This story is about four years old. I recently edited it again only for the sake of better clarity and more articulate sentences. None of the content or images were changed in any way.
At night she laid awake and stared at the face of the Horse Thief Moon, its Piebald Overo coat stretched out across the sky with diamond dustings against black fur. Pulled like a wave toward him, she rose up answering his tidal call, cresting to a peak and then doubling to crash in on herself, until her individual cells fractured and seeped like saltwater through the over-bleached hotel sheets.
She spilled over the high window and out into the crisp night air. Magnetised by lunar attraction, she floated far above the dead-eyed ghost people below, spiralling up through the shrill assaulting operatic notes that came from a blaring speaker meant to spook the huddled and hungry from congregating near the lobby. But their spirits were long since carried away by the breeze— carried back to the place where the grasses were lush enough to feed their insatiable appetites. She followed that same two hundred year old trail of longing through the dark alleyways, the bright lit city streets, and up along the black serpentine string of highway that led through the mountain pass toward home.
On the east side of the Rockies a prairie ocean rippled with the invisible dance of passing herds. The beat of their wild hooves and the rhythm of the grass swaying against her legs drew movement out from in the marrow her bones. She wanted to dance also, to learn the canters and turns of the wild herds, but they did not stop for her. But she did not try to catch them, because there was only one she wanted to dance with. She looked to the Horse Thief Moon and begged him not to leave her there with music alone. But he gave her invitation no reply.
Rejection slapped her sharp like a green switch. She coiled her haunches in reflex to bound from the distant reaches of his light, but as she did, he drew an inhalation so deep it robbed the air from her inner core, suffocating her until her ribs began to implode on themselves. And still he extracted the breath from her lungs, pulling even the last wheezing gasp from her lips and turning her lungs to two dry leaves in a fist. But just as she was suffocating to dust, he released her, returning her spirit to her like a wish falling back to earth—a floating shawl woven of her own desires. The shawl of their shared breath wound itself around her body like a chrysalis, a merciless quicksand that tightened against her protesting limbs. A fading scream of will prepared to die in her heart in the silence of its stone shell. But with only a soft inaudible whisper from his still mouth the Horse Thief Moon shattered the casing that held her tight.
Stepping out of the rubble of afterbirth and into the light of his face, she was a woman reborn in the physical form of her spirit.
Soft soil pressed into the frogs of her hooves, and the grasses tickled her sorrel belly. She was awake from the dream of reality, alive and called to move in the galloping dance of wildfire.
In the morning she woke to the sound of her cell phone alarm and rolled out of bed, hung-over and despondent. The room was cold, without sentiment… desk against the wall, TV on the dresser, double bed, chair. The same room as every room. Only the street below ever changed…white walls, industrial carpet, miniature soap.
She stumbled to the shower lame with loneliness and turned on the tap.
The rituals of tweezing her eyebrows into arches of perpetual astonishment and shaving her body to a prepubescent nakedness were done without thought. She painted the face she could no longer look at in the mirror, tacked a sequined g-string to a body she no longer wanted, and pulled a black dress over her head and down past her withers. She hobbled her feet with stilettos and stepped out into the hall. The ghosts of tears she no longer cried pooled in the cigarette burns of the dirty carpet, as she made her way toward the bar on feet that mourned the memory of having once been hooves.
Men looked up from their lunches, noting her conformation as she entered the bar. Their eyes were predatory, screaming with appetites for the consumption of her, suddenly disinterested in the slabs of steak before them.
Flipping words off his tongue like an auctioneer, the DJ coaxed her into the light of the stage, prodding bids of loonies and five dollar bills from a crowd already frenzied for a glimpse of what was coveted most. Breedability. But what they saw under the harsh glare of lights was foreign to their methods of classification. It was not an A list thoroughbred, nor a B list quarter horse, not a cute pony with curves, or head tossing Arab. It was something feral with mysterious bloodlines. Not the prize brood mare who would throw a perfect foal, or a performance horse that would handle with precision. She was straight up raw rough stock—a flash of pure potential to tame freedom between their hands.
When the music ended, she gathered her tips, forced an obligatory smile, and retreated to the safety of the cold white walls of her overbleached stall in the run down stable.
She woke Sunday morning so early the sky was still dark, threw her costumes in a bag and headed for the Greyhound station. Sliding into a seat near the back of the bus, she willed herself invisible to all but the Horse Thief Moon who perched low outside her window. She leaned her head against the cool glass, and let his lunar vibrations rock her into an exhausted sleep.
