Bad Hoss

Hailey Neal

“She had reverted in a week to a feral state, and became thereafter a myth and legend in the neighborhood.”

~Captain Gilbert Blaine

The kids were gone. First night. Jodi herself had to bring the horses in. Apple wouldn’t come. She brayed at Jodi confusedly. Even though Jodi had been the one who saved her, who nursed her wounds after the rescue and paid for her vet visits, she always preferred Layla’s company. For five years now Layla had been letting the horses in at night. It was the one chore Jodi didn’t have to ask her to do. Now Jodi couldn’t even remember how the latch worked. Not that it would matter. Apple didn’t seem to have any intention of coming in.

“Apple, get your sorry spoiled ass over here.” Apple trotted in a circle, lifting her knees extra high in a taunt. “I’m not messing with you, Apple. Come here. Now.” Apple lowered her head in mock civility and lifted her mane and tousled it. She bounded up the hillside in the direction of the tree line and looked back at Jodi from the far side of the grass. Jodi swore and turned her back. What’s the worst that happens to horses who spend the night outside? If she doesn’t like it, or something bad happens, that will teach her to come when she is called.

Jodi walked back up the 4-class road in the direction of the house. Lovers Lane they used to call it. When she and Sean bought this property, it seemed like something dropped straight out of a Henry James novel. There were no houses in sight in any direction and the road softly disappeared both ways in two-hundred-year-old oak groves. Wildflowers sprouted from every surface on the property. They were so omnipresent they practically sprung out of their morning coffee cups. They used to walk Layla up and down along these ruined stone fences back when she had colic. They’d walk shoulder in shoulder, at three in the morning, while Jodi held Layla by her bum with the other hand in Sean’s pocket. It was almost nice in the delirium of their exhaustion. The way highway gas stations are nice just before dawn. The stars were always so bright they made sleep improbable, and frogs sang from the weeds. Like the whole world performing only for itself, because it knows anyone else is dreaming.

Now shadows danced over the deep plum sky. The trees moved in sway in a way that reminded Jodi of how Sean’s hair used to flop in the morning. The deep darkness of the fields and ominous looming barn didn’t scare Jodi anymore. This is where her children were reared. If anything popped out of those bushes, she’d send it right back where it came from. She’d made the transition from city slicker to wild thing long ago. This was her territory now.

When she got back to the house, she set her jacket on the old, half-plucked toy giraffe and picked up the phone. They still kept one of those old 90’s landlines that looked like a Dell computer. Well, she still kept it. Cell phones were still a novel concept this far up the mountain and anyway she liked the smooth tactile feel of a real phone in her hand. It reminded her of summer camp and packed lunches. It reminded her of block cookouts and fire hydrants torn from their hinges. Somehow, no matter who she was calling on a landline, she always felt like an old school crush might just pick up the phone.

“Yello,” Sean answered.

“Heya, just checkin’ in.” The line was silent. “How’s everybody settling in over there?”

“Fine, fine. Hold on a second.” Muffled movement. The sound of a pan dropping.

 Layla picked up first. “Hey mom, what’s up?” She sounded out of breath.

 “Bed check. You guys get your rooms all set up yet?”

“Almost. Annie’s helping us put beaded curtains in my room. You know how I’ve always wanted beaded curtains.” She did. She had no doubt that Annie did too.

“Is your brother there?” She could hear grenades going off in the background and her son laughing at something on the screen.

Josh! Mom wants to talk to you.

Tell her I’ll call her back. Fired bullets.

“Um, he says he’ll call you back.”

 “Okay, babe. Hey, any tricks for getting Apple to come in in the evening?”

“You know you gotta bring an apple for her. Usually, if you hold it out, she comes right to you.”

An apple for Apple, Jodi thought. Of course.

Soccer practice was the drop-off point. Josh was hardly a Lionel Messi and Jodi found it excruciating to watch, even when the older kids were playing. The narrow school street that fed into the elementary school was not zoned for large volumes of traffic and consequently cars branched out of every slot like mutant hairs sprouting from a single follicle. Parents communed in clumps along the sidelines. Fathers swayed like saplings, grasping toddlers by their wrists. Mothers sprinted up and down the sidelines pointing iPhones. Red-faced children lay belly-up in the grass.

