WHEN I WATCHED HIM HANG THE HORSE
by Quintan Ana Wikswo
first published in Tin House
The bones weren’t scattered around. They were laid out in the pasture as neat and close as the yarn in a sweater. There up in the Bell’s pasture I found the horse, hit by lightning in the spring and fallen down on the ground so quick it stayed together. I could tell it was a horse right off, just with nothing on it.
Winter came later and I came back and put the bones up in a square of bedspread and dragged the bundle back to outside the house. Sat sorting and polishing, with a small knife tried to get off the dried meat, finally boiled the smaller bones in water with Skinny Jones suddenly show up quiet there at the stove. I was missing two of the four feet in the pot.
Hooves, Jones told me, I believe they’re called hooves.
But I was still missing them.
They’re probably eaten up by now, he said.
I wanted to know what kind of thing would eat the hooves, what kind of thing had teeth or jaws enough to do it, or the sort of hunger to eat a horse’s feet.
Pig’s feet are very tasty, he said, like pickles.
I said I’d seen those in jars and pig bones were on the inside, underneath all the fat. Not like a horse’s feet where everything is hidden inside underneath the hardness.
Skinny Jones says:
A mother comes back to the nest with a hoof. The hungry children wondering what and how. She goes out again the next day, and comes back again and brings them a second hoof. It takes a while. Six broken bits of baby teeth in the bottom of the nest, but their baby bellies are a little rounder. The crackling veins on their skulls are covered over with those thin dark hairs.
By the time she goes back to get the third, the horse is gone.
Now the babies are eating crickets, toads, birds, grain, grasshoppers and mice.
I have two of the feet, and the babies have the others.
I say: I want to know which kind of babies have done this.
Skinny Jones says: the ones with broken teeth.
My teeth are in cornrows down my jaw, hard and square and mean.
Out in the yard I got everything arranged. The grass this winter is the kind of thin angry yellow that lives in a stomach. Some little bits of green only make it worse, poking up through the bones. Mr. Bell has walked up the side of the house and stood in the rhododendron, rubbed and raw and purple lipped.
You oughtn’t to play with the dead, Angel, he says, tell your daddy get you a baseball or a gun.
I keep saying what? until he give up and goes home.
We always ignore Mr. Bell. Once he was a judge, but now he mates peacocks. They are kept in the barn for their own protection.
The toenail of a peacock can slice a child’s face in half, he told me and Skinny Jones, and they aim their beaks direct for the human eye.
When it’s quiet in the middle of the night you can hear them screaming. Sometimes Mrs. Bell comes over to make sure Jones and I are keeping clean but she just wants to complain about the birds and their bad luck feathers. She says she is afraid to leave the house.
She says: and they scream and scream real slow all night – help me! help me!
Inside the house the telephone rings. His shoulders all buckled in, Skinny Jones comes outside to squat, smoke a cigarette, and watch me. He’s quiet and watches me sort bones.
I have put all the leg pieces in one pile, all the bits of the spine in another. I have four knee parts. The hips are thin and flat and look like Skinny Jones’ when he’s come out of the bath. I’ve made little holes in the frozen dirt and got the ribs stuck up in tall spikes around me and the other bones. I am the baby horse inside the mother. Skinny Jones stays outside the fort and turns a back bone around and around the long fingers on one hand, watching me.
I wish I had the tail, I tell him.
He says what?
And I say I wish I had the tail and we do it again and again and then I have it figured out that the Bells have called him to say that Angel has a dirty toy and Angel was rude and it must be stopped. He looks at me and sighs. He hates things being asked of him.
Come inside and clean up, he says. It’s time for dinner. He stares at me through the ribs and then looks away.
Bury it tomorrow, he says, in a hole.
Angel’s bedspread is covered with mud and bone mites, ruined. The embroidery a thatch of winter muck. And so Angel is asleep in the wide hollow of my empty bed. Elbows raised up, legs twisted together at the knees and again at the ankles, braided.
The way Angel’s mother slept when things were hard. Close, but tense as a knife. No dreams, no movement. No telling what is happening underneath.
Angel’s fingernails like hers, thin and pale as mica pressed flat against the soil.
There are four lines inside Angel’s palm and they all point in different directions, the cracks filled in with a thin layer of dead horse dirt.
Angel thinks too much of dead things. Even if I’m his Daddy I am not enough, not enough to fill those cracks, take up the spaces between his fingers where hers should be. Hers should be there, instead of the dirt of death, finding Angel even while he sleeps.
In the morning Skinny Jones polishes the shovel with sand and oil from the jar by the stove. He walks ahead of me in over the bits of ice on the grass, dragging the blanket of bones behind, up the hill and down a little to the flat spot under the maple tree. His shoes sound like firewood stacking up against the ground.
The shovel is longer than I am high and I chop away.
I don’t think the horse wants to go in the ground, I say. I don’t think it likes it down there.
Skinny Jones looks at me sideways and says nothing. That means he wants me to keep at it so I scrape away more sticks and rocks with the shovel but things only move around a little, and nothing gets any deeper.
