Weirdness All Around
I was on horseback riding down a dirt road. The horse I was riding was big and black, unruly and skittish. He jumped from side to side and didn’t seem to want to cantor at a steady pace. He shied away from the sides of the road, walking down the middle but every little thing spooked him and I was scared enough all by myself.
There were people in the woods around us. I could feel them there. Zombies? I don’t know. I had visions of them coming out of the woods, clambering to pull me off my horse, tugging at my legs, grasping at the horse’s flanks. In my mind, I saw us surrounded, drowned in rotting human flesh. I kept a wary eye on the woods, on the road, on the horizon, behind me. I gave myself a headache whipping around like a top, trying to see everything at once.
I found an abandoned truck with a trailer. I loaded the horse into the trailer and went back to my small hut, loaded up my clothes, my food, my memory boxes, and headed out for the coast. Would it be safer there by the water or would I be worse off than here among the pines? It’s a crapshoot. That phrase rang through my head, pinging off the sharp corners of my mind, waking up little alarm bells.
I drove through the night and arrived at a dock very early the next morning before dawn. I let the horse out of the trailer and climbed on his back, ready for a brisk ride to stretch our legs. Across a tiny bay, I could see a hill that flattened out to form a long stretch of grassy pasture running right up to a drop-off into the sea. The bay was a horseshoe that stretched off to the west. To the east lay shops and warehouses and boat slips lined with small vessels. We careened down an alley then shot back up the next one looking for a way over to the grass. Finally, the horse took the lead and charged down a small dirt path that took us through scrub and brush to the hill, skidding to a stop right at the edge of the cliff. I could tell he wanted to jump into the waves that crashed beneath us. I tightened the reins and he bucked and snorted while I hung on and waited. Patting his neck, I looked up at the stars in the black velvet sky. No sunrise yet, I said to the horse. We can still get some rest.
We walked at a slow pace back to the truck to find a small group of people going through my things. A woman with short grey hair stood just inside the back holding my grandmother’s white porcelain teapot. “She won’t be needing this,” she said and I saw that she had already pasted a price sticker on the bottom.
“What the heck are you doing?” I yelled. “Get away from my things!”
The woman climbed down and handed me the teapot. “We thought this truck was abandoned” she said.
“Yeah, right,” I replied. “Just dumped right here in the parking lot.”
“It happens,” the woman said with a shrug. “You’d be surprised.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “So, you broke into my truck and decided to steal my stuff? I should call the police.”
“Like that’ll happen,” the woman snorted. She seemed strangely calm having been caught red-handed going through my truck, trying to steal my teapot. The absurdity of that didn’t register but I was tired and foggy and wired from the ride by the sea, a deadly combination for me.
“Let’s call the cops,” a tall man suggested. He pulled out a cell phone and punched a few buttons. “It usually takes them a couple minutes,” he said turning to me. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Looking for a safe place to stay,” I answered. “Things are little tense on the road right now.”
“No shit,” a third guy said. “So, why are you dragging this empty trailer around? You looking for salvage?”
“It’s for my horse,” I said with an unspoken duh.
“You gotta a horse?” the woman chimed in.
“Well, yeah. We were out for a run when you broke into my truck,” I said but no one was paying any attention to me. A short, plump man in a blue uniform had arrived on the scene, notebook and flashlight in hand.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked from the policeman’s script.
“These people broke into my truck and were trying to steal my stuff. I caught them when I came back from a ride.”
“That true, Joe? You break into this woman’s truck?”
The woman shrugged and then laughed. “We didn’t mean to steal anything,” she explained.
“But she’d already put a price sticker on my teapot, officer. Look, right here.” I turned the pot over and showed him.
“Hmm,” he said with a deep frown. “Looks like you didn’t value her stuff too highly.”
“Mostly junk,” Joe said with a shake of her gray head. “Bunch of other stuff that might come in handy but nothing unusual.”
“No drugs? No guns?” the officer asked.
Joe shook her head and looked to her compatriots who shook their heads too.
“So, what are you guys, the local search and rescue squad? Officer, they had no business rummaging through my things. They broke the lock.”
“It wasn’t locked,” the tall guy said. “The lock was on it, but it wasn’t locked.”
I’d forgotten in my haste to get the horse out of the trailer. Crap!
“Still, even unlocked, they had no right to just plunder, did they?”
The officer shook his head. “So, where are you staying,” he asked me. “Do you plan on hanging around here awhile? You and your horse?”
“I’m looking for a safe place,” I said looking from one guilty face to the other. “I guess I won’t find that here if I can’t park my truck for five minutes without it being pilfered.”
“It’s not so bad here,” the tall guy said. “It’s as safe as anywhere else right now. Maybe safer close to the sea.”