Through the crowd of SUVs and Volkswagen Beetles, Josh would eventually pop up in the little V of the soccer field Jodie could see through the dashboard. He ran like a grasshopper who couldn’t hop, as if his legs had been built for some other purpose. Even though he was all lean, prepubescent muscle in his stringy, gangly limbs, his mind didn’t quite seem to have full authority over them yet. He formed a sort of drunken stumble around the ball that made Jodi smile. She enjoyed viewing the spectacle at a safe and comfortable, sound-proofed distance. She had no intention of getting out for a closer look.

Sean and Annie were two posts on the far side of the field. She recognized Sean by the salmon-colored Martha’s Vineyard baseball cap the kids had bought for him on their 10th anniversary family trip. No doubt, he had forgotten the occasion on which it was purchased and thought of it now only as a memento of his affection for the kids, or worse, didn’t think of it but to shield him from the sun. 

Annie had the look of someone who got just about everything she ever wanted. She looked like a regular mother, two hands on her back, belly-out. Almost like she was supporting an extra… no, it was too early for Annie to be pregnant, wasn’t it? Jodi did not want to think about that.

She reached forward and fiddled with the dial on the dashboard. That’s when she saw it, a flash of something, right across the corner of the windshield, bolt across the road.

Annie perked up and leaned forward enough to see two black disks gleaming from behind the mesh fence. She got out of her car and crossed the road. It was weird to be standing here, a somewhat forbidden feeling, set so far back from the other parents with all the noise of the match going on. Down the steep weeded slope of the road, Jodi saw the flash again, and a mangy looking cat peered out at her from behind an empty drum barrel. The cat was diseased-looking and confused, red and white with spots of brown which might have been fur or cakes of mud. It watched Jodi with a frozen wide-eyed terror but didn’t move. Its eyes were gunked almost shut in the corners with a black goo, and one of the ears was chewed a little at the tip, still sore and oozing from a previous scrabble.

Jodi crouched into the cigarette-littered gravel and army-crawled under the guard rail. She was careful to move slowly, as much not to disturb the cat as not to attract any awkward attention from the other laissez-faire parents still sitting in their cars. For five still minutes she pushed through the dusty grass, ignoring the urge to itch as it grazed her cheeks and forehead. A long time ago a somewhat nervous seeming city doctor had proclaimed her allergic to grass, though Jodi, who was incredibly adept at avoiding nature for a “farmer’s wife,”had never had cause to think of it until now. The stray watched her from its spot behind the fence but made no attempt to move. In fact, it sat perfectly still, almost frozen, rigid-like with its back arched up in a perfect rainbow.

Jodi inched close enough she could almost reach out to it. The cat didn’t so much as breathe out as it watched her approach, one paw lifted, hovering over the grass. So as not to spook it, Jodi let herself relax, just pushing her neck muscles up to look at it, and rested her chin on her two hands. The cat didn’t move away but it also didn’t give any sign of friendliness towards her. In its eyes there was something wild, like the look of the jungle cats on the Planet Earth specials. Still, she watched, and waited, staring deeply into its speckled eyes searching for some sign of trusting, some element of human kindness.

Moomm?!” She heard from the direction of her car behind her. She twitched reflexively at the sound and the cat startled. It bolted, belly-low, into the tree line.

That night, after she got the kids through dinner and they were safely zoning out on their chosen screens, she called animal control.

“Hi, you’ve reached Henry Belknap of the Upper Valley fish and wildlife department. If you are calling about licensing for the upcoming season, please hang up and call our downtown office at…” Henry was famous for not answering his phone unless there was something really intriguing like a Bigfoot sighting or a suspected catamount. She tried the local shelter next.

The person who answered was a cheerful sounding woman who could not have been more than twenty-four. “Hi, you’ve reached Sally’s Sanctuary. Rebecca speaking, how may I help you?”

Hi Rebecca, this is Jodi Emmons here. I want to report a stray cat sighting by the Rock Point soccer field.”

Typing. Silence. “Okayyy Jodi, I’m happy to help you with that. Where did you say you saw the stray again?”

 “Rock Point.”

 “And you said that was a cat, is that correct?”

 “Yes, that’s what I said.”

“Can you give us any more details about the cat? It’s color? Where was it hiding?

