The rest of this web site is devoted to my commercial writing, which is how I keep myself in groceries. This page, however, gives you a sample of my fiction writing -- how I feed my soul.
The following story was first published in the literary journal, The South Dakota Review, Summer, 1995 issue.
Riding Past The Pigs
a short story by Anne Creed
with thanks to Diane Lefer
Ponies don't do as they're told unless they're told to do what they want to do anyway, a lot like cats, only bigger, and ornery instead of aloof. Ponies aren't small horses, or baby horses, or toy horses. Ponies are survivors, coarse-haired, feather-legged windbreaks with the metabolisms of rocks. They're lower to the ground so they can grip it harder, hanging on to life, unbudgeable. Horses might flee, but ponies hunker down.
Ponies are clever, too. A pony bulldozes his way past dimmer witted horses to the fallen apples only he knows about. There he'll stand, smug and alone, a slurping, dribbling blockade, broad backside concealing view of head down, down, down in ritual of earnest gluttony. Unafraid of drunken bees concealed beneath seductive curve of fruit. Eating them whole, if they're in the way, and finishing the last apple just as the first horse approaches.
I know about ponies because I had a succession of them as a girl. And the frustration of their conniving single-mindedness is coming back to me now, delivered daily by Ditto, my daughter's pony. Allison doesn't see what ponies are really like. For her he's all fur-covered love and possibility -- the small version of a noble species, like Allison herself.
I should sell him and get a more cooperative pony. One too old to care. One not smarter than us. One not expert in feed room doors, weaknesses of fences, how to blast past small owners with fingers too slow to fasten gates, or how to herd my skittish Thoroughbreds into foolish terror over our neighbor's pigs.
I have fantasized about not catching Ditto when he gets away from us, about chasing him in front of a truck. I have thought about denying ownership when the neighbor from down the street calls to say he's there. But no matter what he does, I can't sell him. My horse-ignorant husband, Paul, bought him for Allison, even though I told him not to. And now that Paul is gone, I can't take Ditto away from her, too. So I'll keep looking for ways to keep him contained.
The day we found out Paul was sick, Ditto got a cardboard box stuck on his nose. We'd just brought Paul back from the hospital and I was down at the barn; horses have to eat, no matter what you feel like doing. That good-for-nothing pony ran up with his nose stuck in the cardboard box that the mineral block came in. He must have been rooting around in it for crumbs when it got caught, flaps in, Chinese finger-cuff style. When he'd try to pull his greedy snout out, the flaps would come up too, holding him firm. Now, a horse would have run like hell until the box fell off or he had an accident or died of exhaustion. But the pony knew that this was nothing a good set of opposable thumbs couldn't solve, and so he came running up to me. I got Paul and Allison, and the three of us began to smile, then laughed convulsively, shaking our sorrow off its perch for a little while.
Allison likes to play with Ditto as much as ride him, grooming him in the barn, pulling straw and grass roots out of his recalcitrant, too thick flaxen mane and tail and brushing his sturdy chestnut coat to a dull gleam. For all his faults, there isn't a mean bone in him, and I'm not worried if she stands directly behind him or climbs under him. While other children are styling the hair of plastic horses, Allison's smitten with the real thing.
"Start at the bottom and pull it apart with your hands," I say. At seven, she is smaller than most of the other children but has a determination that makes her seem older. Her strong little hands work through his tail like an old woman pulling taffy, but her eyes are worried. Her bangs need trimming. I cannot keep up with it all.
Allison asks, "Mommy, when Ditto dies, will he go to heaven?"
"Ditto is in heaven -- he's got you for an owner and me to feed him," I say. But the evasion doesn't work.
"When he dies, will he go to heaven?"
"If there is a pony heaven, and if he is good, I guess he'll go to heaven."
"How good does he have to be?" she asks, looking even more worried.
"If they have to be good, there won't be many ponies in pony heaven. Maybe God grades on the curve for ponies. Hand me that brush." His fat butt is so well padded it bounces underneath my brisk strokes. I feed him rations so puny they're largely symbolic -- about a cup of plain oats so he won't feel left out while the others are eating. Who knows what he's insulating himself against -- or for. I can't resist prodding the top of his pudgy rump with my finger, just to see how deep it is. My poke sends a small, comical wave, reminding me of the water beds I'd known and hated in college.
