County Finalist in the 2007-2008 IMPAC Writing Contest.
My Short Story…
The Fashion Cart
The one thing, the only thing drilling through my mind as I hobbled and scuffed my way through the tiny, crammed alley, as my back became burdened by a thick cake of sweat and I had to hang my head because the air was so thick–
I didn’t belong here.
In this twisted alley soaked full of garbage, reeking sickly sweet perfume that made even me gag on its fumes, rain had churned the street and its contents to a soggy pulp and now the sticky heat made the odors rise above the streets, alerting every living thing that the place was rotting.
Unbearable, I wheezed, and dropped my head a little lower with each step. Going uphill made the water drain into steamy, smelly pools. The walls seemed too close to allow anything to pass through, and as I did I felt the heat pressing from every corner as well as the irritating hum of the flies. They swarmed the alley, excited at eating another meal alive. They leapt on me and I challenged them.
If I could walk no more I wanted to break away from the alley, shadowed by its brick townhouses, and shrug off the cart that dragged behind and stretched my harness taught during impossible hours of the day. If only I could walk no more; I would be able to run and toss my head freely, keeping my thick mane from sticking to my neck…I’d find a cold-watered brook to wade in before sinking onto the marshy bank, lolling in the sweet-scented grass, and twitching my ears in tune to the giggles of a picnicking couple and the harmonies of the water-bugs.
And after that I could raise my nose and breathe in the wind, blowing back my compliments to the air crisp with the traveling spray of the brook, untamed, unharnessed, and quite unlike me.
The wild fields ornamented in green and gold and the fresh cottony breeze left me with a cart at my back, in the alley of some putrid street where not even the richest could afford the free air.
To picture a woman in her stiff collared, taffeta, dress, counting pennies with packages under blue-sleeved arms! Her lace gloves stumbled in my mind, her mouth curled in a frown.
Not only was the air too expensive for her, I conjured, it was out of fashion.
From the light of the afternoon dulling to gold, and the shadows expanding in the cooling air, I could tell my daily duties were nearly over. I was able to stop the haze of daydreams long enough to realize, and shook my head as much as my martingale would allow. Metal rings on miles of leather straps clinked with every move; something I hadn’t noticed so lost in thought.
He (for I was not alone; I had my driver with me, whistling nonsense to pass his time) eased the reins in his fists left; out of the alley onto the street. I recognized it once I twisted my spine into a C, since I’d walked this way twice before. The stones were worn smooth where hundreds of hooves passed day by day, stumbling and righting themselves and bruised and broken in places where carts had been overturned. The sticky heat was lifted and in its place as the sky darkened with the familiar dusting of stars, was a cool breeze that made the sweat on my back stiffen, and my shoulders quiver.
Two fillies I barely acknowledged trotted by; their silky white tails waved like flags and glowed in the light of the evening lamps. I heard snickers from them that I ignored.
No doubt they were laughing at my homeliness, my lack of motivation to drag a wooden cart, and the inability to travel in the heat of the day without sweating profusely. No doubt they were harnessed up tight with golden buckles and fine oiled leather; their manes braided with silk bows and their heads tied up high so they’d be fashionably suitable to carry their wealthy in bejeweled carriages. I tilted my head to the side, chomping my bit in a very unladylike way, as the carriage paused and the fillies pawed the ground, feigning impatience. Two women dressed identically stepped into the carriage, giggling and fanning themselves, holding parasols in the dark while the fillies danced.
Flighty mares, I thought, turning back to the road again, half-hoping it was changed into some other place. Already I wanted to be lost from that world again, a world of silliness and fashion that didn’t make sense to me. I let my eyes drop with my slow, even steps, and the hollow rhythm of my hooves hitting the stones took me far, far away.
My body tensed. I crouched, as well as I could, easing my foreleg into the soft ground. The muscles in my shoulders rippled as a crisp breeze shook the blades of grass under my barrel.
I exhaled, swiveling my ears back against my head. The little tuft I had of a tail I swished impatiently and stepped with my hind hooves, back, forth, back forth, while the colts beside me breathed sharply in anticipation.
Buff Low Bill, the red colt to the left of me, winked as his fringe of mane danced, and hollered for the rest of us to hear, even the fillies grazing at the other end of the pasture pretending not to notice.
“Take your mark, if you think you’re colt enough! If y’all think you gots the guts and strength to challenge the rest of us… ’specially if you’re a filly…and if you think you ain’t got it; leave this line now while you can!”
