We Are Here Because of a Horse
by Karin C. Davidson
2012 Waasmode Fiction Prize Winner
Tulsa by night shines like a shattered gold watch.
We arrive in the pitch of early morning, that time after midnight when the world is sheathed and unspeaking. We start out late in the day and head straight into the sun, traveling black and grey roads at double the speed of racing horses. Hills and curves and rain and green, green fields of soy and corn lift themselves to us. Cherokee lands shout as we fly by. Loud and glowing, tines of pink porous light reach up to the sky in a giant sunburst, a glorified crown of gold. Somewhere in the distance are hills, or the illusion of hills, that flatten as the sun settles on the horizon. The tree line widens out and it looks as if we could drive on forever. Then the sky darkens past layers of gauzy violet into a backdrop of black cast with a thousand stars and blinking casino signs. “Angelica just won $84,138!” repeats one of the neon boards. Against the quickening night the neon is so bright that I have to look away, back to the road, to keep from driving astray, out of my lane.
Now there are smaller signs—white words on a black-green background—which advise, DO NOT DRIVE INTO SMOKE. Further on, very small road signs, most too small to read, mark the guardrail every few miles. HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPING INMATES—the words blur as we race past. I wonder about fires and prison jumpsuits, both orange and out of control. And then in the distance the city begins to glow. Here is the orange light: the signs have warned of the wrong things.
The brilliant litter of Tulsa rises from the miles and miles of dark fields where semis and SUVs scuff the quiet with a loud rushing noise. We enter the city, avoiding the Broken Arrow Expressway. Instead, we turn toward a broad avenue crowded with car lots and late-night restaurants and gas stations and urgent care centers. Hidden from this boulevard by an enclave of trees and landscaping and little roads that swoop in and out is our hotel. We follow the signs, driving in and around and down to find its massive entrance, curved and concrete. While we have missed the ancient Creek Council Oak, we have landed at its namesake, the DoubleTree Inn.
The foyer is twice the size we’d expected. The front desk receptionist’s greeting is given as if it were one in the afternoon, rather than one in the morning. “Welcome! We hope you enjoy your stay.” We have come to hotel-land. Somewhere, beyond the double-thick walls, there are drums. We check in and I sign the register: Meli and Sam Henrikson. I’m handed the key cards to our room and a plate of warm oversized cookies, and we find the elevators.
“Isn’t this nice?” Meli says while we’re in the elevator.
Meli is my wife and only twenty-one. I am not much older at twenty-two. We are in our first months of marriage, but I’ve known Meli a long time. She has always astonished me. What draws her attention is very different from what slams into mine.
“Can’t you hear the drums?” I ask.
Meli is eating her cookie. It doesn’t even crumble.
The elevator doors glide open and we wind along a river of blue carpeting to our room. The drums seem to have stopped, or perhaps they just are muted by fourth floor walls. Our room has two double beds with double feather comforters. We have arrived in the land of double-your-money, double-timing, double-tipping, double-meaning, double-scheming moments and mementos: Tulsa-land, hotel-land, keep our land grand-land.
We are here because of a horse.
The horse has disappeared from the Expo Center stall.
The horse trainer has become uncooperative. We become incomprehensive.
“What do you mean he won’t go? What do you mean he won’t show?” we say to the trainer. He shakes his head, looking annoyed and sad.
“Just can’t,” he says. “Just won’t.”
We are tired, but perhaps not as tired as the trainer.
Meli is quiet. She gives me that “Now what?” look.
I wonder if the horse had been a mistake. A horse named Ralph was certainly a mistake. Sight unseen, Meli had taken on a yearling at a pretty price, one ready to show in the halter class. But a missing horse can’t get showed. I wonder if he has been stolen. If the trainer, the man in charge, is a horse thief. If Meli’s long-lost brothers might be involved. And then I begin to suspect that there never was a horse at all, that the advertisement Meli had seen in her equine news magazine had been a hoax, that we’ve been had.
