Fiction 2017 / Spring 2017 / Uncategorized / Volume 47

Horses—Bill Vernon

A series of storms trapped him inside so long, he envied the animals’ freedom to roam in their pastures. Within a day he felt like King Tut, Cincinnati Zoo’s silverback gorilla, whom he identified with, pacing back and forth in a cage.

He was full of oats, as his farmer-father and mother used to say. They were snug snowbirds in their Florida haven, but like them, he felt as if the outdoors was where he belonged. Moving into and restoring the old farmstead last year was his way of immersing himself into Nature. Now he was sick of indoor gyms and running tracks, eager to train more naturally, to work off the mental fat stored up from four months of forced vacation from what he loved and needed. The cold and snow had disappeared, the buds on the bushes and trees were swelling, the county roads around his home lay open except for bad visibility. The earth, waiting for plows to emit its perfume, called him like an invitation.

The house was really only a shelter. He’d worn the house like a parka during the cold. Now he was wearing the house like a poncho, a man caught amid thunder, lightning, wind, and rain. When would the weather relent? He did sit-ups and push-ups impatiently, listening to water that thrummed on the roof, gurgled into eaves, and tumbled through downspouts. The blue paint on the plaster drove his thoughts up the chimney. The pounding liquid distorted the window panes so the familiar world outside looked alien.

But early afternoon on the third day, the temperature rose to the 70s, the lightning stopped. Thick gray clouds loomed just over treetop height, tricked on the brain of the night light, and that dim glow seemed like a signal to run.

It was an Easter rain he splashed into, crossing the yard through feet-soaking grass to the loafing pen. His father’s three Arabs were there as if waiting for him, not inside their stable at the feeding bins as he’d expected. When he emerged through the murk, as if unsurprised, they whinnied welcome. He squeezed through the split-rail fence, and as if with pleasure they shivered and stomped. He murmured hellos, slipped among them on muddy hoof prints and dung, and the horse’s cold, dilated muzzles brushed his thighs in passing.

He had to flat-foot for balance around them, turning up the narrow barbed-wire neck onto more solid ground, but here they crowded around him so jogging was awkward, a horse squeezing in on either side and one behind, shoving with his nose.

At the mouth of their 40-acre pasture, he was finally able to spring away freely. He took their trail just inside the fence and began traversing the field in their place. Chilly knee-high grass baptizing him sent energy surging through his legs. He rushed forward, stepping through rills, brushing past thickets, branches, and thorns. The horses matched his excitement, racing parallel to him farther inside the field, breaking into bursts of undirected kicking, jostling, and neighing. On his second lap, though, he noticed that they’d settled down to graze, their ears cocked toward him, this odd human thing doing what they liked to do.

Circling the pasture, he forgot about them, but over an hour later when he’d had enough and trotted down the neck between the two fields he’d passed between before, he noticed how they were green with three-inch high winter wheat, and he noticed that the horses had taken his direction. They’d lined up behind him in single file and were following him.

At the barn, he turned and held out his hands. From the habit his father had taught them, they nosed his hands, then nuzzled his dripping shorts for sugar.

Breathing hard, as wet as they were, he went from one to another, cupping a chin knob of flesh, running a hand along the coarse length of forehead to nose, bending to touch the scabbed remains of a toe lost in evolution, palming thick, hairy coats not yet beginning to shed. Their muscles twitched and he smelled their sweat and ordure, but their odor seemed so natural it was almost sweet.

While they touched, enjoying each other’s nearness, the horses made a soft throaty sound. They watched him through long, blank slits set in soft, dark marbles, and as the rainwater flicked from their well nerved and arc-muscled bodies in spasms he saw himself in their eyes.

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