A few colts tossed their heads and glanced around, to see who might drop out. Some of the smallest and youngest took tentative steps backwards and then on spindly legs cantered away before they could take nips from the big colts. I was small, having been born out of a dying mare, though that didn’t stop me from joining the colts in their intense—and sometimes dangerous—races.
I stayed in line.
Even with the missing numbers there was still enough for a decent run. Billy rolled his eyes at the rest of us, and catching my glance he pawed with his fore hoof and snatched up a bit of grass, chewing and spitting the cud at my feet with a grin. I lashed it right back at him, and it splattered on his cheek. He wasn’t smiling anymore.
Pressing my hooves into the grass, so hard that I made indentations in the dirt, I listened for Billy’s countdown.
“We have our numbers!” He bellowed. “Around the pasture, follow the fence, all the way round, you know the course, you know the rules! On four…three…two…”
I let the muscles in my hind legs tighten as I crouched, ready to spring like a hare chased by hounds.
Every hoof soared off the ground at once. For a moment I was flying, my dark legs outstretched as my neck grasped toward the rush of wind, my short mane too short to fly but my tail trailing behind my hindquarters. I touched the dirt and collected myself up quickly, galloping between colts who would give me no mercy. My head was pounding through the rush, my hooves already churning up sod. I passed the colts already beginning to tire, but Billy was still in front, lazily galloping as if he knew he was going to win.
I was far behind but pushed myself farther. My small muzzle and lungs weren’t prepared for such an effort, my nostrils flared and dripped as I opened my mouth and sprinted, flattening my ears and dipping my head for more speed. I eyed the two colts directly ahead, neck and neck, who were nipping and kicking at each other as they ran. I gathered my weight, as I was smaller, and eased between them and the fence, hugging the rail. The big colt next to me snapped at my neck and shoved his hind end into mine. My side grazed the fence, leaving painful gashes. I kept galloping, shoving the colt back, raising my forelegs high to break out in front, now headed for the final competitor.
There was a thick stretch of turf before I could reach Billy, and I was beginning to gasp for air, but I strained and lengthened my stride till his big chestnut body was nearly even with mine. The wind was swirling in my ears, and I could nearly hear the horses in the other pastures cheering as I rushed past, taking note of the thrill as Billy’s eye rolled to mine. We exchanged a surprised look full of determination, still galloping as only we could, our hooves beating the ground together, him having some advantage with his height, but our heads dipped and we gulped air and stretched our necks, throwing ourselves forward, neither faster than the other.
The finish approached and we sprinted, trying to gain an inch, and suddenly the ground rushed backwards in a smudge of color and sound. I took a glance at Billy. He was breathing heavily, slowly taking in air and leaping forwards; it seemed, in slow motion. I looked down at my own legs and collected that my body was coiling and uncoiling in the same way. Our manes flew back and whipped our necks, and our tails flowed like flags behind our backs. His red legs matched mine, and I heard the cries of the colts long before left in the dust.
My chest cavity, especially my heart, swelled with exhilaration. For several moments the world was silent and there was nothing in mind but the patient beating of my heart and the strength of my lungs expanding, my eyes focusing solely on the line ahead and what it meant for each of us. Billy caught my glance and at the last possible second, I let a surge of longing hurtle me towards the finish. It wasn’t enough, though, and Billy and I finished nose-to-nose, slowly swallowing the air.
I cantered slowly, and trotted off the race, shaking my mane which contained clods of dirt and dust, dropping my head to snort out brown slime. The pumping muscle in my chest was hammering at a frightening rate while my legs shivered and the iron engine in me steamed as it slowly cooled down.
“Hey,” Billy called, trotting to me. He was almost a month older, and his mane, though short like all foals’, was beginning to grow long enough to touch the nape of his neck. “Good run.”
I snorted and dug my hind legs into the ground. “I woulda won,” I commented, holding my chin high.
Billy let loose a whinny of laughter. “Just like a filly,” he grinned. “You ain’t got a chance of winnin’ here.”
I frowned as he trotted away, receiving congratulations for his supposed win. I shook my head at the sky and kicked at a stray rail, easing my weight into the fence and glancing at my new gashes. Battle scars, I thought with a smile, while I watched the scene. Older horses chuckled at their foals’ play, thinking it all a game or some child’s idea of fun, while the foals knew the races between the colts and I were a daily challenge, and we ran every afternoon. Even as rain battered our pasture and melted the dirt, we ran. It was all that mattered; all that we lived for. We took it too seriously.