As the bus pulled away it startled her awake, it’s bumping and swaying confining her again inside the prison of the rumbling belly of the Greyhound. Ripping herself from the concrete world, she pried open the window and leapt out through the crack, hitting full stride as her hooves touched down on the blacktop. Now there was only the ether that exists twixt the earth and the sky between the Sorrell and the Horse Thief Moon. But he turned his back and silently walked away.
Through the blaze of sunrise rode a handsome Line Back Buckskin. He reared like a bonfire, braying hot breath through his nostrils. If he could catch her, she thought, maybe she would dance.
The Sorrel closed her eyes against the harsh spotlights, dropped her g-string and wondered what the Horse Thief would think if he could see through the sagging roof of the old hotel and down into the barroom. When she opened her eyes again to look out through the smoke and stage lights, she saw the face of a dream. Appraising her with a swaggering pride from beneath a Stetson that no longer held its shape, was the Line Back.
He held his drink in the air, pointing at it in a gesture that asked her to join him. She could see the memory of bonfire in his eyes and feel the heat of it burn under her skin. She saw wild see wild.
After the show, she quickly unhobbled her feet, slipped into a pair of blue jeans and headed back to the bar to find out if dreams could come true.
She walked straight to the table where he sat with his friends and shyly stood behind him, waiting to be noticed. The crazy bunch of broken-toothed rez cowboys laughed and nudged him, and when he turned to speak his voice was so quiet she could scarcely hear it escape his mouth. “You remind me of a sorrel mare I wanted once,” he said, reaching up and fingering the tips of her long red hair. “She moved fast like a wildfire. But I couldn’t catch her. She got away.”
The Sorrel followed the Line Back’s bonfire eyes and gentle voice to a place far from town where every diamond flecked hair of the Piebald Horse Thief’s coat could be counted. But if he saw her there still counting, he gave no sign. So she turned from the sky and let the Line Back carry her into the world he held between his arms, until the sun chased the Horse Thief from the heavens.
Later, in the purple dawn they talked in hushed whispers, the Line Back asking of her first love. She could not tell him of her only love, of her adoration for the celestial horse who would not speak a word to her, so instead she told him not of her first love, but of her first lover.
“He took me on a horse blanket in the back of a pick-up truck on a rainy night.”
“And you loved him?”
She shook her head. “He owned a team of thoroughbreds, beautiful and fast…and treated them with so much pride care. I thought he could make me feel like something revered.”
The Line Back laughed. “Did he make you feel like a thoroughbred?”
“No,” she said. “He taught me to recognize what I was. In his arms I was a cayuse. A grade. A mongrel.”
The Line Back understood, because while he was of fine breeding himself, it was not of the kind that was celebrated in parades and magazines. Because he could understand this in her, and because she was tired of living in a world of pretty papered ponies, she stayed on to winter with him.
On the days when the sun shone they rode out across the fields letting the sound of hooves crunching on snow satisfy their wanderlust. And when it was too cold to ride, they huddled together, two fires under a threadbare quilt, passing whispers that smouldered between them.
On a night so cold every tree hung with glass, the Line Back pressed his lips to her ear and asked “Do you love me?”
The Sorrel stared through the frosted window at the Horse Thief she had not yet learned to forget. But his unmoving face told her that he had forgotten her. “Yes,” she answered the Line Back, the fog of her breath rising up toward the Moon, and betraying her heart before the bonfire eyes that watched it.
That night, the Bay’s fire slid out from beneath the threadbare quilt and moved in with a rancher’s daughter three miles down the road. The Sorrel shook and the Line Back’s teeth chattered as they lay with their backs to each other, all the warmth between them gone. In the morning, she packed her bag and hitched a ride to some place south. The winters were too long to bear in a place without fire.
When the pussy willows were thick and the rivers fervent and high, she made her way back through the circuit, back to where she had first tasted fire not her own. She shivered as she stepped onto the street and out into the pouring rain. The promise of spring could not erase the memory of cold. She dashed into a nearby coffee shop for shelter and took a seat by the door. A warm blood of a Palomino with golden hair laughed loudly, drawing her attention to a far table. And then she saw him slowly turn around…the Line Back with the rancher’s daughter who giggled as though the sound of her squeals were a generous gift, and who touched her face too much. Submissive, loyal, steady— all the things the Sorrel could never give him, because he had never wanted them from her.
Back outside in the rain she covered her face with her hands and remembered the smell of the wood smoke the night he braided a feather into her hair, and how later they made love like wildfire. Now she knew what it meant to wake even from dreams that came true.
