The Men and the Mare
Alone but for mice in the walls, the widow spent the night in the basement on an air mattress. The storm’s progress played on her weather radio: electric poles down, water on the highway, a bow echo over the plateau. Wind whistled through the old clapboard siding, and thunder rattled the windowpanes, the rain slackening only to return in fierce lashes.
She did not take the storm as a portent of things to come, not her husband’s angry hands reaching from the spirit world to conjure ravaging twisters or let hail pour like shattered glass. She took the weather for what it was, a mass of cold air sweeping in from the north and colliding with the warm wetness hanging heavy in the Tennessee Valley for weeks, aggravating to no end her hot flashes.
The next morning, she woke to water dripping from the flooded gutters, birds singing in the soaked trees. She climbed the basement steps and through the foyer window looked outside at the wet, wild weeds and woods a deeper green, the fog rising from the ridges and everything sharpened with a new rawness.
In the pasture, uprooted and blown over, lay the crabapple tree, where days earlier she had stopped with the mare to sniff its bee-cuddled blooms, their trail still laid flat through the broom straw grass. This made her shiver.
Screened door slamming behind her, she set off toward the pasture in her gown. She climbed the board rail fence and dropped to the other side. Grass seeding her legs, cold earth sucking at her feet, she reached the tree and bent over its broken, bird-pecked trunk, sap oozing from splintered heartwood. The widow sifted through the pink petals blown like confetti to the mud, and she cried.
Minutes later, the men drove up the long gravel drive through the foggy pine thicket. The farmhand in his black pickup, shadow of a rifle in the gun rack. The veterinarian in his Land Rover with its Vanderbilt Alumni license plate, white lab coat hanging in a rear window. They parked and walked into the pasture, the veterinarian high-stepping in his khakis, the farmhand moving through the drench as if through dryness, shirt unbuttoned to his wiry chest. They stopped behind her, a man flanking each shoulder.
“It’s a sign,” she said.
“It’s only a tree,” said the farmhand.
“There are plenty more,” said the veterinarian.
“You two don’t understand,” she said and without looking at either man, walked past them and straight inside her house.
She thought about the day she and her husband planted the tree to commemorate the move south, their retirement dream reached—a renovated farmhouse in the country, pastureland and trees, a small stream winding through the back yard. How had this sturdy young tree fallen when not another tree had been moved? Did powers linger in the ether for the dead to gather?
She did not know which man’s idea it was when later she looked out to see the two of them working together. The farmhand’s truck parked in the pasture, a taut chain hooked to its bumper and the tree’s trunk, holding the tree upright as the men rigged cables around four branches. They ran the cables through stakes which they pounded into the ground with the blunt end of a maul. By noon, the tree was once again standing, the only clue to the men’s work sweat soaked shirts and stomped down grass, the glint of the cables in the sunlight.
Neither man came to her door. The veterinarian leaned against the fence. The farmhand brought the bay mare from the barn and walked her to the pasture to set her out. Each man watched as the mare parted the high clover on the hill, heavy red blooms brushing against her black hocks and knees. She lowered her head and threw it back, tossed her mane from side to side. Her coat was fuzzy and dull—wintered—a darker, glistening coat beneath.
They would wait and watch that horse, it seemed to the widow, caught in a silent standoff, until she acknowledged their work. She knew they wanted more.
Dressed now, jeans slid under her gown, a bra and a pair of galoshes on, she joined them at the fence. The mare galloped across the pasture and stopped and rolled on the damp ground, hooves in the air, trying to let the new skin through.
“What do you think about the tree?” said the veterinarian.
“Looks like it never fell,” said the farmhand.
The widow glanced from man to man’s waiting eyes, the farmhand with his deep crow’s feet and sun-leathered skin, bloodshot eyes that had seen years of toil. The veterinarian’s face was plump and softer under a mask of black stubble, his eyes tired but hopeful. Each was calm and patient, men who thought they knew what they were doing around a woman. They’d made mistakes before. They’d learned restraint.
“You two should leave,” she said.
After her husband died, she felt as if her nerves had been bared to the world, her entire body a fingertip shorn away with a kitchen knife, filleted to utter feeling. The injustices in the world—as small as moths struggling in spiderwebs under her porch light, as big as families dead beneath bombed rubble continents away—they beat inside her.
