Saturday, October 30, 2010

In which we celebrate Saturday stories: a spooky horse story

Last year, I posted a recording of the story I'm writing for you this year. If you want to hear it, the archived recording is here. It's not a great recording, which is why I wanted to publish it as a printed piece this year.

And by the way: it's scary.

I just wanted to warn you.

Devilment

When I was growing up, we always called the farmland up near the Canadian border “the north county.” My hometown was a timber and fishing town, but just a few miles north of town is where farmers have lived for generations, growing their crops of corn and wheat.

They’re a quiet, sober lot mostly, up in the north county, not given to weird behavior or crazy superstitions. But they do have an interesting habit: every year after harvest is finished and before winter settles in for the long haul, they braid red thread or red yarn into the manes of all their horses. They leave those red threads braided into their horses’ manes from October until at least New Year’s. They don’t talk about it. But they all do it.

And finally, after living in the north county for almost ten years, I got somebody to tell me why:

In the early 1900’s in the north county, there was a man lived there who was rich. He wasn’t rich from being a doctor, although he was a doctor, and a good one. He’d probably delivered almost every baby in the north county for more than 30 years. But in those days, you didn’t get rich from being a doctor. Payment for delivering a baby was usually a piglet, or a young calf. Payment for nursing somebody through the measles was sometimes a couple of chickens, or a nice big pumpkin. You didn’t get rich from being a doctor.

He also wasn’t rich from being a farmer, although he had 40 good acres planted in corn and wheat. Farmers don’t get rich—not now, and not then. You don’t get rich from being a farmer.

No, this man wasn’t rich from being a doctor or a farmer. He got rich from horses. He bred, and raised, and trained, and raced horses.

Horse racing in those days wasn’t like now, with fancy groomed tracks, and computerized betting. Horse racing in the north county in those days was a bunch of farmers who’d get together at the fairgrounds on Saturday night, hitch their fastest horses up to their Sunday buggies, and run them around the track, and a bit of money goes to the fastest. Not a lot of money, because nobody had a lot of money to spend on horse racing, usually not more than a hundred bucks.

But if you almost always won the horse races, well, that can make into a lot of money.

And this rich man I was telling about, he almost always won the weekly races, because he had gone up to Canada and gotten himself a fine, fast, strong, mare that he called “Caribou.” He’d paid almost a thousand dollars for that horse, and none of his neighbors could believe that anybody would pay that much money for a horse, but he’d done it.

Caribou was a fine horse, and this rich man, he loved to brag on her. “My Caribou is the fastest, the strongest, the gentlest horse in the whole north county!” he would say to anyone who would listen.

And she was. She won nearly every race at the fairgrounds. She worked hard pulling stumps and hauling the farm wagon, and yet she was gentle enough for the doctor’s young daughters to hitch her up to the buggy all by themselves on Sunday mornings.

Now, the doctor’s wife was canny. Her family had been in the north county long before most white folks had moved there, and she knew things. She cautioned the doctor not to brag about his horse, because she feared that the bragging might bring down devilment upon them.

The doctor scoffed at this talk. “Devilment!” he snorted. “I am a man of science, a doctor of medicine. I don’t believe in primitive devilment.”

And after that, the wife didn’t say much. But she always looked worried when she heard her husband bragging on that horse.

Well, one night, at the end of harvest, one of the farmers had a party to celebrate the christening of his baby daughter. Everybody was there, and of course the doctor went too—hadn’t he delivered this child himself? And, of course, he rode his fine mare Caribou to the party. Everybody tied up their horses out at the hitching post by the house, and went in to join the merriment, and that’s what the doctor did, leaving Caribou standing quietly until he was ready to go home.

But when he came back out at the end of the party, he was shocked. Somebody had been riding his horse! Caribou was covered in sweat, shivering violently in the night air, knots tangled deeply into her mane, and worst of all, when he reached out to comfort her, she tried to bite him!

The doctor calmed her down, and walked her back home, set her into a big box stall filled with straw and some hay and left her for the night. One of his neighbors had played an awful trick on him, treating his Caribou in such a way, but she’d surely be better again by morning.

But in the morning, she hadn’t touched her hay or her water. The sweat was dried on her sides, and the knots in her mane wouldn’t untangle no matter how hard he tugged and cussed at them. He decided to leave her in the stall for the day to rest, and he took another horse out that day instead.

In the evening, his Caribou seemed better, calmer, and she ate a few wisps of hay from his hand, so he left her in the stall overnight.

When he went out to the stable in the morning, however, he was horrified: someone had taken his horse again! She was steaming hot and salty, her tail knotted into a locked mess, and this time when he reached out to comfort her, Caribou raised up and struck at him with her foot!

Now, it’s one thing to play a bad trick on somebody at a party, to ride a horse secretly and then put it back like that. But it’s another thing entirely to come into a man’s stable at night and take a horse out—and to use her so badly! The doctor was appalled.

He stayed with her through the morning, speaking softly and coaxing her to eat from his hand. But the mare would neither eat nor drink, though she did consent at last to allow him to lay a hand on her hot skin.

