Of Milk and Praise

BY ANNA T. VILLEGAS

A child is fed with milk and praise.
Mary Ann Lamb, 1764-1847

July, 1934 

When I was ten, I knew nothing of betrayal. 

What I knew was what my father and Mama allowed me to know: their distant loving lessons prescribed by the contemporary measures of status and gender and age. I understood before I found language that I was expected to be a good girl, that rewards would reflect the degree of goodness my guardians found in my behavior. I suspect, had anyone introduced the definition of unconditional love to my father, he would have withered it with the identical infamous disdain he unsheathed to rebuke the misfit attorney who dared to approach his bench unprepared. My father was not merely a judge by vocation; he was a judge by constitution as well. All human action—a felon’s crazed motivation or his daughter’s simple, shining lie—warranted reaction. When the law supplied the response, my father applied it. When the written law failed to chart the mysterious, complex territory of human violations that was his courtroom domain, my father extrapolated. Conditional approval was the backbone of my father’s second self. 

And Mama? I never had to study Mama the way I studied my father. Although in the end I misplaced her, setting her aside like a bookend or a candlestick, when I was ten those seemed to be her functions: to support us with her sturdy dullness, to serve the light that inevitably cast her in shadow. I felt Mama’s love daily, yet feeling it so made it matter less. And for so long—those terrible years when I called her reserve cowardice—Mama didn’t count.

But this poisonous wisdom was still to come when I was ten.

When I was ten I had yet to founder.

•••

Sinbad was my tenth birthday present. Mama knew I yearned for a pony of my own; she bore responsibility for my infatuation with the sensitive, high-stepping, narrow-legged creatures who danced through the pages of my favorite book. When I was younger, she read me to sleep with Black Beauty, leaning down to kiss me before shutting out the light, never failing to ask me what lesson I saw in the chapter we’d just finished. Sleepy-eyed, connected to her only by our secret voices in the dark, I would mumble some animal variant of the Commandments. 

She was the one who brought me to my birthday pony. She marched me to the porch with short, prudent steps to protect me from the blindness she had induced with her yellow scarf tied about my eyes. The scarf smelled of lavender sachet; through our cedar’s branches, the July sun latticed my bare arms with points of warmth. She stood beside me, her hands on my shoulders. “Wait, Rachel,” she promised me. “The surprise is coming.”

A pair of hooves sounded up the gravel drive and softened when they reached the sloping lawn of our front yard. Behind us, my father pushed open the front door and stood on the sill; I never heard the door swing shut.

“Now, Ma? Now?” 

“Now, Rachel.” Mama untied her scarf.

He was a dream of a pony: jet black with a single splash of white, not quite a star, centered on his forehead. He stood stock-still when I came down the steps, his small ears tipped toward me in greeting until Harley Helms dismounted from his ancient sorrel mare and put the lead into my hand. Then he was mine, his velvet muzzle against my palms, his clear dark eyes wide with curiosity. Not a Shetland—I was too tall for a Shetland, even Mama conceded that—but a slender Welsh gelding with a flag of a tail and an arch to his neck and a delicate, dished face. He nuzzled my neck, and finding me a fitting mistress, pulled against the lead until he could reach the blowzy heads of wild oats beneath the mare’s forefeet.

“He knows he’s home,” Harley said, hunkering down on his heels to roll a cigarette. “Watch the lead when his head’s down.”

“I’ll watch him,” I said, made a horsewoman by ownership, squatting in imitation of Harley so the sour smoke of his exhalations wafted against my hair in a kind of christening that Mama would surely insist on exorcising with soapy water from the enameled basin on the kitchen table. And then I remembered my manners and turned to my parents who stood apart, my father framed by the doorway, my mother leaning against the curved railing of the porch corner. 

“Thank you, Father!” I called and watched my father raise his hand and back into the darkness of the house, the screened door shutting behind him, his tall figure shifting out of sight behind the frame. “Thank you, Ma! Thank you! Come see my pony!”

