Sotto Voce

By Christina Keim

The pinto gelding stood in the corner of his paddock, ears pricked forward, neck arched, nostrils fluttering softly as he inhaled deep breaths of crisp fall air. A few hundred yards away, boisterous students poured off a long yellow school bus, some fairly skipping down the three steps and then the wooded lane festooned with colorful leaves, chattering away the whole time. He kept one eye on the leaders as they flowed past his fence line, a stream of youthful energy which sometimes produced a stray apple or peppermint. But his main focus was on the bus itself, on the still open door, waiting, watching, for her.

A moment later she slowly descended the steps, alone. Her long dark hair hung limply around her pale face, and she half carried, half dragged a green pack which was worn in the corners. Upon seeing her, the gelding immediately perked up, raising his neck another inch and, extending his head forward, offered a whinny of greeting. She lifted her brown eyes, and her face transformed from a stone visage to one that radiated warmth, joy, and love. She dropped the pack on the side of the road and jogged to the fence line. He lowered his velvet muzzle into her outstretched hand.

“I missed you, Sioux,” she whispered to him. “It has been a rotten, terrible day.”

She crouched to crawl through the fence, ducking through the roughhewn boards with an ease borne of practice. Once inside, she approached him calmly, deliberately, at an oblique angle, waiting for him to lower his head and neck. When he did so, she slowly entered the space around him, and once again offered her hand. She began to scratch his neck, then moved down to his withers, the gelding sighing in comfort. The two stood like this for several moments before she spoke again.

“My teacher thinks I’m not trying,” she told the horse. “But I just don’t have it in me—to do the presentation, to stand up in front of everybody like that. She won’t change the assignment for me. She says that everyone in sixth grade has to do it. It’s not fair.”

Her eyes welled with tears, but they stopped short of spilling over. She shook her head. “And Christy has stopped speaking to me. Again. I don’t know why or what I’ve done. But she is, like, the only person I can talk to in there.”

Now the tears overwhelmed her eyelids and began streaming down her cheeks. Her breathing became ragged and she flung her arms around the gelding’s neck.

“I’m just not like them,” said the girl. “It’s like no matter what I do it isn’t the right thing. I don’t fit in there. I don’t fit in anywhere.”

The gelding stood steady under her touch. In the past, the kind of energy the girl currently radiated—frantic, emotional, unpredictable—would have caused him to cower. But he trusted her. They were a herd of two, and there was safety in numbers, even small ones. A horse alone is a horse in trouble. But a horse with a friend to scratch his itch, to watch for danger in his blind spot, stood a chance.

After a moment the girl released her arms, a wet area darkening the bay hair on the gelding’s neck where her face had been pressed.

“That’s not all true,” the girl whispered in a ragged voice. “I fit here with you.”

• • •

The gelding remembered the first time he had met her. It had been a few years ago, at an auction up north. He was tied to a long rail with about thirty other horses, wedged between an Appaloosa pony whose gaunt hips and ribs protruded beneath stretched skin, and an aged chestnut mare who pinned her ears at him whenever he looked her way. He didn’t have a name, then. They called him Hip #23, and he had pretty much given up. His feet hurt and he was hungry, but more than that, he was just tired. Tired of keeping an eye on the body language of the other desperate horses around him. Tired of trying to decode what the humans wanted him to do next. And tired of hoping that someone, anyone, would show him the compassion he had once known.

People had loved him, once. He was foaled on a ranch in Texas whose acres sprawled across the high plains of the panhandle, and he spent his early years there, playing with siblings and cousins, growing sturdy and strong under the arid sun. When he was a little older, the gelding was brought up to the main ranch. He quickly learned that not all humans were created the same, and it was important to swiftly assess their physical demeanor when they approached. It was their body language and energy which he had to pay the most attention to. Calming words were meaningless when a threat was implied by the tense shoulders or set jaw of a human handler.

His best years had been when he was a show horse. At that time, he had a stall with soft, deep bedding to lie in, a lush pasture in which to stretch his legs, and plenty of attention from a whole assortment of humans. Some seemed to be in charge of grooming his two-toned coat to a high gloss; others brought him daily to the riding ring to teach him movements and figures. There were so many people around him each day that he didn’t believe that any of them were “his” human. But he came to recognize the critical ones—the tall, wizened cowboy with the kind hands and the shorter, slightly stooped woman who followed him down the aisle, visiting each animal in turn. They seemed to be in charge, because the other humans always deferred to them in word and posture. When the couple looked over the half door to his stall and smiled, he always turned to greet them with a soft whinny, and in exchange he was offered a cube of sugar.

