Things used to be pure inside me. Separated. When I was a boy, I was wholly a boy. When I was a horse, I was wholly a horse.
Things used to be simple inside me. I was all one thing or I was all another. And the two only got close when the change was happening.
But things aren’t so simple anymore. The lines inside me feel blurry, more and more every day. And as I sit here across from that pretty Beiler girl, all I can think about is how she smells like dew-damp clover. She’s got eyes as bright as bluebells, a smile like sunshine and I know that should make me feel something, but all I can think of is that smell.
It makes me hungry. I press my hands over my stomach to keep the rumbling quiet. My shoulders twitch and I imagine rolling over, scrubbing my sunburned back against thick sweet grass and the dry Michigan soil beneath.
A few dozen boys and girls pack the Stoltzfus’ barn, all chattering like blue jays. All laughing as the Sunday singing comes to an end. The smell of musty alfalfa hay wafts down from the loft. Two draft mares in the far stalls snort softly and munch on sticky-sweet molasses grain.
The Beiler girl—Katie?—is speaking. My face feels hot as I lean forward, head cocked sideways. “What’s that now?”
She smiles, her face going probably the same shade as mine as the kids around us start rising. “I said, you’re Abram Fisher’s son, jah?”
“Jah,” I say, and stand with the crowd of dark-clad teenagers. I’m a full head taller than most everyone here. Standing makes it more noticeable. I feel a dozen eyes on me and fight the urge to bolt. “Jah,” I say again. “I’m Joash.”
She sticks a hand out, still smiling. “I’m Katie.”
I take her hand in mine, feeling the calluses on her palms scrape the calluses on mine. She doesn’t let go right away, so I do it for her, shoving my hand awkwardly back in my pocket.
Katie’s talking again, but there’s laughter and chaos all around us. The boys are showing off, flexing muscles hidden by somber blues and blacks, harnessed by suspenders. They heft the well-worn benches and stack them along the barn wall, jostling each other like good-natured colts.
I promised Dat I would look for a good girl to settle down with. And I reckon Katie’s as good as they come, but the horse in me tramples through my head and it’s hard to think of much else.
My gaze lands on Daniel Yoder, follows him as he lifts a bench over his head. He’s the only one near my age—the two of us have outgrown terms like “boy” and “kid.” Near outgrown Sunday singing, too.
Little Katie of the clover turns away and I realize I’ve been ignoring her something awful. I trip over an apology, but she’s already disappeared into the mingled pack of youngsters. They’re all pairing off, and I stand alone.
I brace myself with a shaky hand on the barn’s support beam. There’s a painful emptiness deep in my gut, an emptiness that’s got nothing to do with being hungry. Least not for food. It’s got everything to do with feeling walled off. Hindered. Strapped down.
Everybody’s shuffling out the barn doors and I follow the kids out into the yard. There, dozens of buggies and horses wait. All I can see is the leather straps, the gleaming bits of metal jammed between strong teeth. I hear every faint snort and whinny, catch every hoof scraped in annoyance against the earth.
It’s wrong. It’s all wrong.
I just stand there watching as Katie lets another boy take her home. I don’t know his name. Truth is, I don’t know most of their names. Our family only moved here a few months ago, and I haven’t exactly tried to get to know these kids. Weren’t for Dat, I’d never have come out tonight in the first place.
Daniel Yoder brushes past. His shoulder catches mine and something like lightning zips between us. He stops, laughs and pats my back. “Sorry ’bout that, Fisher.”
“Joash,” I say, instinctively. Fighting the trembling of my body, I offer my hand for a shake. “And… no trouble.”
His grip is firm. Warm. The wind picks up behind him and drives his scent into me. Horse-hair and sweat. My heart beats unsteady, and my stomach’s all churned up like butter.
“Joash,” he says. “Good to meet ya.”
He’s already turned away by the time I reply. “Jah… you, too.”
He drapes his arm around the shoulders of Rachel, a plump girl with a hearty laugh. They make their way to his buggy where he helps her inside. I watch their hands link, watch them smile at each other, but mostly all I see is Daniel.
