Jeanette Bertles

The children were away at camp, and her husband came up from the city only in occasional, manic bursts; so Katherine Willow drove across the line to French’s Stable, bought a large black horse, and had it placed upon the meadow that sloped southward from her house. She did not go into the meadow, and the black horse, undisturbed, began to switch its tail and finally lowered its head to graze. Mrs. Willow watched it from her bedroom, and from the kitchen, and from the terrace. She realized, of course, that once again she’d done an odd—if not eccentric—thing, and she hoped it wouldn’t rattle her too much. Mrs. Willow tried but didn’t always manage to float serenely up above her life, noting—as if she were a person peering downward from the basket of a great striped gas balloon—what other people thought of her, observing their reactions (and her own), and then quite calmly floating away. Oh well, thought Mrs. Willow as she watched the big horse take a few precise, unhurried steps. Oh well; she watched it shake its mane and once more start to graze—coal black against bright green.

The radio had said to look for heavy rain. French got the stock in early and was leaning back against the pasture railing when a little red convertible swung in off the road and parked beside his barn. The driver, a skinny woman in tight jeans, slithered out and walked straight toward him.
    “Mr. French? How do you do, I’m Katherine Willow and I’ve come to buy a horse,” the woman said, sticking out her hand in such a way that French couldn’t think of anything to do but take it—although not before he’d wiped his own hand down the side seam of his pants.
    “You should’ve called, you know,” French said politely, glancing at the license plate on the convertible. “You might have drove down here for nothing. So happens I just this minute got ’em in—you see them trees?” He gestured over his shoulder toward a distant stand of birch and poplar on the hillside behind the barn. “Not fifteen minutes ago they was away up in that pasture, way up back of them trees.”
    “Isn’t it wonderful when que será será kicks in?” the woman said. She gave a funny, shaky laugh and turned toward French’s barn. “Are they in here?”
    French frowned and began, “Just what you got in mind—” but she was already into the humid shadows of his barn, zigzagging back and forth across the hard dirt floor, and by the time he straightened his arthritic knee and limped inside, there she was pointing to the hind quarters of his best black gelding and saying, “Terrific—that’s the one I want. Just wrap it up and send it!”
    French couldn’t believe his ears. He scratched at the rough place on his neck, then stared up into the rafters.
    “You know,” he said after a minute, “that ain’t much of a way to buy a horse. And ain’t like I don’t got the time—why, good Lord, I got lots of time. Why, usual when a party buys a horse we’re up and down this barn a dozen times over—I mean if that’s the way you’re used to, but to me it don’t seem right.”
    “Oh, God, I’m terribly sorry if I’ve started this wrong,” the woman said. “It’s just that—actually—I don’t plan to ride the horse at all, you see,” and she tried a little pleading smile that wouldn’t have moved a saint. French squinted at her from under his old red plaid hunting hat and decided something was definitely off. Her car, her looks, they added up. But the way she talked—things wouldn’t go predictable with a woman of that kind.
    “Well, I guess I didn’t catch it that you wasn’t a rider, but I think I’m with you now,” he said. “So happens this here’s from Dakota and he ain’t for driving, but I got me one down to the end there drives real nice.” He turned and pointed across the duskiness of the stable to a small bay mare.
    “Mr. French, I am really, truly sorry,” the woman said, and she ducked her head and spread her hands. “But the truth is, I don’t want a horse to ride or drive or anything like that. I want it—just to look at.” And she gave another funny laugh that didn’t come off any better than the first.
    “You want my Blackie, you want him—just to look at?” French was insulted and forgot to hold his tongue. “Anybody goes to buy a horse and gives that kind of reason’s got to be too rich or crazy to be trusted,” he said frowning angrily and wondering if she was trying to play some sort of joke on him.
    But she only said, “I guess that’s it, too rich and crazy to be trusted,” and with a quick shrug of her shoulders, she turned away—although not before French saw a crumpling in her face that made him a little sorry how he’d jumped at her. They stood enveloped in the dark smell of manure and meditated on the line of rumps at either side of them.
    “But when you think about it—is it really any crazier buying a horse to look at than it would be buying one to ride?”she asked him presently. “I mean, I’m not sure, is it?”