“That’s why I headed this way,” I said. “But now I don’t know.”
The officer looked around at the other trucks in the lot and the boats lining the dock. “It’s gonna get busy ‘round here in a little bit. You might wanna move your truck and trailer down. That trailer’s blocking the road just a bit. It gets congested ‘round the dock come sunup, people headed out to fish.”
The tall guy must have seen the question on my face as I scanned the small lot, looking for a place to park. “There’s a pull off just down that way and a small cottage to boot. Mags Ramsey used to rent it out to honeymooners but she’s dead now. Might be we can arrange for you to stay there if you want to.”
That’s when I realized that my horse was gone. I’d been so freaked out by the burglary and then the arrival of the police officer that I’d completely forgotten to trailer my horse. I whistled. Nothing.
“You said you have a horse, but I didn’t see one,” the tall guy said.
“I rode up on a horse,” I said sternly. “But you were inside my truck when I got back,” I said.
“Did you tether him?” the officer asked.
“No, he never runs. He’s well trained.”
“But he’s not here now,” he said with a straight face.
“No, it appears that he’s not here at this moment.” Did he think I was imagining things?
“Well, let’s get you settled at Mag’s old place and then we’ll deal with finding your horse. The cottage ain’t far so if comes back, I’m sure he’ll be able to follow your trail.”
He’s a horse, not a dog, I thought to myself but I kept my mouth shut, happy to be offered a safe place to stay.
“About the burglary…” the officer said.
Joe was looking at the pavement. All I could see was the top of her gray head as she stared at her boots. I looked around at the other two guys, one tall and one short, both with dumb friendly smiles on their faces.
“Just tell me this,” I said. “What the heck were you doing? You must have seen me pull in. You must have seen me ride away on my horse. Were you laying in wait to rob me? And if so, how can I trust you?”
“We heard you pull in,” Joe said in a whisper. “We just thought we’d check you out, see who you were, see what you had. We don’t get many strangers ‘round here, no live ones, anyways. And then I just kinda lost control. I saw the teapot and the little fancy cups and all I could think of was what they’d be worth.”
“So you opened my boxes, sorted through my things, and never gave it one thought that it was wrong to do that? What kind of people are you?”
“The kind that offer a woman on her own a safe place to stay,” the tall one said. “You’ll be safe here with us, in our little town. We could use some new blood.”
I didn’t like the sound of that last little bit, but I was suddenly exhausted, the adrenalin finally drained from my brain.
“Okay,” I said. “Officer, I guess I won’t file a complaint, but please tell me this,” I pleaded. “Am I really safe here? Can I trust these guys?” I thrust a thumb in the trio’s direction.
He laughed out loud at that and patted me on the shoulder. “These are the safest people you’ll find in these parts,” he said and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Let’s go then. Help me pull my rig out of here and then show me the cottage. And then help me find my horse and we’ll be square.”
They nodded, all three of them, and Joe turned and walked away. The two men climbed into the cab of my truck with me and proceeded to tell me how to turn the wheel. I had to back down the narrow lane of the parking lot and down the small stretch of dirt road. The brakes failed on me at the small dip before the turn off and I screamed when the truck sailed backward toward a cliff at the bend in the road. The two guys laughed and offered no help at all until the brakes finally caught and we stopped right at the edge. I pulled forward and made the left turn, bumping through the ruts to the cottage that appeared up ahead. Big windows lined the front of the place, opening out onto the sea. Once inside, the view of the grassy pasture and the sea beyond was spectacularly beautiful. A cool salty breeze swept over me as I looked for my horse in the landscape below.
The sky was just beginning to lighten, the black of the night replaced by steel gray and dark rolling thunderheads. “There he is!” I shouted as my horse galloped to the edge of the pasture and froze, looking down into the waves. He won’t jump, I told myself and my heart stopped with the thought of him being pulled under water. But he didn’t jump. He skittered away and pranced along the edge, tossing his head and rearing in delight. The sky darkened and I lost track of him then, straining to see which way he ran.
Days passed and each night I put food outside my door for the horse and each night, like a cat, he came home to feed and then disappeared into the woods again. No one saw him but me. And no one believed that I’d ridden into town with a horse in that empty trailer, or ridden him on the grassy pasture under the velvet black sky. I couldn’t tell them when I’d found him, but I couldn’t remember when and where I’d found the truck and the trailer either, one day having bled into the other along that long stretch of deserted road.
Joe and the boys laughed at me when I talked about the horse, laughed when I put out the food, and laughed when I picked up the empty bowl in the morning. “She’s feedin’ the raccoons--or the zombies,” they’d say and I’d laugh along with them but I kept feeding my horse.