Then I think about the dream Meli has always had. Of the horse, dark and able and elegant, who stood outside her bedroom window night after night when she was a young girl. She swears it’s not a dream, that it’s true. She’s told me many times of how she stood at the locked window with her hands on the glass, the horse’s breath clouding the opposite side. How his eyes seemed black and bottomless, his mane like tattered wings, his hooves tearing at the ground so that in the morning, coming home from his night shift at the quarry, Meli’s father would curse the torn earth, the spirits that dwelled on his land whenever he was away. How, once the scent of horse stayed around, her brothers and father and uncle lost their tempers elsewhere. How she found the keys to all the locks in the house and locked herself in and everyone else out.
And then one night, the night I’ll always remember, Meli broke her window and climbed out and followed the horse through the yard, past her father’s strangely quiet dogs, and across the fields to my family’s farm. The horse remained at a distance, vigilant. “He watched over me,” she told me. “And he brought me to you.” Somehow Meli knew to stop at our place, the lights in the windows warm and yellow. Breathless, she gave up chasing the horse, and he moved on, a black shape against the washed-out light of dusk, the evening turning quickly to night.
And now years later, she had a horse, dark and able and elegant, but the horse had disappeared, as if he had never existed. Why did she have to go and buy a horse named Ralph?
We head out to the “The Praying Hands” monument on the other side of town.
At the entrance to Oral Roberts University—its gold buildings, large and looming—are the hands. They are not the art deco hands-like-wings that we have pictured. They are the hands of a junkie, veined and undone. Bronzed, but not at all like military stars or baby’s boots. Maybe they are the unkempt hands of a cowboy. Maybe the cowboy god will hear our prayers. But when we pray our prayer for changed luck, for a missing horse that won’t go, to magically appear and look up and suddenly want to go, we imagine the hands crashing down.
“Maybe we should visit the Council Tree instead,” says Meli. Her eyes are moist and dark like an animal’s.
“Maybe so,” I say.
Unlike the other visitors, the ones posing for pictures before the statue, mimicking the bronze hands by clasping their own above their heads, Meli shrugs her shoulders and leaves her hands, unpraying and limp, at her sides.
We haven’t always been this way, Meli and me. Once we were younger, kids with kid-sized dreams. Life went along, simple and easy, until we took on bulkier ideas, double-sized dreams. Like the horse. We were just having a black-cloud moment, that was all.
The Council Tree.
Once the Creek Indians came from Alabama, driven westward for all the wrong reasons. They stopped at the edge of the Arkansas River and left the ashes of grandmothers and great-grandfathers beside the greatest oak they’d ever seen. Now there is a park, a placard, a tribute to this place.
Meli points up into the branches. Black crows nudge the bark with their blacker beaks.
“What’s wrong with those birds?” Meli says.
I continue looking up. The crows crowd together, a pitch-colored mass, like a live abscess, unsettled and growing.
“There are too many,” I answer.
“And they’re too quiet for crows,” Meli decides.
The birds seem to sleep.
Northeast of the oak, a direction the crows might have flown, the Boston Avenue Methodist Church reaches up to the sky like an arrow. Along its tower are wings of golden glass. The tower soars and flies up to heaven while anchored in place between the Broken Arrow and Cherokee Expressways. We drive into the parking lot, fringed with white poles and red banners, and sit there in the truck, looking up at the vast church. It has beauty and greatness, but this cannot help us. And so we drive on.
Meli wants a root beer, and I don’t know what I want anymore.
We follow 21st Street to S. Peoria. If we kept on heading north, parallel to the Arkansas River and past the crosshairs of three elevated highways, we’d come to Cain’s Ballroom. I imagine Bob Wills and Tex Ritter belting tunes above the spring-loaded, dime-a-dance floors heavy with boots and ladies’ heels. I drum my hands along the steering wheel and stop when Meli glares at me.
A historical sign declares this part of town Brookside, once Creek Indian land, crossed by the Chisholm Trail and roving cattle. Now there are brick bungalows, flower shops, bakeries, bookstores, laundromats, Billy Sims BBQ, and Weber’s Superior. I imagine giving up the country to live in the city, and Meli waves at the little orange building. Weber’s has become the landmark we’ve driven past on the way to the Expo Center these past few days. The sign screams root beer. We park and order our food to go and then sit on the truck’s tailgate to eat.
