Daddy’s Horses

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I think I still have x ray eyes.

And I can’t take them off of Dad’s ashen face, as I try to see through the stiffening mask that has settled in. Plastic tubing, taped to his mouth, pumps gushes of air into him, ballooning his chest, the pace controlled by machine.

Rise, fall, whoosh

 Rise, fall, whoosh.

Monitors beep, digital numbers descend steadily.  The curtain around us rustles, threatening the outsider world’s intrusion.

My x-ray eyes, his gift to me, can’t seem to penetrate, just can’t see if he is lingering inside. Yet I probe, desperate, in hopes that we are only in the middle of one of his stories. That Dad is really a handsome king in a deep sleep and can be awakened by his princess’s magical fairy dust that, at any moment, will miraculously fill my pocket. I reach inside them, but only produce lint under my nails.

Grumbling sounds escape my stomach.  My hair needs to be washed.  No different from the others in our bedside circle. Fat Nurse efficiently presses buttons on the monitor, as she blows fly away wisps of dishwater hair from her face.  Her badge reads Miriam, but it doesn’t matter.  She is only a minor character.  Fat Nurse suits her fine.  She backs up out of the corner she is in and her doughy arm brushes against mine as she tries to squeeze between me and Mom. Without so much as an “excuse me.”  She is gone.

Mom leans forward on her elbows at the head of the bed, lips to his ear, whispering  private secrets shared between them, a half century old.  The tangles of her short blonde-turned- platinum curls brush against his temple as she speaks, the tickle going unnoticed on his skin.

Sissy leans her head on my shoulder, and the smell of old coffee fills the air with each of her sobs, and though she is two inches taller than me, I bear the weight of my baby sister with muscles trained from a lifetime of practice.  I glimpse her eyes closing out of the corner of my eye, but mine stay open.  Focused.  Straining to see.  My pocket vibrates. Is it the magic I was hoping for?  My fingers tremble, reach in, but touch only the smooth metal and a smudged glass screen of my phone. I pull it out, embarrassed by my silly notion.  On the screen appears a response to my earlier, frantic text.

What’s the story on your dad now?

Any improvement?

Wish I could be there with you.

Love, Piggy

I slip the phone back inside my pocket, fingers shaking too much to respond.  I am not ready to share the ending of this tale. Legs screaming with fatigue, I stand stiffly by the bed, guiltily afraid to hold his colorless hand, unable to look away.  I have no fairy dust to sprinkle pink back into his fingers, or movement into his cheeks.  My mind wanders, in need of escape from this scene that doesn’t belong.

I am a little girl again.  I wear a polka dot bikini, sitting at the white and gold speckled Formica table, my hair dripping from an afternoon in the backyard blow-up pool.  The windows are open, a summer breeze tickles my skin, and I stare at my paper plate.  Peanut butter and purple jelly ooze from between Wonder bread slices, and three peeled carrot sticks lay in a triangle.  On one side of me sits my red-headed, pig-tailed best friend, and on the other fidgets my Sissy, with blonde stringy tangles falling in her face. Each of us girls shiver has grass plastered to our baby fat tummies peeking out of our flowery bikini suits.

 Mommy stands at the sink, her back to us and reminds me, as usual, “Pumpkin, eat your carrots.”

I lick the sweet pastes off the bread instead.  I know she sees me with the secret eyes in the back of her head that Daddy told me about, because she turns around, drying her hands on a rooster print dishtowel, and heads in my direction.  As she’s walking, Marcia and Greg Brady are on the den TV whining to Alice about something, and Mommy pauses to watch.  I giggle, put the sandwich down quickly, and certain of my Wonder Woman-like super speed, toss an orange stick under the table before she steps over to my side with her eyes narrowed.

“Eat.  Your. Carrots.”  She commands gently.  My pigtailed friend, who Daddy called ‘Piggy’ for short because she never wore her hair down, and my Sissy, dutifully crunch and put their hands in their laps, while I purse my lips and stare at the table.

“No.”  I state, digging my heels into the sides of the chair.  “They taste yucky.”

Mommy runs her dishpan hands through her cropped blond hair, and sighs.

“Well, young lady.  You will watch Sissy and Piggy have popsicles after lunch unless those carrots are gone.” She bends down to retrieve the orange stick off the floor.  She takes it to the sink, rinses it off, and places it back into the empty side of the carrot triangle on my plate.

I don’t budge.

When plates are cleared, we girls dance on our tippy toes, like the princess ballerinas we are, out the back door and onto the splintery wood deck.  Mommy shakes out our damp beach towels flat onto the planks for us to sit on so we don’t get slivers in our bottoms, and I’m glad.  I still remember the big one I got in my heel last summer and how scared I was when I saw Daddy come at it with a needle and tweezers.

