Gently, Like Rain

(short fiction, unpublished)

The mist pooled in a low cloud over the marsh and shifted like smoke.  You could smell the warmth of the soil, the decaying cattails of autumn – their feathered down and crisp stalks sweet in the air as the cold pressed from above.  In the early morning blue, you could see your breath.

Alison was riding her favorite horse, Rain, a dark bay gelding.  As she did each Saturday morning before dawn peered across the pasture and marsh and spread its open palm of warmth, she rode Rain slowly through a winding trail from the stable, banking the far corner of pasture, through river birch, and around the bend of marsh.  Together, they were quiet.  Just the horse’s cropped steps and its deep rhythmic breathing, the fogged breath jetting from its nostrils, reminding Alison of the massive life buried in the animal’s chest.

She had loved Rain and remembered him across the horse’s young life, had been there when he was born, a wet, struggling newborn colt sprawled across the warm July clover near her grandfather’s stable, Rain’s mother licking clean the afterbirth from his snout, the mare nudging her newborn toward its first crippled stance, its legs quickly giving into the weight of gravity, sending Rain to his knees where he nested and appeared to look to his mother and to the earth, itself, for answers.

Alison fell immediately into love.  She had never been so close to the beginning of a life.  Each week-end, she visited her grandfather, Seth, hugging him as she burst through his screened porch and then bolting fast to the stables and the fenced turnaround, running her hands smooth over Rain’s long snout as the horse flared his nostrils in greeting.  She watched him, through the long arcing summer, transform from an awkwardly helpless colt into a fast and curiously gentle horse, the two of them embarking on the longest journeys from the stables, first on a lead, the both of them on foot, and then with Rain carrying her as she learned each lean and shift of weight and they slowly built a trust and understanding of riding together.

Rain was a quiet horse.  He bucked and ambled as colts do, anxious to burn his tendons in fierce pushes of muscle, anxious to bolt and lap as fast as his strengthening legs could carry him.  But as he matured, he proved himself thoughtful, gentle and careful.  When she rode him, he seemed concentrated on transporting Alison safely.  He often paused during their rides to observe hidden and exposed glimpses of life, the flush of ducks from a covey, a trotting fox crossing the field, a push of pollen snow tumbling across cattails. 

Rain paused, too, on this morning when he and Alison were riding through the blue autumn fog and the shot rang out and quieted the trill of red winged blackbirds.  For a moment, the world was silent, the shot clearly cleaving “before” from “after”.  Alison startled, but she calmed quickly, having heard many such shots near these woods and meadow during deer season.  This shot was closer, louder.  Rain stopped and then hobbled three quick steps.  Alison leaned into his neck and patted, calming him.  She looked in the direction of where the shot rang out but saw nothing, mist sifting through the birch trees.

“Easy, Rain,” she said.

But Alison’s leg was suddenly wet.  She turned and noticed the blood, warm and spreading, a mushroom of red blooming quickly at Rain’s shoulder and opening like a rose.

Alison’s breath caught in her throat.  She gasped and stared at the open wound in Rain’s shoulder, inches from her own leg.  She climbed carefully from Rain’s saddle, held his lead and led him toward the pasture and stables with a simple, “hush, hush,” patting his neck, her hand trembling, as she intermittently searched the woods behind her for threats of following shots or traces of answers to the first.  Rain’s nostrils flared.  His eyes were huge.

When they crept closer to the stables, Alison let go of the lead.  Rain merely stood, his wounded leg bent slightly, painted red.  For what seemed like the longest while, all Alison could do was stare and wonder.  And then she yelled for her grandfather, louder than she imagined she could yell.  A pull of swallows darted from the stable eaves.

She yelled once more and then her knees folded.  She felt confused over what had happened, what to do, knowing, only with any certainty, that what had happened was the worst possible thing.  It’s what she kept chanting in her head – this is the worst possible thing.

 Seth emerged from the house clutching a dish towel.  When he saw Alison with Rain, he dropped the towel and ran toward them.

“What happened here, Allie,” he asked, touching her arm.  “Are you hurt?”

“No,” she answered.  “Just Rain, just Rain…I think he’s been shot.”

Seth glanced at the bullet wound welted into Rain’s muscle, and then back at Alison, the mushroom of blood across her pants.  “Are you sure you aren’t hurt?” he asked.