I have two double cheeseburgers and a paper tray of tater tots. Meli is sipping her root beer and munching down onion rings. I’ve always wondered how she can be so delicate with her drink and manhandle her food all at once.
An old Buick moves past, and black smoke pours from its tailpipe and Jeff Tweedy’s voice from its radio. A double kick drum by the river in the summer. She fell in love with the drummer. Another and another. She fell in love…. I glance at Meli. Something tribal is happening. All these drums. Meli is staring past me, mouthing the words, but she doesn’t smile.
“There was no point in our coming here,” she says.
“There was a point,” I say. “We just have to hope for the best.”
“I’m done hoping.” Meli tosses a crumb to a gathering of sparrows. They dot the asphalt parking lot, gray on gray. A small, scrappy one wins the largest piece of trash.
“You have to be like that one.” I point to the bird.
“What? A tough little shit?”
“Yeah,” I say. “A tough little shit.”
Back at the hotel, frustration flies around the room.
Meli throws a glass against the wall opposite our bed.
“What the hell?” I say.
Iced tea is all over the bed and glass shards all over the room. A lemon slice lands near the TV.
“You’ll have to call for housekeeping,” Meli says.
I lift the receiver and call the front desk. “There’s been an accident—no, not 911. Just sheets, blankets. A vacuum cleaner. Yes, thank you.”
I open the door to the hallway and hear the drums again. Not sweet bopping Wilco drums. Something heavier. Meli disappears into the bathroom. I hear the lock click into place.
The last time Meli locked herself in, she was twelve. She hid from her dad in the closet. She hid from her uncle in her father’s room. She hid from her brothers in the den with the shotguns. She considered her sisters lucky they’d never been born. And then she found the drawer where all the keys were hidden and she locked herself into her own bedroom. Before anyone could find her, she broke the nailed-shut window, and clambered and scraped her way out.
Down the road, several pastures away, we were the neighbors who kept to ourselves. Thirteen and unsure, I didn’t know there was any other way to be. Until that night, when Meli climbed through my window. She made it seem her privilege, as if hiding in the room of a boy she barely knew was normal.
Every detail that evening stood out to me, even long after. Once Meli arrived, everything changed. My days of being a loner ended. Long afternoons reading Steinbeck and Salinger, my parents’ big book of American poets, were soon traded for wondering what girls were all about. Especially this girl.
The late September sky was a flat blue. The dim autumn evenings came earlier now, with a coolness that lingered. After chores, I’d kick off my boots and walk through the grass, already damp, and search for the rising moon or the first planet beyond a five-fingered reach. That night my father had taken over my chores and told me to study. Instead, I stared over my desk out the window.
The wind had died down and you could hear the cows lowing. Wildflowers trimmed the fields and the roadside with yellow and black and cream. Not swaying and tipping as they had that afternoon, but stock still: outlines of wild carrot and coneflowers and thistle. Eventually, they became silhouettes, and I could hear my mother whistling and washing dishes. Happy Trails. The sound of the spigot turning on and off.
And then there was a glimpse of dark hair, dungarees, a slip of something at the roadside. She moved inside the shadows and brushed through the ditch weed, her place marked only by the way the tall grasses waved and quieted. I’d seen her before, but not off on her own.
Most times it was from the bus in the afternoon, when we’d round the bend and the boys around me called mean things out the windows, me quiet and staring through the dusty glass. Meli sat on her father’s porch, its railings crowded on one side by skinny trees that gave hardly any shade, the naked yard home to three dogs, tied up and seldom barking. She always looked dirty, like she didn’t have a mother to comb her hair. I wondered why she wasn’t in school with me.
Now she squatted in my yard. The tangled green grass buried her sneakers, and she scratched the inside of an ankle. Until we meet again, my mother sang from the kitchen, and the day became night, a bruised sky turning the roadside flowers black and the girl blue.
“Indigo,” she said later. “Not blue, an old indigo.”
“Faded,” I had to agree.
