“At first, Horses comprised one child per harness pulling one other along on roller blades”: a short story by Hamilton writer Connie Buchanan.
Theresa’s hair didn’t seem able to grow very long. To the other little girls in Room One it was hard to tell why this was the case. Part of the issue was that the hair curled tightly back on itself but so did Tam’s and Monica’s and theirs still had enough length in it to be pulled into a bunch or plaited into two stiff prongs. But Theresa’s hair stayed close to her head. It came through in just sufficient quantity to provide dull yellow cover, as if the hair had given up, exhausted, after pushing through the skin.
There were only 48 pupils at the small country school. That summer a full quarter of them were involved in a game called Horses. The core component of the game involved little kids pulling bigger kids on roller blades up and down the concrete tennis court. A sloping grassed embankment on one side of the court, with a line of four trees to shade spectators, plus a large green playing field on the other, provided satisfactorily equestrian surrounds.
The game started when Willow brought two small harnesses to school. She was confident that they were unusual enough to have playground potential even while being uncertain as to their immediate application. They were real harnesses, fashioned from an attractive supple white leather, and they had been especially designed for children. There were adjustable straps, with small solid steel buckles, that went over the shoulders and across the chest. A silver hoop at the back allowed a single long rein to be securely clipped on with a swivel clasp. The free end of the rein was stitched into a sturdy comfortable loop big enough for the guiding parental hand. To an adult, the matching and expensive-looking restraints conjured up thoughts of a set of posh hyperactive twins.
Willow had unearthed the harnesses from a large box that was in itself unusual for its thick and glossy cardboard. Her mother brought it back from one of the garage sales she went to every Saturday morning at dawn. Written in black marker on the top of the box it said $5 ALL. The harnesses were tangled right at the bottom, underneath a pale blue bra with rigid cups, a working mixer stamped with Kitchen Aid (which Willow’s mother would later learn was the most significant bargain of her garage sales career), a clamshell case of Dale Carnegie cassette tapes, a thin volume of singular meat recipes entitled Chops, and a slightly greasy set of tongs. Willow was intrigued by the nest of white leather. She untangled and re-buckled the straps in various formations until she figured out the correct assemblage, having gained prior knowledge of child tethers from an inferior fabric version in use at her own home.
Willow lived with multiple siblings who absorbed regular incursions of foster children numbering up to fifteen over the course of any given year. The foster child who had necessitated the purchase of the existing harness was a maniacal toddler whose brain was permanently wired for erratic action after being flooded with sedatives throughout his infancy; powerful pills had been powdered and delivered fast and often through his bottle by the unwell mother for whom the medicine was originally intended. Finally someone official noted that a. even at 22 months, Baby isn’t walking and seems to be most often in the cot, and b. Mum’s concerns about Nazi surveillance of the house haven’t diminished in line with treatment expectations. The child was extracted and delivered to Willow’s parents while everyone worried verbally about the correct long-term solution. Willow felt an airy swooping feeling in her stomach when she illegally listened to the intense cup-of-tea discussions, and when she saw that the soles of the boy’s feet were as puffed and smooth as supermarket buns from lack of contact with the ground.
During his stint with the family, the child developed a nimble rocking style of perambulation that he honed to the point of being able to dodge adult supervision and manufacture show-stopping incidents during public outings – the most notable of which was the production, capture, and manual presentation of a large lozenge of reeking poo to a horrified bridal shop assistant – and so Willow’s parents had resorted to tethering him in an age-appropriate restraint. His harness was friendly and cute, made from a padded monkey-print fabric with strong brown plastic clasps in the shape of monkey hands. Judicious use of the leash allowed the child continued attendance at birthday parties and shopping malls and water parks, but when the social workers packaged him up, bewildered and shouting, for transfer to another interim family, the harness was nonetheless rejected as an essential piece of his kit. It migrated to the plastic bag containing the garage sale white leathers, and thus formed the unit of three which was enough to kick-start the game Horses at Willow’s school.
At first, Horses comprised one child per harness pulling one other along on roller blades. Then it progressed to three little kids becoming a team, with the designated lead horse wearing the harness and the two flanking others hanging on to a portion of the side strapping. One or even two masters gripped the long looped strap at the back and were towed along at speed. Despite the nominal power of being Master, it was Horse that became the coveted role for the pageantry and discipline of the animal mimicry. There were two types of child most in demand as Horse. Anyone both small enough to fit the harness and possessed of sufficient ponytail to flick and swish, which included a few of the boys, was an obvious candidate; also any child with sturdy calves and a willingness to shiver and stamp and neigh with conviction.
The children who played Horses were absorbed and focused, and while there was laughter and enjoyment, the main feeling of the thing, and where they found their reward and were therefore compelled to return to it day after day, was in the exercise of sustained joint effort within the organic complexity of a busy playground to achieve the correct tension between team and master for maximum acceleration and control. Corners were taken tight. Following distances were minimal. Whips, albeit invisible, were in constant use.
Physically, Theresa was almost perfectly unsuited to any of this. She had no hope of a ponytail. Her step was as light as a cartoon. The meat of her calves hadn’t come in yet, if it ever would, and the skin on her legs had small deep purple holes that never healed, just changed locations up and down her thighs. Theresa was far from the only child not playing Horses that summer but she often sat in the shade of the trees by the tennis court and focused intently on the game. Want to have a go being Horse? It was Willow who noticed her and crouched down to ask. But Theresa shook her head, a hand rising unconsciously to touch the yellow fuzz, feeling around for a silky switch of hair that wasn’t there.
