Authors: Jane Smiley
OMETIMES WHEN YOU FALL OFF YOUR HORSE
YOU JUST DON’T
want to get right back on. Let’s say he started bucking and you did all the things you knew to do, like pull his head up from between his knees and make him go forward, then use a pulley rein on the left to stop him. Most horses would settle at that point and come down to a walk. Then you could turn him again and trot off—it’s always harder for the horse to buck at the trot than at the lope. But if, right when you let up on the reins, your horse put his head between his knees again and took off bucking, kicking higher and higher until he finally dropped you and went tearing off to the other end of the ring, well, you might lie there, as I did, with the wind knocked out of you and think about how nice it would be not to get back on, because that horse is just dedicated to bucking you off.
So I did lie there, looking up at the branches of the oak tree that grew beside the ring, and I did wait for Daddy to come trotting over with that horse by the bridle, and I did stare up at both their faces, the face of that horse flicking his ears back and forth and snorting a little bit, and the face of my father, red-cheeked and blue-eyed, and I did listen to him say, “Abby? You okay, honey? Sure you are. I saw you bounce! Get up, now.”
“How am I going to tell those folks who are looking to buy these horses that a little girl can ride them, if you don’t get up and ride them?”
I sat up. I said, “I don’t know, Daddy.” My elbow hurt, but not too badly. Otherwise I was okay.
I stood up, and he brushed off the back of my jeans. Then he tossed me on the horse again.
Some horses buck you off. Some horses spook you off—they see something scary and drop a shoulder and spin and run away. Some horses stop all of a sudden, and there you are, head over heels and sitting on the ground. I had a horse rear so high once that I just slid down over her tail and landed in the grass easy as you please, watching her run back to the barn. I started riding when I was three. I started training horses for my dad when I was eight. I wasn’t the only one—my brother, Danny, was thirteen at the time, and he did most of the riding (Kid’s Horse for Sale), but I’m the only one now.
Which is not to say that there aren’t good horses and fun horses. I ride plenty of those, too. But they don’t last, because Daddy turns those over fast. I had one a year ago, a sweet bay mare. We got her because her owner had died and Daddy
picked her up for a song from the bank. I rode her every day, and she never put a foot wrong. Her lope was as easy as flying. One of the days she was with us, I had a twenty-four-hour virus, so when I went out to ride, I tacked her up and took her down to the crick at the bottom of the pasture, out of sight of the house.
I knew Daddy had to go into town and would be gone for the afternoon, so when I got down there, I just took off the saddle and hung it over a tree limb, and the bridle, too, and I lay down in the grass and fell asleep. I knew she would graze, and she did for a while, I suppose. But when I woke up (and feeling much better, thank you), there she was, curled up next to me like a dog, kind of pressed against me but sweet and large and soft. I lay there feeling how warm she was and smelling her fragrance, and I thought, I never heard of this before. I don’t know why she did that, but now when Daddy tells me that horses only know two things, the carrot and the stick, and not to fill my head with silly ideas about them, I just remember that mare (she had a star shaped like a triangle and a little snip down by her left nostril). We sold her for a nice piece of change within a month, and I wish I knew where she was.
But Daddy names all the mares Jewel and all the geldings George, and I can hardly remember which was which after a while.
The particular George who bucked me off had a hard mouth. I did the best I could with him for another twenty minutes, but Daddy said that probably he was going to have to get on him himself, which meant that we weren’t going to turn this one over fast, because a little girl couldn’t ride him yet. Which meant that Daddy was in a bad mood for the rest of the day.
We took the George back up to the barn, and while Daddy threw out the hay, I brushed the George off. He didn’t mind, but he didn’t love it like some of them do. Then I picked out his feet and took him out and put him into one of the big corrals. We didn’t keep horses in stalls unless we had to, because Daddy said that they did better outside anyway, and if you kept them in stalls, well, then, you spent your life cleaning stalls rather than riding. Was that what I wanted?
I always said, “No, Daddy,” and he ruffled my hair.
In the winter, though, it bothered me to think of them huddled out in the rain, their tails into the wind and their heads down. Of course that was what horses were meant to do, and ours had heavy coats, but I would lie awake when it rained in the night, wishing for it to stop.
It was worse in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma was where we came from, where Daddy and Mom grew up and had Danny, then me. We moved to California in 1957, when I was four and a half. I could barely remember living there, though we went back once or twice a year to see my grandparents and buy some horses. In Oklahoma, there could be real rain, and real snow, and real ice. Daddy had seen a horse slide right down a hill once, just couldn’t stop himself, went down like he was on skis and right over the edge of a crick, fell on the ice, and had to be pulled out with a tractor. Couldn’t be saved. At least in California we didn’t have ice.
It was only five when we got into the house, not even suppertime, but it was January and the days were short. Christmas was over and school would start again on Monday, which meant I could ride two horses in the afternoon at most. Now that my shoulder and my arm were starting to hurt from my fall, I didn’t
mind a break from the riding. It was just that I was sorry to be going back to school. Seventh grade. I’ve never heard anyone who had a single nice thing to say about seventh grade.
