Marjory turned the car up the Annie-gravel at dusk, which in late May seemed unhurried, even reluctant to disappear over the western horizon. Climbing out of the passenger’s seat, I decided to work off alco-calories acquired at a party by raking up more stones from the field to be sown with clover for bees. After I donned work clothes and boots, I grabbed the handles of the wheelbarrow, which carried the familiar rake, shovel, and rubber basket, and turned it around toward the front of the carport.Above and behind the Subaru–was that a shape? It resolved into something elongated and moving—like the snout of a horse. Was it not bobbing along with several other such heads, mainly dark-colored, one of the animals a brown and white paint? As this phantasmagoria shuffled and breathed, it made a tableau as if having migrated from the stampede in the Roper shirt I had bought at the Floyd Country Store. Already a bit dizzy, I feared that I was hallucinating and skeptically remembered tonight’s wine called “La Linda.” To make things worse—what was that fourth creature? An amalgamation of long-haired bison, black sheep, and mastiff?
Concerned that the foursome would amble down Annie Lane a quarter mile to the highway, I phoned 911 and asked for an officer to mark the intersection with a blue light. Then I ran upstairs to get two apples and cut them into parts. By then the group had moved farther up the lane toward the woods. Flashlight in hand, I assured myself that although I might be weaving a little in the wheel-tracks, I was dealing with fact. I approached slowly, murmured sweet nothings, held out a quarter of a Red Delicious, caught a large brown eye, and persuaded its owner to reach out, test, and gobble. The others crowded around me and took shares, the largest pushing away competition, shoving me, and taking an extra slice. The vision amazed me. Graceful masses of musculature, the sheen of coats, and long, costume-like fringes. The Shetland hung back like an abject slave, so I invited it to take a piece, which it half-heartedly dropped on the ground and thus into the mouth of a companion.
I was taken aback by the height of the other animals—in fact had to tilt my head to look into the eyes of the biggest–and by the warmth of their breath as it came down upon me. But the thought of teeth and hooves kept me on guard as I moved among them talking, patting noses and flanks, trying to bide time so as to keep them atop the ridge. I noted that they valued apples more than affection. Still under the influence of the grape, I briefly confused this menagerie with the Bremen Town Musicians—donkey, cat, rooster, and whatever the fourth one was.
By then Marjory had come out of the house with long carrots broken in half, and the quartet clopped back down the lane toward her. Katie soon brought out a second course. Then Marge held out her arms and commanded something like “Don’t go any further!” but the visitors just galloped around them and took off into the woods. By the time I got there, no animals, just continual barking by several invisible neighborhood sources. Afraid for the safety of both herd and people, I started to walk down to Rt. 221 with the idea of—I guess shining the light at oncoming cars to warn drivers. On the gravel I spied a line of eight little piles that, already a bit dried, seemed to mark the original path of the escapees and to offer more evidence of reality. I followed the turns that a GPS demarcates as S, SW, S, SW, E, NE, E, SE, SW.
Nothing at the bottom of the hill but an occasional whizzing car. I waved the beam in the eyes of one driver to warn of twenty potential hooves loping around the curve by Margie Keith’s house. Trudging back up the hill, I heard an engine and turned to see headlights approaching slowly. As the truck drew next to me, I read “Animal Control” on the front door. Scott and his wife Brandi had come all the way from Check to find that the horses had disappeared. With the help of some kind of radio, he learned that the owners were out of town but that someone would be arriving to take custody. Scott had already determined that the gate had been pushed open by the captives. Having parked the truck, the rescuers kept a bulb on and explored the area with a spotlight. As we chatted, Scott laughed at my report: “When I saw the Shetland, I vowed to stop drinking.” Kate and I made a second fruitless expedition to the bottom of the hill, then climbed uphill and went indoors.
“Horse!” Marge had been looking out the kitchen window, where the lights of the vehicle illuminated an animal that was tall, powerful, but restrained. I walked down to talk with the genial captor, who had attached it to the truck with a bridle or other restraint. “He’s the leader—the rest will come to wherever he is.” Climbing back to the house, I returned with two Granny Smiths. Scott’s advice: “Hold your hand flat.” Added Brandi, “He’ll be your friend forever.” And Randall, “They’re organic.” A warm breath from above charmed me but a startlingly loud whinny next to my ear caused a backward stumble.
Now the full group had mustered. Scott explained that the dark brown animal was a bay–the color of racehorse that the forlorn folksinger bet on rather than Stewball. The pony, explained Scott, knew its place, which was at a respectful distance, although this time it did accept a portion of green Grandma. Then the headlights of another vehicle slowly made their way up, and from it emerged two friendly, grateful, and efficient people who knew what to do with bridles.
The next morning I gazed out the kitchen window across Annie Lane, over the trees and the invisible highway to the hill opposite, where a brown-and-white horse grazed tranquilly in the meadow. Later I started to work in the yard when I spied a large plop near the garden. I shoveled it up—breaking it in half to reveal an interior of something like algae—and carried it sideways and downwind to a hole left by a rock, which I stuffed with souvenir.