Nine-year-old Liz Walters knew the old playscape was off-limits and had been for years. She hadn’t planned to climb the ladder. This was just going to be a reconnaissance mission.
By mid-afternoon on a Friday in late August, she’d crossed Johnson’s cow pasture and was standing behind the closed-up village school, contemplating the sad condition of its abandoned playground.
All around her, the tail end of a western Massachusetts summer was on display. Vivid red-fruited sumac bushes leaned over stone walls and, above, the deep jade-green leaves of the sugar maples brandished hints of flame and gold. The folded hills and shaded, hidden ravines of the Berkshires stretched on all sides of the valley.
Liz nibbled on a much-chewed thumbnail and ignored the photo-ready landscape. Her mission was to survey the playscape and report back.
“I can’t go to the playground with you tomorrow,” her best friend Stefanie told her the night before. “I’ve got that swim meet at the lake. I’m sorry, I forgot about that.” Then she’d added, kindly, “If you want to check it out by yourself, go ahead. I won’t mind. Maybe take some pictures? Tell me what you find and we’ll go back, together, later on.”
After watching ninja contests on TV, Stefanie had convinced Liz that they should fix up the old playground so they could create their own warrior-ninja games. They’d hold competitions and sell tickets. Of course, Stefanie and Liz would win every time, because they would practice every day. They would also design the courses and make the rules. That, Stefanie had declared, would be super awesome.
A week earlier, Stefanie had turned ten. She was four months older than Liz, three inches taller, and supremely confident. If Stefanie was suggesting a solitary scouting mission, then of course Liz would go.
After an early breakfast, Liz had pulled on her usual summer clothes—well-worn T-shirt, denim shorts, sneakers. Not sneakers, she reminded herself, running shoes. What Stefanie called them. She’d filled the water trough and carried hay to Belle, her Jersey heifer. She topped off the hens’ feed bin with cracked corn, collected a half-dozen eggs, helped her mom fold laundry, and ate lunch. If her dad had been home, she’d have helped him organize tools and supplies and clean out his electrician’s van, but he was away all day, wiring new homes in West Stockbridge.
Liz’s cousin Joey was coming by later to fix a leak in the roof of the chicken coop, and he’d probably stay for dinner, but that was hours away.
“Go on, get out of my hair,” her mother said as she set a frozen chicken on the counter to thaw. “No TV or videos. It’s a nice afternoon, go outside and play.”
Liz wasn’t thinking about television or videos. “Okay if I walk to the school?”
“Yes. Take your phone. Get back by four, don’t be late. If you’re going through the pasture, don’t step in the cowpatties. Take Pepper if he wants to go.”
Liz wanted to give her mother an eye-roll for the cowpatties dare. Of course she wouldn’t step in cow shit. She wasn’t a baby. And Jeez, couldn’t her mother say cow shit, just once? Or cow manure, at least.
Pepper, their very old cattle dog, didn’t want to go anywhere. He was content to stay in the shade beside the chicken coop, dozing and pretending to be on guard duty in case a coyote threatened the hens.
It was only a ten-minute walk if she cut through Johnson’s pasture. For kindergarten, first, and second grade, Liz’s mom had driven her the half-mile to the six-room village school. They’d walked along the road when the weather was fine. After Stefanie had moved in nearby, a year ago at the start of third grade, the two girls had walked to school together, going cross-lots through Johnson’s pasture, as the older kids did. Liz knew the trails through the pasture and woods as well as anyone in the neighborhood.
Stepping out of the woods behind the school, she paused next to an old equipment shed and briefly considered the shed’s contents: a piece of broken snow fence, a rusted shovel, some unidentifiable small-engine parts. Nothing here that would be even remotely useful for ninja games. Mouse droppings littered the shed’s hard clay floor and tangles of dusty spiderwebs clung to the rafters. Liz brushed away a lace of cobwebs that drifted against her cheek.
The Dublin school, a two-story white structure with shuttered windows and peeling paint, stood a few hundred yards away, next to the paved two-lane road. The building was no longer of any interest to her. She’d been a student there for four years, but she wouldn’t be going back.
The old family farms were failing, her dad said, so people were selling out and moving away. Dublin wasn’t even a village, more of a crossroads, a hiccup between two roads that ran north from West Stockbridge to Pittsfield. The few remaining students had been transferred to the larger consolidated school in nearby Richmond. In one week, Liz starts fourth grade at the new school, where most of the girls would still ignore her and the boys would still call her Lizzie Lizard. At least she’d still be in the same class as Stefanie.
Stefanie Jacobson’s family had bought the big old farmhouse just up the road. They’d come from Boston, and Stefanie’s parents had jobs that required suits and ties. The family’s goal, as Stefanie had explained, was to escape the big city and create a “country home that Martha Stewart would be proud of.” Liz had only a vague idea of who Martha Stewart was, but she was very impressed with the entire Jacobson family, who were able to own a beautiful farm without being dirt-poor farmers.
Liz was immensely grateful for Stefanie, who was everything that Liz wished she could be: tall and blond, with cute freckles and an easy laugh. Stefanie swam and played soccer, took ballet, violin, and horse-riding lessons. Around Stefanie, Liz felt small and awkward, all elbows and angles, but Stefanie never seemed to notice. She bounced happily from venture to venture, scheme to scheme, cheerfully towing the admiring Liz in her wake.
Liz was still trying to understand Stefanie’s view of adults. In Liz’s world, adults were the arbitrary rule-makers who required unquestioned obedience from children. She’d learned early that following rules—keep quiet, do what you’re told, don’t make a fuss, mind your manners—was the best way to live with the big people. Stefanie never seemed to worry, as Liz often did, about how to move from child to adult. That gulf seemed so wide.
Stefanie appeared certain that adults were just older versions of herself. Since Stefanie seemed to have found a clearly marked path to adulthood, Liz tried to learn as much as she could from her friend. Stefanie was always asking questions: What if? and Why not?
The old playscape behind the school had been closed off, Stefanie said, to protect the little kids. As almost-fourth graders, pre-teens about to become young women, she and Liz were obviously not little kids anymore. Since the school was now closed, if the playground could serve a new purpose for the community, then that would be a good thing, right?
If Stefanie was here today, they’d have already slipped through the hole in the chain-link fence and explored the abandoned playscape.
Liz patted her back pocket, the one with the button flap, to be sure her old flip phone was secure. Then she pushed through a thick stand of goldenrod and foxtails to the sagging chain-link fence that surrounded the playscape. Under an oak tree, she found the spot where someone had cut a hole. She crouched, slipped through, and jogged across a small clearing to the abandoned playscape.
She’d never played here—never been allowed to swing, slide, or scramble up the climbing frame. The playscape had fallen into disrepair years earlier, so adults had fenced it off, padlocked the gate, and declared it unsafe.
The removable parts were long gone: swings, a slide, the trapeze bar, the ropes and rubbery footholds on the climbing wall. What remained was whatever was anchored by frozen bolts or set in concrete: a pair of rusty parallel bars, the vertical planks of the climbing wall, and the tall square posts that still supported a metal crossbar for the missing swings. At one end of the swings frame, a high platform of warped planks was still attached to four uprights. A wooden ladder, bolted to the side of the frame, gave access to the platform.
She paused at the ladder, caught her lower lip between her teeth, and worked her teeth gently into the soft pad of flesh. Unless she bit too hard, drew blood or ripped off a cuticle, the chewing helped her concentrate. Now it helped her reach a decision.
She’d planned only to look around, snap a few photos, and report back to Stefanie. But here in front of her was what appeared to be a perfectly good ladder, just asking to be climbed.
She took hold of its upright posts, stepped on the lowest rung, and bounced. It wiggled but felt solid. She took a deep breath and went up quickly, before she could change her mind. Eight steps, nearly as high as the ceiling inside her house.
