Authors: Gil Adamson
Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000
All these things fit awkwardly into the mouldering saddlebags, the flaps
of which were stiff with age. She tossed the stolen fur coat behind the saddle and hung
a beaded silk handbag from her shoulder. She mounted again, hitched up her skirts, and
proceeded from the barn, a mad silhouette in the night. From the direction of the house
came a dog that barked at her once, short and high, a call of question. She listened to
things moving in the dark. The dog came sideways, peering, and it circled in a strafing
pattern while the blue roan stood its ground. Eventually, they went on, the dog making
small yips. She walked the horse slowly over the gravel drive, holding the saddlebags
tight to keep their contents from jingling. No light in the house, candle or gas. Its
ivy walls went scrolling by and then were gone. They passed through a small field and
came upon two looming trees the widow had seen from her window and thought to be stumpy.
Instead they were enormous, with vast canopies. The leaves filtered the moonlight and,
as they passed under, woman and horse were streaked, erased, reformed.
Soon, they came upon a fence and stood looking over it into another dark
field. The widow circled the roan and took them back a short way, then brutally heeled
it forward into a canter, and heeled again before the fence, as the dog ducked and
veered. They took the jump, landed awkwardly, and trotted to a stop with goods rattling
and the roan shuddering and sidestepping with surprise. The dog simply took off. The
widow gripped the reins. Two hearts pounding. So, she remembered how to jump too.
They went on into the dark field and soon were gone from sight, leaving
the house where they both had been kept and cared for.
THE OLD WOMAN
stood at her doorstep before breakfast,
her gnarled little hands wringing together and a look of fury on her face. Zenta and
Emily cowered behind her. The three women regarded the red-bearded men who waited on the
steps, rifles across their backs like hunters.
“I told you,” she said, attempting a sternness she did not
possess, “you have the wrong house.” Under the chill of their flat stare,
she slowly withered, the trembling lip now mute.
“You have two choices,” said one man. “You can
cooperate, or you can see what happens when you don't. Now, where is she?”
His eye settled on Emily, clearly the weakest of the three.
THE WIDOW HAD
given up guessing the time at around
midnight. The moon came and went, its light erased by scudding cloud. She had cantered
the horse when she could, along an open road or a clear path through the fields. Houses
stood at a distance, flattened to two dimensions by the moon's light. Cattle
watched and chewed, standing or reclining in pools of their own shadows. At what she
judged to be the edge of this little burg, she passed a lonely bull segregated in a pen,
who gazed over his fence and watched her go. She craned around to see the massive
creature, the heavy head hung low, and the wide back gleaming under the stars.
But now a profound dark had fallen and she walked the mare slowly and
stopped often to gauge her direction. Cocks crowed into the pitch black. Beside a fence
she dismounted and tied the horse. She gathered her skirts about her hips, squatted, and
urinated into the dry grass at her feet. Then she remounted and went on.
Toward dawn the sky cleared, and she realized she was on the foothills of
the mountains she had seen three days ago, blue and shrouded, from the old lady's
carriage window. These had been her target since her first sight of them. They stood
like a monument in her path, promising freedom and
suffused the horizon, but the sky directly above was all blue and stars. She heard the
crack of a rabbit gun far off, and the mare stopped and listened as the sound ranged
about them and the hills muttered back. From the direction of the sound the widow
figured she had already begun her climb into the foothills and the town now lay some
distance below her. She went on, listening, but there was no more gunfire.
They entered a thick stand of trees and once again were sunk in darkness
and nearly blind. The widow dismounted, took the saddlebags down, and sat upon a bed of
moss searching for something in the bags. Her hands were her eyes. Next to her the mare
cropped grasses and chewed, a hollow and leisured grinding to her right. Soon she found
a match and in its flare she glimpsed the forest floor, a strange and wicked-looking
topography. She saw her own skirts and the horse gawping over at her, its pupils
contracting, before the match stuttered and it was black again. Since her childhood,
which had ended not so long ago, she had wondered about the existence of goblins and
small, biting sprites. Her father had instilled this silliness in his girl, waking her
sometimes when he came home late and drunk. Over the objections of her grandmother, they
would go out into the dark garden as the child staggered and half-dreamed, and he would
seize her and point, insisting some tiny creature hid there, just out of sight, standing
motionless in the foliage. Incredible behaviour for a man of his nature and training, a
former Anglican minister, his collar now coiled and tucked away in a sock drawer.
