Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy. My father said there was a time when he would have been able to stop her, and I wasn't sure if he meant a time in our lives when she would have listened to him, or a time in history when the Desert Valley Sheriff's Posse would have been allowed to chase after her with torches and drag her back to our house by her yellow hair. My father had been a member of the sheriff's posse since before I was born, and he said that the group was pretty much the same as the Masons, except without the virgin sacrifices. They paid dues, rode their horses in parades, and directed traffic at the rodeo where my sister met her cowboy. Only once in a great while were they called upon for a task of real importance, like clearing a fallen tree from a hunting trail, or pulling a dead girl out of the canal.
Polly Cain disappeared on a Wednesday afternoon, and at first people were talking kidnapping. An eleven-year-old girl was too young to be a runaway, so they figured someone must have snatched her. But then they found her backpack on the dirt road that ran alongside the canal, and soon they called my father. For the two days that the sheriff's posse dragged the canal, they traded in their white tuxedo shirts and black felt Stetsons for rubber waders that came up to their armpits, and they walked shoulder to shoulder through the brown water. I passed them on my way home from school. It was only April, but already the mayflies were starting to hatch off the water, and I watched my father swat them away from his face. I waved and called to him from the side of the canal, but he clenched his jaw and didn't look at me.
"We found that girl today," he said when he came home the next afternoon. I was making Kool-Aid in a plastic pitcher, and he stuck his finger in and then licked it. "Tangled in one of the grates."
"Is she dead?" I asked and he stared at me.
"You stay away from that canal when you're walking home, Alice," he said.
"Will there be a funeral?" I pictured myself like a woman in the movies, standing beside the grave in a black dress and thick sunglasses, too sad to cry.
"What do you care?"
"We were partners in shop class. We were making a lantern." The truth was that Polly had been making the lantern while I watched. She had been a good sport about the whole thing and let me hold it when our teacher, Mr. McClusky, walked by, so that he would think I was doing some of the work.
"I don't have time to take you to a funeral, Alice," my father said, and he put his hand on the top of my head. "There's just too much work around here. I've already lost two days."
I nodded and stirred the Kool-Aid with a wooden spoon. There was always too much work. My father owned a stable. Between posse meetings he gave riding lessons and bred and raised horses, which he sold to people who fed them apple slices by hand and called them "baby." In the mornings my father and I fed the horses while it was still dark, and I would walk to school shaking hay from my hair and clothing, scratching at the pieces that had fallen down the front of my shirt. In the afternoons we cleaned the stalls and groomed and exercised the horses. It was foaling season and my father didn't like to leave the barn even for a minute, in case one of our mares went into labor. It was just as well. I didn't have a black dress.
"You've been a trouper, kid," he said. "When your sister comes back, things will calm down."
He always did this — talked about how my sister would come home and everything would be the way it was. For a while I'd wondered if he might be right. It had all happened so fast. Nona met Jerry on a Sunday, and on Thursday she packed four boxes and a backpack and went off in his pickup truck. Jerry rode broncs on the rodeo circuit and married my sister at a courthouse in Kansas. My father said that Jerry would break his spine riding broncs, and Nona would spend the rest of her life pushing him around in a wheelchair and holding a cup for him to drool into. She wasn't the marrying kind, my father said. She wouldn't be satisfied to spend her life on the outside of an arena, cheering for someone else.
But the months had passed, and Nona's letters were still filled with smiley faces and exclamation points. Compared with the horse-show circuit, she wrote, rodeos were a dream. She and Jerry ate steak for dinner and slept in motels, which was a big step up from horse shows, where we ate granola bars and drank soda pop and slept in the stalls with the horses so that no one could steal them during the night.
Her letters were always addressed to me. They opened with "Baby Alice," and closed with "Give my love to Mom and Dad." I would leave the letters on the counter for my father to read, which he hardly ever did, and after a few days I would go up to my mother's room and read the letters aloud to her.