At the top, the platform’s planks were weathered and creaky, but still in place. Holding one of the square corner posts, she stood and admired the view. From here, she could see the entire schoolyard and beyond: the rough gravel parking lot, a faded hopscotch pattern painted on cracked asphalt, a rusted pole holding half of a basketball backboard with its netless rim hanging lopsided.
Farther away, above the hazy green hills of Lenox Mountain, below puffy white clouds in a deep blue summer sky, three hawks rode a thermal.
Liz let go of the post and stretched both arms to the sky, turning in a slow circle on the platform. Here she was, the great explorer on a fire tower! A lone traveler in space, the queen of the realm, the warrior princess calling her dragons!
She dropped her gaze, scanned the playground again, and grinned. Stefanie would be pleased, because this would be perfect for their ninja project. They’d need thick ropes for climbing, new swings, rings, and a trapeze. They’d mark out a racetrack with chalk on the asphalt and use Stefanie’s new stopwatch to time everything. After several weeks of hard training, in secret, they’d be ready to tackle the real ninja games. The youngest girl contestants in history. It would be awesome.
The only problem was how to keep it all hidden, so no one could steal their training secrets. The playscape was in full view of the school and the road in front. Liz saw now that she hadn’t needed to crawl through the hole in the chain-link by the woods—there was a gap in the fence between the school’s side yard and the playground, where a padlocked gate had hung a few months earlier.
Liz looked again at the structure she stood on. There was one ninja exercise that they could practice right away, using the horizontal metal bar that had held the chains for three swings. On this end, the round bar was fastened to the platform she was standing on. At the far end, about twelve feet away, it was attached to the top of the timber frame that had once held a slide.
She’d watched the TV ninjas move along a similar bar. They hung by their hands, then swayed sideways and shifted their grip, hand over hand, to travel the bar’s length. She and Stefanie had practiced the same moves on a narrow branch in an old apple tree, just before the branch had split and dropped them both to the ground. This looked much sturdier than that tree branch. If she lost her grip, she’d simply drop four or five feet to the sand underneath, remembering to bend her knees as she landed. She’d try to stick the landing, like a gold-medal gymnast.
She’d just have to avoid one spot on the metal bar, near the beginning, where a rusted bolt stuck up. It looked like a spot where the chain for a swing had been attached.
She kneeled on the platform and planned each move. Take hold, lean forward, slide onto the bar on your stomach. Then swing down, hang from your hands, sway sideways a little. Move a few inches at a time, first one hand, then the other. Remember to breathe.
Liz gripped the rough bar with both hands, took a deep breath, and swung her body sideways over it. She balanced on the bar for a second, then pushed her head and shoulders up and swung her legs down.
There was a sudden ripping sound, and she felt a fierce pain in her left side. Startled, she cried out and let go. Drop! her brain told her. Drop to the ground!
Her body spun and slid off the bar, but she dropped only a few inches.
There was another sharp sound of cloth tearing.
One side of her T-shirt was caught on the bolt at the top of the bar. The cloth was wrenched up under both armpits, wrapped around her shoulders and collarbone. She was trapped, hung up in the snagged shirt.
Her first thought was to grab the bar, pull herself back up and try to free the shirt.
The bar was out of reach.
Maybe she could slip out of the shirt. But the fabric was rucked up into a thick bundle, wadded under her shoulders and behind her head, holding her weight. The neck opening had twisted tight, not choking her but still snug.
Her cellphone was securely buttoned inside the right rear pocket of her shorts. Also out of reach.
Her scraped ribs burned, her jammed shoulders and arms ached. At first she fought back tears, then gave in, crying and hiccuping with pain, frustration, and the sudden fear that she could hang here for hours before anyone found her.
She needed to pee. And that was the worst, the most shameful thing of all, because at almost ten years of age, she absolutely did not want to wet herself. She would hold it; she must hold it. And someone must come to her rescue.
She was facing the woods and couldn’t see the road. It wasn’t a very busy road, but someone driving by might see her if they looked toward the schoolyard. If they were driving with the windows down, maybe they’d hear her.
She snuffled a little and told herself to stop being a crybaby. Then she filled her lungs and yelled “Help!” And again, louder, “Help! Help me!”
She paused to breathe and listen. Silence.
Then her bladder let go, and a warm stream of urine dribbled down inside her shorts, over her ankles, and into her sneakers.
Terrified and ashamed, Liz panicked. She threw herself into wild contortions, thrashing and flailing against the tight cloth that held her. She screamed until she was beyond words, until it was just high animal sounds followed by a deep, furious roar that ripped from her throat and shook her trapped body.
Exhausted, sobbing, she went limp.
She heard the door of a vehicle slam shut. Then footsteps, work boots moving quickly on gravel.
“Hey, Lizzy, is that you? Jeez, what happened? Here, I’m gonna get you down.” Through her fear and pain, she recognized the voice. She smelled tobacco, diesel fuel, and sawdust.
Then he was beside her, a heavyset young man in dirty jeans and workshirt. He stepped close, grabbed her around her hips, and lifted her so she could fumble her way out of the snagged shirt. He stood her on the ground and knelt beside her, inspecting the long red scrape on the left side of her naked ribcage.
Liz stood with her legs braced and eyes closed tight. She drew quick, shallow breaths and fought down tears, until the terror subsided and she stopped shaking. Humiliated, exposed, shrinking away from his hands, she crossed her arms over her chest and hung her head, chewing furiously on her lower lip.
Her savior was her cousin Joey, twenty years old, her dad’s brother’s oldest son. She opened her eyes to the familiar tobacco bulge in his cheek and his dirty-dark beard stubble. He wore a sweat-stained black trucker hat, pulled low over small dark eyes.
He’d rescued her. He was family. She knew she should be grateful. Should say, Thank you. Thank you for saving me. But the shame was too sharp and she had no words.
“Whatcha doing up there, Lizzy? You working on your circus act or something? That was dumb.” He caught a whiff of urine, saw the damp shorts, and sniggered.
“Pissed yourself, didn’t you? Here, let’s see.” He reached for the front of her cutoffs and she shrank away, red-faced. “Hey, I’m just trying to help. I used to change your diapers, Lizzy baby. Looks you need changing again.” He laughed again. “No matter. Let’s get you home.”
Furious and ashamed, Liz turned away. Joey reached for her ripped shirt, flipped it up and off the crossbar. He held it out, then grinned and waved it over her head, just out of reach, until he saw that she was about to cry again. She snatched it from him, yanked it over her head, and crossed her arms tightly, wrapping the torn fabric around her sore body.
She thought briefly of running, sprinting into the woods and walking home on her own. But her body ached and her wet underpants chafed, so she walked slowly to his beat-up black pickup.
Joey made a big show of placing an oily rag on the truck’s bench seat.
“Stay off my upholstery. Keep your wet ass on that,” he ordered as he climbed behind the steering wheel. “Did your momma know you were out there? You ain’t supposed to be playing on that thing, are you?”
Liz stared at the floor of the truck and shook her head. Joey drove the truck out of the schoolyard and onto the blacktop.
“Well now. You don’t wanna get in trouble with mommy and daddy, do you? I’ll say you just got snagged on a bobwire fence out in Johnson’s pasture. And fell on a rock. That’s our little secret. Ain’t telling nobody, right?” He smirked and patted her bare knee. Liz looked out the window and swiped roughly at her face. Tasting blood from her chewed lip, she sucked on it gently.
I should be glad, she thought. They’d ground me for a week if they knew I’d been on the playscape. And I don’t have to lie to them—Joey is telling the lie, not me.
Is it my lie if I let him say it?
“Elizabeth,” her mother said, after the fried chicken and before the apple cobbler, “I don’t think you thanked Joey properly for helping you off that bobwire and bringing you home today. You are so very lucky that he got off work early and drove by, right when he did. That was truly a miracle, wasn’t it? I think maybe the good Lord had a hand in that. So can I hear you say that clearly, please? Say thank you Jesus, and thank you Joey. And stop chewing on the inside of your cheek like that. It makes you look very unattractive, with your face all twisted and your lip swollen up. Have you asked Jesus to help with that, like I said?”