“We were riding,” she said.  “And I heard this shot…can we please call someone to help.”  It was the first motion Alison made since Seth approached her – reaching up to clutch his jacket hem.  With a simple caress over her head with the soft of his hand, he reached down as if to pull her up.   

“No,” she said.  “I need to stay with him.”

 “Where did this happen, Allie?” Seth asked. “The shot.”

 “At the bend of the woods.  Just there,” she said, pointing.  “Please call someone.”

 “It’ll be okay…he’ll be okay,” he said, glancing in the direction Alison had pointed, searching quickly through the woods for any sign of someone hidden.

“Oh, please just call,” said Alison.

The nebula of blood across Rain’s shoulder continued to spread.  Alison could see the broken, sunlit clouds in its reflection.  She stifled sobs, her body lurching wordlessly while Seth held her gently and stared off at the distant tree-line Alison had claimed the shot originated, searching, carefully noticing each detail and shift in movement, the vein along his neck swelling and pulsing.

 

Six months before Rain was shot, in early spring, just as the soil and trees were beginning to warm, rooflines dripping snow melt, pools collecting in cul-de-sacs, birds of color – warblers and vireos, orioles and goldfinches collecting at their backyard feeder, Alison began to notice the deep silence gathering within her house and knew something was up.

She observed her mother taking nightly walks alone, in her hiking boots and barn jacket, walking silently through the neighborhood, sometimes sitting on the porch with a steaming mug of tea clutched in her hands, staring off into the distance as the sky turned from orange to dusky blue.

She took notice at how her father seemed to work later than he had ever before.  And when her parents spoke now, they failed to hold each other’s gaze.  She often heard the two of them late at night, gathered around the dinner table or in the corner of the living room, calmly discussing their plans, talking over the option of therapy, of trial separation, about how what they were contemplating would affect Alison.

The truth is, the separation that fell between the two of them had pooled for some time.  Alison noticed the shift, a temper in their conversation, a cadence of restrain.  They spent less time together, less time embracing shared joy and contact.  Alison figured maybe it was merely the winter, the cold season turning them in different directions from center as sometimes winters do.  But as the earth began to warm in late April, it became clear her parents were contemplating a significant change, a departure from the life they all shared.

“We need to think through what happens if we do this,” she heard her mother tell her father during one of those late night conversations, the two of them lit in candlelight, her mother smoking a cigarette as she seldom did anymore.  “We need to understand how different things will be.”

Her father answered, “Truth is, Beth, we’re talking about doing something that completely reshapes the possibility of what is.  How are we supposed to think through what will be?”

 “The things we can know, then,” said her mother.  “The things we can make plans for.”

 “There’s just Alison,” answered her father.

 For a long while, there was only silence.  Alison observed them both, watched them from the darkness of her bedroom doorway, her hand pressed lightly against the door jam, her head slowly bowing.

 “And?” her mother asked.

Her father sighed.  “As impossible as this is, we both know the most important thing is for us to ensure her world remain…as untouched, as routine as possible.  If we separate, she should stay here with you.  At least until we figure out just what it is we’re doing.”

In the morning, Alison got ready for school just as she always did.  She sat silently at the breakfast table, drank orange juice, nibbled toast and gathered her books in her backpack and left the house, riding away on her bike.  But she never made it to school that day.  Instead she rode through the neighborhood park, set her bike next to the softball field backstop, near the woods, and then she hiked through the wooded trail to the train tracks.  She walked the tracks, plank by plank with her head bowed, all the way through the marsh and past ponds and along the apple orchard, all the way to the open field, gold in the morning sun, where she wandered from the tracks, found a soft hill, and sat, the early sun warming her shoulders and face.

 Alison was still.  She listened to the sharp trill of blackbirds and watched the soft, leaning shadows of tall, dried grasses and distant trees slowly disappear.  All there was was the rise and fall of her breathing and the soft beating of her heart.

 

When Alison’s parent’s separated, her father moved to Hudson, twenty minutes from River Falls, a rented apartment above a dentist’s office, his living space cluttered with moving boxes the majority of that first summer.  Alison began to spend more and more time at Seth’s ranch in Ellsworth.  Rain was then barely a yearling.  And the two of them, pushed further by the sadness of her parent’s parting, had become inseparable.

