Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: N.H. Luedke
She warmed the bit by wrapping her bare palm around it and smiled slightly as the cold metal pulled the heat from her hand with a bone-crushing ache. Her father had always said she spoiled the horse, but she had ulterior motives. Whether or not the sorrel truly appreciated the care she gave it, she could always count on the fact that, because of her attentions, the horse would be sure to find its way back home.
The animal wasn’t her friend, though, nor was it a pet. It was simply there, and she would talk to it at night while she stripped it of its trappings and gave it a thorough rubbing all over with a piece of old burlap sacking she tucked away for that purpose, but only because she needed to talk after spending the day alone. The flicking ears of the horse didn’t mean it truly listened to her stories and recounts of the day, only that it was anxious for the drink that would follow the rubdown.
On a normal day, when she was done caring for the horse, she would go back into the cabin and clean up the dishes her father left behind, gleaning what scraps she could for herself. She didn’t eat first, as she always led him to believe. He ate more that way, and the fact that his skin sagged gauntly on his bones was proof enough she should continue this deception. Later she would go into the bedroom, remove his boots, and cover his exhausted body with whatever she could to stop his shivering. This had been pretty much her routine except for today. He hadn’t shivered at all when she looked in on him, and she had left the boots on, knowing he wouldn’t tear up the sheet with them tonight.
The little gold her father gleaned from hours of panning, coupled with the few animals he’d trap occasionally from lines patiently tended along the creek, told her how hard he worked to look after his family. Trouble was he had only been going through the motions lately, sometimes even forgetting her name, just coming home every night because it was a habit, the sorrel’s habit, and not because there was someone to come home to. It had been that way ever since her mother died. His soul had died the same day; it just took his body a couple of years to figure that out.
She had noticed his absence much sooner, and that’s because she noticed things. Like the way the sorrel would bring her father back faster if it knew there was a small mash of oats waiting for it, or the fact that the cook who worked the local hotel in town couldn’t make a decent pie to save his life. She took advantage of these details and made use of them. The money she made from selling a pie or two brought in enough money to make more pies, put a little more food on the table at times, and provide those oats the horse came home for. Bit by bit, she saved up enough to buy the wool off a few sheep come shearing time. Eventually there was enough woolen material to spin into a few skeins of yarn, skeins she saved up for two years now and had finally managed to weave into a blanket for her father.
She had been so proud of the Christmas present, knowing it would finally keep her father’s tired body warm. Long into the night she would sit in the small barn and chat with the sorrel as she worked. Sometimes the horse would touch its soft nose to her cheek and she would pat it gently away. The blanket was finished now, as of last night, and she knew she would miss the horse’s company.
She would miss her father, too, she thought, as she led the sorrel out of the barn and mounted it. She glanced over at the dark and cold little cabin and nodded, sure that her father would be safe enough while she went for the doctor – the man who had always promised her he would come out and help her with her father and his growing illness if she ever needed it. Her father had protested this, but she was the practical sort and would ask for the help now. After all, the doctor was a big man, and very strong. He would be able to help her dig the grave, and they could wrap her father’s body in the new blanket, where he would be warm and safe until the Day of Judgment. For now he could rest comfortably beneath it in the bed he had collapsed and died in a scant hour ago. She hadn’t cried yet, just stared at him as he lay there peacefully. He would have liked the blanket and that thought comforted her. It was still her Christmas present to him, just a couple of days early in the giving, that’s all.
The sorrel flicked its ears back as she told it everything that had happened while it had been eating its mash in the barn, and she found the trip to the doctor’s took much less time than she had anticipated. She hadn’t even had time to figure out the best way to ask for his help. Instead she simply told him the story as she had told it to the horse. His ears didn’t flick, she noticed, but his eyes were steady, and bright for some reason. She then turned the sorrel around and headed it for home.
Funny how the horse didn’t give her the same problems her father had complained of. It didn’t try to trot, or run back to the barn. Maybe it was content enough with a belly full of mash and hay, she decided. She gave it a pat and sang softly to it, like she had when she worked on the blanket. After she rubbed it down and then checked on her father, she came back and slept on the hay near the sorrel, acknowledging its velvety nose-kiss goodnight with a gentle pat. She hated leaving her father’s body alone like that, but she needed to hear something breathing sure and steady this evening.
When the morning broke, they arrived, the doctor and his sister, and helped her chisel out a grave in the cold ground and bury her father. They even cried for him when she couldn’t. While they didn’t press anything on her then, they did come around every week to check on her afterwards. She began to notice small things over the months that passed, like how his sister left her a pattern to go by when she bought a bit of material for a new dress with her pie money, or how the doctor would feed the sorrel a bit of carrot as he did his own horses. He’d do it again when she visited them, and she noticed the sorrel seemed to move faster when it knew they were heading for the doctor’s and not just the town nearby.
She smiled at that. The oats had been her way of caring for her father. The sorrel didn’t recognize her ulterior motives as such, it had just remembered the kindness and followed it home. Maybe the doctor had ulterior motives, too; maybe he noticed how often she visited lately. Maybe one day, when she’d had enough time to mourn and think things over, she’d finally accept the doctor’s kind proposal and jump on the sorrel’s back, giving him free rein to take her to his carrots and her new home.