Lately I’ve been thinking about that summer. We barely ever got off those ponies’ backs. We painted war paint across their foreheads and pinned wild-turkey feathers in our hair and whooped and raced across the back field, hanging on to their necks. Some days they were a pair of bucking broncos, or unicorns, or circus horses, or burros on a narrow mountain pass. Other days they were as delicate and regal as the rich ladies’ horses, and we were two queens, veiled sultanas crossing the Sahara under a burning sky. We were the kidnapped maidens, or the masked heroes. We braided flowers in their matted tails, dandelions and oxeye daisies that got lost in the snarls, wilted, and turned brown. We tore across the back field, our heels digging into their sides. We pulled them up short and did somersaults off their backs, or handstands in the saddle. We turned on a dime. We jumped the coop, the wall, the ditch. We were fearless. It was the summer we smoked our first cigarettes, the summer you broke your arm. It was the last summer, the last one, before boys.
Our mothers drop us off every morning at seven. We grab two pitchforks and fly through our chores. For four dollars an hour we shovel loads of manure and wet shavings out of the stalls, scrub the water buckets, and fill the hay racks, the hay sticking to our wet T-shirts, falling into our shoes, our pockets, our hair. We race to see who can get done first. The sooner we finish, the sooner we can ride. Late in the morning Curt comes out to the barn and leans against the massive sliding door. He wears sandals and baggy shorts, and under his thick, dark lashes his eyes are rimmed with red. He tells us what other jobs there are to be done: picking stones out of the riding ring, or refilling the water troughs in the pasture with the long, heavy hose. We whine and stamp our feet. He is the caretaker, after all, and supposed to do these tasks himself. We were just about to go riding, we say.
Girls, he says, winking, come on now.
He looks over his shoulder and whistles for his dog. You stick your tongue out at his back. Some mornings he stays in his little house and doesn’t come out until later, when the ladies’ expensive cars start to pull into the long driveway. They get out and lean against their shiny hoods, smoking cigarettes and talking to Curt in low voices. Sometimes only one or two of them show up, and other times they all come, a half dozen of them in the identical beige breeches and high boots that we dream of one day wearing. They never once get a streak of manure across their foreheads or water sloshed across their shirts. We turn down the volume of the paint-splattered barn radio to try to hear what they’re saying, but we can’t make it out. In the afternoon we eat the sandwiches our mothers packed for us and throw our apple cores over the fence to the ponies, who chew them carefully and sigh in the hot midday sun. Their eyes close, and they let their pink-and-gray-mottled penises dangle. We go to them with soapy water and a sponge in a bucket and clean the built-up crust from their sheaths, reaching our arms far up inside. The ladies see us do this and pay us five dollars to do their geldings’, then stand by and watch us, wrinkling their noses.
The ladies’ horses all have brass plates on their stall doors, their names etched in fancy script, with their sires and dams in parentheses underneath. They are called “Curator,” “Excelsior,” “Hadrian.” The ponies’ names change daily, depending on our game. They don’t even have stalls, but live out in the field, where they eat all day under a cloud of flies. Nobody even remembers who they belong to. For the summer, they are ours. They are round and close to the ground, wheezy and spoiled, with bad habits. One is brown and dulled by dust. The other is a pinto, bay with white splashes, one eye blue, the other brown. The blue eye is blind. We sneak up on this side when we go out to the pasture to catch them, a green halter hidden behind your back, a red one behind mine. The ponies let us get just close enough, then toss their heads and trot away. Peppermints and buckets of grain don’t fool them. After a while we decide just to leave their halters on. The grass in the pasture is knee high, full of ticks and chiggers, mouse tunnels and quicksilver snakes that scare the ladies’ horses into a frenzy. But not the ponies. They are unspookable. When we cinch up their girths, they twist their necks around to bite our arms, leaving bruises like sunset-colored moons. As the summer gets hotter, we stop bothering with saddles altogether and just clip two lead lines to their halters, grab a hank of mane, and vault on.
We trot them through the field and down the hill to the pine woods, making them scramble up steep ridges. The ponies are much faster coming home than going. We get as far away as we can and then let them race home through the woods, spruce limbs and vines whipping our faces. We know we are close when we can smell the manure pile. We come up the hill, and there it is, looming like a dark mountain beside the barn. You make a telescope with your thumb and forefinger, your fingernails black to the quick. Land ho! you say. Crows perch on the peak of the pile and send avalanches of dirty shavings down its sides. The ladies’ little dogs jump gleefully out of the open windows of their cars and come running to us, tags jingling.