Marianna Walters made a special point of invoking the name of Jesus whenever possible. She thanked Him, several times a day, for any positive event in her life, large or small. Sometimes it was a true miracle, like when a big oak tree fell in a storm but didn’t hit the house. Sometimes it was a minor blessing, like the invention of hairspray or non-stick baking pans.
Liz was pretty sure Jesus had nothing to do with what had happened today. When they’d walked in together, Joey had told her mother that Liz had gotten her shirt stuck on the fence, and then fallen against a rock trying to get free. Liz had showered, sprayed the scrape on her ribs with stinging antiseptic, thrown the mangled shirt into the trash, and received a thorough scolding from her mother.
Her father merely scowled from his seat at the head of the table. “That was careless. You know better than to get hung up on bobwire.”
“Thank you, Joey,” Liz whispered. She kept her eyes on her plate.
“Elizabeth, please look at the person you’re talking to!” Marianna insisted. “I swear, it’s not polite to look away like that. People think you’re rude. And don’t forget Jesus, say thank you to Him too!”
“Awwww.” Joey’s chair creaked as he shifted his bulk. “Little Lizzy’s just real shy, ain’t she? What’s that my daddy says, still waters going deep, right? You got deep water inside you, Lizzy baby?” He reached a beefy hand across the table to Liz’s dinner plate and helped himself to the chicken leg that she’d only nibbled at. He grinned as he bit into the dark meat with crooked, stained teeth. “Sure is good, Aunt Marianna. You always do the best fried chicken.”
They all seemed to be waiting for Liz to say something more.
But her mind was elsewhere, trying to process the ease with which Joey had lied to her parents. He was twenty years old, an adult. He should be siding with the other adults, not telling fibs to cover for her.
She’d never thought of Joey as a boy, in the same way that she thought of other boys she knew—classmates, the brothers of friends, the boys in 4H and Future Farmers. Mostly she knew her cousin as someone who was just there, working summers in the hayfields, before the land by the river was sold off. Helping her father sometimes with electrical work. Fixing fences, mending a roof, cleaning gutters, and often hanging around for lunch or dinner.
Joey’s got it tough, her parents told her. His mother died when he was five. His father was in the army, got diagnosed with PTSD, wrestled with addiction. Joey still lived in his father’s single-wide trailer off old Route 7 by the boarded-up wire mill. But his father was usually away, to rehab, maybe. Or a job, or a woman. Maybe a stint in jail. The adults were vague about that.
Through several years of middle school, Joey had spent summers and weekends on various farms, paying for his room and board with work in the fields. He almost made it to ninth grade, then turned sixteen, dropped out, and got a job stacking two-by-fours at Turner’s lumberyard.
He still needs a family to be part of, her father often reminded Liz. That’s us, we’re Joey’s family.
Most of Liz’s early memories of Joey had to do with games. Not sports, but clumsy pranks designed to tease little kids. What he called “magic tricks,” which often involved money but not much magic.
When she was four and he was fifteen, Joey offered her a quarter and said if she was a good girl, she could have it. But if she hadn’t been good, he said, then everyone would know because the man on the quarter, Mr. Washington, would cry. Joey held up the quarter and asked, “Have you been a real good girl, Lizzy?” She knew she had been good, she was always quiet and obedient, so of course she’d earned the quarter. But suddenly tears were dripping down from Mr. Washington’s face! Confused and cheated, she learned later that Joey’d soaked a small wad of paper in water and held it with his thumb behind the coin, squeezing out the “tears” for his little game.
When she was five and he was sixteen, he told her to look in his pockets for money. Whatever she found, she could have, because she was his favorite girl cousin. Which was dumb, because she was his only cousin. He tucked quarters under the rim of his trucker’s cap, then challenged her to knock it off, sending coins cascading to the floor. He stashed half-dollars in his shirt pockets so she’d have to crawl over his chest. Once, she found a shiny golden dollar, deep in the front pocket of his jeans.
When Liz thought of Joey, she thought of his lumps and bulges. A wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, red acne bumps on his stubbly chin, a ridge of fat at the back of his neck. A lump on his forearm, where a broken bone had healed imperfectly after a tractor accident. A thick pad of beer belly hanging over his belt. Sometimes, during those “magic tricks,” she’d been vaguely aware of another bulge, in his lap.
Joey had a fuzzy photo on his cellphone of someone he claimed was his girlfriend, but no one had met her. He sometimes said he was waiting for Lizzy to grow up so she could be his girlfriend. Liz’s dad always shook his head at that, and her mom frowned, but they usually laughed, too. Joey’s just teasing, they said. But who, she wondered, would want to be Joey’s girlfriend? No one she knew.
Liz poked at a pea with her fork, then slid her pale gray eyes away, fixing on a spot above the sink, just behind Joey’s left shoulder. “Thank you for helping me, Joey,” she said softly. “And Jesus,” with a side glance at her mother.
Marianna pushed a glossy, too-auburn curl off her forehead and frowned. Liz’s tone wasn’t insolent or defiant. Secretive, maybe. Her daughter had always been a hard one to figure out. Obedient, but always very serious. And far away somewhere, with her sharp little nose stuck in a book. And that nervous tic, chewing on a fingernail or her lip. Still waters, indeed, like the girl was hiding a darkness, even when she seemed good as gold.
Intent on eating, Carl Waters ignored whatever was going on between his wife and daughter. It had been a long, hard week. He’d agreed to take a job on a construction site more than an hour away, where he had to work ten-hour shifts with crews who didn’t speak much English. But the money was pretty good, so his wife didn’t have to get a job at Mario’s Diner or one of the fast-food joints out by the Mass Pike.
Not that Marianna would want to. She was already too busy with projects she’d been assigned by the new preacher at Spoken Word Evangelical. When Carl questioned the money she spent buying flowers for Sunday services and bibles for the homeless, not to mention their regular tithing, Marianna had said he should be grateful for all her work. She was piling up enough credits to get all three of them into heaven, guaranteed.
She always had his dinner on the table and his lunchbox packed when he needed it. Sometimes he wished she’d given him a son, to carry on the family name and take on his electrician business. But he was glad they hadn’t had any more children. With insurance and clothes and food, just the one was expensive enough. Though tonight, his daughter didn’t seem to be eating anything.
He finished his second helping of gravy-soaked mashed potatoes, planted his tanned, muscular forearms on the table, and pointed his fork at his nephew.
“So, that heifer we’ve got out there. She’s about eighteen months, ready to get bred. Bert Johnson’s got a good Guernsey bull. If we can get her bred now, she’ll freshen next May. Good time for calving.”
“You need me to help get that cow to Johnson’s?” Joey glanced at Liz. “That’s Liz’s 4H project, right? She’s tame, she’ll be easy to handle. We don’t need a truck, Uncle Carl. It’s just over the hill. We can walk her over.” He smiled. “I bet Liz can lead her, no trouble.”
Liz turned to her dad, quietly imploring. “My heifer’s name is Belle. Her name is Belle. And she’s too young to be a momma cow, isn’t she?”
“I don’t think,” Marianna said quickly, “we need to be discussing the breeding of cows at the dinner table. Really, Carl? Can’t this wait until later, after dessert at least?”
“But Belle’s too young, isn’t she?” Liz kept her eyes on her father.
Joey smirked. “Ha! That heifer’s just the right age. They cost money to feed, they’ve gotta start producing. Get ‘em bred young, they learn what their job is.”
“Joey’s right,” Carl said to his daughter. “Belle is old enough. She’s eighteen months, she’s coming into heat regular. I’ve been tracking her cycle, and she’s ready. I called Bert and he said we can bring her over tomorrow afternoon. We’ll leave her there for two, three days, then bring her back.”
