The ad said, “Please, no tire kickers,” and I was just old enough to know that I was one. I saw it hanging on the bulletin board at the feed store in town, just down the road from our small used-to-be farm. My dad would take me there on Saturdays to get parts for the mower or plumbing to fix the sink. Occasionally we’d get a sack of feed for the chickens, and he’d tell me to pick out a pop from the cooler by the register. I’d always pick Pennsylvania Punch and pretend it was wine, taking small sips on the ride home, hoping it would stain my lips.
I noticed the bright white, full-page ad right away. In one corner was a grainy picture of a gray horse, his face speckled with mud. Next to that was a block of text all squashed together that should have been bullet points. It said things like how tall he was, his age, that he loads and stands for the farrier. Then there was a big white space, followed by, “Please, no tire kickers” and his price and a number to call.
I knew better than to point him out to my dad, who was still crouched down picking out the right size washers. But something about the way the flecks of mud mixed with his flea-bitten coat, or maybe it was his soft, dark eye, sort of made me rip the add out from under its pushpins and stuff it into my pocket. Then I quickly made my way over to stand next to my dad in the washer aisle, antsy to leave. I wasn’t the type to take things that weren’t mine, or ruin other people’s advertisements on the bulletin board. If it’s true that you have an angel and a devil on your shoulder, I figured it was the devil who snatched up that piece of paper before my angel could stop him.
On the way home, I didn’t even open my Pennsylvania Punch. The crumpled paper was burning a hole in my pocket. I had a little bit of money—cash tucked inside an old folder from school and stashed away under my bed—from sorting tomatoes at Uncle John’s farm over the summer, plus a few bucks here and there for birthdays and Christmases. But it was nowhere near enough to be taken seriously for the gray horse. Besides, there was my dad, who would, without a doubt, put the kibosh on the whole thing.
“Who’s going to feed it and exercise it and buy its hay?” he’d say. “We’re not millionaires.”
I knew it, that we weren’t rich. But I also knew that we had an old stall, the dirt floor dotted with remnants of old straw and dust, and full of odds and ends that weren’t needed anymore. My dad told me that a little black horse named Rosie lived there when I was little—the last horse left from what was once my grandpap’s farm—and I don’t remember her. Still, I think she’s in my blood.
There’s no other way to explain taking the ad, running to my bedroom as soon as we got home, pulling it out of my pocket and smoothing it over with the flat palms of my hands until they started to feel warm. My eyes scanned the words again, although I already knew them practically by heart, having replayed them over and over in my head on the ride home. I stopped at the number.
I imagined the voice on the other end—a woman, older, raspy. “Hello?”
“I’d like to buy your horse,” I’d say.
“You saw his picture, did you? You must have seen my ad.”
“Er, yes, I’ve seen your ad and that’s how I know I’d like to buy him.”
“Well, I wouldn’t sell him to just anybody. How old are you?”
“I’m 13, but I have lots of experience taking care of things. I have a dog and a baby brother.”
“Oh well it sounds like you’d do just fine taking care of a horse. When can you pick him up?”
That’s where it’d all start to crumble. The details. We didn’t have a horse trailer, and even if we did, my dad’s busted up old pickup would hardly be able to pull a horse. Not to mention the money. And technically, I wasn’t allowed to use the phone without permission.
I went to school the following Monday with a lump in my throat, my head in a fog. I still had the piece of paper with the gray horse’s picture stuffed in my pocket, already wrinkled and too worn down to give it back. I ran my fingers over the gray horse’s head the whole bus ride to school, pulled it back out at lunchtime, sat alone at recess – well, I wasn’t alone. I had the horse.
I don’t know the mechanics of what happened next. That is to say, my legs were moving under me, but I don’t remember telling them to get up and go. One minute I was sitting on a retaining wall facing the kickball field with a grainy picture of a horse in my hands. The next, the wall was gone and I was about a quarter of a mile down the road and headed into town.
Woodsbury is a very small town. I’m not good at knowing how many people are in one place over another, but I would say that there are just enough people to know who all the backs of the heads belong to when you’re seated in the back of the church and should have been looking at the hymnal.