But that was after she came up to the window, after her face slammed into the sill as she pushed herself into the room. My pencils and pens spilled from their mason jar and fell to the floor. She climbed over my desk and stepped on my open math book, kicking a ruler and sending a compass spinning. I sat sideways in my chair, not moving, and stared at her eyes, only inches from my own. They were dark brown, with streaks of violet at the edges. A color I’d only seen in twilight. Never in anyone’s gaze.
She was slight and thin and breathed short stiff breaths. I thought of horses, the way they exhale in heavy sighs after exercise. Her hair was long and knotted with straw and twigs, but what I noticed most of all were the cuts and bruises. Across one cheek, a jagged, mean-looking mark where the blood had already begun to cake, and more nicks and scratches on her knuckles and arms. She looked like a stray who’d only recently become stray, soiled and distracted, but not smelly.
“I’m Sam,” I said.
“I know,” she answered. “I hear your mother call you sometimes.”
“This is my room,” I said. I tried to look the boss, the owner of my room.
“It’s nice,” she said.
“Why are you in it?”
“I was looking for my horse.” She looked around.
“You don’t have a horse, and even if you did, he’s not in here.”
“I’m Meli.” She looked down at her feet now. Her sneakers were grey and had no laces.
“All right,” I said. “But my mom will probably just take you back home.”
“I don’t live there anymore.” Her voice seemed to crack. “I live here now. With you.”
“Some trails are happy ones, others are blue,” my mother sang, starting the song again. Her voice floated into the darkening night.
“My dad will definitely take you back home.”
But Meli stayed.
And now, years later, she was in our hotel bathroom and I was wishing we’d never come for that horse.
I open the door and two women enter. They wear green pantsuit uniforms. One has black hair in shoulder-length waves around her long face. The other has copper hair, kinked and very long, some of it piled on top of her head like a crown. Right away, I think of them as black-haired girl and copper-haired girl.
Still, somewhere down the hall, those drums again—a dull repetitive thumpa-thump. It may be an exhaust fan; it may be my mind.
The girls seem not to notice the sound. They have nothing with them. They have come to assess the situation.
Black-haired girl says, “I told you we’d need a full set of bedding.”
Copper-haired girl only nods. “Mm-hmm,” she finally murmurs.
They gather up the damp covers and quilts and walk past me out the door.
I sit on the end of the bed and wonder if they’ll come back. We may be sleeping in tea-soaked sheets. That doesn’t bother me. It’s the shards of glass that bother me.
The night Meli came to my house, my mother eventually came in and found us. At first she seemed startled, but then took Meli and cleaned her up—the cuts, the bruises, her clothes. My father—the lawyer, the landowner, a man known for being fair—phoned the authorities. Family services.
Meli’s father was found dead, the brothers arrested, then imprisoned. The uncle gone. Meli’s mother, long gone.
And so Meli stayed with us.
Black-haired girl and copper-haired girl are whisking around the room.
I am trying to stay out of their way. The bedding is nearly changed; the glass is hurling around inside the Hoover. I know that Meli has only thrown the glass out of frustration; she has thrown things before.
Black-haired girl turns to me, and I see her mouth move. I hear only the roar of the vacuum. I imagine black crows flying out of her black hair. Still, she persists, leaning closer. Something about the comforter—that it’s missing.
Copper-haired girl switches off the vacuum, and the room is too quiet too quickly.
“Are you crazy?” she says.
Black-haired girl looks at me—and I wonder if I am crazy—and back at her copper-haired girl. “What do you mean, crazy?”
“You took the comforter downstairs,” says copper-haired girl to black-haired girl. “You took it down with everything else.”
“Unh,” black-haired girl says and pushes through the door and drags herself back down the hall.
I remember one afternoon when Meli stood outside my room. Fifteen and no longer in dungarees. Her legs were as long as a filly’s, and a floral skirt brushed her knees. She hummed a song I didn’t know and stared past me.
When Meli had first come to live with us, my mother changed the sewing room into a bedroom. Together, they’d moved the old Singer to a corner and painted the little room a pale lavender. Meli learned to use the sewing machine and made pillow covers to match the bedspread. The room glowed with colors the house had never seen: all variations of blue. Meli guided layers of fabric through the machine, and in the evenings we would hear it whirring and Meli humming along, her voice curving and threading while the material fell to the floor in bright mounds.