Suddenly Jodi could not remember anything specific. “Um, it was sort of brownish? I think it might have had some red colors in it, though that could have been blood.”

“Okay, Jodi, we’ll send one of our cat-chers down to have a look. Can I take a number?”

As soon as Jodi got off the phone, she felt a surge of anxiety she could not account for. She went back to the kitchen to wash up after dinner but felt irritated at everything. She was making a mess with the bubbles and all the pans seemed too big to fit in the sink. What’s the point of having animal control if they don’t pick up when you call? And that woman, Rebecca, didn’t sound nearly serious enough about the fact that there was a half-dead cat wandering around behind a children’s soccer field.

Even after the kids went up to their rooms, and Jodi had turned off all the lights in the house, she still couldn’t stop thinking about it. She lay in bed and looked up at the black ceiling. Light from the moon began to flood in and glow off of everything. Jodi heard a suspicious trot just under the window outside. That damn horse, she thought. She was gonna have to talk to Layla in the morning. The teen had spent the entire evening after dinner typing to her friends and completely ignoring her barn chores.

Jodi sat up and untangled her old white MacBook from the ethernet cable. The glow from the home screen burned her eyes for a minute. It was a bright blue picture of her and the two kids at Bar Harbor. Sean had taken it. She considered replacing it with something dimmer as she opened Facebook and logged in.

Initially, Jodi only used Facebook for a few key purposes, mainly to keep up with her nieces and share the odd anecdote or Irish prayer. Over the last few years, however, it seemed even the middle-aged community had taken most of their business online. Now she felt she had to log on to see what was happening in the circles she cared about: “Super Felt Mommies,” and “Free-range Chicken Enthusiasts.” Jodi clicked on “Upper Valley Moms” and began to write:

Spotted stray cat by Rock Point soccer field. White and red colors. Looks injured. If you see it please call 802-456-8302.

The next morning when Jodi checked her post there were only a few likes and sad faces

from the early-rising moms, but nobody had bothered to comment or message. All morning, she couldn’t shake the same funk from the night before. She wanted to scream at her children as they dilly-dallied in the bathroom. Layla went back three times for something she had forgotten, her backpack or a homework assignment, as they waited for her in the running car. By the time she reached the clinic, and began to take messages and sign in the early morning patients waiting at reception, she could barely bring herself to be nice to anybody.

She could feel her viciousness but couldn’t help it: Dr. Kirk was late with no notice, of course. The old lady who had been waiting indignantly at the doors before opening, as though the scheduled office hours were holding her up, filled her paperwork in all wrong. And even the cleaners who came in the evening had skipped corners all over the office, so that even when Jodi looked up, she was bothered by the oddly shaped cut-outs of dust under chairs only she could see from her angle. All day long she opened her Facebook and refreshed it but still no messages, and no more likes. She thought about the cat more often than she expected. While she was putting back a file or sharpening a pencil. She wondered if the cat had made it somewhere safe and what it was eating. She tried not to think about it splayed all over the road.

It was a busy afternoon in the clinic. They had a pregnant woman who came in complaining of blood in her stool and a 12-year-old boy who had stapled his thumb to his ear on a dare. After lunch she didn’t have time to go pee let alone to check if anyone had responded to her post. She left the office late, and no doubt Sean would have something to say about the kids sitting in the principal’s office after hours again. She rushed home with them, hoping her sincere apologies (and the powdered doughnuts she had grabbed on her way over) would be enough to stop them from telling their dad. She made a quick dinner of hot dogs and mac & cheese, which of course, they were thrilled about. Then she let them zone out on the TV for as long as they wanted so she could go be alone in her room, online.

This time when Jodi checked her Facebook there was a loud little red 2 under her messages tab. She held her breath as she opened the first message. It read:

Hi Jodi! I hope this message finds you well! I just wanted to let you know that I think we found the cat you posted about! We currently have her quarantined here in our office copy-room and will be bringing her to the vet’s later this afternoon. It took our office staff like 2 hours to catch her. She’s not the friendliest little lady… anyway, if you are interested you can come down to the O’Donnel real estate building behind the Unitarian Church on High Street.

