt to free herself. Every few minutes her enormous body would slump into the cradle of the two trunks, and there she’d remain until another gust of emotion would overtake her, her body contracting again and tightening as she’d fight once more to escape.
The rain wasn’t stopping – it was torrential and by now the Lowes and the Brickners awoke also, migrating to the scene. In sing song unison they said, “Oh my!” and I suddenly felt as if I’d been caught doing something inappropriate, standing along side of my house half dressed, watching a horse try to free itself from a trap of my invention.
“Why doesn’t someone call the fire department?” Mrs. Brickner shouted from her back porch, her dog Happy under her arm.
I didn’t understand why, but I never actually expected firemen to come out when it rains. It just didn’t seem like common sense. At any rate, I had to believe that firemen could do a fine job at setting a wild horse free, with their long ladders and thick ropes. At the moment, common sense seemed grossly distant anyway.
Ray’s cousin, Winifred, also came trudging through the muddy rivers of backyards and the tiny streets of our development, once the rumors spread that I had a wild horse stuck in my tree. And by the time she arrived, so then did the firemen with their whistles and loud blinking red and white lights that glowed through the dim haze of morning fog and rain.
“This is miraculous!” said Captain Radcliff, whom I remembered from grade school when he gave a speech on house fires. “Stop, Drop and Roll!” he’d shout and being a bit overweight, we snickered aloud when he attempted the drop and roll. “How long has she been there?” he said, looking at me and I wondered if he too, remembered the mockery two decades ago. I answered but it was difficult to speak now because the wind began to whip and blow the rain into a cloud around us. I ran in for a moment to get an umbrella. When I returned I repeated; “It must have been an hour ago that I woke and found her there.”
“But what time was it that you’d gone to bed?” he shouted.
“Ten or so, I’d say, no later than half past.”
Up behind the houses facing East, there crept the dawning of a solemn and weary glaze of indistinct light. It looked as though the storm from the West was on a collision course with one coming in from the East, and by day break, the sky would burst. It was only six, but I knew the day would be colorless. The horse in the tree seemed to get blacker and blacker as the water seeped through her slick, oiled hair. I wanted desperately to touch her, to calm her; not so much because I knew about animals or horses in particular, but I merely wanted to run my hands across her wet skin because that’s what seemed the right thing to do. To touch the animal. I wanted her to know that we would try our best to set her free, but that at the moment, things looked dim.
Seven of the fire men began to slide a sturdy cloth under the horse while she reared her legs and snorted and squirmed. The mud lapped hungrily at their rubber boots and I watched them persevere through the heavy, muddy task. They tried hoisting ropes around the animal, but to no avail. The animal protested in an uproar, retaliating each time she felt a cord tighten around her underside. They tried hooking the cords up to a pulley, which hung from the top of the fire truck ladder, hoping that they could lift the horse into the air, instead of sliding her out. But the branches of the tree wrapped around the beast like an over-protective mother, keeping the horse encaged and immobile.
By seven-thirty in the morning, the crowd, now at about thirty or so, expected that the rain would clear. But the sky was still ominously dark and the wind hoo-ed and woo-ed through the branches of budding trees. The mud encased our legs like undried cement and I too, began to feel a bit trapped like the wild horse who no one seemed able to free. I wanted to go inside because my skin had become saturated and I began to feel the chill of cold, early April through my bones. The morning was giving birth to a most unpleasant day, and as I stood barely sheltered on my side lawn, I felt the eerie timelessness that surrounded myself and the crowd of onlookers. It was as if I’d never moved at all – but that I’d just been there, all along – barefooted, and chilled by miserable weather, flooding, and an empty, black sky.
I’d been no-where and I’d be going no-where, and such thoughts scared me because on the whole I didn’t let thoughts like that ever get to me. I kept to the flower beds in the Spring; grew tomatoes, cucumbers and beans in the summer; pruned and raked in the fall; planted bulbs in the winter. And yet, the simplicity of my life seemed catastrophic under the weight of the storm. I felt my legs buckle beneath me as the burden of my bones, skin and wet clothes became heavier and heavier. It was as if I were forced into realizing that I hadn’t done much with my life. And what I had done was washed away by God or nature in one brief moment. As free as I was, there I remained, waiting for a sign or movement. Waiting, perhaps, for someone to scream, “it’s over!” and the horse would no longer be in the tree but instead be on the outside, running away towards something, anything. Just running towards life.
