Hold Steady

Sarah Norek

She was foreign and talented and well recommended, a genius with animals, her specialty horses. When I first arrived she gave me her name and held up a hand to mean stay there, stand back. Only watch, she said, her accent cattycorner. The stud horse's ass was slapped, its penis fed inside a squirting and stocked sweaty mare. I kept blushing. She laughed, top teeth bucked over bottom. She looked like a kid, small like she'd grow still, jodhpurs tiny and loose and ill-fitting. Her sternum was a belled turtle's shell. 

From far away she was a beautiful girl, really, really, really.

Before our first lesson she walked me for coffee. The espresso machine was shiny red and stainless steel, rich in her drafty prairie trailer. The grounds came in cartridges fit in foam snug as guns. She watched my sipping. It's very good, I said, cornered. The second I opened my mouth she'd begun to nod.

Around the room hung pictures of her younger self, acne quilted, a wide smile, in stained riding britches and a gusting tank top, mesh black gloves whose wrist straps were undone and curved up toward unpictured sky. The short teeth in her mouth were then crooked in the canines. 

You've had some work done, I said and gestured at my own teeth.

In such words, she replied. She smiled that same wide smile but her teeth were lockers now, straight and flush. A scar broke her upper lip, jumped her cheek, crashed her ear-tab and drove down her jaw. It reflected light fiercely in exotic, zebra white. 


My first lesson takes us out the arena and across the grounds, through a rusting gate and into pasture. Soon there's downhill slope to woods and river. She rides Black Mountain while I'm on overfed Pony. His poor, laboring heart. I'm too tall, dense and wide. Against my calves his sides billow. Immediately he sweats.

We walk and don't talk. She's already told me: My instructing is new.

I'd aimed an ear at her and said my standards are low. I need some work, I'd said, then stalled. I hope—! I blurted, then stopped again. She nodded as if I made sense and said: I'll make it.

Now we feel distant but friendly.

Highway sounds disappear. An aspen grove trims the river, pale china trunks and yellow paper whispers. We're nearly to its edge when we see baby horses. The high mountain air packs tight to my eardrum. I left sunglasses in the car and the wide white light mangles distance. Blinking makes it worse. My senses are on the fritz.

These, she says. We stop. The babies crowd us. I dripped garlic down my front earlier, smeared mustard on a thigh. Their small upper lips curl and waggle for scent. With my eyesight shot they're dark faceless pocks but still, blind, I say: Wonderful.

Horse and Pony arch necks, lift tails and fart. Pony's been trembling towards a sudden squeal and shift in weight. That's him batting with his hoof the nearest baby's knee and the baby responding in shrieks. My instructor yells: Hey! Hey you bastard! Fuck you, you bastard! Quit!

Air whistles off her whip and socks the edge of my ear, my eye. The babies scatter and the one never limps. My instructor's mount rocks like an oversized toy while mine pins ears and ducks, darts away and gets balking. Somehow I keep my seat.

I remember a girl from my college dormitory at a women's school. Our campus was green paddocks and haunted brick buildings, deciduous trees burning leaves through the fall until branches stood naked and a vivid, painful blanket lay beneath, reds and yellows and oranges, dark bloody purples.

She was a year ahead of me. We occupied rooms on a same floor, brushed our teeth side by side or she might finish her shower and I'd file in, pinned by the lemon of her products, the antiseptic whiff of treatment.

At dinner in our dining hall she'd be always in britches and vest, half-chaps burnished down the calf. The lighting was high and poor and most of the dirt spackling her face didn't show but once a mud banana traced her jaw and another time she looked up to sneeze and her nostrils were black with crud.

My spine, as the animal hops beneath me, swings in and out.

I saw the girl once in the woods, above the college stables, horseless but riding-clothed. A saddle on a fallen branch before her, she in its seat. Winter foliage rubbed and clicked. Methodically she rose into position, traced an invisible jumper's neck with her fists. Up, over and down. Up, over and down. Her eyes were squinted to slits. She held a short whip and raised it twice at her side, finally sat low and raced, elbows pumping, chest seconds from bark, and the space between bodies a copycat of lovers in hungry, impatient skins.


