On the day of Grace’s refusal, there had been no warning that she would balk at the stream. She had never done it before. There had been six people on horseback, Caleb leading, Ronnie following on Grace, and the paying customers sandwiched in between them, straggled out in a line on the narrow trail. Grace was Ronnie’s Appaloosa mare of scrambled color, of a type one would most usually expect to find running feral on Western range-land instead of under saddle in the mountains of Virginia. Grace and Ronnie had gone along together for a span of years and were easy with each other, with the kind of knowing that comes from an unbroken chain of promises kept and expectations satisfied; they had a mutual dependence that would be mysterious to anyone who was not fluent around horses. Grace was a burly mare, her haunches bunched with muscle under a bulk of matronly padding, but she was quiet, almost shy, with a modesty that seemed displaced in such an athletic animal. She was always surprised and flustered by sweet surprises, and she kissed the rare treats of apple slices or grapes from Ronnie’s hands, her breath musky and ripe as faintly rotten molasses, her bristled muzzle tickling Ronnie’s palm with a cautious delicacy. Grace was muscular, and Ronnie was efficiently compact, with a body that had been tempered by work until her flesh had nearly turned as dense as bone, as metal. They suited one another.
On this day, the tourists were uncommonly talkative, and gossiped past the displays of white wildflowers they had been brought that way to see: the frothy spires of snake-root, the stiff lace of yarrow, and in the sunnier places, ox-eyed daisies, Queen Anne’s lace, goat’s beard, and the wild yucca, with blooms as waxy and luminous as candles. They were coming up on the stream, Ronnie nearly dozing from the heat and monotony of the climb through the forest. Grace had gone flop-eared, not troubling to pick up her feet, and so her hooves were thunking dryly on the duff of the trail, raising up a hazy, reddish dust. Every now and then there was a cracking report of a steel-rimmed hoof glancing off a small stone, and at the sharp sound Grace’s head would jerk as if she were an old woman jogged from a slumber, and then she would loosen again into the regular rhythm of the four-part beat of a horse walking, not hurrying. Soon the looping switchback would be there, and then a gentle descent through fern and rhododendron—the spent blossoms were discarded rags under the bushes—and then the forest would open out to a deer cropped meadow. The meadow was cut through by the stream. On the clayey bank were the embossings of hoofprints and, mixed in, the cloven markings of deer-tracks. It was an easy fording, just a thin, late-summer stream twirling over pebbles.
There was no reason for Grace to balk at the water. She had crossed that stream at that place dozens of times before, perhaps more than that, but on this day she refused. She would not cross it, with an eloquent resolve that was undeniable. There was nothing there which should have alarmed her, no embedded memories of slipping, or beatings, or an uneven footing under the curls of the stream. When Grace refused, the other horses were already across, or mostly across, stealing sips and mincing their ways, their necks stretched long, sniffing in the cool flowing of the water. Grace balked and rooted her nose up, avoiding the bit and startling Ronnie, who booted her forward, or at least that was the intention. Ronnie’s heels hammered on Grace’s ribs with the resonant impacts of a stout barrel being struck. The mare grunted, clamped her ears back, and her eyes were rolling terribly as she snaked her head, trying to confound her rider by substituting that energetic outburst for forward motion. Ronnie swatted at her rump with her flat hand, expecting no more trouble than a minor flurry, and then it would be over and they could go on. When she smacked her with a stinging slap, Grace sank back and back on her hocks until her forehand was light, lifting, and then she sprang up and reared impressively, her forelegs bent, her hooves hanging as heavily as clods. It was an amazing display for an aged, overweight mare who was most usually as flat-tempered as a rock. It was mystifying, and she had gained Ronnie’s complete attention. When Grace touched down again, she delivered an awe-inspiring double-barreled kick which nearly unseated her rider. Ronnie swerved her in a swift circle—a punishment, a tornadic channeling of her misbehavior. They spun, trampling down the soft clay, beating the reeds and cat-tails down to frazzled stems. Shreds of white fluff floated up like the stuffings of a torn pillow. The other horses were veterans, but even they were milling about, muddying the shallow water, clattering on submerged gravel with the hollow echoing of the sifting of dull stones. They were interested, of course, but seasoned enough to accept that Grace’s behavior was not to be taken as contagious. Ronnie dismounted. Her face was red, she was sweating and her hat had come off. The tourists were smirking, or clinging to their saddles with both hands, their reins forgotten and flapping emptily on their horse’s necks. Ronnie attempted to lead Grace forward—the stream was shallow enough for her to wade through it, but Grace braced and dug in as though a force-field were shimmering in front of her. Ronnie could almost see it. It was so final and precise, as though the mare had actually reasoned and had arrived at the position that she would not cross the water. She had burst free of her manners like a recalcitrant child.
