Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

'Grace-Who-Refuses-to-Cross-Water'

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

'Grace-Who-Refuses-to-Cross-Water'

Article excerpt

On the day of Grace's refusal, there had been no warning that she would balk at the stream. She had never done it before. There had been six people on horseback, Caleb leading, Ronnie following on Grace, and the paying customers sandwiched in between them, straggled out in a line on the narrow trail. Grace was Ronnie's Appaloosa mare of scrambled color, of a type one would most usually expect to find running feral on Western range-land instead of under saddle in the mountains of Virginia. Grace and Ronnie had gone along together for a span of years and were easy with each other, with the kind of knowing that comes from an unbroken chain of promises kept and expectations satisfied; they had a mutual dependence that would be mysterious to anyone who was not fluent around horses. Grace was a burly mare, her haunches bunched with muscle under a bulk of matronly padding, but she was quiet, almost shy, with a modesty that seemed displaced in such an athletic animal. She was always surprised and flustered by sweet surprises, and she kissed the rare treats of apple slices or grapes from Ronnie's hands, her breath musky and ripe as faintly rotten molasses, her bristled muzzle tickling Ronnie's palm with a cautious delicacy. Grace was muscular, and Ronnie was efficiently compact, with a body that had been tempered by work until her flesh had nearly turned as dense as bone, as metal. They suited one another.

On this day, the tourists were uncommonly talkative, and gossiped past the displays of white wildflowers they had been brought that way to see: the frothy spires of snake-root, the stiff lace of yarrow, and in the sunnier places, ox-eyed daisies, Queen Anne's lace, goat's beard, and the wild yucca, with blooms as waxy and luminous as candles. They were coming up on the stream, Ronnie nearly dozing from the heat and monotony of the climb through the forest. Grace had gone flop-eared, not troubling to pick up her feet, and so her hooves were thunking dryly on the duff of the trail, raising up a hazy, reddish dust. Every now and then there was a cracking report of a steel-rimmed hoof glancing off a small stone, and at the sharp sound Grace's head would jerk as if she were an old woman jogged from a slumber, and then she would loosen again into the regular rhythm of the four-part beat of a horse walking, not hurrying. Soon the looping switchback would be there, and then a gentle descent through fern and rhododendron-the spent blossoms were discarded rags under the bushes-and then the forest would open out to a deer cropped meadow. The meadow was cut through by the stream. On the clayey bank were the embossings of hoofprints and, mixed in, the cloven markings of deer-tracks. It was an easy fording, just a thin, latesummer stream twirling over pebbles.

There was no reason for Grace to balk at the water. She had crossed that stream at that place dozens of times before, perhaps more than that, but on this day she refused. She would not cross it, with an eloquent resolve that was undeniable. There was nothing there which should have alarmed her, no embedded memories of slipping, or beatings, or an uneven footing under the curls of the stream. When Grace refused, the other horses were already across, or mostly across, stealing sips and mincing their ways, their necks stretched long, sniffing in the cool flowing of the water. Grace balked and rooted her nose up, avoiding the bit and startling Ronnie, who booted her forward, or at least that was the intention. Ronnie's heels hammered on Grace's ribs with the resonant impacts of a stout barrel being struck. The mare grunted, clamped her ears back, and her eyes were rolling terribly as she snaked her head, trying to confound her rider by substituting that energetic outburst for forward motion. Ronnie swatted at her rump with her flat hand, expecting no more trouble than a minor flurry, and then it would be over and they could go on. When she smacked her with a stinging slap, Grace sank back and back on her hocks until her forehand was light, lifting, and then she sprang up and reared impressively, her forelegs bent, her hooves hanging as heavily as clods. …

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