Aurelie Sheehan


Horse, Girl, Landscape


The horse stands at the edge of the field, staring out the way horses do, at the blue of midnight, or the yellow noon. His edges, the brownness of him, the polished brown like an acorn, jams up the sky. Everything stops. Everything is still. There is only the horse: uplifted head, strong slope of neck, firm round belly and haunch, a tail with hair long and straight as a lucky girl’s.
     Lara leans on the top rail of the fence, spindly arms crossed, chin resting on her own tanned skin. She watches the horse.
     From this distance, the legs, the legs with movement in them, with a canter in them, seem to wobble, shift.

     Lara lives in a town that has two-acre zoning. This phrase is supposed to mean something, and it does mean something, at least here, in these circles. She herself has said it: Two-acre zoning. This is the only kind of zoning teenage Lara has ever really thought about, if saying it constitutes thinking about it, except for the brief flap when the farm-animal regulations came in, and her mother made contemptuous remarks about the wooly yard-ornament grazing in the neighbor’s yard, how awful and unreal it was, their lives were. But Weston, Connecticut, was far from a farming community when they moved here; it’s just that the town legislators, the people in the white building down at the bottom of the hill, hadn’t taken the farm animal thing off the books. So it was kind of moot. A mute point, that’s what Lara used to think, but then she found out it was moot. Mute made sense. Moot? It sounds like a clown word.

     If your eyes, if Lara’s eyes, drift from the horse, you’ll see a blue Volvo station wagon and a red Toyota Camry. Last week, Lara took her friend Jane to get an abortion in the red Camry. She dropped her off, went shopping, and then picked her up again after four hours. It wasn’t like she was shopping because she was callous. In fact, she couldn’t really concentrate. She and Jane usually did this together: a Saturday morning, in and out of the stores, spending their allowance, exchanging high witticisms, engaging in petty theft. When Jane was in the building—Lara couldn’t really picture what was happening, she didn’t want to imagine, embody, the scraping—Lara didn’t have a clue what paperback she should pocket, or if she actually needed new nail polish, or if she truly wanted this sweater-jacket they were selling at Raja of India. She walked around town. She ran into a couple of kids from school and they smoked behind the pizzeria together, and then she shrugged goodbye and left, keeping Jane’s secret.
     Later, looking out at the river, she had another cigarette.
     And then she got back into the red Camry and returned to the clinic and there was Jane, sitting on the concrete steps.


Back in the old days, before Lara was born, before Lara’s mother was born, people thought about life and death a little more than they do now. It was always something: war, famine. If you had a war to think about, if your people were being sliced up like tomatoes, or if they were flinging their babies onto empty boxcars as the train chugged through their village, or flinging themselves at boats (fifty–fifty chance of drowning, fifty–fifty chance of dying on the way to America, fifty–fifty chance of dying within five years thereafter), you probably didn’t think about the beauty of a horse, say, or even whether you’d be able to drive the red Camry to the Fourth of July party tonight, the kegger (“Red, White, and Brew,” they’re calling it). You wouldn’t think about the horse show, and about how it seemed to ruin something.
      Some of the guys, old guys now, on her father’s side—they were firemen, policemen. Before that, back in Ireland, they were laborers. On her mother’s side—no one can figure out what any of the women did, except for the recipes, and then that one tablecloth, a panicked Braille message for the living ones. (Research, later, will suggest that there were no men of soldiering age in her immediate family available to join the army under the Third Reich. No data available on proclivities, on nuance, on female moral conviction between 1934 and 1945.)
      In this story, Where You Come From matters. History matters—right?
      But you can smell a horse. You can watch a horse stare at a blue yesterday, a yellow tomorrow. The horse’s legs shift, as the horse turns away from his vigil and returns to eating the field.


      The red Camry is usually driven by Lara’s mother, and the Volvo is driven by her father. Lara’s parents fight about money, although, by most accounts, they are wealthy, they are in the upper middle class. (Whatever that means: it’s something Lara learned in school. That, and the fact that the American Revolution occurred in 1776. In the summer.) Yet despite this, and despite the fact that they live here, in this bucolic town, this place of two-acre zoning and a strongly rated school system, there’s something not right that Lara can never really put her finger on. Money seems to be a way to talk about it.
      Lara is not particularly keen on horse shows, but there’s some kind of indication that’s what you do with a horse, that’s what they’re there for.
      Lara’s mother is in her studio and the sign is up, on the door. Artist at Work, it says. Lara stares at the sign. It’s on purple felt and has sparkly stars on it. She turns away from the purple sign.
      Her father is in the basement, in his workshop. This door has a fake wood grain to it, and a person could wonder if it is stain, or paint, or just sinister.
      When the phone rings, Lara’s in the kitchen getting cheese and crackers. It’s Jane’s mother.
      Is Jane there.
      Well where is she.
      I don’t know, Mrs. Speer.