It was an impossible situation, and unexpected, but there was nothing to be done for it but to turn back. It was a longer way, up through the forest again steeply, and it was muggy, unpleasantly stale under the trees, with a yellowed haze in the feathery spaces between the boughs. The air was so thick with heat and dust that breathing it in was like taking unsatisfactory breaths through hot, wet flannel. It had been a misery. The horses’ hooves pinged on random rocks on the trail, an unnerving punctuation, like the cracking of bones. The forest was churning with insect noise, and rich odors were drawn out by the heat of the afternoon—the smells of leaking resins, sourish, rotting logs, and bruised evergreen and fern and hints of faint, wild smoke, far off. Curds of foam lathered up on the horses’ flanks and on their necks where the reins rubbed. They flipped their heads irritably at the change in routine and gobbed splats of lather on shrubs and the rider’s legs. Caleb’s straight back was hostile and he was unusually rough with his horse. The tourists were shifting sorely and muttering. Had Grace forded the stream as was customary, the return would have been a gentle stroll through the grazing meadows, but instead they returned to the barn nearly an hour late, at a time when the sun was angry and swollen just above the mountains. And then there was work to be done, payment to be taken, and the horses were rattling their grain buckets anxiously and so there was the feeding, the turn-out, the sweeping clear of the aisles of the barn, the tack hung up or slung onto the racks, all of that done in a simmering silence, for Caleb was not speaking to Ronnie, as if she had somehow deliberately caused the trouble. A misery, for no purpose.
It had been twilight when Ronnie returned to her cabin. She pried off her boots and tossed them onto the rug by the door where they lay curled—dry rinds of worn out boots. She plunged her face into cold water held by her cupped hands and rinsed the dust from her face until the water stained red, combed her fingers through short cropped hair, too tired to bathe, shedding a mushroomy female scent and that of horse sweat and oiled leather. Her shoulder muscles were running with tremors. Her hands ached. She fed the dog just out the back door—she would allow him to roam on that night. She was too wrung-out tired to fix a supper. She heated the coffee in a flame-blackened saucepan on the stove, could not wait, drank the coffee scummed cold in the cup, and then sat motionless at the kitchen table in the darkening room. The faucet dripped onto something metal, an unwashed cooking pot in the sink, a flat, dreary sound, but Ronnie endured it because she was too tired to get up and stop it. The fireflies were sparking outside and she watched them through the unshaded window, embers of fireflies rising up from the field— they would go higher as the night deepened, finishing it in the tree tops as if they were twinkling lights scattered there for some pagan celebration of forgotten purpose.