I kept on walking straight, not thinking about my next turn until I realized I didn’t know where to make it. When I got to the feed store, I walked inside. The man at the counter knew my dad, so I figured he probably knew me, too. I mustered up the grit to walk up to him and say “Excuse me, sir” in the mousy voice of a 13-year-old girl on her way to see a horse.
“Yes, can I help you?” he said, before doing a double-take and adding, “aren’t you Paul’s girl?”
I nodded. “Can I use your phone, please?”
The man’s eyes scanned the space above my head, behind me, towards the door of his store. “Your dad’s not with you today?”
I shook my head.
He pulled the phone out from behind the counter and set it on top. “Here you are.”
I thanked the man, waiting for him to disappear into one of the aisles before pulling out the crumpled piece of paper from my pocket and dialing the number listed at the top.
After what seemed like an eternity of rings, a woman’s voice was on the other line. “Hello?”
“Hello,” I said. “I saw your advertisement for your horse for sale. Could you give me directions from town, please?”
McAllister Lane was one left, two rights, another left, and about two miles down a straight dirt road. When I got there, it was much later than I’d expected. Under any other circumstances, I would have been ready to be home for dinner, to peel my shoes off my throbbing feet—they were about a half-size too small. Mom says I grow too quickly. But seeing as I was about to see a lady about a horse, I didn’t even notice the blisters on my heels.
There was an old faded-red barn at the end of the gravel drive, the doors at each end swung wide open. I walked inside the first, peeking around the corner. “Hello?” I said in that mousy voice.
As my eyes adjusted to the light, I started to make out the shape of a head. It was peppered with mud, just like in the picture, with the softest eye and long, wispy whiskers.
I wasn’t one to walk into other people’s barns and start petting their horses without asking. But it was almost as if the horse himself invited me over, asked me to scratch his ears. He lowered his head, as if to say, “Here, now you can reach.”
I rubbed his soft ears, scratched his wiry whiskers underneath his chin, put my nose to the side of his neck, breathing in deeply. I wondered if this is what Rosie—my grandpap’s little black horse—smelled like.
Then the lights flickered on, followed by a woman’s voice. “Hi there. You found it okay?”
I stepped back from the horse, although I couldn’t quite stop looking at him. “Yes, they were very good directions.”
“I’m Mary Lee,” she said, stretching out her hand.
“My name’s Hannah.” I shook her hand like I’d seen my dad do a million times.
“Would you like me to get him out of his stall?” Before I could answer, she was walking toward the horse with a halter flung over her shoulder. I got a better look at the woman then. She had long, silvery hair tied back in a low ponytail. She flipped the halter over the horse’s head, slid the stall door open, and led the horse by his halter to the middle of the aisleway.
“This is Comet,” she said.
“Why are you selling him?” I asked, picking up where I left off under Comet’s chin.
“My husband and I, we had horses for over 45 years. When he passed last spring, I just couldn’t take care of them anymore. I thought I’d keep Comet—he was Jim’s, my husband’s. But the work is getting to be too much for me. I was hoping to find a nice home for him.”
She patted Comet on the neck, then seemed to see me for the first time. Looking toward the door I came in, she asked if my parents were with me.
I shook my head.
“How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Thirteen,” I said.
“Ah-ha. Thirteen is a big year.”
I nodded, ran my fingers through Comet’s long yellowed mane. I got stuck at a knot and started carefully working it out.
“Do your parents know you’re looking to buy a horse?” she asked.
I shook my head. I told her about my grandpap’s old farm, about Rosie. Said I think that horses are somehow in my blood, then apologized for tearing her advertisement down. I pulled the crinkled paper out of my pocket.
“Here it is,” I said. “I’ve been carrying it in my pocket ever since I first saw Comet’s picture at the feed store. I’m awfully sorry.”
There was a pause while the woman hung up the halter on the face of the stall. She folded her arms across her chest and seemed to look to Comet for what she should say next.
“I know what you mean,” she finally said, “about the blood—about horses in your veins. How did you get here?”
“Walked,” I said.
“And on a school day?”
