The Mare

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September 20, 2015

When her vision began to clear she found herself standing on the edge of a highway. There was no traffic. She was alone. The road was divided down the middle by a strip of freshly mowed grass. Each side of the highway had two lanes, plainly marked by painted stripes, on each side of the grassy median. The road curved ahead of her and behind her. She could not see where she had been nor where she was going. On both sides of the roadway there was a thick growth of big pine trees. She could smell their resinous crisp scent. Their large shaggy boles soared heavenward. Far above her head the wind rustled gently in their spreading crowns. There were a few fallen pine cones lying in the grass beside the road. Pine straw littered the gravel beneath her feet. It was late afternoon, but she did not know how she knew this. The sky was overcast and a fine mist was falling. She could feel it on her face, but the sensation was not disagreeable. The weather was warm. She was not thirsty or hungry or in any pain. She might have been where she was for a long time. Perhaps she had been, but about this point she was not certain. She did not have any idea where she was. There were no signs, no guideposts. She might be anywhere. There were pine forests like these from Florida to Texas.

Gradually she became aware that her shoulders were beginning to ache. She was holding her hands and arms behind her and tugging away at some heavy object. She was curious. She decided to let go, turn around, and have a look at it. She did so immediately. At first she could not make out what it was either because the light was bad or there was something the matter with her eyes, but she continued to focus on it until she could see that it was a crudely made horse trailer, battered, badly rusted, and extremely muddy. She had been hauling it along the side of the road by the hitch. She could not imagine why she was doing this.

Turning back from her examination of the trailer she looked as far as she could along the road in the direction she was traveling. For the first time she noticed a lighted area ahead of her not very far away. Inside the lighted space there was a blocky rectangular shape that appeared to be a building. She gazed at it through the mist for a few minutes and decided that it was indeed a building of some kind, a restaurant or a service station, maybe. She thought that there might be other people there and, perhaps, shelter.

Seizing the trailer hitch again as before she pulled hard. Presently the cumbersome thing began to roll slowly forward. The trailer was very heavy. She was afraid to abandon the trailer. She could not remember how she happened to have it in her possession, but it seemed, somehow, to be terribly important. She felt a sense of responsibility concerning it.

Luckily, she did not have far to go. As she slowly approached the lights she could see that they were a series of high intensity lamps set on tall poles surrounding the perimeter of a service station that was also brilliantly lit from within. The area around the service station was bathed in a pool of colorless light. There were no people. The place was immaculately clean and appeared to be brand-new. The station and its surrounding island of pavement were set apart from the pine forest by a high solid concrete block wall, painted white. The walls of the service station itself were also white, but shiny, like glazed porcelain. There were three large silvery garage doors. Two were rolled down, but one was open. She could see the hydraulic lifts set into the floors and several tool chests on wheels, with numerous drawers, neatly arranged against the inside wall. Above these were racks hung with belts and hoses. The noticed that there was a large oil drum in one corner painted white with the word “WASTE” neatly stenciled on it in big black letters. The was a water cooler to quench the thirst of the mechanics but none was in sight. The adjoining office had huge plate glass windows, a desk and swivel chair, a cash register, and several lounge chairs upholstered in red plastic. Pyramids of brightly colored cans of oil were arranged in each window. There was a vending machine for candy and another for soft drinks. Outside there new tires on display, chained and padlocked to tubular steel racks. Two metal canopies stretched out, like welcoming arms, over the platforms where the fuel pumps stood, painted orange and white, with digital displays to record the number of gallons sold and black hoses to dispense the gasoline. Next to these she could see smaller hoses that provided air and water. Running from each light pole that stood just inside the encircling wall and crisscrossing the entire area were strings of cheerful looking whirligigs and lines of small triangular plastic flags in vivid colors–pink and lime green, yellow and blue. Interspersed with these were gold and silver tinsel streamers, so thick they hid the sky. The mild breeze set all these in motion. The flags made an endless flapping sound. The whirligigs whirred and the tinsel streamers sighed. All was in readiness for the automobiles that traveled that road and for the people who rode in them, but there was not a vehicle nor a traveler visible anywhere, except for the trailer and herself.

She had stopped at the edge of the lighted area to take stock. After a bit she thought she detected movement. She stepped forward just as a young man came around the corner of the service station. He was blonde, clean-shaven, and dressed all in spotless white, like his station. She noticed that he was very young. He had a fresh and inexperienced air, insouciant, untouched by any sorrow, such as young people sometimes have. It gave him the appearance of a being not of this world. He looked at the woman uneasily, as if he wanted to be of some use, but was uncertain what to do for a traveler on foot, without an automobile to be fueled or a windshield to be wiped.

The young man’s uncertainty made her painfully self-conscious. She became aware that her clothes were rough and dirty. Her jacket was out at the elbows. Her pants were pushed awkwardly into the tops of her boots. She was muddy from the knees down. Her gloves had holes in the fingers. Her hair needed combing. She thought that she must not much resemble his idea of a good customer. She looked anxiously back at the horse trailer and then at the service station attendant.

“Please, may I park the trailer here?” she said to the young man.

The attendant in white looked doubtful. He looked at the trailer and back again at the woman.

“It’s okay, lady, but you can’t stay here forever. Put it over at the side of the garage where it won’t be in the way.” he said at last.

The woman went back to the trailer and grabbed the hitch and hauled away. The trailer rumbled and squeaked after her. It seemed heavier than ever. She put it where the young man had directed, at the far side of the garage. She didn’t care. The whole area was as bright as a summer day. The woods leaned over the wall. Pine branches scraped the top of the trailer, which looked uglier and dirtier than ever, contrasted with everything there that was clean and new.

