Winter 2012, #18


Clementine and Dearest

     by Kati Thompson

Dearest fumbles at the fence latch with aching fingers stiffened from long confinement. It takes longer than it should, but she is dogged and finally manages it. She stops to get her bearings, sipping at night air that's thin and scarce and snaps with cold. Wrapping bare arms around herself against a shudder, she turns to see the imposing timber-framed house and its outbuildings slumbering on the hillside behind her. In another life, she lived there with her husband and sons.

Clementine brushes past her in an opalescent silver haze, pooling at her feet like a Tule fog summoned from rotting things in the earth. Wraiths are seldom of a sunny disposition and she is no exception.

"Been given to a new family, I expect," she says. "Way of things after a war; can't let it sit empty. Bet they couldn't believe their luck. Place like this, falling in their lap. Wonder who's arse they licked to get it."

Her grumbles settle into a familiar rhythm just loud enough to twitch a sleeping dog's ear.

Dearest turns away to the moonlit riding arenas and race track spread before her, rubbing absently at the marks circling her wrists. The dark hulk of a stone and timber barn stands to her right where it always has. If she went looking for it, she knew she'd find her boot print in a corner of the threshold. She remembers drawing the plans for these things, and brushing off the paper with an unbroken hand. She remembers standing tall and whole, watching order spring from the wilderness of her wooded valley. Horses stamp and run, whinnying, in and out of their stalls, down the length of their paddocks. She remembers what she was meant to do here.

"You're riling them up," she says.

"Can't be helped, but don't worry," Clementine whispers near her ear, "he'll remember you!" She trails off mournful and hollow, like wind through an empty church.

Dearest scuttles through the darker black of the barn door, into the warm, heavy smells of animals and hay. Abused muscles in her back and legs protest. Her torturers have done their work well, letting confinement strip away the strong tissue of her legs and arms, leaving her skinny and atrophied. She grimaces, thinking of Dr. Lauder's cold men gowned in rustling white, cold hands in rubber gloves. Their faces never changed through their masks, no matter how much she'd screamed. That was a favor she'd not return. She wanted to grin in the face of their pain, caper wildly around the room, cackling like the demon they claimed she was.

"I'll sink my teeth in ˜em, I will. Shove thumbs in their eyes "til they bleed," Clementine says, ghastly smile flashing white in the gloom. "But first, what you promised." Dearest nods and trots down the long aisle between polished-wood stalls, bare feet slapping on the swept cobblestones.

"Bite their tongues off, we will. Claw their throats out if they touch us," Clementine mutters on, enjoying her favorite game. She streams ahead in a banner of smoke, otter-like head searching each stall. The horses shy and snort with ears pinned back, kicking out at her, hooves thudding against wooden walls.

Dearest flinches at the noise, almost turns to run, but a long gray nose rimmed with black emerges over the last stall on the right, nickering a welcome. Her knees buckle in relief and she stumbles, reaching for her old friend, wishing they could have this reunion in the sunshine so she could see the mercurial luster of his coat.

"Oh yes it's me," she croaks. Horse rumbles, butting his heavy head into her shoulder. They stay that way for a moment, until Clementine hisses, "Hurry, hurry. No time for that."

Dearest rubs fists across her eyes and looks around for the tack. The big sliding barn door gapes open at the other end, framing a silvered view of the track and the wildness beyond the hedges. A smaller wooden panel door hangs on rollers across the aisle from the stall. The tackroom is well stocked and clean. She takes boots for her bare feet. Blanket. Saddle.

Dogs yelp in the night, finally roused by the commotion downhill. Dearest turns her head and hisses at the noise.

"All is well. No lights on yet," Clementine whispers from her place by the stall door. Yet Dearest isn't convinced and tries to hurry.

Horse takes the bit Dearest offers and lets her slip the bridle over his ears. He pricks them forward and surveys the night scene but keeps quiet while she leads him into the moonlight. The barn settles down uneasily once it's behind them but it is too late. Up the hill, a light blinks on.

A man's voice shouts to the hysterical dogs.

Dearest mounts, grits her teeth against shrieking muscles and urges Horse onto the track. Slow walk, at first, then a trot.

"Hurry, Dearest," Clementine urges.

"Things must be done proper."

She lifts herself in rhythm to absorb the bouncing gait, searching for balance, eyeing the track ahead. One time around and we'll jump that hedge. Horse softens, coming into the bit under her familiar hand, but jigs as well, impatient to run. Dearest grins, caresses his neck.

"Alright then."

