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by Debbie Porter

“Where?” moaned Teran, pointing her tiny fingers toward the window. Her eyelids were red from crying but her sobs were starting to subside. “Where, Gramma?” “Where what, honey? What is it? Oh, that nasty horse? Is that what you saw? Old man Olsen’s mean horse? Did it make you cry?” Teran twisted around in her grandmother’s lap, pointing toward the opposite window and the velvet drapes. She waved her arm all around the room. “Horse!” she shrieked. “Mean horse!” “Here, now that you are cooler,” said Linda, standing up with the girl, “Let’s go see if we can find that horse.” Carrying her to the back door, she set the baby down on the floor. Teran wiggled her warm toes on the cool red tiles and then she climbed onto the wooden bench while Linda found their leather boots. ”You must always wear shoes around horses, because they have big, hard feet.” “Big,” repeated Teran. Linda wondered about the wisdom of showing Teran the gelding, which belonged to the neighbor; both the horse and Olsen had bad reputations. The old man was as mean as a snake, and according to her sons, he beat his motherless children regularly. He likely did the same with his livestock. In temperament, from what she had seen, the horse was not far behind the old man. If it were mistreated, that would explain the horse’s fear of people and its tendency to bite anyone who came near the fence. Her own boys, of course, jumped into the pasture whenever they could, inviting the animal to charge them to test their courage. They had told

their mother of dead rabbits and house cats in the field, even birds: their dried and flattened bodies clearly crushed by a hoof. On the other hand, maybe it was a stone outlaw: one that couldn’t be tamed. Maybe Olsen treated the horse well, which would be rich considering how he treated his family and his neighbors. Perhaps the thoroughbred was too high strung, too inbred, or just plain crazy to be of any use. The neighborhood kids called the horse Demon. As they walked around the corner of the house, the pair were stung by sand pebbles kicked up in the wind. In unison, they threw up their hands to shield their eyes. Past the white iron gate where the barbed wire of the pasture began, they stopped. When Teran reached for the wire, her grandmother intercepted her hand. “No, baby, don’t touch. Ouchy,” scolded Linda. “Ouchy,” repeated the child. “Barbaric wire,” she muttered under her breath. Peeping through the four-barbed strands and with her grandmother still holding her hands, Teran reached up. “Where, Gramma? Where is it?” she begged. “There, honey…look down there.” Linda pointed to the patch of willows in the opposite corner of the field, where there was just a touch of shade. “You’ll see.” Linda placed her slender fingers in the corners of her mouth, closed her lips and let out a long shrill whistle. Teran jumped at the sound, then giggled at her grandmother, who picked her up, pointing. “Look, honey, here he comes.”

Teran gazed out across the sandy expanse, holding her breath. Out of the shadow, she saw a blur of black—a rising cloud of dust. She could feel the pounding now, a furious beat, through her grandmother’s body: ta-da-dump, ta-da-dump. Suddenly the horse had closed the distance between them and it slid to a stop several yards away, snorting and pawing the ground. Its brown eyes flashed gold as it threw its head back and reared, pawing the air with its front hooves. When its hooves landed in the dirt with a thump, a flock of sparrows in the nearby shrubs flew off. It was clear from the worn spots in the grass that the horse had repeated this move many times. Linda reached into her pocket and pulled out some cool carrot pieces, which she threw out into the field. Teran watched the creature, mesmerized. When the carrots landed just short of its hooves, it stretched to inhale the carrot scent and warily watched the fence line. Reaching into her pocket again, out of habit Linda appraised the animal’s conformation. It was well bred, probably from Canadian race horse stock—much too nice to be relegated to some sand lot in eastern Washington. It appeared to be about 5 years old -- a young horse but built as tough as rabbit brush. From its slender, bony face and refined ears to its arching neck and powerful legs, the influence of its Arabian ancestors spoke its pedigree: short topline for speed; muscular yet lean hindquarters; powerful, sloping front shoulders. It was underweight by several hundred pounds, and obviously hadn’t seen the horseshoer or a curry brush in years. The creature’s flanks and legs revealed a multitude of scars from its captivity: a fan pattern of spur scars on its flanks, old barbed wire wounds and hobble marks on its legs, rope burns on its neck. Even the corners of the gelding’s mouth were torn from rough hands and a

cruel Spanish bit. From head to toe, countless smooth, gray lines where the black hide showed through reflected in the midday sun…battle scars. “Son of a bitch,” said Linda, under her breath, cursing Olsen for what he had done. She threw more carrots, making sure that they landed short of the first ones. The horse crept forward, sniffing the ground, poised to bolt. He peered out from behind his bushy forelock, which nearly hid his eyes. Like his mane, the tips of his black forelock were bleached red and curly from the sun, making him look as wild as the distant hills. Teran couldn’t hold in her excitement any longer. “Horse!” she screamed. The animal jumped straight up and whirled around. It stopped with its legs splayed out, nose low, facing the baby and her grandmother once again. It sniffed the wind and shook its shoulders which caused the dirt on its hide to come loose and blow off in the wind. Then one by one, it scooped up the carrot pieces, crunching them with its molars and inching toward the fence. Linda threw more pieces, giving one to the sweaty baby and setting her down. “Remember, don’t touch the fence.” Teran took a bite of the carrot and then tossed the rest over the fence. It landed about two feet from the fence and the horse, who noticed everything, watched it land. Teran put her tiny fingers in her mouth and blew, trying to whistle. Only bits of carrots came out and the child giggled. “Here,” said her grandmother, “I’ll do it.” She threw more carrots, closer still and she blew one long note. The animal perked his ears, checked out the carrots, and then lifted his elegant head and his tail, suddenly running toward the wire at full speed. “Whoa!” shouted Linda instinctively, raising both her arms to ward off the devil horse’s advance. She grabbed Teran with one arm and lunged back several yards in the sand while continuing to wave the other

arm. At the last minute, the horse locked its knees, slid on its hocks and stopped short, nose touching the fence. Clearly, he had performed this maneuver before, too. Demon’s gaze never left the child, who had been reaching toward him the entire time, even when it seemed as though he would wreck and hit the wire. As her grandmother held her by the waist, Teran pointed. “Horse,” she whispered. Stretching his neck, the animal strained to catch the tiny human’s scent, then once he found it on the wind, he strained to breathe it deeper. Placing his nose on the bottom strand between the barbs, he made a low nicker, which made the baby laugh. Linda, still shaken, slowly let the girl pull her toward the fence, her small hand pointing the way. When Teran carefully placed her fingers through the fence, her grandmother watched the horse for any sign of aggression, but incredibly, he seemed transfixed by the child. His wild eyes were soft—his inquisitive muzzle reached for her as it had for the treats, and his curious upper lip stretched toward her hand, begging. Teran’s hand brushed his nose and they startled, then both reached back again to make contact. His nose met her hot little hand and she rubbed her fingers across his whiskers. He made the nicker sound again and softly blew on her fingers. Breathing on her through the fence, he raised his head slightly to smell her hair and her damp curls. Oblivious to the midday heat, Teran welcomed his warm, sweet breath. “Mean horse,” offered Teran, looking up with bright eyes at her grandmother, who was slowly shaking her head. “No, good boy,” said Linda softly. “Good boy, good,” whispered the girl. **Published in Perceptions: Magazine of the Arts in May 2013.