by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
She should have been counting beads, colors meant to mimic minerals and elements, layers of earth and sky. Instead she was left with numbers, which she scratched into the dirt first with her fingertips, then the bottom of her boot, and finally with a twig she found by a hay bale. If she had been counting beads, she could have at least had categories to sort them into: the primary colors; glass, wooden, ceramic or plastic; or the colors she gave them, pearl gas or oak eye, the yellow-white that escaped when the kiln misfired, or the blue that originated in a Bunsen flame. At The Bead Game everyone had a system for funneling the correct number of beads into a test tube and capping them with a cork stopper. Some counted by twos, fives, or tens. Now she ran her own neat little countdown, trawling one hundred to zero into the dirt, with nothing to show for it.
She tried not to look at the sky as she counted. The sky had always been less than air to Janice; it seemed more of a measuring device, a scale that ran from horizon to ozone, or a velvet firmament to bright gossamer. Now she was afraid of what she might see in those bands, a map or a legend of impossible travels. Inside the stable, after being out in the sun so long, the sights might be even more disturbing: spots before her eyes. Not spots of light, but a kind of memory of light, pale and shuddering--the way her mother said people see stars on earth. To travel into space, her mother said, was one way of understanding the universe as it actually occurred. No delays and no interference; no speculation as to make-up and color of what was around you. It was all merely light and its absence.
“We could go there, you know,’’ Janice’s friend, Melanie, had proposed when Janice first came to stay with her. “Break into the place.’’
“You’re freaking,’’ Janice said back. “I don’t even know where she’s at.’’
“I’ll get my dad to find out from your dad. He’ll do it, you know.’’
Melanie had a habit of leaving her mouth open when she thought she had said something provocative, as though she were tasting the air, testing her power to burn it. Janice shook her head and sat on a hay bale, where Melanie left her for most of the morning, and now, in the punishment of the afternoon air.
Melanie was supposedly teaching Janice how to ride horses; that was to be Janice’s project for the rest of the summer, according to Janice’s father. Girls like Janice didn’t have time for beads and incense and peace signs and whatever the hell else went on in that god-forsaken excuse for a store, Bernard said. “So what kind of girl am I now?” Janice asked. “One without a mother,’’ Bernard answered. Janice would have argued, reminding him her mother was still alive. But her father’s voice had a way of vanquishing all who disagreed with it, the same way his lawn mower, or his other gasoline-powered contraptions, choked off all conversation.
The morning before Janice found herself counting for the first time since her mother’s illness, Melanie had made her first real attempt to re-make Janice into an equestrian. She added a third rein to Pebbles’ bridle, and an older gelding the color of scuffs and scratches was attached. Janice was inserted into the gelding’s Western saddle; the cowboys instructed her to keep her legs straight, and her backbone centered. Melanie promised they would not go out on the trail. “Sit deep in the saddle. Take it easy. That’s it, that’s it,’’ the cowboys encouraged. She was fine as long as the gelding plodded. Speed seemed to complicate Janice’s balance.
“You a bird? Quit flapping your elbows,’’ one of the cowboys called out as the gelding hit a trot. “Squeeze in with your thighs and knees,’’ Melanie said. “You’re bouncing too much.’’ They must have thought she was afraid too go faster, like most amateurs, but it was the sky that actually inspired her fear. As the horse accelerated Janice thought she could see deeper into the atmosphere. Gone were the bands and colors, the boundaries between chemicals. They were instead replaced by shapes, a Cat’s Cradle of knots and criss-crosses. She’d seen these things before; everybody has, after staring at the sun. But now she knew these shapes were what jets crashed through when they broke the sound barrier, what the astronauts breached each time they re-entered the atmosphere. These shapes were exactly what her mother wanted to break through, until Janice told her father that he might want to do something about it.
“Stand in the stirrups,’’ the cowboys called out. “Move with him, not against him,’’ Melanie suggested. Janice could not grasp the rhythm of the horse; the sensation beneath her was too robotic. She felt as though her bones and muscle had been replaced with far-flung appendage under the command of an unknown intelligence. Once the lesson, as Melanie called it, was over, and Janice had dismounted, the once familiar motion of her limbs felt poisoned with a stiffness that kept her from sitting, standing, or even laying down comfortably.