Just under that message there was an update postmarked 2 hours later from the same sender. Mrs. Caroline Rigley’s profile picture was a wedding photo of her and her conspicuously short husband, gazing dramatically at each other. The second message read:

Hey Jodi! Just wanted to update you re: the cat situation. So we brought her to the vet just now and the vet was absolutely unable to get close to her. She actually injured the vet tech who had to go to the hospital to get stitches. They said she was too wild and we should probably just release her where we found her. Obviously, none of us is too keen on letting her go but there’s nobody here at the office who can take her. Let us know if you or someone you know can help out. Otherwise we’ll probably just let her out in the morning…

The message was followed by a short video clip. Jodi clicked it and the video made a high screeching sound. It was the same cat Jodi had seen by the soccer field, jumping violently all the way from the floor of a vet’s office to the top of the air conditioning which hung from the ceiling– in one acrobatic feat. The cat mewled wildly as one of the vet techs shook a net at it. Then it dropped like superman and caught its claws into the vet-techs shirt, howling while whoever was holding the camera gasped and the video went black.

Jodi wrote back immediately:


The next morning, as Jodi drove, she had the ridiculous feeling she was about to give birth to something. She had that same feeling she had just before her children were born: that feeling of blind determination that blocks out all the other noises in the head. She felt an uncharacteristic indignant rage towards the people at the real estate office. How could these people threaten to release a cat like that back onto the streets? They had a responsibility. Jodi thought about the human capacity for cruelty in the world and gripped the steering wheel. She shuddered and her heart fluttered.

When she stormed into the real estate office, Jodi felt like she was arriving to break up a wedding. “Jodi Emmons,” she practically shouted at the meek looking high school girl manning the desk. “I’m here about the cat you guys have. Caroline messaged me.”

The girl looked her up and down as though she had just come in from a storm. “Umm.. hold on a second…” she practically whispered and she got up and disappeared into the next room.

In a second, Caroline came out with a few of her co-workers who must have all been involved in the rescue. They were smiling with an irritating calmness as they made their introductions and walked together behind the front desk and into the back offices. Jodi felt out of place in all her furiousness, as though she dressed for the wrong party. These people were the picture of civility, no more aggravated than if they had just come back from a nice, long lunch.

The older gentleman pointed to a plastic crate next to the copier. “Well, we finally got ‘er in there. Took a couple a’hands worth of effort I can tell you that. Anyway, if you think you know what you can do with ‘er we’re all happy to hand ‘er off.”

Jodi squatted down and duck-waddled closer to the cage. The same wild eyes she remembered from the soccer match watched her with a calculated rage. The cat hardly moved, even to breathe, which was eerily disconcerting, as unpredictable and dangerous as a serial killer in a suit.

She grabbed the handle of the crate and raised it level with her eyes as she stood up. “Careful there,” the older gentleman cautioned. “She’s meaner than she looks.”

The directions from the vet were hand scrawled in red ink over the receipt: Clear out a small room and remove hiding places or hazards. Keep feral cat in large cage for at least two weeks with fresh food, water, bedding, and a litter box. KEEP SEPARATE FROM OTHER ANIMALS. Paper clipped to the back of the folded papers was a brochure in thicker, colorful cardstock: Outdoor Cats FAQ ~ Upper Valley Humane Society. At the top of the cover page, above a picture of a bobcat that had clearly been altered to look like a stray, was a question haphazardly printed in white comic sans: Is it safe to take in a feral cat?

Jodi spent the afternoon preparing the spare bedroom and running errands back and forth to the pet store. She got a hot-pink chinchilla cage that she lay sideways and covered with a sheepskin blanket. She laboriously took the mattress off the bed and laid it against the wall so if the cat got out it wouldn’t be able to hide from her. She asked the kids to help her and they were excited at first but Josh stuck his hand in the crate early on and got scratched. After that both kids made their rampant displeasure known. Jodi tried to coerce them to sit in the room with it and use the wand to scratch its head. “It needs to get used to humans,” she told them. Layla was in there for at least two hours but when Jodi finally peaked in, she realized that the girl had just used the opportunity to be on her laptop undisturbed and had actually barricaded the poor animal off from view with the upright mattress. The kids both seemed entirely grown up about the whole thing in a curmudgeonly-old-man way and Jodi was surprised at them. She had hoped this might be something they could do together, to bond them, but so far it had only proved to deepen their lack of faith in her judgment.