Ronnie was confused and even wounded by Grace’s refusal, which she took as a personal betrayal. She and the mare had gone along for a stretch of years, and she had done her part. Her horse had never gone hungry; none of her horses ever had. Grace had been worked hard, but she had not been neglected or abused. Horses were intended for work—Ronnie believed that. Horses have a gap in the regular spacing of their teeth which is precisely suited for the bit. The bit rests on that level, toughened space of gums, so what was that, if not a sign that they had been born into servitude, which at its greatest and most refined could be a miraculous partnership between person and creature? That was what Ronnie believed, and there was no harm or shame in requiring horses to work hard if they were well kept. She set down her cup and fanned out her hands on the table, hands as strong as a man’s, large hands, and nicked and scored with the dried crust of scratches from splinters and fencing wires and the prickles of hay bales, and from the roughness of buckles and straps. Her hands were spread there as if a hand of cards had been displayed, or surrendered. She watched the horses—the herd of them—ranging out on the hill of the field, horse silhouettes against the dimming field. A fire was burning in the Jefferson Forest and Ronnie could smell it, ashy and stinging, as it snapped at the trees, boiling saps and resins, cleansing the land. An orange moon had risen, and the sky glowed from the fire.
If Grace would not cross the water, then what were they to do? They would be one horse short and Caleb was already making bitter noises about giving it up. It did not mean as much to him. The last, hard winter had changed him, and their relationship had turned bad. Ronnie did not live with Caleb, that was not how it was, although many people saw them that way. She was alone in the house—it was what she came home to, four low-ceilinged rooms with not enough windows, and a red-eyed, brindled hound. She and Caleb went about together, and they quarreled mildly over prices in the feed store like a comfortable, broken-in couple, but that was not the truth of it. They were business partners, and theirs was a seasonal enterprise, trail rides in summer, when they scrambled to earn enough money to carry them through the slack time of winter. It was never sufficient. Caleb had been dubious from the outset, but Ronnie had happened along with her horses, all of them quirky characters, none of them young, but as honest as horses were capable of being. She had been persuasive and competent, and still beset by the desperate optimism born of necessity, and so they had rented the land and a gapped and drafty barn and had made their plans together. The care of all those horses was hugely expensive and winters could be foul. Business was excruciatingly slow then, if at all. Sometimes some group or party would want to hire horses on a whim or dare, just because a particular day was refreshingly frosty, invigorating. Sometimes it would be college boys, and sometimes they would be drunk. Ronnie would let no one ride that way. She had her limits.
Ronnie sat quietly in the dark among the hunched up shapes of the things around her. She saw the refrigerator as a bulky shadow, and the blunt shapes of the stove, a table, chairs, a fat, empty pitcher on a windowsill. The paler sky was squeezed into place by the heavy frame of the window, and the smoke from the fire had dissolved the stars to a burnished, eerie glow, like a warm soup of stars. It was time to pay bills, but Ronnie could not. She fingered through them, stroking the envelopes as if they were Braille, so many of them, and the letters casting aspersions on her character for not having paid them. An impersonal thing, but a closure would come, inevitably, not on this day, but too soon to bear. Grace’s usefulness was now in question; and it remained to be seen if she would cross water again, or if her resistance had been a quirk that would pass, or perhaps a panic inspired by a drifting smell on the breeze. It could have been a carcass. Horses were terrified of that smell, instinctively and sensibly, because if death were present, then the cause of it, whatever it had been, could still be nearby, an unknown and terrible threat.
A life without horses was not a life—a life Ronnie could not imagine—but Grace’s refusal, if it persisted, could make it impossible for her to support her animals, and there was such risk for common, grade horses with no special talents or skills. The summer was nearly through. The fire was inching across the peaks on the horizon, and the empty bags of clouds promised nothing, no rain or relief, but they bristled extravagantly with lightning. It was a meanness bundled up in those clouds. It had been a dry pulse of lightning on the forest tinder which had sparked the fire, although it was no threat to the valley which sheltered the stables. At least there was that small safety.