“You’re saddle sore. You’ll get over it,’’ Melanie said at the end of the day. They were waiting for Roberta, Melanie’s mother, to pick them up after a day at the stables. “You’ve got to have a goal, like being able to ride somewhere. Maybe to see your mom.’’
“Get over it, Melvin,’’ said Janice, using an epithet only Melanie’s little brother, Sheldon, had been able to get away with. Now it was Janice’s turn to breathe with her mouth open, although it was because her nose was capped with dirt, and her throat filled with a shameful boredom.
After her first week at Sweetwater stable, Janice learned to be grateful for the fog in the morning, even though it coated everything in a gelded, gray breath. Fog proscribed the scent of the stable, the urine, excrement, hide and hay-dust that overwhelmed the honeysuckle and alfalfa. Fog prevented Roberta from speeding down the empty freeway, as though it were an airport runway, when she took Janice and Melanie to the stables each morning. Perhaps Roberta was more like her own mother than she had anticipated. Roberta might only be waiting for better visibility, and the chance to gather enough velocity to lift off, succeed where Janice’s mother had failed.
But the fog did not last much beyond noon. Janice knew it had broken completely once she felt a thick, trudging heat, rolling down the small of her back like an egg yolk separated from its equilibrium. Heat sent Janice inside the stable, but then she was too close to the animals, the constant shifting of their weight from one leg to the next, their snorting, their audible tedium. Melanie told her to “walk defensively,’’ never directly behind a horse’s backside, or in a horse’s blind spot. Yet wherever she hesitated, Janice found herself in the way of some stable hand, or underfoot a mount being led out. Horses swayed, they stomped, they backed in and out of their stalls; their tapered movements were like a kind of compensation for a rhythm denied to them.
Janice would have preferred to stay on the private, boarder’s side of the stable, where the stalls were wider, lighted, and Melanie kept Pebbles. The other horses had names like Rufo, Persang, Catalina, and Firesign, names that demanded you learn some detail of their wealthy owners’ lives—the maiden name of a beloved grandmother, their fervent belief in astrology, the ranch where the horse was purchased. Their whims and idiosyncrasies—spooking at unfamiliar footsteps, airplanes overhead or rain advancing-- were lovingly maintained by their owners, according to Melanie, so that they might convince themselves they were, in fact, able horsemen and women. Better to stay on the stable’s public side, where anyone for two dollars an hour could rent a Spot or a Rex, a Chico or a Cisco, names that were short enough for the Spanish-speaking stable hands to pronounce, names that were interchangeable. The sex of the animal—most were old mares, or geldings—was unimportant, and their breeds were indeterminate; they had big heads and occasionally oversized hooves, their prior histories grim if not unremarkable. In the private section of the stable, the colors of the horses ranged from Appaloosa to Palomino, red roan, Pinto and paint. On the public side of the stable, the colors had long since been relegated to bay, brown, black, or white.
Roberta had given Janice a bandana one morning without explanation; on the infernal afternoons, Janice learned why it was needed. She would tie the bandana around her neck, and pull it snuggly over her mouth. At The Bead Game she had accustomed herself to sage, Nubian sandalwood, something the boss said was called “Moroccan tea’’ that smelled like honey singed, nearly branded. Outside the stable, in the morning, there might be a high sweet scent, cut grass and turned earth; but inside the heat and homogenization of so many lives made the scents tangible, like a froth. The astronauts might experience something just like this—fear and high temperatures—just before re-entry, her mother had said. Just before splashdown, portions of the space ship might even melt, upon coming into contact with oxygen again.
“You’re not really going to the moon, Mom,’’ Janice had said, almost a month ago. They were standing in the backyard, in front of the tent—or hangar, as her mother began calling it—where inside Janice’s sister, Margaret, some neighborhood kids, and her mother had begun building their own rocket ship that Janice’s mother said could rendezvous with Apollo 11.