So it was already arranged. Liz knew better than to protest. She pushed her chair back from the table and stood up, holding her plate with the remains of her uneaten dinner. To her mother she mouthed, “May I be excused,” and turned to the sink.
“Liz, wait. We—your mother and I, we were talking,” her father said. Conversation outside of electrical work and farming came hard to him. He believed that explaining things was mostly his wife’s job.
But since he’d raised the topic, he needed to finish it. His neck grew red above the collar of his gray electrician’s workshirt. “Ah, we talked about this. And we think you’re old enough to be there when Belle and the bull get together. She’s your heifer, after all, your 4H project, and this is an important part of farming. The breeding, part of nature. You can see how that happens, and then maybe you can watch when the calf is born in the spring. It takes nine months, you know that.”
Joey grinned. Liz looked to her mom, but Marianna only frowned, nodded curtly, and busied herself moving apple cobbler onto dessert plates.
“Get the ice cream, please, Liz,” her mother directed. “I think the scoop’s in the dish drainer.” Then, quickly, “Before you ask, I know you and Stefanie do almost everything together, but she doesn’t need to be at Johnson’s tomorrow. She’s not from a farm family, she wouldn’t understand. I haven’t talked to them, but I don’t think her parents would let her go anyway. This is family business. Farm business.”
Farm business? Liz knew her father wished he was still a farmer, but all that remained of the Walters’ family farm was five acres, a shabby house, two sheds, eight hens, one heifer and an old cattle dog. Good thing her father got his electrician’s license or they wouldn’t have kept even that much. A farm was what Stefanie’s family had: nearly a hundred acres of woods and fields and orchards. A sprawling colonial home, a huge red barn, twin silos, handsome old fieldstone walls. The Jacobsons were restoring the historic house, and Stefanie’s dad was going to hire someone from the agriculture college to bring back the orchards and design their vegetable gardens. They were going to have flocks of sheep and goats and make cheese. And Stefanie was getting a pony! That was a farm.
And Stefanie already knew more about sex than Liz did. If Liz was going to have to watch Belle getting bred by the Johnson’s bull, she very much wanted her best friend to be there with her. Apparently, it wasn’t to be.
“Will you come with us?” Liz asked her mom.
Marianna handed a dish of cobbler to her husband. “No, honey,” she said briskly, “I’ve just got too much going on, with bible study and choir rehearsal tomorrow, and the church supper on Sunday evening.”
Not looking at her daughter, she added, “We can talk about it afterward, in private, Elizabeth, if you have questions.”
“You went over to the playground today? And—what? You got pictures?”
Stefanie’s voice was breaking up a little. Liz moved to the far side of her small second-floor bedroom, near the window that was closest to Stefanie’s house, hoping that the phone reception would improve. Outside, the red-orange sun was hanging low in a leafy oak tree, near the driveway to the Jacobson’s farm. Stefanie’s house was at the end of that long driveway, not quite visible from where Liz stood, but she could see the stone walls and the wrought-iron gate at the entrance, up the hill where the narrow blacktop road turned to gravel.
“At the playground, did you take pictures?” Stefanie repeated.
Liz wouldn’t risk humiliation by telling Stefanie about getting stuck on the playscape. And she certainly wasn’t going to say anything about wetting her pants.
Instead, she chose a tone of offhand dismissal, hoping to sound a little bored.
“I didn’t take any pictures. It’s not worth it, nothing but junk. All the swings and slides are gone. It’s gonna take too much work to make it good.”
“Well, that sucks. My dad said he’d build something at our place, but not until next year. And then we’ll have to let my awful brothers use it. They’re too little and they’re just gonna hurt themselves on it, but Dad says I can’t just kick them off, they’ll want to play too. Maybe we can find someplace else.”
“We can put them to work selling tickets or something.” Liz thought it might be nice to have a brother or sister, but Stefanie always insisted that she’d rather be an only child like Liz, and that her six-year-old twin brothers, Davey and Gordy, were icky, gross little monsters who ate worms and peed on the lawn just to annoy her.
“Really? My brothers? No, they’d be useless.” Stefanie sounded exasperated. Liz could almost hear the eye-roll.
A few months earlier, Stefanie had decided they needed a secret sign language. A slight eye-roll meant “Well, duh!” and “That’s so obvious.” A subtle widening of the eyes for disbelief. The universal shrug for “I’m not going all emotional, I couldn’t care less.” And Stefanie’s favorite, a hidden-behind-the-back, barely-there flash of a middle finger for anyone she disliked. Her little brothers evoked three or four of these secret signals in rapid succession. Liz had practiced the secret signals, too, but wasn’t brave enough to use them in the presence of adults. Insurrection was new to her.
Now, Liz was hoping Stefanie had forgotten the whole ninja idea. She told her about the plan to take Belle to Bert Johnson’s farm the next afternoon.
Stefanie giggled. “So what’s the big deal with watching Belle get bred by the Johnson’s bull?”
“It’s supposed to be part of my sex education, birds and bees and things.” Liz aimed for a casual tone. “No big deal. That’s the point of living on a farm, after all, growing food. Plants and seeds, animals and babies. Reproduction. You don’t get milk if your cow doesn’t have a calf.”
“Yeah, I get that part. What are you going to do with the calf?”
“If it’s a girl, we’ll sell it, maybe to someone else in 4H who wants to raise a heifer.”
“But what if it’s a boy, a bull calf?”
“Someone will still want it.” Liz knew what happened to the bull calves. They were raised for veal, closed up in small pens and fed milk so the meat would stay tender. Then slaughtered at six months, or sooner.
More questions from Stefanie. “But what if Belle doesn’t get pregnant? Sometimes they don’t, right?”
Liz also knew what happened to a heifer that didn’t produce a calf. Belle, too, would end up at the slaughterhouse.
“I could train her to pull, I guess. Like an ox. Then she’d have a job.”
Stefanie snorted. “No way! Who ever heard of a female Jersey ox? You need something big and strong, like those gigantic steers with horns, the red devils, that we saw at the fair last month. Jerseys are little cows.” She giggled again. “So, can I come along, to watch the cows have sex?”
“Not red devils, Red Devons. I thought your pony is supposed to come home tomorrow. That’s a lot more fun than doing anything with cows,” Liz said. “Besides, my parents said this is family business. You’d probably just laugh or something.”
“I wouldn’t laugh! Well, maybe I would,” Stefanie admitted. “And yes, I want to be here when Max arrives. So, tomorrow, it’s just you and your parents and old Mr. Johnson? And Belle and the bull, of course. A cow party, with cow sex.” She giggled again.
“Me and my dad and Mr. Johnson. And my cousin Joey.”
“Yuck, that’s awkward. Your cousin is creepy. And so many people, just to watch cow sex!”
Liz sighed. She’d rather talk about the pony, but Stefanie was having too much fun saying “cow sex.”
Liz was still in pajamas on Saturday morning when her phone jingled.
“My pony!” Stefanie squealed. “My pony has arrived! Come meet Max!”
Thirty minutes later, Liz was standing in the Jacobson’s barn, gently stroking the shoulder of the most beautiful pony she’d ever seen. His mane and tail were thick and black, his coat was a sleek russet color, and he had a small white star on his forehead.
She was smitten.
The pony turned his head toward her, politely checking her hands for carrots or apples. Liz shivered with delight as his soft muzzle exhaled warm breath. Ever so gently, she wrapped both arms around Max’s silken neck, rested her face against his black, spiky mane, and breathed in his delicious scent. Max smelled like a warm puppy but better, like new leather and green grass.
Stefanie nudged her. “Max has the most beautiful eyes in the world, don’t you agree?”
“His eyes,” she persisted. “Look at his beautiful eyes!”
Liz stepped back and nodded, agreeing that his eyes were lovely—large and liquid, deep golden brown and rimmed with thick black lashes.