Most of the first day the animal was in shock and made relatively no noise or movement. It was only after the following day when Jodi dropped the kids off with their father it started to cause problems. Sean stood outside her car window while he clung to Annie like a snake clings to a wall. “I hear you have a wild animal at the house?” Sean still insisted on calling it the house even though he knew full well that the divorce proceedings had granted it entirely to her.

“It’s a cat, Sean,” Jodi said, pinching her thumb under the steering wheel.

“Josh showed me the cut on his hand. That cat is a wild animal.” Jodi was silent and looked ahead through the windshield at a gust of wind that wrestled a few leaves to the ground. “Come on, Jodi, you’re an adult person. It’s your job to make responsible choices for the children you already have not… whatever this is… this… desperate pet project.” Jodi still didn’t respond, just looked at Annie who was squirming out of Sean’s grip and looking positively flushed under her sun hat. This gave Jodi courage.

“Sean,” Jodi tried an exasperated air and looked him dead on, “if I wanted your opinion on how to raise my children, I wouldn’t have divorced you. Now, if you have any issues with what I do with my time in my house, I suggest you consult our custody agreement.” She fired up, waved to the kids who were spectating from the backseat of Sean’s car, and peeled backwards out into the street.       

That was reckless, she thought as she drove around the corner. Sean and Annie had been standing too close to the car, she could have really hurt them, drove over a toe or something. The thought gave her pleasure. But she knew the price now, Sean was going to be extra difficult after how she spoke to him. She would have to call in a few hours to apologize. The way Sean questioned her sanity, even with his noncommittal cool-guy asides, had a way of reverberating throughout the whole family. She had been at this long enough to know what game she was playing: perpetual defense. He would always be the strong man with a fat bank account and as long as he didn’t choose her, didn’t want her, she would always be a stone’s throw from insanity in any judge’s eyes; even, and these days it seemed especially, in her children’s.

That night she didn’t sleep. Or for any nights soon after. The cat had now grown accustomed to its new prison and began to mewl insufferably in the nighttime. It would howl so loud Jodi would get up from her bed and walk across the house to check on it, fearing it had tangled itself somehow and was crying out in pain. As soon as she turned the lights on, though, it would freeze and stare at her with a vicious and plotting hate. She lost so much sleep she was exhausted at work and had trouble focusing on simple tasks.

The kids began to complain, to her and to their father, who began leaving increasingly condescending messages. This she enjoyed somewhat because he ignored her in every other way. It gave her some perverse satisfaction to know something she was doing could poison his smug happy ending. He could leave her for another, (and she hated herself for attaching to this) younger woman, but his anger, well, that was something of his she still had. But, even though she wouldn’t admit it to the kids or to Sean, Jodi also suffered from the presence of this new thing in the house. At 7pm sharp the change of light would wake it up and it would begin to howl, a low, rumbling groan, that would escalate and reach its peak at two or three in the morning. It did not stop, seemingly, to eat or to breathe. It simply howled, a long, slow, guttural song. It sounded like a woman giving birth. The unnatural and primal bellow of reluctant new life.

One night, when the kids were with their father, Jodi grew so fed-up she stormed into the guest room and screamed over the cowering animal at the top of her lungs. It felt amazing. Adults weren’t supposed to scream and she couldn’t remember the last time she had really let it all go. She bellowed in a vicious, ugly way and stared at the cat straight on. It froze and acknowledged her in what Jodi imagined to be a respectful sort of terror. As if finally, she had revealed herself to be what it suspected all along, a mean, unnatural sort of predator. Jodi closed the door and began walking down the hallway back to her room. She got no more than a few guilty steps away from the door before the cat resumed its howl.

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation or maybe it was the tension from the divorce but Jodi began to feel like she was coming completely undone. She had no more patience with anything and often arrived at work in a bad mood. She spilled her coffee unnecessarily when pouring it into her thermos. She ran back into the house three, four times, making herself late, just to check if she left the stove on before she went out. Her kids were irritated with her and she was irritated with them. They treated her like she was some fragile thing to be skirted around. She saw how they disappeared to quieter rooms upstairs when they heard her car pulling in the driveway. She noticed how they made more appointments with friends, found more excuses to be out of the house. She reciprocated their dislike. She couldn’t believe that no matter how many times she told them, they still left their dishes next to the sink and not in it. They seemed to only hear her when she was offering to do something for them, but otherwise treated her as though she were completely invisible, or worse, unpredictable––insane.