On that afternoon, though, she got home from school and lingered in the kitchen, bumping into things on purpose, then came to my room but stayed just outside.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She nodded at the window, then looked at me.
“That was the way in,” she said. She seemed to consider what she’d say next, as if speaking would ruin something. For a moment she shouldered the doorjamb and then pushed off, finally entering my room, a space she’d never been shy of before.
“Yeah, it was,” I said.
“So which way is out?”
“It depends,” I said, playing along, following her even though she tended to wander into rough territory. She seemed to head in directions she knew well, which frightened me, though made me curious. Journeys that began in her head and ended up realities, adventures. And she’d pull me along, wayward and resolute in her invitations. I always accepted. Ever since I’d seen her on her own porch, years ago, there was something about her that went right through me. The way she sat with her chin in her hands, looking off into the distance, the three dogs lying in the dust of the yard. But now she was here in my room, and she might just turn and walk away. I knew then I would always be right there. Beside her. And so I answered, “It all depends on where you’re going, what you’re looking for.”
Black-haired girl arrives with a thick bundle.
She opens an enormous plastic bag and pulls out the new comforter. Quickly the room is filled with feathers and down. Gray and white bits of fluff. I recall the swarm of sparrows in the parking lot at lunch. Meli is still in the bathroom, missing the show.
I run to close our suitcases.
“What the—?” says black-haired girl.
Copper-haired girl has just finished coiling up the vacuum cleaner’s cord. She holds out her hands and bats at the feathers. She clasps her hands together, as if in prayer to the god of housekeeping. And then she laughs. She laughs and laughs and laughs.
I laugh, too. It is funny. The room is full of feathers. It looks as though a fox has been in the room. It looks as though it’s snowing in September. It looks as though black-haired girl is unhappy.
She looks at copper-haired girl: it is an impatient, I-told-you-so look. A look that makes no sense. She shakes the comforter. More feathers fly out. The comforter’s hem is open; I wonder if it had ever been sewed closed. Or perhaps it’s torn, a seam-ripper’s work. Somewhere a seamstress is smiling. No, she’s laughing her head off.
Black-haired girl glares at copper-haired girl. “Now you’re gonna have to vacuum all over again,” she says.
But her coworker is too busy laughing to take offense.
Black-haired girl drags the torn comforter out of the room and down the hallway and copper-haired girl follows her, laughing and laughing. And still those drums, incessant—a blunt, monotonous background to our afternoon. I peer around the doorway. All the way down the hall feathers are flying, drifting the corridor like dirty snow, like giant dust motes. Copper-haired girl is howling now, and black-haired girl punches her arm, though she is smiling back at me when she does this. A few doors open and puzzled guests look out at the uniformed girls and the sifting, sinking down and dander. A man across the hall looks after the girls and then at me. His gaze is accusatory.
I cannot help myself and ask him very loudly, “Do you hear the drums?”
He slams his door and I start laughing again. Behind me the bathroom door opens and Meli peeks out. She sees the drifting down, frowns, and comes out to stand with me in the doorway. To stand even with me, she has to be her toes. She does this and kisses me hard on the mouth. I kiss her back and we stay in the doorway for a while. If the man across the hall leaves his room now, he may be in for another surprise.
When I was seventeen and Meli was sixteen, she leaned up and kissed me for the first time. I was working on my father’s truck, bent over the engine, hands covered with grease, and she tapped me on the shoulder. I held the spark plug I’d just removed and turned around. Nearly as tall as me, she reached around my neck and pulled my face to hers. Startled, I felt how warm her palms were at the back of my neck and saw how her mouth opened slightly. She seemed to know what she was doing, and so I closed my eyes and tried to follow along. At first I had my arms out so as not to smudge her dress, but then let the spark plug drop into the dirt. I touched her narrow waist and the folds of cloth that fell across her hips and then found her bare back. With each movement, my hands blackened the material and eventually her skin.