“Who says I’m not?”
“Like the laws of science, for one thing. And Dad, too. You’re freaking him out.’’
“Your father. I can take care of him,’’ her mother had said, as though she had just completed the arrangements. A few nights later, her father had instead made arrangements for her—for all of them. Janice and her younger sister, Margaret, were jettisoned into the care of Melanie and Sheldon’s parents, Jake and Roberta. In the meantime, their mother was in orbit, as her father said, over “parts unknown.’’
“I know where Mommy is,’’ Margaret had taunted that first week away from home. They were eating dinner in the kitchen, with Melanie and Sheldon, as Jake and Roberta took their meal in the dining room. “Mommy’s in the hospital. In corner-tine, with the astronauts.’’
“That’s quarantine,’’ Sheldon corrected.
“How do you know?” Margaret asked, as if making an accusation.
“Once, when we wanted to get a dog? He had to be in quarantine,’’ Sheldon said.
“So your mom’s rabid,’’ Melanie said to Janice. “You guys better get inoculated.’’
Janice wondered how her father would have reacted to that. On the telephone each evening, Bernard told her not to listen to Melanie, and deflected all requests to see her mother. She was exhausted; she was not herself. Children were not permitted in hospitals. Janice spent the night once in a hospital, when she had her tonsils removed. It’s not that kind of hospital, Bernard said. It would be unseemly to have children wandering about. On the public side of the stable, the horse’s stalls were not marked by their names, but by their numbers, Janice noticed. Melanie had suggested that they write to her mother, but in that case, they might need her inmate number—or perhaps that was what you needed to contact a prisoner. Janice thought her mother might as well have her name changed, her treatment relocated.
On the day of the Apollo 11 splashdown, Roberta unplugged the radio and televisions, and she forbade Sheldon from playing with anything with airborne possibilities--Super Balls, balsa wood airplanes, Batmans and Robins made of sticks and cellophane, to be launched by rubber bands. Roberta’s strategy was to instead distract Margaret, and she did so with the most earthbound of gifts: a caterpillar trap; an ant farm; a magnifying glass. Roberta did not even have to think about how to handle Janice. Both sets of parents had once designated the two girls as best friends: they were invited to all of each other’s birthday parties, shuttled to their respective recitals, graduations, and religious rites of passage. But since junior high, their interests (as well as their behavior, according to Janice’s father), diverged. Melanie deliberated over horse magazines like some girls did over yearbooks. Janice had seen them at the end of every year, debating who were the best looking, counting the numbers of blonds, and classifying their prey as a fox or a dog. When they had finished this particular exercise they would discuss possible pairings between themselves and the suitable boys, calculating odds on the success and failure of these pairings. Melanie pored over the breeding charts in her horse magazines, sometimes for traces of Pebbles’ pedigree, which supposedly included one thoroughbred on her dam’s side.
On most occasions, Melanie was prowling for a match for Pebbles’ credentials. Pebbles was a pure black horse, although to Janice, the color pulsed with the same kind of beam she’d seen in volcanic rock, severed and polished. Find the right male, Melanie said, and she could produce another pure black, three-quarters thoroughbred.
“It would be so royal,’’ Melanie declared, “if I could get Pebbles pregnant.’’
To Janice the breeding charts resembled abacuses, beads that could be arranged and re-set into seemingly infinite combinations. Melanie attempted to explain how horse breeders tried to produce particular colors in a foal. Appaloosas were the most prized, yet they did not require an Appaloosa parent. Chestnuts, browns and bays were too easy, by comparison, although bays were brown horses with black stockings. Palominos, like blonds, were valued for their light hides and white markings, although to Janice, their color recalled the shade of dentures, filmy and tainted. There were other breeding charts for particular traits—swiftness in thoroughbreds; large, almost mournful eyes in Arabians, and ears curved into the shape of question marks. But where were the horses in the colors of the beads Janice once counted; the kind of blue that not only has a tone, but a shape, tapered at either end; or white with the proper imperfections so that light, luminosity, might travel through it. When Melanie finally put her magazines and herself to bed each night, Janice would lay in her sleeping bag, wondering which traits from her mother she might inherit. There were her looks, of course, the olive skin, eyes virtually without lashes, the once-black hair with mostly gray rooting through it. Then there were the finer points, like beads that could only picked up by a moist fingertips: the tone of her mother’s voice when she was challenged, or hurt, or how her mother went for days wearing the same pair of jeans, or without wearing any lipstick.
