Story — From the December 2017 issue

The Year of The Frog

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To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horses?” he said. “Why didn’t you say you had horses? They’re magnificent!”

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas

My brother and I laughed behind our hands. Gert wasn’t really a horse but a twenty-three-year-old Shetland pony. Once she’d been the unicorn at a petting zoo, giving slow rides to a thousand children, but now her hooves were so overgrown she could barely walk and her tail was a dreadlock of cockleburs. She was squat and scruffy, like something out of the Pleistocene, with the temperament to match. She nickered scornfully at Sweet Macho, who was bucking and twisting, charging up and down the fence. With every heave of his body came an explosion of gas from between his muscular hindquarters.

The Frog was undeterred. “Boy, I’d love to ride him.”

Neither horse had been saddled in years. Our mother was an excellent horsewoman and had worked as a handler at the track before it closed, but she no longer had time to ride, and the horses lived like mustangs on the thousand acres behind our house. It was rare to find them as we had that day, stretching their heads over the fence, trying to nibble the overgrown yard.

“Forget it,” our mother said flatly. “Sweet Macho would throw you over the moon.”

“Come on,” the Frog said. “Give me a little credit! I had lessons as a kid. He just needs somebody on his back for a minute and he’ll settle in. Wow, is he a big horse.”

Sweet Macho had turned from the fence and begun to gallop across the field. From a distance he didn’t look half bad — his powerful legs stretching and contracting, his black tail flowing behind. But at one point he kicked so high it seemed he’d topple over, and we children cringed. It was not unthinkable that he’d fall and break his spine; he was plenty crazy enough. Some days he waited for the school bus like some kind of predator, only to burst from the trees and chase us the long mile home. “He’s just trying to play,” our mother told us when we tumbled through the door, breathless with terror. “If you don’t want to play, don’t run!” We knew better than to argue with her. But we also knew better than to stand in the path of a thousand-pound quadruped. We ran.

Now Sweet Macho came at us with such speed it seemed he’d flatten the fence. He stopped just short, rearing, flaring his wet nostrils, releasing a high, desperate whinny.

“He’s in rare form,” our mother said. “I think he likes you.”

The Frog smiled. “Then I’m flattered. He must’ve been a stunner on the track.”

No, our mother confessed. Sweet Macho had been lazy and distractible, as likely to run sideways as forward, the kind of racehorse they shipped to Asia to be enjoyed in the form of sushi. Because she’d saved him from this fate, Sweet Macho was partial to her; she didn’t know how he’d react to being mounted by somebody else. She’d strictly forbidden us kids from riding him.

As if,” my brother said.

The Frog laughed, deep and undaunted. He put an arm around our mother’s shoulders. Old Gert was crippling away, back to her patch of cockleburs, and for a moment we stood there, watching her go, a family.

He said, “Let me change into my boots.”

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