      She stands by her horse, brushing him down. The horse is tied up between the tree and the barn. First the curry comb, a plastic oval with ridges inside: you just rub it around in tight circles and it fluffs up the hair and pulls out any lazy dust. Lara’s hand is cupped around the black plastic. Her riding instructor calls horses mounts. The old red fabric strap hugs the back of Lara’s hand, the place above her knuckles, a place of small confidence.
      So is this a story about privilege? The horse cost fifteen hundred dollars. It costs $2.50 a bail for hay, and you go through a couple of bails a week. It costs twenty-five dollars for the sweet feed, the big plasticized burlap sacks that Lara dumps into the garbage can by the water pump, scoops out with a coffee can. So there’s that. But probably most of all you’ve got to have a place to keep the horse. Two-acre zoning. You can’t keep a horse in an apartment. You can’t keep one in South Norwalk, or Bridgeport.

      Before dinner, her mother sets down her gin and tonic and says this word to Lara: gateway. Did you know that marijuana is a gateway drug? That it can lead to other things, heroin, for instance?
      Lara’s father is staring down. Loud cop, quiet cop.
      Her parents have three kinds of fights: testy little fights, like the barbs on the fence around the back paddock; cartoon fights, where an absurd object, vitamins, say, or a bathrobe, becomes the subject of vociferous, bawdy disagreement; and then, finally, full, head-on, toe-to-toe arguments.
      Lara likes the full, head-on arguments the best.
      I didn’t know that, Mom, Lara says. Can I borrow the car tonight?


      They moved to Weston from Norwalk, themselves. They moved up. Lara’s mother had a horse when she was a little girl, and now she’s provided that for her own daughter. Lara’s father works hard, works all the time. She has stood there, outside his door, and she has waited. And then she’s walked.
      The only thing that came between Lara and an abortion herself last week: chance. Pregnancy and VD: South Norwalk words. Lori Curatella, Debbie Sassano, Leslie Ripkin, peach brandy. The girls from Weston take their red Camrys to Norwalk for the appointment. Do you know about Planned Parenthood? You can even get The Pill there.
      And in Weston, some fathers don’t even come home during the week. They spend their nights in New York. Or they show up on the commuter train, late—maybe even drunk. Half Lara’s friends’ parents are divorced. Jane’s parents are divorced. Her father believes the cia is taping his phone conversations, so he usually calls Jane from a payphone.
      He does a little too much coke.

      Lara has to park the Camry far, far away, down a side street. How gratifying to see the line of cars on the street, the twenty or thirty cars, some that she recognizes. (What about the neighbors? Is it all okay with them? A teenage keg party? Did the parents pay them off? Are they deaf, are they blind? Are they all gone, having martinis in penthouse apartments in Manhattan, or fucking their secretaries after hours, or fucking their housepainters? Isn’t anyone noticing anything in this town?) Lara walks up the street, toward the house, and Lynyrd Skynyrd is blasting through the oaks and the maples and across the fuzzy lawn ornaments and across the deep gravel in the driveway and across town—maybe—maybe her horse hears it, pricks up his ears, hears something.
      She’s already got a beer in one hand and a Marlboro in the other when Dan walks up.
      He asks, So you know where Jane is?
      She’s supposed to be here. She’s not here yet?
      Crazy Jane—she probably drove to San Francisco. Down Route Sixxxxxtttteeeee Sixxxxxxxx. Got another smoke?
      Lara gives away her cigarettes. Gives them away, gives them away, but she still feels the bad emptiness in her lungs, the black box that sits next to the white box of silence. The fact is, it’s not strange for Mrs. Speer not to know where her daughter is. Lara covers for Jane when she can, it comes naturally, just like Jane covers for her.
But Jane was going to meet her here.

      Lara doesn’t know that everyone in the house—herself, her mother, her father, everyone except her little sister, who is eleven—is hung-over. She herself can handle hangovers pretty well. The young, vibrant body; Lara’s body. It can take a lot of pressure. But when she was on acid that one time and she looked at her legs and feet, with nail polish on her toes, and her legs shaven, she felt afraid because she looked too artificial there on the rocks by the river. She was not part of nature.
      But basically her body works pretty well, and she brings it, follows it, to the barn in the morning, because hung-over or not it’s her job to feed the horse.
      Baby does turns in his stall, scrapes the wood chips with his hoof, has taken a bored shit in the corner. Lara steps in the barn and calls to him, apologizes.
      The barn has heated up. It’s nine o’clock. Sunlight pierces, like bright shiny knives, through the cracks in the stall door. The horse rubs his neck on the partition, eyeing Lara.
      He has forgiven her.