“Do you love your mom?” Melanie asked one evening. “You’re supposed to, you know. Because if you don’t, you get counseling.’’
“I don’t know,’’ Janice said.
“You’re pissed off at her, but that’s OK. You’re supposed to be. It’s the new adolescence.’’
“At least I don’t need counseling.’’
“I love my dad,’’ Melanie volunteered.
“He’s never here.’’
“You’ve got it,’’ Melanie said, sounding triumphant. “He’s working, like all the time. He got me Pebbles when my mom said ‘over my dead body.’ ”
The horses, the trails, Melanie’s house—the world had gone deep into August. The air whisked with the motion of fire season. At the stable, the scent of shorn grass evaporated, and was replaced by charcoal and smudge. The stable hands and cowboys were pre-occupied with clearing brush, which they hauled back from the trail on pick-up trucks. Branches, scrub, dried-out bushes were heaped onto one another in a pile of crushed colors, like the dried and neglected spices her mother kept in the cabinet. Janice had never before thought of them as flammable.
There had been two sensational sets of murders somewhere in the hills, which to Janice’s father made all hills, particularly the Sweetwater trails, suspect. Bernard had been saying for years that psychos, drug pushers, hippies, and child molesters were having too much of a run of the city, and now these murders provided definitive evidence. The last time he had broached this with Janice’s mother, she argued Florida was their only option. All rocket ships require either an equatorial or near-equatorial launch in order to orbit the earth properly, and so it was no mistake that Cape Kennedy was where it was.
“Stick to the trail, will you please?” Roberta now admonished the girls almost every morning. “Don’t go exploring.’’
“God, it’s like she thinks the Viet Cong’s out here, or something,’’ Melanie complained.
“At least your mom can think,’’ Janice said.
“Huh,’’ said Melanie. “I guess. Come on, Pebbles is probably having a fit.’’
Janice wished her mother had a fit. That she screamed, splattered her car against something, or started a fire. Then there would have been some definitive event, a date Janice could count back from, a before and after. She would have had a method then, a device for separating what she was accustomed to and what she had to learn now. Instead she had Margaret asking her each night what had gone wrong, and that just lead to Janice counting down again. Was it when Margaret and their mother built a Japanese teahouse together, out of old boxes and the cardboard the dry cleaners put in Dad’s shirts? Or when their mother started calling the teahouse a bomb shelter? It had to be when Margaret asked if she could build a rocket ship like the Apollo 11 astronauts. Janice brought up the letter their mother wrote to President Nixon, to inform her of her own moon mission, but Margaret didn’t understand. Then there was the night their mother ripped up the attic, so she could use the fiberglass insulation on the rocket ship; even Margaret then allowed that maybe things were getting out of hand.
Melanie became reluctant to take Janice out on the trail on windy days of the fire season, when the horses could smell the horses that had preceded them, as well as the consequences of the trail’s poison ivy and rattlesnakes. Beyond the trails, over the hills and to the west, the horses sensed the ocean extending into the sand, and the glossy feel of mud, water, and salt around their hooves. The days without motion were best for new riders like Janice. The air lost all buoyancy, all its volatile scents, and the stillness made the horses pliant, both their fears and ambitions like sedge and sheared grass beneath their feet, only remnants. On these days, Janice let her horse follow Pebbles in walks and trots; she was still too afraid to go on a controlled canter, let alone a gallop. Melanie tied Janice’s horse up to a post, or a tree, when Pebbles needed to run. As Janice watched, Pebbles’ bearing thrust air ward and Melanie shifted her balance toward the horse’s ears. The two of them appeared as though they had a way of remembering together, enumerating their tricks, tumbles, and instances when their lungs pulsed and their hearts punched through their rib cages at the same piercing rate.