It was just a kiss. But it was Meli who was doing the kissing. I was gone. That was it. As clichéd as it sounds, I was carried off to a place unreal and confounding, one I never wished to lose hold of. I stopped thinking for the first time ever and let a tangle of sensations slam around inside me—breaths, scents, murmurs—all sweet and daunting. Even in the act of kissing, Meli seemed caught up in her own world, one that I just happened to belong to. Later, there would be times I felt diminished, as if all her brightness made me the shadow.
Sometimes she’d wake me in the middle of the night and pull me outside, to see the stars, to lie down in the middle of an empty field and remind me just how small we were. The wind might brush over us, Meli barelegged and wrapping herself around me for warmth. We’d rest there, limbs entwined, and stare at the sky. And then arrive back home at dawn, running, breathless, damp but not cold.
My mother wasn’t sure of this twist in our friendship, how it seemed to float out of nowhere, a ribboned, uncertain thing. A few months went by and our disappearances didn’t go unnoticed. She took Meli aside and had a talk with her. And she had my father take me aside. He grumbled about it, but took me aside anyway.
We stood out at the fence and pretended to survey the livestock, in particular the lone pig. He would never make pork because my father had become fond of him.
“What’s going on here?” he asked me.
“Sir?” I said.
“Don’t hedge, Sam.” He handled his pipe but didn’t light it. “You getting serious or what?” My father, a man who had feelings but didn’t like to talk of them, was asking me about love.
“I guess so,” I said.
“Well, that’s indefinite. Don’t you know a good thing when it’s right in front of you?” He paused and then said under his breath, “Sometimes you youngsters have no idea.”
“No idea!” he said, almost shouting. “Think about this thing you’re doing.” And here he looked at me, slightly squinting. “And be careful.” Then he walked back to the house and left me standing there.
The pig was rooting around in the mud. I reached around in the mess of my mind, uncertain of what my father had just advised, and found only muck and hesitation. I wasn’t sure what would happen. I was merely going along, and something new was happening. Something that I didn’t want to define or understand; something I just wanted to be in the middle of.
The drumbeat is growing louder.
Meli gives me a look, and then she glances down the hallway, and I know she finally hears the drums. I take Meli’s hand, and we follow the sound. Doors repeat themselves all the way down to the end of the corridor. Their numbers are all even: 418, 420, 422. I wish for one of these doors to slam open, to know the beat is simply Tweedy and his boys bouncing through an album session, that the loft in Chicago didn’t work out and so now they are here in hotel-land. I wish for the walls to come down, for an answer on the other side.
Meli pulls me along. At the end of the hall is a window and another door—the emergency exit. A stairwell. The drums vibrate more loudly as I push open the door and we walk down the stairs.
Four flights down is a large room, a solarium of sorts. A pool glows under the day’s softening sun. Here the tremor of the drumbeat can be seen on the water’s surface. A constant rippling. And the beat seems to sound from under the pool. Meli holds my hand more tightly but seems mesmerized and draws me closer to the pool’s edge. I am confused and stop looking for the source of the drums. I look only at the pool, at the shallowest and then the deepest ends. There are cerulean tiles around the edges and at the bottom a large design. It is deep blue, almost black. Barelegged, Meli begins to ease an ankle into the shuddering pool. Her hand slips out of mine, and I feel off balance. She is gone, swimming down to the darkest, deepest part of the pool.
“Meli?” I call.
I cannot see her and panic. Below, at the pool’s depths, an underwater image wavers and rears up, horse-like. Mane flowing, hooves blinding, nostrils wide, sides heaving.
And then I dive and the water is all around me. I hold my breath and open my eyes to the watery light. Meli is bathed in this light, strangely alive in this light. She swims away from me and climbs the steps at the shallow end, her heels lifting and then disappearing. I come to the surface and tread water, staring at my wife, a blurred wet picture that I can’t make any sense of.
Meli has always been the half of me that breathes when I am unsure of how to take a breath. Still, even after our wedding, after the gold bands had slipped onto our fingers, I couldn’t grasp the meaning of what we’d done. I felt as though I was still following, even though I’d been the one to propose and set things in motion—that summer before graduate school and the teaching fellowship, a house with a studio for Meli’s design work, a community garden where we worked with friends and family.