I don’t understand what’s inside me. I want back the simple division of my two selves. I been this way—half horse, half human—most my life. Mam says it started when I was only five. I have no memory of that first change, but I sure remember my first time in horseflesh. It’s a crisp memory, cold and clear like frost on the grass.
The moonlight pales the skin of my upturned palm. I stare at the surface, remember the warmth of Daniel’s grip, and I shudder. I bolt forward, down the dirt road toward home. There’s no light in the Stoltzfus’ house, but I don’t trust them not to be watching. I gotta get some place safe before it overtakes me.
Before she overtakes me.
I’m breathing harsh, but it’s not the running that does it to me. It’s Daniel. His skin against mine, his voice warm like a sunrise, and those eyes—flashing in my memory a cornflower blue… And there’s a panic and I—
I plunge off the side of the road, slosh through a ditch and into a thin tree-line. Just a little bit of cover. I collapse and the change hits me like it always does.
Real sudden. Real uncontrollable. The panic is second only to the pain. I clench down to smother a scream. It hurts down to the bone. Sometimes I feel this invisible instrument scraping at marrow, unravelling me. Jabbed between joints, levering my bones apart.
My skin stretches. Burns. There is a lingering moment of agonized anticipation as I wait for it to rip like thin cotton. When it does, I am barely able to keep my silence. Skin gives way to thick, tough horse-hide. I rake my fingers through the soft soil, desperate for some anchor.
“Father, please,” I gasp, before the change takes away my voice. My prayers become whinnies. My hands become hooves. My clothes split and rip as the other part of me emerges, full in the flesh.
When it’s over, she stands there for a long moment. Her name is Belle; she’s been with me, part of me for as long as I can remember. She shakes her massive head; her flaxen mane slaps against her neck. A fly buzzes somewhere close and her tail twitches over tawny haunches. Pain recedes. Fear lingers, though it didn’t use to.
She waits. I wait.
And finally, it comes.
It’s a rush. Power. She bursts forward, out into the freshly churned soil of the Stoltzfus’ fields. Thick haunches propel her forward. Hooves reach for more ground. The wind combs invisible fingers through her coarse mane and tail.
Inside her, I give myself over to animal abandon. Here, everything is okay. There are no rules and frowning elders. There are no demands to find a spouse, to choose the church or the outside world. There is only sweat and the strain of muscle, and the wind and the grass, and the power.
Belle snorts uneasily. Slackens her pace and cocks her head to the side. There’s a fearful sensation, creeping in, and I am sick with it instead of lost in the mare’s power. She slides to an abrupt halt and whirls. There is nothing but the wind behind her, nothing but the crickets and their serenade. Her hooves churn the soil as she skitters to the side again, always looking behind.
What’s wrong? It has never felt like this before.
We are both disturbed by the sensation that she’s dragging something along behind her. An invisible buggy, a burden—and at that moment, it hits us, as one.
She’s carrying me. She always has, but now she feels it.
Our forms used to be pure inside her. Separated. When she was a horse, she was wholly a horse. When she was a boy, she was wholly a boy. She was all one thing or she was all another.
But things aren’t so simple anymore. The lines inside her feel blurry.
Pale streaks of light are beginning to bleed into the sky outside our barn. I am on my hands and knees in the straw of my stall. A neat pile of somber-colored clothes waits on a worn bench beside me and, next to it, a bucket of water and ladle.
Mam is a gut woman. Too gut for me.
When my sides quit heaving and I can finally breathe evenly, I rise on shaky legs like a newborn foal. I scoop up handfuls of water from the bucket and scrub away the sweat and grime on my chest, shoulders, and thighs. Pulling on the coarse black pants feels like a sin. They scratch against my renewed skin and the horse in me shudders. The plain white shirt clings to my still damp chest as I slide the suspenders over my shoulders with a grimace.