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As if the door swinging shut behind her granted her freedom of movement, Mama came to the pony and me with surprising lightness, laying her hands against his neck, twisting the strands of his forelock between her white fingers.

“He’s got hair like yours, Rachel,” she said, one hand on the pony’s mane, one stroking my ribbons. In my heart I knew she was entrusting me to the pony. Knowing what this trust had cost her cautious nature, I loved her with a sharp swell of tenderness which, coupled with the ebony prize that had my heart thudding in my chest, threatened tears. 

My father’s voice caught me as I bounded up the dark stairwell to my bedroom to put on pants for riding: “Rachel?”

“Yes?” I held the newel post and looked down at him, the shadows of his face darkened against the starched white shirt he wore. He stood blocking the bright screen of the front door, beyond which waited Mama and Harley Helms and my pony and all the trails of Nevada City that would lure me into adolescence and on to an irrevocable maturity. 

“Your mother wanted you to have the pony. Be sensible with him. He’s your responsibility now, understand?” His hands lifted the suspenders from his chest and let them snap, sharp exclamation points to his sentence. 

“Yes, Father,” I said, willing my most trustworthy tones. “I will be sensible.” I wanted to run to change, but father’s charge rooted my feet to the floor. 

He watched me, gauging my impatience, I thought, and I cast futilely for the pleasing phrase that would release me from his expectant study. 

“Sensible will do,” he said, finding his pipe on the side table, a gesture I took as safe dismissal. 

•••

Harley Helms came to the house for five summer mornings to help coach me with Sinbad. Those mornings of courtship with my new pony were magic, beginning when Mama roused me, sitting beside me and stroking my sleepy face with her soft hands. “Gentle to rise,” she chanted in my ear. I slipped into my trousers, caked with the good smell of horsehair and sweat, and fed and brushed the pony before Harley’s mare trotted up our drive. After Sinbad’s coat was polished to a gloss and he was safely tethered in the shade of the back porch, a bucket of last night’s pea shells or corn husks within easy reach of his velvet lips, I would return to the kitchen, rich with the hearty leftovers of bacon and biscuits and coffee. 

After Mama had poured me a glass of milk from the pitcher in the ice box and insisted I drink it, she wrapped a bacon biscuit in waxed paper for Harley and left the dishes to sit. Looking back, I can see now that in leaving her kitchen untended, if only for the hour of my riding lesson, she was skirting some line between staid propriety and flagrant excess. Every weekday, at quarter past twelve, my father walked through the front door and down the hall into the kitchen, when he expected to find his lunch laid out on the round oak table from which all traces of the morning meal—the rinds of bacon, the coffee grinds, the biscuit powder—had long since been erased. Those morning hours when Sinbad and I would trot and canter, circle and stop, back and stand for Harley’s wrinkled grin and Mama’s admiring audience were her excursions into delinquency. I see now that she relished them. 

On Friday, the final day of Harley’s tutelage, we tied our straw sunhats on our heads and led Sinbad to the flats behind the Bramkamps’ garden. Mama spread a tablecloth in the shade of the grandest oak tree on Aristocrat Hill—the elephant tree, we called it—and sat, leaning against the coarse trunk. Harley ate his biscuit and surveyed my figure eights, nodding his endorsement of Sinbad’s flashing hooves, frowning at the single moment when, unseated by my pony’s slanting strides, I clutched at his mane with both hands. 

“Use the legs, Missy,” Harley said. He handed his biscuit to Mama and gathered my sloppy, loosened reins, stroking Sinbad’s sweated chest. “No matter where the horse goes, you use the legs.” 

Harley wondered why I didn’t choose to ride with the high-horned saddle he’d brought from his barn, but I was thankful that Mama allowed me to go bareback. In all those riding years, I saddled my pony so seldom that when he felt the unwelcome, formal weight clasping his back, he would bellow his lungs until I’d tightened the cinch. When I stepped into the stirrup and the deflated girth sagged beneath his belly, the saddle would slide upside down like some ridiculous girdle and spill me back to the earth. “Hit him upside the head and he’ll breathe,” Harley told me, but the notion of hitting my pony doubled my dislike of the cowboy gear. 