      Last night, after she was talking to Dan, she thought she saw Jane. There she was, with Ross, down by the road. Oh, she’s gotta be drunk, Lara thought. Jane drunk. It was funny—always so funny—Lara’s best friend—but what was she doing with Ross? He was twenty or something.
      Then after awhile Ross came up the driveway with the girl. After they’d finished smoking the joint and after he’d done something with his hand to the dark silhouette, the silhouette who leaned and swayed like a doll made out of a broomstick.
      It wasn’t Jane. It was Heather. How could she have made that mistake?
      When she calls over to Jane’s house this morning, no one has seen her.

      Lara rides. She rides to the river. She canters her horse along the side of the road, halfheartedly trying to stay on the dirt, unconcerned when the horse that she loves, that makes her life worth living, that knows her secrets, believes and forgives her, slams his shiny metal shoes down on the pavement, clackety clack clack clack.


      A horse is an image, certainly. A horse is a living, waking dream for a girl. There was a time before the horse, this horse, when horses were horsie horsie horsie, when horses were plastic and lined up, at a pleasing angle, on her yellow shelves. At that time, they were magical, like Santa Claus, or cats or dogs or buffaloes. But then Lara got her own horse, and it was about that time when the magic shored up, solidified into something crystalline and mysterious. Into a secret. You lean your head into the horse’s neck, you feel the flat heat there.
      When Jane’s mother comes over, and there is the image of Jane’s mother talking to Lara’s own mother—one a pothead, one an artist—talking in muffled tones, as if there were something they could agree upon, this one time, an uneasy alliance, a friendship of convenience, Lara feels her headache come back like a nail.

      The show goes on.
      Remembrance of the metal comb in her fingers, as she thinned the horse’s mane, as she braided it and bound the ends in red rubber bands and looped them under so her horse now looks like a Roman gladiator horse, a statue. Lara pulled her own hair into a braid too.
      Her fingers are red and raw. It’s six in the morning when they pull up in the trailer. She and her mother. This morning, they are working together. The horse inside the trailer sounds like an apple in a tin can. Like a bell with no music in it, or a child tumbling down stairs.


      But this is a story about bloodlines, remember? About where you come from, who you are.
      There is the German ancestor, the one who required practice, drills, regimen, regulation. The one who had a calendar taped to his forehead and a watchband around his ear. Don’t forget this: Lara’s father is following them in the Volvo. Don’t forget this: there were potato famines and desperate drownings and a few shootings of the rich in the history she shares with her father. Potato famines, when all the people got up early, this early, and had chapped hands and most didn’t survive and some were pious and some were hypocrites and some were drunk and others went missing, no word at all.
      The horse was once young. Was once a foal, with legs like a marionette’s. The horse had a horse and she had a horse and then there was another horse. Once upon a time, your horse came to the United States in the bottom of a big ship. Now your horse lives in Weston, Connecticut. You live here.

      A horse show—it’s at the same stable where Linda Blair keeps her horse. In fact, she’s in this same show. She’s well known for twisting her head all the way around, as if she has no real body at all. Lara was allowed to watch the movie, because Linda Blair lives on Steephill Road, just about half a mile away. She, too, is a teenager.
All around Lara and her mother the sky lifts. The gray becomes bright like the bottom of a pan. Young girls in jodhpurs shift their weight from one black boot to another. They tap their crops on their hands.
      You’ll do wonderfully, her mother whispers, as if awed by the light.
      But what about Jane? Where’s Jane? Doesn’t Jane matter?
      Up the hill, there’s the arena, a cavernous yellow tin building where Lara will compete in the hunt course—ten jumps arranged in a figure eight. Lara’s riding instructor told her to hold Baby’s head, which means to hold tight to short reins, pulling his nose into his chest, and then whip the living shit out of him before they enter the arena. That way, the instructor said, he’ll have energy. He’ll be frisky enough to win. She said that horses can sense the excitement, the competition.
      The judges sit up in a place like the metal head of a metal insect. Lara has become an idea. They call her number, 566, and it reverberates.
      She pulls on the black leather of her reins and begins. Easy, now.