“Dog gone pillow, it’s as flat as my life.” Her small hands gave one last shake to the yellowed case then discarded the featherless shape with a practiced flutter of her fingers. The diminutive woman glanced into the mirror, and flexed her hands again to view the imagined reins they held. Her astigmatic vision transformed the dusty bedroom into a race track, the bed becoming a sulky barely tethered to a high stepping steed trotting down the backstretch of the racetrack. An appreciative murmur emanating from the imagined crowd resolved into the exasperated shout of a male deprived of nourishment. “Coming Dear,” Meredith vocalized while mentally wringing his neck. She considered herself an expert in fantasy, a failure in reality. Shaking her head to free it of the lingering tendrils of her imagination, she clumped downstairs to face another day.
James glared his exasperation at her tardy entrance into their country kitchen. He stared pointedly at the cold stove and barren table, raised a pained eyebrow over her noisy feet, and gave a well-practiced sigh. Ten years of marriage had not inured him to Meredith’s whimsies, but it had established a defense mechanism that was rooted in the principle of attack first. “Got me some money out of an old jar I found in the cabinet. I’ll just eat breakfast out since you don’t seem too well this morning.” Her face paled as she glanced toward her violated stash. He grinned to confirm her fears, patted his pocket, and whistle punctuated his victorious march out of the house.
Meredith blinked at the starkly empty dream jar, refusing to give into emotion. James could slither back in and catch her tears, or hear her shout of rage. She had vowed to never give him the part that hurts. With her agony well hidden, she found justification in considering her life to be merely paper with a few holes, not yet completely spindled and mutilated. Her mental crashing of the back door juxtaposed with the soft closure her careful hands imposed on it as she headed out to work.
The half hour walk to the large farm she worked at sufficed to lock away home and allow dreams to spill out. The area bulged with tree-strewn hills overlooking white fenced pastures full of deer and horses grazing aside each other in amicable silence. New babies on stuttering legs chased butterflies through the sunlit terrain. Tall raftered red barns with attached granaries sprouted new mown hay through open hatches. Fantasy colored her mind, restoring peace to her blue eyes as she entered her employer’s stable. The welcoming chorus of nickers and soft snorts populated her face with shy smiles, emptied her hurting chest in one long exhalation. Her feet skipped up the aisle as eight hours of horse time beckoned. Working at the harness racing stable was her daily reward for not strangling James as he lay in a drunken stupor night after night.
Noses slanted sideways through stall door bars, the Standardbreds flapped their lips and, in unconscious parody of Labrador puppies, wriggled for their breakfasts. Firmly cornering her imagination before it transposed the row of horses into chocolate labs, Meredith dragged it into the feed room and began to dish up the grain and supplements for her charges. Escaping only once, to dangle images of lab slobber in front of her eyes, her fantasies didn’t slow her up for a change.
She was soberly pushing the cart down the aisle, doling out the breakfast pans when Henry, the barn manager, came in. The industrious sight had a slightly fey edge to it. He grinned as he watched each horse receive a gentle kiss on their velvet nose as they bent to their breakfasts. “Giving out sugar again, Meredith?” he teased her. She flushed crimson as she responded “No sir, I remember what you told me about having to brush their teeth if I did that again.” He snorted laughter as he went into the barn office to grab his coffee cup. “He looks naked without his coffee,” Meredith thought and then her imagination grabbed the moment and went tearing off. Flushing again, she stuffed the unwanted image away and went back to her chores.
She was turning the last of the horses out to paddock when he came back out of the office coffee cup in hand. Henry’s sharp eyes watched intently as she handled the bay colored stallion with gentle restraint. “I sure like her way with the horses” he thought. “Meredith has the gift of gentle persuasion and sense of humor that horses appreciate.” The last thought coincided with Meredith’s charge spewing water at her from artfully pursed lips that had carefully concealed his full mouth until the moment was right. Henry roared with laughter as Meredith called the stallion a wannabe member of the three stooges. Meredith chortled as she petted the stallion, and released him into his paddock. Wiping the water off her face, she headed in to start stripping the stalls.
“We race this Saturday, Meredith. Can you be here at 9 a.m. to help load up and then go with us to hot walk the horses?” She smiled her assent as she passed by him. Her unquenchable spirit turned cartwheels, she would be on the back track with the horses, and maybe one of them would win. Mentally hugging the three new facts, she flew through her chores. She craftily decided to tell James that she didn’t want to go on Saturday even if she would be earning overtime money. James was sure to demand that she work Saturday and she could sulkily give in to him. “Sulkily, what a great word to describe getting to see sulkies race.” She giggled as her thoughts raced around a mental track, her dreams wearing lab faces on horse bodies.