My boyfriend says: We were in someone's yard.

I'm barely awake and he's nonstop talking.

He says: We had a sedan with a horse trailer hitched. We'd hauled a set of dining chairs with dark yellow seats. My eyes burned with contacts—

You don't even wear glasses, I say, but he ignores it.

—the size of tea saucers. I set them in the grass like fragile ornaments.

I punch him in the shoulder and he grabs my fist. His hands are cabbages, mine puny kumquats. I expect to be goop in his grasp, the remnants of strength. I punch him again, my free fist unstoppable, and in a new fairness  he leaves it alone.

We occupy a hive of his and hers: his toothbrush, hers; her cast iron, his; his envelopes, her tumblers; her succulent, his loveseat. Our music acts like junior-high boys and girls at a dance, his on one wall, mine another. In a minute we tangle, his grip on my hand lessened as its ferocity splits apart to attack from all angles. Apparently I'm whole. Somewhere is a drip. My boyfriend's my size but his muscles mean business and hover right at the surface, at times sweet puppies and others a terrier pack, sharp tips pressing their fence to be freed, pests' hearts thwacking as they're routed and chased, caught and mauled. 


Inside me something grows. When I tell my boyfriend he tries to speak importantly. His chest bends with meaning that won't hold its shape. He slips back to stunned. His mouth works and I know by his eyes that his brain is contracting but no birth of words comes.

In my free time I mess with the button drawer in the closet and the ribbons below it, the decorative paper. We're all out of tape. Finally I settle for the weekend's news, the funnies, then statistics pressed closest to his gift.

What is this? my boyfriend asks. Did I forget?

My molars' roots sway in my shaking head. I think of top-heavy plants in a gale, underwater kelps leaning with tide.

It's yours, I say. It's nothing.

I don't even see it once he's finished, all the unwrapping making billows of his lap.

You're serious? he asks.

I wait for him to touch my knee. I should be even heavier than I am. I hold a whole shop inside me, a full crew of workers assembling a chest of drawers, artisans marking and sawing and sanding and planing, knocking for hollow walls, carving tiny lockets and detail work, inserting hidden compartments. There are shelves to fit to perfect and knobs to twist in place and a wax to rub against the outer skin to seal its shine in, to proof it for wear.

My boyfriend holds the tiny box I've filled with hair. His, mine, in truth some of Pony's and Black Mountain's and even my instructor's, off a scarf discarded in the arena's office. I washed it all carefully, patted it dry, then rubbed until it locked into something compelling and soft and safe. Nests are built with such material all the time. Life is held, directed, shaped and released.

I don't even know, my boyfriend says.

It was just an idea, I say. I don't know either.

I shrug and now he reaches but I don't do my part and we fasten clumsily in a lot of his effort and none of mine. He squeezes me and my skin won't soften. My stomach swoons as if dropped from a height. Our eyes fail, needing to meet but cowards to do it.


At the ranch wind snaps around outbuildings. Rain stings sporadically before forming a sheet. Pink lightning cracks. For safety we walk circles inside. Me in the saddle, instructor on the ground, all our strides matched. She keeps close to be heard but still has to shout.

Do you feel regular? she calls. Is it like you are natural? Does it feel at home?

I look around. The light is peach, walls dusty tin brown. In every corner are swabs of web, hollow beetle and spider litter. Beneath me is quiet Pony.

Thunder visits our deafened group. I shake my head. I can barely hear you, I say to my instructor. I should've shouted. I watch the part in her hair take violet shadows. We walk and walk and walk. She holds my heel sometimes, pulling it down. Or presses my knee to the leather, or grabs my thigh. She's feeling me, surveying, picking what of me to train and hone, discard.

Of my situation I've said nothing. I wait for her to prove her worth, to use her powers of deduction and all her tips to read my inner action unfurling, intuit its rightness or wrong. She uses her eyes, her eyebrows, to question: Okay? Okay?