"Is pony heaven near people heaven?"
"Allison, honey, I don't know. Use this comb, that one breaks his tail hairs."
"Where is it then?"
"God will take care of Ditto, so we don't have to know exactly where he'll go."
"But what about Daddy? When Ditto dies, will he be in heaven with Daddy?"
"He might; Daddy might like that. But I don't know." I couldn't think of what else to tell her. It's hard to keep my stories straight when none of them are sufficient. I start to tell her that she will see Paul when she goes to heaven, but quickly stop myself. I don't need to get her started thinking about her own death again. So I tell her that her daddy loved her and loves her still, even if she can't see him anymore.
She starts crying because I can't give her a reason not to, wallowing her wet face into the soft, calm pillow of Ditto's butt, her fingers tangled in his tail. I stroke her hair and her small heaving shoulders, and let the stable take our grief.
Once again I cannot sleep. I go down to the stable in darkness. Ditto gives a recognizing whinny, hoping for food. Enigma, my dressage horse, and Kaboodle, a filly I'll start training next year, rattle their doors and feed buckets. One of them starts to play with his automatic waterer. Water surges through the pipes I told Paul I didn't want because, with self- waterers, I can't tell how much they're drinking. The change in water pressure makes a mournful sound.
Enigma's almost black back is higher than my head, and lifting my well worn dressage saddle aggravates an old shoulder injury. It's still dark when I finish tacking up, so I turn on the arena lights before climbing aboard.
Enigma makes elegant, supple leg yields beneath me. He is so good that shifts in my body, when I but think "leg yield," send him dancing laterally across the arena, legs reaching under his body sideways, a cultivated cross that seems impossible. He is not bored this morning. He is on, giving me extensions that feel like 10's, then powerful collections without variation in the rhythm. I practice my two-tempi changes, cantering two strides first on one lead, then a flying change for two strides on the other. I check our form in the mirrors that were an anniversary gift from Paul. My horse and I are dancing to music we shake from the ground.
A momentary stiffening of my spine and inflexibility in my hands clues Enigma that something is about to happen. At the next stride I sit deeper, and he comes back to me, a near-instant transition to a magnificent floating trot. I move my left leg slightly back and press my right leg against his side. He bends around it, shaping his body into the correct curve to make a show-quality ten-metre circle. He is far better than I deserve.
My horse has become an extension of me, linked through our spines. His neck is arched, nose perpendicular to the ground. He's relaxed and on the bit, hindquarters reaching up under us, swinging, swinging effortlessly, but I know there will be sweat churned to foam between his hind legs and saliva turned white whipped cream dripping from his double bridle. At shows many riders stuff sugar cubes in their horses' mouths to get the same effect, but I don't have to.
Enigma is soft but strung like a bow, or a perfectly tuned violin, between my hands and legs and seat. I hold him balanced and agile, each stride communicating with him yes, yes, that's it, a bit more now, keep the rhythm, keep the impulse. What primitive ancestors, who survived by running either away from or to something on a horse, gave me this tremendous need?
I lengthen my reins and he knows it is time to stretch down, keeping the rhythm and still obeying but reaching forward and down with his head until it is right in front of his front feet, stretching neck and spine. We travel one 20-metre circle to the left, change our bend in the middle, and finish with one 20-metre circle to the right. I sit harder and he lands into stillness on the next stride, hooves making the corners of a perfect square halt. My hand strums gentle praise across his slippery wet neck, dilated veins interrupting the black smoothness. "Good, Eenie Meenie. Good boy." I ignore the slick wet mess he has become and lean forward, hugging him around the neck. His pure, earthy smell is like order in the world, and it clings to me. He sighs and moves off toward the barn without my telling him. It is over.
Sweat puddles on the pavement beneath his hooves where he stands in the cross-ties, liquid testimony to the power that fuels our art. He watches me with the impatience of a child, anxious that I will forget to feed him, something I've never done. In a moment he will begin to paw, wearing the toes off of his shoes and scraping permanent streaks on the pavement. I hurry to put my tack away, and return from the tack room with sponge, bucket and sweat scraper. The sun has been up about 30 minutes, and already it is getting hot. Allison will be up soon.
