by Audrey Fierberg
The sound Senator made when he went down would never leave her. The swell and heave of his flank, the way his eyes searched and rolled, the heat and strain of his breath. The way a being once filled with so much warmth and strength let himself buckle and fall to the grass, and then whatever was inside of him was gone. Only his weight was left. Even now the headstone seemed too small. The rows of little rocks were poor memorials for the horses that lay beneath them. Jane whispered their names to herself: “Senator, Hank, Lila, St. Francis, Hope.” Jane had come to say goodbye again. She was leaving. The divorce papers were signed. The farm was up for sale. All the horses that had been there once were now gone from the farm, except those that lay in the plot tucked against the woods behind the back pasture. She sat by Senator’s grave first. She leaned her back into his headstone. Jane looked out over the fields where he had grazed in the summer sun and pictured him there again, alive, warm and soft and dappled grey, smelling like grass and molasses. She remembered her hands through his silvery mane. She remembered him down on his side, screaming from the pain of colic. And then dead.
Hank’s headstone was next. She fingered the scar from where he’d broken her arm as Jane had tried to break him. She remembered the first time he hadn’t bucked or kicked or spooked, and they’d made it once around the ring with her on his back. She had dismounted and whispered in his chestnut, velvety ear, “Good boy, good boy,” and he had snorted, but she thought he understood. He understood when she held his head against her chest and whispered, “Good boy, good boy,” as the vet prepared the needle.
Then Lila, who she rescued. Lila, who had been starved, who once she became strong again under Jane’s careful care became dangerous. How she kicked Jane’s daughter Anna as she’d tried to bring her into the barn and out of the snow one winter, how she’d broken her rib. Jane had saved her and then had to put her down, kill her so she didn’t kill anybody.
She sat by the grave of St. Francis, a beautiful bay, who had eaten hay filled with blister beetles and took three days to die. Then Jane sat by Hope. Hope was a little dun, the pony Jane had bought for her daughter when Anna was still a little girl. Hope was old mare when Jane bought her, and had only gotten older. Jane said, “I love you, sweet girl,” and kissed the gravestone. She rose, and looked out over the farm one last time, the fields giving way to forests, the sun illuminating the weeds and wildflowers that had grown tall in the absence of horses to eat them down, and then turned away. Susan was waiting in the driveway. Jane took her bag from the blacktop and hoisted it into the truck.
“That’s all you have?”
When Jane decided to leave this place, she had decided to leave everything but the essentials. In the bag was a little book where she had written down all the things she didn’t want to forget, the horses’ show names, the way she found the kittens the barn cats birthed in the hay every spring, how she named each little mewling life after a flower. How Buttercup, an orange tabby with snaggle teeth, had been her favorite. How he went out into the woods one day. How that night she’d heard the eerie bark of coyotes. He didn’t come back.
“You don’t want to say goodbye to Parker?” Jane’s husband, ex-husband, was in the house picking up the last of his things. She couldn’t remember when it happened, but there must have been a day when she woke up and didn’t like him much anymore. And then a day she no longer loved him. Their daughter was grown and gone. Jane had grown, too. Something that used to be there was gone. This should have been marked by something, she thought, some sort of fight or tragedy or trauma. Instead, their marriage had disintegrated not over one cataclysmic happening but almost imperceptibly, the way when Jane was focused on brushing one of the horses in the barn the sun might set without her noticing, and by the time she returned to the house night had already come. One night, coming in late from the barn, she walked into the house to find it empty. Parker wasn’t there. He said he was out with friends, which Jane later learned meant he was out with Cherylanne. When he finally told her he cried, but she didn’t. Once she found out what he was doing, she found she didn’t care.
“No,” Jane said, and placed a hand on Susan’s arm. “Let’s just go.” Susan put the car in drive.
The goodbye at the airport was not difficult. Susan kissed Jane on the cheek and said, “Be safe,” as if Jane’s safety was a choice over which Jane had control. Susan asked her to keep in touch and though Jane knew she wouldn’t, she said she would. Jane watched her friend go and then wheeled her khaki suitcase to the check-in counter. The smiling young woman in Jane’s passport picture, the woman Jane had been, looked so unlike the lonely woman standing before the desk that the man behind the counter asked for her driver’s license to confirm her identity. The man was bald and cheerful. He held her license close to his face.