Mam’s smell—mostly flour, a hint of vanilla and a whole lot of fresh-baked-bread—reaches me before I hear her step behind me. She leans against the outside of the stall, peering around carefully. Our eyes meet and shame instantly fills me, a hot sensation spreading from stomach to face in a flash.
There are so many questions and tentative hopes in the lines of her face. I avoid her gaze and it’s all the answer she needs. Still, she steps closer. “Did ya meet anyone then, son?”
Yes. Daniel’s face floods my mind—the squared jaw, the slightly bent nose and that playful smile. I inhale sharply and pull Mam to me so she won’t see my face.
Mam clings like a child. Used to be, she was taller than me. Bigger than me. But that was many years ago. Now she feels too thin, too fragile. And I bear guilt for that, too. In Pennsylvania we were surrounded by loved ones—her and Dat’s cousins and sisters, brothers and grandparents.
But then I saw that Zook boy thrashing his horse. All I could see was the whites of that creature’s eyes. I could feel its panic and pain. Feel the harness and the buggy traces hemming it in on both sides, and it was scared and he kept striking it with the whip and…
“Joash?” Mam pulls back enough to look into my face. “You okay, boy? You’re shaking.”
She blinks tears from her faded blue eyes. I shake my head. Mam and Dat have been there for me, all my life; they’ve made sacrifices for my sake. I even told them about Belle. But how can I tell them about the two halves merging? About my lustful thoughts for Daniel Yoder?
“I just feel poorly for failing you, Mam. I know ya miss all—”
“Shh,” she chides, sliding an arm around me and guiding me out of the stall. “We best put the past behind us and thank the Lord for the blessings of today and tomorrow. I raised you better than to be dwelling on things such as can’t be changed.”
Things such as can’t be changed.
I do my best to put them evil thoughts behind me as I enter the kitchen with Mam. We take up our familiar places at the counter and I help her get breakfast ready for Dat. I lose myself in the comforting smells and sounds of this place: the crackle of bread’s still-warm crust as I slice through it, the sizzle and pop of bacon, the whiffs of smoke leaking from the wood-stove’s flue.
Only when the door bangs shut behind me am I pulled out of this momentary calm. Dat scrapes muck off his boots on the mat. His eyes are dark, watching me, brows pushing down in a frown as he hangs his hat on a peg. He’s a big man, dusky of hair and eyes. His skin is bronzed from hours of labor beneath the sun, and all these colors makes the bland white walls of our home seem blander.
“Been out all night, boy,” he says, his voice a thunder-rumble of judgment. “Take that as a good sign?”
He wants me to find a girl like Katie Beiler, ask to take her home in my buggy—only I never bring a buggy, ’cause I can’t stand hooking old Mae up to one. Instead, I’m spending my rumspringa stalling and changing shapes in the night. Sometimes I think he’d give up the world for my sin to be drinking, smoking, or anything other than what it is: bone-deep and unshakable.
He huffs at my silent admission and stomps into the dining room.
“C’mon now,” Mam says gently. I help her carry breakfast to the thick cherry-wood table, handcrafted by Mam’s father. We set out the serving dishes: piles of greasy bacon, rolls of spicy sausage, the still-warm braid of friendship bread, eggs scrambled the way Dat likes. I fill our glasses with chilled milk from our Jersey cow, Daisy. And Dat’s eyes follow me, a constant silent reprimand. He lets me help Mam in a way that most Amish would find shameful. Women’s work.
But if you’re half mare and half man, what does that make you? Where does that put your God-given roles and responsibilities as laid down in the Bible and the Ordnung?
Dat offers a prayer and we tuck into our meal.
My silverware lies untouched; I eat with my fingers. The taste of metal in my mouth brings back bitter memories of the day Deacon Zook found me in my horse-form and tacked me up. I shiver at the memory, almost glad when Dat speaks.
“Can’t put off the plowin’ anymore.”
The horse in me twitches. “That so?”
He’s trying to ask without asking. “Wouldn’t be gut to start out wrong. Best give the People time to get used to us, ‘fore we go adopting peculiar ways again.”
My hands clench under the table. Mam’s eyes are on us. Tension whirls around us like smoke off pine brush.