But that had been a long time ago. Since then he had lived in many stables, each with a lower standard of care. The last one had been the worst. Hay was tossed only once per day, and it was stemmy, hard to chew, and unsatisfying. Out of boredom and hunger he began chewing on the wood of his stall, an action which resulted in the sharp whack of a whip whenever a human caught him in the act (and sometimes when they didn’t). The water buckets were frequently dry, or if filled, so full of slimy residue that it was unappealing to drink. His gut became tucked up and his weight dropped. Driven by hunger and thirst, the gelding became aggressive whenever anyone entered his stall with feed, desperate to quell the omnipresent pangs. He snapped at them with his long, angled teeth and struck out with front feet in response to their presence. In return, the whip came out once again, until he learned to cower in the back corner of his dark prison, head down, defeated.

By the time the humans loaded the gelding onto the trailer bound for the auction, he was a mere shell. They squeezed him onto an already full stock trailer, where he was immediately bitten by the horse in front of him and cow kicked by the one to the side. The rusty hinges squealed as the rear door sealed closed on its doomed cargo.

At the auction, one of the wranglers led a gray-haired older man in a cowboy hat down the rows of horses. The cowboy pulled a crumpled list from the pocket of his denim jacket, squinting at the numbers printed there. They were tailed by a young girl who hung several feet behind the men. She seemed to be lost in her own thoughts, and stared up at the hindquarters of each horse as she passed by. The gelding tensed as the trio approached, pinning his ears half way back and flipping his head towards them. The men walked past without a glance, but the girl paused.

“Why are you so scared?” she breathed. She stood at a three-quarter angle to the gelding, keeping her eyes downcast and resting on one foot. She stood passively for several moments, the men walking further away from her, seemingly oblivious that they had lost their charge. The gelding considered her posture and energy and decided she meant him no harm. He lowered his head and licked his lips, exhaling a deep sigh. With this, she carefully approached him, sliding like a glove into the space between him and the Appaloosa. She stroked his shoulder, then worked up to the crest of his neck, running her fingers through his tangled mane. The girl stared into the gelding’s liquid brown eyes, long lashes slowly fluttering as he blinked, taking her in. He couldn’t dare to hope.

“Olivia?” came a call from down the aisle. The gelding immediately stiffened and raised his head, hind leg halfcocked in a defensive posture. The girl silently slid away from his side and stood, eyes downcast, as the cowboy purposefully strode towards her.

“Olivia, you need to stay with me,” said the cowboy, not unkindly. “This is not the place to wander off.”

He took her hand, and the gelding couldn’t help but notice their common jawline and nasal bone. The two were related, and the way in which the old man took her hand echoed the gentleness in which she had approached the horse himself. The cowboy smiled down at her with a radiance which beamed from within, soft crinkles forming in his weathered face. She tugged at his hand and pointed to the gelding.

“You like this one, do you?” he asked her. She nodded softly, and the cowboy put his trained eyes onto the pinto’s form. With the same care as the girl, he entered the gelding’s space, pausing to allow the horse to assess him before moving closer. The gelding flicked his tail and pinned his ears, defensively shifting his weight to the opposite leg. The cowboy paused. The gelding considered. He remembered the man from his youth who wore a hat like this one. Perhaps he could give this man a chance. Once again, the gelding dropped his head and relaxed.

“Well, he surely does have good conformation,” said the cowboy. He took in the animal’s body—his frame was thin, underweight by at least 200 pounds, and the uneven lines on the hooves indicated a history of poor care. His coat was dull, caked in mud and manure, and bore the still fresh scars from ropes and bites. But the slope of his shoulder, the angle of the croup and inherently sturdy frame belied his good breeding. The cowboy pulled the list out of his pocket and read the gelding’s description out loud.

“Hip 23. Aged paint gelding. Rides good.”

“You don’t want that one.” The wrangler had come back up behind them. “It’s lame, foundered probably. Not worth much more than the flesh on the bone. A one-way ride to Canada is all it’s worth.”

The girl’s lower lip began to quiver, and she turned back to the cowboy, who still stood next to the horse’s shoulder, one hand resting on the withers.

“I’ll give you $450,” said the cowboy. “Spare you the trouble of running him through the auction.”

“We ain’t supposed to make side deals.”

“Cash. And we’ll take him now.”

Five minutes later, the wrangler walked away with a fistful of bills in his hand while the girl led the gelding to the trailer one slow, painful step at a time.

• • •

“I am increasingly concerned about your granddaughter’s mutism,” said the social worker. The cowboy had come to dread her mandatory quarterly visit, required after he had been awarded legal guardianship.

She was dressed in a pressed navy suit with matching pumps, her blonde hair carefully bobbed to frame her face, small pearls in each ear. An utterly impractical outfit to wear to a farm, thought the cowboy. She was equally impractically dressed the first time she had come to visit, and the time after that too. He guessed that if she hadn’t figured it out by now she wasn’t going to, and let it go at that. Some people were slower to catch on than others.