“It really is you!” He was strangely playful. Jane stood there with the weight of everything that had ever happened to her and everyone she had ever been like a sinkhole inside her and tried to smile at the man. He was just trying to get through his shitty job without wanting to die, Jane knew, and she respected something in that even though he was grating.
“Sure is!” Jane felt her voice come out low and folksy and appeasing. The man gave her a ticket for her flight and took her bag. She drifted towards security.
Jane sunk back against the uncomfortable blue weave of the airline seat. She closed her eyes. She imagined herself on the beach in the picture her daughter texted her as she tried to convince Jane to move in with her in Florida. Anna texted, “What’s left for you in Michigan anyway? Not Dad, not any friends really, and the horses are gone. You can sit on your farm which is more like a graveyard or you can be here,” A picture of a beach at sunset with swaying palm trees appeared on Jane’s phone, “With me and Sam. We love you. We want you to be happy. Move in with us.” Jane said no. She said no again. Then, Anna called her and told her she was pregnant. Jane booked her flight the moment she hung up the phone.
Jane felt a tap on her shoulder. “Excuse me, I think that’s my seat.” Jane opened her eyes. A heavily pierced young woman with a tangle of black hair was pointing at the window seat beside Jane. Jane stood up and let the woman pass by. As she passed Jane inhaled a smell like burning roses and then the scent of unwashed body. It wasn’t unpleasant. The woman settled herself in her seat, smiled at Jane and pulled out a book. She began to read. Jane relaxed again. She didn’t want to speak to anyone on the flight. She didn’t want to speak to anyone at all. The older Jane got the less she had to say. She retreated inside herself, content to let the time on the flight slide out before her and then pass.
Midway through the flight she heard a soft hiss from the woman next to her. The woman was holding her arm out in front of her. She poked at a fresh tattoo near her wrist. The skin over the image was swollen and flakey.
“Are you alright?” Jane asked.
“Yeah, new ink sucks. And the ointment I brought to put on it was in too big of a container, I guess. They took it in security.”
“I have Neosporin, would that help?” Jane didn’t like to see anything in pain.
“No, thank you, I’ll be okay.” The woman continued to examine her arm, paused, and then tilted her head. “Actually, yeah. Sorry. That would be really nice.”
Jane reached into her carry-on and pulled out her carefully organized quart-sized plastic bag of liquids. There was something sad about a stranger seeing her toiletries, the anti-aging-moisturizer, the sunscreen with the highest SPF she could find in which each ingredient was organic, the eye cream, the Vaseline. The Neosporin, because Jane was once, was still, a mother. Because Jane was terribly afraid of anything that could happen to her, the people around her, and so she was always prepared. As if carrying Band-Aids at all times could prevent the plane going down, or stop a heart attack or a man with a gun. As if death might come and Jane would brandish a tube of antibacterial ointment like a sword and death would collapse in on itself, vanquished like any other bacterium the cream was meant to kill. Jane handed the woman the tube.
“Thanks.” The woman traced a thin line of white cream onto her fingertip and began to massage it gently into the tattoo. She gave the ointment back to Jane, and Jane returned it to its place in her arsenal. As she watched the woman pat the medicine into her skin Jane found herself curious. Jane observed her own curiosity. It surprised her.
“What is it?” Jane asked.
“A dung beetle.”
The woman held her wrist out towards Jane. Under the flaking skin and lotion shades of green and black made the animal appear almost iridescent. “There’s a myth that a dung beetle rolls the sun across the sky, and that’s why it rises and sets. I got it because life is like that, I guess, sometimes it’s beautiful like a sunrise and sometimes it’s rolling a ball of shit up a hill.” She laughed. “The ancient Egyptians considered the dung beetle a god. Like as if all the shit you go through could make you divine.” Jane thought of the blister beetles that fell from an infested flake of hay in St. Francis’ stall, the beetles that got into the hay then into his mouth and how the toxin inside them killed him slowly. How after he died she searched for the glitter of insect wings in his manure, a form of fecal autopsy, even though she already knew what killed him.
The woman asked, “Any tattoos?”
Jane said, “No.” The woman returned to her book. Jane closed her eyes and listened to the whirr of the engine and the soft voices of other passengers for what remained of the flight.
Jane made her way towards baggage claim. Anna stood there waiting for her. She held a sign that said, “Welcome home, Grandma!” Jane hugged her and the sign fell to the ground. Jane placed a hand on her daughter’s abdomen. Anna’s pregnancy hadn’t begun to show. Jane imagined her grandchild curled safely inside her, unborn and wet. A foal. Anna said, “We have your room all set up!” Jane hugged her daughter again, and for the first time in a while felt herself happy.