The gelding shifted his feet in the deep straw, and a haze of dust motes drifted in on hot, damp air, sifting through the high windows of the old fieldstone barn. The dust sparkled, swirling down onto the pony’s seal-brown coat. My mother would say it’s only pollen, Liz thought, but really it’s fairy dust.
Max regarded both girls with good-natured expectancy, waiting for whatever they would bring him—if not an apple, then an enjoyable grooming or at least a rub and scratch on his chest or withers.
“He’s what we call a black bay,” Stefanie said solemnly, as if she were a renowned expert instead of the just-turned-ten birthday girl. As if she’d owned a hundred horses instead of just this one perfect pony. She handed Liz a rubber curry comb and began issuing instructions on how to groom a pony.
“I know how to brush a horse,” Liz stated. With infinite care, she drew the curry comb in large, firm strokes over Max’s lovely arched neck and broad shoulders. “When can you ride him? Do you ride bareback? How fast can you go?”
“I can’t ride him for a couple of days. He needs time to settle in. Mrs. Townsend is coming Monday to give me a riding lesson. She wouldn’t let me bring him home until I could at least ride him at the trot without falling off. Which I can do now, of course. But I still have a lot to learn before I can gallop and jump. His full name is Greenfield’s Magnificent Max, isn’t that a great name? He’s a really valuable pony, a registered Welsh Cob, so it’s important that we don’t mess up his training and confuse him. He’s going to teach me everything he knows! Then we can go to horse shows and win lots of blue ribbons! And he’s a super good jumper, aren’t you, Max?” Stefanie kissed Max’s forehead, right in the center of his small white star.
On Monday, you can ride him, thought Liz, but when can I ride Max? She didn’t dare ask, not yet.
“Selfies! Instagram, Snapchat!” Stefanie sang out. She pulled out her new smart phone, handed it to Liz, and planted a kiss on the pony’s warm, velvety nose. Max wiggled his muzzle and snorted softly, almost sneezing, but he tolerated all the silliness remarkably well, Liz thought. Not like the cranky old quarter horse owned by the Fancher boys up the hill, that they sometimes rode to help move their dad’s beef cattle through the fields. That horse would try to kick or bite every time you got near. Liz had ridden that horse a few times in a big western saddle, and once bareback. She’d never fallen off.
“Can I come back tomorrow to see Max? I’ll help clean his stall and brush him again,” Liz offered.
“Tomorrow is Sunday. Don’t you always have church things? If you can’t come tomorrow, then come on Monday and watch my riding lesson.”
“So you’re going to feed Max every morning and evening? And clean his stall every day, right?”
“Oh—yes, I guess I’ll have to get up early, especially when school starts, won’t I?” Liz thought Stefanie might not have given much thought to that part—feeding, water buckets, mucking out the stall, brushing Max, combing the tangles out of his tail, picking out his feet. All those things that Liz was absolutely aching to do.
Stefanie tucked her phone back in her jeans pocket and skipped down the barn aisle, leaving Liz to latch the stall door. “Come on, I’ll show you Max’s saddle and bridle! I got a new saddle pad, too. Pink! It matches my riding helmet!”
Later that afternoon, Liz slipped the rope halter over Belle’s head and tied her to a post beside the shed. She ran a curry comb over the heifer’s fawn-colored coat and used a stiff brush to sweep off the dirt and loose hair. Belle stood placidly, blinking her dark Jersey-cow eyes and swinging her long, ropey tail at flies that gathered on her back and belly.
“You’re a big girl now, you’ve got to look nice for your date,” Liz told her. But she felt stupid saying it, and she was worried. Belle was a small cow, even for a Jersey. Johnson’s Guernsey bull was at least a foot taller and two hundred pounds heavier than Belle. It just didn’t seem right.
She knew most dairy farms used artificial insemination to breed their dairy cows. She’d seen that once at a neighbor’s farm, where she watched the local veterinarian walk down a line of cows locked in their milking stanchions. He’d stuck his gloved arm right up to the shoulder into each cow’s vagina and used a long, thin tube to squirt in the bull semen. She’d thought it was gross and messy, but the cows didn’t seem to mind, and it did look efficient. That method certainly sounded safer than having a big bull jump on top of a little cow. But she knew that anything involving a visit from a veterinarian would be expensive. Better to just let it happen naturally, her father said.
Carl Walters stepped off the back porch, pulling on a pair of leather work gloves. He handed a broomstick to his daughter, untied the rope and led the heifer toward the road. Belle walked a few steps, then planted her feet and mooed softly, making a distressed “mmmuuuhhh” sound from deep in her throat.
“She needs convincing. Pop her on the butt with that stick,” he told Liz. “Joey will meet us at Johnson’s and drive us back. But you and me have to get her there first.” Liz tapped Belle on her hindquarters, first lightly and then harder, and the cow lurched forward. Together they maneuvered Belle down the gravel driveway, past the Thank You Jesus sign planted next to the mailbox, and onto the cracked and potholed asphalt road that led to the Johnson’s farm.
Her father dragged Belle into a small holding pen near the back of Bert Johnson’s barn. He pulled off the rope, releasing her, and she began circling nervously, pausing to pee every few minutes. The red-and-white bull was in the next pen, on the other side of a high, heavily timbered fence built from old telephone poles and railroad ties.
The bull was massive, almost twice the size of Belle, with thick, stubby horns. When he spotted the cow through the planks of the fence, he bellowed and pawed the ground, slamming his shoulders against the timbers. He shoved his muzzle into a gap between two boards and smelled the heifer with a curled-back lip. His thick, pointed tongue flipped out and back into his wet nostrils. Liz wanted to look away but couldn’t. She was afraid for Belle, but there was a deeper terror growing in the pit of her stomach, something dark and fierce.
Liz’s father climbed to the top of the fence to sit next to Joey, who was already perched there, hunched forward with the heels of his work boots hooked over a rail.
“Hey, Uncle Carl.” Joey spat tobacco juice, grinned down at Liz, and started to say something that she couldn’t hear. Carl elbowed his nephew in the ribs and shook his head.
Bert Johnson was a small, wiry, balding man in a long-sleeved denim workshirt and frayed, manure-crusted overalls. He stood next to the pens and watched the cow and bull with a deeply wrinkled, expressionless face that said he knew everything about breeding cows, and nothing else was worth discussing.
“Well,” Bert said after a few minutes, “she looks ready.” He yanked hard on a frayed rope that lifted the latch on the steel gate between the pens.
The bull bellowed and surged through the opening, slammed into Belle’s hindquarters, and launched his front end up onto her back. The heifer staggered forward and nearly fell. The bull’s hind legs churned, his big cloven feet stabbing into mud and rocks to hold his position. His heavy head and neck hung low over Belle’s left shoulder, and her knees buckled.
Liz felt like she’d been punched in the gut. She balled her fists and pounded the fence rail, screaming, “He’s hurting her! Stop it, make it stop!”
The three men stared into the pen. No one looked at her.
“Ah, she’s stronger than she looks,” Bert finally said. “She’s a sturdy one.”
The bull trapped Belle against the fence, shoved hard three times with his hindquarters, and then it was over. He dropped down, shaking his huge head, and sauntered away to a pile of hay in the far corner of the pen. Belle stood, dazed and splay legged. After a moment, she joined the bull, snatching at the hay.
Joey and Liz’s father dropped off the fence. They both shook Bert Johnson’s hand and Bert nodded. No one said anything more.
Liz's stomach roiled and ached, but the rest of her was numb. She slid awkwardly from the fence, wiped her eyes with the back of one hand, and climbed slowly into Joey’s truck. She sat in the middle of the bench seat, making herself as small as possible to avoid touching either man. The cab stank with the usual farm smells of diesel, manure, and animal sweat, but she also detected another odor: a sharp, rank smell that made her scalp prickle. That’s the bull, she realized. That’s the smell of the bull.