“Well, she seems to get by okay,” said the cowboy. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair, then shifted the brim of his hat in front of him to line up with the edge of the table. He always tended to fidget when he was nervous.

“It is well documented that children with selective mutism fall behind their peers academically, socially, and sometimes cognitively,” she replied. She was busy shuffling through papers in her folio. “And the condition doesn’t necessarily improve with age. She needs professional help.”

Through the window, the cowboy could see the girl. She was in the paddock again with the gelding, gently brushing his coat. It been a long road to bring him back to good health, but well worth it. They had taken their time, respecting his boundaries and comfort level, slowly winning his trust. Medicine and good feed may have healed his physical body, but it was the girl who had worked to heal his soul. The cowboy taught the girl how to speak the gelding’s language, to observe how with a cocked leg or flick of an ear, he communicated his awareness of the world. While he watched, the girl took off at a jog, the gelding following along behind her. When she stopped he stopped; when she turned he turned, a shadow puppet moving in response to invisible strings connecting one to the other.

“What do you suggest?”

The social worker prattled on about various interventions including behavioral therapies and anti-anxiety medications. Half listening, he cracked a smile when the duo outside paused in their play, she to open a peppermint, he to eagerly receive it.

“And to conclude, Mr. Russo, it is essential to understand that selective mutism is a disability.” The social worker emphasized the word. “This behavior is self-reinforcing. If Olivia does not learn to appropriately interact with others, they may stop trying to interact with her at all. You don’t want her to live the rest of her life alone and unable to communicate, do you?”

She snapped her folio closed and inserted it into an overly full briefcase.  The cowboy finally turned his eyes to regard the social worker as she rose to leave.

“Oh, I think she knows how to communicate just fine,” he replied.

The social worker harrumphed her disagreement as she moved rapidly towards the wooden front door. “I’m telling you, she will just become accustomed to being silent,” she replied. “There is simply no advantage to not speaking when you are perfectly capable of doing so.”

The cowboy closed the door behind her before replying under his breath.

“Maybe it’s more that everyone else needs to learn to listen better.”

• • •

The girl stood at the front of the classroom. She stared at her shoes, willing the words to come out. Her hair fell forward and she chewed her lip nervously. She felt paralyzed, unable to speak or move her feet from where they had become planted on the worn, faded linoleum floor.

“Olivia, begin whenever you are ready,” said her teacher, sitting pertly behind her desk next to where the girl stood. The second hand on the clock at the back of the room ticked its march around the face, and the girl began to count its beats, regular as a pulse. A few students began to snicker. The arm made two rotations before the teacher spoke again.

“Very well, Olivia. Please return to your seat.”

The girl, eyes still downcast, shuffled back to her desk in the front row. As she sat, the boy behind her leaned forward.

“What’s the matter, Russo, cat got your tongue?” he hissed.

“Robert, that will do,” the teacher reprimanded.

The girl didn’t reply. She was used to the taunts and name calling, to the pressure from adults and peers alike. It had always been this way in school. She was so scared of saying or doing something wrong, of making a mistake, that she became frozen, trapped like a prey animal under the gaze of their foe. Today was just the latest failure in a string of disappointing performances.

The bell rang, releasing students for the day. Books slammed closed and chairs scraped across the floor as students raced out of classrooms and down the hallway. But the girl moved slowly, as if in a fog. She drifted through the mist to the hallway, where the combination of slamming lockers, loud voices and rowdy energy made her tremble with anxiety. Covering her eyes, she waded into the stream of people outside the classroom, flowing with the other students to the exit and the waiting row of school busses. She found hers and raced up the steps and into the first seat behind the driver. Most of the students tried to hide in the back of the bus, far away from his supervision, but for the girl, his presence provided a small buffer from the never-ending teasing of her classmates.

“Hey Olivia, did you have a good day?” the driver asked, looking into the rearview mirror.

She offered him a thumbs up without lifting her gaze. All she wanted right now was to be at the barn, in the comfortable and familiar smells and sounds of the farmyard. She leaned back against the plastic army green seat, eyes closed, imagining herself already standing in the cool grass while the folding doors clamped shut and the bus pulled away from the curb.

• • •

The cowboy stood at the end of the lane when the bus roared up to the stop. He nodded at each of the other children in turn as they murmured greetings while they passed by—“Hello, Mr. Russo”, “Afternoon, sir,”—but his focus was on the door, waiting for the girl to appear. She emerged at last, after the other children were well on their way down the road, eyes cast down, looking like a broken soul.

“Olivia,” he said quietly.