By late February, the game had reached a zenith of high-functioning teams. Galloping horses switched efficiently in and out of the command of a triumvirate of masters who in turn governed a second and third tier of drivers. It was at that point that Theresa turned up to school with a man’s tie hanging out of the plastic bag that she carried in lieu of a backpack. At morning tea she got out the tie, shook off the crumbs that had fallen from her unwrapped and unbuttered bread, and arranged it around her head so that the tail end hung down the back of her neck.
They were still babies really those Room One kids, just five and six years old, so it was a simple statement of observable fact, rather than cruelty, when Monica shouted Hey Theresa that’s not even a ponytail, that’s defitly not a ponytail, it’s not even. Theresa looked briefly caught out, exposed, but she touched the hanging end of the tie and regrouped. Yes it is, she said grimly, and flicked her head so the maroon and navy striped length gave a bit of a swish. Then she set her jaw, took a deep breath, and produced a convincing neigh followed by an elegant diminishing nicker. It was just enough bravado to kill Monica’s claim and gain Theresa entry to the game.
She gave it a good crack, galloping up and down the concrete as best she could on her light bird-like frame. But, having exhausted her creative energies to access the arena, she found herself out of her depth in execution. She’d come into Horses late in its life cycle and despite her close observation there was an intricate network of voluntary rules and controls that she found hard to grasp. There were invisible chicanes and tracks on the concrete. There was a certain way a Horse needed to maintain the harness strap tension so that the master could swing wide and fast to take the turn without pulling the team out of formation, or smashing forwards into ankles.
There was also now a hierarchy of lead horses and a knowledge among the others of which head tosses or air hoofing indicated time to speed up or slow down. The various formations were still fluid enough to expel the tired ones and admit replacements but Theresa found it difficult to identify the correct ways to come in and out of position, or to establish herself in any one place for a sufficient period of time to experience the game’s joy. For the others, some of that joy was found in the respite from talking; in being restrained from the usual endless chat and political negotiation of the playground. While in the harnesses, Horses could only make horse noises. No-one liked it when Theresa kept asking in Human which way they were going next.
It wasn’t just the hard-to-read embedded cues, Theresa was by far the smallest one playing. She was at constant physical risk of being pulled over, trodden on, or clipped by rolling wheels. There was also a couple of kids who noticed when her scabby legs came close to their own firm, unbroken skins. Theresa smells like a baked bean, one of them whispered to the other in the grooming corner. So, after a couple of days, she retreated back under the tree. For a while it seemed as if she was building up to another approach; adjusting the tie, practicing the head tosses, refining the nicker. But she stayed crouched under the tree for the next two sets of morning teas and lunchtimes.
A break-away game developed that involved any Master waiting for a harnessed team to become available occupying themselves with careful maintenance of any Horse that needed a rest. The horses’ inability to speak enhanced this aspect greatly, as the masters felt job satisfaction when they correctly anticipated who was thirsty, whose forehead required sprinkling with water, who needed a shoulder pat after the skin-chafing rigors of the narrow harness straps.
It was Willow who saw opportunity for kindness in this side-venture and thought to give Theresa the job of refilling the empty ice cream containers being used at the horse-watering facilities. Theresa took it with diligence and focus. She became absorbed by the job requirements and ended up having a very satisfactory three days developing maximum fill levels so no water slopped during transport and becoming highly conscientious and even bossy to others about tap management and preferred water pressure. She was pleased when any of the masters shouted Stablehand! to summons her, and she giggled uncontrollably when a horse nuzzled at a full container before she had a chance to set it down.
Then, for whatever reason, Theresa wasn’t at school on the last day before half-term nor on the first day back after the break. Surprisingly, the concept of Horses survived the holiday, was given a spurt of renewed energy by some fresh sets of roller blades, and some other variations of harness, assembled for the very purpose during the break. Another week went by and the game rolled on at speed, but no Stablehand reappeared, and so Willow headed toward the classrooms. She located the Room One teacher, clopping along the concrete path with both arms stiff out in front to fork-lift a stack of large wet paintings to the clothesline. Excuse me Miss Considene, but where’s Theresa? said Willow. Miss Considene’s brown sandal heel woggled sharply sideways on a crack of concrete, and she said oh! oh, well, what happened, sweet heart, was. Well, actually. Well. Theresa got pneumonia in the holidays, sweetheart.
Maybe that is what happened. Maybe Theresa got a summer flu that turned into pneumonia. Miss Consedine was hanging up paintings, telling Willow through a mouthful of pegs just to wait a moment and she’d come inside and talk to her properly, but Willow said oh that’s fine that’s sad if she’s sick that’s ok thanks. She walked away not really wanting to hear yet another story that might swoop through her stomach like when she thought about a sweet baby boy with too smooth feet being made to drink drugs for breakfast. Back down at the tennis court, she showed another little kid the stack of ice-cream containers and briefed them on the previously established protocols and the small dent of Theresa’s absence in the playground filled up and levelled off and was soon invisible.
At the next week’s assembly, the school principal gave a short and unexpected speech about Horses. He praised the big kids for involving the little ones so well, mentioned a few names in particular, said it made him feel proud of them all for coming together as family. The kids clapped and smiled but the adult sanction somehow broke the spell of the game. They drifted away from it after that and an aggressive version of bull-rush that they called Crush obsessed the playground instead. The harnesses were abandoned in a tangle inside a plastic bag and eventually migrated underneath a heavy purple cordurouy beanbag along with other detritus from the Room One floor. At the end of the term Miss Consedine did a big tidy up. She lifted up the beanbag and hooked the plastic bag out with her broom. She shook the dusty contents free. The harnesses tumbled out, followed by a maroon and navy man’s tie that had been knotted in a small circle. The harnesses went back into the bag and into Willow’s locker, but no-one could remember why the tie was there, or who it belonged to.
Next week’s short story is by Kathryn Van Beek.