The hooves cleave the dirt, creating clouds of dust and bursts of red-colored clay. The girl’s fingers wrap the fence. Her lips are drawn. Her knuckles white. The horse looks in her direction, tosses his head, then gallops across the corral. The four-foot-tall wall of wood isn’t tall enough. Uncurling her fingers, the girl steps back. The horse shakes his head, whinnies.
“You see, Annabelle,” says the trainer. “Jake mirrors your emotions. If you’re anxious, he’s anxious. If you’re calm, he’s calm.”
The littlest thing startles him. A burst of wind. A flying leaf. When a shadow shifts, a half ton of horse flesh quivers.
The girl feels a shiver run down her neck. Her hands twitch. Swallowing hard, her feet step forward once more into the sun.
“Do you think you’re ready?” asks the trainer.
Tampa seems a lifetime ago. The trailer with her mother. The boyfriend who drank too much and stayed too long.
“You mean to go in there?” asks Annabelle.
Her mother never paid much attention. To her schoolwork. To the clothes she wore. To the food she ate. Her mother’s boyfriend paid attention. A pat on the rump. A kiss that lingered on her cheek.
“It’s your choice, sweetie. Jake would like to meet you, but it’s your choice.”
When the boyfriend pushed her toward the couch, he didn’t ask. He just pushed. When she said it hurt, he didn’t stop.
“Will you stay with me?” asks Annabelle.
“Of course,” says the trainer. “Ten-year-old girls are not supposed to be alone. You weren’t supposed to be alone.”
She opens the gate while the girl follows. The horse circles them, his muzzle sniffing, his neck torquing.
“Jake’s checking you out. Your smells. Your body language. He’s watching your every move.”
When she told her mother–when she dropped her jeans and showed her the blood and the bruises–nothing happened. “That piece of shit,” was all she said. The next day her mother went back to work. When the girl came home from school, she found him standing near the fridge, cooling off, drinking milk straight from the carton. Waiting.
The horse walks up to the trainer, bows his head and snorts. “Do you want to pet him?” the trainer asks.
Her hand darts out. The nose is wet, dark, smooth. But then her hand retreats, her elbow locks, her stomach flips. The horse raises his head, whips his mane, and in seconds pounds the dirt thirty feet away.
Touching her cheek, she feels tears. Meanwhile the trainer approaches the horse. Her shoulders are straight, but her chin is tucked. The horse slows. When the trainer turns, he follows her. “Watch how we breathe,” says the trainer. “In out. In out.” He’s by her side now, his flank at her fingertips. The trainer refuses to use a whip or a rope, yet she centers him like a magnet. “He follows me because he wants to,” says the trainer. “If he wants to run, that’s okay. If he wants to stay, that’s okay, too.”
The second time it happened took ten minutes flat. As soon as the boyfriend left, the girl cleaned herself and put everything she owned into a pile. It wasn’t much–a few T-shirts, her school books. Then she stuffed it all into a brown paper bag. It looked like she was carrying groceries. When she walked down the dirt road into town, everything seemed rewound and reversed. Instead of lugging home a loaf of bread or a cartoon of eggs, she was heading in a new direction. She knew where the sheriff lived. It was the one block her mother never drove by. The one block her mother would always avoid.
“Did you know,” says the trainer, “that a horse’s heart can beat in time with your own?”
Somewhere the moment stays buried. The moment her finger pressed the door bell. The moment the sheriff’s wife opened the door. The moment she circled her arms around the woman’s apron. That moment is her North Star. Wherever home is, that moment will help her find it.
Her feet move slowly, her fingers lay limp at her side. She hears the horse before she feels him. His nostrils blow a rush of air. His feet clomp. She’s watching his hooves, watching the sand dunes each step creates. Then suddenly he’s on top of her. She feels the bit scratch her cheek. Horse drool wets the front of her blouse. His mouth is searching her shoulders, chest, chin.
“Do you want Jake to chew on your hair?” says the trainer. “Most folks don’t want a big pair of horse lips gnawing on their neck.”
She holds up her palm and whispers, no.
“I can’t hear you,” says the trainer. “He can’t hear you.”
“No!” shouts the girl. “No!”
Together they watch the horse run to the other side of the corral. He tosses his head to the left and to the right. The back legs kick.
“Is he mad at me?” asks the girl.
“If he wants to be mad, that’s okay,” says the trainer. “If you want to be mad, that’s okay, too.”
The sun is setting. There’s more shadow than light. The girl looks at the ground and sees an elongated version of herself, an imprint that’s ten feet tall.
“I want to try again.” She walks around the ring, humming to herself. She thinks about an A she got on a spelling test. She thinks about the sheriff’s wife. She thinks about eating snow cones in the middle of July. The horse follows in her wake, his tail flicking, his ears forward. Happy.
When it’s time to leave, the trainer’s quiet. Sometimes you have to let loose the reins.
“Tomorrow?” asks the girl. On her left the horizon is crayon-striped. On her right the moon hovers, plump. As if the hand of God tossed them in the air, a spray of fireflies illuminates the sky.
Photo: The Night of the Fireflies by Luis Argerich