My mother had spent nearly my whole life in her bedroom. Nona said that before we came along, our mother had been a star in horse shows, had won left and right, and even had her picture in the paper. She said that one day, when I was still a baby, our mother had handed me to her, said she was tired, and gone upstairs to rest. She never came back down. My father moved into the guest bedroom so as not to disrupt her, and we were careful to take our shoes off when we walked past her room. She didn't make much of a fuss. She didn't call for extra blankets or crushed ice or quiet. She just stayed in bed with the curtains drawn and watched television without the sound. It was easy to forget she was there.
I would sit on her bed and read Nona's letters to her by the blue light of the TV screen, and she would pat my leg and say, "Real nice. It sounds real nice, doesn't it, Alice?"
I would breathe through my mouth to filter the sour, damp scent of her yellow skin and oily hair. My mother made me say the name of the town each letter had come from, and what I thought it looked like. I pictured the rodeo towns as dry, dusty places with dirty motels and lines of fast food restaurants, but I tried to be inventive: McCook, Nebraska, had chestnut trees lining every street; Marion, Illinois, had purple sunsets; and Sikeston, Missouri, had a park with a pond in the middle where people could feed ducks. When I couldn't think anymore, I would say that I had to go to the bathroom or that I had to help my father in the barn, and I would creep out of her bedroom and shut the door behind me.
After Nona left, my father said, we were lucky to get Sheila Altman. She lived on the other side of Desert Valley and went to a new school with computers and air-conditioning. Sheila Altman had blue eyes and a soft voice. She said "If I might" and "Would you mind," and never forgot to say "please" and "thank you." I wanted to rip her baby-fine hair out in tufts. When her mother drove her to our house, Sheila would rush into the stable to kiss the horses and feed them carrots she had brought from home. Mrs. Altman would get out of the car with her camera and checkbook and watch her daughter scramble into the barn. "Well, Mr. Winston," she would say, "you've got your work cut out for you today."
Mrs. Altman had told my father that for the past few years she had spent thousands of dollars to send Sheila to equestrian camp, where for one week she got to care for a horse as if it were her own, feeding it, grooming it, and cleaning its stall. My father had jokingly said that he would let Sheila clean his stalls for half that, but when Mrs. Altman gasped and said, "Really?" he didn't falter.
"For this girl?" he said. "Absolutely." After that Mrs. Altman drove Sheila across the valley every day after school and paid my father to let her groom our horses and muck out our stalls. While Sheila was there, my father was chipper and lighthearted. He told her what a hard worker she was and said he didn't know how we had managed without her. After she was gone, he would rub my back and say, "You give that girl anything she wants, Alice. Talk nice to her. Sheila Altman is our meal ticket. And she doesn't have attitude like your sister."
My father had always said that Nona had a wicked tongue and an ungrateful heart, but he usually smiled when he said it. She threw fits like nobody's business. When she was thirsty, she shrieked. When she was hot, she cried. And when she was mad at my father, her face would get so tight and rigid that it looked like it might split apart right between her eyes.
My father was being kind when he said I didn't have the temperament for showing, because what he meant was that I didn't have the talent. I couldn't remember to smile and keep my heels down and my toes in and my elbows tight and my back straight all at the same time. When I focused on smiling, I dropped my reins, and when I thought about sitting up straight, my feet slipped out of the stirrups. My father said that he needed me more outside the ring anyway, but I saw how it was. We had a reputation to maintain and a livelihood to earn. In the end, I wasn't good for business.
But Nona was good enough for both of us. She smiled and laughed and winked at the judges. Outside the ring she would let little girls from the stands sit on her horse. While she showed them how to hold the reins and where to put their feet, she would aim her voice at their parents and say, "You're a natural!" Then she would flash her smile at the mother and say, "My daddy gives lessons. You all should come out sometime."
Yellow Cap was the last horse my father bought for her. He was a palomino — the flashiest, biggest, most beautiful animal in the ring. The first time I saw him, I thought he would kill my sister for sure, but Nona mounted him easily. She jiggled the reins and said, "There's my boy." Yellow Cap's neck arched, and his body tucked, and they rode around the arena like they were under a spotlight. My father watched from the sidelines with prospective clients and said, "That horse would walk on water if she asked him to."
