I can stay so long as I help out around the farm. I'll muck-out the horses, feed the pigs, milk the cows and sheer the sheep and pick up the dog shit. I won't stay long. I never do. Except I haven't left yet. I keep saying I will. I keep packing my bags and then repacking them. But I never make it to the gates—one of the sheep fell sick, the cows need to be moved pasture, etcetera, etcetera...
Thing is, my talent is running. Has been for twenty-three years. That's how it works. It's how I protect myself. People can't let you down if you let them down first.
Still, here I am.
I'm standing here outside of my cabin with my rucksack over my shoulder and my sunhat in my hand. It feels rough, like straw. It keeps my hair out of my face when I walk, at least. I clench it, and then I relax. I don't put it on. I think about Boss. I think about the stable-hand, Jordan. They live in the big house together. Boss makes me lunch sometimes and Jordan and I like the same books. This morning I woke up and found a glass vase filled with wild flowers, just left there on my porch for me.
How long have I been standing here again?
That's another thing. At the farm, time doesn't exist. I don't know why. I think about it a lot though. Sometimes I scare myself thinking I've been here lifetimes rather than just a month. I feel crazy, a little, but the even crazier thing is that I kind of like it.
Tangent. Shit. I should go. I should —
Somebody curses in the distance and I look up from my sunhat.
"That damn horse is back!" Jordan growls. Jordan is only 26 but he talks like an old man. "Help me get him inside the fence."
I know which horse he's talking about, too. Some old lady owned it but after she died, animal control came to detain it and the animal got away. It's been living feral in the valley ever since. Sometimes, at night, Jordan and I stand by the barn and hear it, the horse, galloping away when the main generator is switched on and the farm lights spook it from the apple orchard. One time I saw it. It was jet black, all over, even its eyes—so black it looked more like a horse-shaped gap in time and space rather than a living creature.
I drop my bag and hat. When I get to the gate, Jordan is wrestling with a lasso, and then the horse charges him. Jordan curses, then leaps to the side and throws the rope down to book-it back inside the fence.
The horse turns on its heel and flees. The lasso trails behind it like a serpent. I launch at it but it burns through my palms and fingers, makes me cry out.
Jordan's patting dust off his clothes.
I've already gotten up and started running.
"Jody!" I hear behind me. "What the hell are you doing, girl?!"
"I got it!" I holler over my shoulder. "Tell Boss I'll be back."
I follow its tracks. It's left a dust cloud. When I find it, the end of the lasso is caught against a truck tire. I see it happen. I see the rope tangle, catch, and the horse as it reaches the end of the tether and is thrown head-over-heels by its own momentum. Its neck jerks so violently I think it snaps. It lands hard on its back, flailing and screaming. I've never heard a horse scream before. I didn't even know they could scream. But this is screaming. And then it's strangling itself.
When horses panic, they're like people. They get stupid and dangerous and fight or flight takes over. Right now, the horse is fighting. Its screams are tightened as the rope clenches around its throat. I can't get close without a hoof going through my jaw. It's like it's galloping up-side down.
It's on its side, exhausting itself. I throw myself forward and slice my pen-knife through the rope, and after a moment it's able to scramble to its legs again. But the rope is still too tight, and the horse is still panicking, so it runs again.
This time, when I find it, it's choking. Its head is bowed. It's gagging for air and stumbling. Its bloody knees hit the ground and then the rest of it does too. Dirt is kicked up around it. I'm already there. I collapse to my knees and force the rope away. I have to cut it. It just lays there, the horse, heaving and worn out and barely conscious. I worry it's having a heart attack. I don't think I know what to do for a horse who's having a heart attack. I decide to just sit and hold its head in my lap and coo to it—to her.
I realise I'm waiting. I think I know what I'm waiting for too. I think she's going to die. So I try to be ready for it. It's dumb, feeling sad over a dying horse. But that's how sad works. Something with worth is missing or going to be, and you're just sad about it.
Even so, after a while, the horse is still breathing. She has enough energy to sit up so she isn't flat on the ground anymore, and then she just lays there for a while and lets me pet her head and rub her neck and whisper into her ear.
We're in an old, dried-up ditch—the kind that probably won't be very easy to climb out of. I don't even recall climbing into it. I would worry about this more but then I notice that the horse is licking and chewing on her mouth. Licking and chewing is what horses do when they're comfortable. And I figure that if she isn't worried anymore, then I won't be either.
Finally, she pulls herself to her feet. I stand back and watch her shake the dust off her body. Beige clouds rise from her dark fur like a second skin, and then rains down around her, catching the sunlight in the specs.
She staggers up onto the track quickly. It takes me a few tries, but I manage to get myself out of the ditch, too. She doesn't let me pet her right away, but she lets me put the rope around her head and nose and guide her back towards the farm. Only I stop. I get to thinking that I don't want to bring her back. Or rather that I shouldn't. I'd never told anybody, but I envied her, all those nights I'd listened to her flying through the orchard, free and running. I wanted that. I wanted that so badly. So I slip the rope from her neck and walk away.
She follows me.
I stop again. I say, "No, girl. You gotta go."
When I walk again, hoofbeats clop after me.
I turn and scowl. The horse looks tired, like she wants me to make the hurt go away. I can't. I never can. She takes a deep wheezy breath and steps forward to put her muzzle against my pocket. I step away.
"I don't have anything," I say. "Get your own food. There's grass, right over there."
She just looks at me. When I step forward to push her away she backs up; keeping enough distance between us that I can't reach her.
She spooks and backs up again. She puts her ears back, then forward again.
She just looks at me. It's cold this morning. Our breath is making fog. At least mine is. Not hers; right now she's holding her breath. I didn't know horses could hold their breath.
"Run!" I shout. "You're meant to run away!" I pick up dirt and fling it at her. She throws her head up and squeals. I do it again. "Run away! Run away!"
I sprint at her. I ram right into her chest. She doesn't try to get away, just keeps backing up like she thinks that's what I want her to do. It's not. I want her to lash out, kick or bite or buck. I keep yelling and screaming and pushing and then I fall over and cry. She stands away from me, staring, and I just curl up on the ground and cry and cry and cry.
"Why don't you run away?" I sob. "Why don't you run away anymore?"
She won't run away.
I won't run away.
Guess it's not only me who's decided it.
. . . .
The sun's setting as we walk through the farm's gate.
I'm still pretty emotional, so I don't really talk much as I take the horse and tie her up next to the cow paddock on a long rope so she can graze. Boss helps me tend to her. She has some pretty serious rope-burn around her throat and mane, a few cuts and scratches on her knees, and she's still wheezing from the strain on her larynx, but Boss kisses under her eye and tells her she'll be okay.
"You gonna stick around?" I'm asked. We're done tending to the horse. I can either go back to my shack or I can go and eat supper with Boss and Jordan. Still, I know that's not what she means...
"Yeah," I say. "I'll stick around."