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LICKS
by Mary Elizabeth Cartwright

 


Jud Nasery followed his twin brother, Ander, into Potter Fields, the smallest stable in Versailles, Kentucky. Every Saturday morning during the summer before college, the two eighteen-year-olds were in charge of cleaning each stall, feeding the colts and mares, changing shoes, and reporting any problems to their father, the owner. While Ander would spend his time nurturing the twelve horses, brushing their coats, talking to them, listening to what their whines meant, Jud couldn’t stand their smell. The earthiness of the barn, the scent of nature, the stench of the creatures aggravated his senses. He didn't care about their whines either.

His father didn't make work any easier on him, criticizing Jud’s efforts as minimal and Ander’s as exceptional, despite the brothers completing the same task. Yet, Jud loved his brother, so he stayed all this time. It had been three years since he had first thought to leave, three years of the same routine, but he had finally had enough. Tomorrow, he was leaving, and his brother wouldn't know until he was gone.

Jud helped Ander complete their chores for the morning, though rushing through his. He hoped to catch the last few races at Lane’s End to bet what money he had on the buckskin stallion, Calvary.  Calvary ran for Gloria’s Stable, less than a mile down the road from Potter Fields. That stallion, and other horses from Gloria’s, had broken every record in the racing state for nearly five years. It also happened to be the stable that bought the mare that Jud cursed every morning upon awakening, every time he thought of Gloria’s, and every moment in between.

He’d been pocketing every profit made from betting at the races. At least the horses were good for that; lining his pockets with cotton bills that got him closer to the distance he so desperately needed. Today, Jud knew that he’d make the races in time—and make a few more bills—if luck was on his side.

Gnats swarmed the air, buzzing in and out of the windows, up to the vaulted ceiling of the wooden building in a dance that only manure could compel. All the water buckets were empty. The hay the brothers stock piled in the back corner had diminished. All the troughs were bare like the bones of picked roadkill after being licked at length by the hungry horses’ long tongues.
Luck wasn't in the stable.

Three horses hung their heads out as Jud and Ander entered, the sun already beating down on the top of their hat-covered heads. Jud watched as Pete, a chestnut stallion, caught sight of Ander and neighed.

“How are you today, buddy?” Ander asked, touching the dark curtain of Pete’s mane, then bringing his lips to Pete’s temple.

Jud shuddered at the thought of ever touching a horse that way. That kind of touch reminded him of his mother, the only person he loved as much as his brother. How she cradled these creatures’ heads, trusting them. When Jud thought of his mother, he thought of the loud thud her body made when she fell on that day three years ago. He swore it sounded heavier than he thought a body his mother’s size could produce. What he remembered most was the sound of her neck snapping, cracking beneath the hooves of the mare’s hooves. The sound echoed for seconds, possibly a whole minute, like a bullet from a gun, even moments later as her body lay still and broken. He remembered tasting blood as his teeth broke the soft flesh of his cheek, pooling onto his tongue, the smell of metal taking over his senses.

A deep breath blew out of Pete’s nose, as if he’d been holding it, waiting for the release that only Ander’s aura could induce. None of the horses sighed when Jud entered the room, rather they regarded him like the flies that preyed on them, tolerating him, then forgetting he was there. Ans Jud was fine with that.

“How do these beasts make such a mess? We’ll be here all day.”

“If you want,” Ander said, “we can teach them how to use the toilet.”

Jud stared at his brother’s back until Ander turned around.

“Hilarious. The night hand could’ve mucked last night. No way all this shit happened this morning.”
           
“You just gonna complain all morning, brother?”

“Ain’t complaining when it’s true. This is one thing I’ll never miss.” 

Jud pulled a shovel racked on the wall and walked into Pete’s stall. Ander continued petting Pete, shining the stallion’s brown skin with the palm of his hand.

“It’s your version of the truth.”

Ander grabbed the saddle dangling along the stall door.

“I’m gonna take Pete out to graze. I’ll do the same with the others so that I can help you shovel the shit, then we can get started on toilet training.”

Ander slapped Jud’s back, then grasp his shoulder. Their version of affection. As kids, Jud realized that his brother did this when he wanted Jud to calm. It was their brotherhood at its best; Ander knew exactly when Jud needed to feel a little less alone.