Ronnie strained to see the horses through the thick darkness, but they were no longer there. They had moved on or had been obscured by shadows and smoke. Remembering a past which could not be changed was not an indulgence she allowed, but on this night she sat and rummaged through her recollections in the same meandering and painful way one would mourn a death. She was remembering her horses, those of them who were lost or long dead, the horses whose images were most usually kept intact as photographs locked in a drawer, held at a distance that way. The memories were stilled and bounded moments breaking though, instances of impossible fences being taken, with brave, maximal efforts, or the sweeter moments, a horse’s forehead laid against her shoulder in a kindly nudge, or the birthings of foals, always in the deepest hollows of night and struggle. Those thoughts were laced through with a cord of helpless sorrow for the horses she had been unable to save or keep, a sorrow brought on by a deep and tenuous connection with beasts who trusted so dumbly.
Ronnie’s first horse had been Lena, a grulla mare the nameless color of pewter or wet ashes, disreputable, and a passionate friend, That was when Ronnie had been a teenager and Lena was flat-out crazy or courageously reckless. She spooked at nothing more than a bird whirring out of a bush and at that she was launched like a stone released from a sling-shot with Ronnie clinging like a monkey or jockey, teary eyed from the wind of the race and the mare’s mane stinging her face like lashes. It was a thoughtless, unburdening sort of joy. Lena had never refused any fence that Ronnie had asked her to jump. There was that much faith. Just when you thought Lena would come unraveled in explosive panic at some disturbance, she would stand as statuesque as a pointer dog catching the scent. Dirt bikes tearing up the trail didn’t perturb her, or an obstacle that was an unnegotiable wall—Lena was a steely Pegasus flying at it. It didn’t matter. But those small things, the needle claws of mice tapping on rafters, a rag blown and barbed on a fence—those were an excuse to bolt. Lena had grown older, as Ronnie had, and when her arthritic legs had tormented her beyond reason, Ronnie had had her put down. There was no explaining the cutting grief she had felt for a time, but she had sheathed it, because the work had to go on. And there had been many horses after her, either kept and retired until they died, or ridden to their particular capacities, improved, and then sold, upgraded to another, and better, with Ronnie hoping that she would find that perfect alliance which seemed so elusive. That had not happened, and never enough money, time passing, and some of her horses were taken from her by poverty, accidents, or illnesses and unaccountable and untenable lameness. So many had died or she had moved on and lost them, not able to care for all of them like one should care for a family, trying and failing to harden her heart.
And then Grace. “Grade mare, Appaloosa color, could be trail horse, $900.” But you had to see her in motion when she had been so young as to seem changeless, the assertive flex and reach of her shoulders masked by her outrageous color, as if all of the blood traits of her questionable lineage had been scrambled and had emerged in her, in patches. Her thin flag of a tail floated behind her when she galloped briskly over rough terrain, like a wild ancestor might have done. Ronnie had been the one to name the mare Grace. What her name had been before that had been lost in the changes of owners. Her name was a joke. Amazing Grace. Grace Under Fire, or Gracie, and now it was Grace-Who-Refuses-to-Cross-Water, an Indian name for a worthy pony. A name both honorable and flawed. Ronnie scraped back her chair on the gritty floor. Neither she nor Grace had chosen the names they were called. Ronnie was the first child of many, and her parents had named her Veronica, a responsible name, never contracted or diminished by her family. It was Veronica—not Ronnie. Her parents had accumulated children as riches, the only wealth possible for them. And so Ronnie had worked as a kind of natural condition or destiny which was not unfair; it was as expected as cycling through oppressive and sometimes bracing weather. She had mothered her siblings because it was right, and impossible not to. Her name was Veronica. Ver-on-i-ca. It was a four syllable name, impossible to call out tersely or casually. To call her Ronnie was a lazy and ignorant way of forming lips, tongue, and teeth, sounds apparently much too complex for the effort, and so she was Ronnie. Not anymore. They will—people should—say my whole name or not at all, was what she decided, on that evening.”Hey-you” would be fine, as long as we understand one another. That one thing was settled.