“There’s gonna be a roundup,” I heard down at the dock one day while I looked for a can of green beans among the scavenged boxes. Joe was there picking through a pile of junk in a box that someone had left on her doorstep. Joe seemed to be the town’s purveyor of all things superfluous. She loved picking through tangles of worthless trinkets and everyone in town gave her the opportunity as often as they could, cleaning out forgotten drawers or trash troves in the rapidly emptying houses in town. I still felt safe here. I hadn’t seen or heard anything that scared me until I heard that there was going to be a roundup of the horses that lived in the fields and woods around us.
“We’ll have meat for months!”
And there it was: terror!
“You’re not going to kill them, are you?” I asked in that naïve-little-girl voice that never failed to crack up Joe and the guys.
“Butcher is more like it,” the guy said and moved along. Joe looked at me with a quizzical look and shook her head.
“One of those wild horses is my horse!” I said loudly.
“Well, if you can bring him home and pen him up out back, maybe they’ll leave him alone,” Joe replied. “If you can’t, it’s gonna be pretty hard to stop them once they get started.”
I took off for the pasture, running along the dock and out beyond the scrub and brush, whistling as I ran. The pasture was empty. I could see that from the dock, but I had to look. I had to stand on the edge and look back toward the woods. I had to be there, right out in the open so he could see me and know that I was looking for him. It had been weeks since we’d ridden into town together and it had been weeks since I’d seen him. He’d remember me, though, I was sure of it.
“It’s been months, you know,” Joe said later than night as we sat around my kitchen table eating vegetarian chili. “You keep saying you’ve been here for weeks, but it’s been months. Five, as a matter of fact. You’ve been here with us for five months.”
“Man!” I said. “Time flies!” I set down my spoon and reached for the last bite of cornbread. “Feels like I’m stuck in a time warp!”
The tall one stood at the big front window looking out at the sky and the full moon that had just risen out over the sea. I thought it strange that I still thought of him as the tall one. He didn’t have a name, or at least had never offered one, and I never heard anyone call him by name down at the dock. He turned to me and seemed to read my mind again--or at least the look on my face. “Better not to get attached,” he said and scraped his spoon around his bowl for the last bite.
“There’s more,” I said. “Help yourself.”
“Nah,” he replied. “Save it for tomorrow.”
They’d been showing up at my cottage every night around dinner time right from the very beginning. I guess I was good at foraging for food, bartering and trading and gathering what I needed to put together a tasty, healthy meal. It never crossed my mind to turn them away, to refuse them a place when they showed up and plopped themselves down at my table. They helped around the cottage cutting firewood, raking leaves, and a hundred other little things that needed doing.
“I’m going out to look for my horse tomorrow,” I said. “Anyone want to come with me?”
Joe shook her head no as I knew she would. The two guys, though, smiled and shrugged and agreed to come.
“I don’t know when the roundup will begin, so I’d better get a head start,” I explained.
“Why are you so attached to the idea of that horse?” Joe asked. It wasn’t lost on me that she’d said “the idea of the horse” rather than questioning my attachment to the horse itself.
“We made it out together,” I said. “He came to me.”
“That don’t make him yours,” Shorty (my name for him) said.
“No, it doesn’t make him mine,” I agreed. “But we ended up together no matter whether he’s mine or I’m his. I’ve got to try to protect him as best as I can.”
“Then we’d better head out early,” the tall guy said. “I heard tell there’s a herd back in the woods over near the old McAllister place.”
I wanted to shout, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” But I didn’t. I needed his help.
“Before first light,” I said and began clearing the plates. Joe usually washed and Shorty dried while the tall one put the dishes back in the cabinet. As they worked in the kitchen, I checked the shelves in the hall closet--my pantry--for ideas for tomorrow’s dinner and jotted down notes of what I needed and what I could spare. Meat was scarce which took my thoughts back to my horse. As I scanned the shelves, my heart skipped a time or two and I promised myself I would find him. Regardless of how hungry I got, I would never sacrifice my horse for food.
Finding him turned out to be easier than I’d ever imagined. Once we reached the McAllister’s farm about a mile back in the woods, I wondered why I’d never thought to look this way for him. I guess I thought there’d be little food for a horse this deep into the woods but I was wrong. A clearing opened up just past the dirt driveway with a pasture of green grass growing as pretty as you please. A jumble of horses sat on the ground enjoying the first rays of the sun. There must have been at least fifty horses of all colors, shapes, and sizes, their coats all matted and their manes in clumps. As we entered the clearing, Shorty and the tall guy and me, the horses got to their feet and peered at us, heads down, questioning. A black horse walked toward us, sniffing the air. That’s him, I thought, but it wasn’t. This horse was much too small, too old, too matted, the hair of his coat scraped off in bald patches along his flanks. He’d been out here in the wild for a long, long time, I ventured. My horse was sleek and black and huge and strong and would know me if he was here.