She was on her way to town early one morning in her sedan when she saw a gray mass of fur in a backroad ditch. Thinking it was a dog, she stopped and got out. There were no houses nearby, just cedars and fencerows, clumps of cow hair tangled in barbed wire, road signs plunked with shotgun spray. The animal lay on its side, eyes closed. Its chest rose and fell, tongue lolling through stained teeth. The widow leaned down and clicked her tongue, received no response. Poking from its underbelly were teats fat and full.
The widow did her best to wrap the animal in a yoga mat she found in the trunk of her car. Then she lifted her from the ditch, body limp and heavy. She struggled to the car, straining under the animal’s weight, its bones rolling beneath a thick hide. It smelled meaty and sour, like the stench of wet dog and wildness. The widow laid it in the backseat.
The veterinarian she and her husband had hired was an old-timer who had worked for decades in the area, tending to horses and cattle. He had told them one day that he didn’t fool with dogs or cats. She drove toward town and the veterinary clinic she had seen once while shopping at a strip mall.
She had just made it to the foggy streets when she heard movement in her backseat. In her rearview, a set of snarling lips and two black pupils centered in bright yellow eyes. She hit the gas, as if she could distance herself from it, and the animal, on wobbly legs, fell back into the seat only to spring up and lunge at the widow, growling. Teeth snapping near her ear, the widow swerved, slinging the animal against the opposite door. She let out a whimper but regained her balance and lunged for the widow once more. The widow swerved again, and the animal crashed onto the floorboard, where she finally lay still.
The widow sped into the parking lot of the clinic and slammed the brakes, tires squealing to a stop near the front door, where a man in a white lab coat stood sipping from a mug. The widow jumped from the car, the key bell chiming. “Is everything okay?” said the man.
“No,” she said and flung open the back door to reveal the animal sprawled out in the back, half in the floorboard, half in the seat, hair and slobber and mud left on the leather and glass. The man took a quick look, set his mug on the hood of her car and opened the door of the clinic and hollered inside. Two women in green scrubs emerged pushing a steel stretcher. They assisted him in pulling the animal out of the widow’s car and rushing it into the clinic on the stretcher.
The widow paced the cold waiting room, a yellow cockatoo eying her from its corner cage. Floating in a jar of formaldehyde was a dog heart bursting with parasitic worms. Doors opened and closed in the back. Footsteps smacked the linoleum. She felt like she was waiting for a diagnosis or a delivery. She started when the cockatoo, strutting in its cage, said, “Hello.”
After only a few minutes, relieved voices came from the back, some laughter. The veterinarian walked out drying his hands on his coat. He leaned against the countertop, looked at her with his head cocked, left eye squinted, as if she were strange. He was dark-skinned and tall, had a face that appeared Italian, but he spoke with a country accent sharpened by education. “I have to say, that was a first. Where did you find that thing?”
“In the ditch,” said the widow. “I couldn’t just leave her. It looks like she has puppies.”
“Your spirit is commendable, but coyotes are dangerous.”
She had heard the coyotes on fall nights. They howled from the ridges, voices forlorn and spooky, sometimes sounding like crying children, causing the mare to pace in her stable. The farmhand had said they would not try to get in the barn. “That was a coyote?”
The veterinarian nodded. “It didn’t scratch you or bite you, did it?”
The widow searched her arms and hands, still covered in the animal’s musk. “I don’t think so. Does she have rabies?”
“We’ll have to send in a sample, but I doubt it.”
“Will she be okay?”
“Oh, no,” said the veterinarian, “we euthanized her. Will that be cash or charge?”
A befuddled look on her face, the widow began toward the door in order to retrieve her purse from her car. “Wait,” said the veterinarian, “I apologize. Bad time for a joke.”
The widow stared at him for a second and then sat in one of the waiting room chairs, the cockatoo climbing its cage bars beside her. “I just wanted to help her,” she said. “I feel terrible.”
The veterinarian stepped out from behind the counter and stood near her. “With the internal injuries, she wouldn’t have made it, at least not in the wild. You actually put her out of her misery.”
“Two years ago I would’ve been taking a taxi downtown. Now I’m hauling a coyote around in my car. What has my life become?”
“You bought the old horse farm, that beautiful mare.”
“God,” she said, “the whole town knows me, yet I don’t know a soul.”
“It’s a small place.” He reached into his lab coat and withdrew a business card. “I wrote my dissertation on horses. I’d be happy to come out and take a look at your mare, or, you know, show you around town someday if you want to get to know a soul.”
Neither of them had known it would be her husband’s last spring. They thought he had pulled a muscle in his back, as did his new doctor: “Lose weight, exercise, sleep with a pillow between your knees and see me in three months.” By then it was too late, but it had already been too late.