Still, Jodi consoled herself that she was doing a good thing for the cat in the spare room. It felt deeply gratifying to do an objective and concrete good for another living thing. She often put herself to sleep by imagining where the cat would be if she hadn’t found it. Probably wandering around back-alleys bleeding and full of fleas. It would live a short life, no doubt. End its days bleeding on pavement under the wheels of an oblivious truck.

Jodi spent hours researching feral cat forums. She was a new member of the Facebook groups “Foster Kitty Protectors” and “Socializing American Cats.” She stayed up till 2am on work nights watching tear-jerking success stories of saved animals with sappy soundtracks. She knew, with enough patience, if she just held out long enough and proved her commitment to it, the cat would soften up and that it would love her, truly love her. And it would be a true and untainted love because she hadn’t given up on it even when it was at its worst. Because it would know hers was the only hand that would feed it. And she would continue to feed it, even though it took so much from her, from her balance, from her relationship with her kids. Because she was a good person. Sooner later the cat, and everybody else, would see that.

 It had been two months and the cat showed almost no signs of improvement. Jodi tried to spend a little time with it every night. She lay on the floor and held the kitty wand far away from her face and pet the stray through the bars of the cage. The wild thing started to bow her head and lean into those scratches, but it still froze up and swatted at her if she ever opened the front door to try and stick her hand in. Every once and awhile, when she had time, she would move her hand in slowly, just resting it on the ground close to the cat for minutes at a time, resisting the urge to itch anything. If she was patient, sometimes the cat would let her scratch behind her ears or under her chin, but if she accidentally touched the cat too close to the belly, or made any sudden noises or movements, she would get swat with angry claws and the animal would retreat back into the corner while Jodi bled in long red lines.

There were a few rare occasions, Jodi didn’t know why, where the cat rolled over on her back playfully and exposed her belly. In these moments Jodi loved the cat wildly and was almost ready to commit to giving it a name. She was full of renewed resolve to save it as if she saw something uniquely human in its eyes, as if it were inviting her to keep trying. She felt almost like God was talking to her: “don’t give up, don’t give up.” And in these moments, she felt like she could move mountains or wrestle full-grown bulls. But invariably the cat would regress, and it only took a missed day of attention or a bad calculation before she lost its trust again entirely. And all the while, in the nighttime the cat mewled.

People were starting to make annoying insinuations. Josh commented that he had read online that feral cats were wild animals and happier being left alone than in captivity. Jodi wondered where he just happened to come across an article about wild cats. Layla was less on the nose, more aware of her mom’s triggers, and more maneuvered at working around them. She simply pointed out how miserable the cat looked from time to time and how sorry she felt for it and how she hoped they were able to give it what it needed and how she wondered what would happen to it if they weren’t. All the while, Sean left his messages.

Jodi herself began to have doubts but she didn’t let on to anyone else. The cat howled day and night now. It gurgled and screamed with such animal ferocity that Jodi was driven to letting it out of its small cage. A move which turned out to be a mistake as now the cat had taken to roosting on the curtain rod and jumping down at Jodi’s head whenever she entered the room to feed it. She had to start entering the room with the broom waving wildly in front of her, to fend off any aerial attacks.

Having additional room to roam seemed to embolden and aggravate the cat, who seemed to hate Jodi with renewed fervor and intensity. It scuttled through the room with its belly low to the ground and performed great feats of acrobatic strength to evade her, jumping onto the dresser or leaping full score over the turned-up mattress. Jodi began to feel like there was a parasite in her belly. She had the unshakeable and relentless feeling that something was horribly wrong. She began to hate being at home and would do anything to avoid it, spending more and more time taking long walks around the corner of the property, kicking at frost with her toes and watching the horse gallop languidly in the pasture.