She went all around the trailer, studying it, and stopped at the back. The homemade makeshift nature of this trailer was obvious. It had a heavy tailgate that was hinged at the bottom rather than the usual arrangement of doors that swing open from the sides. The tailgate was held in place by steel pins on chains. With difficulty she unfastened these. The tailgate fell open and struck the pavement with a loud resounding clang. Because the trailer was built high off the ground the tailgate rested at a steep angle. The woman thought that this was not right, but she was powerless to alter it. She could not see at all into the interior of the trailer. It was pitch black inside.

“Are you all right? she said. “Can you get out of there okay?” After she had spoken she realized that it was her own voice. She did not know why she had spoken. She did not know to what or to whom she spoke. She thought, I’m losing my mind.

“Yes, I think so.” said a pleasant voice from within the trailer. “Give me a little time.”

There were snuffling and snorting noises from within the trailer, followed by a scraping sound. A moment later the mare backed out of the trailer with a rush and stood briefly with her hind feet on the pavement and her front feet in the trailer. Then she backed up slowly with her hindquarters well up under her and her front legs stiffly braced. Her forelegs came down the tailgate in an ungainly sliding motion. Her hooves made an awful rasping sound. Having landed safely with all four feet on the pavement, she shook herself all over, from head to tail.

The woman was dumbfounded. She had not known what to expect, but surely not this. What was she to do with a talking horse? She stood and stared. The horse was a large coarsely made dark chestnut mare with a broad heavy head and a Roman nose. She had a thick crested neck and a long flaxen mane and tail. She looked very strong. The mare had no halter, bridle, or saddle. She had no horseshoes.

Awed, the woman put her arms around the mare’s neck, like Alice and the fawn in that magical place without memory, and led the horse gently from the hard concrete onto the soft grass. The woman thought that the grass would be easier on the horse’s legs and hooves.

“That’s better.” said the horse. “This is very nice.” The woman jumped. She either could not believe or could not remember that the horse talked.

They stood side by side in a little clearing close to the shoulder of the highway where the perimeter wall stopped. Just outside the wall the pine woods began. They were just within the wall and within the friendly circle of light that surrounded the service station. The mist had stopped falling. Sunlight struggled fitfully through a cloud bank in the west. The mare put her head down and blew her breath out gently. She began to eat the grass.

Suddenly a man came running out of the woods and jumped up onto the mare’s back. The woman thought, how can he run like that? He’s crippled. The woman knew at once that he was her husband and that they had been married for many years. He was lean and dark, but from first to last she could not see him clearly.

“Come on! Let’s ride her.” he said and kicked the mare’s sides. Man and horse started off.

“Don’t!” She’s tired.” the woman said, but he did not listen. Frantic and fearful she ran after them, but she knew she could not keep up with the increasing speed of the horse. In desperation she scrambled up onto the back of the mare and clung to her husband’s waist.

The mare galloped along the bottom of a drainage ditch filled with a growth of weeds that ran parallel to the highway. There was water standing in the ditch. The woman could feel the mare’s hooves slithering in mud. For a horrible moment the horse staggered and almost went down, but she made a mighty effort and recovered her footing. Frightened, the mare turned abruptly and struggled up the bank of the ditch until she reached the shoulder of the road.

The man kicked the mare’s sides again and she bolted diagonally across the highway which was all at once, inexplicably, full of traffic. Brakes screamed and cars swerved violently to avoid the running horse. The woman caught glimpses of glossy painted fenders sliding by, inches away. She could not see the passengers or drivers, only headlights and the glint of glass and chrome.

Then they were across the road and galloping at full speed along the opposite shoulder.

“Slow down. I’m not a very good rider.” the woman said. The man never said a word. The pine trees gave way to a field. He kicked the horse again. She galloped through the field, going more slowly now because she was crossing the rows, which had been newly plowed and sown.

“We don’t belong here.” the woman said.

The horse ran very well despite the heavy going. She held her head up proudly. Her pale mane streamed like a banner.

AT the far edge of the field they entered a long narrow alley which was bordered on both sides by a dense wood. The path in front of them ran straight, like a tunnel through the pine trees, but it was studded here and there with the sawed  off trunks of saplings which were like spikes set as obstacles in their way. These grew more numerous as they went along. The path narrowed. The mare lapsed from a gallop to a slow trot and then to a walk as she was forced to pick her way carefully through the thicket of sapling spears. The path narrowed further until the branches of the trees on either side met above them. The overhanging branches came down lower and lower threatening to scrape the woman from her precarious perch on the horse’s back. She had ducked down and made herself small while feeling the prickly pine branches drag over her head and back.

Still the man urged the horse forward and she went bravely on with her strong neck proudly arched. The woman was increasingly afraid. Night was falling. The path ahead was dark. She was frightened both for herself and for the horse. It seemed to her that her own life and the mare’s were inextricably linked. She had a sense of very real and imminent peril, although from what she could not have told. The mare went ever more slowly while the woods pressed in from every side.

The next thing she knew she was sitting bolt upright in bed. Beside her, a shapeless mount under the blankets, her husband slept on. For a time she hung simultaneously in two worlds. Then she could see, by the faint radiance from the night-light in the hall outside the bedroom, his crutches leaning against the foot of the bed. She could feel her heart racing and blood surging and singing in her ears. She sat rigid, frozen with fear, motionless, a small trapped creature waiting for whatever was to come to her, for a fate not known, shadowy in its details, but nonetheless dreaded and loathed, then seeing at last the meshes which had been tenaciously, silently, cunningly forged by her own civilized, conscientious expectations.