The day after Polly was pulled from the canal, we didn't have shop class. Instead, the whole sixth grade was taken into the gymnasium and invited to pray if we wanted to. Then we were told to go home and talk with our parents about what we were feeling.
When I got home, Mrs. Altman and my father were gathered around Sheila, who was wearing my sister's show clothes.
"I don't know," Mrs. Altman was saying. "I'm not sure about the color."
"I was just thinking that," my father told her. "I was just thinking the same thing about the color."
"She looks better in red." Mrs. Altman made a circular motion with her finger, and Sheila gave me a shy smile as she turned around to let her mother see the back.
"We have a red shirt," my father said. "Alice, go up to Nona's room and get the red shirt." Sheila stared down at the pavement, and I dropped my backpack and went into the house.
I had to pick my way between piles of ribbons and trophies to get to the closet, and when I opened it, Nona's smell was gone from the clothes. I pushed my face into the different fabrics, trying to find a trace of her, the sweet, powdery scent of her deodorant, the fruity smell of her lotion, but there was nothing.
My mother's door was open a crack when I passed it, with the red shirt still on its hanger.
"Alice, is that you?"
I creaked the door open and braced myself against the wave of stale air. My mother was propped up on three pillows, and the TV light flickered across her face. I arranged my feet in the doorway, careful not to let them cross the line where the hallway carpet changed into the bedroom carpet.
"Be my good girl and close the window." She tossed her pale hand limply at the wrist and sighed. "Those little white bugs are coming in. I'm afraid they'll bite me in my sleep."
"Mayflies don't bite, Mom," I said, but I crossed the room to close the window.
"I hate them," she said. "Filthy things. Off that horrible water."
In the glow of the TV the mayflies looked gray and sickly, and I tried to fan them out the window. I could feel my mother's stare on the back of my neck. "Would you like to stay and tell me what you learned in school today?" She patted the bed beside her.
I held up the red shirt. "I have to take this to Dad."
She blinked at me for a second and then looked back at the television. "Better hurry, then."
Sheila really did look much better in red, and my father sold Nona's shirt to Mrs. Altman for twice what he had paid for it.
In shop class I didn't know what to do with the half-finished lantern. I was afraid to weld, and I didn't think I could tape the pieces together. But the boys couldn't get enough of welding, and several of them bid for the chance to finish the lantern for me. In the end I accepted an offer of three dollars and a Pepsi, and then watched while they pieced my lantern together.
Mr. McClusky told me that it would be a nice gesture to give the lantern to Polly's mother, and after school I practiced what I might say when I rang Polly's doorbell. I had barely known Polly and had never met her mother, but such a heartfelt gesture would probably make her cry. Maybe she would ask me to stay and visit. She would make me tea and feed me gingersnaps while she ran her fingers through my hair. "Come back anytime," she would say. "Stay the night if you want."
But while I was practicing the right way to make my gesture, I noticed the places on the lantern where I had smudged the paint by touching it to see if it was dry. Polly's mother probably had rooms full of perfect things Polly had made over the years: neatly sewn beanbags from home ec, symmetrical clay pencil holders from art, the kinds of things that when I made them always came out crooked or lumpy. Giving her a crummy lantern would only confuse her. Instead of taking it to Polly's house, I wrapped the lantern in notebook paper and put it in my backpack. I walked home along the canal, sipping my Pepsi and wishing I had let the boys paint my lantern too.
My father was sitting in front of the barn, polishing Nona's show saddle, when I got home. His face was red, and the skin around his lips looked tight and drawn. "Your mother's been crying all day," he said when he saw me. "Where have you been?"
"At school, like I always am."
"Don't use a tone with me."
I stared at me feet.
"Now you go upstairs and be sweet to your mother. Tell her how much you love her. Make her feel special. Then come back and help me. There's a million things to do. I'm sick of doing all the work around here."
I looked at him. Nona wasn't coming back. Not ever. "Maybe Sheila Altman can do it when she gets here."