Rain’s heart lurched toward a zealousness for speed, more so than most young horses.  He was something – running at the speed of light across the field and through trails.  He barely needed encouragement from Alison; it was as though he was searching whole heartedly for a hidden seam he couldn’t yet reach, his gait smooth, the muscles through his legs and across his chest taught as he and Alison sped over trail, their soft shape flickering through trees.

He was also a gentle horse, and sensitive, much like Alison.  He never once fought Alison when she approached him to worm him or examine him.  Often he would pause along the trail, unsure about a new sight, a darting pheasant, a tree that had fallen trailside.  She would softly encourage him to move forward, aware that the shifts in his immediate world concerned him for that was a concern she shared, too.

Alison stayed with her father a weekend a month after he had moved out.  He took her to Red Lobster in Hudson.  They ate popcorn shrimp and hush puppies and drank icy cokes, barely talking.  Swirling battered shrimp in a pool of cocktail sauce, Alison observed other families and couples at the restaurant engaged in conversation, contrasting their monosyllabic, sometimes terse dialogue. 

Alison used to wonder about the shape of her parents’ love, what it looked like, how they related to each other, when it first formed.  She spread open photo albums across her lap and would stop at the photos which captured the genuine brightness between them, embraces along a shoreline, photos of her mother clowning, peering around the corner of a folded out map, the two of them lost on a road trip through Mesa Verde National Park, a muted photo of their hands laced together near a campsite in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota.  Alison pictured the night sky above them, a dense pitch of endlessly burning stars.

Alison couldn’t help it; she was disappointed in her parents’ inability to hold onto whatever connectedness they had first discovered.  Their losing the strength of that seemed careless, and she hid her disappointment in controlled silence, being supportive of neither parent, aware they both were hurting and confused in their separation.  Alison felt they should be.  “They should each hurt beyond repair right now,” she believed, “It’s not up to me to help either one.”

Instead, she spent as much time as she could with Rain that summer, the two of them wandering long walks through woods, Alison sometimes forgetting her place in the smells of lilac, the pulls of locusts, the dart of starlings and the warmth of Rain’s wide shoulders beneath her.

Seth was continually amazed at how much about horses Alison was willing and able to absorb.  The more he shared with her and showed her, the more room she seemed to open for more.  Much like her own mother, Seth’s daughter, Alison fell into the world of horses with an open heart.  But unlike her mother, Alison’s attention was undeterred – horses became the center and whole of her world, Rain especially.

He taught her the basics of stable care – how to disinfect stalls and separate clean from wet bedding, and he taught her horse care essentials – how to examine the mouth to check for ulcers, how to worm, how to take temperature and feel for the pulse, resting the tips of her fingers against the artery passing under the horse’s lower jaw.  One morning, Seth taught her to check horses’ respiration, how to observe the slow, soft movement flooding a horse’s ribs when at rest.  He taught her how to stand quietly behind a horse at rest, watch its ribs expand and contract, counting breaths.  Seth watched Alison walk quietly behind horses for months afterwards, gently, quietly slipping behind them, watching their bulging rib cages, silently counting out breaths, making sure they fell within the 8-16 per minute range.

Seth taught her horse handling, the approach, the halter and lead, turning around, mounting and riding.

The bond between Rain and Alison became stronger at each new lesson’s completion, the two of them learning together.  It was as though they were developing their own language, their own invisible connection, girl and horse.  As Alison approached, Rain would flare his nostrils and lift in his own frame, his presence warming as she ran her hands gently over his withers and back.  Alison led Rain by walking him at his shoulder, holding the lead a foot and a half from the halter with one hand, the long end of the rope stretched loosely in the other.  She would steady Rain before a turn, gently turning Rain’s head, keeping pace with the turn, moving the two of them in a soft, uninterrupted turn.

Seth observed them from a distance, their silent, easy turns, the young and obedient horse and the quiet granddaughter.  Always he would notice her softly talking to Rain, gentle words too soft for Seth to hear, as though she were explaining something important to the horse, paring down her thoughts and sharing them while encouraging Rain to trust her, to move forward at her pace which he always seemed to do.

Alison was quiet and alert throughout each lesson he taught her, a somber child, but undeterred in her love for the large animals she and her grandfather cared for and cherished.  When she stayed with him, it was often he observed her wipe tears back with the back of her hand as she groomed Rain for one last time before leaving, standing with her basket of brushes, hoof picks and curry combs, pushing her leather massage pad into Rain’s shoulders and tendons.