The room was beautifully arranged, tasteful like the rest of Anna’s home. The walls were a misty blue and the bedspread was quilted in a way to make it look like an heirloom, though Jane knew it was new. The closet was empty but Anna left rows of hangers for her mother’s things. There were fresh flowers in a ceramic vase on the nightstand. On the dresser sat a little display. Carousel horses, each one tiny and beautiful, each with different colored ribbons braided through their tails. Anna won them as a child at horse shows. Each time she did well on her pony in the ring she was given another one, a dainty equestrian fantasy in the hands of a child filthy with dust and hair and horse sweat. The six little carousel horses watched Jane as she unpacked. She placed her undergarments in the drawer beneath them. Beside them went the face cream, the eye cream, sunscreen and now-crinkled tube of antibiotic. A bottle of the same perfume she’d been wearing since she was a girl herself.
She heard a quiet knock at the door. Sam, her daughter’s husband, stood there in his button down and slacks, his shirt slightly damp with sweat from the heat of his commute. “Can I come in?” He took a step through the doorway. “I just want you to know,” he said, “how happy I am that you’re here. I want you to feel like this is your home.”
Jane thanked him, even though this place didn’t feel like her home at all. It never would. Her home was somewhere in a field in Michigan to which she’d never go back. But thanked him again. She said, “Everything is lovely.”
Sam said, “Good. Tomorrow we’ll all spend the day at the beach!” Jane kept smiling until he closed the door. She lay back across the bed and though her body was still she felt a strange sensation of movement, similar to the gentle bumps and dips of the plane, or how a boat in a quiet ocean might rock and drift.
Jane woke with the sunlight. She went to the bathroom and brushed her teeth and then her hair, counting the brushstrokes. She returned to her room. She put on her creams, her perfume, her navy- and white-striped one-piece bathing suit, linen pants and a terrycloth sweater over top. She went to the kitchen that wasn’t her kitchen and searched through the drawers until she found where Anna kept the tea. She picked out a sachet of peppermint. She boiled water on the stove. She went to the porch with her mug and watched other early risers amble out of their brightly colored houses.
“Good morning, Mom.” Anna was at the door. She walked to behind where Jane was sitting and kissed Jane on her brownish curls. She asked, “Did you sleep well?” and Jane nodded. Anna said, “I can’t wait to show you the beach.”
It was just like the picture. The sand was white and luminous in the late morning sun. The palm trees arched and swayed in the wind. The ocean was glittering and endless. Sam unfolded a chair for Jane but she declined to sit. She wanted to swim. She let her pants fall to the sand and pulled her sweater over her head and walked towards the water. It was warm around her ankles. She looked back at Anna and Sam and watched them relaxing for a minute on their towels. Then she continued out to sea.
The water was warm and vast and her body felt light. Other beachgoers began to line the shore. Other swimmers appeared among the waves. A woman, a strong swimmer, floated on a wave and then dipped down below it. The ocean carried the woman closer to Jane. It was Anna. She’d risen from the beach and come to swim beside her mother. They were quiet for a moment, looking out over the ocean and listening to the high shrieks of seagulls and children playing back along the shore.
“It really is beautiful here. It will be a good place for the baby. It’s a good place to grow up.” Jane’s voice was soft.
Anna said, “So was the farm.” Jane nodded. Somewhere inside her, the memory of Hope arched her soft, dun neck and dipped her head to take a mouthful of clover. A little girl, little Anna, leaned into the mare’s strong body and pressed her face into her side.
A wave rose and broke over their shoulders. “I was thinking,” Jane said, “Not soon, of course, when the baby is old enough, and if there’s a barn we could board a horse at someplace near…” Jane heard her own voice change pitch and break. Anna wrapped her arms around her.
“The baby should grow up with horses.”
“Yes,” Jane said.
Anna said, “I’d like that.”
Jane inhaled and they all there with her. The horses. A velvet muzzle in her hand. A breath against her cheek. The heat and pulse of blood and muscle and life.
About Audrey Fierberg
Audrey Fierberg grew up with horses in Northern Michigan. She is a graduate of The Bard College at Simon’s Rock and Brown University, and is working towards her MFA in Fiction at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in Mirror Dance. She lives in Chicago with her partner, her cat and her toad.