Ander placed the saddle on Pete, then the rein around his neck. Ander stopped beside the stallion, rather than in front of him, and guided him out of the stable and into the sun. Jud gripped the shovel tight in both hands while watching his brother go.

****

Jud made it to Lane’s End just after two. The ticket booth had long been abandoned, allowing Jud to hop over the turnstile without paying. He went and placed his bets, already knowing the line-up and who would win—trial and error over the years taught him better than any book he tried to read about the art of the gamble—and made his way to where he liked best to watch. Beneath the stadium stands. He stood among the litter of soda cans, popcorn bags, ticket stubs, and paper fans. He peered through the slants of the silver metal seats and around the varying pairs of feet. It would be easy to grab a wallet out of a purse, or perhaps chance his fingers in a loose pocket of a large set man for bills. No one thought to look beneath them here. They were too mesmerized by the heavy beating of hooves sprinting toward the finish line. He didn't like to watch the races, hated himself when he encouraged their speed, or when he shouted their names like a fan. Jud simply waited for the announcer’s booming voice to inform him of the winners, of his winnings, as he peered at the dirt of the feet of those that he felt would always be above him here.

A tap on his shoulder made him jump. He turned to find the only person who knew to look for him here among the garbage. Stan O’Fallen, a boy that sat behind Jud every class since first grade. At first it was due to alphabetical order, but then Stan got into the habit of whispering into Jud’s ear, and Jud got into the habit of listening. It was Stan who put the thought in his brain that gambling took practice, lots of it. Stan had improved over the years of betting as his family continued to lose with their second-best horses of O’Fallen Stables. It was Stan who led Jud to the best places to hide while the world around them never knew they were there.

Jud hadn’t really thought about how often he found Stan behind him, waiting for him.

“Anything good happen?” Stan asked.

“No. Missed the first race. Waiting for the next one.”

“Good ole Calvary should be next.” Stan said, drawing out the stallion’s name as if savoring the syllables. “What a day it will be at Lane’s End when Calvary falls.”

The buckskin stallion had won almost every race. He had been the one that helped Jud make a hefty profit, but then people caught on, and the pull out, the profit, decreased with every race.

“If only he were out of the picture, no one would know who to bet on. The stakes would be higher. Our winnings would be…heavenly.”

“Yeah,” Jud replied. “Doesn’t matter either way. This is my last one.”

“You’ve said this all before. But yet, here you are.” Stan spread his hands wide like a presenter on a game show, as if showcasing the trash around them was a palace.

Stan was handsome with his straight nose, grey eyes, sharp jaw, and the bruises that sometimes colored his face that attracted every type of eye his way. All the girls in their grade had fallen for him; the pretty girls, the nerdy girls, the nice ones, even the less-than-nice girls, while they looked, they never uttered a word his way. Stan was good at keeping the good away. It was as if he had a finger on the pulse of everything bad. Even teachers tended to keep a wide berth around Stan, never brought attention to him despite his less-than-average grades and his tendency to cause trouble. Only Jud had been willing to talk to him all those years ago. He had recognized a kinship, a shared darkness, a distaste for the world around them that Jud kept hidden from everyone around him, even his brother.

“I’m leavin’ tonight. Got enough to get me out and further north. Out of this racing town.”

“When you coming back? Is that twin of yours going too?”

“I won't and he’s not.”

“It won’t last. These is no way you have enough to keep you gone. It’ll dry up and then what? You’ll have to trot on back like the good ole horses your daddy loves.”

“I won’t.”

“Yeah, you will. It’ll be okay, though. Your daddy still kept the horses around even after they killed your mommy. I’d bet he’d take you back too.”

It was a reality that made the back of Jud’s eyes burn, his fists clench, and his heart stop beating for a split second. That reality boiled in him years earlier when he sat beside his father and his twin and was forced to listen as person after person stood beside the podium at his mother’s funeral and mentioned how much she loved horses. It was his father’s reasoning for keeping those creatures on their land after discovering what they were capable of. Yet, his father sold the mare that Jud deemed responsible for his mother’s death. Perhaps, his father too couldn't bear the thought of cleaning the hooves that broke the thin column of Eve Nasery’s neck.

The sound of the gun shot pierced through his brain again.