Billy walked proudly into the crowd of fillies giggling and getting gutsy at his race run. The fillies smirked, all show and no courage, some of them moving off to stand with the most handsome of the colts. But out of them all, it was Billy who called himself and was treated, the leader. He was the strongest and the fiercest, and everyone knew that if anyone had the bravery, or stupidity, to challenge him as leader, it was me.
I wasn’t loved for it. I slept outside every night, even when I missed the safety and dryness of the stables. The wall of sturdy trees became my stall, the ripe green grass my bedding, and the coal-black sky dusted with glitter was my protective roof. While the foals munched their hay and expensive bagged oats I preferred sweet wild grass and while the others stood to be groomed daily, their manes trimmed and hooves oiled, I allowed my coat to become dusty and uneven, dulling my vibrant red-bay coloring. I didn’t let it bother me, even when the fillies scrunched their noses. While they had to be roughly scrubbed and scoured; their heads held as powerful blasts of water made them whinny, I was clean and sharp after standing for a few moments under the rain.
I shrugged off the usual burden and stepped up to the line, inviting Billy to come along for another race. A few moments pounding the turf, the scent of the wind and feeling of my black mane and tail dragging through it…no harness and no luxury could give me more glory than to run.
This time I’d win, I pledged, and show them all.
I caught my hoof on a stone and with a snort I jerked my head up, ready to rear and fight away the pain until I remembered I was trapped between the shafts of the cart. There was nowhere to go to escape, just forward.
With each step now drawled anger and resentment at choosing to spend my time remembering those races, at re-living the past and scorning everything to the right and left of me. The night wind flourished on mane and tail and drove the last of my sweat away; the dusting of stars winked and prodded, like spurs. The driver halted me as we made our last stop of the day outside a fancy store, the last before driving me back to the livery. As I looked on, a pretty girl in a fluffy, lacy dress stood hands-on-hips beside a gold pony and sidesaddle. Both girls’ blonde manes were curled up in blue ribbons, and an ornamental blue quilt sat under a spotless deep-brown leather sidesaddle. It stunk with cleanness.
With a sneer and a quick assessment with her eyes, the gold pony lifted her regal head with purpose. “What’s wrong with you?” she mouthed, recognizing me from so long ago.
The words had the effect of poison on me, or perhaps a dart, jabbed into tender places. So much malice, so much hurt, packaged up in such a careless act of speech. I wanted to retort, to spit foam in the pretty little face, but thought better of it as I stared upon the shining pony. She was as beautiful as a new cent piece might be, warm and softening in a little girl’s hot hands till she discarded it and without the attention it became worn and hard and cold.
I had learned more about her in a moment than she could ever know of me. Her stupid words played around in my head till I had to succumb to their prodding. Think it over, and spit back at her, they said.
What was wrong with me? The day I was broken in I was tied and marched in a trailer with men holding my head and my hobbled legs. And all I could hear was the fillies’ remarks, outside in the free air, as they watched.
“There was certainly something wrong with that one,” a voice had said. It was the golden voice. “Good riddance.”
“Fashion,” was my reply to the Golden Girl, without a doubt.
How could something feel so right to me but look so wrong in the eyes of others? It was fashion; fashion that did it all. I wanted to gallop and it was not acceptable. I wanted freedom, independence, and the satisfaction of having both, rather than having the satisfaction of walking through the streets prettied up. To me, fashion kept everything harnessed; trapped, in fact, between the shafts of a cart, compressed and conformed, dragging its weight. And now, miserably, as I looked over at my driver handing a box to the gold pony’s mistress, I realized that was undoubtedly so. The box was filled with fineries and the pony gave me a sharp smirk of smugness.
“You’ve been taking your hated fashion to the city all along,” she sneered. “Hypocrite.”
The driver sat back and flicked the reins, and I was off again, trailing through the alleyways till my misery was all but cleared and I could lift my head.
Like a dream I was unhitched from the cart and galloping, weaving thundered hoof-trails in the streets and pounding down walls and feeling the wind return to my mane. I missed you, it cooed. I tossed my head and my hooves shattered stones while I galloped, breaking fields, clear over the fence to the skies and pounding turf till I could see Billy’s red face again, the colt cocking a hind leg in the pasture where I was born.
“So,” he grinned, all full of pluck at my return. “You ready to race again?”
I took my place beside him near the fence, like always.
“On your mark, get set, go…”