Still scratching Comet on the chin, I looked down at my muddy shoes. “I have a little bit of money saved up,” I told her, still staring at the ground. “But it’s not enough. And my family—we don’t have a horse trailer. We have a stall, but nothing but rakes have lived in there since Rosie.”
She looked at me, at Comet.
“We’d better call your folks,” she said.
She asked me to write my phone number down on the back of a feed tag, said she’d be right back and not to go anywhere.
I watched her head back to the house out of the opposite side of the barn I came in. As soon as she was out of sight, I buried my face in Comet’s neck and silently let his speckled gray coat catch warm tears.
When the woman came back, she startled me. I hadn’t left Comet’s neck and was exhausted. I could have fallen asleep standing up, buried in Comet’s neck. He stood calmly, shifting his weight every so often, resting on a different leg. Swatted a fly with his tail here and there. But otherwise remained solid, stoic.
“I just talked to your father,” she told me.
“Was he mad?”
“He’s on his way,” she said.
Then she slid a stool over to where I’d been standing and motioned for me to sit. She leaned against a pile of dusty horse blankets on top of what looked to be an old tack trunk.
“Hannah,” she said, “I got to thinking that maybe I’m not ready to sell Comet after all.”
I figured she was letting me down easy, making up a story so I wouldn’t feel so bad about not being able to afford him, or for being 13 and not having a life of my own yet.
“Maybe you would like to help me take care of him here,” she finished.
I looked at her, eyes wide, not sure I understood what she meant.
“I talked to your father,” she said, “and he said it’d be okay if you wanted to stop here after school and help me with the chores around the barn. Feeding Comet, mucking his stall, brushing him. But he would live here, and you wouldn’t need a trailer.”
I stood up and threw my arms around Comet’s big gray neck.
“Would you like that?”
I nodded, wanting to hug the woman but clung to Comet instead.
“Very much,” I said behind the beginnings of another round of warm tears.
When my dad came, he politely thanked the woman for calling, and for the offer to let me help with her horse. I’d expected as much—dad wasn’t one to make a scene in front of strangers. But when we got into the car and started down McAllister Lane, he didn’t yell, didn’t scold. Just drove in silence, leaving a dusty dirt trail behind us.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I finally said.
He looked back at me in the rearview mirror and said, “me too, kiddo. I’m sorry we can’t afford a horse. And I’m sorry you felt like you couldn’t ask me anyway.”
Suddenly, I felt a pang of guilt. I should have been content with a bottle of Pennsylvania Punch in the backseat, headed home from the feed store—not making my dad feel bad that he couldn’t afford to buy his daughter a horse.
“I shouldn’t have gone there today,” I said. “I don’t need a horse.”
He slowed the car, still looking at me in the mirror. “You made a commitment to something. Now follow through with that.”
That summer, I rode my bike to feed Comet every morning, went home for a while, then rode back to feed him again in the evening. Mary Lee said that Comet wasn’t exactly a riding horse—that’s to say, she wasn’t sure when the last time he’d been ridden was, and it certainly wasn’t by her. So she couldn’t vouch for how he might behave, especially with a new, inexperienced rider. But I learned to lead him to and from the pasture, drop bales of hay from the hayloft above his stall, fill up his feed bucket, and clean out his water.
Some nights, I would accidentally stay past dark and my dad’s headlights would pull up the gravel drive. He’d find me brushing Comet in the aisleway, or singing him to sleep in his stall. Before long, I think Comet started learning the sound of my bike tires on the gravel, because he’d whinny if he was in his stall, and come up to the fence if he was outside. I never had to chase him to catch him in the field. I think he knew about Rosie—knew I was one of his people.
Mary Lee taught me how to give him a bath and braid his mane. I practiced all summer long, and by mid-August when school was about to start again, she told me Comet looked like a show horse, my braids had gotten so good.
The evening before school started, I was in the barn with Comet, brushing him in the aisleway like every other night for the past few months. Mary Lee told me I could keep coming for as long as I’d wanted, but I knew it would be a little different once I was back in school. No more early mornings to watch the sun rise over his pasture, probably fewer late nights.