But that was not the case. Instead, Warren Wexler from the Exxon station, with no teeth and a membership in the NRA shouted, “Not so wild now.”
A few more hours passed and the poor beast was paralyzed, still, and looking lifeless. One of the Bowmans’ teenage sons suggested cutting the tree with a chain saw, but Mr. and Mrs. Brickner and the Lowes protested because they knew, as we all did, it was the only historic oak left in this town and if it were destroyed, the Sheriff wouldn’t put up that plaque he’d been promising for the past year. That’s when Mr. Garcia, the veterinarian, came plowing through the crowd and said that the horse would die soon because the trunk was cutting into her organs and she was losing blood. By that point I looked down at my legs, which were shin-deep in muck, and in the pallid haze of the stormy day, the ground looked red and savage. I knew that it was only a matter of time now, before the rain would cease and we’d all be able to go back inside and get warm and dry again, and that when you think about it, storms never last as long as they seem to. Things grow back. It’s the way of life.
The Brickners were still chatting with the Lowes and Mr. Garcia smoked a wet cigarette with Winifred and the firemen. Happy got loose and rolled freely in the mud only to incite Mrs. Bricker to chase the dog and scold it for being recalcitrant. I stood alone, watching the horse’s stomach contract like a dying balloon. The firemen had given up. No one had any new ideas. It seemed we were all just standing around, distrait, waiting for the inevitable. I wondered sadly, how the firemen would get her out after she died, and then the miserable thought occurred to me; they would cut her in half and remove her piece by piece. Of course that’s what they would do, because the tree needed that plaque and the town needed their history. And I felt seriously ill; not so much for the horse, but for us, who stood in our backyards, chit-chatting in the rain with umbrellas over our heads and wet cigarettes, watching something wild die, so that maybe our lives wouldn’t seem so miserable after all. And in that instant something overcame me and I drew my thick muddy legs out of their casts and I made my way to the tree and I did what I felt was the only thing to do. I climbed up on the slippery branches of the big oak, the branches that hovered over the V-shape of the trunk, and I felt the surprised eyes of a disapproving audience upon me. Winifred gasped. The firemen dropped their cigarettes. Mr. Garcia shouted, “Stop!”
But what did it matter? The damage was already done.
I looked away from the crowd and shinnied up the tree. She was brilliantly hot when I finally touched her. Her skin felt like silk but she barely moved. And I knew I would scare her but I tried to be gentle. She shuddered like a sleeping old woman being roused by a nurse’s cold hand; her energy, once enormous, strong, wild, had now faded. But, before she died I had only one hope for her; that she would be, for just one moment more, wild and free again. And then, as my arms clung feverishly to the limbs above me, I lowered myself on to her back and let go of the branch. All of my weight was on her now and in one last angry and abandoned attempt to be alive again, her magical body bucked and kicked and heaved and galloped. And I held on to her mane for dear life as if I were riding through a crazy forest of danger and of life. Though it didn’t last. Maybe five minutes. Maybe less. But soon her body slumped within the tree, lifeless and tame. And I could feel the hot gush of blood on my legs and I knew that her heart was finally gone.
In the murmuring distance between subsiding rain and hollow wind, the voices of my neighbors murmured words of disbelief and disgust.
“What a spectacle!” I heard, through the trickle and gale and I was sure that it was Mrs. Brickner who finally caught up with Happy.
“There was always something wrong him,” someone else said. “He’s just not right in the head.”
But that was the worst of it. One by one they disappeared, retreating back into their homes to dry their hair and warm their feet, and I knew they would all be filled with the lifeblood of the story for months to come.
And then, as I slid off the dead body, I thought again how she got into such an odd predicament in the first place. It seemed very possible to me that she did drop from the sky and that perhaps because of the storm, she’d lost her way and had had an accident. I thought about this for what seemed a good long while, my flesh no longer shaking from the chill of the wet day. The only sound left was the drizzle of intermittent rain through the drainpipes of everyone’s houses and the soft whimpering of a yard full of dead plants. And then, Captain Radcliff wrapped a blanket around me and told me I’d better head indoors. “Fine,” I said, and ascended the back steps of my porch. I was tired. And as I wearily closed the door behind me, out of the rain, I heard the chain saws buzzing and the crack of bone from my warm, dry kitchen. It would be a year before I would replant the flower garden again. I would wait until next Spring. But by god, the whole yard would be covered. Only this time, I would plant wildflowers.