The day the mare arrived he wore a pair of shiny cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. He stood spitting and toeing the ground beside the barn. He spoke to her like John Wayne: “Well, little lady, there’s your horse a-coming.”
“Please stop it,” she’d said.
The farmhand drove his truck alongside the creek toward them, slowing over ruts to keep from jarring the horse trailer. The widow could see the mare’s face in an open window, eating hay hanging from a sack there. They knew nothing of riding horses or caring for them. That was why they had hired the farmhand, an ex-rodeo man who had settled back where he grew up and was by all accounts honest.
He stopped the truck in front of the barn and stepped out. He stretched his shoulders and legs, joints popping. The truck was covered in smeared insects from the six hour ride up from Georgia. He went to the back of the trailer and opened the doors and led the mare out by the reins. She was a three-year-old the widow had chosen from a farm near Savannah. She had a good pedigree.
The widow had waited with a handful of sugar cubes as the farmhand walked the mare to the barn. When the mare was a foot from the widow, she nickered. The widow extended her hand, and the mare took her offering with a warm slurp of her smooth muzzle. She touched the mare with the other, palm against the flat bridge of her nose, finger to the hard bone beneath her jaw, while she chewed and battled the flies, her glossy tail swishing, her muscles twitching from her broad neck through her withers to her thick hind quarters. With her wet black eyes she watched the widow study the shades of brown curving into black, the balls of mud clinging to her fetlocks. She was powerful. She smelled of hay and earth and horse.
“She’s a beaut’, ” said the farmhand.
He handed the reins to the widow. “She’d better be,” said her husband. “Cost us a fortune. What do you think, darling?”
The mare blinked her eyes. The widow blinked hers, felt her lashes touching. She reached for the mare. The mare threw back her head and nipped at the widow. She jerked away her hand. “She doesn’t like me.”
The farmhand took the reins. “She just thought you had more sugar.”
The widow was up at sunrise every morning, admiring the mare in her stable and waiting for the farmhand to arrive. She spoke to the mare in soothing tones, told her how she had always wanted her and how she hoped she liked her new home. The farmhand taught her how to groom the mare, bringing her woodsy, shiny oils to the surface, how to touch the mare as she walked around her to alert her of her presence. He taught her the weeds to watch for in the pasture: “Buttercups can near kill a horse.” He taught her the feed recipe and how to muck the stable. Best of all he taught her to ride. The lessons started as short trips around the corral, and by the end of the summer, the widow was barreling across the pasture on the mare’s back while her husband watched from the barn, clapping and smiling and dying.
The widow sat on a porch step, eating a slice of cantaloupe and swatting away a fly. The farmhand walked up from the driveway, shirtless and tan, jeans covered in grass clippings, carrying a weedeater in one hand, what looked like a bicycle inner tube in the other. It wasn’t until he reached the sidewalk that she realized what he carried was a black snake, its head bloodied and crushed.
“Found it beside the gate while I was cutting back the kudzu,” he said. “The mailman ran her over.”
“Get that away from me.”
“Look here,” he said.
He leaned the weedeater against the porch and laid the snake on a step, removed a pocketknife from his jeans pocket. He extended the shiny blade, reached down and sliced along the snake’s belly. He had to run the blade over the scales three times to break through. When he did, the widow thought she saw the snake’s slimy entrails still moving until they spilled from her belly and materialized on the steps as tiny wet snakes that went slithering into the grass.
She felt nauseous and hot. “Why did you just show me that?”
“It’s not something you find every day.”
She looked at the high fields, the crabapple alive and green, still staked to the rusting cables. “The pasture needs mowing, and take those cables off the apple tree. They look like they’re choking it.”
“For once I’d just like to be something more to you, like what I was that night in the woods.”
“I was confused, flooded.”
He picked up the dead snake, slung it into the yard. He smelled of gas, bitter kudzu, man. She noticed for the first time in the wings of the butterfly tattoo on his arm the name “Bethany.”
She pointed at the tattoo. “Ex-girlfriend?”
The farmhand cupped his hand around it like a wound. “My little girl. She was six.”
That word “was,” the widow knew.
He stood. “I better get out to the barn.”
The widow and the veterinarian lay on a quilt in the dewy grass. Someone in the valley was shooting fireworks which crackled and bloomed red and green, strobing their sweaty skin. She noticed him looking at her. “You’re missing the show,” she said.