Circling the flats again, my bruised muscles learning the pony’s gait, I fought to please Harley by resisting instinct. When Sinbad pulled up short at the buzzard shadow snaking across the dirt in front of him, nearly pitching me across his head, my arms lassoed the air, but I kept my seat. When he broke his trot, tripping on a nasty stone surfaced by his cutting hooves, I kept my elbows down, my thighs tight. Harley hooted, “There you go, Missy.” Mama clapped. Episodes would come when Harley’s drills would save us, when my locked legs would succeed the mad scrabble for the anchorless reins or the silky threads of my pony’s mane. There was always a moment—just the first frighted second of a slide or a fall—when my hands wanted to grab what wouldn’t right us, what would only bring us down. Only a second; then I was Harley’s girl again. 

After the three of us walked Sinbad home, Mama slipped inside the house. For the fifth time, Harley recited the ailments sure to follow if a horse worked hard was put up wet. He watched me walk the pony around the back yard a time or two, mounted his mare, saluted us, and stopped outside the back porch where Mama rustled from the house and thrust something into Harley’s hand. Payment for services rendered, I realize now, but then I thought it was another biscuit. 

“Harley says she’s safe on the pony now,” Mama told my father that evening after she set a bowl of parsley potatoes within his reach. 

“Safe is as safe does,” said my father, passing the corn to me and waiting until I’d spooned a healthful portion onto my plate. “Rachel?” 

“Yes, sir?” The serving spoon clattered to the floor beside my chair. I let it rest.

“You will tell your mother when you ride where you’re going. And you’re not to ride down the Deer Creek trail–” He looked at my mother. “There are places you don’t need to go, folks you don’t need to see, in this town.” He ceased sawing at the roast and pointed at me with the carving knife. Mama had risen to pick up the fallen spoon beside my chair, but she waited for him to finish his instructions, as stiff as if the point of the knife had impaled her against the wall like one of the dozens of exotic, fragile South American butterflies that hung behind glass in the courthouse lobby, physical evidence of a world beyond our Nevada City, a world fraught with grand beauty and greater treachery.

“Rachel?”

Ten years old and now the owner of a grand pony, somehow disinherited of both Mama’s plethora of fears and my father’s rigid rules of order. I learned at that moment that in order to live up to expectations, , I might have to rely on equivocation. Deer Creek, with its rock-lined pools and snipers that lived like Gypsies in their mountain Hoovervilles, was exactly where I counted on Sinbad’s nimble feet to take me. Curiosity triumphed over truthfulness. I answered the point of the knife rather than my father’s probing eyes: “Yes, Father. I’ll tell Mama.”

Mama bent to pick up the spoon. She wiped it clean with her napkin. Father cut thick slabs of the roast and served us: me, then Mama, and last himself. Sinbad whinnied to us from his pasture, calling us to tomorrow and the next day, to the coming cruel seasons of our lives—when who we would become and what we had yet to do to one another would cast us all in stone.

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•••

I had grown up with the constancy of a best friend, but Delia Mapes was bent on acquiring a femininity that held no interest for me once Sinbad was mine. Shunned from playing with the Bramkamp boys, I had suffered through Delia’s dress-ups and tea parties and baby dolls by exacting from her equal time for my more mannish masquerades. For Robin Hood, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Huck and Tom and Oliver Twist, Delia and my cast of playmates were made servants of my fervent imagination. But when Sinbad became my willing cartographer, we graphed the acres and canvassed the citizens of Nevada City so that for the first time in my life, flesh and blood characters hinted to me of more delight and drama than I had ever derived from the bookshelves of our solemn study. Sinbad and I left Delia behind, and my passion was to relearn my town on my own terms, without the silent censor of a raised eyebrow or the spoken sentence abruptly severed by my entry into my parents’ sober dialogue.

