Devils on Horseback

by Leslie Stella

He regarded himself as having the usual human affection for children. He liked seeing them trick-or-treating, for example, or sleeping peacefully in a photograph. He felt bad when they were abducted and so on. He watched the little girl standing quietly in the kitchen, at her pointed chin and the unabundant blond hair and the eyes that missed nothing. For Belinda's sake he would tough it out, of course, but he decided then that he didn't really care for this particular child as a person.
           The girl (her name was Rochelle, and the selection of that name bothered him, even if it was ten years ago when Belinda was young and had no meaningful relationship whatsoever with Rochelle's father, wherever he was, but he could not help thinking that a woman who would name a child "Rochelle" had no appreciable taste, no inner resources on which to depend when it came to assembling the accoutrements of one's life, though come to think of it "Belinda" was no prize as a moniker either -- he was the sort of person who used the word "moniker" -- and perhaps she could not be expected to choose a more graceful, a more timeless name) had a brother, a twin, a rough and ready towhead named Michael (thank God), who was infinitely more palatable. Michael threw things, he broke things, he ran in circles and shouted and laughed, but at least he moved and acted, presumably, like a real child. Rochelle preferred to stand and stare out the window, to chew her cuticles bloody. He had to admit that she was obedient to her mother and polite to him. She kept her room reasonably clean and brought home satisfactory grades, but she had a very girlish obsession with horses that he found quite annoying. It was the type of obsession often accompanied by a tiresome, feminine interest in the occult, but Rochelle only cared about horses. Riding them, brushing them, reading about them, and ultimately boring everyone at the dinner table with infrequent but tedious observations about mares and oxers and stirrups and bridles. Michael was a cheerful pup, keen on nothing, but a bright little character, at least in outlook. He appreciated young Michael and his solid name. His own name, William, was Anglo-Saxon and solid and no-nonsense, and no one could say any different.

"I thought maybe we could go down to the city and visit the zoo," suggested Belinda. "I mean, it's such a beautiful day."
           So she didn't want to go to the Children's Symphony after all, even though he had mentioned it weeks ago. He specifically remembered bringing it up and also saying that Michael and Rochelle might enjoy being exposed to a little culture once in a while, and he remembered specifically that she said that sounded like a nice idea.
           Belinda waited, but William said nothing, and anxiety rose in her chest and flapped its feathers. "It might be the last warm day of the year and I thought they should be outdoors, not that we wouldn't like to go to the Children's Symphony in the winter or something." Embarrassed, she heard the plaintive whine in her voice.
           William shrugged, then realized that as they were speaking on the phone, she missed the subtle nuances of his gestures. "Fine. The zoo," he said.
           "Are you mad?"
           "Oh, don't start that," he said. "I hate when you start that."
           The late September sunshine slanted through the clouds, dazzling the air with gold and coppery green. William wore sunglasses and fanned his face with an informative pamphlet on penguins. Sometimes he dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief.
           Michael wanted to see monkeys. "Big ones," he said.
           "What about you, honey?" Belinda asked her daughter.
           Rochelle said she'd like to see the monkeys, too. She smiled at her twin and gave him a friendly chuff on the shoulder, which he returned.
           "Settle down," said William.
           The great ape house was always the most crowded, most popular exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo. People stood three deep around the glass, remarking on how the apes' hands looked a lot like ours, and wasn't it cute how they cuddled their babies, and didn't they look intelligent, and couldn't you almost think they had souls, and wasn't it spooky, their eyes? Rochelle stood nowhere near the glass, but she could still see high up into the enclosure, could see the animals perched at the top of the climbing bars. One gorilla had brought hay up there for a nest, renouncing any impulse to ever venture down again. At the very crest of the exhibit was a large skylight, and the walls that abutted it were painted to mimic the open horizon of savannah skies. The skylight was clouded with dirt and had a mesh wire running through the glass and none of the gorillas were fooled.
           "Look at their eyes," William said. "Can't you just see their brains working away?" Michael nodded his head enthusiastically and finally picked off that scab on the tip of his elbow. Rochelle could not see their eyes and watched the gorilla at the top of the bars lay on its nest. Its arm swung listlessly, then stopped.