“Mae’s too old for that kind of work,” I say. An image flashes in my mind—old Mae harnessed up straining as she drags the plow. Muscles bunching, hooves slipping in the soil.
“Joash, we got to be careful—” Dat starts.
I stand. My knees jar the table. Milk splashes out of my glass. With shaking hands, I use my napkin to clean up the mess. “It ain’t right,” I whisper. “I can’t…”
Most times, I control the change. But the need is always inside me, sometimes burning hot and sometimes just embers in my belly. Whenever I get tore up with emotions, she surges to the front of my mind. Same thing happens when I go too long without letting her out—like with the Deacon that time. Never should’a turned mid-day like that; I learned my lesson well.
Dat’s standing now, too. He’s got his hands out as if to show he isn’t going to hurt me. He’s treating me like the animal inside me. Careful not to spook me.
My eyes are wet when I meet his gaze. “Please, Dat…”
His jaw clenches as he steps for the door. “So be it. Best hope Mr. Knowlton’s got time to tend to our work then.” His heavy tread sounds his retreat through the kitchen. The door slams and I settle shakily back on the bench.
Dat’s off to hire an English farmer and his tractor. The Ordnung isn’t specific about hiring your fieldwork out, but I know what kind of disapproval the act will bring down upon my family’s head. We used the English when necessary, but they’re still outsiders.
My family’s given almost everything for me.
Come next Sunday Singing, I’m going to ask to take Katie Beiler home. It’s the right thing to do.
The steady clip-clop of hooves and the rattle of buggy wheels signal the arrival of our neighbors. My fingers freeze up, still carefully holding the needle. Mam’s stopped her quilting, too, and we listen to the muffled chatter of masculine voices.
The kitchen door opens and I scramble back from the quilt.
It’s only Dat. “Put down your woman’s work now. I need ya.”
I move to the window and peer out. A dozen buggies and strapped-up horses. I wince. When I catch sight of Daniel amongst a group of young men our age, my heart stutters. I straighten quickly and face Dat. “Mam needs me—” I’d been helping her sew the wedding quilt. Mam was always more kind, open, and understanding about my peculiarities.
Dat grips my sleeve in one strong hand and lowers his voice. “I ain’t asking, boy. I did what you wanted and hired out the fieldwork, now you gotta at least act like you might be a man.”
Mam inhales sharply, but doesn’t speak against her husband. I reel back from his words, but he’s already dragging me toward the door. I shake him loose to pull my boots on. When he closes the door behind us, he does it nonchalantly, as if nothing is wrong.
It isn’t normal for Amish families to keep secrets this big. The weight of this settles on me as I tuck my hat down against the sun.
The young men are gathered around the skeleton of a barn we’ve been in the process of raising. Bare blond rafters and stacks of sheet metal wait for us.
“Hullo, Joash!” Daniel calls. The group parts, allows me in. They nod a welcome, but I can feel the distance even in that expression. Most of them are bearded—a sign of their marriages. Daniel and I are the only two clean-shaven men.
“Hello,” I offer back, mustering a smile.
The group passes back and forth some friendly banter as if I’m not even there. I can’t keep my eyes off Daniel as he joins right in. There isn’t a scrap of fear or awkwardness in him. It’s like God took all the strength and courage of a self-assured stallion and wove it into this man standing before me. My face flushes hot and I wipe sweat out of my eyes.
On the roof, the entire unit moves in tandem, laughing and sweating and striving together. I fumble with the sheet metal. It’s hot and the edges are sharp. I nearly let a piece slide down off the rafters, but Daniel catches it in time.
“Ach, you act like you never roofed a barn before, Joash,” he says, smiling.
“Jah, been a while,” I lie. I grip the rafter between my thighs and help him hold the sheet as a few other fellows begin bolting it down.
“Here.” Daniel steps across the rafters as if he’s skipping over a puddle and offers me a pair of gloves from his back pocket. “Helps with the edges.”