    French felt himself weakening, although he wasn’t quite yet ready to cooperate. “It costs a heap to keep a horse these days,” he said, shaking his head stubbornly. “And if a person don’t get his money’s worth—well, what’s the point?”
    “But suppose I get my money’s worth just looking?” She seemed so serious, so anxious, and French finally saw that she was asking him to make some sign—some sort of blessing—like she was asking him to help her in some way. That pleased French, and he tried to think of what he ought to say.
    “Well, a horse is sure a purty thing,” he offered hopefully. And by the way she brightened, he guessed he must have hit on the right idea, so he let himself expand on it a bit. “You know,” he said, pulling his hunting hat down low so he could watch her eyes but she couldn’t see his, “I been a turkey farmer most all my life. But then the kids growed up and the wife passed on, and right away I got rid of every last one of them turkeys—couldn’t stand ’em no more. But then, seemed like I had nothing to do. Nothing at all.” He kicked thoughtfully at loose bits of manure on the barn floor. “But I always had an eye for horses, and by God it wasn’t so long before I found out I could buy ’em cheap, and spruce ’em up, and sell ’em to my neighbors—and them summer types like you.” French gave her a quick sideways check to see if she’d taken that right. “Course I don’t make no profit to speak of, but I got me a solid reputation—and it sure beats sitting in my daughter’s house all day and rocking myself to death like I seen some fellows do.” French modestly waved his hand toward the spruced-up inhabitants of his barn. “Besides, it ain’t just looks or speed,” he said, trying to put his feelings in a way that she might like. “I guess it’s kind of like a poem or a song or something—know what I mean?” He leaned forward, peered into her face, and just barely touched her arm with his crooked index finger.
    “Oh, Mr. French,” she said. “Thanks very much. I’m sure—at least I think—that’s part of it.”
    She seemed so grateful, and French, deciding the day might come out right side up after all, said, “How about you take a saddle and bridle for not much more’n I bought ’em? You’re not doing Blackie no favors if you don’t get some kid to exercise him and he goes to fat.”
    “Do you know,” the woman said, “just standing here and listening to them rustle and chomp—it’s so unvarnished. There’s no duplicity.”
    “Well,” French said. “Well—you got yourself a good horse there.” He gave the gelding an affectionate smack on its rump and thought—just for a second—of his dead wife. “And I’ll tell you something,” he said, finally giving her a smile, “they is purtier than turkeys.”
     The woman smiled too. “One ought never to predict the plot ahead of time, ought one?” she asked brightly. “For instance, today. Who would have foreseen a rich, crazy woman buying a black horse from a reputable, retired turkey farmer?” She held out her hand. “Thank you, Mr. French, thank you for everything.”
    “Glad you’re pleased,” he said. But after she had sailed out of the yard in her little red convertible, he asked himself, How did that last part go—that part about a plot? It bothered him for a while: there was something sort of funny there. Now that they’d had a chance to chat, he thought he’d almost liked her. But that last part—then he thought back over the afternoon and decided it was okay to like her just as long as he kept in mind about her being a woman who wasn’t predictable. And he congratulated himself on having a real good nose for first impressions in people, just like in horses.

The black horse grazed—coal black against bright green—down on the meadow below the house. Katherine Willow watched it from her bedroom window, or from the kitchen, or from the terrace. Finally, one afternoon, she wandered down the slope and watched the gelding from a large flat rock outside the meadow gate. Mrs. Willow had long ago discovered that the safest way to see how life unrolled was from a distance, from a series of carefully selected, variously angled vantage points. Occasionally, however—impelled by either necessity or the fear of missing out on something vital—she would force herself to dash into the fray, arrange herself in what she hoped would be the proper realistic attitudes, then dash back out again to see how she might look, what life might mean, arranged that way. What was the meaning of two children off at camp, or of a husband occasionally barreling up from the city, or of a black horse bought by a rich, eccentric woman and placed upon a meadow just to look at? Mrs. Willow perched cross-legged on the rock and cast about for clues. A crow flew overhead; her left foot itched; the black horse switched its tail and went on grazing. Nothing fell into place, but Mrs. Willow was not surprised—it seldom did. Besides, she thought, if I found out, if meanings actually came to light—what would that mean?

After a week or so, Katherine Willow remembered that the black horse should be exercised. She walked far down the road and procured a neighbor’s lumpy, teenaged daughter for the job.
    “Hello! I asked your mother—you’re Sara?” Mrs. Willow began. “I have a horse—”
    “I seen him,” the girl said.
    “He needs some exercise. I’d love to have you—I would pay, of course.”
    “What’s the matter—you afraid of him?” the girl asked suspiciously. “He throw you or something?”
    “Good Lord, it isn’t that,” Mrs. Willow said. “You see, I’m not a rider.”
    There was a tiny sheen of interest in the girl’s flat eyes. “So what you got him for, then?” she asked.
    “Oh, you know, some people—just sheer whim,” and Mrs. Willow laughed and hunched her shoulders.
    “Well, I guess I might’s well do it. I guess I wouldn’t mind,” the girl said, gazing stolidly at Mrs. Willow. She hunched her shoulders also, and Mrs. Willow wished she knew just what that duplication—that imitation—implied.
    “Great—wonderful!” she said. “I’ll see you at the meadow gate tomorrow—and thanks a million, that’s terrific!”
    “Okay, sure,” the girl said.
    Katherine Willow walked back up the road, stiff with annoyance. Her pose was wrong, her gestures were surreal, her words came out dripping with a dreadful falseness. What was the trick of venturing into life? She could not get it right; she came away from even the most prosaic encounters feeling like a fool.
    Mrs. Willow turned off the road just where it met the meadow, and as she walked along the fence, she saw the black horse standing in the shaded mud down near the stream. Spontaneity, she thought. I need to work on that. And then serenity. But here she stopped and frowned. Why bother—I will never get the hang of being a part of things, she told herself. I am better off watching from a distance and then just quietly floating away.
    In the morning Katherine Willow carried the heavy saddle and bridle down the hill and turned them over to the girl. Then she perched herself on the rock above the gate and watched the girl dump saddle and bridle on the ground, lower the two bottom bars of the gate, and enter the field.
    “Your horse got a name?” she called over her shoulder to Mrs. Willow.
    “Well—Blackie—although actually, how does one know? I mean he’s from Dakota, so one can’t . . .” Mrs. Willow’s voice trailed away.
    The girl started walking slowly across the meadow toward the horse, chanting, “Come on, Blackie, come on, ol’ boy!” in a sweetish, seductive voice. The horse lifted its head and looked at her. It moved a few feet further off and resumed its browsing. The girl kept walking slowly, clucking, repeating, “Come on, Blackie, come on, ol’ boy,” until the horse stopped eating and began to watch her steadily. Just as the girl got close enough to reach out for its halter, the horse spun around and galloped away to the far edge of the field. There it came to a stop, turned to face the girl, and flicked its ears. Mrs. Willow put her hands to suddenly flaming cheeks and sat up very straight, while the girl kept trudging after the horse and calling out, “Hey, you ol’ Blackie, come on now, boy!” The two of them repeated their performance, the horse flashing across the field, the girl steadily pursuing it, until finally the horse turned, gave a heaving, snuffling sigh, and let itself be captured and led out to the gate.
    The girl tied the horse, picked up the heavy Western saddle, and threw it with a thump onto the horse’s back. “He don’t like being caught,” she announced to Mrs. Willow. “Next time I’ll bring some grain so you don’t waste your money on me and him playing games.”
   “My God, no grain!” Mrs. Willow cried, as she jumped up from her rock. “That was the best part, seeing him run like that—listen, you mustn’t bring the grain, I’ll pay you by the hour—but no grain!” And she turned and started walking very fast up toward the house, certain the girl was watching, open mouthed, as she retreated, certain she could not bear—at least today—to see the girl get on that horse. Rich and crazy, he had it right, she said to herself, as she went into the house and made a cup of tea, threw in three lumps of sugar, and stirred them round. She stirred and stirred, trying to understand the song—the poem—of the plodding, persistent girl, and of the black horse running free then suddenly capitulating, and of the audience (herself) seated on that rock on the periphery, shocked and breathless and overcome with joy.