           For lunch, they ate hot dogs at the outdoor café by the pond. Rochelle wanted to eat cotton candy while wandering but Belinda insisted they sit down and eat a proper lunch. William could not help it; he bristled at the idea that zoo hot dogs were a proper lunch and he said so. Belinda scanned the menu over the cashier's head.
           "They have burgers," she said.
           "No, no. Hot dogs are fine. But let's not kid ourselves, right?"
           Belinda smiled gamely. "Right."
           Afterward, they walked over the bridge that ran above a gnu enclosure. It took a few minutes to locate the gnus, as they stood in a patch of sunlight as far from the people as possible.
           "It's not that much space," Rochelle commented.
           William said, "Oh, it's plenty big."
           The girl dragged her fingertips along the bridge handrail. She saw that her cuticles were ragged and torn from biting; they hurt, they bled, but she could not stop. "Did you know horses can't throw up?"
           William stared straight ahead, his hand guiding Michael off the bridge. "I rejoice to say I did not."
           "They can't? That's cool," Michael said.
           Their last stop was the Farm in the Zoo, a dairy farm exhibit. Rochelle looked for the shire horses, usually outside in a tiny paddock, but they were kept in their stalls today.
           "Too bad," said William. He felt a mean satisfaction that surprised him. He looked down at Rochelle's small, disappointed face and patted her shoulder. She lowered that shoulder and slipped out from his grasp.

On Sunday morning, Belinda brought the children to church. William never came with them; he had a "thing" about church. Michael was not crazy about it either, and spent the duration shredding the missal in his lap. Rochelle did not mind Mass. The contemplative hour suited her, and she looked forward to the hats and long periods of standing.
           St. Francis was built in an octagonal shape. Rochelle had a good view of all the parishioners no matter what pew her family sat in. We are in a circle, she thought, and pictured the revolving congregation spinning lazily around the altar. Circles felt bigger, with no end or beginning in sight. At Grandma's church, St. Stan's, they had to sit on the left or the right of the aisle. You couldn't see anything interesting that way, and Rochelle disliked the rising walls on either side of her. She could not pay attention at St. Stan's; her eyes traveled up the walls until they reached the ceiling, an ornate plaster vault overhead punctuated with gold friezes and painted moldings. St. Francis's ceiling curved down from one central point, a cloud-white firmament that met each of the eight walls with a large rectangular stained-glass window. The architecture was altogether simple and lovely, and the stained-glass designs radiant, particularly when the purple squares of light fell upon Rochelle's family and framed them in beatitude.
           William came to the house Sunday afternoon. He appreciated Belinda's cooking. For a department store saleslady, she was almost preternaturally skilled in the art of beef brisket and mashed potatoes. He caught a glimpse of himself in the glass panel of the front door as he rang the bell, tight black turtleneck, jeans, fresh haircut. It was important that Belinda saw the effort he put into looking nice for her. It certainly must have boosted her self-esteem, and God knows she needed that. As he stepped into the foyer, he handed her the Marshall Field's bag.
From the top of the stairs, Rochelle watched. She made no effort to hide herself or to spy on them, but William glanced up at her quickly with a sour expression on his face and waggled his fingers in her direction, as though he had caught her at something. Belinda noticed none of this as she opened the plastic bag in excitement.
Rochelle felt something peculiar in her stomach then, a tightening and hardening of the muscles around it. She saw her mother's mouth stretched into a silly, childish grin, her chin dipped down into her chest. Belinda worked at Marshall Field's and knew the quality of the merchandise.
"Ooh!" squealed Belinda, lifting the blue dress out of the bag. She held it against herself and twirled around. Rochelle had never seen her mother twirl before. Rochelle tried to imagine a situation in which she herself would twirl, but could think of nothing. "I love it," said Belinda.
Her mother had worked at Marshall Field's a long time, Rochelle knew. On the green nametag she wore, her starting year, 1990, was imprinted. Thirteen years indicated to customers how much experience she had, how she could be counted on to help find something they wanted. Thirteen years was a long time to work somewhere and not realize when a dress was packaged improperly. Rochelle had seen many bags and boxes from the store come into her house over the years, and every garment had two sheets of white tissue paper wrapped around it, fastened with a green Marshall Field's sticker, or sometimes a gold one if it was Christmastime. Dresses came in long garment bags or occasionally, if they were on clearance, in large paper shopping bags. This dress had no tissue paper and came folded up in a smaller plastic bag and the price tag had been cut off. But Belinda hugged the dress, and hugged William, and Rochelle shrank back into the shadows at the top of the stairs.