Back in her room, Liz sat on her bed for a long time, chewing on her lip, tasting blood, and thinking of nothing in particular. When the taste of blood turned sour and her lip turned sore, she walked to the bathroom, peeled off her clothes, and stepped into the shower. She scrubbed her skin nearly raw and stayed under the spray a long time, until her stomach quieted, the ache in her side went numb, and there was no more hot water.
In Liz’s family, Sunday mornings were always consumed by church service at Spoken Word Evangelical. Liz didn’t have an opinion about churchgoing—it was simply what you did on Sundays. The music was pleasant and the sermons predictable, so she could sit with her own thoughts. From an early age, she’d learned the valuable art of stillness, and she knew that as long as she didn’t fidget or chew her fingernails or her lip or the inside of her cheek, no one would bother her.
After lunch and chores, her dad left in his van to fix someone’s electrical problem and her mother enlisted her help cooking spaghetti sauce for the evening charity supper at the church. There was no time to slip over to the Jacobson’s farm to visit Stefanie and the wonderful pony, but in the late afternoon, Liz managed a quick phone call.
“So how did it go, the breeding?” Stefanie’s voice was conspiratorial. No more giggling about cow sex.
Liz sat cross-legged on her bed and struggled for words. “It was … scary. It looked painful. And dangerous, like the bull was angry and wanted to kill her. He sort of smashed her up against the fence. And he was a lot bigger. And it was over really fast. It was … violent.”
“Well, that’s just lust, not love,” Stefanie pronounced.
“What do you mean, lust?”
“That’s what animals do, silly. It’s called hormones, what their bodies tell them to do. Lust-sex is for animals, love-sex is for humans. What my mom says is, when people do it right, they are supposed to talk and get to know each other and agree that they’re in love. They should want to get married, before they have sex. Though not everyone gets married first. But they both have to want to do the sex, otherwise it’s just lust like the animals and then it’s just lust-sex, and you’ve got to say no, stop, I don’t want to.” She added, “And if the sex is to make a baby, the girl has to start her periods first. We are way too young.”
“But Katie Harvey started, right? She’s nine.”
They were silent for a moment, thinking about Katie Harvey. Wondering what it must be like, to have your body start swelling and bleeding. To be nine years old and have your body tell you that it’s ready for sex.
“But,” said Stefanie firmly, “I don’t ever want to have sex anyway because it’s just plain gross. The whole part where the boy puts his penis in you, that’s just—ewww. I mean, really? Who decided that that’s the best way to make babies?”
Liz knew she should say, God decided, that’s who. So it must be okay, that’s the way it’s meant to be, at least when you’re married. But she didn’t say it because she’d been thinking lately that she wasn’t so sure about God anyway. If there was a god in charge of these things, then he should have designed a nicer way to make babies. More loving, less violent. Less terrifying.
“Anyway,” Stefanie said in her all-knowing, adult voice, “good that Max is a gelding. Geldings make the nicest riding horses, Mrs. Townsend says, because they have those baby-making parts, the testicles, removed, so they aren’t interested in sex with the mares. Only a stallion can do that.” And then, “Oh, I almost forgot. Ten o’clock tomorrow morning, that’s when Mrs. Townsend is coming. Come watch my riding lesson on Max.”
Liz heard her mother’s voice calling up the stairs. “Time to go. We have a dinner to serve, Elizabeth.”
By seven o’clock on Sunday evening, Liz was tired of serving spaghetti to elderly churchgoers. It was the same spaghetti dinner she’d helped serve to the same several dozen old people, every third Sunday of every month, for as long as she could remember. Spaghetti night was always a grim affair. No music, no conversation, just quickly prepared food and lots of “Thank you, Jesus” and “Praise the Lord” murmurings around the church hall.
“Meatballs or plain?” she asked the slow-moving congregants who shuffled through, some with canes or walkers, balancing food trays topped with paper napkins and plastic handbags.
Liz was supposed to add, “Praise Jesus!” with each serving, but it sounded false, piling Jesus on top of the spaghetti. She dutifully scooped a puddle of runny red tomato sauce onto each plate of limp, overboiled noodles that her mother handed to her. Then she topped the mound with exactly three heavily breaded meatballs, or not, and handed the plate over into shaky, gnarled hands. Next to her stood the salad server, a skinny middle-school boy with glasses and pimples who showed his braces in a smile or grimace, she wasn’t sure, each time she looked his way. Beyond him was his mother, the jello person, offering two flavors, green and yellow, with or without fake whipped topping.
The red sauce made her think of blood. The meatballs and pale, fat noodles reminded her of other things. She thought she might be sick, right there in the serving line.
Marianna frowned at her daughter and pushed a damp auburn curl off her face with one gloved wrist. “Go get a glass of water and sit in the front hall. The doors should be open, maybe there’s a breeze.” Then she added, more kindly, “I hope you’re not getting sick. We’re almost done. Another hour or so for cleanup, and then we can go.”
“Can’t someone take me home now? I don’t feel so good.” Liz felt sweat beading on her forehead.
“Your daddy’s still out, trying to get power back at that grocery in Richmond. Overloaded circuit breakers or something. I’ll call Joey, he can come get you.”
Ten minutes later, away from the smell of spaghetti sauce and the hot, stale air of the church hall, Liz felt better.
Joey was dressed nicely, for once, in clean black jeans and a pale blue nylon shirt with a bowling alley logo over the front pocket. He assured Marianna that she could take her time at the church, that he’d get Liz home, make sure she was ready for 8:30 bedtime.
Good, Liz thought, she’d have time to read another chapter or two of Misty of Chincoteague. If her mom didn’t get home until nine, she might be able to stay up late and read even more.
Joey parked behind her house and turned off the truck’s ignition.
“Thanks for bringing me home,” she remembered to tell him.
“No problem. Anything for my favorite girl.” He said it seriously, not mocking joking, the way he usually did. “I’ll just hang out in the kitchen, see if your dad’s got any cold beer. Do you have the key?” Joey paused on the back-porch steps while Liz retrieved the spare housekey from under a flowerpot. The August evening sun was below the horizon, early twilight, and her mother had left the back-porch light on, anticipating an after-dark arrival. As Joey followed Liz through the back door, he reached back to flip off the switch for the porch light.
Pepper raised his head and thumped his tail under the kitchen table but didn’t get up. Liz headed upstairs, used the bathroom, pulled her shorty PJs out from under her pillow. She turned on her bedside lamp and settled into bed with her book.
The bedroom door opened and Joey appeared, silhouetted in the bright light from the hallway.
“Hey Liz,” he said in quick rush, “look at you! I know you’re a big girl, you can get yourself to bed, but I just thought I’d make sure you’re all set, give you a hug and a kiss goodnight. Like I used to, when you were little.” He half-stifled a belch and Liz smelled the sour stench of beer. She closed the book on her chest, pulled the sheet higher, and willed him to go away.
She found a voice but it was a child’s voice, small and weak. “I’m fine, Joey. Good night. Close the door and leave now. Please.”
Joey closed the door but didn’t leave. He moved to her bed and leaned down, peering at her book. He pulled it from her hands and set it on the nightstand. He smiled crookedly and began singing in an awful, slurred falsetto.
“All the pretty little horses …” He stopped and scratched a red bump on his chin. “Hey Lizzy baby, help me out here. Don’t ‘member the words.”
A giggle changed to a snort as he sat heavily on the edge of her narrow bed.
She scrambled away, acutely aware of the bulk of him, taking up so much space on her small bed and in her small room. The far side of the bed was right against the wall. She was trapped. Wherever she moved, he could reach her.
“Come on, give me a kiss, Lizzy.” He tilted toward her and plucked at the sheet tangled over her knees. Wheedling, coaxing. “Be a good girl, give me a kiss.”
I can scream, Liz thought. But there’s no one to hear. Pepper is deaf, he won’t come. I just won’t do whatever he wants me to do. He can’t make me do anything I don’t want to. If I close my eyes, whatever he’s doing, it will be over faster.
But she needed to keep her eyes open, look for a chance to scramble away.