Jud uncleaned his fists.

“You know, I had a funny dream last night,” Stan said, watching Jud’s hands.

Jud clenched his fists again. This time tighter.

“We were here, you and me, watching a race, when all of a sudden, Calvary erupts in flames.”

Jud released his fingers; crescent shapes marked the insides of his palms.

“He ran and ran and ran until nothing was left but ash.”

A chill froze every nerve in Jud’s body. He turned to Stan, found him already looking directly at him.

“What if we made it happen?” Stan asked.

“You can’t be serious.” He said the words despite knowing that they were true. “You want to kill Calvary?”

“No, I want to help you kill the horse that killed your mother. The mare that happens to be at Gloria’s stables.”

Jud felt it then, his entire frame freezing deep in the marrow from the conviction in Stan’s words.

“Think about it, buddy, if you’re leaving, what’s stopping you. You’ll be gone before anyone even finds the thing.”

“You’re talking about murder.”

“No,” Stan said. “I’m talking about getting even.”

****

Jud and Ander went into town late that afternoon to buy more grain and hay for the stables. As their father drove, the brothers sat in the bed of the Ford, letting the wind blow their hair, their laughter muted in the tunnel of wind. The closer they got to town, the more people they saw. Men and women hollering and waving at them. Ander waved back and called their names in return, smiling at the people they had known since they were toddlers. Jud loved watching how effortlessly his brother fit in.

Their father pulled into M & J Supplies, a simple wood shack in need of upkeep. Its inventory was primarily stored outside due to the roof buckling, the wood molding black like soot. Their father offered to fix the structure, but the old married couple who owned the decaying edifice claimed they couldn't afford the repairs, or even the wood needed to fix the falling frame.

The twins jumped from the bed and went to the back of the store, stopping when they found the antique cream soda machine in the shade of the building. They never asked why the machine was there, having found the antique  one afternoon horsing around the store. It was one that required only a quarter for a cool can to come tumbling out of the aluminum frame. Jud knew his brother had three in the front pocket of his worn jeans. He had three every time they came. One for Jud. One for Ander. One for the mutt of a dog, Mags, that always managed to show up. Jud would sip from his can as Ander first offered some to Mags, gifting her a reprieve from the summer heat, before even buying one for himself.

The trio huddled in the shade as their father conversed with the couple up front, pointing to where they could make their foundation stronger. They drank in silence. The sugary soda did nothing to calm his still-pounding heart. The silence only allowed his thoughts to shout louder in his head. He set his half-empty drink on the dirt by his feet.

“Dad said we could go to Gloria’s for the races next weekend,” Ander said.

Jud straightened his spine against the building, his shoulders rising. He had always felt a sharp prick in his gut when Ander talked about their father, when he showed how different his relationship with their father was from Jud’s. They had been closer, Jud and their father. Yet that ended when Jud screamed for his father as his mother laid motionless on the grass of Potter Fields. He was rooted to the spot in which he stood, screaming with blood coating his tongue. When his father asked him what happened and he revealed that he did nothing, could do nothing to save his mother, a hardness draped over the man’s eyes. A veil of disappointment and anger that remained in place with every glance from then on.

“Don’t you wanna go?”

He wouldn't be here, he thought. He’d be long gone, miles away.

“Yeah, I’ll go. Just surprised he’s lettin’ us, is all. He’s always been so high and mighty about what happens there.”

“It’ll be fun.”

“Yeah, it’ll be fun.”

Sitting across from his brother—breathing in the heavy, damp air, listening to Ander talk about their future, their adventure to college, all the what ifs of life—Jud thought perhaps here was where he was supposed to be. But then his brother sporks about the stable and then a horse and then all Jud could see was the blonde strands of his mother’s hair covering her face as she fell. All he could hear was that bullet sound over and over and over again. The horses’ hooves hitting the dirt with heavy struts and then his mother’s neck. Her silenced cry. His father’s yells.

“Do you ever think about leaving?”

“What ar—.”

“Just leave Potter Fields for good.”

“And go where?”     
   
“Anywhere. Across the country. Across the world. Everywhere. Would you leave?”

“No, I can’t imagine myself anywhere else. Dad needs us here.”

“Dad could care less about us.”

“No, you just think he doesn’t care, but he does.”