Belinda made bacon-wrapped, shucked oysters for their appetizer. William nodded as she set them on the table, half in appreciation and half in acknowledgment that all was as it should be, good food served to him on white china on a Sunday afternoon. Michael rolled one around on his plate, then blocked it with a toast point. "Got him," he said, and stabbed it right through.
"They're called angels on horseback," said Belinda.
"Clever," said William.
Rochelle liked the angels, the salt and the marinade and the smooth glide of the oysters as they broke free from the streaky bacon and slid down her throat.
Belinda smiled. "Devils on horseback aren't too popular around here. Prunes instead of oysters. Yuck, right?"
Rochelle nodded, frowning, and William caught her expression. He held it and savored it.
"What's wrong with prunes?" he asked. "You like plums, don't you?"
She rolled the angels on her plate and said nothing.
"Well, of course you do. Everybody likes plums. And prunes are just dried plums, so what's the big -- " He continued on this road for some time.
The girl fashioned a little house of toast points for the angels, a circular shelter with a peaked roof blanketed in buttered crumbs.
The brisket, of course, was excellent. Michael had seconds, William moaned with such pleasure that he nearly burst into poetry, and to everyone's surprise, Rochelle finished her whole meal.
"That'll put some meat on those skinny bones," William said with a hearty laugh.
Rochelle stared solemnly at him. Skinny bones made her think of skeletons, of dry dead things.
She cleared the table for her mother without being asked. She never objected to her chores. Her mother never yelled at her or made her do more than her fair share. Michael complained sometimes about cleaning up his room, but that was a boy for you, as Belinda often said.
"They don't mean to complain, I'm sure, but they can't help themselves," she once told her daughter.
To which Rochelle had asked, "Why can't they help themselves?" It made no sense. 
Rochelle looked out the window above the sink as she washed the dishes. This was her favorite window, as it faced west and bathed her in the light of sunset each night after dinner. Even on overcast days, such as this one, she still had a perfect view of the Norway spruce at the back of her yard, of the field belonging to the property behind it, of the sloping hills that rose beyond the field, and the houses that came after them. The tree nearest her house was her favorite: an ancient American white oak, what her mother called a century oak. It had a trunk wider than two men and thick gnarled branches like a Halloween tree, which resisted the autumn wind and held their leaves and would not bend.
At bedtime, Michael knocked on his wall to say goodnight. She returned the knock and slid down further under the covers. Rochelle was lucky to have the bedroom over the kitchen; her window gave out on the century oak and through its branches, even in full leaf, she saw the velvet night sky and the endless stars within. She saw the street lamps on the road behind the field, their sodium lights like orange halos on gray angels.

Belinda and William went shopping at Target. They were having another couple over for dinner that weekend and Belinda wanted to get some candles for the dining room table. William had nothing against candles, but gripped the steering wheel like grim death as Belinda directed him into the Target parking lot. William wore tight cashmere turtlenecks and had worked on the ad campaign that used Michael Jordan for a series of popular Wheaties commercials and he did not shop at Target. Especially cringeworthy was the way Belinda giggled and called it Tar-zhay.
           He trailed behind her through the crowded aisles, eyes wide in horror -- people were buying clothes there! Bright red carts banged into him and he stumbled like a drunken Cossack trying to avoid them and keep pace with Belinda. She found the candle aisle and loaded up her cart with a collection of glass tumblers.
           "How are these?" she asked, holding one up.
           Unimaginative, he thought. "Fine," he replied with a tight-lipped smile.
           "They're not too plain? There's big blue ones over there."
           "No, they're fine. At least, they're not tacky."
           He was so grateful to get out of there, that the moment they turned the cart toward the checkout line, his mood improved dramatically and he felt overcome with generosity and fellow-feeling for the world. He perused a large Harry Potter display at the end of the toy department.
           "Does Michael like Harry Potter?" he asked.
           "Oh, yes. He's read all those books."
           William picked out some color-changing magic markers and chocolate frogs and trading cards. "He'll love these."