Janice eventually found a job for those windy days, working for Carlos, who ran the stable’s public side. She ferried saddles and other tack between the stalls and the tack room. Outside, the wind scooped leaves, stems, and roots as if they were crumbs, and mixed them together to create whirls of dust, spores, and dander. Inside the stalls, the horses snorted, backed up, flicked their ears and stomped whenever Janice entered. Carlos offered her more money than she made at The Bead Game if she’d ready the horses herself, because the cowboys were too occupied with clearing the brush. But even the older, gentler horses reacted to the upheaval in the weather. Janice approached and their ears shot back, their mouths arched to display their teeth; they wanted more, to taste, to bite into the chaos. Janice left the saddling and bridling to someone else; now it was George, one of the few English-speaking cowboys like George.
George’s hair was beyond blond, wan and arid, and in his eyes Janice recognized a crystalline tautness she had seen in the beads made from sea glass. He was older than all of the girls who had horses on the stable’s private side, but Melanie said he couldn’t have been that much older. Otherwise, he would have been drafted.
“Got a work permit for this job?” he asked.
Janice found herself counting the pounds weighing on her shoulders and forearms. Twenty-five, when she put together blanket, bit, bridle, and saddle. “Sure,’’ she answered.
“Where is it?” He was following her now, past the area where riders signed up for their mounts, into the paddock.
“At home, I don’t know.’’
“Need to see it.’’
The saddle slipped from Janice’s forearm and the blanket, lodged on the other arm, was bound to follow. “What?” Janice asked breathlessly.
“Come on, now.’’ He was talking to her, but he could have been talking to one of the horses. Melanie said the only good thing about George was that he showered more than the other cowboys, and or that he knew how to use cologne. He wore a choker of leather and turquoise, a raw droplet of a stone set on a silver plate.
“You know, you’re a sweet girl, but I don’t like working with someone spooked by her own reflection,’’ George said. “It’s not cool to the rest of us.’’
“I’m sorry.’’ Janice told herself she wasn’t looking down to avoid George’s face, or his eyes, which seemed to have ignited as they spoke in some way. She was just counting the pieces of tack she’d been carrying, making sure she hadn’t lost or damaged anything.
“I’ll get it,’’ George said, reaching for the bridle falling down Janice’s arm. He was about to replace the bridle on Janice’s shoulder when Janice and George were distracted by the punch of galloping hooves against the cement within the stable grounds, precisely where it was not permitted.
“Christ, it’s the Lone Ranger,’’ George declared.
“God, I’m sorry, Melanie,’’ Janice said.
“I’ll tell you who’s going to be sorry,’’ Melanie announced. Pebbles pitched her head severely, as if to shake off her bridle. Melanie tugged back on Pebbles and the mare pranced in place, in response. “What the hell are you doing?” she asked, clearly directing the question at George.
“You don’t know nothing about it.’’
“You know your momma,’’ Melanie rejoined, leaving her mouth open for that one copious second. By the time she could challenge him with the third finger of a free hand, George had turned his back, and was walking out past the stalls to clear more brush.
It was Janice who first went for Melanie’s horse magazines once they arrived home that night. She wanted to study the drawings, oil portraits, and photographs, but the colors of the horses no longer seemed important. Neither did their pedigrees. How they moved, balanced, loped and swayed, with the weight to break bones and force to throw off authority: this was the issue. This is what frightened her, but in the magazines the power had been domesticated. Some of the pictures were posed, with the horses’ coats brushed to a blistering glimmer; others were caught mid-gallop, balancing on one front leg while their rear limbs thrust out behind them. Some pictures reminded Janice too much of a chance at flight, denied: when stationary, their nostrils stretched skyward, in defiance, and in motion, they practiced a sturdy glide.