She moved through the house, not caring to disturb the darkness by turning on lights. She opened the door to the porch and smelled the smoke like a pyre, heard the dog baying, chasing rabbits. The fire was a narrow rim of brightness leaking from a fissure on the mountains’ crest, like a birthing of land—as cruel and fresh as that. It would burn until it was finished or was halted. A rain could still come. Or the back-fires could end it, planned burns that stripped bands of forest down to rock and naked soil so that nothing remained to nourish the fire. It would be a prideful blaze dancing in place like a dervish until it collapsed and vanished from that land, and in that year. It was a primitive sort of sorcery, fighting fire with itself, harnessing it to do battle with its wild cousins. Ronnie hesitated on the porch, poised at an invisible ledge. She could leave it all behind. She really could; there was no one there to stop her. She could walk away, go out there into the pinkish smoke that was now slinking over the pastures, smoke running like water seeking the lower places, describing itself like breaths of fog in winter. The pasture grasses would be spun with webs, and there would be a moist tickling of strands brushing by her hands as she swam through them. She could take a backpack and water, or she could take nothing. She could walk as far as she was able, but inevitably there would be the highway; she would come up against that. Always something unnavigable. She sighed and turned away then, away from the possibility of going. It was not the right time.
Ronnie returned to the barn just after dawn. Already it was muggy and unnaturally warm for such an early morning. She brought in the horses from the fields. She fed them. She carried the water. Caleb arrived and they began tacking up the horses. A dog was barking incessantly somewhere up the road. Caleb was sullen, unshaven, and Ronnie smelled the yeasty aroma of last-night’s beer seeping from his skin. He had not had an easy night, for he never drank unless in serious distress. He avoided looking at her directly, and she folded her shoulders in, stooping to bear his disapproval. He had wanted to know why Grace had done that; he had demanded to know, as if it had been a conspiracy in which Ronnie was an accomplice, an evil, intentional plan designed to bring them both down. She said she did not know what had caused it. The fire was still burning and smudging the horizon, so perhaps it had been that, she offered that up, and when the fire burned itself out Grace would be fine. She told Caleb that her name was Veronica and he had looked at her strangely.”I know that,” he had said. She shrugged. It did not matter so much.
They waited for the tourists to arrive, but they waited separately, Ronnie sitting on a hay bale sipping coffee, looking out the back door of the stable onto an impression of gauzy trees and a soft blue sky as light and rich as watered silk framed by silvered wood. She could hear the horses chewing, and she could smell them. Caleb isolated himself in the office in the front of the barn, scratching out schedules and figures, with the door closed. Ronnie’s relationship with him had soured months before Grace’s refusal, during the last ice-locked month of the winter. Caleb thought of himself as a cowboy, but he hated the cold. Something absurd had happened back then, an innocent thing. He had discovered Ronnie making snow angels, alone, in a snowdrift in front of her cabin. That was all, but it had changed the balance between them. Surely he had thought her antics excessive and strange, for they had just completed a day of back-breaking work. It had been a mistake or foolishness he had seen, and Ronnie was as exposed and mystified by his bawl of laughter as if she had been an inadvertently naughty child happened upon in a fantasy moment.
On the morning of the snow angel Ronnie had walked to the barn over mud that had frozen to a dark, brittle lace. When she arrived, the snow had begun to spatter down urgently, and the sky had darkened itself to a gun-metal gray that meant unpleasant business. They brought the horses quickly into the stable. The snow had begun blowing, nearly blocking the swing of the pasture gates. They hauled enough hay for a siege, broke the ice in the water buckets with axes, mucked the stalls. Ronnie had somehow misplaced her gloves, and when they had cleared the doorways for the last time that day, her hands were cracked and bleeding. Caleb noticed that, took her hands into his as if to warm them or heal them with a strong grip. He had never done such a thing before. She pulled herself free, embarrassed and skittish, and set out on the trek back to her cabin. Caleb watched her going. She passed the pasture where the sturdier horses were kept, left to fend for themselves with a plain shed for shelter. They had been coltish, surging and bucking through the drifts, blowing chugs of snorts, like the steam from trains. She stood and watched them, her muscles twitching in sympathy, in accord with their playfulness, before she walked on. Although she struggled through thigh-deep drifts, the snow was amazing to Ronnie, had always been that way. It purified the world, smoothed it. As she came within sight of the cabin the snow ceased abruptly, and the sun made a belated and frail appearance, a watery moon-like circle in a clearing sky of pale yellow. The land around her was utterly silent and astoundingly dazzling. No artificial or costly decoration could have glittered that much, or sparkled so cleanly. She couldn’t bring herself to defile the clear spread of snow in front of the cabin. It looked as though the cabin were new; no tracks led up to the porch. On a whim, she threw herself down onto the bed of snow. She fell back, releasing all the tiredness and the aching of the day, fatigue streaming from her as she churned her arms and legs as she had taught her brothers and sisters to do. She was making a snow angel. The sky then was as calm, low, and flat as a lemony painted ceiling in a child’s room. She churned arms and legs, brushing the temporary imprint of the skirt and wings of an angel there on the clean slate of snow. That was how Caleb had come upon her, as she was thrashing and twisting, prone on cold snow. She had not heard him, and it was possible that she had been laughing, even screaming with delirious laughter, because she had felt that she was unobserved. He must have thought she was convulsing at first, or had gone berserk and was struggling mindlessly with an imaginary opponent. When he realized that it was the childishness of a bulkily clad, usually sensible woman whom he thought he understood well, a laugh ripped out of him. That rough laugh jolted Ronnie into an embarrassed self-awareness. She saw Caleb’s face upside down, as an infant must see the face of a parent looming over its cot, and of course then she staggered quickly to her feet. She could think of nothing to say. He had not been to her cabin before—not once before—and never after. He turned and left without telling why he had come. She could have explained it, but there was no opening, and she had not the skill to spin that event into humor, or to include him. The bridge that had linked them had fallen away. The expression she had seen on Caleb’s inverted face had made her feel very old, very clumsy, and the days that followed stretched out differently from before. Ronnie had the sense that a critical moment, tentative and fragile, had been passed by or spoiled by misunderstanding, and whatever had been on Caleb’s mind that day was gone and irretrievable.
The snow angel winter had crept into a mud-clogged spring, and then had rapidly unwound itself into the rainless summer, where they were now—chafing at one another, sunburned, and poor. When the first group of tourists arrived, the horses were waiting saddled, dozing. On the trail the horses were lethargic with the heat; their flanks soon were darkly stained with sweat. As they slipped under the shade of the trees, a deer burst across the path in a weightless, silent arc, and although the horses were startled, it was not worth the trouble to shy or swerve. Ronnie’s hands were raw on the reins and so she dropped them to lie in a loop on Grace’s neck. Such nonchalance surely would put the mare at ease about the water. Grace’s head nodded low, her neck level, and Ronnie had the thought that most of what she had seen of the world was through the frame of a horse’s ears, like the viewfinder of a camera. The other horses crossed the stream, and surely they were grateful as its coolness lapped at swollen ankles. But again Grace refused, an insurrection that was at first only a stirring, a summoning of awareness and resolve, and then when the line was reached she slipped free of her domestication completely. She bucked as though her legs were coils under tension, and she plunged, even squealing with anger—an awful sound, a whistling screech usually reserved for scuffles in the pasture. It was hopeless, That trail ride was ruined as well, and there was no concealing the mistake of a horse who was so unruly as to be ungovernable. They had had to turn back, and the other horses were catching on by then that they did not necessarily have to remain in service to their riders, and so they became unruly as well, and someone could have been injured. Caleb was furious, and Ronnie desperate. It was all coming undone.
Caleb would not speak to Ronnie, but clearly he looked to her to fix it, to make it right again. She took Grace out alone in the afternoon, because they had been one horse short and the rest of the day’s trail rides had had to be canceled. On the trail, yellow cones of sunlight were punching through gaps in the trees, and there remained the rough bite of smoke in the air. Grace was maddeningly relaxed, calmly shuffling through pine-needles as dry as chopped straw. They reached the stream, hearing it before seeing it, a harmless thrashing between moss-pillowed shores. Ronnie dismounted before the barricade was reached, the one that by now both of them were certain was there. She tied Grace to a tree with the halter she wore over her bridle. The mare looked on with droopyeyed half-interest as Ronnie tugged off her boots, stripped off her socks and waded, splashing and cavorting, pretending to drink up a freshness she was deliberately denying to Grace, scooping the water up and spilling it through her fingers. Grace dozed in the splotch of shade thrown down by the tree to which she was fastened. After a time, Ronnie remounted and rode Grace back to the barn, retracing their steps on the first leg of what she hoped would be the rehabilitation of her mare. It was all that she knew to do.
This was repeated for several days, and each day there was a deficit, for only five riders could be accommodated in a group. Grace was left in her stall as the others departed, Ronnie elaborately fussing over her substitute mount, trying to spark a glimmer of jealousy in Grace at being left behind, but she only turned her haunches on Ronnie and munched hay, her tail hissing as she switched away the flies. Grace was left locked in with only a slight bit of water, and then when Ronnie took her out at the end of the day she surely must have been thirsty, with water just ahead, quenchingly fresh. Grace stood stolidly tied to her tree, heavy-lidded, one hoof cocked, with the gnats drinking in horse moisture from her nostrils and eyes. Ronnie frolicked, cupping water and throwing it toward Grace on dry land, pocking the dust with dark spots of droplets, but denying her horse the water. On the fourth day, after Grace had been tied there for nearly an hour, Ronnie nonchalantly strolled toward her, the bowl of her hands brimming and leaking and offered Grace a taste, which she accepted thoughtfully.
Grace must have been parched thirsty on the final day as they approached the fording. It was cooler, and growling with thunder. The night before that last day Ronnie had gone out, taking the step off her front porch and then picking her way through the grasses and nettles in a moon-wash that was as luminous as stage lights, walking until she reached the forest’s edge. The night was vibrant with sounds if one could be still enough to listen. She stood there at the verge, smelling the forest decay, holding herself so quietly she could hear skitterings and rustlings, the sounds of the nocturnal animals aware of her presence. She parted the branches and slipped into the darkness, not turning and looking back until she was certain that the sky-glow had been closed off behind her, deliberately losing herself. She imagined that she could hear the fire chuckling—an oddly human sound—and the forest was as black as if it had already been charred. She was not lost, although she tried. She passed through the trees until she came to where the forest unfolded to a wide, moonlit meadow. It was peaceful there, at the place where the forest released open land in a clearing which curved down and away, fringed by a rubble of shale that had slid down from a small cliff.
Ronnie knew of that meadow, but she had not seen it at night. Down below her in the open the yucca was blooming. It was not the sign for which she was searching, but it was what she saw. The yucca was not natural to this place—it had been imported by the first settlers. In the moonlight she saw old roses at the meadow’s fringes—carmine colors, and yellows, hovering with the musky fragrance of old country gardens. There were apple trees, too, and cherry and pear, left behind after the settlers had moved on to new land. Each yucca plant was a massive clump, fanning out into thickened sword-shaped leaves, and from the center of each was a single stalk bearing a candelabra of waxen, resilient flowers. The stalks stood up to six feet or more, tall as tall men, taller than she was, a legion of them marching down the slope, receding down it as far as the meadow’s limit, which was cradled in the arms of the forest. They had been waiting for her to see them, to discover them in precisely this way, in moon-glare like a procession of pilgrims with lit candles, a gathering together of ghosts raising up tapers lit with buds of fire.