           Belinda stared at him as he examined different toys and candy, and threw them in the cart. He caught her expression, misread it, and said, "Don't worry, I'll pay for everything. Even the candles." For a second she had a completely irrational and unexpected realization: He never uses my name. She pushed the thought aside and tried to formulate what she wanted to say in such a way that would not annoy him. When he finished selecting his gifts, he headed toward the nearest cashier and she followed, biting her fingernails.
Before he began placing their purchases on the conveyor belt, she laid her hand gently on his shoulder and said in low, measured tones, "William, this is so generous of you. But you know, you can't buy a present for one child and not for the other."
William closed his eyes and rubbed his temples as though in pain. All of these rules really ruined one's native largesse. He thought it was terrible that when the urge to be charitable came upon people, it was always quashed by someone else's greed. "I don't even know what she'd like," he said lamely.
Belinda seized upon this slight but tactically advantageous concession. "Anything with horses, anything at all. A book, a stuffed animal, a puzzle"
He waved his hand dismissively. "No, no. I'm sick to death of horses." He cast about, spied a bin of discounted toys, and rummaged through it. From its depths he withdrew a baby doll with plastic head and molded plastic hair and a cloth body. "Here." He threw it on the conveyor belt. "This is pretty."
Belinda watched the doll move down the belt, a doll so cheap and ugly she wouldn't have picked it up if it were free, a doll so wildly inappropriate for her ten-year-old daughter, she couldn't imagine Rochelle's face when she laid eyes upon it for the first time.

The dinner party went well and Belinda's coq au vin was an enormous success. William came early to help her prepare and brought two large silver candlesticks from home. "Antiques. My mother gave them to me. Aren't they nice?" he asked as he methodically wrapped up each of Belinda's Target votives and stored them in her hutch.
           When the dinner guests had left, Belinda said she didn't feel well and would William mind if she called it a night? He didn't mind at all. He had plenty of places to go on a Saturday evening.
           She took on extra shifts at work. Her mother agreed to baby-sit and Belinda turned the ringer down on the phone each night when she came home. After two weeks, William arrived unannounced on a Sunday afternoon. His car stank of Chinese take-out and he hoped the odor had not clung to him as he knocked on the front door.
           "Hi, Michael," he said as the boy opened the door.
           Michael stepped back, allowing William to enter. "My mom's at work."
           "Oh, that's too bad," he said, surprised at the wash of disappointment that flooded his head. He caught the scent of something delicious and inched in a few steps. "Are you eating dinner?"
           "Not until Mom comes home. Grandma put something in the crock pot."
           William saw the snoring old lady sacked out on the couch. He could think of nothing to say. He looked down at the little boy and noticed the Target baby doll in his arms. "Who's that?" he asked.
           Michael lifted up the doll. Its nightgown had been replaced with a black turtleneck and trousers. Thin, flared sideburns were drawn on its face. Michael said, "This is William."
           William said, "Oh! William, eh? I guess I thought it was a baby girl."
           "Nope. It's just got a stuffed body. It could be anything. But Rochelle said it's definitely a boy."
           He tried again. "Well, I suppose I should be flattered, having a doll named after me."
           But Michael said, "It's not you."
           The exchange at a stalemate, William awkwardly backed out the front door. Michael waved goodbye pleasantly, then shut the door and locked it.
           Later, Rochelle came downstairs. She had been conducting a funeral by herself that had lasted all day. "Ready?" she asked her brother.
           "Yeah," he said, getting up from the chair by the TV. "Mom'll be home soon and I'm starved."
           They went outside by the century oak. Twilight had descended and with it, a tempest. A cold wind kicked up and beat its wings against the house.
           "Not too close to the roots," she warned.
           "I know," he said, digging the grave.
           She held the doll by one arm, the other one swinging slowly beneath it, listless and lame. The unbounded black sky stretched above their heads, a storm announced itself deep in the distance and drew near -- wild, terrible things roared, unleashing doom and redemption all at once. She placed the doll in his grave and thunder came at her, it came at her pounding like surf, like hooves, like riders on horseback overtaking small things in their paths.
LESLIE STELLA is the author of The Easy Hour and Fat Bald Jeff. Her work has appeared in The Mississippi Review, Bust, Chum, Easy Listener, and anthologized in The Book of Zines (Henry Holt, 1997). Read an interview with Leslie Stella here. Visit her official website: