By Todd Dillard
The girl opens her eyes to the stutter of hooves on her bedroom floor.
Her room in the new house is vast, vacant—the dresser and its empty drawers a creature of many underbites; vaulted walls pale as moonlit paper; a grotto of trash bags stuffed with clothes shining like volcanic glass.
The horse stands in the center of the room. Its twilight mane writhes like seaweed, its flanks the color of glow-in-the-dark stars. It’s small, no larger than a golden retriever. When the girl gasps, the horse turns its head to one side. An eye, the liquid black of a fishing hole in a frozen lake, considers her.
In the morning she wakes up to the smell of snow.
“Mama, there was a horse in my room last night.”
“Oh? How did it get through the door?”
“It was small. It didn’t do anything.”
“Did it tell you its name?”
“Horses don’t talk!”
“Maybe it wants you to guess?”
“I wish we’d never moved.”
“Rumpelstiltskin,” the girl says. The horse doesn’t move.
“Moon Child. Peony. Seabiscuit. Secretariat. Black Beauty. Man o’ War.”
The horse’s tail flickers. It reminds the girl of the stage curtains in her old town’s community theatre, how they drizzled down from the rafters and coiled on the scuffed stage floor. It reminds the girl of the small, cold hand of her friend Nora; how Nora, all pale legs and pleated skirts and laughter, would grab the girl’s hand and lead them out of the theatre light and into the curtain’s darkness, only to race back into the spotlight again. Over and over they would do this; meanwhile, their parents painted towers, the moon, trees made of cardboard and gaffing tape. The day the girl told Nora she was going to move away, Nora slipped her hand out of the girl’s and vanished into the curtain’s black. The girl looked and looked but Nora refused to be found. They never saw each other again.
“I miss Nora,” the girl whispers.
The horse whinnies, and the girl looks up. It’s beside her bed now—larger than she originally perceived, Great Dane-sized. How could she have ever thought it smaller than a golden retriever? It’s almost big enough for her to ride. The smell of earth and cold emanate off it, so pungent the girl tastes soil, feels grit rustling between her teeth.
“I Miss Nora?” the girl says. “That’s your name?”
The horse lays its head on the girl’s lap. She runs her hands through its mane and sparks like tiny comets flit from her fingertips.
“The horse came back last night. It was bigger.”
“Did you give it a name?”
“I Miss Nora.”
“That’s its name—I Miss Nora.”
“Sweetie, you know we had to move…”
“Can I go? I’m done eating.”
I Miss Nora is horse-sized now, so tall the girl has to balance on her headboard to climb onto it. Cold buzzes through her legs, a feeling like placing her tongue on the prongs of a D cell battery, the dim shock of it coursing through her whole body. The girl bends to the horse’s neck, buries her nose in its mane. Once more she smells soil and cold, the loamy scents of earthen slumber.
“Go,” she whispers.
The horse charges towards the window, and the girl squeezes her eyes shut. When she opens them again, the world is below her—snow like teased apart cotton, unspooling, black roads, the night sky so clear the stars shimmer like dimes in a fountain.
All of this blurs as the horse gathers speed, so fast the girl must grip the horse’s neck with all her strength, must press herself into the horse’s flanks so hard it feels as though she’s sinking into it, becoming part of it.
When the horse slows down the girl sits up, recognizes the house of her friend. The horse canters around the second floor, stopping in mid-air before a window. The girl raps her knuckles against the pane.
Nora slides open the window, her eyes red from sleep, her long hair falling loosely to her shoulders.
“Is this a dream?” she says.
The girl leans forward and extends her hand.
“Come with me,” the girl says.
Nora’s fingertips touch the girl’s, but then she pulls away.
“Please,” the girl says.
“I’m scared,” Nora says.
The girl waits. Nora remains motionless, ghostly in the moon’s spotlight. Finally, the horse turns, gallops into a night black as forgetting.
When the girl wakes up her window is open. A small mound of snow glistens beneath it.
“Remember when you thought a horse visited you at night?”
“You named it after your friend? It was right after we moved here.”
“Who? What horse? What are you talking about?”
“Oh sweetie, there’s no need to cry…”
“I’m crying? Why am I crying? What friend?”
“Come here. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“What horse, Mama? What horse are you talking about? What horse?”