I sit how she says and use my legs as they're meant; I discover what core she speaks to and when it's sluggish to respond I blame the clutter with which it competes—as if true artisans would clutter, or, having done so, give it a name less than passion.

My instructor keeps looking at me but I say nothing, a dialect of yes, okay. Our pattern solidifies like it can't get any better.


At night I dream a tall bridge with no railing. The road is unkempt, uneven, its cracks weed-packed. I drive a vehicle in which I'm not alone. To the back is a familiar trailer hitched, I've stolen it from my boyfriend. Inside it aren't chairs but Black Mountain and Pony, and somewhere behind me in the bowels of the car sit my boyfriend and also my instructor, bouncing. Everything but the vehicle, the trailer and animals, is shrunken. My boyfriend's full, soft cheeks are little bumps, his arms and legs and torso shortened to an opossum's length, fat-rolls strung like candy garlands. I can barely see above the wheel. My instructor has a tail in her lap. It looks like Pony's. She clamps its length between thighs and its bone, his mottled pink and gray and soft skin, hovers stiffly. A braid is begun, tight and straight, and if Pony's tail shakes or twitches my instructor smacks it against the back of my seat so its pulse gets inside me to compete with my own. My mouth won't still. My teeth clack and fall. My chest is a precious hillside of alabaster. A change in grade hurtles our contraption through space. My stomach is everywhere, socking lungs, whipping spleen, squishing liver to a sponge, and my boyfriend's a sailing breadloaf beyond my reach, his grin pitched through the window.


We gallop and veer. Our lesson today was supposed to mean advancement, a pass to the next level and a new world for me to master.

Your size is weapons! my instructor yells, on Black Mountain running beside us. The air hurts. Tonight the sky will glow orange and snow will fall until the highways close.

Pony spins as a champ cow horse and I smack the ground, bounce and droop. Freed, he runs to break with wings. To lift, then circle in a vulture's pattern. His tail and mane and his coarse forelock trail him. His ears never falter. What eye I see is wide and white and his chin is high and proud. I worry for his legs amid the moles' many holes, a misplaced hoof and a broke to death bone.

My boyfriend could've visited to meet my instructor and dole out treats. It's a weekend with no engagements and nothing to care for at home but ourselves.

We barely keep plants, he'd said this morning. His eyebrows arched and quivered. I'd never seen him cry. He began to gasp and lose color until I thought he might faint.

It's true: an expired violet sits our windowsill, a cactus all pale as its quills ghosts the bathroom, a weedy geranium that's only dry stalk and brown leaves still arches into the window's pouring light. Weekly I bring home something new, never thinking torture, desperate for success.

We mean well, though, I'd said.

I don't want to owe you, he'd whispered.

We stood in the garage where he lubed chains and adjusted brakes to perform finely.

I'm late, I'd said, grateful for the arena and Pony and tricks that only I between us knew.

Is it safe? he'd asked, but I was already in the kitchen grabbing keys, and then I was through the rooms and out the furthest door in the house moving how I believed direction might, with a confident heart.

Now, hours later, out on the prairie, I miss Pony's surrender. When he and she and Black Mountain reach me he holds anger in a nostril, his nearest eye glares.

What a maze! my instructor breathes, and asks: Are you fine? Have you pain?

I move fingers and twist while she says, Back you go, up onto him. She dismounts and in a kind of kindness pulls Pony closer. 

You are one, she says and grabs my vest to grunt me to feet. Now, she says, and: No first successes means on a threes.

She's grabbed my ankle, bent my knee, and shoved me to the saddle where I pimple Pony's silhouette.

Well! she takes my soft thigh in both hands. Her fingers can't meet around it. You're a boulder fallen as a bird, she says.

Pony's stiff with the racket I make on his back. My insides won't quit jumping; I've disrupted the workshop, as an earthquake or a planet stripped of spin. I hope they thought to bolt down machinery and have been generous with their use of the vice.

