And Then There Was Fog…
Anne Marie Andrus
Wisps of fog lurked and lingered around the tangled roots of swamp trees as if begging to be drawn up and into the hearts of those ancient sentinels before cruel sun banished them for another day. Polly balanced a stack of empty buckets under her chin and paused in the barn door to watch the last dance of legendary mist. Another sweltering day had dawned in Louisiana and it was only April. All of us are hiding inside until evening.
With the sound of happy horses munching on oats and barley, Polly rolled giant screen doors across the entrance—the biggest improvement she’d made since inheriting the farm and a necessary decision if she wanted to stay in business. The heat was bearable when standing still. Hordes of biting flies were not. Though some of the horses in her care were for pleasure riding, many more draped garlands of blue ribbons across their stall fronts. Hurricane Becky, the imposing chocolate bay mare in the corner stall, had the most and she was due to move to New Jersey over the summer so her young rider could train for the Junior Olympics.
Crescent Bend Farm was growing a reputation as a show barn, ultra-competitive without any snobby attitude. Every stall had a personalized sign proclaiming the name of the superstar who lived there. Each was the pride and joy of a local family who scrimped and saved to fulfill their child’s dream of owning a horse and taking lessons from Henri—trainer by day, jazz musician in the big city by night.
It’s Tuesday morning, Henri should be here by now. Polly glanced outside but the gravel lot was empty. After pouring a steaming cup of coffee, she settled onto a bale of hay, perfectly positioned for a view of the peaceful pastures and winding driveway to Rural Route One. The first taste of chicory on her tongue was interrupted by the jangly ring of a phone. She lifted the lime green receiver from its perch and tucked it between her shoulder and ear. “Crescent Bend?”
“Miss Polly!” A voice on the other end chirped. “Don’t you see me flailing my arms out by the gate? I’ve been makin’ a grand commotion for the last hour.”
Polly leaned to the right and saw Henri waving his old black hat in the distance. “I do now. Did you break down?”
“There’s something out here you need to see.”
“Fence busted again?” Polly stopped mid-sip. “Is this your cell phone—are you hurt?”
“No and no. Just—come right quick.” The line went dead.
Polly dashed out into the brutal sun intending to sprint the length of the driveway but changed her mind, hopping into her old pick-up instead. The bald tires spit pebbles as she gunned it toward the main road. Two minutes later she tumbled out of the truck to find Henri leaning on a crooked post, popping sunflower seeds in his mouth. “What was so earth shattering that you couldn’t tell me over the phone?”
Henri nodded to the shade of an old tree “Someone left a package.”
Polly turned and froze. Tied to the branch of an oak was a trembling grey horse with mud caked up all four legs and streaked across its belly. “A stray?”
“Just a filly.” Henri stood straight and handed Polly a brown container. “This here’s the package. I nearly missed that baby horse in the fog.”
Inside the soggy box, Polly found bags of cheap feed, a soft bridle with a rubber bit, a crumpled twenty-dollar bill and an envelope stuffed with papers. “Some nut just left her here, like dumping an infant on the hospital steps?”
“Seems so. At least they tied her up in the shade.”
“Just when you think you’ve seen it all—we’ll take her down to the barn and I’ll call the police.”
“I tried already—to walk her down I mean.” Henri shook his head. “She seemed to like my voice but when I got close, she nearly pulled the tree down trying to run.”
Polly frowned. Something is off. All horses love Henri. “I might have carrots…” She retreated to her truck and came back with one lonely orange stick. Slow and gentle steps carried Polly around the oak until she could see ribs poking through the filly’s grey coat. When the carrot snapped in half, two ears pricked in her direction. She and the horse took a step toward each other and then another. She held the carrot out and a velvety muzzle plucked it off her flat hand like a princess lifting a fine china cup.
“Good girl.” Polly placed a hand on the horse’s damp neck and waited for her to stop trembling before stroking her nose. “Easy there, let’s get you somewhere cooler.” She slowly untied a worn lead from the branch and started in the direction of the driveway. The horse followed but froze when Henri moved closer.
“Why don’t you drive my truck back and I’ll walk her?” Polly offered the second half of the carrot. It disappeared in an instant.
“Take your time.” Henri picked up the brown box and stuffed the envelope in his pocket. “I’ll get a stall ready.” As Henri turned away, the filly followed him with her eyes and craned her neck to track his progress, inching to the end of the driveway and watching him back the truck all the way to the barn as if she didn’t want to let him out of her sight.
“He’s one of the good ones.” Polly began the long trek. “No need to be afraid.”
The horse walked deliberately, as if she was in awe of the pastures and the buildings ahead, stopping to grab mouthfuls of grass, gaze into the distance and work the courage up to take a few more steps. On the hard ground she was taller than Polly thought at first. No shoes, but her hooves look healthy and trimmed. At the barn door, the horse’s eyes flew open and she stopped short, her spindly legs nearly tangled in panic.
“Whoa, whoa.” Polly backed away and let her regain balance. “Easy, baby.”
“That might have been my fault.” Henri retreated into the tack room. “Try again, third stall on the left.”
Polly coaxed and nudged the filly but even though she seemed as if she yearned to go inside, they never made it past the barn’s threshold. “This isn’t happening. She’s working herself into a lather.”
“I have an idea.” Henri peeked around the door and tapped his forehead. “What about the little open-sided barn close to your house? I know we haven’t used it since…” He unzipped his leather vest, tossed it on a hook and reached around the wall to fill a bucket with fresh water.
“Since we lost Daisy—Grandfather’s last horse.” Polly stared off at the old red structure shaded by a grove of oaks and hanging moss. A snapshot from a fading fairytale. She took two steps in that direction and was yanked back by the filly who submerged her face in Henri’s water bucket and drained half of it before coming up for air. “Good Lord.”
The horse turned to Henri with different eyes and batted long dark lashes. She plunged her nose back into the bucket and took a daintier sip. Tension visibly drained from her muscles as if he had waved a magic water wand and she had fallen head over heels in love.
“Looks like you made a friend.” Polly chuckled.
“Sweet Baby Girl.” Henri stroked her charcoal mane. “You’ll never go thirsty again.”
With Polly on one side and Henri on the other, Baby Girl walked with bolder steps and happily slipped through the gate of the shaded pasture. Polly took her for a quick tour of the perimeter and unclicked the lead from her halter. The horse walked directly under the slanted shelter as if she’d lived there for years, but spun around to make sure the exit was wide open.
Henri shook his head. “Still jittery, like she’s been trapped inside somewhere.”
“I remember a lot of boards that need to be fixed before we leave her alone here.”
Henri flipped over an old trough and began filling it with a hose from the house. He called over his shoulder. “Already done.”
Polly peeked through the fence at freshly painted walls and an expertly patched roof. “I thought we decided to knock this whole thing down?”
“I fixed it up instead.” Henri leaned on the rail next to her and watched Baby Girl sniff around her new surroundings. “Thought it might come in handy someday.”
“Sounds like something Grandfather would say.” Polly smiled wistfully as the filly pricked her delicate ears at a bird’s nest in the corner of the barn. “I don’t even want to imagine what happened to this poor thing.”
“Let her settle and I’ll mix some real feed with whatever was in that brown box.”
“Take it slow. Four small meals a day for now.”
Henri pulled the envelope from his pocket and handed it to Polly. “I thought you were calling the police?”