My father stood up then, and he seemed bigger than any human being had ever been. For a second I thought he might hit me, and I tried to gauge the distance to the house. I might be able to outrun him. But then he put his hands up to his face, and his shoulders sagged. "Please, Alice," he said through his fingers. "Please."
Upstairs, my mother's face was streaked and strands of her hair clung to the damp patches on her cheeks.
"Why are you crying, Mom?" I asked from the doorway. I meant for it to sound sweet, but it came out tired. "Are you sick?"
She let out a cry when she saw me. "Come here to me." Every part of my body went stiff, but I thought of my father with his face in his hands, and I held my breath as I crossed the room to her. She pulled me into the bed with her and pressed my head against her shoulder.
"He sent you up here, didn't he? I've been a nuisance today."
"Dad's worried about you," I told her.
Her hair fell across my face and I tried to lift my head to breathe. "I used to be able to make him smile," she whispered. "He used to look at me like I was a movie star. Do you believe that?" She sighed and straightened herself. Then she bit her lip and looked down at her hands. "She was smart," she said quietly. "Smart to leave when she did."
I didn't know what to say.
"She would have been used up here. She would be old fast, and used up. And now she gets to travel to new places and meet new people." She turned her head away from me.
Her nightgown was wrinkled, and in the light of the television her skin looked dull and heavy. "I made you something," I told her. "In school."
"You did?" Her mouth opened and she touched her hand to her chest. "Really truly?"
I rummaged in my backpack. "It's a lantern," I said. "See? You put a candle here and then you can hang it and it will light your room."
My mother gasped as I handed it to her. She touched her fingers along the welded edges and paint-smeared center. "You made this? For me?"
"Oh, baby," she said, and hugged me. "You and I will take care of each other, won't we?"
I stood up and backed to the door. "I have to go help in the barn now. Dad said."
Outside, Mrs. Altman was writing a check to my father. When I came up beside him, he raised his eyebrows at me, and I nodded. "She's fine," I said, and he sighed.
"Who?" Mrs. Altman asked with a bright smile. "Mrs. Winston?" My father and I glanced at each other. "I'd love to meet her."
"My wife keeps to herself," my father said awkwardly, his eyes on the check.
"She's sick," I added and they both looked at me.
"With what?" Mrs. Altman glanced at my father.
"She has an allergy to the sun," I said. "And to fresh air." My father opened his mouth slightly.
"How awful!" Mrs. Altman said. "What happens to her?"
"Her head gets big," I said. They both stared. "And she get hives. And fevers. And sometimes she faints." My father nudged me.
Mrs. Altman clasped her hands. "That's dreadful," she said. "The poor thing!"
After she handed over the check and followed her daughter into the barn, my father gave me a searching look. "You're a wicked lying fiend, Alice Winston," he said. But he smiled when he said it.
Sheila Altman helped us clear the show horses out of the barn to make room for the broodmares, who got to live indoors when they birthed. While we brought the pregnant mares in from the pasture, Sheila squealed and clapped her hands.
"I can't wait for the babies!" she said to me.
Our broodmares had simple names like Misty, Lucy, Ginger, and Sally. They were slow and quiet, with long heads, matted manes, and misshapen stomachs. Sheila put her hands on the mares' barrel stomachs and said she could feel the foals moving inside.
"It kicked!" she told me. "I swear I felt it kick."
After she left, I took Cap from his pen and tried to brush the snarls from his mane and tail. My father watched. As I pulled the loose hair from the brush and let it fall on the ground, he cleared his throat.
"Mrs. Altman wants to buy Cap for Sheila," he said.
My fingertips went cold, and I pretended to clean more hair from the brush. "He's too much horse for her."
My father picked an invisible piece of lint off his shirt. "You want to show this year?"
I stared at him.
"Then keep your opinions to yourself."