James bit at the bait, blustered, and demanded she work on Saturday fulfilling her fantasy. “Probably the first time he ever made me happy by trying to make me mad,” she thought behind shuttered face and sulky expression. She dragged reluctantly out of the house on Saturday morning to reward James. She scurried up the road once she got out of sight to reward herself. The day spurted ahead as she attempted to capture it in snapshots of memory to be hoarded for later. Soon after her arrival at the farm the barn manager loaded the horses and they were headed to the track. She tucked each sight away in the secret place in her heart.
Harness Racing is a democratic sport; owner-drivers with two horses compete equally with multi-million dollar stables. Not much has changed since the milkman hooked his horse to a light buggy on Sunday to challenge the rich man’s high perch phaeton on the backcountry lanes. Respect and honors revolve around one’s driving ability and horse sense, rather then the thread count of racing silks. As the regulars watched, Meredith unloaded a small mare, a quiet gelding, and the fractious stallion. When he snorted at the smells, she gentled him, stalled him, and was accepted on the spot as a horse handler. Henry smiled as he watched her, and then strolled out of the barn looking for coffee and a chat with his friends. The grooms stepped in to get the horses ready for their races and Meredith was free to go outside and watch.
When the horses jogged up to the mobile starter gate for the next race, the outside horse (Meredith’s bath buddy) reached out with his nose and poked at it, willing the gate to fall back so he could release his pent up desire to move ahead. As the other horses fell into position, the poking became incessant. The gate folded back, and the horse, sulky, and driver blurred into a driving force racing without cover the entire mile. As he entered the final lap, Meredith saw him look over to her and wink. He knew the day was his, the race was won, and he was lord of the wind. Trotting back to the grandstand, his knees pointed skyward and his eyes shone. Not one of the excited race goers had enjoyed that race as much as he had.
The stallion was freed of his racing harness, and handed over to Meredith to walk until cool. His prancing settled down as his head dipped to hear the lavish words of praise she was whispering to him. Hot breath slowed to soft puffs, he finally sauntered beside her to the wash rack. She hosed him down with warm water, kissed his nose, gave him a cool drink, and started to squeegee him dry. When she heard “Too much fun” being whistled behind her she smiled for a second then jumped as an ungentle finger poked her in the back. She unsteadily spun around and received the next prod in her chest, knocking her off balance, and propelling her backwards into the stallion. James shook his finger in her face and drunkedly hissed, “You are definitely having too much fun, and as the song says that is not allowed. Quit your job and come home with me now.” He laughed at his own crude wit, happy to have won another round.
He had come to watch her drag through the unwanted day and instead found her practically making love to a horse. How dare she! This job had given her too many grand ideas, hiding money from him, and making a fool out of him in public this way. The money she brought into the family was not worth this betrayal of his rights. A small muscle animated the side of his jaw as reached toward her. His gritty voice, punctuated by a sound like paper tearing, demanded she drop the lead line and obey now.
She shook her head, and cowered back into the sheltering bulk of the stallion. The big horse stiffened for a second, then pushed her with his head, inserting himself between James and Meredith. He arched his neck over James, pursed his lips, and spewed water on the irate man’s head. Fantasy overwhelmed Meredith. The wicked witch was screeching “I’m melting, I’m melting!” and even the threat of James’ wrath could not stifle the gales of laughter that poured out of her.
Heads turned at the noise and people started laughing in unison. James purpled at the sound echoing around him. “Come home now, or you won’t have a home with me any longer. Your choice!” Her unbridled imagination rose to the task. “I’ll take the door with the tiger.” He shook his head at her whimsy and snarled “Stupid broad, stay here and rot then, no one else will ever want you.” Turning to face the stable crew, he salvaged his pride by telling them she was no good in grand detail. He tugged her wedding and engagement rings off, patted the pocket he dropped them in, and puckered up to whistle a victory march. She thought the dripping water spoiled his exit.
She swallowed hard, looked up, and quietly asked if anyone needed a live in stable hand. Henry waved his ubiquitous coffee cup toward the stallion and she laughed around her tears. The horse’s name was Tiger Bright.
© Carol M Chapman