“ You know, horses are stupid,’’ Melanie confided. “You act like you know what you’re doing, they don’t know the difference.’’ She pulled out a poster that showed a jockey and his thoroughbred at full gallop. “I wish someone could get me and Pebbles like that,’’ Melanie said, and Janice knew what she meant: Melanie wanted a picture of herself in the same position, as proof that she could do it: stop time while keeping her balance. The horse had already suspended himself over the track, and in the background, everything meant to set limits—the rail, the infield clock, the stewards and trainers—looked smeared, as though on their way toward erasure. Not for a moment did the horse touch the ground in the photograph; nor would Melanie’s imagined mount, for at this pace a horse’s momentum is enough to elevate itself. This was where her mother failed, in seeing the world’s limits blur, Janice thought; and where she herself could not.
Melanie returned her volumes to the bookshelf before going to sleep. Janice, in her sleeping bag, stared at them through the darkness, their spines lined up as if they were ready for launching. During those weeks on Melanie’s floor, Janice might have actually fallen asleep, although she could never remember that sensation, upon waking. Instead she recalled a kind of timelessness filling her nights, re-living days and weeks. That particular evening, she let herself speculate as to all of the time stilled in Melanie’s horse journals: a history of breeding, births, races and retirements that Janice had never known existed. Her mother, at one point, had said traveling into space would let her fix time. Astronauts could count between sixteen to eighteen sunrises and sunsets as they made a single orbit of the Earth. If there was anything to the theory of relativity, there had to be some way of orbiting backwards, taking back all of those daybreaks, and dispatching all of the previous years’ worth of mistakes and failures. What exactly did she want to erase, Janice wondered: a skinned knee, a broken date, or something like marrying her father, or having her children?
The fog failed to burn off that next morning; what had been visible from the backseat of Roberta’s car was now merely suggested, making static the list of landmarks Janice counted through each morning. The more the fog persisted, the more it seemed to acquire a new power, as though it could delay events: the weight of the saddles and saddle blankets on her arms, the angle of a horse’s teeth as she slid the bridle over its tongue, the tension in the reins she could never properly maintain. The last night her mother was home, her father had finally had enough, and gave her the equivalent of one earth orbit until the hangar and the rocket ship had to be dismantled. Janice’s mother replied it would be no problem, provided that he understood she was on lunar time; a lunar day, after all, was twenty-nine earth days, twelve hours, forty-four minutes and three seconds.
“You’d better get out there now,’’ George was saying. Janice and Melanie were in Pebbles’ stall; Janice brushed the mare’s neck while Melanie was taking her hoofs in hand, to clean them out with a hoof pick.
“What are you, the trail monitor?” Melanie asked.
“I wasn’t talking to you,’’ he said. Janice felt the air between her back and the stable wall take on a heft, as though it now had a form and a focus.
“I’ll find you an easy ride,’’ he promised, behind Janice’s neck.
“The hell you will,’’ Melanie declared.
George saddled up Spot for Janice, but Melanie took over the mount. Spot was a stable gelding that used a rubber bit, due to his long career as a horse-to-let, which was apparently ending in hard mouth. As they warmed up their mounts around the ring, Melanie complained the bay had a fifth leg outside his trot; his canter would be a punishment. “More excuse to run,’’ she said, and took the horse out of the ring at a gallop. Janice followed on Pebbles, careful to post on the correct lead as she held back the mare in a jog.
“Elbows in, girl,’’ George shouted after her. “No taking off.’’
Janice had become habituated to someone’s instructions chasing after her at the beginning of each ride. For the moment, the crack of the stable hands’ Spanish was all she had to give her a sense of direction, as the fog appeared to have strengthened, tightened, where the path turned off the oval and onto the trail. She should have been scared, with Melanie so far ahead and her reliable landmarks now caught in the grip of gray moisture, but the fog also made the size of the sky more manageable, as though it could be condensed into her hands. Janice kept Pebbles to a walk and enjoyed the air, clean and intricate against her face. The close-hewn clouds freshened everything, she thought; the trees, the brush, the horses’ hides otherwise defeated by the crush of manure and yellow pollens.