“I guess that’s your truth. Not mine.”

“Where could you possibly go?”

“Somewhere without horses,” Jud said. He leaned his head against the building with a thud. “I could live in a world without horses.”     

Ander stood from his spot and walked over to his brother. He slid down next to Jud and squeezed his weight shoulder.      
   
“You know I miss her too, right?” Ander asked.

“I know.”

“You know we can talk about it.”

“I know.”

He couldn’t, Jud thought, because when he did, he was haunted once more. It would never end. He didn’t tell this to his brother, his other half. He loved him too much to break that hope. He couldn't do that. It was the only good thing in life that he’d ever do.


That night Jud found himself at Hadie’s Place with a packed bag at his feet.  The diner just a few miles down from Gloria’s Stable. There wasn’t much in the bag, just enough for a week or two before he would need a washing machine, not enough to weigh him down, not enough for Ander to notice right away. He sneaked it out and into the truck bed of the navy Ford Bronco he and Ander had been slowly restoring since they got their licenses, before mumbling under his breath to his father about going into town for something to eat.

He glanced at the clock above the entrance, 9:40. He clutched a cold cup of coffee, stared at the dark liquid framed in the white ceramic mug. He never drank the coffee, only ordered and held the beverage to prevent the evil eye of the waitress from lighting his booth on fire.

“You been thinking about what I said?” Stan asked while sliding into the black leather booth.

Jud jumped at his voice. He hadn't heard him enter the diner, didn't recall the ding of the bell above the glass door.

“No.”

“You know what happens to liars.”

“I have a reason to hate them, but what’s yours? Why this revelation on wanting to help me kill the horse that killed the mother,” Jud asked.

Stan’s stare was unwavering.

“Out of all the people in this town, I thought you’d be the one who knew the truth. Don't pretend that your family doesn't treat those horses better than they treat you. Everyone in this town praises them like they’re some treasure that all will miss, that their limbs and flesh are more important than the person standing beside them. Even the ones with your blood beat you worse than those animals. They love you less.”

Jud didn't think that his brother, his mother, or even his father loved him less than the twelve horses that were housed in their stables. While his father was harsh, he was never abusive. His mother was kind. Everything she touched grew. Yet, she was still taken away from Jud. The horse that she cared for most was the one that trampled over her body like it was nothing but a bag of bones. Jud often wondered what that must have felt like. Hooves pounding against every limb. He preferred that, Jud thought, over the feeling of inferiority to the horse. Jud would rather be trampled than feel alone. One feeling went away sooner than the other. One didn't linger while the other had the possibility of lasting forever.

Staring at Stan, with his piercing stare, he knew that he was dealing with something darker than he ever had before. Stan, Jud thought, was going to do whatever he wanted. He knew what everyone thought of Stan. Dangerous. Crazy. Monstrous. Yet, no one knew the why. Why would it be so bad if they both finally got what they wanted. Why would it be so bad if Jud finally found some peace.
“I’ll do it,” he said.

Stan smiled.

****

Just half past midnight, Jud parked his truck on the side of the road close to the cover of trees as he could. Stan hopped out of the passenger side as Jud shut off the headlights. Stan grabbed his bag and they slipped into the forest surrounding Gloria’s Stable. Only a small light lit the stable like a lamp forgotten in a haste to leave the house. Each stall contained a window high enough that one of the bigger colts could prop their heads out of the sill.

Jud and Stan hunched close to the ground, sprinted across the field, the pressed their backs against the stable with a window about their heads. A horse peered down.

Calvary.

“Good horsey,” Stan whispered. “Nice horsey.”

The stallion only stared in response.

Jud stretched his body upwards, expelling calm shhhh to Calvary with every movement he made. He tried to peer into the window, but even on the tip of his toes Jud couldn't see into the stable. Jud grabbed the sill and pulled his body upwards, checking behind him before turning his head to peer inside. He kept hidden behind Calvary’s bulk until he knew, for certain, that they were alone. Jud felt Stan’s hands on his legs only seconds before Stan pushed him forward into the stall. He landed with a thud on the hard surface like a bale of hay. Calvary peered down, unimpressed. Stan pulled himself over, landing on his feet.

“What was that for?” Jud asked.

Stan smiled.