I snap my fingers beside Enigma's right knee. "Come on, Eenie Meenie, give me your foot." He sort of half way picks it up -- getting him to take his weight off of it is the most important part. I lift it, then lean forward to meet it and pick his hooves for rocks and sticks. I walk clockwise around him, picking his feet, till I get to the front left. I snap my fingers again, just in case. This time he puts his weight on that foot. I tap his leg. "Come on, pick it up." He leans harder on that leg -- he's always had a thing about it -- or maybe just doesn't like to put his weight on his other front foot. I lean my shoulder into his and push. He pushes back. I push harder. So does he. When I move he half falls in my direction and has to take a step to regain his balance. Then I lead him a step forward and try to pick up that foot when he lifts it. He slams it down on the pavement and stands on it like it has money under it. "Pick up your damn foot, dammit!" I grab the grooved area between tendon and cannon bone and pinch till it hurts and he takes a quick step that shakes me loose but doesn't get me the leg. And he's getting upset and wanting breakfast. So am I. I stand there panting, red in the face from running around with my head lower than my heart, wondering if it is true I have to win every time. He hasn't had anything in the other three hooves and almost never picks up a rock or a stick, so I quit.
"Three out of four ain't bad," says Nick from the feed room door. "'Specially from Miney Moe."
"I didn't hear you drive up," I say, walking behind Enigma so Nick can't see me. I can hear the sound of him approaching in the blood rushing in my ears, like heat. My hands will betray me, so I busy them rubbing out the saddle marks I rubbed out a minute ago.
"Nothing abnormal about the feed and seed store man delivering feed and seed to an old customer, is it?"
"Not at 50 cents more per bag than O'Doyle's."
"Fifty cents isn't much to pay to keep your horse from moldy grain."
"I hear his quality has improved." We both knew it hadn't.
"He doesn't deliver; I do. Remember? Sweet feed, some wild oats you can sow, and hay to make while the sun shines."
"The sun doesn't shine here anymore, Nick," I say, trying to wriggle out from under that blue-eyed cowboy gaze. Just so much denim-clad livestock. Don't think about what I remember is underneath, keep brushing, brushing, brushing.
Enigma paws in his chains. I slap him. "Stop it," I say, knowing the only way he'll stop is if I put him in his stall and feed him.
"You ought to get you a good horse," Nick says. "I got a whole shipment coming in next week from Oklahoma. Not high strung, purebred shit."
"You traffic in used up no-breeds, good-for-nothings," I say. "The pathetic things break my heart."
Nick shrugs. "You know what I've got. Give me a call."
When he's left and it's safe for me again, I put Enigma back in his stall and start to feed. Ditto plunges his head into his bucket and never comes up for air until all of Nick's good grain is gone. Enigma and Kaboodle dribble theirs out by mouthfuls onto the floor. When there's none left in their buckets, they pick it up grain by grain from their bedding.
A week later Allison and I hear an echo of sorts, a package arriving from a saddle exporter in Holland.
"Daddy told me not to tell you. It was for your birthday," Allison says, helping me take the crumpled Dutch newspapers out of the box.
I get a whiff of new leather as I struggle to pull plastic wrapped blackness out of the box. Oh, Paul, so full of life and surprises, how was I ever bored with you? Allison pulls off the plastic wrap. It is a Hopfner Ahlerich, the most expensive dressage saddle on the market and one I hadn't even had the audacity to covet. The packing slip shows Paul ordered it a month before he knew he was sick. Please, God, don't let him have known.
"Mommy, it's just newspaper. Throw that away! What about the saddle?"
"It's beautiful, Allison," I say. "Did you help him pick it out?"
"We looked at them everywhere. Can I have your old one?" Allison asks. "I'm ready to do dressage."
"It's too big for you, and Ditto's not ready for dressage, baby," I say. "He's too fat."
"Can I put him on a diet?"
"He's already on one. It doesn't do any good."
"Can I have it and ride Eenie Meenie, then?" she asks.
"Ditto's more your size."
"Can I ride Eenie Meenie without you leading me?"
"Maybe when you're older." Enigma will be older, too, I think. So will I. I ache with the passage of time, too fast and not fast enough and never going back and so many things that can hurt.