After, she was silent on their ride into town on their way to the home she now shared with her mother.  She held her head up all the way along the drive, as they crossed the cattle grate onto the freeway, as they shouldered the exit and drove past the Citgo and houses, all the way, though silent, up her mother’s drive.  It was only then, as she opened the door and turned to depart, she finally looked heart-broken, lost and close to tears, as if even her grandfather’s truck which smelled of the barn, of silage and pasture, was a safety zone, a connection to the place and the horse she had become so inexplicably attached, as if her life in her present, in the quiet house she shared with her mother, was the one thousand miles away from the resounding place her heart embraced.

 

Alison’s mother made her a pineapple upside down cake for her birthday, her favorite.  She set a fresh carton of milk next to Alison’s bowl, knowing how much her daughter loved to submerge cake in a cold bath of milk and lift spoonfuls of soggy cake to her lips.

But Alison was motionless now.  She watched her mother turn toward the kitchen, collecting an armload of dinner dishes on her way, and she remained in her place and still.

 “Your father wants to spend tomorrow night celebrating your birthday,” said her mother.  “That’s why tonight is just between us.  Don’t please make this sadder than it is.”

 Alison turned the pages of the horse manual her mother bought for her.  She was expressionless, silent.  She hadn’t expected her parents to come together to celebrate her birthday, was witness to the further fall of separation between them over the early weeks of summer, the soft gather of distance and cleaving of the world into two.  She noticed her mother gently applying make-up and jewelry several nights before, preparing to embark for a dinner out with a man other than her father, Alison assumed.  She very much felt as though she hadn’t a say, a vote for the world shifting around her.  And though she had suddenly become perplexed about what her own vote was, she felt the emerging need to be a thousand miles away from the soft breaking of her family.

“Can I stay at grandpa’s for a week, soon?  A week instead of a stupid week-end?”

“Allie,” her mother said, pausing, touching Alison’s head lightly before sitting across from her.  “I know this is a difficult time for you, sweetie.  It’s difficult for your father and me, too.  Really.  We never wanted to wander away like this.  We do love each other.  And we love you beyond anything in the world.”

“You have a funny way of showing it,” she said.  “Maybe the funniest way in the world.”  Alison twirled a spoon in the soggy mass of pineapple upside down cake.  She fished a ring of pineapple from the bowl and dragged it across the surface.

“You’ve come to the place where you’ve had disagreements with your friends,” started her mother.  “Where you didn’t get along and decided it best to part a while, to sort things through on your own.  Parents need to do that sometimes, too.”

Alison’s eyes welled.  She really didn’t have friends, anymore, just Rain, the other horses and her grandfather.  She didn’t have anyone in her life she could compare her parent’s separation against and the analogy stung past the place of hurt she already found herself anchored.  She stared straight ahead as tears bloomed and fell in two straight lines.

“Nothing between people truly ends, Allie.  Whether or not your father and I sort this through, I don’t know, and you know we don’t know, and that’s the truth, just simple truth.  But it’s also the truest thing in the world that love never ends even if two people walk apart from it.  And no matter what, you will be loved and embraced as long as we both walk this earth and after.”

Alison’s mother wished she could fold herself into her daughter’s pain, absorb every turn of hurt that surrounded her being, her breath.  She wished she could walk back to the places she and Alison’s father began to separate, the very moments they grew apart, where colder movement fell between them.  As always, it was never specific incidents that mattered, no chain of events one could turn into separate directions, no reconstruction of the sad universe.  What happens more, is a soft shifting of the heart and disparate growth, like two trees twisting in opposite directions, one leaving the other in shadow.  What happens is the slow evaporation of feeling and the soft opening of a hand reaching for something suddenly no longer there.

She wanted to lean into Alison and warm her and explain these things, explain how love is enormous and complicated and about how it can wander like horses untended no matter the strongest pull of hope, and she wanted to softly assure Alison all would be okay regardless, that their world, her world, would mend, no matter what.

But her mother knew how suspect Alison became of promises, anymore.  Instead she gently let Alison know she could stay with her grandfather the week after next, knowing full well it was with the horses where she now felt safest.

Alison got up from the table, clutched her horse manual and turned toward her room, never wiping away her tears until she was far from view.

 

Early one morning, as the mid-summer sun slowly crept over the horizon, Seth walked Alison across his pasture, identifying for her the individual grazing plants in his field as he clutched a steaming mug of black coffee, steam drifting in wisps.