Our fingers brush as I accept the gloves. For a heartbeat, we remain that way, hands touching under the safety of the garment, and our eyes meet. Something sharp and wistful passes through me. I want him—really and truly, in a way that terrifies me. I keep telling myself it’s just the horse in me, but I don’t know anymore. Daniel’s lips curve in a gentle smile, like he knows, like he sees the hidden parts inside me. But then he breaks the contact, retreats to his spot on the roof.
“Th-thanks,” I say, then clear my throat. Normally the gloves would feel unnatural—and I can hear Belle echoing her distaste in my mind—but today they feel like a gift. Like a sign of… something that can never be.
We work through the heat of the afternoon. I lose myself in watching Daniel. He works quickly, chattering with a lightness I envy. The muscles under his tanned forearms bunch and cord as he hefts the sheet metal up over the rafters. The other men in their white shirts and dark pants blur around us until I am completely lost in the rhythm of Daniel’s words, the marvel of his strong hands.
Someone nudges my shoulder and I jump.
“Fisher, you gonna help us or what?” I blink, blush, and realize that they’ve all moved on to the next panel. They’re all looking at me.
“I-I’m sorry. The sun…”
Dat’s dark-eyed frown lingers on me from the other side of the roof; Daniel’s still laughing, his cornflower blue eyes twinkling like something magical. I’m all mixed up and it’s hard to focus on keeping my footing.
When the laughter settles down, a few of the men around me start humming hymns from the Ausbund. The words of praise to God usually have a lulling effect on me, but I hear Deacon Ezra Beiler, Katie’s father, ask a question of my father.
“So what ’cause you got for hiring them English tractors, Abram?”
The humming drifts into silence. Now there is only the warping cry of sheet metal and the steady breathing of the men around me. My body tenses as I peek at Dat on the other slope of the roof.
He settles back on his heels, meets my gaze briefly before looking to Deacon Beiler. “We’s still settling in. Our mare is gettin’ too old for that kind of work and I ain’t had the time to get a new one.”
A moment’s silence. My pulse pounds through my temple at the lie my father told. I yearn to fly apart, to fly into Belle, and leave behind the burdens of this world.
I walked Katie Beiler home from singing. She asked why I didn’t have a buggy.
Seems like I have to lie more and more every day. I thought about marriage, the way the lies would pile up like the husks of dead leaves.
She’s a true beauty—not just in the coils of wheat-blond hair under her kapp and those bluebell eyes always seeking mine—but in her heart and soul. She has a gentle way with animals and seems especially fond of her dat’s dairy cows. She told me, as we walked, of a time when she’d helped one of the cows with a difficult birth. Her eyes glittered with unashamed pride as she told me of tying twine to the babe’s front legs and pulling with the cow’s contractions.
“I named him Jonah,” she said with an easy laugh. She laughs like that often and speaks kind of everyone. In that way, she is so similar to Daniel. But of course, she isn’t.
But I won’t be selfish. And life is all sacrifice, all struggle. I’ll join the church, let them baptize me, pray they never find out what I am. I’ll lie to Katie—assuming she accepts me as her husband. I’ll lie with Katie in one bed and raise a family and pray they’re not cursed like me.
I used to pray for God to take this thorn out of my flesh. I used to ask him why he did this to me. And I used to be afraid that maybe he didn’t make me this way. Maybe I did something when I was little, so bad it cursed me.
As I step onto our porch, I square my shoulders. There’s a soft flickering light from the lantern in the dining room. Did Mam wait up for me again? Standing outside the door, I try to summon up strength like Daniel’s got. No more thoughts of him. No more. You just gotta shut that off. My eyes sting. I blink back the tears, try to shove back Belle as she noses her consciousness into mine. We want something more than what we’re about to choose.
We want more than a lie of a life with Katie Beiler.
We want more than pretending to be one of these people, and all the while hiding our true self.
But this is what we must do.
Mam and Dat are huddled around the lantern at the table, their hands linked. They both look up and even in the wan light I can see Mam’s puffy, red-rimmed eyes. Dat’s jaw keeps working in the way that tells me he, too, is near tears.