She looked up quickly, startled. It had been a few years since he had met her at the stop, not since she entered fourth grade at least.

Usually he was busy on the farm, and the girl knew her own way home.

“I thought I would walk with you a bit.”

He reached down to take the worn green pack, and then they fell into step together in companionable silence, though the girl cast inquisitive glances up towards him. From his paddock, the gelding offered a greeting and moved closer to the rail.

“I hear you’re having a tough time in school,” the cowboy offered an opening. The girl looked at him sharply, then back to her feet. Unconsciously, they had both angled their steps towards the fence, and now stood in front of the gelding’s outstretched muzzle. The girl reached up to stroke the smooth hairs on his neck and wiped away an unseen speck of dust.

“It’s this presentation. I have to stand up there in front of everyone, and talk, for two whole minutes. How am I supposed to do that? I just can’t do it, nonno.” As the words tumbled out, her tears began to fall, and she began to knead the muscles of the gelding’s neck with an intensity which her words alone didn’t carry.

The cowboy nodded. “I imagine that would be pretty hard,” he said, looking at the gelding. “Probably ‘bout as hard as it was for Sioux here to learn to trust us and decide to get better.”

“What do you mean?”

The cowboy rested a worn boot on the bottom rail and leaned over his bent knee.

“Well, I reckon that Sioux here has learned a few things about people in his lifetime,” said the cowboy. He nodded his head toward the scars which ringed the gelding’s pasterns. “Now, we don’t know how he got those, but remember how long it took him to be willing to let us clean up all that old proud flesh? You know that musta hurt him, but he let us fix him up anyway. He had to decide to let us help him, even though he was scared at first. He had to decide to be brave.”

The girl nodded slowly. She stepped through the fence, then ran her hand down the gelding’s forelimb. She peered at the scars more closely. Where once there had been oozing sores, there was now a line of slightly thickened pink flesh. Exposed but strong. Protective.

“Being brave doesn’t mean you don’t get scared. But you’ve got to learn to tell between the scary things which can hurt you and those which won’t. That’s what Sioux had to do. It’s why he picked you.”

“Picked me?”

“Did you ever wonder why, out of all those horses at the auction that day, you were drawn to him? A beat up, broke down feller that no one wanted anymore?”

The girl looked back at him, nodded. The cowboy smiled.

“I want you to think about that for a while.” He stood up, straightened his hat, gave the gelding an affectionate rub on the forehead, then headed back towards the barn.

The gelding grazed contentedly, while the girl sat in the grass and stared at the curve of his jaw bone and the mild dish of his forehead. She let the cowboy’s words echo in her mind.

She had been chosen.

• • •

The bright moonlight poured through the girl’s bedroom window. The crisp air had already drawn just the tiniest lace of frost along the window frame. She sat in bed, hugging legs to chest, staring through the panes to where the gelding stood, asleep, head lowered, one hind leg cocked. The house was quiet and still, as though the whole world were holding its breath.

Carefully, the girl swung her legs over the edge of the mattress, bare feet softly padding towards the door, down the stairs, and to the front hall. She cautiously avoided the loose floorboard and cracked open the heavy wooden door. At the movement, the gelding was alert, swinging his long neck to assess the potential danger. The girl stood on the front steps, her pale face reflecting the moonlight. The cold air tingled on her face and toes, but she felt a radiance in her soul which warmed her. Seeing the girl, the gelding offered a low nicker, as one does when greeting a close friend encountered at an unexpected time. He approached the small gate.

“Good evening, Sioux.” The girl unclipped the latch, leaving the gate ajar. She gathered a handful of brown and white mane in her left hand, and with a soft bounce, lofted herself onto the gelding’s back. He adjusted under her weight, and then she leaned her upper body forward on his neck and gave him a small nudge with her heels.

“Teach me, Sioux. Teach me to be brave like you.”

The gelding picked up a trot, then a canter, and then they were galloping, running flat out, tangled manes flowing, two hearts pounding, exhilarating in the joy that can only come from being truly, deeply understood. The gelding ran until they reached the edge of the field, where the nearly bare trees had peppered the ground with wet, colorful leaves that radiated the moon’s reflection. He slowed, then stopped, turning his head to peer at the girl with one eye. She relaxed, softening, and then with a gentle shift of her weight and squeeze of her leg, cued the gelding to turn back towards home.

Christina Keim is a narrative journalist and travel writer with a specialty in equestrian-themed topics. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a wide variety of digital and print media, including Wanderlust Journal, The Plaid Horse, Equine Journal and Practical Horseman, and she is a regular contributor to the Chronicle of the Horse, UnTacked and Northeast Equestrian Life. She holds both an M.Ed. and an M.F.A. from the University of New Hampshire.

Originally from the October 2020 issue.