“I’m—,” Jud paused as he saw fingers grip the sill they’d just entered through.

His body tensed.

A head of blond curls exactly like Jud’s mothers appeared.

Ander.

“What are you doing here?” Jud’s eyes widened.

“I invited him,” said Stan.

“I came to help,” Ander said as he fell into the stall. He stood and wiped his jeans clean of the hay. “He said you needed help.” 
          
“What the hell is wrong with you.” Jud pushed Stan into the back corner of the stall. “He was never a part of this.”

“Plans changed. I needed the help and he was willing. I asked him when I went looking for you.”

Jud shoved Stan again, then turned to his brother.

“You,” he pointed his finger at his brother, “need to leave. Right now.”

“No.”  
“No?”
“No.”

“Well, now that that is settled,” Stan said, “let’s get started.” He pulled the contents out the bag. Lighter fluid. A box of matches. A knife.

Ander gaped at the dark-haired young man.

“Whoa, what is all that for? What are you guys even going to do? Kill the horse?”

“That’s exactly what we are going to do, golden boy.”

Calvary neighed.  
       
Jud couldn't do this. Not with his brother here. Not when he knew that Stan had no intention of stopping. There was no pulling him back. He needed to leave with his brother. Now.

Stan poured the lighter fluid over the hay scattered across the concrete floor.

“Stop!” Jud pushed Stan trying to snatch the box of matches out of his hand.

Stan stumbled back, knocking Ander over and on to the floor.

Stan lit a match, the scrape of the wood against the striking surface echoed in the stable.

Calvary jumped. The sight of the flame causing him to neigh, in fear, Jud thought.

Jud bent to help his brother to his feet. They needed to leave.

The strong muscles of the stallion tensed. His head whipped back and forth.

Stan dropped the match into the hay.

Calvary stood on his back legs and released a powerful whine, a cry for help. The thought that he knew what the horse was saying was not lost on Jud. He could see every taut tendon in Calvary’s legs as the stallion fell back to all fours, his hooves clicking onto the concrete. Calvary kicked the concrete like Jud had seen horses do in the gates at the start of a race, preparing their bodies for the moment of flight. Calvary raised a back leg before snapping the limb quick toward the ground.

It wasn't concrete that Calvary stomped upon.

Jud heard a crack like a bullet.

Calvary bucked.

Jud saw his mother’s hair fallen over her face, motionless on the ground. But, he realized, it wasn’t his mother’s petite frame that laid before him this time.

“Ander,” Jud’s hands shook as he reached for his twin’s neck but didn't dare touch.

The fire behind Jud was growing, stretching its way up to the top of the stable.

Calvary pressed against the stall door.

“Help me,” Jud said to Stan. “You have to help me.”

“Sorry,” his eyes staring at Ander, who was motionless. Jud swore he saw regret in his eyes before Stan pulled himself over the sill, disappearing from view.

The flames danced toward Jud’s leg, catching his jeans. He slapped his leg, killing the flame, but his skin still burned.

He needed to get them out of here.

The tips of Calvary’s mane were lit like a candlewick.

The stallion rammed against the stall door, ripping it from its hinges, and raced out of the stable.

Jud grasped his brother beneath his armpits and pulled and pulled and pulled until he could no longer feel the heat. He only stopped when his knees buckled just beneath the cover of the trees.

Cradling Ander’s head in his lap, Jud watched as tears fell into his brother’s hair, into the crown of hay stuck in his brother’s golden locks.

Calvary races across the open fields, onto the running track. His silhouette a burning shape. A majestic touch galloping, blazing a trail from the embers jumping from his skin. The stallion’s hooves hit the dirt with a loud pulse much like the rhythmic breathing of wings. In this moment, Calvary wasn't a horse, an object bred for racing and winning, but a phoenix flying, burning in the black of night.

Jud heard nothing, saw nothing—not the whines of the horses still trapped in their stalls, not the shouts of stable hands racing toward the fire, not Stan behind him telling to come deeper in the woods, to run, to leave his brother behind. Jud heard nothing at all as he placed his head against his brother’s chest and roared.

 

 

About the Author:

Mary Cartwright is a current MFA candidate at The University of Memphis. She is an editor at The Pinch Journal in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

 

 

 

     
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