It was all there, a little too perfect when viewed from the outside. But I was inside. And Meli was there, perfectly imperfect, with her days of silence broken by the sound of shattering glass, by the brilliant fragments that lit up the house. Glass-fronted cabinets littered the kitchen counters, a collection of jelly glasses hit the pantry walls, stemmed glasses kept only their stems. I noted the quiet that always followed.
Meli would act as if nothing had happened, and then it would start up again. Slowly, with a promise of continuing calm until that taut stare took over. She puzzled me with her round ways of seeing the world. The purpose with which she drew up dress patterns. The way she’d work in the garden, speak to my mother by phone, arrange flowers, prepare meals. And then her mood would tighten and her dark almond eyes would gaze unblinking into the mornings, the afternoons.
One of those afternoons Meli asked me to drive her to Tulsa.
“It’s the horse,” she’d said. “He’s there.”
And so we went. No matter the work I had to do, I loaded the truck and we went.
The horse has become the black shadow that lengthens between us.
Meli sits in her newly made bed and stares straight ahead. Her hair is still wet and scattered in thick strands around her shoulders. Outside our window is a blanket of blue sky tipped with the dark green tops of pine and spruce. Three miles away is the Expo Center where a stall remains mysteriously empty. The trainer lies and says that he’s put out a search for the horse; I wonder how anyone can find a horse that’s never existed. We’ve been fooled, and it’s time to go home.
Meli turns her head to me and I begin telling her things.
“I imagine when Ralph was younger, he was spindly-legged and covered with dirt, kept out in a corral by himself. From a distance he probably looked more like a big black dog than a horse. Once you might have stood on the bottom rail of the fence and looked out at him. But surely he didn’t come to you.”
“He would have been a beauty,” Meli says and her eyes fill with dark tears. “He would have.” Now she looks at me, nearly through me. “You just don’t understand what happened. You never have.”
“You don’t have to understand.” Her voice tilts toward anger.
“But I want to,” I say.
“You don’t have to, though.”
Her words are like a wall, but I know I will wait. I’ll wait until she breaks the words like she’s broken so many glasses. I’ll wait until she is finally able to tell me. Until she is brave enough to come out of the room where she once hid, where she eyed the stallion at the window, where she still hid, even now. That Meli has lived in the past for too long, that we made this trip—the whole damned thing is an enormous, stumbling mistake. I would wait. Even if it took until that horse was old and grizzled. Even if it took forever.
We drive down Tulsa’s roads.
It is late afternoon, already October, and the world is turning orange. We have been here for five days. Autumn is chasing us down, wrapping up the trees in mirrored light. The evenings are getting colder. It’s long since time to go.
We pass the gold buildings of ORU, the “Praying Hands” that seem to pry open the heavens, the thick-trunked Council Oak with branches that scrape the ground, and along the Arkansas River where skeletal oil rigs slant sideways and cast shadows. The Broken Arrow Expressway leads us out of town, southeast, tipping down and down, back to where we started. Highway 51: it is our own Trail of Tears.
We make our way past casinos and sheep farms, gas stations and the bottle green of broken glass, broken hearts, cornfields. Here, there is no smoke to drive into. There are no hitchhikers. The road narrows and we enter a small town, its thoroughfare lined with creameries, convenience stores, and churches. The houses here are pretty, old, charming even. And then the road opens up to more fields that roll themselves out like swathes of jade cloth.
“Look,” Meli says, pointing out the truck window.
In the distance a horse stands alone, its dark head angled into the breeze, a double-barreled silhouette that burns a hole straight into the sky.
Karin C. Davidson is originally from the Gulf Coast. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, New Delta Review, Saw Palm, The Los Angeles Review, Post Road Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been shortlisted in several writing competitions, including the Jaimy Gordon Fiction Prize, the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and the Bridport Prize. She has an MFA from Lesley University and is the recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Spring 2012 Orlando Prize for Short Fiction and a Peter Taylor Fellowship for the 2012 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop.