Feed on
Posts
Comments

“Saved”

As the vet leaves, I stumble up to the small two-story house, slipping up the steep hill still covered in last week’s snow. Grey’s Anatomy comes on in twenty minutes, and there is nothing that could possibly keep me from finding out if Derek and Meredith end up keeping their adopted African baby, Zola.  It’s not like I am proud of the fact I am addicted to a cheesy hospital show, but we all have our faults.  When it began airing several years ago, I swore I would never watch something so dramatic and corny– we both swore.  “That’s the stupidest shit of a commercial I’ve ever seen. Who in their right mind would watch something like that?” is what my sister, Adriane, had said.

Even after two years with her gone, I still tune in every Thursday night.

Tonight wasn’t ordinary, though.  After being in the barn for six hours holding a tube down Puff’s small throat, I couldn’t lift my elbows above ninety degrees without my shoulders screaming.  Puff was an 11-hand white pony. If you don’t know anything about horses, 11 hands is like a yorkie compared to a great dane– it’s small.  He was a shetland, and had a pocket the size of Santa’s present sack full of evil tricks.  One second he’d be walking with a six year old on his back like he was falling asleep, and the next he’d be bolting down and out the ring like he was on the front lines, leaving the kid by the gate with a buck.  Even at 35, ancient for a horse, you could see him thundering down the pasture fence, racing with a filly born the year before, his legs as fresh as hers. Petting his thick white coat around his soft brown eyes tonight, I pretended I could keep him alive with a prayer.  With his head in my lap, I looked up at the vet who was staring at me with a look that said okay…I have other clients to get to. Other horses to put down.

“I’ve known this fella since he was born 35 years ago,” she said, slowly moving closer to me, “and I couldn’t be more sorry that I am the one passing him into another world, Nohl.”

“I know,” I answered, wiping a tear away from my cold cheek, “I wasn’t even alive and I feel like I’ve known him all his life.”

I wonder what Adriane would think if she knew I killed our pony. When I grabbed the tart green apple off the old tree by Farmer Will’s property on my walk home from the side pasture, I never expected it would be like the one that killed Snow White.  He took too big of a bite, and choked.  Horses can’t throw up, so when something gets stuck in there, you better have the vet on speed dial.  What a damn pig he was.

My sister and I don’t share a last name, by the way. I met her when I was eight.

***

I can’t remember what it was like to not know how to ride a horse. Every morning I woke up and begged my mom to take me to a barn, any barn.  All I wanted was to sit on a horse, kick its fat sides, and get it to walk.  While other kids counted sheep to fall asleep, I counted horses jumping over stone walls.  Finally, behind my father’s back, mom took me to Clover Hill Farm in Waterford, Virginia. On the morning of my first lesson, a redhead with a sunburned face and light freckles skipped out of the barn.  Her hair was a wild mess of curls, and the strands close to her face stuck there with sweat.

“Hi!” she said, skipping toward our car, “My name’s Adriane and this is my barn. Are you Mary?” she asked, looking at my mother. “My mom said that Mary was coming with a new kid so you must be Mary.” She extended her small hand, and my mother took it like a business shake.  She then turned to me, and gave the same gesture.  Her hands were tiny and frail but were covered with blisters and rough calluses, and I could see the black under her fingernails from the daily work of the barn.

“Yes, I’m Mary,” my mom answered, smiling, “And this is Nohl; she’s is in the fourth grade at Waterford Elementary.”

A fat lab trotted up next to Adriane, its tongue flapping next to its jaw, dripping drool onto the dry gravel. “Yeah, my mom told me,” she said, petting the dog’s chocolate coat. “I’m in third. Anyway, Nohl is riding Puff now, because I’m too advanced for such a small pony.”

Adriane’s mother, Annie,  put me on Puff’s back forty minutes later, and in an instant I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing.  Fear couldn’t be the right word, because there was nothing telling me to get off; but satisfaction wasn’t it either, because I instantly craved more.  My mother understood, and signed me up for weekly riding lessons with Mrs. Bunden– who I was forced to call by her first name, Annie.

Within six months I had caught up to Adriane’s riding level.  Annie began teaching me twice a week, but it just wasn’t enough. Finally my dad found out, and I could hear my parents arguing from the upstairs bannister; my fingers wrapped around the cold wood, begging for him to give in.

“Why the hell can’t she play basketball? Soccer?” I heard him plead, lowering his voice, hoping I wouldn’t hear. “I won’t spend thousands of dollars a year to have her risk her life for fun!”

Silence. Please don’t agree, please don’t agree.

“Brian, the only thing that gets her to sit still in church and eat all her food at night is that pony.” She answered, softening each syllable. “Shit, I’m not taking it away. You haven’t even seen her ride Puff.  Take her to the Bunden’s tomorrow morning, and watch her lesson.

The next morning, when I came out of the ring at the end of the lesson and hopped off, I stole a glance in his direction, expecting him to reach for his phone and call my mom, putting an end to it. Walking over to me, he spread a smile. “Well, I’ll be, my little lady.” He picked me up off the ground and held me in front of him, “That was the coolest darn thing I ever saw.  How did you tell it to jump? Did you teach it that or does it just know?” Score.

I began to ride everyday, leasing Puff from the Bunden family and rode in group lessons with Adriane.  She called all adults by their first names because in riding almost all of your instructors insist you do, and therefore all adults were on the same playing field in her mind.  My mom found it hilarious and instantly loved her.  As if it wasn’t enough to have one daughter, she accepted two.

In a matter of months, we were inseparable. We got into trouble, but I was never the mastermind behind the operation.  The first couple of times I stayed at her house, she’d keep me up past two in the morning with stories she’d made up.  Sometimes they were about a girl lost in the woods or a boy who couldn’t see but could feel, but they always involved horses.  Princes and princesses never came up, because Adriane knew fairy tales didn’t exist, and happy endings were a stupid ploy to make kids believe there was something better out there when everything seemed to suck.  She was seven and acted like a neurotic teenager. I thought it was just what made her: her.

***

That was nearly nine years ago, and today I put our pony down.

“Nohl I’m sorry I couldn’t be there,” my mother said as soon as I’d kicked the snow off my boots and walked into the side-door, like a speech she had prepared. “I just couldn’t do it…God I’m sorry,” she sniffled into a Kleenex. “I never thought I’d love that rotten pony as much as I do. I couldn’t watch him die.”

I had nothing to say.  Instead, I put a pot of tea on the stove and stared at the photos of Adriane lining the small kitchen walls. This was her house, the one she’d grown up in, but we live here now.  Before we moved in, the walls were blank. We put the photos of her there.  Isn’t is weird that even when you spend 7 days in another person’s house, without any of them around, it isn’t really home?  I bet she felt like that, too.  This place was her secret dungeon, a hell-hole I could never begin to understand: because I was blind to it.

***

Once, when Adriane got on the bus in elementary school, I noticed she was wearing her favorite long sleeve “Life is Good” tee with a horse on the front, hay sticking out of its mouth.  She sat down next to me like she always did, but didn’t pull out her pink iPod and hum the Dixie Chicks, or start talking about what the horses did this morning that was funny or weird.

I motioned to her shirt; “Why are you wearing that? It’s May.”

She didn’t look at me, but reached for her headphones. “I just wanted to. I haven’t worn it since, like, January.”

When she reached down, her sleeve slipped up her arm enough for me to see the blue crowding the bones on her wrist. It looked like a hand.

I’d known Ian, her brother, fought with her daily, with no clear reason– Adriane was always at fault for something in his mind.  Once, I questioned if he hit too hard, but he just snuffed me off.  As for her parents, it was like each fight was a mere gust of wind throughout the house, but had no significant importance.  I found their relationship strange, but never strange enough to ask deeper questions.

Sometimes usually in middle school, we would ride to the creek and gallop through the murky water, the horses’ hair sticking to our bare legs.  Other times we would wait until her mom went up to the house after our lesson, and saddle the horses back up.  When she wasn’t around, we’d hike up the jumps a couple more holes, daring each other to go first.  I have no clue how we didn’t die right then and there.

***

When I kneel by my bed at night, I always pray the same thing.  She believed in God once, and told me the only way we could be best friends in heaven is if “I prayed to be saved every night.”  She’d close her aqua eyes and part her lips, saying it for me.  “Just like that, don’t say it any differently. I want you to get it right.”

***

As we grew older, we rarely fell off; I don’t know if our horses were too noble, or if we were that good, but we rarely did.  One morning before school when I was in 7th grade and she in 6th, her mare Cherry spooked at a bird flying from the spruces that lined the ring.  Cherry went one way and Adriane went the other, right into the fence.  I’d never run that fast, leaving my horse by the gate, reins touching the ground.

Grabbing her head in my hands, I could feel the sand sticking to the velvet of her helmet. “Adriane! Are you okay?” She didn’t answer, and looked like she did when she was done telling her stories late at night, her eyes drooping shut with the weight of exhaustion. “What hurts? Oh God, oh God!” I started bawling and had no idea why. It wasn’t me who was lying in the sand, but I was crying harder than I ever had.

When we were in the hospital, the doctor asked me a million questions. How did it happen? Were you the only one there? Did her horse step on her? After a while, I got the idea that maybe something wasn’t adding up, even though I was telling the truth.  No, Cherry didn’t step on her. No, she didn’t land on her ribs, she landed on her head, I saw the whole thing. Yes, I know what I’m talking about I was there, remember?  Then, they took my mom into a room next to where Adriane was resting.  When she came back out, her eyes were swollen and she grabbed my hand.

“Nohl, I need to ask you something,” she muttered, her voice cracking. “Are you telling the doctor the truth about Adriane’s fall?”

I couldn’t believe it. “Are you kidding me?!” I searched her face for a hidden meaning, “Why would I lie about that? I know what I saw! It was a typical fall. What is going on?”

Then I remembered the long sleeves in May, and more. I remembered the scarf in August, the boots in June.  Each and every one was just as odd as the last, but her excuses always checked out with me; I never pushed her to tell me more.

Oh.

Her parents and Ian were gone by the time the police drove in for questioning.  All they left was a $20 bill on the counter, no note.

We were all she had left, and it seemed like that was a fantasy to her: she was ecstatic. We shared a room with a queen bed throughout high school.  She would flinch in the night and sometimes scream.  I would hold a hand over her mouth until she stopped, then would pet her hair until she fell asleep.  Sometimes while she slept I would look at her scars. They ran from her wrists to her bony shoulders, little lines where skin had split from the pressure of a hard blow.  She had to switch which hand she wrote with in school every couple of months, “Who wouldn’t want to be ambidextrous?” she’d say.  Only now do I remember that the other hand or wrist was always broken.  She’d walk onto the bus with a sharpie in her good hand, motioning toward her blue cast, “I fell off of Cherry. You weren’t there.” So I’d sign it, always in a different way; sometimes cursive, sometimes bubble letters.

We moved into the house to take care of the horses.  The land was owned by the state, and her parents only lived there to run the horse business.  When they left, we took over and made the farm- and everything on it- ours, including Adriane.

I didn’t go to graduation.  The tickets were on the counter and the gowns ironed, but I didn’t make it.  When I woke up at 6:30am to get ready and curl Adriane’s hair like we agreed on the night before, but she wasn’t lying next to me.  She wasn’t in the shower and she wasn’t downstairs.  The barn was empty and silent except for the crunching of horses chewing on hay and the barn cat Willow meowing at my feet. If I were Adriane, where would I be? Graduation came and went, and though there were a million explanations for where she could have gone, I had none.  She hadn’t acted strange the night before, she hadn’t seemed off when I asked her about her shoes for the graduate ceremony; and she seemed happy when I told her Grandma Lynn would be there.  Nearly five years spent in the same house, the same room– and she never told me where she went.  I’d blamed myself for years, questioning how it was that I did not wake, but in reality– you stop stirring over shifts in movement beside you after awhile, they just become natural.  After two months and an active search investigation gone cold, I found a sticky note on Cherry’s door.  It read: “‘Of two sisters one is always the watcher, one the dancer.’ –Louise Glück.” I knew the handwriting like it was my own.  I’d seen it on birthday cards, notes on the bus, scribbles in ink on my forearm, carvings in trees– it was hers, she was alive.

***

It was the first and last note I ever received from her; the last form of contact to tell me she was out there, somewhere. It’s in a small frame, nailed above my headboard. Tomorrow is her birthday.  Every year, even with her gone, I go to Cold Stone and buy her favorite ice cream cake flavor: birthday cake remix.  She’d always get the biggest cup of it, never leaving a single drop of the cake batter cream covered in sprinkles and hot fudge.  On the top in pink icing I would write, “Best friends by chance, sisters by choice.”  It was what our tattoos said, half on my ribs and half on hers.  When I was walking back to the car, where my mother was waiting to take me to school, I saw a little red-headed girl playing tag with her brother, waiting for the bus. She yelped and screamed, dodging his hand like he had the plague. I slipped the covered cake into the back seat and climbed into the passenger side, not letting my mother see the tears form.

When the tea pot finally screeches, I look from the pictures to the cake, now sitting by the fridge. Mom must have taken it out to let it thaw.  Grabbing it, I make my way back out to the barn, not bothering to put my boots back on.  Cherry snickers at me as I open the double doors, her brown coat covered in a thick blanket.  How does a horse know how to lick something? They sit there all day and chew hay or pluck grass with their front teeth. I think maybe they guess at what they’re supposed to do, and sometimes they get it right.

Comments are closed.