She felt his hand fall across her stomach, heavier than her dead husband’s. She grabbed from the grass the bottle of merlot by its neck, stood above him and hugged her shoulders, bare in her tank top. She looked at the lights of town, blurry in the sulfurous smoke hanging in the valley. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” she said.
He sat up on the quilt. “I don’t know. I’ve prescribed the wrong medicine, made the wrong diagnosis, but that was when I was younger.”
“To another person,” said the widow. “To a woman.”
“I guess I’ve handed out my share of hurt, but isn’t that how it goes? Men and women hurt each other. They forgive and move on or fall apart.”
“Or they die.”
The veterinarian cleared his throat. He started to say something and stopped himself.
The widow turned up the bottle of wine and took a long drink. She wiped her mouth and said she needed to go home.
One month her husband was thin and glowing, looking better than he had in years. His hair even seemed to be growing back. The next, he was a breathing corpse in a hospital bed. She spent the winter days and nights in his room, sleeping in a stiff chair with a blanket thrown over her legs and watching as the doctors increased his medicine and grew graver with each visit. She knew something was coming—his death, yes—but something more, some advice, she hoped, words of wisdom that came only from the lips of the dying.
A few nights before they came, relatives and close friends on planes flying south, she got a phone call. It was the farmhand telling her the mare had gotten out of the fence.
She drove home and found the farmhand at edge of the woods holding a lantern. “I thought she might come back on her own,” he said, “but I guess we’ll have to go find her.”
“Shouldn’t we take your gun?”
“There’s nothing out there but the dark.”
She followed him through the sugary thicket, the lantern light falling on pine branches and trunks, the farmhand clicking his tongue and calling, “Commere, girl,” his breath trailing in puffs behind him.
They hadn’t made it far when they heard the mare whinny. Following the noise, they saw her standing in a clearing in the blue moonlight. She looked like the blue spirit of a horse. “What’s she doing?” said the widow.
“Just hanging out.”
They approached the mare. The farmhand reached for her neck. The mare reared a little, and he lowered the flame of his lantern. “Calm down, girl,” he said.
The panic started in her fingers and trembled through her whole being and poured from her in breathless bawls. The soon-to-be widow was sobbing in the cold night with her face against the mare’s warm barrel. “Are you okay?” said the farmhand.
The widow shook her head and cried, and then she felt him beside her, a hand on her back, and turned to see his form in the moonlight, the blueness on the bones of his face. There in the thicket he could have been any man she wanted him to be, her husband twenty years ago or another man she’d never met who wouldn’t make life so easy she didn’t have to live herself, who wouldn’t wait until it was too late to share their dream, who wouldn’t die too soon, and she was kissing him until she tasted his tongue and knew he wasn’t her husband or any man she had imagined out of her wanting and was nobody other than the rough, riddled farmhand.
When she made it back to the hospital, the nurse said her husband had asked for her. The widow sat beside him and watched him sleep. The electronics filling the room hummed and beeped. Muffled voices came from other rooms. His face was pale and sunken, his chest rising and falling beneath the sheets. She waited for him to awaken, wondering what he’d wanted to tell her, unaware he would not again speak from this life.
Ears pinned back, the mare bared her teeth and bit the widow’s hand as she entered the stall, reaching for her. The widow ran into the pasture. It was an autumn day. The light, the maples and oaks, the broom straw grass, everything was golden except the blue sky. The farmhand was cutting the pasture, a spiral of golden dust lifting from behind the tractor. She waved him down.
Straw hat shadowing his face, he drove up to the barn and shut off the clattering engine. His jeans were bunched at his boots, his skin sweaty. “Something’s wrong,” the widow told him. “She bit me.”
He hopped down from the tractor, tilted his hat off his forehead. The widow displayed her hand, a small laceration on her palm, some blood.
The farmhand pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and pressed it into the widow’s hand. He walked into the barn, grabbed a rope from the tack locker. He swung open the stall door. He swatted the mare’s muzzle, tossed the rope over her neck and pulled her whinnying and snorting into the corral.
He set her loose. The mare shook, her coat flashing in the sun. She snorted again and turned from them, tore at the grass. “She’s in heat,” said the farmhand.
“How do you know?”
He pointed toward the mare’s rear, the black folds of her vulva opening to pink. “They call it ‘winking.’”
“I should ask the veterinarian.”
“He’ll tell you the same thing.”