“Fescue and timothy,” said Seth.  “We have both in large supply.  More fescue than timothy, but the horses aren’t as fond of it.”  He leaned over and plucked a handful of the thin, reaching fescue grass and rubbed the spiral of seeds in his fingers.  “Meadow grass looks a lot like it, but it’s shorter, squatter.  Horses also like ryegrass and white clover, even dandelion when the grass is short enough for them.”

“Which are the grasses they should stay away from?”

“Always the thistle,” Seth answered.  “Look for it and eradicate it.  The spiny leaves damage the horse’s mouth.”  He searched his field for examples but saw none, having always been diligent about ridding the grazing area of harmful plant life.  “Nettles, too,” he said.  “They sting the inside of their mouths.  Other grasses like couchgrass and Yorkshire fog – they aren’t harmful to the horse but just don’t carry with them any nutritional value so it’s best to keep them from spreading.”

Seth noticed the stillness within Alison as she listened, carefully taking in each piece of important information shared.  She cared about knowing every detail about caring for horses.  And Seth was always moved by the concentrated interest his granddaughter shaped with her nodding face and steady gaze, her innate silence.

“The real things to be careful about are the poisonous plants, Allie.  Plants that carry toxins and can develop nervous conditions in horses or comas, even death.”

Alison paused, waiting for her grandfather to continue.

“Red maple leaves, for one.  They are attractive to horses but something to keep them from.  Buttercup and ragwort, sorghum and locoweed.  Even oak leaves and acorns contain tannic acid and can damage a horse’s kidneys.”

“Do you have any samples of all these?” she asked.

 “If we were to walk through the woods,” he said.  “We’d find some there.  But I have a manual at the house I can lend you.  Study it and just be on the watch.”

 They walked to the stable in the soft, blue morning light, the gentle wash of sunlight lifting in the distance, and Alison approached Rain as she always did, gently but with exuberant reaching forward.  She patted his cheek, ran her hand across his neck as she leaned forward, resting her own nose momentarily against Rain’s freckled stripe, their usual greeting.

As she combed her hand through Rain’s mane, Alison was silent, thinking of what she had just been taught about poisonous vegetation, weighing the new information of caution and risk against her steady watch over the animal she loved, imagining the deep weight of loss were she to lose Rain, a hole through stars.

 

On their usual route to Red Lobster, Alison’s father detoured and drove them, instead, along the curving river road all the way to the reservoir, the wide stretch of water held in the enlarged girth of river surrounded by white pine and limestone bluffs, one of her father’s favorite places.

He parked their car and shut off the ignition.  Alison was silent.

“I have an idea, Allie.  Something I wanted to ask you about.”

“Are we still going to Red Lobster?” she asked.

 “Yes, but can we talk about this first?”  He smiled, glanced at the darting river swallows and their invisible stitches along the tree-line.  “I’m taking some time in August and I’m wondering if you and I could take a little trip to South Dakota.  There’s some beautiful land there, land we could explore with horses, you and Rain and me.  I’ve talked to your grandfather, and he said we could trailer out Rain and another horse for me.  Probably be good for the horses to see some new terrain.  Good for us, too.”

“How long would we go?” she asked.

“Maybe a week.  We haven’t spent much time together in the past few months.”

 Alison stared through the windshield at the low clouds, the sun tinting their bellies.  “How about mom?”  Would she go, too?”

 Her father paused.  “It’d be just the two of us, Allie.”

 “How come?”

 “Because right now that’s what is.  The two of us; the two of you.”

 “Is that what will be, too?”

  Her father took a deep breath; he lit his hand against Alison’s shoulder, pressed the back of her neck lightly and then moved his hand back to the steering wheel.

 “It’s just…I wish I knew.  Some things…they take time, you know?”

Allison was silent.

“You know,” her father said.  “Your mother and I used to come here all the time when we were dating.  We’d park here at night, under the stars.  Soft, summer night skies that seemed to stretch forever, lightning bugs flickering along the banks, through the willows; it was like we were walking past stars.  We’d swim in the reservoir.  It was always so cold, the water.  And your mother, she would run into the cold as fast as she could to get past it.  But it never really mattered anyway because we’d always end up on the shoreline shivering, holding one another…Your mother was so beautiful, so full of life.  I could never believe my luck in finding her, in being with her.” 