He let go of the sheet. Moved his hand toward her face, wrapped thick fingers around the back of her neck, and pulled her head closer. “A little goodnight kiss, that’s all, for your Cousin Joey.”
Then: “Looky here, Lizzy baby, what’s in my pocket? Is it money? It’s better, isn’t it? You’re gonna like what’s in my pocket, little Liz. You could kiss it, that’s what girlfriends do. You can be my girlfriend.” He smiled slyly.
Despite Liz’s resolve not to look, her eyes flicked down to his other hand, fumbling open the zipper on his black jeans. Below the belly released by the unbuckled belt, a new bulge was protruding.
She kicked at him with both feet and grabbed his wrist with both hands. Liz’s chewed fingernails were useless as claws, but she tried anyway, scratching his arm, bucking her body backward. Bracing against the wall and kicking harder. A high, thin wail forced itself through her clenched teeth.
Joey held her and gazed steadily into her face with a stupid, sick smile. The hand in his lap moved quickly, rhythmically. He moaned. His body stiffened, spasmed.
He released her. She scrambled into a rigid ball in the corner, pulling up her knees and tucking her head down, eyes squeezed shut to hold back tears, arms wrapped tight around her body. She could hear only the banging of her own heart, thudding and crashing, threatening to explode in her chest.
He pulled a handful of tissues out of her bedside box, wiped himself off, and stood. He zipped his jeans, fastened his belt, and wadded the damp tissues into a rear pocket. Swaying over her bed, he switched off the bedside lamp, leaving only the light from a rising moon coming in the window.
“Past your bedtime,” he said roughly. “You’re good at keeping secrets, ain’t you, Lizzy baby? We keep our secrets. Your momma and daddy ain’t gonna understand, they’d be so mad if you told them about our secrets. Lizzy will be good to Cousin Joey, and Cousin Joey will be good to Lizzy. Good for you.”
“That cow of yours, that Belle, she was ready, wasn’t she?” His voice rose, considering the future. “You’re gonna be ready too, real soon, Lizzy baby. You’re my girlfriend, my secret girlfriend. Promise you won’t say nothing to your parents.” Then, more sharply: “They ain’t gonna believe you anyway, they’ll just think you’re making it up. They think you’re too young to be my girlfriend, but we know you’re old enough, don’t we.” He leaned over as if to take hold of her again. “So don’t you tell them, Lizzy. Promise me.”
In the dark, she tasted the heat of furious tears. Did she have a choice? Whispered, “I promise.”
He fumbled for the doorknob, then paused, silhouetted again in the light from the hall. “Nearly forgot.” He swayed. “Nighty-night.” He blew her a wet, smacking kiss. He closed the door and left her in the dark.
She remained curled in the corner of her room for a long time, hearing the rasp of her breath soften and feeling the pounding of her heart gradually slow.
Later, when she heard her mother moving downstairs, Liz slid to the middle of the bed and straightened the covers. She lay on her side and faced the wall with eyes closed, feigning sleep when her mother looked in on her.
The nearly full moon was lowering into the western sky before she finally fell, exhausted, into a confused and uneasy sleep, full of fear and shame and sweaty, terrible dreams.
“Push those heels down, Stefanie!” Mrs. Townsend called out for the umpteenth time. “Try to steady your rhythm as you post to the trot! Heels down, hands steady! Up, down, up, down!”
Around and around Stefanie and her pony trotted slowly, wearing a wide circular track into the grass beside the Jacobson’s big red barn. Liz leaned against the split-rail fence, frowning as she watched her friend trying to balance on the little English saddle. Stephanie’s legs were swinging, her hands were wiggling, and her butt was slapping the leather, hard, at nearly every step. Max was a saint, Liz thought, to put up with all that bumping and flopping around.
Liz didn’t doubt that Mrs. Townsend knew her stuff, but this style of riding looked all wrong. At the trot, Stefanie was supposed to stand, then sit, then stand, then sit, trying to move in rhythm with the pony’s bouncy, two-beat gait. That was called posting, explained Mrs. Townsend, or “rising to the trot.” Wouldn’t it be simpler if you just sat there and tried to move with the bounces? Liz had asked. Maybe without the saddle and those pesky stirrups that were swinging everywhere? Like the Comanches. They didn’t use saddles.
“Okay, let’s take a break and walk, Stefanie,” Mrs. Townsend said, sounding a bit discouraged.
Liz knew that sports instructors have to have loud, clear voices to make themselves heard over the sound of kids yelling or splashing or running. A riding instructor apparently needed an even bigger voice, to be heard across a distance, above the noise of pounding hooves and hard-breathing riders. Mrs. Townsend must be a little worn out with instructing Stefanie, Liz thought, because even though she had gray hair and was probably, like, fifty years old, her voice was always very loud. But right now, she sounded out of breath.
Stefanie was also breathing hard as she reined in Max and slid off. “I think,” Stefanie said to Mrs. Townsend, “it’s Liz’s turn. She’s ridden a few times on the neighbor’s horses. She can have the last fifteen minutes of my lesson time.”
A rare smile filled Liz’s face as she stepped forward. What a great gift, to be able to ride Max! She’d planned only to watch, not ride, so she wasn’t wearing boots or jeans, just her usual sneakers and cutoffs. Stefanie, on the other hand, was trim and pretty, if a little dirty, in fawn-colored jodhpurs and polished brown boots. Which coordinated nicely with her pink polo shirt, that matched her riding helmet and Max’s saddle pad.
“But you’re wearing shorts, Liz dear,” said Mrs. Townsend. “The stirrup leathers will rub your legs raw. And you need boots with a heel, so your feet won’t slip through the stirrups and get caught.”
“I can ride bareback,” Liz offered. Before Mrs. Townsend could protest, Stefanie had unbuckled the girth and pulled the saddle off.
“And a helmet? You need a helmet,” Mrs. Townsend was firm about helmets.
“Here, this will fit.” Stephanie pulled off her pink helmet and shook out her blond hair. “Sorry, it’s all gross and sweaty.”
Liz merely smiled as she strapped the damp helmet on her head. Whatever was required, she’d do it—she was going to ride Max!
“Here’s how you get on,” Mrs. Townsend told her. “Bend your left knee and jump up from your right foot when I tell you. I’m going to give you a leg up. Try to swing your right leg over without kicking the pony.” She grasped Liz’s left knee with firm hands.
Even as Liz was thinking, This can’t work, she was tossed up onto Max’s warm, broad back.
“Here’s how you hold the reins,” Mrs. Townsend was saying, “here’s where your legs should be. You can hold on with your knees but don’t grab or kick with your heels. Keep your shoulders back, look where you’re going. Stephanie, please walk by Max’s head in case he gets confused.”
Liz’s bare legs stuck to Max’s sweaty barrel. She nudged him with her heels and he stepped forward promptly. She could feel every move he made, every step, the sweep and swing of his body as he walked. She was delighted by his unexpectedly fluid motion: the steady lift and push of his hindquarters under her seat, the lift and rotation of his shoulders in front of her knees.
“Can we trot, just a little?” Liz was really asking Max, not Stefanie. Then the pony was jogging forward, with a steady one-two rhythm. Stefanie ran with them for a few yards but soon fell behind, winded. Liz twined her fingers in Max’s black mane, leaned back a little, and let the reins go slack. Whatever the pony wanted to do was fine with her. There was no jolting, no flopping, just a lovely, bouncy, floating motion as Max, undirected, left the circular path and trotted far out into the field. We could just keep going, Liz thought. Go faster, gallop, jump over the fence at the far end, and disappear into the woods. Take me far away from here, Max. Please.
Max reached the end of the field and turned in a gradual arc to follow the fence line. He slowed to a walk and brought her back to the barn, where Stefanie and her riding instructor waited.
Stefanie hugged Max’s neck. “You were so sweet to take such good care of Liz! Best pony ever!”