So something felt different—special, I suppose—about this last summer evening. Maybe it was that draw, a glimmer of magic in the sky, but something made my arms pull up the stool next to Comet’s back, made my leg swing over him, my upper body abruptly clanging against his big neck with a thud as I regained my balance. It was the first time I’d ever sat on top of a horse, much less without a saddle, no reins, a shoe untied.
After the initial thud against his back, Comet didn’t seem to mind. His ears twitched toward me, waiting for me to tell him something, ask him to go somewhere. I knew enough that a kick-kick with my legs would tell him to go, so I started there. Sure enough, Comet stepped forward, wary at first, as if he could sense I wasn’t sure what to do next. As soon as we made it out the barn door and into his paddock, Comet started running. I threw my arms around his neck, not sure how else to hang on, and, rather loudly, asked him to whoa, whoa, whoa.
Mary Lee must have heard, because she appeared on top of the hill between the barn and her house.
“Sit up straight,” she called, “and grab ahold of his mane. Sit deep and tell him whoa.”
I thought about rolling off his side, hoping to land on a soft patch of dirt or maybe even a muddy puddle. But Mary Lee kept shouting to sit straight and get off his neck, so I did my best to reposition myself and sit up. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I regained my balance, grabbed a piece of mane, Comet came back down to the trot, then the walk, and I hopped off. Mary Lee met me at the fence.
“You’re a real horsewoman now,” she said.”
It was early November when the phone rang. My dad picked it up. Then he came into the living room where I was sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table working on a math problem.
“Get your coat,” he said.
It wasn’t unusual for him to drive me over to see Comet this time of year. Mom didn’t want me riding my bike in the cold.
“I just have one more problem—”
“It’s okay,” he said, “we’ll work on it later.”
In the car, he told me that Comet was sick. I thought maybe he had the horse equivalent of a cold, wasn’t sure exactly how a horse got sick.
When we pulled up the drive, the barn was all lit up, a trailer parked outside. Inside, Mary Lee was wrapped up in a shawl covering her pajamas, hovering over Comet who was lying on his side in the aisle. Someone else I’d never met was packing up a medical bag.
When she walked past us, she squeezed my shoulder.
I ran over to Comet, flung my body onto his.
“What’s wrong?” I pleaded. “He will be okay, right?”
Mary Lee looked up at me, tears in her eyes, and took my hand in hers.
“Comet got very sick last night, Hannah.”
Before she could finish explaining, I knew. I looked into his big round eye and somehow felt the warmth escaping him, a light mist of icy rain starting down from the sky.
“I’m afraid we had to put him to sleep.”
Nothing ever prepares you for your first experience with death, especially when it’s an animal you thought might live on forever. And certainly nothing can prepare you to shiver outside on a chilly November night, the sun having just sank behind the trees, watching your father help an old woman bury her horse.
My dad and a few other men that I didn’t know slid Comet’s body onto a big plastic tarp, wrapping straps around him. They had to pull him through the paddock and out the fence below to a grassy spot beneath the shade trees where a hole was already dug.
I watched through a stream of tears as the men tried to pull the big gray horse toward the hole, my fingers practically frozen together, icy rain still plummeting from an otherwise clear night sky.
I remember asking God why He would let it rain ice like this tonight, why the weather couldn’t have held off for another couple hours. The misty ice was still falling, although gently, and starting to encase blades of grass and leaves, the light from the barn hitting some of them just right, glistening against the night.
But as the men trudged through the dirt paddock with Comet, finally making it through the fence and onto the grass near the trees, I understood. The thin sheet of ice that had been accumulating under the trees let Comet’s body slide effortlessly into the hole, no tugging, no prodding, no fighting. It was as if the ice came just for him—an easy passageway into his next life, over the rainbow bridge as I have come to learn.
On the walk back up to the barn, my dad put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me into him. “You did right by that horse,” he told me. “You took care of him, and you set him free.”
Gabrielle Pastorek is a freelance writer holding an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, and BAs in English and French from Ohio University. Her creative works have appeared in Blotterature, Blue Monday Review, Dappled Things, and others. She lives on a small horse farm in rural Pennsylvania with her two horses, Lucy and Daisy.