“I wish I was dead! Dead and rotten and stinking in my grave!”
Janet reached for her son’s arm, but Jason was too quick for her. Too many hours playing soccer had made him fast, and too much pain had dulled his senses. The front door slammed, and she caught a glimpse of him racing down the sidewalk, discarding his coat and pulling at the tie she knotted so carefully for him only a couple of hours before.
And then she felt it, a pain of her own, high in her chest, a paralyzing, mind-numbing pain that left her breathless and filled with terror. At the funeral, she felt queasy, but she decided it was nothing more than anxiety and grief. Her doctor cautioned her after her last checkup, but she ignored his warning. There was no opportunity to give in to her own feelings. Barry had been sick for almost a year while the medical bills continued to accumulate.
Her arm felt numb, lifeless almost, as she reached for the telephone. The end table crashed to the floor, but it didn’t matter for she was lying beside it, her leg bent at an uncomfortable angle. Her arm wouldn’t obey her, so she reached with the other hand and managed to punch the nine, and then after a long interval, she punched the one twice in rapid succession.
I’m going to die. On the day of my husband’s funeral, I am going to die, leaving my son with nothing except a pile of unpaid bills. It is not supposed to be like this. It simply isn’t fair.
Jason didn’t like his room. He didn’t like the ranch. He didn’t like the fact that he would probably never see his friends again after moving half way across the country to live with his grandparents. They called this Big Sky Country, but it seemed as if the giant dome of the sky was pressing down on him with an oppressive weight. The nearest ranch house was a distant dot on the horizon, with nothing but a small yellow airplane to connect them with the real world. He especially hated Christine. He had seen her only once after her parents died in a car wreck when both of them were small. His grandparents adopted her because she was the daughter of their ranch foreman, but mostly because she had no other living relatives. He was vaguely aware of her presence at his mother’s funeral, standing beside his grandmother, as white as the block of newly carved marble that marked his parent’s graves. Both of them would be in high school when the school year started at the end of the month, which only made things worse. He hated her because she said she understood how he felt, and because she had tried to hold his hand at the funeral.
Over the last few days, he thought about running away, but even the thought of running, ever again, made him feel sick. Running was what had gotten him into this mess in the first place. At the time his mother urgently needed him, he ran away from her, and she died before the ambulance could arrive. His irresponsible action killed his mother, and no one could tell him any different.
He heard his grandmother call his name softly from the foot of the stairs. Something smelled delicious, but he wasn’t sure he could eat. He wanted to lie face down on his bed rather than going down to dinner, but he knew there would be too many questions to answer. Maybe there wouldn’t be a prayer as there was at lunch, but that was too much to hope for. Christine led the prayer while they all held hands around the small table. “God bless Jason, the newest member of our family,” she murmured at the end. When he lifted his head, she was looking back at him, her eyes wide and unblinking. He wondered if what he could see in her expression was pain, or simply a reflection of his own. He suffered through the remainder of the meal, wanting to get back to his room. When his grandfather finished eating, he spoke while looking into the distance, but Jason knew he was talking to him.
“I need someone at the stable if you think you feel like helping.”
This was one of the many things he dreaded, almost from the moment the small plane touched down on the landing strip beside the house. His grandfather raised horses, and he knew from the signs on the side of the truck, that the horses were for the rodeo. He had seen them only from a distance, but their quick movements and the flashing hooves were frightening. The only large animals he was familiar with were at the zoo, and they were locked safely away in their cages. Christine was brushing one of them when he looked out the upstairs window of his bedroom only an hour before. He hoped this wasn’t what his grandfather wanted him to do. Gramps waited patiently beside the table until Jason got up, and then he turned toward the back door, his boots clopping on the hardwood floor.
Gramps led the way down the center hallway of the barn and through the rear door. The horses were in a small enclosure, milling restlessly about, while one of the stable hands shoveled something over the fence. Jason shied away when one of the horses thrust its head over the fence and made a loud snorting sound through its nose. He was looking back at the horse and bumped into Gramps. The small horse inside the corral shifted its weight nervously from one foot to the other as they approached. It had long delicate legs that seemed too small to support its body, and when it took a step forward, it looked as if it might lose its balance and topple over at any moment.
“We’ve got a problem,” Gramps said. “This filly was born a couple of days ago, but the mother died. We are going to have to feed it by hand. It takes a lot of time and patience to win their confidence, but you seem like you have what it takes to get the job done. Christine is tied up with the grooming, or I would ask her.”
The filly lifted its ears as if it was listening to Gramps voice. “What does it eat?” Jason asked as it started inching forward again.
“It doesn’t eat yet. It’s just a baby. We use a bottle like a baby bottle, except it is larger. The first thing you will have to do is make friends with it so it will trust you. Whenever you move, move real slow. Don’t try to touch it at first. If you are patient, it will eventually come to you.”
“Does it bite?”
“Not unless you bite it first, but it might chew on your shirt sleeve if it gets a chance.”
Jason realized he was smiling at his grandfather’s comment, and he hadn’t done that in a long time. Gramps was funny sometimes, and kept his grandmother laughing when they sat together in the den and talked.
The filly was sniffing the air with its neck thrust forward.
“It wants to smell of you,” Gramps said.
Jason thought this was another of his grandfather’s jokes until he darted a glance in his direction. “What do I do?” he whispered. The filly looked as if she might run away at any moment.
“Just extend you arm real slow. She will probably back away. Don’t make any sudden moves and she will eventually come to you. One thing all horses have is curiosity, as well as a need to be touched. That is probably how some young fellow caught the first one thousands of years ago. Thank you can do that?”
“Yeah,” Jason said, although he wasn’t as sure as he made it sound. Christine was busy doing something at the stables and he knew he couldn’t refuse to do his part. Gramps hand rested on his shoulder for a moment before he left. The filly stopped about ten feet away, but he could tell by looking at the impatient movement of its feet that it was ready to start inching forward again. This time, maybe he could touch it.
Jason knelt beside the fence until it was dark. The filly seemed to gain confidence as the last of the light faded from the sky and the shadows grew darker. He propped his arm on the bottom board and left it extended. The sound of breathing drew closer, and he felt a warm puff of air along the back of his hand. A moment later, the soft muzzle brushed tentatively against his fingers. He remained motionless and the action was repeated, this time for a longer interval, and then he felt the rough dampness of its tongue against the tips of his fingers. He remained where he was, not daring to breathe.
“Have you tried to feed her yet?”
He did not move or turn his head as Christine slowly lowered herself to her knees. He had not heard her stealthy approach. The filly did not move away as he expected, and he wondered if she had been feeding her. Christine leaned forward, bracing herself by placing her arm across his back, her chin resting on the top of his shoulder. Her hair tickled the side of his neck, and somehow it was a pleasant, comforting feeling.
“No,” he whispered back. “I’ve been waiting for her to come to me.”
“It can take awhile to get them to trust you. They are afraid at first, but they are just lonely, not having anyone to care for them. We had one last year that grieved itself to death. When we tried to feed it, everything came back up. I will show you how to feed her, and then you can do it by yourself.”
Christine had started to climb to her feet but stopped when he turned his head in her direction. The moon had just cleared the mountains and he could see the outline of her face, and the errant strands of hair hanging around the tops of her ears. He had never really looked at her. She is lovely, he thought. He had been so absorbed in his own problems that he hadn’t noticed this before.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we did it together?” he asked.
Her teeth flashed briefly before she turned away, her hand brushing lightly against his in the darkness.