“Admit it, guys, it’s a terrific backdrop for a party—almost worth the drive.” Tommy Willow had turned up on a Friday evening with his friends and lots of vodka and some pot. “Well, how’s the country mouse?” he said, gathering his wife into his arms. Katherine Willow smiled and felt rewarded. She loved her husband. He had an easy, open quality that anchored her and made her feel alive. They never really talked except when other people were around, but they leaned against each other and were oddly comforted. And so it didn’t matter—in fact she saw it as a fair exchange—that he counted on her so-called charming peculiarities, and upon her money, to distinguish him from the thousands like him in the city. “You won’t believe this,” he would laughingly tell both friends and chance acquaintances, whom he gathered like a magnet, “but all that money and she doesn’t give a damn. We could be summering right this minute in a beach house in Southampton—or in a castle in Spain—but what does she do? She walks into this real-estate guy’s decrepit office up here in the middle of nowhere with her money spewing from her purse like corn flakes and she says, “I’d like to buy that darling little farmhouse up the road, oh please don’t bother, I’m sure it’s perfect. Done!” No beach, no tennis, no one—not a God-damned soul—for miles around.”
    Tommy Willow didn’t speak about his wife behind her back. He didn’t need to. Katherine Willow liked to hear about herself; she liked to see herself be formed, to hear the message passed, the portrait sketched. Mr. Willow and his friends would tease, and she would laugh and play along. “Oh, you’re just too awful,” she would say, overjoyed to be the brunt of all their jokes, thrilled to be included in their lives as if she really did belong, which of course she knew she didn’t. The temporary illusion of belonging gave her a kind of double vision—in but out—that both pleased her and at the same time made her feel she was a liar and a cheat. Let them make fun of me, she thought. It’s worth it, and anyway, it isn’t true that I don’t give a damn about the money. Mrs. Willow was totally devoted to her money; she would have been quite lost without it. The money was the other anchor in her life. She didn’t care about the things it bought, but she cared intensely that because of it she was free to plunge in and then slip back out. Without the money she was certain she would have to step inside and stay inside and wallow and sink and drown.
    Tommy Willow was out on the terrace happily rattling ice and pouring beer for his friends. “So what’s gone on up here?” he asked in his hearty, public voice. “What’s the latest big excitement in this godforsaken place?”
    “Well—look down there,” his wife said, and she pointed toward the bottom of the meadow.
    Mr. Willow looked. “My God,” he laughed, “you bought a dinosaur—she’s bought a dinosaur!”
    And Mrs. Willow cried, “I did, that’s it exactly!” She was terribly pleased, for she saw at once her purchase had been validated. So, the charming, oddball wife has bought a dinosaur; how laughable, how chic. She turned to fix more cheese and crackers, thinking, Now I am free to feel about the black horse exactly as I please.
    “Well, well, a visitor—hey, Kit-Kat, we have a visitor,” Mr. Willow called out. “Tell us, who’s this attractive little maiden?”
    Mrs. Willow turned about, and there was Sara, the neighbor’s lumpy girl, standing just below the edge of the terrace. “Blackie’s got bots,” the girl said, her eyes fixed doggedly on Mrs. Willow, shutting out Mr. Willow and his friends. “If I was you I’d call the vet.”
    “Oh, dear. Is this an emergency? Whom do I call? Won’t you have a Coke?” And Mrs. Willow waved, in vague but careful circles, the hand that held a cracker and a cube of cheese.
    “You could call Dr. Jenner,” the girl said. “You got to watch him, though—see ya.” And she took off down the field.
    “Your new best friend, I gather,” Mr. Willow said, lifting his glass in the direction of the disappearing girl.
    “Oh, I couldn’t live without her,” Katherine Willow exclaimed. Unlike her husband, she didn’t care a bit for friends. Mrs. Willow had a few acquaintances, and she had her children, with whom she formed a quiet, self-sufficient circle while Mr. Willow crashed about on the perimeter, protective, proud, and noisy. “Dr. Jenner . . . I wonder why I’ve got to watch him,” she said, frowning.
    “I know why,” her husband said, and he put his arm around his wife’s waist. “Drink up, everybody. The evening’s young and we are growing older by the minute!” he proclaimed.

“It’s bots all right, come take a look.” Dr. Jenner was so huge and muscular and hairy that a poem Katherine Willow had struggled to memorize in eighth grade popped into her mind: “Under a spreading chestnut-tree / The village smithy stands. / The smith, a mighty man is he . . .