Flashlights and lamps spill light down the hillside. Voices shout and crash through the trees, waking the house and its bright, blazing windows. A woman appears on the veranda, grasping her robe closed. She leans over the railing and points to the rider down below.

"She's there, see her?" She calls to the men who pour from the outbuildings.

Horse feels Dearest drop her heels in the stirrups to grip his barrel and the slack of reins as she pushes her hands forward. He needs little encouragement, for though he is an exceptional horse with his own destiny, he has turned his fine eyes to the stars every night and wondered when she'd come back for him. His rider. And her wraith, who made the sweet grass grow tall and flower under his feet in better days. The pair of them whisper urgently in his ear that he is made to fly.

Gathering the power of twelve hundred pounds in his haunches, Horse catapults into the wilding gallop of his breed. Faster. Long legs bred for this track reach out their hooves for the packed dirt ahead and kick it out in hard clods behind.

Dearest crouches over Horse's neck. Her hands grip the reins, letting each lunge of his head pull her arms forward, breaking them free from the brittle husk grown around her like scar tissue. She sets her jaw against the grinding of her shoulder joints and the boil of hoofstrikes that jars her ribcage. She bites back cries of pain as hairline cracks blossom across her porcelain skin. The much-abused shell that is Dearest's flesh loosens and flaps minutely at first, a polite little drumroll, but it crescendos into an alarming chaotic staccato that finally rattles away in brilliantine shards on the wind. She is new-skinned, nascent. Gossamer as starlight.

Clementine perches before her, gaining substance as Dearest dissipates. Her wraith tendrils, tangled Horse's mane, silvering it like spectral ribbons, become corporeal fingers. Clementine bares sharp teeth to the wind. Her cry echoes against the high walls of the valley, each rebound magnifying it until it seems the very mountaintops are howling in triumph.

As if answering her call, sirens whoop from the forested hillside to their right. Headlights pierce the darkness under spinning beacons that splash lurid red through the trees. The woman from the house directs the ranch's men down the long drive. They spill onto the track, rope and sticks in their hands. Shotguns chk-chk their loads into place.

Dearest spies the men lined up as she thunders around the final mark to home. White-clad figures arrive, Dr. Lauder's men, and push through the line of ranch hands brandishing long poles that snap and sizzle. They think they'll knock the sense out of her and take her to that laboratory, to that place of pain and horror.

"No, not yet..." Her words trail, flapping, behind them, a banner of lament.

Horse feels his mistress trembling against his sides and digs deeper, surging ahead, his breath issuing in rumbling foam-flecked grunts. Closer, closer they gallop until he can make out the impassive faces of the men-with-sticks who would take her from him again. But like all horses who own their riders, he can feel in the subtle shift of her skin against his hide that she is looking beyond the men-with-sticks to the hedge. Past that is the freedom of open countryside. And he will carry her away this night and never bring her back to this sorrowful place. Maybe he will take her to that endless country of shifting sands and warm seas he dreams of every night. Maybe he will carry her to the stars.

Cold-eyed men track Horse and his rider through shotgun sights, cool fingers resting on triggers begin to squeeze, until the rancher pushes through the line.

"Don't shoot the horse, dammit!" Cursing, the men lift their barrels away and instead stretch their arms out to block the runaway horse.

But Horse takes a mighty leap, scattering the men, landing neatly behind them. Three strides more and he vaults the hedge, leaving only Clementine's call of triumph hanging in the air as a farewell.

Stunned, Dearest watches them go from the dirt where she's fallen, too depleted to hang on. She lifts her face to the white-clad men, equal parts defiance and fear clamoring in her ephemeral chest. But their narrowed eyes see only Horse's rump disappear afar with the newly solid Clementine clinging to his mane.

Dearest looks up and smiles with terrible mirth into the faces she knows well. How many times have they pinned her with as much mercy as they would an insect to the mat, her agony only as important as a sidenote to their research. Now it is she who examines them closely, eager to subject them to their own questions. What are you made of? Will you both feel pain if we do this? Are there limits to what you can endure? As a test she stirs dust around the men's boots until a cloud of it rises high enough to make them wave and cough. She presses a thumb into a man's nose. He swears and wipes at bright blood surging into the creases by his mouth.

Dearest crows with laughter until the dogs start lunging at their leashes, barking at the place where she hovers, invisible in the air. A moment later the tether twining her to Clementine plucks her away like a child's balloon at the end of a string. She watches the scene fall behind her until it's concealed by the trees, until she's sure she can find them again. She'll be back. There are so many things she'd like to ask each of them.