“Mam? Dat? What’s—”
“Sit down,” Dat says, and he doesn’t sound angry. He sounds tired, and somehow that’s worse.
I obey. Fear pulses through me and I remember the way they looked when they told me we had to leave Hickory Hollow. It was my fault then. Is it my fault again?
“Bishop Stoltzfus came by this evening,” Dat says.
“Why?” My voice croaks and I’m suddenly parched.
Mam’s shaking, but she won’t speak. She bows her head, graying strands of hair escaping her kapp.
“He gave us a warning ’bout using the English tractors,” Dat continues. There’s still no anger in his dark eyes. They reflect the flame, they do not harbor it. “Says it’s not in line with the spirit of the Ordnung. He thinks we do it for the convenience. ‘If any would not work, neither should he eat.'”
“I-if we don’t stop—” Mam says, but can’t finish.
I scoot down the bench so my knees brush hers and I rest a hand on her arm. “I’m sorry, Mam. I’m so sorry.” She doesn’t need to finish. If we don’t stop, we’ll be cast out. Again.
Mam draws herself up when she sees my tears. She straightens her shoulders. “We can find another home. We can try again. One of those less… them modern orders, where—”
“No.” My whisper stops her.
“That’s not all,” Dat says. “Bishop says you got to choose your path before the week’s out. He had to tell Daniel Yoder the same thing.”
The utterance of Daniel’s name makes me flinch. So we’ve both got to choose. Conflicting thoughts surge through me and the trembling begins in my hands; I remember and long for the surety of hooves.
Squeezing Mam’s hand gently, I stand. “Use the horse, then.” It’s hard to speak when I’m trembling like this. My vision is blurry, but I catch the surprise in Dat’s voice.
“No more tractors.”
“Are you sure, Joash?” Mam sounds as broken as I feel. Gratitude and love flood my chest, and they are warm feelings, but they are not enough.
“Jah, I’m sure. And I’ll join the church. Bishop ain’t gotta worry about that.”
I’ve got to get outside before Belle tears me apart.
Belle rears and scrapes her hooves against the sky. We fly across the fields, mindless of the corn and wheat shoots we trample. I try to lose myself in the rhythmic pounding of her hooves.
Despite a recent rain, the night is steamy and hot. We shift and slide on the slick soil as we run. Sweat froths on our neck, our chest. Belle no longer flinches or skitters away, trying to see her burden. We are becoming one.
And we’re both wondering how we’re going to carry this lie for the rest of our lives.
We stretch low over the ground, avoiding Amish and English homes alike. We streak toward the trees surrounding Barrowman’s Pond. The thought of cool water, washing over our steaming body and soothing our feverish minds, is appetizing, like sweet clover calling.
I am trying not to think of how I will ask Katie to marry me when Belle pulls up sharp and snorts in surprise. We stand at the edge of the pond, surrounded by creaking trees. Cattail fronds bob around the water. A young man surfaces, splashing and triggering a cascade of ripples around him.
We do not move, Belle and I.
We are pierced. Our heart beats too fast, our breath comes too quickly as we recognize the man in the water.
Daniel Yoder tilts his head to the side as he sees us. He stands and the water comes only to his waist, leaving his bare chest dripping under the pale moonlight. The sight burns deep inside me, inside us both. With Belle at the helm, my feelings are amplified. She trembles.
“Well, hullo there,” Daniel says. “You slip out of somebody’s pasture?”
Belle snorts. Scrapes her paw greedily through the mud. She wants to bolt into the water, but for the first time, I am fighting her, trying to wrangle her back.
Daniel steps toward us. His clothes are piled in a heap on top of a nearby boulder. Our gaze rolls over the muscles of his chest, the strong shoulders and forearms, the abs rippling down to…
Daniel pulls on his trousers. His suspenders loop over his bare, wet shoulders. Belle snorts and shakes her head. He smiles as he rubs his hand down the length of our face. He caresses our muzzle and laughs when Belle nuzzles her head against his hard chest. His skin is surprisingly soft. He slides his hands down our neck and we tremble. The slow slide of his skin against ours makes every part of us feel painfully awakened. It should be enough—this gentle touch—but it isn’t. She needs more. Panic shoots through me as she presses our body into his.