    She hesitated but finally got up off her rock and ventured into the meadow. “Sara, the girl down the road, she’s the one who rides him and cares for him. I don’t actually—”she began.
    “Come here, I haven’t got all day,” the veterinarian said. “Look right down there, on his front legs. No, there, below his knees. You see those things like tiny yellow eggs, like grains of rice? Those are bots eggs.”
    “The thing is—”she said, taking a few steps back.
    “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Did you get kicked or bit?”
    “You need to understand,” Mrs. Willow said, “the horse is here, he’s in this meadow because I realized, somewhat as one might realize—in the process, for example, of making a painting—one might realize that to reach perfection, that this landscape wanted—not that I paint,” she laughed.
    “I tell you what, you hold his halter while I take his temperature,” Dr. Jenner said, “and I’ll check for pin worms long as I’m at it. By any chance you seen him rubbing his tail against the gate, against that tree?”
    Mrs. Willow reluctantly reached out and took hold of the halter but tried not to look into the horse’s suddenly, horribly magnified face. “From the terrace it is truly marvelous—coal black against bright green,” she said.
    “See, how it works with bots,” Dr. Jenner said, “the horse licks them and in the heat and wetness of his mouth those little eggs you got down there, they turn to worms and burrow through his tongue and down into—” he peered at her. “Look, I’ll give you a prescription for some medicine, and you get your girl to give it to him—and don’t worry, horses and worms just go together, keep on top of them is all, okay?”
    He came around and stood behind her. “Stroke his nose, go ahead, stroke it,” he ordered. “See how soft that feels?”
    Mrs. Willow placed her hand upon the horse’s nose. It was as soft as velvet, and sweetly warm. “The thing is that I don’t,” she began and suddenly realized that the veterinarian’s hairy hand, as it reached out for the horse’s halter, was brushing—was rubbing—against her breast. “I love my husband!” she shrieked.
    “Jesus, sure you do,” Dr. Jenner said. “You want to pay me cash?”

Katherine Willow sat on the terrace and watched the black horse stretch his neck across the fence toward an old apple tree. The sharpness of the air, the buzzing of the cicadas told her that the end of summer had come. She pulled her jacket close around her ribs. Next week she must get the children from camp. They would have grown; they would need new clothes; and this time around she would really have to fire her mother-in-law’s weekend nurse. The other two would do, but the weekend one—if only Tommy—but she knew it wasn’t his style. I’m not up to this, but oh, well, she thought, oh, well, and began repeating half out loud, “Under a spreading chestnut tree, / The village smithy stands, / The smith, a mighty man . . .” I do love my husband, thought Katherine Willow. I do, so why on earth did I shriek like that? And how does one explain—she watched the black horse turn his head as Sara opened the gate and started walking in a slow, deliberate manner across the meadow. Mrs. Willow could hear the girl’s flat voice calling thinly, “Come on, Blackie, come on, ol’ boy.” She watched the black horse take a step, and then another step; she watched him flick his ears and gather himself to run.

French didn’t recognize the woman until she was well out of the car and starting toward him. “Hello-hello, remember me? I’m Katherine Willow,” she called, sticking out her hand just the way she had before.
    French dropped his cigar in the dirt, ground it very carefully with his heel, and looked with regret at the gray station wagon the size of a hearse she’d driven into his yard. “Your little red convertible up and left you, did it?” he asked, shaking his head.
    “Oh,” the woman exclaimed with a laugh, “that car was never really me. My husband thought it would be cute or something.”
    “Well, it was cute. You practicing up for winter?” French pointed to the puffy ski jacket she had zipped right to her chin. “What with your big gray hearse and that sleeping bag you’re wearing, I didn’t hardly know you. My wife, she weren’t a whole bunch heavier’n you and she could face a blizzard in her shirt sleeves.”
    “Good genes, bad genes—Mr. French,” the woman said, “The thing is, now that summer’s over and I have to get the children from camp and my mother-in-law’s not—could you, would you take the horse back?”
    “You done enough just lookin’ at Blackie to get you through the winter?” asked French, giving her a sly glance and pleased to see her cheeks turn pink. “You know,” he said, “ain’t nobody going to buy that gelding off of me this time of year, and on top of that I winter ’em on this hay comes down from Canada and it ain’t exactly cheap.” He paused to let that sink in, and then added, “Well, I guess I might just take him—so long’s you know you’re going to be the loser on this deal.”