Mrs. Townsend smiled in relief. “Liz, dear, you did very well! I can see you’ve ridden before—you have natural balance. Stefanie, I’ll call your mother about setting up your next lesson. Take good care of that pony, you two. He’s a real jewel. ‘Bye now.”
Liz slid off Max, breathlessly happy. Her eyes filled, so she ducked her head and pretended to examine the smudges of dirt and sweat and pony hair that darkened the inside of her bare legs from shorts to ankles.
“Mrs. Townsend said we should give him a bath now. I’m sure he’ll roll in the dirt after his bath, but that’s what ponies do, right?” Stefanie’s pride of ownership was shining clearly as she led Max to the garden hose coiled at the side of the barn. “Here, I’ll hold him,” Stefanie told Liz. “You spray him, but do it gently.”
Liz wiped her face quickly on her T-shirt and took the hose reverently. She would do absolutely anything for Stefanie and Max.
“Thank you so much for letting me ride Max.” The words were inadequate. What she wanted to say was, That was the best ten minutes of my life. But Stefanie would know anyway.
“You are so welcome!” Stefanie laughed. “You’re a better rider than I am, anyway. You should be riding every day. How did you stay on without a saddle, and how can you trot without bouncing?”
Liz shrugged. She directed the spray over Max’s neck and sweaty shoulders, careful to keep the water out of his ears and nose. When he was thoroughly rinsed, she turned the water off and coiled the hose neatly, while Stefanie held the lead rope and let Max nibble grass on the lawn. Sunlight glinted off his slick, dripping body.
After a minute of grazing, Max lifted his head and stretched out, stepping his front legs forward.
“Oh dear,” said Stefanie, “he’s getting ready to pee. Stand back!” She scurried away, holding the very end of the lead rope. Liz stood by the hose spigot, safely out of range.
The pony’s large, black-skinned penis slid out of its sheath and produced a torrent of acrid-smelling urine that splashed the grass and created a wide, steaming puddle.
Stefanie laughed. “He does that every time after a bath. It’s really stinky! My brothers can’t believe how much pee there is. They’re so jealous.”
Chewing furiously on her lower lip, Liz stared as the urine stream ended. The pony’s penis shriveled and tucked itself back up into the triangular sheath.
Liz spoke as if in a trance. “My cousin Joey took his penis out and showed it to me,” she said slowly. “Last night. When I was in bed. He wanted me to—kiss it.” She swallowed hard, fighting the hot tears again. “He thinks I’m going to be his—girlfriend.”
Stefanie froze, eyes wide. Then, “Oh my god. That is terrible. Oh Liz, what did your parents say? You’ve told them, right?”
Liz shook her head sharply, as if shaking off raindrops. She turned and walked toward the barn.
Stefanie trotted Max into his paddock, released him, closed the gate. She ran to the feed room and found Liz sitting on a bale of hay.
Stefanie grabbed Liz’s hand and tugged her to her feet. “Come on. We’re going to see my mother, right now.”
She placed her hands on Liz’s shoulders and guided her friend to the house, holding her gently.
Just before dinner, Marianna knocked tentatively on her daughter’s bedroom door. Liz sprawled on her bed, reading a book, and chewing on a ragged fingernail.
“May I come in?” Her mother had never asked permission before.
Liz took her finger out of her mouth, closed the book, and set it in her lap. Prepared herself for—whatever. “Yes.”
“I don’t know how to say this.” Her mother sat on the edge of the bed, right where Joey had been sitting the night before. She started to reach for Liz’s shoulder, saw her daughter flinch, and withdrew her hand. Marianna began fussing with her own hair instead, finger-combing and fluffing the bright auburn waves that had been so carefully arranged that morning.
“I got a disturbing call from Stefanie’s mother today. She said that you thought that your cousin Joey was—” she stopped, restarted. “That you said Joey had behaved—inappropriately.” She swallowed hard. “Touched you in a bad place. And you maybe saw his—” She steeled herself. “His privates. On Sunday. Last evening, before I got home.”
Liz nodded, but she was thinking, no, he didn’t touch me, except to grab me around the neck. The neck is not a “bad place,” exactly. And it wasn’t just the touching. He trapped me and he made me watch him, that’s what he did. And he wanted me to kiss him, but not on the lips. But okay, if it’s easier for you to understand, Mom, then let’s call it touching in bad places.
Marianna sat up a little straighter. “I want you to know, Elizabeth, that I’ve been praying about this. This is very serious, of course, so I had to pray on how to handle it, what to say. And your father talked to Joey about it. At lunch today, when they were on break at the lumberyard.”
As if that mattered, not interrupting Joey at work.
“And what did he say? Joey. What did Joey say?”
“Oh,” her mother said. “Joey was sorry that you might have thought that about him. Maybe, he said, his fly was unzipped after he’d gone to the bathroom and you saw something you shouldn’t have. He thinks he might have been careless, that way.”
“What did Dad—my father—say?” Liz held her breath. Anger grew inside her, and a hard knot tightened in her chest.
“Well, you know how men are,” Marianna fumbled.
No, thought Liz. I’m nine-going-on-ten, I don’t know how men are. That’s your job. Tell me, please.
“They stick together, of course,” her mother continued, briskly. “So who knows the truth of it, right?”
Liz stared at her mother. Who knows the truth? I do. I know the truth.
Marianna found a firmer voice. “And you absolutely should have come to me first, young lady, not telling such things to Stefanie. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with that, with Becky Jacobson knowing what you said about your cousin. And then she had to come to me! Why didn’t you talk to me first if you were uncomfortable?”
Not wanting a response, Marianna continued quickly, “See, your father thinks you and Stefanie were just talking to each other, the way girls do, making up stories, and it got out of hand. I know her little brothers run around naked over there, don’t they? So maybe you were just thinking—”
“It wasn’t stories. I didn’t make up anything.” Fury simmered now, barely contained below the flat surface of the words. “And this wasn’t the first time that Joey—had his pants open. On purpose. I don’t want to see him again,” Liz added. “Never.”
“Oh, but Elizabeth, we can’t just banish Joey on your say-so. He has no one else, no other family. I have to agree with your father. You’re too self-conscious. Little girls have to watch what they say, and not repeat what they hear, maybe, from older girls who tell these awful stories. Terrible damage can be done. To a young man, to a whole family.
Marianna added, “I do blame myself.” She sighed and shook her head. “I shouldn’t have let you go off to watch your cow being bred. I was right, you’re too young for that. What was I thinking?” A crimson flush flowed from her neck up into her cheeks. Her face and shoulders contorted and her fingers twisted in her lap.
Then Marianna brightened. “But we can pray together, can’t we? Let’s pray and ask Jesus for his help, and his forgiveness. If Jesus truly lives in your heart, you can tell him the truth and nothing can hurt you.”
She smiled reassuringly and reached for her daughter’s unresisting hand.
Liz looked searchingly at her mother, then nodded slowly. She bowed her head slightly but kept her eyes open, staring at the book in her lap.
She began speaking, quickly, before her mother could say anything more.
“Dear Jesus,” Liz began, using her best imitation of Marianna’s let’s-pray-to-Jesus voice, “Jesus, help me, I beg you please, as I am your humble servant. Make my cousin Joey go away forever. If he won’t go away, make him die by fire or in a car crash. Or make a pile of lumber fall on him. Dear Jesus, deliver me from his evil. And please forgive me for being too small and weak, and not kicking him harder. Forgive me also for not calling the police, so he does not do this to other girls. Jesus, be my savior and please let my parents know that this is not a made-up story.
“And Jesus, I keep my promises. Joey said don’t tell your parents. I promised, and I didn’t tell my parents. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.”
Her mother stiffened and yanked her hand away. She stumbled from Liz’s room, sobbing and choking, like a woman lost in the woods, about to be visited by every terror, with all the breadcrumbs gone.
Liz picked up her book and thumbed through it, looking for the last page she’d read.