The ladies hardly ever ride. All day their horses stand out in the sun, their muscles like silk-covered stone. Sometimes they bring them into the barn and tie them up in the crossties, then wander into Curt’s house and don’t come out. The horses wait patiently for an hour or so, then begin to paw and weave their heads. They can’t reach the flies settling between their shoulder blades, the itches on their faces they try to rub against their front legs. They dance and swivel in the aisle, and still the ladies won’t come out. Finally we unhook them from the ties and turn them out into the pasture, where they spin and kick out a leg before galloping back to the herd. When the ladies reappear in the doorway of the little house, late in the afternoon, they squint in the light as if emerging from a cave and don’t ever seem to notice that their horses are not where they left them.
We do everything we can think of to torture Curt. Before he goes out to work on the electric fence, he switches off the fuse in the big breaker box in the barn. We sneak around and flip it back on, then hide and wait to hear his curses when he touches the wire. You slap me five. He comes back into the barn and flicks a lunge whip at us, and we giggle and jump. When he turns away, we both whisper, I hate him. We use pitchforks to fling hard turds of manure in his direction, and he hooks his big arms around our waists and dumps us headfirst into the sawdust pile. We squeal and throw handfuls of wood shavings at him as he walks away. Oh, how we hate him! We pretend we’ve forgotten his name.
In the afternoon we ride our ponies close to the little house to spy on Curt. Their hooves make marks in the soft lawn like fingerprints in fresh bread. We ride as close as we dare and peer in and see things we don’t see in our own houses: dirty laundry heaped in the hall, a cluster of dark bottles on top of the refrigerator, ashtrays and half-filled glasses crowding the kitchen table, which is just a piece of plywood on two sawhorses. Your pony eats roses from the bushes under the windows. He wears a halo of mosquitoes. From the bedroom we hear voices, a man’s and a woman’s. It is the only room in which the blinds have been pulled. We try to peer through the cracks, but the ponies yank at their bits and dance in the rosebushes, and we don’t really want to see anyway. Come on, you say, and we head out to the back field to play circus acrobats, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians.
The ponies bear witness to dozens of pacts and promises that we make in the grave light of late afternoon and have every intention of keeping. We cross our hearts and hope to die on the subjects of horses, husbands, and each other. We dare one another to do dangerous things: You dare me to jump from the top of the manure pile, and I do, and land on my feet with manure in my shoes. I double-dare you to take the brown pony over the triple-oxer jump, which is higher than his ears. You ride hellbent toward it, but the pony stops dead, throwing you over his head, and you sail through the air and land laughing. We are covered in scrapes and bruises, splinters buried so deep in our palms that we don’t remember they are there. Our bodies forgive us our risks, and the ponies do, too. We have perfected the art of falling.
We know every corner of the barn, every loose board, every shadow, every knot in the wood. It is old and full of holes and home to many things: bats and lizards and voles; spiders that hang cobwebs in the corners like hammocks; house sparrows who build nests in the drainpipes with beakfuls of hay until one day a dead pink baby bird drops at the feet of one of the ladies, who screams and clutches her hair. You scoop it up and toss it on the manure pile, and Curt comes out with the long ladder and pours boiling water from a kettle down the pipe, and that is the end of the sparrows. Curt laughs at the lady and rolls his eyes behind her back and winks at us. We wink back. There is a fly strip in the corner that quivers with dying flies. When it is black with bodies and bits of wing, it is our job to replace it, and we hold our breaths when we take it down, praying it won’t catch in our hair. And there are rats, so many rats that we rip from glue boards and smash with shovels, or pull from snap traps and fling into the woods, or find floating in water troughs where they’ve dragged themselves, bellies distended with poison and dying of thirst.
Along the edges of the manure pile we catch skinks and salamanders and yellow-striped millipedes that give off the scent of almonds when we rub them. We lock them up in mayonnaise jars, punching air holes in the rusty tops with Curt’s hammer and screwdriver. We kneel in the filth and watch an army of ants dismantle a mouse carcass. We see a hawk drop a squirrel from a branch of the old white oak. The squirrel gets up, shakes itself, and runs right back up the trunk of the tree. We are in the hayloft the morning that the barn cat has kittens. Crouching beside her, we watch her contortions, her straining face, and we see the slick, blind kittens wriggle their way to the seam of teats. Afterward we watch in wonder, our faces inches from hers, as the cat eats the afterbirth with delicate bites, the hay around her dark with blood. In a few weeks, when the kittens have become fuzzy and playful, the ladies grow delighted with them, and we forget about them altogether.
In the basement is the workbench where Curt never works, rusty nails lined up in baby-food jars, their lids screwed to a low beam. The manure spreader is parked down there in the dark, like a massive, shamed beast. When we open the trapdoor in the floor above to dump loads from our wheelbarrows, a rectangle of light illuminates the mound of dirty shavings and manure, and mice scurry over it like currents of electricity. The ladies never go down to the basement. It is there that we sometimes sit to discuss them, comparing their hair, their mouths, the size of their breasts. Did you see that one throw up behind the barn on Friday afternoon? Did you see her diamond ring? Did you see that one slip something into Curt’s shirt pocket and smile at him? What was it?