Allison carries the fittings while I carry the saddle to the barn. We make a ritual of oiling it on the undersides of the leather, so the oil will soak in but won't attract dirt and stain my breeches. We string the fillis irons on their leathers, ladies' leathers that don't need to have extra holes punched to make them short enough.
"Aren't you going to ride in it?" Allison asks.
"No, not today."
"We need to give it time for the oil to soak in," I stall. "I'll ride it tomorrow."
I pull out my best white saddle pad from the trunk Paul made for me, a Christmas gift from several years ago. Paul is everywhere -- and nowhere. The emptiness fills up all our spaces.
Allison is still asleep when I go down to the barn. I do a better job than usual of grooming Enigma before I put the new saddle on. It fits him perfectly, clearing his high withers by at least two finger widths and settling down nicely over the crest of his back. I don't want to mount it, but he stands so nicely by the steps Paul built for my mounting block that I have to climb on. I adjust the stirrups and stretch down into the deep seat. I pull on my leather gloves and arrange my reins.
Enigma moves off toward the dressage arena. The saddle squeaks with newness, and it feels good, even though it isn't broken in yet. Saddles, like shoes, need to conform to your shape before they are comfortable.
I walk to let him stretch out the confinement of the stall and a night's rest. He's plodding, uninterested, barely moving. I tap his butt with my long whip. He makes a small grunting sound, jerks his head up for a stride, but nothing changes. I push him on with my legs and seat, working harder than he is. Still nothing. I prod him into a dull trot. I can feel his hind legs trailing behind, not coming up under enough. I click at him, and tap more with spurs and whip. One glance in the mirror and I see that it's as ugly as it feels. I can't fault him his boredom, his going ring-sour.
I tap with my whip every stride. He kicks out in irritation, it feels like a buck and throws me around in the unfamiliar saddle.
"All you have to do is work one hour a day," I say. "Just one hour. Give me a little more." I'm not willing to turn it up a notch, using the whip or the spurs more than I am. I never like it, and I don't have it in me today. In disgust I stop following him with my seat, pushing him, and he senses the loss of will and drops back to a sluggish walk. Why didn't I stay in bed? What's worse, everything I do with him sets a precedent for later; what is happening today will be repeated if I can't change it. This is how bad habits start.
Ditto whinnies from across the pasture. He got away from us last night so we let him stay out. He stands by the fence, eating the lush grass down by my neighbor's pigs and probably some apples that have rolled through the fence. Enigma won't go near there. He's so afraid of pigs that when the neighbor moved them there, he stopped eating. He'd stand in his stall at feeding time, head hanging over the door, fretting over what the pigs might be up to, unable to keep his mind on his food. He'd take a mouthful of grain, run to the door, dribble half of it where he could never reach it, twisting sideways and wild-eyed in the pigs' direction. He began to lose weight. Paul had to put a grate over the top of the stall door so that Enigma couldn't see out. He began to eat once more.
Ditto nickers again. I feel Enigma quicken his pace for a step. The pigs. The pigs are standing by the fence, less than three feet from Ditto, who could give a shit.
"Let's take a little cruise, shall we?" I steer Enigma out of the safety of the dressage arena. Like a child watching a horror movie through splayed fingers, my horse heads straight for those scary pigs. No bored creature can resist the seduction of danger and change.
"Careful, Eenie Meenie," I say.
I'm on loose reins, and the way I can feel Enigma tensing, I realize this is probably a bad idea. I begin to draw him up. He snorts and throws in a jiggy step, but he can't help wanting to go toward the pigs. He can't help it and he doesn't know what he's doing, he just does it. But I know. He's looking for, hoping for, a reason to run, to stir things up a bit, and I feel the life flowing back into him. He changes underneath me. Now this horse has wings. He's gorgeous and exciting -- and about to explode.
But about 25 feet from the fence is as close as he's willing to get, like there's some force field in effect. I feel like I'm trying to put the same poles of magnets together. I would have let him quit earlier, but now it's too late and I ride him back and forth in the edges of the pig zone, pushing him nearer, nearer. Paul said I took too many chances, but I'm the one who's still here.