Polly Cain's funeral was to begin at five o'clock on a Thursday afternoon, at the cemetery across from the waterslide. When I got home from school, I practiced looking sad and remorseful in the mirror. Maybe my father would change his mind and take me, and then Polly's mother would pick me out of the crowd as someone who had been close to Polly. I would walk slowly up to her and let her pull me against her body. As I stared at myself in the mirror, I imagined the afternoons I would spend sitting with Polly's mother at her kitchen table, with photo albums spread before us. She would point out pictures of Polly in Halloween costumes and at piano recitals. "See?" she would say. "See how much you look like her?" I would lean my head against her shoulder, and her hair would smell like strawberries and lemons. I would tell her how much I missed Polly, how nothing would ever be the same now that she was gone, and she would kiss my eyelids and fingers and cry into the palms of my hands. "She was my best friend in the world," I would say. And maybe it wouldn't be a real lie. No one could prove she wasn't my best friend. She was dead, after all.
But before I could persuade my father to take me, our mare Lucy gave birth to the first new foal of the year, and I knew that I would not be at the cemetery to pay my last respects. I helped my father wrap Lucy's tail with an Ace bandage so that the foal wouldn't get tangled in it. We moved around the mare on our knees, clearing the sawdust away from her legs to keep it from clogging the foal's nostrils. The foal came out, thin and wet, breaking the fetal sac open with its weak white hooves.
"It's a colt," my father said, grinning. "Look at him." I pressed myself across the colt's body to keep him still while my father cut the umbilical cord, and then we watched him try to stand on his tiny, pointed feet.
My father cupped the back of my head in his hand. "You did good, Alice," he said. "You're a pro." We waited in the stall doorway until the colt was balanced on his trembling legs. For a second it felt as if we had made something happen.
When we heard the Altmans' minivan pull up in the driveway, my father closed his eyes and said, "Christ, I don't have the energy for this today."
Mrs. Altman got out of the car and began examining the grille. "There are tiny white insects all over the place," she told us. "Their little corpses are stuck all over my car."
My father shook his head at me and then walked over to look. "Mayflies," he announced. "They hatch off the canals. We found about a hundred of them stuck in that girl's hair when we pulled her out of the water."
Mrs. Altman had taken a towel from the backseat and was trying to wipe the front of her car. "Down the road it almost looks like it's snowing there are so many of them." She looked at me and stopped. "My God, Alice. What's happened?"
I glanced down and saw that my T-shirt was stained with blood where I had leaned across the colt.
"We got our first foal this afternoon," my father said, gesturing at the barn.
"I can't believe we missed it," Sheila wailed. "You should have called us!"
My father turned to me and rolled his eyes. "We'll have plenty more," he said.
Sheila and her mother crowded around Lucy's stall and began clicking and cooing at the foal. Lucy bared her teeth and flattened her ears. My father nudged Sheila away. "Let's give them a while to adjust," he said. "The mothers are a little protective at first."
"I can't believe I forgot my camera today," Mrs. Altman said. "What a day to forget."
"We might get another tonight," I said. "They sometimes come right on top of each other."
"Mom, can I stay — please?" Sheila clasped her hands against her chest and rose up on her toes. "If you wouldn't mind, that is," she added, glancing at my father.
In my head I tried to will my father to say no, but he didn't look at me. "She can stay the night," he told Mrs. Altman. "Alice and I will be up all night checking on the mares anyway."
"Oh, please, Mom?" Sheila begged. "It will be like a slumber party."
Mrs. Altman adjusted the fold of her collar. "Tomorrow is a school day, but for something like this — this is a life lesson, and I think that's more important. You'll get to see the miracle of birth. It's the most beautiful thing in the world, isn't it, Alice?"
I wanted to tell her about the blood and the smell and the sound a mare made when her flesh began to rip around the opening for the foal. I wanted to tell her about our bay mare a few years back, whose uterus had come out when she birthed and hung behind her like a sack of jelly. I wanted to tell her that the bay had screamed a human scream but stood, trembling, to let the foal nurse. I wanted her to know that when the vet had come to put the mare down, Nona covered my eyes, but I could hear the bones crack when she hit the ground. The foal had cried out in its watery whinny for three whole days afterward. But I smiled and said, "Yes. Beautiful."