Ronnie sank down tiredly, thirstily. She had brought nothing with her. She was an audience for the assemblage below her, the silhouetted blade-shapes and branching racks of tough blossoms. She saw the spears of the bloom stalks first as if they were snow-capped, an echo of a hard season, and then she saw them as tomb-stones of an ancient and still vital grave site that she had intruded upon. This was not a frightening thing so she let it all go then, not thinking. She believed the dark massings of yucca to be tombstones and the blooms floating over them were ghosts. They were ghosts; they were souls. It was not strange; it was an inevitable thing. They were the spirits of all her dead horses, waiting for her. The spirits existed in smoke drift and in the wreaths of a rising fog, some accusing her, some still loving her and awaiting her commands. Her dead and waiting horses twined around her like old friends, nuzzling until her hair was strung with droplets of mist. She was as sleepy as if she had been drugged, and she sank down on the grass and slept, awakening to a chilly dawn and with work still to be done.
On the last day Ronnie saw the stream approaching from the brink of the final descent. The meadow was not a respite from the breathless warmth of the forest—it lay bare to the sun, and its vivid green grasses had been singed by sunlight and had crisped to brown on their tips. Grace eased herself down the mild slope, and Ronnie wanted to linger there forever, arresting the momentum down the incline toward what lay ahead of them. The stream was somewhat shrunken, retracted from its shores, and the moss-filmed rocks were already crusting over. The water was colorless and shallow, and in the center of the channel where it flowed more strongly the rivulets were knife-edged, silvery ridges. Ronnie allowed the mare to dawdle and pluck thistle flowers from the barbed stalks. Grace had a clever strategy for stealing the risky delicacies from their coronas of spines. She curled back her lips and tweezed the pink globes of fluff with her teeth, avoiding the thorns. It almost made Ronnie laugh, to see that. The sun was bearing down, but not as harshly as on some other days. Ronnie let the reins go loose and allowed her horse to stroll off the trail and out into the meadow to browse, and as she gave up that control she suddenly was shifted into a focused detachment, as though she were the observer and not inhabiting her body. She saw herself and her horse from a viewpoint formed in the instant of giving over to Grace the choice of where to be. She saw a small woman— herself—somewhat bent with the weight of worry, but not alone in the meadow; the horse was with her, conjoined with her as if they were a unified, mythical creature. The movement of her horse’s slow walking was sensed as closely as her own steps might have been felt. Grace automatically and carefully adjusted to her rider’s shifting weight, and Ronnie tried to make that burden less troublesome to bear as she leaned and flexed over the rough spots in the meadow, its slight climbs and descents. It was restful and natural, and a glimmer of hope was returned to her. The stream was not formidable; it simply was, like the fire, the rhythms of work, and the seasons. She would find a way to work through this barrier, and if it was not possible, then she would search for a way or path, even though it would be different from the one they were on.
Ronnie took up the reins and guided the horse to the stand of trees near the edge of the stream. She tied Grace to the usual branch and forthrightly strode up to the water, wading in and bending down, fanning it with scoops of her hands into glittering sprays caught in sun-flash. Grace turned her back on it, such an obvious maneuver. Ronnie untied her and mounted, facing her away from the water, thinking to move her forward and then to spin her, hoping that the strong motion would inspire her to continue to go ahead, so that they could begin to leave this trouble behind them. Grace was compliant. She trotted vigorously back toward the shadows and then Ronnie spun her and slowed her to walking, and it could have been the tension, the anticipation in Ronnie’s own body which signaled to Grace that the line was approaching, the end of her road on that day. Grace jolted to a halt and stiffened her neck, bunched for an explosion, one which failed to happen because Ronnie acquiesced before the battle had begun. It was pointless. Grace would not cross the water. She would die first. A horse can thrash itself into a frenzy which loses all sense of its origins, a panic fueling itself in a circular sort of war. If a horse is panicked, there must be a reason—it is enough for the panic to be present for the horse to persist until it escapes from its fear, whatever the cause. She would die before crossing the water, or Ronnie would. Grace would never cross that particular water for mysterious reasons, but there were other streams, other situations, and one never knew until it happened where that line must be drawn.