My instructor's eyes are red from wind. I pat her softly. I'm fine, I chatter. Oops! I roll my shoulders. I say: I'll solve it, and keep patting her hand that won't release while Black Mountain works sparse trembling grass and the air tousles our hair into screens.


When I arrive home my boyfriend is gone. I stick a hand beneath the mattress to find a picture of him about to swim. He wasn't in the pool, had come from the showers and stood the edge to practice strokes, arms curving forward, stomach flexed. I caught him so his torso was halved, his thighs were tensed, his groin held shadowed swales. He was training: left hand and arm pointed down, right arm curled up elbow first. He looked like an elephant on alert. Once he began his laps I went outside to wait beneath a stormy blue. He arrived later in a final jag of light, wet with shower and cloying chlorine and hard to look at. He grabbed me around my shoulders. We met like magnets kissing poles. On the sidewalk he unhitched his bike and I turned for home and he pedaled beside me. The bike's front-wheel wove down the street. He grinned shyly and I felt tilted and fizzy, my knees were furry with heat. One of us was the shape while the other was the cut-out and we knew when we pressed, because we knew we'd press, we'd fit, not as many pairs can and often do, but as our own breed. As many pairs often believe themselves to be.


The refrigerator holds a chicken, wilty onions, kale and beets that all hit the oven where the heat creeps until the bird's fat bubbles. By the time my boyfriend returns the place is rich.

He doesn't say Hello but What is it? and he sits the table and loses his hat. His hair is so long I can't find his ears, his forehead and chin look further apart. I stare at him until he cries: Mayday! Mayday! As if I'm a crashing airship and he's helpless at my helm.

What's it look like? I stretch my arms and the hand nearest my boyfriend's nose shakes with a knife.

A sunset, he says and looks away.

I get back to washing up and organizing until he's fallen from the stool. Floored, he pants: You're swallowing me.

There's a pure, extra note singing in his lungs: panic refined by his stricken, fevered chemicals, rendered in a pitch I finally hear.

It's okay, I say, near enough now to copy his body with mine. He blinks and blinks. Our chest of drawers hangs between us. The workers are proud and steady and keep unending hours and don't complain. They're unreal. Gases sparkle beneath my surface. To my boyfriend I explain everything and I highlight the grain and the eyes and the gleam, the hidden compartments and exquisite detailing. He lets me finish and then shuts my mouth with his. Get real, he says in release, then makes a list like for groceries but with things I'd never buy: tongue, heels, gallbladder, ears.

My recent fall has me stiff and it takes a second to rise to carve the rested bird and arrange a platter of good meat, destroyed kale, beets bitterly skinned. I say: If you're hungry, and when I have my own drumstick and an extra sheet of skin I say: My crew's famished.

I've draped the table with linen, set our places and sat. My boyfriend's up now, moving food. I say quietly: Everything's cold, and he comes to the doorframe and blocks his body's worth of light. We're so fucked, he says, and I snort and laugh. He says: It's not funny and he says: Stop. Please. You're screeching and it hurts. Miriam! he yells. Stop! Miriam!

I'd forgotten my name in his mouth. We've been able so long to live without needing to call each other anything at all. I pat my lap and he comes and sits where I've asked, in my quietest nook. I rub his back or cup across it with heat or press my head to his spine so through our windows we're intimate, adoring. His lungs pause and restart frantically and because his waist is nearest I knot around it with arms and tighten. Let me go, he gasps, but I don't. I repeat Jerry again and again and he uses Miriam until he's hoarse and we both soak with sweat and the fear in our eyes, and our hearts in the dark and then purple and then pale keep speaking in ways we captors can't: Hello. I know. One more. Hello. You don't. Hello. I love. I see. I love. Please just. Hello.


I find my instructor squatting, wrapping Black Mountain's front legs. I get Pony to crossties, brush and wrap and saddle and bridle him while she readies the black horse, mounts him in the alley and gets to the arena. They work polished circles around her low crooning voice. The animal froths, head steadily held by his tight, arched neck. His muscle control is impeccable and he goes without a hitch.