His edges are sharp against us, his touch playing against my hunger and I—
I need more and there’s a panic and I—
Belle screams a protest as we begin unravelling. Our vision blurs, pain seeping in on every front as we collapse in the wet clay. Daniel stumbles back and the removal of his touch eases off some of my panic, but it’s not enough. My fear is redoubled as Belle’s bones grind down. Pressure in my chest, in my head. No, no! Not in front of him.
He doesn’t run. I can hardly see him through the tears in my eyes—eyes that are being squeezed and pushed and compressed into the proper size to fit my shrinking skull. Rough horsehide sloughs off in peels, as if grated away by an invisible hand. The strength of my hooves is lost to trembling fingers. When at last my world stops blurring, when my body stills, I am curled up in the mud. Belle’s last whinny twists into words, “God, please!”
I can’t raise my eyes. The mud is cool against my new, naked skin. My breathing is wet and thick, shuddery.
Daniel steps nearer and I am forced to look up. I try to brace for disgust, for horror, for any number of judgmental expressions I have pictured a thousand times. Instead, there is only awe in the clean lines of his face. His eyes are wide, glittering by the moonlight as he crouches down and carefully extends one shaking hand.
My stomach churns as I wipe tears from my face. “Daniel.” I sit back on my haunches, hands struggling to hide myself. He glances down, then away. There’s color in his face, as if he’s just worked a full day under the heat of the sun. He whirls to his pile of clothes and returns quickly with his shirt. I accept it when he presses it into my hands.
I cover myself and whisper a raspy thanks. Another few heartbeats of silence. We stare at each other and I am sick with dread. I shiver with it.
“I-I’m sorry you…” I start, but the words escape me. “I’m sorry.”
He’s already shaking his head. “I find myself speechless, Joash. And I tell you that is not a frequent thing!” He laughs, and the sound is a little skittish, but still warm. “I don’t even know what to say.”
I drop my head. If I could, I would turn and flee, but his shirt cannot hide the truth of me. “I know. It’s… horrible. I think I am cursed—”
“No.” He kneels beside me, laying his hand on my shoulder. I shiver, but he doesn’t pull away. His eyes are full of an earnestness that strikes me in the chest. “It is a wonder, brother.” That light in his eyes, that awe! “Truly. I knew our God was a God of wonders, but this…” He laughs again and it is a merry sound that washes over my bruises and my fears. “Joash, it cannot be a curse. It is a sign of the Lord’s power.”
“Y-you don’t think I am… wrong? An unclean thing?” My hand rises to his shoulder, emboldened by his touch.
“An unclean thing? More like a miracle. It is a gut thing, do you not think? A gift to be embraced, welcomed, even. I—”
I cannot stop the tears. I sag against him, my forehead against his bare shoulder, and I am powerless under the sway of this relief. Belle is, for once, at peace within me. We are both still, even as our shoulders shake with all that has been held back and pressed down. Daniel’s hand still rests gently on my shoulder and he does not pull away. His warmth is overwhelming; I feel his breath on my neck and only when the heat of my attraction rises do I pull away, necessarily.
“I’m sorry,” I say again, wiping my face.
He squeezes my shoulder and stands. “Do not be. I have very many questions for you, Joash. I would ask them all, but I have to get back.”
The thought of him leaving rips at my insides. I start to rise, then stop, clutching his shirt against me. “I-I could take you… carry you, wherever you need go.”
His head cocks to the side as he considers me for a moment. I fear my voice was too eager, my expression too hungry. Then a smile cracks his face and he nods. “Jah, if it wouldn’t trouble you?”
Heat rises up my neck as I surrender to Belle again. The change is slower this time, but no less painful. I am aware of Daniel’s marveling eyes upon me as my bones are leveraged apart, as they groan and lengthen. Pain blinds me, a half-human, half-horse cry escaping my lips. My skin shudders, then gives, an audible rip that rises into the night air.