Had the news of her crime reached him yet? She felt a wincing regret, for
she knew she could not go home to her father and grandmother, not now. That house was no
her home, and she would not be safe there. Even if she knew
her way, the least public route home, they would never hide or protect her when she
The widow took up a pipe, which she had packed with tobacco, and drew the
embers up and sat back smoking in the gloom. She had taken this pipe from the old
man's shrine; it was an expensive and antique object. The bowl was outsized and
ornate, carved into the shape of a stag's head whose antlers came off in a hinged
lid. She drew up a fragrant smoke and sighed it back out.
FOR TWO DAYS
, the widow and her mare climbed steaming
foothills into mountains whose peaks were seamed with impossible snow. The punishing
heat faded and the air became pleasantly warm. In the mornings heavy fog poured upward
from the earth and drifted in ghostly forms through the trees. She stared: This one is a
shepherd's pipes, that one a woman's hand reaching. She watched a gaggle of
vaporous forms trouble the surface of a little forest slough, and it gave her a curious
image of what her own mind endured. The voices. Furies born and soon dead with a simple
breath of sun; but potent while they lasted, and terrible.
At dusk the first day she came upon a lean-to built of rotted timber and
set against a mossy rock face. Slung across its open ends was canvas sacking that had
been eaten at the bottom by mould. She called out but no answer came, and so she
ventured close and threw back a flap to gaze upon decomposing blankets and a ratlike
strewing of blackened newspaper. No occupant rose up to greet her, no sign of life
anywhere. One folded wadge of newspaper in the corner had been underlined in black and
the lines had bled into one
another. The widow had not slept in two
days, and before that never for more than a few hours. Here was a shelter, at dusk, a
human sign among the trees. And yet she backed away from this burrow as if from a
compost heap roiling with vermin. She wiped her hands on her own ragged dress. On the
ground about the hovel she found more refuse. Spoons, an empty wallet, a glove, more
newspaper, half-buried under pine needles and loam and none very far away from their
source. Like an archaeologist she unearthed a pitiful human sphere. She deemed it to be
male, though anyone following her and gazing at her rest spots might think the same of
her. The widow mounted and went on.
She rested that dusk and woke later to find all light erased. The night
was so dark she thought something stood between her eyes and the rest of the world.
Blindness could not be this complete. Nothing but the sound of wind through trees.
Somewhere to her left, the breathing horse. And high above, the slow funhouse creaking
of pine branches. A blessing of her young life had been the fact that she remained more
afraid of her own mind than of the dark. In fact, she loved the night. Still, here among
the trees there was the call of unknown things. Small scrounging sounds to the left . .
. or in front? She had taken the saddle off the horse and now she lay with her head on
it and listened. The horse puffed. She reasoned that the mare would alert her to news of
a predator. She did not know that a horse's eyesight is far worse than even a
man's. All it has is a sense of smell, and that depends on the wind. Throughout
that long night, the widow listened to the movements of the mare, and tried to ignore
the question of how she would catch it in the dark if indeed something came through the
trees toward them.
Morning came in a fug of humidity, the sun a hot smudge above, the ground
steaming. When the widow stood, she discovered her skirts were soaked. She bent and
wrung them out, but they stayed damp and heavy, and the cloth lapped coldly at her
calves as she mounted the horse and rode. They went on through groves of aspen, and the
widow saw the clawmarks of bears on smoky trunks, impossibly high, near her waist as she
rode. All about lay the papery shreds of torn bark.
The next morning, the air grew colder. She was climbing the range day by
day. She sat in meditation on the saddle's rhythmic creak, the suck of hooves in
the wet leaves. She was obliged to dismount from time to time and draw the mare from an
impassible web of hemlock or a corral of dead and fallen pines. She worried she was
going in circles or even retracing her steps.
They went on into hollows and draws, then up again, along ridges and
across clearings that smelled of mint. The blue roan was fattening, since the widow
stopped often to let it feed, and it seemed stronger by the day, stepping across alpine
meadows so green and seemingly cultivated they spoke of heaven. White dots of mountain
goats moved along vertical bluffs with tiny kids following in awkward dashes over the
precipitous terrain. The widow watched their pinpoint hops.
She bathed quickly at the edge of a frigid mountain stream and the water
stung and lacerated her nerves. A painful cleansing. Where possible she used her long
hair to dry herself, for she dared not use her clothes, and the old lady's fur
coat simply slithered coldly over her skin, absorbing nothing. She paced naked in the
sun, teeth clenched, hugging herself,
watching the mare as it
wandered and grazed. She had forgotten completely about the saddle blanket. Oily and
stiff as it was, it might have warmed her. She did not know how to properly hobble a
horse, but by now had intuited how to tie the reins to one foreleg so the mare could
bend and eat but could not gallop or even trot away from her when she came to collect
it. She found stiff dried moss with which she tried in vain to curry the horse's
coat, and she lifted the mare's hooves and dug pebbles from the frog with the old
man's bayonet. This much she remembered to do.
She ate her mouldy bread and soggy fruit. The bushes were full of berries,
but she dared not eat anything unless it was recognizable, and nothing was. She saw
rabbits, which now looked like food on legs, but could not devise a way to catch them.
She saw an eagle and several fat foxes, and at dusk, grey owls gliding silent on the
night air with their enormous wings. She put on the fur coat and discovered just how
small the old lady really was. She cut her skirt up the middle, front and back, and,
shivering and naked with the needle in her hand, sewed it into wide black pants so that
her knees would no longer be exposed as she rode. This was a good solution, except that
now she had to remove her clothing entirely when she needed to relieve herself. In the
cold night she was obliged to rise from her dozing and walk the mare to keep them both
warm, while their common breath followed them in meaningless Braille.
On the fourth day, the mare scented the air wildly and stood electrified
at the edge of a steep meadow. At first the widow did not know the object of its terror,
and then she did. A massive old grizzly stood just clear of the far trees, but the
roan's poor eyesight had not located it yet. The widow stared
in terror at what stood across the meadow, swinging its head from side to side as
if in similar disbelief. Light brown and sleek and fat, it was bigger than she had
imagined any animal could be. The shadow of an entire cloud passed slowly between
herself and the bear. Sun penetrated into the deep grasses and flowering weeds. She
clung to her dancing mount as the mare puffed and trembled, unable to find the source of
its dread. And then the bear was gone; it simply backed away into the darkness of the
trees. The widow amended her trajectory and went on, praying.
The Lord roars from
Zion. These are the words of the Lord.
. And the sun above. A whispering of
wind in the high branches and every pine needle and summer leaf moving. The widow rested
atop a boulder in a clearing and removed her boots. The saddle was hung lopsided on a
branch. She walked slowly around in the soft mud and rubbed her cheeks with the heels of
her hands, clearing her head. All morning she had been assailed by memories,
inappropriate, ironic ones. Not the usual phantoms but something else, some catalogue of
places and things â and for each she suffered a transient yearning. A familiar
street corner, a broken banister railing in her father's house, a wet newspaper
full of potato peels in the kitchen. Unpopulated, these memories, but each one
nonetheless saturated with human presence, like an unattended meal still steaming.
Something was coming, some message â each memory sculpting its own silhouette. She
fought them off, struggling the way a swimmer does who must not rest but does rest, only
to return to the surface, sputtering. A gang of drab sparrows played tactical games
among the deep indentations her feet had made
in the mud. The mare
shook itself like a dog, and they all flew away.