Mrs. Altman left us money to order pizza and said that she would pick Sheila up in the morning. As she got into her minivan, she asked me if Sheila could borrow clothes so that she wouldn't bloody up her nice ones. I thought about Polly's funeral, just starting across town. Her mother would have taken a seat already. People would be parking their cars and nodding to one another solemnly as they walked across the grass. I had never been to a funeral, but I imagined that everyone would come quietly, dignified and respectful in smart black dresses and stiff suits. They would sit rigid against the pain, but they would yield to it as the funeral progressed. Their bodies would soften and then lean into one another, arms circling waists and shoulders, fingers interlacing, as she was lowered into the ground.
We ate our pizza on paper napkins and played gin rummy in the tack room. We took turns walking through the barn to check on the mares, and at two in the morning Sheila came back at a run. "Ginger's lying down!" she shrieked. "She's sweating really bad."
"Here we go," my father said, and we trooped behind him through the barn. My father tossed me an Ace bandage and pointed to Ginger's tail. I knelt behind her and saw that her tail was already wet with clots of blood and mucus. Her muscles rippled across her body, and her back legs pushed into the sawdust.
"You're gonna get kicked," Sheila whispered into her fingers.
"She can't kick if she's lying down, dummy," I told her. My father pinched the back of my arm. "I mean, it's okay." I pulled the wet strands of Ginger's tail into the bandage and closed it with a safety pin.
Sheila took a step back and whispered, "Hurry, Alice."
My father knelt beside Ginger's head with his hands on her neck. He stroked her mane and talked in a low voice. "That's my girl," he said. "Come on, sweetheart." Most of the time my father referred to the broodmares as bitches or nags, but while they were birthing he would click his tongue and whisper to them as if they were children. "That's it, love," he purred. "You're okay."
Sheila crept beside my father and began breathing loudly in short breaths, like women on television did when they were in labor.
"You talk to her," he told Sheila, and she leaned down to touch Ginger's muzzle. My father patted her shoulder and added, "Just be careful she doesn't throw her head and knock your teeth out."
I could hear the other horses pacing and pawing at the ground outside. The pens were rattling, and my father told me to go check them. Ginger began to moan, and Sheila backed out of the stall with her hands over her mouth. "I'll come with you," she whispered.
The show mares had gathered around the pasture fence and a cloud of mayflies swarmed around them. The mares were lying on the ground, their eyes rolled back and their bodies foamed with sweat. They lifted their heads and brought them down hard on the grass while they groaned and snorted, their muscles twitching, their tails whipping at the ever-gathering insects.
"What's wrong with them?" Sheila said.
"They're trying to birth," I told her, and for a second I thought it could be true.
Her mouth trembled. "But they aren't pregnant."
"They get the smell," I said. "They get the smell of the new foals, and they try to birth." I glanced to see if she believed me. In less than a month the show mares would be back in the barn, clean and clipped and ready for the show season. By then Sheila could be bored with horses, could switch to piano or gymnastics or ice-skating. We could dress Sheila Altman in my sister's clothes and sell her my sister's horse, but what could she understand about the way things worked? Sheila Altman — what could she understand about wanting?
Sheila's face froze, and she covered her ears with her hands. I felt a wonderful nastiness rise inside myself. "Isn't it beautiful?"
Sheila shuddered and turned away. "I can't look at them," she said.
Along the driveway the geldings were stomping at the ground and ramming the gates of their pens with their chests. Their heads were wildly high, and the whites of their eyes caught the moonlight as the mayflies floated around them. Yellow Cap whinnied, and I ran to his pen while Sheila watched. "It's okay, Cap," I told him.
"He's freaking out," Sheila said nervously. "They're all freaking out."
"He's fine," I told her, and reached out to pet him, but he jumped and pulled away. "Come on, boy," I called, and unlatched the gate to go in with him.
As I slid the gate open, Cap reared up, and his shoulder hit me in the face, knocking me to the ground. I heard the metal gate clang against the pen, and the sound of Cap's hooves on the gravel as he ran toward the road.