Mommy peels the paper from two popsicles, revealing a rainbow pop and an orange pop, both covered in white frosty crystals that sprinkle down onto her hands.  She wraps each wooden stick in a paper towel and carefully places them in the hands of the squealing girls beside me, then places the plate of carrots in front of me with a frown.  I look up at her and want to stick my tongue out, but decide not to make her more mad at me.  The lawnmower roars loud by the chain link fence at the back of the yard, and we watch my Daddy push, up one side, then the other. Back and forth, back and forth.

Purple and red syrup run down Piggy’s chin and drips colors onto her towel, while Sissy rubs her orange popsicle on her pursed lips, declaring,

“Look!  I have lipstick.” She’s not four yet, and is copying what I did yesterday with a red popsicle.  I’m six and I know that lipstick is supposed to be red.

“There’s no such thing as orange lipstick, Sissy.  You’re such a baby. That looks yucky.”  She rubs her lips again with the orange ice and sticks out her tongue at me.  I get mad because I have to sit next to these three carrots, still arranged in a triangle, and watch her.  She’s such a brat.

Piggy, looking around to make sure the coast is clear, feels sorry for me and offers me a lick of hers.  Just as I lean toward its mushy yumminess, the lawnmower cuts off.  I jerk back to my own towel, and seconds later, Daddy looms above me, blocking the sunshine from my eyes.  Green grass snippets cover his skin, and sweat runs down from his black hair onto his tee shirt.  Forehead scrunching, he looks at all three of us and shakes his head.

“What’s the problem, Sugar?  Where’s your popsicle?”

“Mommy won’t let me have one ‘til I eat my carrots,” I whine, sticking out my lower lip and looking up at him.  His cheeks are so red, they look like he rubbed strawberry juice or something on them.  I’m so hot in the sun, with nothing to cool me down, I wonder if mine look the same way.

“Why aren’t you eating your carrots, then? They’re good for you.”

“They’re yucky.”  I stick my lower lip out more, hopeful that he will see my point of view.

Daddy sits down on the wooden step down from me, looks around the deck and the yard, leans in to us, and says,

“Did you girls know that we have horses in our attic?”  I sit up straight and smile so big my face hurts.

Yay.  A new story!

“Really?”  we ask, in unison.  Piggy scoots over close to me and we both cross our legs Indian style like Mrs. Schulz makes us do in school.  Sissy pushes her shoulder in between us, but we squeeze her out, forcing her to sit up on her knees behind us to see him.

“Yes, siree.  It’s true.”

Stunned, we look up at the roof, waiting to hear or see some sign of hooves, fluffy manes or hear a single neigh through the high attic windows.  But all I see are dusty glass panes up there, and all I hear are the weed whacker in our neighbor’s yard and our kitty meowing at the back door asking Mommy to let her in.

“But I can’t thee them,  Mith-ther Bryant!” Piggy whistled through a gap in her front teeth,   twirling a pigtail around the index finger of one hand, and raising her other hand up as she shrugs her shoulders.

“ You can’t see them, but they’ve have lived there since before our family moved into this house.”  Nodding in my direction, he added, “Before you and Sissy were born, Pumpkin.  Before your family moved down the street, Piggy.  Sometimes I can hear them clippety clop, clippety clop, with their hooves on the ceiling at night.”  He leans toward us and adds, “I even hear them when I’m outside sometimes.”  He points up to the roof again, and we turn our heads, waiting for something to happen.  As I wait, I peak at him out of the corner of my eye and see him reach his hand down under his leg by the step.  Then it happened.

  Clop, clop, clop, clop.

I stand up and put my hand to my ear and tilt my head up.

Clop, clop, clop, clop.

There it was again!  Clear as day!

Piggy copies me and stands up, but Sissy squeals and jumps up and down, shaking the deck and making a big noise.  Piggy puts her finger to her mouth and says “Shhhhhh!” at her, and Sissy looks at Daddy. He smiles at her and silently puts his finger to his mouth, too.  She stands still and looks up at the windows, too.

Clop, clop, clop, clop. 

It kind of sounds like the hooves are clopping next to Daddy, and I look over at him again.  His hand moves underneath him and it looks like he might have knocked on the step, but it can’t be him.  We have horses in our attic!  Their hooves can be heard outside.  He says so!

Squealing with delight, we pelt him with questions, our tiny fingers pulling at his arms and shirt, wanting more.

“How many are there?”

“What color are they?”

“What are their names?”

“Are they boys or girls?”

He laughs and says, “Whoa, one at a time.  One at a time.”  Running his hand across his slick red face, he motions for us to sit down again, whispering and looking around so no one could hear. “There are three girl horses and one Daddy horse.  They have beautiful manes and wear pink and blue sparkled saddles.  But, it’s a secret.  No one knows about them but me.  And now you three.”