The next day was church. We went to church twice on Sundays—from nine to twelve in the morning and from two to four in the afternoon—and also Wednesday evening. Daddy was an elder in the church, and the place we had found, that we called our chapel, was really just a big room in a strip mall, with a cleaners on one side and a Longs drugstore on the other. Daddy and Mr. Hazen were looking for another place, maybe a church that was for sale (you’d be surprised at how many churches get sold when the congregation decides it needs more room), but they hadn’t found one yet, so between noon and two, we kids wandered around that strip mall and went into Longs and looked at the comic books (until we got caught) or the toys or the makeup or the medical supplies, whatever there was that might be interesting. Sometimes Daddy drove me home to check on the horses, and sometimes he went by himself. Mom always offered, but Daddy said she had enough to do, setting up the lunch for the brothers and sisters.
The brothers and sisters were mostly fairly old—older than Daddy and Mom. Only three families had kids, us and the Hollingsworths and the Greeleys. We had me, the Hollingsworths had Carlie, Erica, and Bobby, who were all younger than Danny and older than I. The Greeley kids were four, two, and one. Sometimes, on a really unlucky day, Carlie Hollingsworth and I would be told to watch the Greeleys, and then our hands were full, because those Greeleys, even the baby, could run. What Mom said, if I made a face, was “Sally and Sam need a break, so you can do your share.”
The only thing I liked about church, though I didn’t say this to Daddy or Mom, was the singing. To tell the truth, I never knew what songs were really hymns, because Daddy, Mom, Mrs. Greeley, and Mr. Hazen were ready to sing anything, and some Sundays we would sing for an hour at a time, more like a songfest than a church service. On those days, Daddy always came home happy. We sang “Farther Along” and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, I’ll Be There,” “Abide with Me,” and “Amazing Grace.” We didn’t have hymnals—Daddy said we might get those next year—but someone always knew the words anyway and would teach the others. It wasn’t right that the singing would push into the preaching of the Gospel, but sometimes it did and I didn’t mind. On the days when there was more preaching and less singing, Daddy came home in a worse mood.
That Sunday after I fell off, I was still a little stiff, so rather than wander around Longs, I stayed with Mom and helped her serve the food. She had macaroni and cheese, baked beans, some broccoli and carrots, a loaf of bread, and a wedge of cheese. For dessert, Mrs. Greeley had made an applesauce cake, which I liked very much. The younger women always made a lot of food, because, Mom said, for some of the old people, this was the biggest meal they got all week. “You know you are going home to a nice supper, Abby, so you watch what you eat, because Mrs. Larkin doesn’t have that, and neither does Mrs. Lodge.” I watched what I ate, but I especially watched myself eat a piece of that applesauce cake.
The second service was more like Sunday school. The grownups went to one side of the room and studied the Bible, and the kids went to another side of the room and did things like read Bible stories and color Bible coloring books. There was also a felt
board that Mrs. Larkin sometimes brought, on which she did felt shows. There would be a cutout of Joseph, say, made of white felt, and then a bunch of cutouts of his brothers, and some felt palm trees that represented Egypt and a felt house that represented Israel, and she moved the felt pieces around on the board while telling us the story. I think she had pieces for six or eight different stories. For the most part, everyone at church was nice.
This was not true of seventh grade. Monday morning, I got on the bus. Because we had horses to feed and water before school, I was always the last person on the bus, and fairly often the driver had to stop after he had already started and open the door again for me. The impossible thing was deciding whether to get dressed first and then do the work or to get dressed, do the work, and change again before going to school. If I slept in, even a little, I could not get dressed twice, and so my shoes would be a little dirty when I got on the bus. Sometimes the other kids started yelling, “Hey! What’s that smell? Hey, what smells so bad in here?” and sometimes they didn’t, but I always expected them to. I didn’t have any friends on the bus, so I tried to read a book or look out the window.
The best thing that can happen to you in seventh grade, really, is that you float from one classroom to another like a ghost or a spirit, undetected by the humans. I thought maybe it would be possible to do that at one of those big schools in a big town, but our school was small, the seventh grade had forty kids divided into two classes, and everyone had a slot. My homeroom teacher was Mr. Jepsen, the math teacher. It did not help that numbers made my head hurt. If I could sit by myself at night and work out my homework problems, I almost always got them all right, but Mr. Jepsen was the kind of teacher who likes
to interrupt. “So, Abby, what’s the square root of sixty-four?” and then, just when you are opening your mouth to say, “Eight,” he says, “Cat got your tongue today? Are you thinking?” And then when you open your mouth again, he says, “Well, what’s the square root of sixteen?” and now you’re in this rhythm—every time you have the answer, he asks you another question, until he gives up on you and finally says, “Billy Russell?” and of course, Billy Russell has been sitting there for five minutes, thinking about the answer, and he pipes up, “Eight!” as bright as he can be, and Mr. Jepsen says, “Good boy!”