“What happens, then?” asked Alison. 

“I don’t know,” he answered.  “I’ve been…I keep asking myself that, too, trying to come up with a solitary, sound reason I can explain to you, explain to myself.  And the truth is, I can’t, Alison.  It’s just what happens, maybe.  Even no matter how much you don’t want it to.  Something slips away, right through your fingertips.  And the place it once filled is now just…just open, is all, as wide as the moon.  I can’t really explain.”

Alison stared straight ahead, unmoving.  Tears filled her eyes and she let them fall without wiping them away.  She stared straight ahead and without turning her head toward her father, told him:  “I’ve schoolwork tonight.  So we should probably either go get dinner or you should take me home.”

Her father waited a moment in silence.  He watched Alison’s contained expression, the tears down her cheeks, and he bowed his head a moment and closed his eyes.  When he opened them, he took a moment to glance out at the reservoir, imagining the nights he and Beth swam the water, her warm breath in his ear, her beautiful body washed in blue light, her soft skin and her eyes into his, how she’d shiver when they first emerged from the water and then ran into their blankets to get warm.  He felt his heart opening wide in those moments, opening as if in flight, remembered their soft place together, his and Beth’s, the seamlessness in their shared hold, the world somehow on the other side of the warmth between them in those early days when he began to visualize the trajectory of his life and couldn’t imagine her not anchoring it at its very center.

He glanced at Alison one more time and nodded, caressed her shoulder softly before turning over the ignition, letting the keys jingle a moment before setting into gear and pulling out of the reservoir lot, gravel softly popping from the tires.

 

The muted color of Rain’s eyes, faded and wet, expressed the heartbreak she imagined he felt, his loss of spirit.  They weren’t the same eyes, clear and open, she had known Rain by.  She ran her hand softly down the length of his smooth neck, noticing the weight he had lost, how his body now lay slack, no muscle tensing, sullen, as though he had already given up.

With the bullet still lodged somewhere within his tendons and bones, Seth’s veterinarian unable to remove it for fear Rain’s lungs would collapse, the horse’s survival uncertain; he burned fever.  Shooting him full of antibiotics, dressing the wound for now, keeping him warm, dry, hydrated – these things comprised the care they were able to lend Rain.

Alison remained continually at his side, soothing him, taking his temperature and keeping watch, filling him with vitamin supplements, just sitting alongside him during the long, blue cascading hours.

Alison didn’t know the neighbor, the 89 year old man who accidentally shot Rain.  Sitting on a chair on his own property, at the edge of woods, he had been waiting for deer when he shot Alison’s horse, mistaking Rain, momentarily, for a large buck, failing to see the girl, coming so close, inches from hitting both girl and horse.  The sheriff had stopped over twice, taking information, bowing to pat Rain softly, frowning, stating how sorry he was such a beautiful horse had become wounded, discussing with Seth the option of pressing charges and the two of them in mutual agreement to let it pass.  

“It’s simply an accident, Alison, a horrible accident,” Seth told her, her granddaughter uncontainable in a pitch of fury, not for the closeness of the shot to her own body, but purely for the injury to Rain.  “He meant no harm to you or the horse and is overwrought with guilt.”

“Good,” snapped Alison.  “It’s good he feels that way, but if we lose Rain, I’ll never forgive him.  I’ll find him and hurt him somehow in a way that stretches forever.”

Alison stayed with Seth in the days following the accident.  Her mother and father agreed to it, as worried as they were the scene was too much for her, they both knew she had to see it through, had to be near Rain as he either regained his strength or succumbed.

Daily they both called Seth and asked for an update, sometimes talking directly to Alison, but only greeted, then, with monosyllables.  They’d tell her they loved her and were praying for Rain and Alison would hand the phone back to Seth and wander into the stables.

She’d busy herself by cleaning out the stalls, hoping, always, to show Rain it was business as usual, that his recovery was expected, his injury temporary.  Sometimes she sang as she sifted clumps of hay, turning them over, removing the old and wet clumps.  She’d turn to see if Rain was watching.  She’d look for the rise and fall of his ribs.

At night, before bed, she’d brush him and lean into him, nuzzle him and wish him better in soft whispers.  By her bed, her hands clasped, her knees bent and head bowed, Rain became her only prayer.  She’d lie in bed for hours before falling asleep.  And when she did sleep, her sleep was always shallow; she’d flit between sleep and wake, the soft blue image of Rain kneeling to the earth permeating both.