“Ho,’’ a command, followed by a new cadence, was trailing her. “Whoa, where you going, girl? Ho. Ho. Wait up there. Whoa.’’ In a quick glance Janice saw George on a Palomino five or six lengths behind; he must have convinced one of the private owners that the horse required an exerciser. Janice shortened Pebbles’ reins, knowing that her horse would attempt to follow the Palomino’s canter; then she ran through her own posture. Her pinkies were fastened between the double reins of the Pelham bridle; her knees pressed inward, her toes pointed slightly upwards, her shoulders relaxed, her waist and hips firm, yet rocking with the animal.
“That’s it, that’s it,’’ George said, pulling back on his horse. “Nice work, sweetheart.’’
“Melanie invited you?” Janice said.
“Melanie doesn’t own the trail.’’
George rode the Palomino with only a blanket. He held the reins in a single hand, loosely, as if within he was protecting something delicate; a wilted bird or an arrangement of beads, unstrung suddenly. He gestured to Janice, and waved to approaching riders, with his other hand, which he kept close to his waist, where his horse could neither see nor suspect it. Together Janice and George trotted; for her benefit, she guessed. After each jog she found Pebbles’ reins shortened even tighter toward her mane. Pebbles’ ears alternately flopped and hung out of frustration while George’s mount pricked straight and forward. When George pulled back on the Palomino’s mouth, it was more with the strength of his wrists than his shoulders and forearms.
Once her father had called the ambulance, and the mission to the moon was finally over, Janice’s father began interrogating her mother, as if he already knew the answers. How did she suppose she could actually get to the moon? What was she going to do once she got there? What were he, Janice, and Margaret supposed to do while she was gone? How were they to manage? Wasn’t her place here, at home? Wasn’t that where she was most needed? Check, check, check, she answered, like a kind of countdown that had no ending. But before she was lead by the hand into the back of ambulance, her mother answered all of the questions through a checked grin: “Women’s intuition.’’
Janice clicked her tongue. Pebbles answered with her fastest jog yet, her front legs threatening to blur into running. Janice bounced. She teetered. She slacked down on one rein while she clutched Pebbles mane. But she was not concerned if George saw how badly her balance was suffering. Her father, after all, hadn’t seen it in her mother, until the last minute. By that time her mother had willed all her trust to something Janice had yet to fathom—an idea about time? An idea about nature? Or an idea about herself, a faith that everyone thought was fatal.
“Whoa, hold up there, girl, you’re not ready yet,’’ George called after her. Pulling back was what would ultimately give her away, Janice knew, the way her hands and arms flapped and flew in stuttering motions. Pebbles did not resist, but her head and neck remained long and alert, as if poised for running.
“What’s the rush, sweetheart?’’ George had easily caught up to her, and was now riding parallel. “I know where she’s headed,’’ he went on. He was talking about Melanie, and nodding in the direction of a cluster of mountains. A fog-plowing wind revealed that no trails had been cut into the sides of these unfamiliar forms, crowded over with a green that even from a distance appeared slick, dense, and succulent.
“Slow it down, and I’ll show you.’’ He plucked Janice’s hand out of Pebbles’ mane and rushed her arm to the corner of his eye, using her limb as though it was some type of a viewfinder. “Through there, there’s a trail to the canyon that leads to the creek. Then you ride under the highway and hit the ocean. Wanna go for it?”
Pebbles collected her legs in a bright, rocking configuration that seemed slower to Janice than that last jog, yet free from the burden of discipline. Janice found herself rising slightly out of the saddle and toward Pebbles’ neck, which had lengthened, yet remained unyielding in the wind the mare herself had created. She was thinking of the ocean, the colors it might contain; how sand and salt might adulterate azure and olive; whether sunlight would bleach the saffron from sea kelp, rising to the surface.
George might have yelled out, “Ho! Girl! Wait!” He might have tried to push his mount to the same gait. But she had far outpaced him as Pebbles unlocked burst after burst of her legs. Her timing was pin-perfect, with Janice holding and releasing her own breath to Pebbles’ pace. The horse’s hooves split junk straw and flaxen debris while the mountains rose up before the two of them, like the embrace of clear waves amid the ocean’s turning.