We hear them call their husbands’ offices on the barn telephone and say they are calling from home. We watch two of them go into the little house at once, shutting the door behind them. We see Curt stagger from the house and fall over in the yard and stay where he falls, very still, until one of the ladies comes out and helps him up, laughing, and takes him back inside. The ladies hang around and watch the farrier, a friend of Curt’s with blond hair and a cowboy hat, as he beats a horseshoe to the shape of a hoof with his hammer. He swears as he works, and we stand in the shadows by the grain room and listen carefully, cataloging each new word. When he leaves, one or two of the ladies drive off, following his truck, and return an hour or so later and go back to what they were doing, as if they’d never left. They lock themselves in the tack room and fill it with cigarette smoke. We sit in the hayloft and listen to their voices below us, high and excited, like small children’s. The ladies wear lipstick, but it’s gone by the afternoon. They wear their sunglasses on cloudy days. Some mornings the oil drum we use for empty grain bags is filled to the top with beer bottles. As we watch them, the rules that have been strung in our heads like thick cables fray and unravel in a dazzling array of sparks. Then we climb on the ponies’ backs and ride away down the hill.
One afternoon Curt gives us each a cigarette and laughs as we try to inhale. Look, girls, he says, striking a match on the sole of his boot and lighting his own. Like this. We watch his face as he takes a drag, his jaw shadowed by a three-day beard. Later we steal two more from his pack and ride into the woods to practice, watching each other and saying, No, like this! We put Epsom salts in Curt’s coffee and lock the tack-room door from the inside. We steal his baseball cap and manage to get it hooked on the weather vane. Ha! we say, and spit on the ground. Take that! He throws one of his flip-flops at us. He drags us shrieking to the courtyard and sprays us with the hose. He tells us we stink. We tell him we don’t care.
There is one horse that was brought over on a plane, all the way from England. One afternoon we are sitting up in the hayloft, sucking peppermints and discussing all the horses we will own someday, when we hear a scream from below. The horse, left tied and standing in the aisle, has spooked and broken its halter and gashed its head open on a beam. Blood drips from its eyelashes and pools by its hooves, and it sways like a rope bridge. We grab saddle pads from the tack room, the ladies’ expensive fleece ones, and press them to the wound. They grow hot and heavy with blood. It drips down our arms into our hair. The horse shakes its head and gnashes its teeth at us. We look over at the little house, all the blinds drawn tight. Who will knock on the door? We flip a coin. I don’t remember whether you won or lost, but you are the one who cuts through the flower bed, stands on the step, and knocks and knocks, and after a long time Curt comes out in jeans and bare feet with no shirt. I hide in the bushes and watch. What? he says, frowning. You point at his crotch and say, XYZ! He zips his fly in one motion, without looking down, like flipping on a light switch. And then in the shadow of the doorway is the lady the horse belongs to, scowling, her blond hair half undone, looking at you as if she is having a hard time understanding why you’re all covered in blood. After the vet comes and stitches up the wound, the lady eyes us suspiciously and whispers to Curt. Later he makes sure she is within earshot before scolding us. When the vet has left and they have gone back into the house, we knock down a paper-wasp nest and toss it through the open window of her car.
There is a pond in the back pasture where the horses go to drink, half hidden by willows and giant honeysuckle bushes that shade it from the noonday sun. On the hottest days we swim the ponies out to the middle, and when their hooves leave the silty bottom, it feels as if we are flying. The water is brown, and rafts of manure float past us as we swim, but we don’t care. We pretend the ponies are Pegasus, and we grow quiet, both thinking about the same thing: Curt. His arms, the curve of his hat brim, the way he smells when he gets off the tractor in the afternoon. You trail your hand in the water and say, What are you thinking about? And I say, Nothing. When we come out of the water, the insides of our thighs are streaked with wet horsehair, as if we were turning into wild beasts ourselves. The ponies shake violently to dry off, and we jump down as they drop to their knees to roll in the dust. Other days it is too hot to swim, or even move at all. We lie on the ponies’ necks as they graze in the pasture, our arms hanging straight down. The heat drapes across our shoulders and thighs. School is as unthinkable as snow.
