SLEEPWALKING IN THE FROST
By Lily Wright
It was still dark when Ben drove the Gator out to the back paddocks to feed the fillies. The sun was slow to rise and a chill rose from the earth. Ben parked and cut the engine. It made hot tinks as it cooled. Margie was the first filly to the fence. She pinned her ears back at him and threw up her head in an exaggerated show of youth. The other fillies followed, the sounds of their skinny legs swishing through the recently bush-hogged grass. Unshod feet clopped against the cold ground. Next week was Ben’s seventieth birthday. It made him think of his first small herd nearly thirty-eight years ago. He had learned a lot since then. His horses bore his own name and reputation. All flawless sport horses with intelligence and trainability, conformation and soundness.
Margie ran the other fillies off a few paces and waited by the gate which Ben opened as he’d done ten thousand times before, placing a hand against her shoulder and pushing past, hanging the bucket on the fence and moving a kicking distance down before placing the next bucket, and then the next, and so on. Eloise was the last to her bucket, the bottom of the pecking order. It was Ben’s wife Ann-Margaret that named her.
“She’ll be a little thing,” said Ann-Margaret as she watched the foal take its first few steps, its gangly legs splayed out beneath it. Ann-Margaret had once been an avid rider herself before a bad fall left her in the hospital with brain swelling and a hip replacement. She wasn’t even fifty and she’d been shook to her core and never wanted to sit on another one, even after so many years passed. Ben knew that she missed it.
Eloise was by the same sire as Margie, but had a completely different personality. Not one to argue, she would follow Ben around the paddock and stand quietly. She was the easiest to ground-break and would no doubt be the easiest to back. Ben thought she would make a nice kid’s horse, but not much of a performance horse. She didn’t have that drive, that extra glamour that Margie had.
Ben stood back and watched the fillies munching. Margie swished her tail and stuck her head up every now and then, picking up a back foot to warn off another filly. The colts in the adjacent field called to them mockingly, screaming like young teenagers in a crowded cafeteria. They watched for them eagerly, ears pricked forward, smelling the molasses in the sweet feed and waiting their turn.
Ben walked to the gate and unchained it, but felt a sudden pang in his arm that caught him off guard. He looked around the paddock, expecting to see Margie trotting off after having let a hoof fly in his direction. He felt dizzy and all at once, collapsed in a heap by the gate.
Ann-Margaret went to her husband’s funeral, but couldn’t help but feel the entire time that she was comforting others. She kept her composure, as all Midwestern girls are expected to do, and only cried in the privacy of her own home or in the barn. They had had a long, happy marriage, and Ben had gone out doing what he loved.
Ann-Margaret always expected to be the first one to go. Her health was far worse off than Ben’s ever was. A series of riding injuries left her body sore and cumbersome, and the heart condition she developed finally caught up to her. She only ever envisioned Ben standing at her coffin on the day of her burial, never the other way around. Ben was always stoic about looking after her. He never complained.
The routine in which Ann-Margaret and Ben had lived their lives vanished once he was gone. That was perhaps the hardest thing for Ann-Margaret to cope with on a day-to-day basis. His muddy boots stopped waiting for him by the door, his six-thirty dinnertime was no longer mandatory. Ann-Margaret had to turn his alarm off after it woke her at 5:15 a.m.; the time Ben rose to go feed the horses. The inconsistency was frazzling and only added to her loneliness.
Perhaps what bothered Ann-Margaret most, however, was what began to happen in the weeks that followed Ben’s death. Ann-Margaret caught herself sleep walking down to the barn in the middle of the night. She woke in the cold, her night-gown swaying in the breeze. She could see the barn cat Tilly’s eyes glowing in the dark. Ann-Margaret rushed back to the house, trying not to overexert herself. It was a curious thing; she had never slept-walked before. She wrapped herself in blankets and climbed back into bed. She only fell back to sleep once the sun had come up again.
In the weeks that followed, Ann-Margaret continued to sleep walk down to the barn. She’d taken to dressing warmly before bed in anticipation for it. She thought of calling her sister to come look after her, but that display of weakness would only cause more discomfort within her family. She worried they might take her back with them, when all she wanted was to stay and watch the horses and go for brief walks down through the little garden.
Instead she called, Joel, Ben’s farmhand. He’d worked for them since he was eighteen. At first he was confused when she tried to explain what was happening at night.
“Are you sure you aren’t just dreaming that this is happening? Ann-Margaret, you’ve been under a lot of stress lately. You’ve just gone through a lot.”
“No, no! I am absolutely certain, Joel. I’m not senile!”
Joel didn’t respond right away. He had never encountered an angry and yelling Ann-Margaret.
Ann-Margaret collected herself. She was trying not to lose her composure, but this lack of control in addition to her other health issues scared her. She had never been so scared in her life.
“You could come stay with us,” Joel said finally, “we’ve got a guest room. It might be good for you to get off the property for a while.”
“No, Joel. But thank you.”
The sleep walking continued and Ann-Margaret began to catch herself imagining Ben’s ghost. This of course was nonsense, but it made Ann-Margaret consider reaching out to her doctor. She thought of all the medications she was on, and wondered if they might be messing with her mind.
“No,” the doctor had said, “you’ve just had a huge loss. Go stay with your family and take a little break. Let them help you.”
This response irritated Ann-Margaret further. She nearly told the posh woman to “fuck off”. She needed real help, not condescending advice.
The sleep walking occurred nearly every night. It was an unsettling routine. The only comfort she took was in watching the farm continue to function despite Ben’s absence, this was all thanks to Joel. Ann-Margaret watched Joel catch horses and bring them into the barn. She watched him start to ride the young ones. She watched him feed and water them. All the care they needed, all the work that went into them; it exhausted her to watch. Dark circles had formed under her eyes from the lack of sleep. Joel’s wife started to come by with home-cooked meals. They played cards and she once brought the young children over. It revived Ann-Margaret a bit, but she worried that her visible deterioration would force them to do something drastic, like contact her sister or make her move to assisted living or some such thing.
Ann-Margaret stopped taking her meds. Only the walks helped relieve her anxiety, but she couldn’t stay out too long before she could feel her heart struggle and sputter like an over-heated engine. She began to go down to the barn more often in search of a sign. Clearly, there was something there drawing her to it at night. She inspected the stalls, the tack room, the feed room. She even climbed up into the hay loft. It all looked the same, nothing unusual.
One night, Ann-Margaret woke at the filly paddock. She looked down at her hands which held the rusting chain that wrapped around the gate and the fence post. She was undoing it in her sleep, something new she had never done before. The filly’s watched her, Margie especially. Her ears flitted forward and back, she breathed heavily through her nose. The other fillies were riled up as well, looking at Ann-Margaret, but not wanting to get too close. Eloise had her front legs out slightly, ready to bolt at any slight, sudden movement.
Ann-Margaret looked down at the chain and then at the horses who stood watching her. Clearly they could sense something that only her unconscious was aware of, too. She let the chain slip through her fingers, and let the gate swing open. She backed away. One by one, the fillies trotted out in natural, floaty extension. Ann-Margaret watched them go, and they eyed her cautiously as they traveled. Ann-Margaret took a seat in the frosted grass. She was bundled up, as she had been doing before bed for some time now. She laid down in the grass and closed her eyes, and fell into a deep sleep.
About the Author:
Lillian C. Wright is a third year MFA Fiction candidate at George Mason University. She is originally from Massachusetts, but has been a long time resident of Virginia. She writes often of horses and rural life.