It was too late for the healing. But Mary saddled up the Arabian mare anyway and pulled the mounting block to the center of the ring, climbing the two steps, settling herself on the bare back of the horse, letting her short legs dangle.
The mare began to move. “Woah, there, Lapis.” She pulled back gently on the reins. “Let me get settled, girl.” The horse tossed her head and stamped her feet. Mary patted the sleek neck. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
Lapis Lazuli was the mare’s full name printed on the registration papers, but Liza, Mary’s sister, had always called her Lapis when in a good temper and Lazy when not. Mary knew it was one of Liza’s bad days when she said, “Could you saddle up Lazy for me? I just don’t feel up to it.”
“Sure,” Mary would say. At first, anyway.
Mary released Lapis, who headed for the gate at the end of the arena that opened into the pasture. Four other horses grazed there, picking up their heads only a moment to stare at their unlucky companion before dropping them to pull at the lush grass, shaking their long manes and switching their tails to rid themselves of the deer flies and gnats that plagued them more than the summer heat. They were descended from desert animals—Alabama’s sun meant nothing to them.
As Mary and Lapis left the shade of the trees surrounding the riding ring and into the sun, the deer flies immediately descended, and Lapis’ ears twitched. Mary reached out her whip and flicked the flies off before they could sting. She wasn’t always successful and winced when she saw the big drops of blood well up and drip down the delicate gray ears.
“Sorry, girl. They’re bad today.”
Relief came as they entered the dense wooded area near the rocky creek that flowed through the backside of the hundred-acre farm. The flies disappeared. Moments later, Lapis sighed and shook her head. Mary smiled and patted the horse’s neck. “These woods. They’re like magic with those nasty flies, aren’t they? Every time.”
“Could you saddle up Lazy for me?”
“I don’t think you should be riding down there today.”
“I have to. I have to. I need to ride Lazy to the creek. She’s…She’s thirsty. ”
“No, you need to rest for a few days after. That’s what the doctors say.”
“But I got to go.”
Mary took her sister’s hand, a crone’s hand now, and patted it. “It’s okay. I’ll ride Lapis for you. Down to the creek.”
“It won’t work that way, not for me.” Liza pulled her hand away and climbed back into bed, covering herself with the white sheet. “Not for me.”
When they made it to the creek, Lapis drank the clear water in deep, rhythmic gulps. Mary brought her leg over and let herself slide down the horse’s body, feeling the sleek coat, now damp with sweat.
Lapis drank and Mary stood beside the horse, watching the neck muscles contract and hearing the squelching sound of the big gulps. Lapis, finally finished, began sniffing the water’s surface, then snorted, pawing at the creek. Mary laughed as the horse sent sprays of water flying into the air; she felt it splash cool against her sweaty skin.
Then, Lapis stopped and lifted her head.
“What is it, girl?”
The mare turned to Mary, then turned back to the pasture, her ears forward, trembling. Mary heard them. The other horses. They were calling. Mary jumped with the sound of Lapis’ replying squeal, as it echoed through the woods. The horse shifted nervously in the leaves and pawed the ground. She turned to look at Mary, nodding her head, the bit jangling in her mouth.
“Okay, okay, I can take a hint.” Mary began to unlatch the cheek strap and lift the bridle over the horse’s ears. “Good thing I didn’t put a saddle on you.”
Once the bridle was off, the horse turned and headed out of the woods, answering her companions’ calls. Then, she was gone, and the woods were quiet again, except for the birds fliting through the trees and the gurgling of the stream.
Mary wrapped the reins around the crown of the bridle, felt the leather in her hand. She set it on the big boulder near the creek—the boulder big enough for two sisters to sit and talk—about the future, about the past. She washed her hands in the creek, brought its coolness to her face, and breathed deeply, as the water joined with her tears.
(c) Katie Winkler