    “My husband says I bought a dinosaur,” the woman said, and smiled.
    “Well, that ain’t far off, by God,” French replied. “This fellow I once knew, he was a logger—and come late winter he’d hitch his team and disappear all by himself up to them woods, and sure enough one day he gets the traces crossed and down he goes and not a soul to help, and he ain’t been right since. Course you can’t exactly blame that on the team, and they was real nice Belgians too.”
    “I had to call in Dr. Jenner—do you know him? Blackie had bots,” she said.
    “Horses is the most delicate critters on earth, no question,” French said. “I hear tell Dr. Jenner ain’t a bad vet. Course I also hear he can’t keep his hands to—he give you any trouble?”
    “You know the saying: everything’s relative. I am learning to float,” the woman said.
    “That so?” French pulled his red plaid hunting hat down low over his eyes and began to watch her carefully.
    “The way you do it,” she said, as she turned away from him and placed her hands on the top rail of the fence and stared into his pasture, “the way you do it is you just imagine that you’re floating up above your troubles in the basket of a great striped gas balloon, and then you peer down over the side and think, ‘Oh, well,’ and then you calmly float away.”
    “Say, you remember last time you was here, and how I said you should’ve called before you come?” asked French. “Well, same thing for today, you should’ve called. I mean, for all you knew, I could as easy been away off floating in some big ol’ giant gas balloon!” And he leaned forward, gave a long, choking laugh, then straightened up, pushed his red hunting hat to the back of his head, and wiped his eyes.
    “People always tease me,” the woman said, and French was surprised to see how pleased she seemed. “And you know, Mr. French, I did get my fill of looking. I mean, isn’t life too shocking and too wonderful? Don’t you just hate death?”
    French pulled his hat back down over his eyes and cleared his throat. “You ever go to the races?” he inquired.
    “I prefer horses au naturel—you know, the way God made them,” she said.
    “I thought you was like that. You want to see something special?” French limped to a spot next to the barn and picked up an old metal feed bucket and a good-sized stick. “Remember how I said they likes to get way up back of them trees?” He pointed with his stick. “Well, they’s up there now, so you just watch.” All at once he shouted, “Dinner!” and began banging the stick against the feed bucket with harsh metallic whaps that bounced against the empty barn, ricocheted along the hill, and ruptured the stillness of late summer. “Keep your eye to the left of them trees,” French ordered, and banged the stick against the bucket one last time.
    For a minute nothing happened: then, from around the grove of trees, the horses appeared. They were running; they were bolting down the hill. Their manes and tails streamed out; their hooves beat a deep and urgent throbbing. They headed in a line straight down the hill, straight toward the fence, and the woman jumped back in alarm. As they plunged from the steep greenness of the pasture into the scruffy flat, dust billowed out and away from their hooves. Just at the fence they pulled up short, their sides heaving, and began to snuffle and snort. A bay and the old pinto, eyes bulging and ears pricked, stuck their heads over the fence, their attention on Mr. French as he put down the bucket and reached out to scratch their foreheads.
    “Well, how about that?” he said, giving a sidelong glance at the woman, who stood, face flushed, with both hands tightened on the rail, and so still she almost seemed to be in shock.
    “Oh, Mr. French, thank you a million times over!” she breathed. “Oh, God, what joy! What utter, total, blissful, absolute joy!”
    “Glad you’re pleased,” French said. “Fact is, I wasn’t sure . . . but I all along kind of hoped you would be.” He nodded his head, and reaching out he delicately touched the back of her pale hand with his crusted, crooked index finger.

Jeanette Bertles lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Her short stories have been published in The Gettysburg Review, Artful Dodge, Epoch, Flipside, Gargoyle, the new renaissance, North American Review, Phoebe, and the Transatlantic Review. “Whileaway,” the story from the spring 1999 issue of The Gettysburg Review was an O. Henry Award winner in 2000. In a year when a story of hers gets published, she tells people that she is a writer. In other years she tells them that she is a housewife. So this year . . .

“Blackie” appears in our Winter 2007 issue.