The other horses stayed back, beginning to cluster together in the middle of the field to protect the herd. I stepped forward and the herd stepped back. There were more than a few black horses, many of them big and strong and sleek.
“Which one is he?” Shorty asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, my heart sinking lower and lower in my chest the longer we stood there in our faceoff.
The tall guy grabbed me by the arm and jerked me back. “You don’t have a horse,” he said. “Admit it. You’re a liar!”
I was shocked at the look on his face, at the roughness of his touch. He’d been nothing but kind to me from the day we met but now, he was manhandling me back the way we’d come. He shoved me in the chest with one long finger, anger bubbling up and out of his mouth. “This has been nothing but a wild goose chase. That horse ain’t nothing but a figment of your imagination.”
He shoved me again and I tried to turn away. He grabbed my arm and pulled me back, shaking me as he shouted. “Admit it! You’re a liar. You don’t have a horse!”
I tried to pull away but he tightened his grip. “You’re crazy!” he screamed. “I knew it from the start. I told them...”he said as a shadow suddenly fell over us, the shadow of a rearing horse struck out at him, knocking him to the ground.
And there he was. My horse. I didn’t see him peel off from the herd. I didn’t hear him as he pranced toward us, ears laid back, teeth bared. Shorty saw him though and afraid to shout or warn us, he’d backed up, waiting to see what would happen.
I ran to the horse and threw my arms around his neck. He nuzzled my shoulder and whickered in my ear as I cried into his matted coat.
“You have to come home,” I said and pulled back. His eyes were huge as he snorted. “You have to. They’re going to butcher them all,” I said and although he couldn’t possibly understand me, he shook his head and stamped in disagreement. Then he stood stock still and I knew that he wanted me to climb on--just as he had the first day he’d come to me, that first day as I’d stumbled along the dirt road miles from home, miles from my last vestiges of sanity, lost and tired and hungry. He’d come out of the woods like a mirage, pranced right up to me and stood as still as a statue as I mounted his back, grateful to get off of my feet. He’d taken it slow for the first few miles, letting me get the hang of his gait. Then he’d trotted and galloped and cantered along giving me time to learn how to hang on the best way I could. We’d flown right by the dead as they shuffled and crawled along. We’d flown right by survivors too tired to raise a head or a hand in greeting. We just flew until the road ended and a farm loomed ahead, empty, deserted, and stocked. We’d stayed until we no longer felt safe, packed up the truck and the trailer and moved on.
He took me through the woods beyond the farm, to a killing field of sorts. There lay hundreds if not thousands of bodies, stamped and trampled to pieces. The land had been fenced off, funneling them through this gap in the woods, leading them to this final resting place. My horse looked back at me with a nicker, then shook his mane and stamped.
I leaned over as far as I could and hugged him with both arms. “You were keeping me safe,” I said and the tears wouldn’t stop coming. He turned and trotted out of the field, back to the pasture of horses.
“We have to protect them. We have to keep them safe,” I said to Shorty who sat on the ground with the tall guy, holding a bandana to his shoulder.
“He could have killed him,” Shorty said. “But he didn’t. He just knocked him away from you.”
“I knew he’d protect you,” the tall guy said and he beamed at me with a smile that melted my heart. “I’m sorry if I scared you, but I knew he’d stop me if I tried to hurt you. It was the only way I could think of to make him step out from the herd.”
The tears started again and I choked back a sob as my horse tickled my hand with his lips. “They’re keeping us all safe,” I said and pointed toward the land off behind the house. “They’re keeping them away from us while we sit in our houses and count ourselves lucky. It’s the horses that are keeping us safe.”
“Then we’d better not eat ‘em,” Shorty said with a chuckle and we turned to head toward home.
My horse walked with me to the edge of the field and a little beyond into the woods. “I’ll keep putting food out for you,” I said as I hugged him hard, suddenly afraid to let him go. “You be careful,” I said as I patted his cheek and kissed him once for good luck. He nudged me along with his nose and I laughed, “Go on home,” he said in my mind. And I realized that this was my home, this cottage, this place by the sea. Despite my best efforts and Shorty and Joe, I had become attached and had dug my heels in deep.
“So, what’s your name?” I asked the tall one as we ambled back along the dirt road.
“Joe,” he said with a mischievous grin.
“But I thought…” I began but he shook his head.
“My mother is Mary and this is JC. Considering the little fishing town we live in is called Bethlehem, all I can say is that my grandmother had a wicked sense of humor.”
“Yep,” JC agreed with a deep laugh. “Grandma Mags was a real card.”
We walked the rest of the way home in silence as I gathered my thoughts and thought about Joe and his family. There was weirdness all around me, I thought. And I realized that I fit right in.