I've assembled a wardrobe, broken-in boots, bought britches for summer and winter, a breathable polo with wicking properties. With the first snow fallen the cold weather won't quit. It's time to live the dark and eat our fills and tuck towards days when newness begins again to snout the earth, one pull defied for the strength of another.   

Pony pecks my back, my hair, my arm. He lifts a hoof and pins it to my foot.

You're killing me, I grunt and shove him in the stomach; he steps a little harder. I grab his wintering fur and twist but his ears never move and I can't read his eye.

My instructor's busy still with Black Mountain. I should be indifferent or breathe but don't. I grit it out and hope the workers will address the mess my tiny foot bones have become. This is my gift to them, this priority shift: to allow what builds inside me to manufacture its own blood and bone now, to thicken with nerves and turn every second more opaque and unforgettable. They must have families too, I think. They'll want to go home.

After our spell in the kitchen I was the first to find the bed, which I made and turned the covers down and cleared myself of clothing to get inside. There wasn't time before alarms but I and then he feigned deafness and our hands worked together against the speakers' recitation of minutes and temperatures, precipitation and wrecks. The aftermath was our floor littered in parts for toys. The walls popped with sunlight and something small hit the window hard, then hit again. By the time we couldn't deny the day we were braided as warmth and give and the scratch of dirt in our sheets, a thump from my middle as if it were a well or mine with a bucket down, its inhabitant having seen or given up or fixed what he or she'd hoped to, patting the side to signal All good, bring me in. I couldn't see Jerry's face but felt his eye in my hair, the comb of lashes against my skull; his breath sped and he exhaled Jesus but he didn't release or pull tighter, he kept his place.

Pony groans and grinds now, then steps away. I hop clear and learn to walk again, scratch him like this never happened behind his furry ears so crud packs my nails and he appears in grunts and leans to like it. Tender-foot I get to his back and hold on.

My instructor and Black Mountain are fresh in all their puffing. They meet us in the middle and lead the way outside. We walk a short butte to the woods where the aspen are naked, a jackrabbit's winter color. The babies aren't babies anymore but a pack of rear and cow-kick and squeals. Black Mountain holds steady and Pony, in a repeat, fluffs up. My instructor points her whip at his eye. Behave, she growls and he stiffens. You've got a real touch, I tell her, and she tells me: I'll make his sadness.

Snow falls as tiny lumps and then enormous, silent flakes. The babies are lost in it or race away. We can't see more than a foot ahead and stop beneath a bare cottonwood. Above us sound whooshy flaps, slow and unalarmed and soothing in the blindness.

She says: I'm sorry. It should be clear.

I can barely see her face but know she squints above her glowing scar. The roads'll be ruined, I say. I'll be stranded.

She puts a hand on Black Mountain's withers and squeezes. We'll keep you, she says. I'm accounting, she says and shakes her head so snow slides from her hat to her shoulders to her elbows' crooks and overflows down the horse's side to the ground where it punches bluish bruises. We're wasted here, she says, then asks Black Mountain forward.

I call: Can they find their way home, but she doesn't answer and Pony follows with his nose practically up Mountain's butt. I imagine us from up at the barn, if we can be seen at all. Say Jerry in a fit of instinct or curiosity or devotion arrives to find me, sees the empty car, the vacant cross-ties, and steps out into the whiteness: at this distance we're nothing but the horses' senses, their desires to find last remembered meals, shelter, the familiarity of stablemates shuffling and dozing in this semi-world.

We animals reach the river and stop. The water is high and wide and black and crusted at the edges. Halfway out its heart steams. Horse and Pony are restless and Black Mountain begins to paw. His reach lengthens until he's broken the ice and made a thin shrapnel spray. A cold leaf lands beneath my cheek, near my lip, where it stings and then melts. Without a signal the animals move again, away from the river, the shadows of trees. Outbuildings are snow cloaked. Our world is numbness and the reproduction of light. The breath of us puts our heads in clouds. They can find their way home, I think. They can find their way home.