Rodeo is our favorite game, because it is the fastest and most reckless, involving many feats of speed and bravery, and lots of quick turns and trick riding. One day in late July, out in the back field, we decide to elect a rodeo clown and a rodeo queen. The ponies stamp impatiently while we argue over who will be which. Finally the games begin. There is barrel racing and a bucking bronco and a rodeo parade. We discover that we can make the ponies rear by pushing them forward with our heels while holding the reins tight. Yee haw! we say, throwing one arm up in the air. The ponies chew their bits nervously, and we do it over and over again. We must lean far forward on their necks, or we will slip off. Once, when the pinto pony goes up, you start to lose your balance. I am doubled over laughing until I see you grope for the reins as the pony goes higher, and you grab them with too much force and yank his head back too far. He hangs suspended for a moment before falling backward like a tree onto his spine. You disappear as he rolls to his side, then reappear when he scrambles to his feet, the reins dangling from the bit. I jump off my pony and run to you. Your arm is broken from the looks of it. Oh, shit, I say. You squint up at me through a veil of blood. Doesn’t hurt, you say.
Curt was the one who rescued you. He drove his pickup through the tall grass of the back pasture, lifted you onto the bench seat, made you a pillow with his shirt. And when no one could get ahold of your parents, it was he who drove you to the emergency room. I rode in the truck bed and watched through the rear window as you stretched your legs across his lap, your bare feet on his thighs. I could see his arms, your face, his freckled hand as he brushed the hair, or maybe tears, from your eyes. I sat across from him at the hospital and waited while they stitched the gash on your forehead and put your left arm in a cast, and I came in with him to check on you. I hung back in the corner when he leaned over the table, and I heard you whisper to him in a high, helpless voice. I watched your hand grope out from under the blanket, reaching for his. And I saw him hold it. With both hands. Of course I was jealous. I still am. You must have a scar to remind you of that summer. I have nothing I can point to, nothing I can touch.
It was early August when the brown pony died. It happened overnight, and no one knew how: whether he colicked and twisted a gut, or had a heart attack, or caught a hind foot in his halter while tending an itch and broke his own neck. When we found the body, we didn’t cry. I remember we weren’t even very sad. We went to find Curt, who lit a cigarette and instructed us not to tell the ladies. Then we went back and looked at the pony’s still body, his velvety muzzle, his open eye, his lips pulled back from his big domino teeth. We touched his side, already cold. Later we rode the pinto pony double out to the pond, your arms around my waist, your cast knocking against my hipbone. Behind us the tractor coughed as Curt pulled the pony’s body to the manure pile with heavy chains. We slipped off the pinto, let him wander away, and sprawled out in the grass. You scratched inside your cast with a stick. Grasshoppers sprung around us. We lay there all afternoon and into the evening, your head on my stomach, our fingers in the clover, trying to think up games we could play with only one pony.
Weeks later we were alone in the barn. We were sweeping the long center aisle, shoving push brooms toward one another from opposite ends, the radio flickering on and off, like it always did. When it faded out completely, we heard the squabbling of dogs out back. We dropped our brooms and ran to see what they were fighting over. Through a cloud of dust we could make out Curt’s dog, his back to us, bracing himself with his tail in the air and growling at one of the ladies’ fierce little dogs, who was shaking his head violently, his eyes squeezed shut. Between them they had the brown pony’s head. It took us a while to recognize it. It was mostly bone, yellow teeth, and gaping eye sockets, except for a few bits of brown hair that hung from the forehead, some cheek muscle and stringy tendon clinging to the left side. And then we saw it, both at the same time: the little scrap of green against the white. The pony still had its halter on. This was what the dogs had gotten their teeth around. Curt had never bothered to take it off. With a final shake of his jaws, the little dog managed to snatch the pony’s head away, and he dragged it around the corner of the barn, Curt’s dog bounding after.
We stood in the slanting September light and listened to the dogs’ whines and rumblings, the scrape of the skull against the ground. Then we picked up our brooms, and when we were done sweeping, we went and got the pinto pony and rode double down the hill and didn’t think much about it again. Death was familiar to us that summer: it was on the road, in the woods, under the floor of the barn; it was the raccoon rotting on the pavement and the crows that settled there to pick at it until they, too, were flattened by cars, and their bodies swelled and stank in the heat; it was the half-decayed doe we found in the woods with maggots stitching in and out of its flesh; it was the stillborn foal wrapped in a decomposing amniotic sac in the pasture where the vultures perched. We caught a whiff of it, sniffed it out, didn’t flinch, touched it with our bare hands, ate lunch immediately afterward. We weren’t frightened of it.
And a few summers later, spinning out of control on a loose gravel road in a car full of boys and beer, we weren’t scared of death then, either. We laughed and said to the boy at the wheel, Do it again. We learned to fear it only later, much later, when we realized that it knew our names, and, worse, the names of everything we loved. At the height of that summer, in the dog days, I would have said that we loved the ponies, but I see now that we never did. They were only everything we asked them to be, and that was enough.