An acre. A horse alone. A woman walks the eucalyptus-lined road. The scent is especially strong on this warm, wet morning. She breathes in deep, thinking of Australia, a place she's never been. The trees, swaying in a breeze that's come miles from the ocean, are not native to California. She thinks she probably shouldn't like them so much. They catch fire, burn lives.
Her dog, Beanie, a stubby-legged brown darling with blue eyes, bouncy gait and waves of flowing hair is at the far end of a retractable leash. He wants to go faster, to run free all the way to the horse. The horse at the fence, waiting. But Beanie respects his limits; he doesn't pull. A good thing for a two-year-old rescue dog that wasn't even housebroken when the woman brought him home a few months back.
She wanted a companion dog, something to liven up the house after her son left for college. Princeton, of all places, clear across the country, one of many messages that he wants his freedom, his space, his way. Messages she can't ignore. Well, he earned it, a full scholarship. She didn't even suggest he apply to Stanford or UCLA or maybe even Reed in Oregon, all of which would have been a more comfortable distance for her.
She drove him to SFO, said her farewells. A hug, a kiss. His neck and ears red with unspoken emotion, he broke away, told her he really had to get going. She watched him pass through security. No wave. No backward glance before he walked out of sight. She drove right to the humane society, fell for Beanie instantly.
Relinquished a week before, Beanie was seven pounds of fallout from a family who'd lost their home, according to a volunteer working the dog runs who wasn’t supposed to divulge things like that. The woman marveled at her luck, still marvels at it. Beanie, a mix of who knows what, maybe Shih Tzu, Yorkie and Pekinese. He was adorable, affectionate, his whole gleeful body wiggling at his first sight of her. Why is it that nobody has adopted him yet, she asked. Then, the issue of potty training came up. It will be a challenge, the volunteer said.
The woman bought Beanie a crate, remembering how well it worked for housebreaking when she, her son and ex-husband brought an Irish setter pup home just before Christmas 15 years ago. Christmas in Denver—crispy cold, fresh, magical—came and went. The puppy chewed her new slippers, fleece-lined from LLBean. She didn't mind. New Year's Day the family went to a party, a potluck at the boy's preschool. They were gone an hour and a half, tops. Just an hour and a half. When they returned, part of their house was aflame. The setter was dead. Smoke inhalation.
She couldn't bring herself to get another dog right away, even though the fire damage was fixed within a month. Oh, how her son begged, but she and her husband stood firm—until the divorce a year later. Then her ex bought a Jack Russell terrier. It was all the boy could talk about. Dad became good parent; she became bad. Just like that.
It stayed like that, too, even after the terrier chased a rabbit into the woods one summer afternoon. Her ex and son walked up and down the campground trails, calling the dog until long after dark. They returned every day for weeks. She joined the search effort, putting pictures up in nearby stores, gas stations, launderettes. The dog never emerged from the dense foliage that swallowed him.
She was ready for a new pup by then; she offered to take the boy to the pound at the end of the summer, but he refused. He wasn't willing to give his heart to another dog. She waited, like sun on a parched rosebud, until Beanie.
The horse circles the enclosure as woman and dog draw close. Beanie does his happy-to-see-you spin, three times around. The horse stops, paws the mud. He is so thin the woman wonders how he can even hold up his head. She pulls an apple from her pocket. Will an apple a day keep the vet away? Can anything bring her son back to her?
Her ex lives in New York now. He'll be able to visit her son often, and vice-versa. A half-brother and half-sister are in middle school now—no more diapers, crying fits, little feet scrambling all over the house. When they were tykes and her ex and his new love decided to move to the East Coast to be near her family, he said the boy couldn't come along. It would be too much for his new wife, impossible. So, off they flew, leaving one bereft boy behind. He blamed his mom for this, too.
There was no reason to stay in Denver then. It was her ex's hometown, the aspen his favorite tree, not hers. Besides, her mother, now widowed, was starting to have fainting spells. So the woman moved back home to California. Her son resented having all of America between him and his dad. He'll never come for me now, he wailed night after night after night.
The horse whinnies. The woman thinks of Black Beauty, one of her favorite books as a child. This horse is no beauty, but could he be with the proper sustenance? Or is he too broken? She'd like to ring the bell of the home next to this stark enclosure, a prison with only a few tufts of grass around its edges. She'd like to ask why whoever lives there doesn't take better care of this animal, so obviously starving for food and affection. She fantasizes about sneaking over in the dark of night, clipping the fence wires and taking the horse to a better home, a better life.
The horse bends way down, nose-to-nose with Beanie, whose entire body is quaking with joy. Little Beanie who was crate-trained in a week, no problems.
The woman pushes the apple through the wires, palm open. The horse lifts his head, accepts the gift and chews as she scratches his nose, forehead, neck. She imagines her son was just like this horse, all bones poking into hide. How many people walked by her home and wanted to ring her bell, ask what was wrong with her? What would she have said if they had?
She studies the horse, the muddy acre, the house. She takes in another deep eucalyptus breath. Let's go, Beanie, she says, backing away from the fence. The dog follows. A light rain falls as they continue their walk down the road.
Copyright 2009 by Laura McHale Holland