He left her there in the stall and thought about her as he walked back up to the house for his lunch. He told his good wife about the horrible trick somebody had played on him, taking his horse and treating her so, and wondered who would be so cruel.

The wife said nothing, but only looked away. When the doctor questioned her, she said only one word: “Devilment.” The doctor laughed bitterly, and told her that it was devilment, indeed—the devilment of one of his neighbors or their kids.

That night, the doctor chained the doors of the stable shut, and locked the chain with a big padlock.

In the morning, he opened the padlock and loosened the chains. The doors had clearly stayed closed throughout the night…but when he went inside to feed Caribou her hay, he found her steaming hot, covered in sweat, with her mane and tail knotted to the roots. And when he reached out to her, she fled to the far corner of the stall, trembling.

The doctor returned to the house, musing about the treatment somebody was giving to his horse, and determined to stop it. His wife heard his mutterings, and spoke up.

“That mare has got devilment,” she told him, “and it’s your bragging that’s brought it. Now there’s devilment here, and not many ways to send it away. That devilment will come back for your horse tonight, and if she goes away with it, she won’t ever come back.”

The doctor was unwilling to believe in primitive superstitions like devilment. He was convinced that it was some mean-spirited neighbor, or even a stranger who kept taking his horse and doing so badly by her.

But the wife would not the issue go. “To save your horse, you need to bring her water from the fresh-running creek behind the house. Not water from the well. She must have a bucket of water from the creek. To save your horse, you must tie a silver dollar around her neck. Put a hole in the coin, and string it through, and tie it around her neck to save her. You must also braid three pieces of red thread into her mane. Only these things will keep her safe, and you must do them yourself, to save your horse.

The doctor let her talk, but he didn’t believe anything of what she said. He gave his horse a fresh pile of hay, and filled her bucket with water from the well. He did not tie a silver dollar around her neck. He did not braid red threads into her mane. He locked her into the stable with chains and a padlock…and then he set out on the front porch of the house with his shotgun to wait.

The hours passed by slowly, and the man had plenty of time to think about his good, fast, strong, gentle horse. Round about midnight, he started to have some thoughts about doubting his wife’s advice. Hell, he had a silver dollar right here in his pocket. Who would know if he strung it around Caribou’s neck? A bucket of water from the creek? The creek wasn’t any further from the stable than the well was. Why shouldn’t his good mare drink creek water? And his wife’s sewing basket was just inside the door—he could pull out some red threads and braid them into his horse’s mane, it would hardly be a bother at all.

He had just resolved to go fetch water from the creek when he heard a terrible sound from inside the stable. At first he didn’t know what the sound could be, and then he recognized it: he had heard similar cries when a neighbor’s barn had caught fire. The neighbor's horses had been trapped inside the burning building, and the cries he heard now sounded just like that.

He dropped the shotgun and ran towards the padlocked barn doors when he heard a gigantic crash and Caribou burst through the doors as if she had been shot from a cannon. Her eyes rolled back in her head with fear and on her back…well, the doctor could never really describe the figure on the back of his horse, but would only say that it seemed to be made entirely of fire.

Caribou raced past the doctor, faster than she’d ever run on the fairground racetrack, and headed down the driveway and out onto the road down towards the river. He could hear her screaming as she ran.

And then, there was silence.

In the morning, the doctor and his neighbors followed the horse’s tracks down the road and into the river. The tracks did not come out the other side. That good, strong, fast, gentle mare was never seen again.

Nobody talked about where Caribou had gone. Nobody ever said a word about her, ever again, to that doctor. He raised horses until his dying day, and he raced some of them too. But you would never hear him brag about them, no, never again.

And to this day, each year, after the harvest is in but before the winter settles in for the long haul, the quiet, sober farmers of the north county carefully groom each of their horses and braid three pieces of red thread into the mane of each one.

Just in case.

Monday, October 25, 2010

In which poetry is one of those things I spend time with each morning

I love Garrison Keillor. I love his voice, I love his humor, and I love his Writer's Almanac. And I love the poem he featured yesterday, and want to share it with the horse-loving blogosphere...with photos from Haiku Farm.

Enjoy!

"Gold Horse, Brown Horse" by Candace Black

In the pasture behind
the house, an island of berries
ripens in the summer
heat. They will grow
plump, darker than garnets, then shrivel
away, or rotting, fall
to the brambles, tasted only by birds,
field mice.

Two horses graze
here.

They watch from a distance as you
whistle, their ears shifting with each
variation.

One morning they reward
you and stand at the fence, flies
clinging to the moist corners
of their eyes.

They know
how to take the offered
apple, even from a child's hand.

Brownie
shies from the gold one.

She comes
only when he moves on, and then
with hesitation.


You stroke her forehead's
blaze, give her your palm to smell,
to nuzzle.

Late August,
two horses rolling in the afternoon dust.

p.s. Although Mr Keillor's staff requests and receives permission from publishers to post poetry online, I do not, and my "staff" (Luna) does not. Read and enjoy, before the copyright police come a-knocking.

Coming soon: another scary story!