The neighbor, Travis Haskins, had made arrangements with Seth to stop by and see the girl he nearly shot.  He wanted to apologize to her directly, thought it might help her somehow, as he had heard the suffering she was going through.  He wanted to tell her how sorry he was for injuring her beloved horse, assure her what had happened wasn’t intentional.  He wanted to try to make up for his mistake, somehow.

At first, Alison resisted the idea.  She didn’t want to face him, was afraid of her own rage, too upset over the man’s actions to want to greet him.  In her mind, showing him peace, greeting him, was an acceptance of what he had done, and she didn’t accept it, she couldn’t.  She was afraid of greeting the man who had caused this injury would merely open the wound even wider.

But eventually she agreed, wanting only for the meeting, and the need for the meeting, over.

Alison was beside Rain when Seth greeted Travis at the house.  She heard the two of them talking briefly and their slow shuffle to the stable.

“Allie, sweetheart,” said Seth, gentle and cautious.  “This is my neighbor, Travis, dear.”

Alison turned and saw the man awkwardly clutching a bunch of flowers, daisies and baby’s breath, and Alison wondered a moment if they were for her or the horse.  He was a slight man – pale, white hair cut sharply, soft, blue eyes hidden behind thick glasses.  He seemed gentle, awkward, not the enemy she imagined taking down her horse.  She knew immediately it was true his shot was an accident.  But she felt no less angry about the carelessness in it.

“I brought these for you, Alison,” said Travis.  “I feel just awful about what I’ve done – what I’ve done to you and your poor horse.”

“Rain’s injury,” said Seth.  “It’s an awful, scary thing.  Everyone knows that.  But it is only an accident.  And accidents, they’re just something we need to move past, move on.” 

Alison turned back toward Rain.  The horse was still, eyes steady, faraway.  When he breathed, she found herself watching the gentle rise of his ribs, imagining the pain he fought to do so and softly and quietly counting the seconds in between the rise that would follow.

Her chest suddenly bloomed with ache, and she felt her throat clutching, the quick pooling of tears.  She leaned into Rain, and she suddenly couldn’t help her sobbing, fierce shudders that shook her whole body, the wordless, open-mouthed cry as she softly stroked Rain’s neck, wanting more than anything to dig her fingers straight into his warm flesh, wanting to hide, wanting to mend the deep, dangerous wound within him.  She searched Rain’s eyes for the sign of mending, of hope, and she felt alone and afraid in how distant his eyes seemed now, yellowed fog, the soft flecks of brown and green surrounding iris muted, his gaze barely embracing hers as she leaned closer.

Alison bowed her head, lost in an uncontrollable silent sob.  She didn’t care anymore what she looked like to the two helpless men behind her.  She didn’t care anymore who was witness to the pain she had previously kept hidden.  She just leaned fast into the sweeping fall of release, tired beyond tired of the hope she clutched so deep within her, guarding it, tired of its wavering spread across her being.

The men were silent.  Still.  They let her sobbing run its course; they waited for her to catch her place.  They both listened intently as she shaped these simple words:  “I need to know why you did this.”  The words were soft and clear, and she repeated them again and again.  “I need to know why you did this,” always holding her gaze steady, staring straight ahead, past Rain, daring herself to remember Rain as a soft and gentle colt, his exuberance in chasing dragonflies and moths, bolting across pasture and turning back toward Alison who merely smiled and cheered him on; daring herself to remember all the gentle moments when morning was still soft, shifting over field, and how warm Rain’s neck was when she approached him and pressed her face against it, temporarily feeling whole again, being near him; daring herself to remember the long walks through the leaning shadows of woods, how she carefully detailed her full story for him, telling Rain every part as they walked, Rain silent the whole way through as if he was listening, as if he understood; daring herself to remember how fast he ran across the open field, shining brown, the outline of his smooth coat glinting sunlight as he turned.  “I need to know why you did this,” she said, shaping her words past her sobbing like a fist clenched through shivers, firm and unwavering, ever knowing the question had nothing whatsoever to do with the open mouthed man who stood behind her awkwardly clutching daisies, ever wondering how far away the answer from the soft and simple place she found herself mouthing the words.

© Kipp Wessel, 2011.