I can’t figure something out and ask, “Daddy, what do they eat?”

“Well, Sugar, they eat carrots.  Lots and lots of carrots.  And guess what?”

We watch him, holding our breath in suspense.

“Carrots are magic.”  Our eyes grow big. We gasp.

“They give the horses x-ray vision.”  He whispers more softly this time, because Mommy has come out to water her plants, glancing over at us curiously.   “The horses are named Ernie, Princess Aurora, Princess Snow White, and Princess Cinderela.”  He looks at Piggy and says, “Princess Aurora has a red coat just the color of your hair.” He then turns to me and says, “Princess Cinderella’s mane is blonde like your hair.  And, Sissy, guess what?”  Sissy clutches her hands together in front of her, smiling, waiting to hear about her horse.  “Princess Snow White is Cinderella’s little sister, and her mane is long like yours.  Cinderella is a good big sister and teaches her how to gallop, how to jump, and even how to fly! ” Sissy claps her hands in delight, but I puff out a mad breath.  I don’t want my horse to be her horse’s sister.

As he continues, we hang on his every word.

“They eat their carrots every day and can see through the ceiling. They only come out when they see us sleeping.”

I look down at my plate in amazement.  Magic!  I pick one up and chomp half of it off in one bite.  The sweet crunch is yucky, and I fight back a gag, but I chew and chew and chew, excitedly forcing the chewed up gunk down my throat.

“Well?  What do you see?”  He asks.  For some reason he is laughing.

“I…think I can see through things!”  I squeal.

Piggy and Sissy join in.

“I have x-ray vision, too!”  Piggy jumps up and bends over a flower pot, straining to see into the dirt.  “I see worms and ants!”

“Me, too! Me, too!” yells Sissy. She twirls herself around with her arms stretched out, not really understanding what x-ray vision was.  As she spins, she moves across the deck, and falls onto me, knocking me down.  I have to help her get back up again so I can stand up too, and Daddy rubs her elbow.   Piggy is too busy seeing through walls to notice and jumps up and down, hands clapping, chubby cheeks stretched out by her smile.  I guess the carrots really do help me see better, because I now see that Piggy has a new tooth missing on the top. She is two months younger than me and she’s already lost one more tooth than me.  But who cares.  I can see through stuff now!

Daddy stands up and pats me on the head.  “Eat those carrots, Pumpkin.  The more you eat, the better your x-rays will work.”  He brushes off his hair and showers me with grass.  Looking at me with the crystal blue eyes my Mommy always says he gave to me, he smiles, and walks back to the lawnmower.  With a jerk of a cable, the monster machine roars back to life, and he goes back and forth, back and forth, across the yard, dodging the spongy grass that spreads around the pool.

Until the mosquitos come out, we girls carry a bag of carrots around with us, munching and staring holes into everything around us, our imaginations taking us to places we couldn’t see before. Piggy says she sees a village of Strawberry Shortcakes living under the big tree in the yard, and brings my Daddy over to see it.  He lets her lead him by the hand to the tree, just like he would do with me or Sissy.  Sissy says she sees some stuff, but I think it’s all made up.  Babies don’t understand magic stuff. But I’m a different story.  I expose a munchkin from The Wizard of Oz living in the shed with the yard equipment, and discover a family of tiny unicorns living under the deck that day.  I decide to tell only Daddy about it, because he is the one who gave me my x-rays in the first place

But nothing compares to watching the attic horses every night after that with Daddy when he tucks me into my covers.  He comes to my room after Sissy goes to sleep and tells me he sees the royal horses upstairs watching me, waiting for me to go to sleep, so they can come out.  And I know I see them, because I eat my carrots now.  Prancing around above the pull-down steps, they wait for me to close my eyes.  We watch them through the ceiling as they pace,

Clip-clop, clip clop,

waiting to go join their unicorn and munchkin friends under a sparkly night sky, and Daddy and I make up stories about their adventures until I drift off.

Now in the hospital, my stomach empty, I swallow only my grief.   Sissy pulls away from me and stands on her own at his feet, and I imagine reaching across the dark miles tonight to pull Piggy by the hand to be with us now. I lean beside Mommy against the adjustable bedrail, and through my neglected hair that droops in my face, with my eyes wide open, I stare at his face.  My x-ray eyes search for an aura, a light, a hint of a peace underneath the mask.  I extend my hand and brush the top of his cooling hand with my fingers.

At that moment, I swear I see a sparkling glow through the tears in my eyes and then hear the sound of hooves, just a little softer than the rhythm of the steady electronic beeps coming from the monitor behind us. The clip clop, clip clops are trotting away, soft and slow, in rhythm with the slowing sounds from the machine, to the land of backyard magic, far removed from this room, to the world where happy endings live.

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