By the time she reached the hotel she was soaked through. She checked in to a familiar room where she stripped off her drenched jeans and t-shirt, and laid her wet head on the crisp pillowcase.
She blamed the Horse Thief Moon for her broken heart, for stealing her heart with his breath and infusing it with a belief in the possibilities of love. She wanted to be free, to outpace the distance of his light, but her body was heavy with weariness, and locked inside it she had no strength to fight. The wind howled through a large crack in the window frame and reached out for her mane as she broke through the crevice and into a canter. The feather came loose from her mane and gently settled on the prairie floor
Her limbs were tired and her pillow wet when she awoke.
On the other side of the concave watermarked ceiling, she could not see the Horse Thief retreat to cherish that which she had lost, cradled in his heart.
The Corral was the type of rundown strip joint that attracted a regular crowd of cowboys, tractor jockeys, and rig hands— some mean-eyed and ornery, some kind, all lonely. One evening curiosity drew her to a blue-eyed regular who was like a puppy that’d strayed too far from home. “Is the food really that good?” she asked the cowboy, because he was the kind who sat in the dark of the back corner and did not raise his eyes to the stage.
The puppy stared into his mashed potatoes to hide the blush in his stubble-covered cheeks. “’Suppose it’s because I got no one to keep them home fires burning. And I can’t cook worth a darn.”
The fire inside her ignited a little, and seeing its heat spread out across the blue eyed cowboy’s cheeks made her want to share more. Carrying her need to be needed, she followed the puppy home to be his wife.
She fed him well, filling his soft puppy belly and his home. But she was still a horsewoman and not really a wife. Often her husband would wake to find his bed empty and cold. He would wander through his pastures and fields, until he found his strange somnambulist wife running wild and naked with his herds. He would rub his eyes, trying to wake from the dream, as he watched her move like a wildfire mare beneath a Piebald Overo sky. But she was no mare. She was his wife. So he would loosen his lariat, toss a hulahan over her sorrel mane, tighten the rope around her waist, and drag her home, fighting and snorting.
It was the fight, the tug-of-war that excited him. Winning ground over his feral wife awakened the primitive impulses of a predator. He would hold her in the grass near the garden and mount her, nipping her shoulders and sinking his fingers into her flesh, while she bucked defiantly against him.
The Horse Thief Moon would hide his face in shame, because he knew nothing that he could do. A horse could love a woman no better than a man could love a horse.
For their first anniversary the blue-eyed cowboy gave his wife a Blood Bay stud. It was the type of animal that impressed a man, but was nothing to its own herd. Or to the Sorrel. But she thanked her husband, set his coffee in front of him and headed out for a look to please him.
The stallion approached her brazenly, pinning back his ears and breathing heavily. He bared his teeth and reared to climb the rungs of the panel fence between them. In his eyes she saw a cannibalistic lust that scared her. She smacked his nose hard and ran for the house.
From the kitchen window, the cowboy had seen it all and it raised the hot acids of jealousy in his stomach. He lay awake that night and worried what would happen if his wife should rise in her sleep, though she was motionless beside him.
In the darkness he saw his lariat. He got out of bed and took it from a hook on the wall, telling himself it was really for her own good.
It had been a cloudless night, and as a neighbour from down the road would later claim, the bolt of lightning looked to come directly from the face of the moon. Everyone agreed that there had been no wind—that the air had been so still it was suffocating. The wildfire had shot from the tree and across the field so quickly it far outpaced the herd that had pushed through the barbed wire on a dead run across the prairies. But where the horses had just kept running, the lightning fire had struck out straight for its target.
The tinder farmhouse was engulfed in seconds.
The cowboy would later assert in a statement to the police, he had just enough time to jump from the window and not to free his wife who was tied to the bed only because she had taken to sleep walking. It had been for her own safety, understand.
The police felt sorry for the grieving husband and no charges were laid. The neighbours’ wives cooked him meals and said prayers for him on Sundays, mistaking the blue-eyed cowboy’s look of bereavement as one of grief for the death of his wife, and not simply the pain of a cuckolded man. And really, what was the means to set them straight? Who would believe that he saw her ascend from the flames— a wildfire of a Sorrel mare who streaked across the sky and disappeared behind the diamond dusted coat of the Horse Thief?
On clear nights, the cowboy took his TV dinners out onto the deck of his new modular home and sat, waiting under the Piebald Overo Paint sky for his wife to show. Most nights she danced so quickly she could not be seen, but others, he could trace her fiery arc across the heavens. On those nights he would look up and make a wish—a wish for a woman tame enough to keep his home fires burning.