"Ditto's not afraid of the stupid pigs; let's go see your buddy Ditto." Horses are herd animals and you can sometimes get them to do the unthinkable, if it's what their friends are doing. I aim him toward Ditto. The force field drains the forward motion of our trot. We walk toward the pony like we've got rubber cords tying us to the barn and the pigless upper world. Go on, you fool horse, go on. Enigma snorts and is almost trembling. We will go further, we will ride right over the pigs if I say so. I push him on, wading deeper into their perilous domain. Ditto looks at us, then goes back to eating. I kick Enigma again. Get closer, come on, walk! He takes a step, then stops, trembling. He feels like he's gotten even taller, he is so stiff. The biggest hog, a black sow with a white band around her belly, snuffles around the fence. She squeals when her companion nudges her. That does it.
I don't know what to call it; it is not buck, nor rear, nor merely a change of direction. My horse is gone from beneath me, and when gravity has its way with me, I'm back but not where I'm supposed to be. I'm clinging with unfamiliar muscles to an unfamiliar position on an unfamiliar saddle. PaulPaulPaul. I imagine I cannot hold on alone.
And Enigma is running, great ground-eating strides away from pony and pigs and the terrors of the morning. And I'm hanging around his neck, watching those shrill, iron-clad hooves and willing myself not to be beneath them and willing myself back into the saddle Paul wanted me to have, that he knew I wanted. The loose stirrups are flopping, banging the horse's sides in each swinging arc telling him go, go, run for your life. But I cling, I reach forward and grab the rein and pull the horse's head hard right, yes right toward the pigs, now far behind. I pull right, right, right, till his head will meet my knee, and he turns, turns into a circle where he cannot run so fast, and circles once, then twice, then winds down and stops. He is heaving and unsure why there was terror. A moment later, he's forgotten he was overcome with terror at all. He stands, certain only of his standing.
I pull myself back where I belong, in the saddle Paul wanted me to have. I wrap my arms around my horse's neck and swing my legs to the solid ground. Standing, I still hold on to Enigma's neck to steady myself. He's getting calmer, merging with the exquisite peace that comes from no memory. It is so much harder for me, carrying this regret for a year. I met the irresistible force and I embraced it, I sought it out, I tracked it down to its trifling conclusion. Over such, wars have been fought, kingdom's lost, I am no different or worse, but I regret, even in absolution. I loved my husband and am certain of his love. What did he know? That is my burden.
The sun is up now, measuring out another fearful day. I hear small hooves pounding up behind. Enigma starts, but we both know it is only Ditto, bad, sweet Ditto, a one-pony cavalry to the rescue. He stops beside us, and I hug the little ingrate. "I told Paul he shouldn't have bought you. We had a terrible fight."
Then Ditto does the thing that cracks me up the most. He stretches his fat little neck up as far as it will go, and rests his hairy, grass-flecked chin on my shoulder. He's too short so his chin doesn't reach comfortably, and it mashes down too hard where it hooks on me. "You love me anyway, don't you? Stop, or you'll make me cry." I gently push his head off my shoulder and lead Enigma to the barn.
Ditto follows, but then leaves us to take his usual place as sentinel by the gate closest to the house. I put Enigma in his stall and get some slightly wilted carrots out of the barn refrigerator. Between nibbles on grass shoots that poke through the fence, Ditto watches the kitchen door. I carry the carrots to the pony, like I do every morning now. Ditto is waiting for Paul, for Paul to emerge from the house with a treat before leaving for work, his morning ritual. I bring carrots in all kinds of weather, and I'll do it as long as Ditto stands waiting.
Paul is dead. Allison will be waking soon. She'll grow and spill over into life faster than I can catch her, than I can keep safe ponies under her. The horses at the barn are nickering for their breakfast. Life demands life. I'll take care of Allison as long as she will let me, and when she moves on, I'll love and care for her aging pony, the fences that will rot and start to fall down.
Ditto turns to face me, reaching out for the treat. He doesn't bite his carrots, but breaks them, asking for and counting on my help. He grips the carrot in his teeth, then pushes it downward until it snaps, trusting me to hold tight to my end. I hold the broken end while he chews. Then he bites again, and I hold on tight. My grip is sure, I will not let go.
©1995 by Anne Creed
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