The veterinarian arrived at around noon. He stood outside the corral with his shirt sleeves rolled up and watched the mare, his doctor’s bag in the dirt beside him. “Yep,” he said, “she’s in estrus. You might want to think about foaling someday soon. I know a man with some fine stallions two counties over. Of course, you wouldn’t want to let the stallion impregnate her naturally.”
“Why not?” said the farmhand.
“He might hurt her. We’d want to do an artificial insemination.”
“I say set em loose in the field and let nature take its course.”
“Stallions can be quite aggressive.”
“Damn right they can.”
The widow backed away as the men stepped closer to one another, their gazes narrowing into glares, hands at their sides, fingers twitching.
“Then we agree.”
“How did horses ever get along without smart doctors like you?”
“I’m thinking of the safest route.”
“You’re being smart.”
Body flushed with heat, the widow stepped into the barn and climbed the ladder to the loft. Dusty and dry, the smell of hay and horse manure. She removed first her flannel shirt, then her boots and jeans, then the rest, leaving a trail of clothing in the straw. When she threw open the loft doors, the men were a foot apart, hands squeezed into fists, and she was naked, the breeze cooling her shoulders and breasts and thighs, the shining body of a woman who had never borne children.
The men stared up at her. The widow stared down at them. The mare winked.
The farmhand grunted and spat and stomped toward his truck. The doctor shook his head and picked up his bag and walked to his vehicle, slamming the door when he climbed in. They both spun gravel as they tore through the trees.
The widow stood in the loft until they were out of sight. She wanted to be three women, but she was beginning to feel like no woman at all.
The widow closed her gate. The kudzu wilted. The crabapple’s leaves turned bright as fire and they fell. The woods grew bare and silent, a tangled blackness of trunks and branches. The tractor sat where the farmhand had left it, and the high weeds in the half-mowed pasture died and fell under the weight of frost. The mare blew blue streams of breath from her nose as the widow curried and brushed her thick winter coat.
Friends and family phoned. They begged the widow to return north to the city. The veterinarian left the name of another veterinarian on her answering machine. One morning she saw boot prints in a dusting of snow on her porch. They led to the barn and back through the woods.
The phone calls waned, there were no more tracks, and it was only the widow and the mare, the widow watching for the first time in her life the holidays pass alone while elsewhere people sought company and celebration. She carried her sadness not like a yoke but like a golden cloak. She thought of her husband, their early days, his rising banking career, the money and promises to move, to slow down, to have children. “Procrastination, selfishness, lies,” she told the mare, lying across her back in her stall and combing her mane in the long winter nights, the wood stove hot and smoking.
Come that next spring, the smell of ripeness and germination in the air, life budding once more on the ridges, the crabapple tree sprouting the pink blooms it had lost the spring before and the cables the farmhand had never removed rusted through and fallen away, she found the mare one morning rubbing against the roughhewn boards in her stall, her wet spring coat once again shining through her shagginess.
The widow saddled the mare. They rode, out of the pasture and into the woods, across the ridge tops, the widow pushing the mare hard along steep trails and over gully streams. They rode and rode for hours and hours, the widow’s body pounding with the mare’s galloping strides, the melding of pain with pleasure, the melding of woman with animal. She felt as if her being were coming apart, merging with the ether of the world, the magma of the earth, the atoms inside wobbling to a degree of bursting.
This was all she’d wanted— standing in the cold morning at the cemetery as the priest gave his commendation and farewell over her husband’s casket—this was all she’d wanted— gazing out the window of a high rise restaurant, passing the boredom of men and women talking about fashion and money—this was all she’d ever wanted: to be on the back of a horse. Ha, ha, ha, ha, Hannah. She was Hannah. A woman in the world that was her. She was.
In the dusk, long shadows swelled over the land. She stopped the mare in a meadow far beyond her property line. The mare and Hannah sweating and breathing together. Enthralled and tired. Woman and horse.
Perched on tree branch reaching toward the meadow a Great Horned Owl stared at them. Someone had told her, or perhaps she’d read in a fable, that seeing an owl before nightfall foretold the death of a loved one. Hannah knew the owl had been waiting there for her her entire life.
The mare neighed.
The owl blinked.
“Did you used to be a coyote?” said Hannah.
“I used to be a lot of things,” said the owl.
She opened her wings and flew across the meadow, disappearing into the dripping darkness of the forest.
Matt Brock received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Mississippi and is a PhD student in fiction writing at the University of Tennessee. His writing has appeared in journals such as The Chattahoochee Review, The Greensboro Review, The Good Men Project, Arkansas Review, Bayou, War, Literature and the Arts and elsewhere.