"Stop him!" I called to Sheila, but she stared after him without moving. My hip and leg felt rubbery and weak when I stood up, and my hands were shaking as I steadied myself on the fence. "I have to go get him," I told her.
"Alice, your face is bleeding," she said. I could taste blood and dirt between my teeth, and I touched my hand to my mouth. I couldn't tell what was bleeding. My whole face felt numb.
"He could get hit by a car," I said.
"He went toward the canal. We should get your dad."
I pushed past her, and she grabbed my hand. "We could tell him that I let Cap out. He won't get mad at me, I don't think. Or we could get your mom." I looked at her. "It's night, so maybe she could come outside. Come on, Alice, you're bleeding bad. Let me come with you."
The only thing that could get me in more trouble than losing Cap was losing Sheila Altman. Her mouth puckered as if she was about to cry, and I shook my hand away from her. "I'll be right back, Sheila. Don't be a baby."
I ran until I thought my lungs were going to rise up into my mouth. I tripped twice along the side of the road. When I had to slow down, I called for Cap and clicked my tongue. My nose was running, and I walked to the sound of my breath heaving. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and rubbed the raw sting in my elbow where I had scraped it when I tripped. The mayflies were floating in front of me and I waved my arms to push them away. Up ahead I could just make out where the canal water should have been, but there was a glimmering fog over it: the bugs were rising off the canal by the millions, their snowflake bodies and paper wings a blizzard over the water. I started along the dirt road but had gone only several feet when I had to stop and shield my eyes from the storm of insects.
I could feel my heart beating in my throat and ears. I couldn't make out the water, but I could feel its coolness all around, and I pulled myself as far to the side of the road as I could. I waved my hand, but the bugs swelled like a vapor. I pressed my lips together to keep them out of my mouth and shook my head as hard as I could. I felt my way along the side of the road, bending at the waist to grasp the weeds there with the tips of my fingers.
"Here, Cap! Here, boy!" My voice was high and raspy, and lost itself in the thick swarm of insects. I spun my arms in front of me, but the mayflies were catching in my nostrils and ears, and I had to stop to paw at my face. When I saw the outline of Cap's body through the frost of wings, I thought it might be a mirage, but I stumbled toward him with my arms stretched out.
I put my hands on his side, running them along his body until I came to his head. Yellow Cap was standing stock-still, his knees locked and his muscles twitching. His eyes were wide and his nostrils flared, snorting at the cloud of bugs. "There's my boy," I said, and he tossed his head, knocking me backward. I hadn't thought to bring a halter or a rope, so I tugged at his mane and ears to get him to follow me. But Cap's eyes were frozen with fear, and his legs were rigid on the ground. I couldn't see where we were on the road, and all around us I sensed the water that had killed Polly Cain. Maybe she had just tripped and fallen in. Maybe she had dropped something. I thought of the time I had accidentally inhaled in a swimming pool — the way the water stabbed pain into the backs of my eyes, made my body retch and heave. No houses were close by. No one would have heard her scream.
I kicked at Cap's leg, and he bristled. "Come on!" I shouted. "Come on, you stupid horse. Move!" I pulled as hard as I could. I twisted his ear between my fingers and wrapped my arms around his neck to pull, but my body hung useless from his in the swarm of white. I would never get him back. He would bolt into the water. His hooves would catch in the grates. His legs would snap. His lungs would fill. And I wouldn't be able to stop it. I wouldn't even be able to see it happen — only to hear it. "Please!" I screamed. "You stupid, stupid horse. Please!" I tried to pick up his front foot and move it a step forward, but I couldn't tell which way was safe.
When I heard my father's voice through the hum of insect wings, I thought I was imagining it. But then I heard it again. "Alice!"
"Dad, I'm here! I have him. We're here!"
"I can't see a goddamned thing!"
"Here!" I called again, choking back a wave of sobs.
His hand touched my shoulder. "Jesus Christ! What the hell are you doing?"