 Jodi’s relationship with Apple continued to be as precarious as ever. Layla had almost given up on caring for the horse entirely, and Jodi found it was less effort to go out to the barn and do it herself than to wrestle Layla for her involvement. She felt, since the cat’s entry into their lives, she had lost some kind of fundamental authority over the children. No doubt the bulk of that came from their father, but sometimes it seemed to come entirely from them. It was the way they looked at her, when she was making dinner or they were sitting around the table, as though they couldn’t tell if she was about to lash out at them or have a seizure on the floor. They watched her with uninterrupted awareness, the way a prey watches a predator pass by its hovel. 

So, Jodi had to bring the horse in. And finally, she began to get the hang of coercing Apple into the barn. Apple was incredibly badly behaved, probably on account of the fact that no one ever bothered to ride her, but she was a sucker for a piece of fruit or the promise of fresh hay. It seemed, over the days and weeks, as Jodi hoped the cat might domesticate itself to their environment, all she succeeded in actually doing was making the horse wilder.

Every night it was the same routine. She would show up at the gate with an armful of apples and the horse would acknowledge her and bound off in the opposite direction. She would gallop along in the twilight and make a few long loops before she would even sniff at the offering in Jodi’s hands. Jodi had learned not to rush her. She began to see this final display as the last song before the evening, the way a toddler might tangle itself in the sheets and run around the house before it can be properly wrestled into bed. In fact, Jodi started to enjoy these moments. The air outside the house seemed to breathe better. It wasn’t poisoned by all the sweat and uncertainty trapped inside. The only thing that kept these winds moving was prayer, and everything grew and died so fast out here nothing was ever stagnate. And my, that horse made a strong figure against the purple twilight. Broad muscles flexing and shining in the low shadows. Her mane trailed behind her and rippled like a cool lake and Jodi could let her own hair just rest around her own shoulders, feel the breeze on her face, and think about freedom.

There was a coolness and a safety to the barn, too, when they finally got around to that part of the ritual. Everything smelled like hay and old wood and nostalgia. The horse would be softer towards her now, almost sweet, and Jodi would rest her cheek against Apple’s great neck and wrap her arms around so tight she could almost lift her feet off the ground. It was the closest she had felt in years to being truly held.

In these moments, this life felt almost like what she had meant it to be. Back when this was a dream they’d dreamt together and they drove his Subaru out from the city with so much love for each other. The mistake she’d made was only ever picturing the peace of this life, never imagining the possible wreckage. Now there were no do-overs, no putting the kids, or the last 18 years back. The house they’d spent their dreams on was now a prison, to serve her term in until the last kid graduated, or else, in a special flair of cruelty, as Sean had amended in the custody agreement, she would lose them.

But what happens after the ax is swung? That was what she was discovering now. The day-after-day way life has of going on with or without your consent. This barn, this horse (when she was too tired to bite back) was all that Jodi had left of a feeling she used to feel—of being master of her own life. Here she was with all the responsibility of his dream, Sean’s dream. Locked in it, like some kind of unwilling cowgirl. The funny thing was, she didn’t even like horses.

There was one night, when Jodi was brushing Apple off before bed, something extraordinary happened. Instead of fussing and moving away as far as she could into the corner as she usually did, Apple bent her neck and bowed to rest her head just in the center of Jodi’s chest. She brayed and shook a little and nudged again. It wasn’t a submission exactly, more of a gentle acknowledgement from a friend. Then, she tucked her front legs in front of her, and buckled over herself onto the ground. Jodi slumped down to the ground too and lay her neck over Apple’s back. Usually, she worried about the hay and the horseshit but just now she simply lifted Apple’s mane in her hands and combed it through her fingers. Apple didn’t move away, just closed her eyes in a look so peaceful she might as well have been sleeping.

Jodi pressed her face against Apple’s neck and breathed in the lingering smells of the pasture in her hair. Something about the smells overpowered her, she felt her heart drop to the bottom of her chest like a glass of water crashing to the floor. A cry came out of its own agency then, one of those cries that comes right up through the belly and pours out the throat at such speed it shoots out of the nose and the eyes like vomit. She let her breath out in great heaping whelps and heaved over the back of the horse, who stayed perfectly still as though she knew her role was just to be a listener. Jodi didn’t even know what she was crying about but she cried for a good long while, in wails so loud she suspected the kids in their rooms could hear her. Finally, it grew dark in the barn and the bats started to screech and the shadows began to move in a way that seemed to reflect her unflattering self-indulgence back to her. Jodi stood up, pat the horse, dried off, and left in the direction of the house.