Within moments, my weakness becomes strength. My flesh becomes hide. I am strong and sturdy and I rise to see his shining face. He laughs again and scoops up the rest of his clothes. When he returns to us, he stands at our side. “May I?”
When we bob our head, forelock dancing over our eyes, he grabs a fistful of our mane in one hand. We’ve never tolerated a person on our back. That one time under the harness was enough. But there is no suppressing leather now, no metal bit between our teeth.
There is only Daniel. He climbs on our back and speaks softly, “You are a wonder of God, Joash, and a gut man.”
The next minutes pass in a slow blur. It is hard to feel guilty for enjoying Daniel when he is so near, when his touch is constantly on my neck. My neck. Because Belle and I are the same now, or soon will be. The lines inside me dissolve like sugar in water. This is my powerful body. These are my strong hooves, my wild gaiety and fierce exuberance for life. Yet, there are still parts of me that are afraid. There are parts of me that still reprimand me for this sin. I am at once happy and miserable.
But I am one. I am whole. I am wholly man and wholly horse.
Why did it take Daniel to bring me to this conclusion? His knees hug the barrel of my sides and his hands are bunched in my mane and it feels so right, and I am no longer a secret. He beheld me and he did not turn away. He saw in me the handiwork of God, not the abomination I have always deemed myself. He accepted me and if he can accept that, perhaps… Perhaps I could stay. I could live a lie for the rest of our community if only I knew Daniel knew and cared, if only I… If I could tell him…
I begin to carry him home, but he directs me elsewhere. We trot down dusty dirt lanes, lined with sentinel-straight oak trees. We move under the moon, then under the branching shadows of trees.
We reach a home I do not recognize. My heart beats quicker as I try to find words to express how he moves me, how I am constantly lost in thoughts of him. I am still grasping the edges of these slippery words when the door opens and Rachel slips out. When she nears, I see joy in her face. Daniel slides off my back, still shirtless, and pulls her into an embrace. They whisper back and forth, affirming vows that will soon be spoken in front of everyone.
Daniel kisses Rachel and a cry, both equine and human in its torment, wrenches from my lips as I stumble back. Daniel flinches, turns, and our eyes meet. My sides rise and fall unsteadily as he disentangles himself from the girl and steps to my side. He brushes his fingers against the side of my face and there is something like an apology on the fullness of his lips. A shadow flickers over his strong cheekbones.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Joash.” His voice is low, so she cannot hear.
I sway, but keep my feet. I nicker softly and brush my head against his shoulder. He turns, drapes an arm over my head, and the warm susurrus of his voice and breath flood my neck.
“I can’t,” he says. “You need something I haven’t got in me. I don’t… But I meant it back there, brother. This is a gut thing. You are a gut thing. You mustn’t forget that.”
Through the rumbles of pain, thundering inside me, I nuzzle his chest. I enjoy the touch for just a moment longer.
And then I turn and trot away. It takes every ounce of resolve I have to leave him behind, but I do not turn and I do not look back. Still, he fills my thoughts. I let his words echo in my head. It’s hard to think through the pain, but something in me feels alive and awake, almost hopeful.
Daniel welcomed the truth about me. I can’t be with him, but I can take his words with me. Beyond the cornfields and Sunday singings, I will find someplace both man and mare can call home. This world is big, bigger than Amish and English put together. Shadows litter the path ahead, and I do not know the way. A thrill of fear almost makes me almost want to turn back.
Instead I race under the moonlight. The packed dirt roads are solid as a rock beneath my hooves.
I can still feel the imprint of Daniel’s body against mine.
Maybe I always will.
|Alexis A. Hunter revels in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction. Short stories are her true passion, despite a few curious forays into the world of novels. Over forty of her short stories have been published, appearing recently in Cricket Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Read Short Fiction, and more. To learn more about Alexis visit www.idreamagain.wordpress.com.