"Cap got out. I was afraid he'd get hit or lost or fall in the water." My fingers were wound through his mane, and I twisted to get them free.
My father pushed me hard and then caught me by the arm before I fell. "I could kill you," he said. "I could kill you for being so stupid." I tried to pull away, but I stumbled in the white haze and grasped the pocket of my father's pants to steady myself.
He took off his shirt and wrapped it around Cap's neck. He had to pull hard, but Cap followed, and we tried to brush the insects away from his eyes as we led him back to the road. My father went ahead, holding my arm to guide me while I clicked my tongue to keep Cap moving. The mayflies swirled around us like a warm, dry snowstorm, and when I looked up, I could see them rising into the black sky.
When the insects thinned, and we found ourselves on pavement, we stopped, breathless. My arm ached where my father was holding me and when he saw me wince, he let go. I rubbed at my arm. "Sheila shouldn't have told you," I said. "I was fine."
"Like hell," my father said, but his voice was quiet, and he loosened his grip to let Cap nibble at the weeds. He looked back over the clouded water and shook his head.
I held up the palms of my hands and touched at the insects' delicate bodies, at their sheet white wings, as they billowed up from the canal. The petals of their wings brushed against my palms and evaporated into the darkness. In the moonlight my father's bare chest was pale and smooth against the rough tan of his arms.
"What about the mares?" I asked. "Should you have left them?"
"Alice, horses birth all the time. If a person had to be there to help them, they would have died out centuries ago."
We walked back along the road with Yellow Cap between us, his head low like a dog's.
"Well, Sheila Altman got her money's worth tonight," my father said finally.
"I hate her," I said. I didn't care anymore.
"I know you do." He smiled and pulled at Cap.
"I hate you giving her Nona's horse."
My father was quiet for a second. "This horse is worth a hell of a lot of money, Alice. More than you could even understand." He sighed. "If I sell him, I can afford to hire someone to help me out here."
I stopped. "You have Sheila," I told him, and he laughed. I touched Cap's neck. "You have me."
My father started walking again, faster, and I had to run to keep up. A car passed us on the road, and once it was in front of us, I saw the trail of mayflies behind it, their bodies sprinkling dead onto the pavement.
When we reached the driveway, my father stared up at the house. "There's a light on in your mother's room." He pointed and I looked. It was small, yellow. A candle. A cloud of mayflies hovered at the light, touching the glass of the window.
"It's the lantern I made her."
"You made her a lantern?"
"Sort of." Polly Cain's nimble fingers lay still beneath feet of dry, dusty earth. I only painted the lantern.
"Why did you do that?"
I looked up at the window. "She wanted something. That was all I had."
He ran his thumb along my lip and then wiped the blood from my face with the heel of his hand. "Why don't you go in to bed now?" I turned my face into his touch and let my chin rest in the cup of his palm. He smelled like sweat and hay and leather. "You're no good to me if you're all worn out. Get some sleep." He started toward the pens, tugging at the shirt around Cap's neck.
"I'm not tired," I told him. "Really. Not at all. I'll stay up."
Before he came out of the pen, he rubbed the spot between Cap's ears and patted his neck. The gate clanged shut, and as my father passed me, he shook his head. "Any other girl would go up to bed." He put his hand around my upper arm and squeezed. "You must be tougher than the rest of them."
My arm was still tender from where he had seized me at the canal, but I flexed my muscle to make it hard. I waited for him to say something, but Sheila Altman came thumping out of the barn waving her arms above her head. "She did it," she cried, jumping up and down. "Oh, my God. It's perfect. Come see, come see!"
The foal was small and wet like all the others, and we huddled together to see over the stall door. Under the weak, yellow barn light it lay with its spindly legs curled. The mare stood above it, eyes half closed as she lowered her head to take in her foal's scent. Outside, the sky was turning tinsel gray, and the air had a deeper chill. Pieces of hay and dust hazed the air around us, and we stood silent in the barn, smelling of blood and earth and night, and watched their heads draw together to touch for the first time.
Copyright © 2007 by Aryn Kyle