She made the decision to lock him in there, and maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do, but her horse was cast, kicking fervently against the wall of the stable, rolling his black hair against the mulch and craning his eyeballs backward in attempts to meet his rider’s eye. She refused to meet it, refused to look at her horse. The situation was out of her prowess. No one was around anymore as an orange dusk fell over the flat land, no one around save for the stable boy who always made excuses to touch her thigh. She would never have asked him for help.
She would never have asked anyone for help, really. She’d started seventh grade three weeks ago and already knew what everyone around her thought of her. Horse girl, they said, in mocking tones. They made fun of her backpack with the horse decal on it and her long hair that fell down to her waist, her bushy eyebrows, the way she drew an anatomically correct horse on her notebook. She thought she’d find solace in the other girls that were called horse girls, but they were already all friends. They had glossy blonde hair and competed in equestrian dressage competitions where they trotted around with strange black hats on and jumped over decorated poles.
She was not competitive and instead preferred to spend her time alone with her horse, galloping around the fields until they found the creek, where she’d watch him bend down to drink the cold water and munch on weeds growing along the banks. When they got tired she’d join him in the stable and brush out his mane and coat.
But now her horse was on the ground thrusting his back and snorting, as if trying to buck his way out of the stall. The horse had ended up that way of his own accord. He’d laid down in a foolish position that lost him the space or momentum to move his legs beneath him and stand; now he was helpless and inconsolable. To approach him in this state felt dangerous. She knew that if he stayed like that panicking he would get further stuck, become unable to move, and possibly die. The thought of her horse dying gave her pause. It reminded her of that song her father used to sing, I know you rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone.
Apart from her horse, she didn’t have any friends yet in school. Her mother and stepfather were concerned, but she told them she was happy to spend her time alone with the horse. And she wasn’t lying. She really was happy. There was more to a friendship than spending all your time talking. She didn’t want to share her every thought with someone. She wanted to be silent, and her horse understood that. She understood him in return with just a kick of the ankle or a hand through her mane. Of course no one at her new school could understand that kind of connection, she told herself.
Before seventh grade things were better. Back then there were summers spent in Custer County with her father, riding around the Black Elk wilderness on two of his paint horses. Her riding behind him, seeing his long black hair sway slightly in the breeze. He was silent with her, but she thought they communicated in something unspoken, especially when he stopped his horse and pointed his hand out at something in the forest, and it would take a few moments for her eyes to adjust and see the stag, the rabbit, the racoon he’d spotted. He was a tremendous rider, barely pulling at the reins to move his horse with efficiency, his posture erect. In the distance they could see the outline of the Crazy Horse monument, still being built, workers climbing above the rocks, the long arm of his reach and tunnel below. Her father would look at it with an unreadable expression.
At night they’d return to the ranch, which her father owned with his best friend, a man she called Uncle Lance but could no longer recall the face of. They would sit around a fire and tell stories, but mostly she listened. Her father and Lance had grown up on the reservation together. They said they were happy to have left, so she wasn’t sure why the words rang false. The horses would sleep standing up out in the pasture. Her father never stabled them in the summer; he believed horses were something wild.
This was all before her mother dragged her back to Minneapolis, swearing that until he paid his child support she’d never see him again. She telepathically begged her father to pay it so she could return to South Dakota, but he never sent the money. She never heard from him again. Instead those golden summers were replaced with long days spent in their suburb, her mother working all day and stepfather vying for her affection, never sensing her disdain as he handed her crisp bills and told her to go see a movie with her friends when they both knew she would go alone.
For a while she thought of running away to her father’s ranch, but whenever she played out this fantasy in her mind, she could not imagine what he would say to her. There was no explanation he could give that would fill the deep valley between them. And even if he did speak, she could not imagine what she would say in return.
It was her mother and stepfather who, seeing her obsession, got her riding lessons up in Coon Rapids and eventually her own horse. She’d wanted a paint horse like the ones her father had, but for whatever reason she ended up with a chestnut brown stallion with a white patchy diamond on his forehead. The first time she’d seen him, they made eye contact and she felt something like love. She kept reminding herself that she couldn’t expect anyone at school who called her horse girl to understand that. They all claimed she wanted to marry her horse, and maybe it was true. Maybe she would have married him if she could, for there was something like solace in their bond. In the way her horse let her ride bareback and no one else. She felt close to herself doing that. And she could not deny that the rhythmic swaying of the horse back and forth against her crotch felt good sometimes. She couldn’t explain why. When she thought about it too much she felt strangely guilty and then reminded herself of the stable boy. One day he had squeezed her thigh when walking around the rear of her horse and said, You’re part Indian aren’t you? I can tell by your nose. She wanted to punch him but moved not a muscle and said not a word, so as not to spook her horse.
But now, standing there in the new fallen dark, she saw that her horse was afraid, and it was her alone that had let it happen. Her alone that didn’t know how to fix it, how to help him out of being cast. Her mother and stepfather would be here soon to pick her up. They’d ask her questions about how her horse was doing and she’d lie. She wanted to get on her horse and ride away toward the north, further away from the city and away from anyone who would ever talk to her (I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train, the song went), but her horse was heavy and laying there, this giant majestic creature that was somehow so fragile he could get stuck on his side like this and refuse all help.
Earlier her horse had bared his teeth at her and whinnied in warning when she’d tried to approach him and pull him by his mane away from the wall. It was in this moment, staring down at the panicking stallion, that she saw that this horse was not an extension of her own mind, nor her soulmate, nor even her companion. It was a broken animal carrying her burden. It loved her only because she took care of it, and was that love, anyway? Wasn’t real love when you loved someone that didn’t take care of you, or even someone that didn’t care about you at all?
And so she had made the decision to close up the stable and lock her horse in there, pretend it had never happened and wait for someone else to notice in the morning. She tried not to think of it as abandoning her horse, because she didn’t think that anyone else had abandoned her, really, they’d just gone away. It was like that all the time, she was learning. Some silence meant love and some silence meant hate and some silence meant nothing at all, it was just silence. There was no point in parsing the reasons why people did things, because they themselves never really knew. And whether or not her horse would be frothing at the mouth when the sun rose, covered in flies, drawn toward death by its pooling blood and frightened mind would be for someone else to discover, for at dawn she’d be at school with her sparkled backpack and long ponytail of night black hair, being called horse girl.
Kaylie Saidin received her MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington, where she served as Fiction Coeditor of Ecotone Magazine.
Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Prairie Schooner, New Orleans Review, the Los Angeles Review, Nashville Review, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere.
She graduated from Loyola University New Orleans in 2019 with a B.A. in English literature, where she was awarded the 2018 Dawson Gaillard Award for Fiction, and won the 2019 Barbara Ewell Women’s Studies Creative Writing Contest.
Kaylie has completed a novel about teenage girls in a punk rock band. She is a hapa from California, a surfer, and her last name is pronounced like Poseidon, minus the Po.