I grew into daring the same way I grew into the overalls Mama allowed me to pick out at Penrose Mercantile. Wearing them was a badge of distinction, but at first the stiff denim chafed my legs and reminded me, despite the uniform, that I was still a girl, and soft in ways that would never alter. As Sinbad’s sweat and weekly washings broke the denim down, my father’s decree wore as threadbare as the knees on my overalls. I would go everywhere, I swore. I would see everything.

I began with our hill on the east side of town. That morning, Mama said I was to be at the supper table when my father arrived at quarter past.

“Clean hands, Rachel,” she said, lifting a braid and inspecting my ear. “No overalls.”

“Yes, Mama.” When I carried my plate to the sideboard, Mama caught me in her arms and pressed her face into my hair. “Your father fears what you might see and hear,” she said, “that what you see beyond these walls might make you… unmake you a Richardson.” 

I shut my eyes and thought of Deer Creek’s clear waters and of barefooted Hoot Bramkamp, a wooden box under his arm, a fishing pole cocked jauntily across his shoulder. His two-fingered whistles, meant for someone else, had lured me to the dormer window in my bedroom at dawn, a siren call to all I believed I had need to know. 

“It’s growing up that will do the damage,” she sighed. “No stopping that, is there?” She patted my head and pinched my cheek. On the other side of the kitchen wall, Sinbad knocked his hoof against the pail he’d emptied of apple peelings.

•••

When we left that morning we trailed the paths of Aristocrat Hill, marking our way with the neighbors’ morning rituals. Mrs. Tamblyn came to wash at our house on Thursdays, to the Bramkamps on Fridays, to the Ledbetters on Mondays. I saw her broad back bent over the wicker basket of sheets when I came up the lane behind the Ledbetters’, as Sinbad scattered the honking geese from their tossed corn.

“Morning, Rachel,” she said, raising a thick red hand to block the sun which shot over my shoulders and Sinbad’s, foretelling a July heat storm. 

I loosened Sinbad’s reins and tipped my hat brim as Harley did his. “Morning, Mrs. Tamblyn.”

She shook out a pillow slip. Sinbad danced sideways. As Harley had taught me, I tightened the reins and used my legs to bring him closer to the white flag Mrs. Tamblyn pinned to the line. His trembling eased, and he lowered his head to snuff the ground for the kernels the geese left..

From wash day to wash day, Mrs. Tamblyn collected the town’s back door gossip and spread stories like seeds, planting one in Mrs. Bramkamp’s or Mrs. Ledbetter’s kitchen, where it would be nurtured and watered until its tendrilled vines reached into ours. I had appeared to her, a willing bearer to carry home to Mama whatever sordid news had transpired since her last visit. “Did your mother hear about Mrs. Murtry over on Gethsemane Street?” she asked. 

“I know Collie Murtry,” I said.

Gethsemane Street lay across the dip of Broad Street on the far side of town, a neighborhood where the miners lucky enough to keep their own houses shed their soiled work clothes outside the paint-peeled back doors, where women of whom my parents wouldn’t speak worked their knuckles raw scrubbing the mine dirt from their husbands’ worn coveralls. 

Mrs. Tamblyn went on: “Siobahn Murtry’s up and gone. Nowhere to be found. Seven months pregnant and she’s disappeared.” She huffed and reached into the basket for a sheet. “Mrs. Penrose says she left with one of them snipers, the ones that put up the shacks down from the bridge?” Raising her heavy lids and rolling her eyes, she lifted her meaty arms to snap the sheet free of wrinkles. “And Dug Murtry’s threatened to kill them all!”

Sinbad spoiled the drama of her disclosure. Bored with standing, he lipped the hanging bedclothes and broke the murderous mood of her broadcast.

“Get him back, Rachel!” Mrs. Tamblyn complained. I backed the pony three steps. 

“Mrs. Tamblyn?” 

“Tell your mother. She’ll remember the Easter baskets she and Mrs. Mapes took over to Piety Hill. The Murtrys took one, I’m sure.”

“What will he kill them with?”

“What?”