She felt profoundly better, as though some kind of horrible poison had been expelled from her, though she wasn’t exactly sure what sort of poison it was. When she entered the house, she was almost jubilant, and she smiled at her children uncharacteristically as she passed them in the TV room on her way to feed the cat upstairs. But when she got to the spare bedroom, she stopped, noticing the door to the guest room slightly ajar. That wasn’t right. Something had happened. The cat was nowhere inside. The empty cage was still against the wall but the pebbles of litter and cat food had been swept off the floor and the mattress put back. Jodi felt a surge of confusion and after, rage.

She ran back down the stairs to the TV room and stormed in where she found both her children with their movie still on, but half-positioned towards the door as though they were caught in a duel. “It was her idea!” Josh blurted out, pointing at Layla. Layla looked so guilty she started to cry.

She looked down at her feet and then very calmly, holding her tears in a steady tempo, explained with the well-rationed maturity of someone much older than 17. “We’re sorry, mom, it just wasn’t right. That cat was miserable day and night. You were torturing it. And… you wouldn’t listen to any of us… soo…  We talked to dad about it before we did it and he said it was the right thing to do. He said if you had any problems with it you should talk to him” Layla looked up at her mother as though bracing for a hit. “You just couldn’t see,” she said. “You were torturing it. It was miserable. It was so miserable.”

For a second Jodi was so furious her vision closed around her. Her children looked as though they were in open water, facing a shark ready to bite. There was a special insult here, that these children, to whom her whole life was supposedly a shrine, looked at her now with such pity and such fear. That they could not see her, clearly did not know her or understand. That anything she did of her own personal will would come under suspicion and for all her mothering, a lifetime of mothering, she could not make them trust her as well and freely as they trusted their father. There was something so tragic in it, hopelessly ironic, that Jodi began to laugh.

The laugh seemed to strike her children harder than if she had lunged at them with fists. They stood there like directionless soldiers under open fire. Jodi shook in a low guttural laugh that rose from her belly. It started as a snicker and grew evenly into a frightening, mad howl. She bent her back over her knees and raised her head back so sharp she looked more like a wolf howling at the moon than a mother. She grinned at her children with an almost tender mischievousness, and then she ran off, out the door in the direction of the barn, leaving her shoes behind her tossed carelessly in the yard. Her children followed nervously after her. They followed their mother like arms being dragged behind the boat, two prongs out on either side of her, attuned to her every moment as synchronized as a single step. Jodi removed her shirt and then her pants, leaving them bundled behind her in the ground. The air was cool pressed against her exposed skin and the night seemed to stretch endlessly into the dark. The children dropped to their knees out of breath as they watched their mother hurl her gleaming, stretch-marked body over the electric fence.

In the barn, Apple was standing as though she had been waiting for her. Jodi unlocked the stall and hoisted herself, bareback, onto the horse. Apple’s coat felt scratchy against her bare thighs, all oily and cruddy with mud. Jodi hooted and yipped as Apple nuzzled the barn gate. The children crowded into the door of the barn, looking red-faced and out of breath. Jodi dug her fingernails into Apple’s mane and kicked her heels in. Apple sprung forward like she was on clean gasoline. She thundered past the children who had to jump backwards into the grass to avoid her. The children screamed after their mother and their shouts could be heard as far as the Whitman’s. Jodi didn’t hear anything but the crickets in the trees and the sound of the gravel being kicked up by Apple’s hooves. Jodi leaned her plush tummy into the groove of Apple’s neck, and she rode. 

Hailey Neal is a writer and teacher of writers who, in the most aggressive snowbird campaign in human history, splits her time between Beijing and Vermont. She holds her bachelor’s in professional writing and her master’s in education. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in From Whispers to Roars, The Closed Eye Open, Ember Chasm Review, The Finger Literary Journal, Tempered Runes Press, 805 Lit, The Dillydoun Review, Beyond Words, and Guangming Daily (a national Chinese newspaper). Alarmingly, she had to look up whether to capitalize “professional writing” for this bio. If you find any other typos in here, this is a test.

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