Skinny Jones takes the shovel and it looks like him, like he’s using himself to dig a long wide hole for my horse. Jones doesn’t make a hole. Bits of dirt and ice can’t make it all the way up to his face but they try. Then they fall right back down where they were, cold and hard when they hit the ground.
The dirt doesn’t want my horse, the dirt doesn’t want my horse, I say.
We leave the horse and walk back to the house. Jones wraps my hands around a hot cup and closes the bathroom door on himself.
After a while I put my mittens back on and go out the door and up the hill to the horse. Then it’s time to go to sleep and I go back inside and the horse stays under the maple tree, still and quiet with the cold.
In the morning there are sharp stars of frost on Horse. The sun doesn’t come down far enough to notice that winter should be over, that winter should leave my Horse alone.
Skinny Jones has gone away all day and I stay to play with Horse. No Mr. Bell, no Jones, no wind, no nothing above, no nothing below, no bad times in the sky for me. Skinny Jones will come back. He always comes back. I set up the bones to look like Jones and me: two legs, two arms, a long thin spine and wide ribs. I put the hoofs down below for feet but there are no hands. I put a cup of hot tea at the end of its wrists but there are still sharp stars of frost on the bones.
Just before dark I wrap Horse up in my blanket and drag it home. The bones get warm in Skinny Jones’ bed. They hardly look like bones at all in the sheets, there on the pillow, turned to a warm butter shine in the lamplight.
Go to sleep, go to sleep, I sing: go to sleep and dream, go to sleep.
I come home from town. In our house the lights are on. Angel sleeping there on the floor of my bedroom. Ribs, paraffin soft, moving up and down to the rasping sound from his lungs.
In my bed the bones, in a damp quilt of leaves and mud. Everything stinks of musk. More hot and thick than air. On the floor is cool with Angel, bone bugs already crawling in his hair.
Inside the marrow live the bone bugs, their thin flaky shells filling up with dried blood, fat and protein, moving silent and secure inside their walls.
The bugs have clustered in the warm juniper thicket of Angel’s hair, gnawing at the density, gasping as the taste. Fat and protein. Life. Scalp sweet as burnt butter. Their thin flaky shells snap between my fingernails. I hold them in my fingers for a moment and then let the, go.
One after another, and another.
This child is the hollow bones filled with life, and I am the frozen ground.
Skinny Jones has taken Horse in the night and thrown it away.
All day we snap the bone bugs in our fingernails. I pretend they are his head, and pop and pop and pop.
God damn Skinny Jones.
It’s been five days and my teeth are glued shut to Jones. He goes to town and buys extra cigarettes and crouches in his cloud making oatmeal and pork chops at the stove. He sighs grey smoke in the snapping grease. I don’t eat from him. He can’t make me get in the bath because I will not give him my dirt to put down the drain.
In the field there are no more bones, and no more lightning storms until summer comes. My cat Summer has run away. Every day I look for teeth, for tiny cracked teeth in the leaves, but they aren’t there either. Jones is not good, not good for anything. There are no animals, there is nothing hiding in the bones.
There is no butter corn, just rows of paper stalks standing quiet in the field.
When Jones brings Mrs. Bell to bring me around I do not help him with her.
Angel, let’s learn how to sew. I can show you how to make calico soldiers, she says, but I say nothing. She’s got more up in her than Jones. She says, don’t break your daddy’s only hear, baby, don’t give him more trouble than he’s got, but I don’t mind.
Why don’t you tell me what’s in your head, she says again and again. From her lap I scream like her peacocks, as loud and hollow as there is until she get up real silent and walk away.
Later Jones brings me more food.
I’ve cooked you fresh rats for dinner, he says, but this time I know he’s lying.
In the middle of the night, night after night, I keep getting up and stringing those bones together, hanging the from the tree, joining the, with wire bone by bone until what’s up there in the tree is Angel’s horse, liquid in the air as a ghost.
We can’t forget, the two of us, can’t forget what’s missing. But Angel brings things in to the hole in the middle of this house: collections of half-dead things that are yet still things, still taking up space, still there to be touched and smelt and seen. And his greediness. His mother’s magnetic field. It’s better than the clear reach of nothing, the way the air feels on your skin when you grasp at it: nothing and everything. There’s no difference between the emptinesses.
Angel’s horse hands up in the maple tree, legs joined to body, body to head, head raised high from the thick branch and two hooves dangle down into the wind. When summer comes it will fill with green, bird nests growing between the hips.
In the middle of the night Skinny Jones wraps me up in the bath towel and we go outside into the snapping cold air. Everything is black and Skinny Jones sets me down on the ground.
Horse runs through the branches and the bones rattle in the wind.
In the maple tree Horse hangs together. There are thin wires between leg and knee, shoulder and rib, joint and bone. Skinny Jones has wired the horse together and hung it from the tree branches. His breath is hard and fast against my head.
Published in Tin House