“Dug Murtry, when he kills the snipers, what will he do it with?”

For a second, just long enough to recognize regret and discard it, Mrs. Tamblyn might have questioned the reasonableness of gossiping with a ten-year-old. “Oh, dear. It’s not what he’ll kill them with, that’s just drink talking, it’s where did she find the courage to leave him, how did Siobhan Murtry finally leave that bum husband of hers?” 

Mrs. Tamblyn stared hard at me, as if she could mine the answer to her question from my squinting eyes. “Get on now, Rachel,” she scolded. “I’ve got plenty to do here without chit-chatting the day away.” I was used to this: there was always time to be had while Mrs. Tamblyn was mid-story. When the action fell and the moral had been achieved, she dismissed the audience to resume her duties. 

From the Ledbetters, we turned up Nevada Street and trotted through the dappled shade of the oak trees lining the grounds of the cemetery. What would happen to me if Mama left my father, I puzzled. Would Mama ever leave my father for a sniper? No, I decided, Mama wouldn’t choose to live in a shack by Deer Creek, as seductive as it seemed to me. She loved our house and its library of books and the hutch filled with china and the parlor with the Victorian settee and the upright piano from Cincinnati and the trunk room stacked with clean linen folded by Mrs. Tamblyn’s hands. And she loved me. Therefore, by syllogism of the blameless heart, it came to me: she must love my father.

I have since seen enough of love, the galling reconfiguration of message after love falls away, to appreciate what curbed my mother, what cut her corners as deftly as the leather reins I used to key Sinbad’s sharp turns on the flats. Then, making my own sense of Mrs. Tamblyn’s epic plotting, I read Mama’s attachment to the gracious floorplan of our house and the soothing sameness of our days, regulated without question by my father’s codes, as love. Her attachment to the house extended to all its fixtures: to the high ceilings and the ornate moldings, to the electric lights and the fancy Frigidaire, to the cedars and oaks standing sentry in our deep green moat of a yard, to me and to my father. 

I seldom saw my parents touch, but I was not yet alert to the sign systems of love or its substitutes. When they did, Mama’s hand flitted over my father’s skin and bone like the skittish feather dusters with which she caressed the leather-bound Shakespeares and the cherry wood mantel clock and the Chinese tea cups: a distanced, maintenanced gesture necessitated by duty. Their model was familiar, so I judged what I knew best as good, and found all else aberrations. Mr. and Mrs. Mapes slept in separate bedrooms, Delia told me, in her precocious preoccupation with what I found to be a simple difference of household geography. Mama and my father slept together on a full mattress held by a curling, dark mahogany frame the size and shape of a sleigh, a bed wide enough you could easily toss and turn through a sleepless night without touching. One washday morning, I had seen Mrs. Tamblyn kiss Bert Tamblyn square on the lips. His chapped paw cupped her enormous bosom as she leaned into the window of his Ford in parting. Even doing our laundry, her breasts outlined beneath her dampened blouse, Mrs. Tamblyn was fleshy and coarse; I did not expect her to be otherwise with her husband. How could I know that my parents’ mutual, severe etiquette was anything but tasteful upper-class restraint, a sign of our breeding?   

At the end of the street, where the pavement turned to gravel, I let Sinbad lower his head to pull at the wild mustard outside the cemetery gates. I leaned against his mane and wrapped my arms around his neck. I felt the safe rhythms as my pony blew and cut and chewed and swallowed. Collie Murtry, half-orphaned now by Mrs. Tamblyn’s pronouncement of his mother’s abandonment, I knew as the silent back-row boy in our classroom, more noticeable for his frequent absence than for his presence, a student whom a series of teachers from Miss Goyne to Mrs. Hurley had mislabelled as cheerless, if capable, a classmate whom the fifth grade boys had made invisible. But he had, with one small mercy, made himself my friend.


Anna Villegas is a retired college English professor from the California foothills, where she grew up riding a bareback bay pony with only a hackamore. Her published work includes many stories, poems, essays, newspaper columns, and three novels.


The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.

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