YOU WERE BORN the day the IRA kidnapped Shergar. The radio reported it, and the t.v. did, too. The midwife suspected that the Russians had taken him. Only the most evil doers could harm a prize winner, we thought. It didn’t matter the crime was committed thousands of miles away; where we came from, we took better care of our horses than we did ourselves, and we expected the same of others, especially if they were Irish.
We had the ease to speculate on the news after your mother went into labor. We expected a smooth delivery: the midwife was there, all her tools were prepared. But it didn’t take long for your mother’s breathing to quicken, her face to writhe. The midwife, twisting a compress into a tight wad, instructed we go to the hospital. I tried to convince the woman that we had faith in her to take care of us, that we couldn’t afford the hospital.
“There’s only so much I can do,” she snapped. “This baby’s breech.”
In the hospital’s delivery room, I watched as your mother bled enough blood that when the nurse escorted me to the hallway, she imprinted a red smear on my arm. I couldn’t help but to avert my gaze and regret leaving you with masked strangers. As I left, your mother’s voice, calling my name, ricocheted in my head. When I returned, when you were in her arms, in a blanket wrapped so tightly you seemed immobile, we wept, your mother and I, long streams down our faces. She was tired, and I was scared.
I shouldn’t have cried. But it was too much– you were too much– and I was so saddled, then, with debt and guilt that one thought alone fueled me: escape.
We left the hospital that evening. At the apartment, your mother retreated to our bed, and I put you beside her. Then I stayed up until three in the morning packing. The t.v. flickered enough light to guide me around the bedroom while I shoved shoes and diapers into duffel bags. When I heard the early morning news, I welcomed the distracting reports of Shergar.
The Irish kidnappers wanted two million pounds, the newsmen said. They’d had guns, though they freed the groom, unharmed, who led them to Shergar’s stall. For a moment, I wished I’d been the one led at gunpoint by the kidnappers. Maybe I would’ve gone with them, become an accomplice, and left my job as a groom at Hillcrest. I would’ve done whatever those men wanted in order to get their money, money that they might’ve split with me. I was loyal, but I was in trouble. Money can change a moral man.
We departed Saratoga in darkness. I was accustomed to waking early and working the quiet hours before the sunlight filtered through the long fences and tall barns of Hillcrest. As we hit I-95 in our two-door Impala, the Interstate lights gave way to the lustrous dawn, and soon we traveled amidst hundreds of others.
Your mother remained groggy, and when we stopped for food and gas about halfway between Portsmouth and Portland, I told her, “You need to get something in your stomach.” She ignored me. Things weren’t very good between us, you should know. I had to be careful, to make up for what I’d done and to ease us into our new life.
A week before your birth, we took a trip to your grandparents’ house in the Catskills. They had never asked if we had health insurance nor savings. I instilled in them a confidence that their daughter was loved and provided for. After dinner, I went to the garage to get a beer from the extra refrigerator. Behind the wall of tools, your granddaddy kept a stash of bills that I stole. I put some in my sock and back pocket. If he had offered me the money, I wouldn’t have taken it. Accepting money from them would’ve acknowledged that I couldn’t take care of my family. Staying around until your granddaddy realized I’d taken the money or answering to hospital bill collectors at my door, would’ve been the same. Stealing was the final indicator that I, a man who had squandered his money (on not one, but two broken-down colts), could not afford the life he wanted to lead. This was why we went to Bar Harbor, to change all that.
The day was dreary as a February morning can be anywhere—a somber, seasonless mire. The farther north we went, the darker the morning became. Your mother abided quietly, occasionally tugging the collar of her pea coat farther up her chin. I had trouble gauging her mood; even before she became pregnant I had this trouble. I knew she kept her eyes closed so I wouldn’t try talking to her. I knew the questions she didn’t want to ask and the answers I could only imagine giving. After a long while, in silence, but more alert now, your mother ate the donuts and the banana I had bought at the gas station.
At last, we approached a land bridge; on the other side was Mt. Desert Island. “I saw the island first,” your mother said, the only words she’d spoken since we left.
This was the game she had told me about, the game she and her sister used to play as girls. Her family had spent every July here, before their father was laid off and moved them from Bangor to the Catskills. The first to spot the island could climb to the front seat and sit on the padded armrests.
“I don’t have a prize for you,” I said, “but I’ll buy you some baked beans and hot dogs for supper. We can have a cookout. I’ll burn ’em up crispy.”
“That’d be fine,” she said.
We stopped at a grocery store. Inside, your mother held you in her lap and sat on a bench beside the mechanical door where heating fans blew the first warmth we had felt all day. I bought the food I’d promised and even a bottle of sparkling cider to celebrate our arrival. As I approached the door, arms full of groceries, your mother asked, “Did you get cinnamon bread? We always got cinnamon bread.”
“Why, sure,” I said. “We ought to have cinnamon bread.” I put down the bags and soon returned with a loaf wrapped in wax paper. Back in the car, your mother reached into the bag and tore off a piece of bread. She offered her granule-flecked fingertips to you, though you were asleep still. She left the cinnamon-sugar mixture on your lips.
“I’ll need your help now,” I said, and she guided us up a steep hill and around a park whose green wooden swings colored the blanched snow, whose copper water fountain gleamed a gilded sheen. The streets followed natural terraces that rolled under birch and maple trees. As your mother cooed at yet another large, shuttered house— “that’s where the Fishers used to stay, and the Stanleys next door” —she lifted you so you might see through your drooping eyelids all that she did. Eventually, a tall snowpile prevented our passing; the plows didn’t go farther. I pulled the car behind a curve, screened by pines. I gathered the groceries and your mother gathered you and we set about slowly walking the rest of the way to our new home.
We had driven through here one summer on a trip to a cousin’s wedding. People seemed to glide in and out of their cottages then; kids with beach towels draped around their necks rode hurlyburly in the middle of the road; on the sidewalks, vigorous adults chatted and laughed. The cottages were open and breezy, their porches decorated with gladiolus and hanging ferns. My first impression that summer afternoon was that I was in another country, like pictures of English estates I’d seen in Horse and Rider. My second impression was that I had no idea your mother had been accustomed to such affluence.
That afternoon, we saw the cottage your grandparents rented. Its wide, sloping garden was planted with day lilies and hydrangeas. A gate and an arbor marked the garden path. Some distance away and below a small bluff lay the bay. A wedding was underway. Men in ties lounged on the porch’s steps; women with wine sat in wicker chairs nearby. On the second floor balcony, the bride and groom held hands and posed for pictures.
“It’s just the same,” she said. “There’s the porch swing. You can nap on it. And, there, in the side yard, we used to play badminton.”
“Should we get out? Do you want to look around?”
“No, we can keep going,” she said. “We’d be interfering.”
“Not a bad life,” I said.
“Not bad. It’s only open in the summer, though. In the winter, everyone goes home and waits for the summer to come again.”
The layers of snow collapsed underfoot. I kept on, remembering the excited and wistful way your mother had spoken that afternoon. Sure I knew daisies and lilies didn’t grow in the winter, but I wanted that feeling nonetheless—that feeling of seeing her happy.
The blank snow deceived us again, and we sunk a time or two into a deep drift. Your mother stumbled, nearly dropping you, as she tried to high-step out of one.
“That’s it,” she said, looking to a house on the corner. “That’s our old cottage.”
Before us, stood a three-story house. Its porch steps were like a bridge, the roof was like a turret. It was no cottage. It was a castle, the snow an enormous moat. I strained to recognize a familiar window, trim, gable, or even a color from our brief interlude here a few summers ago. Nothing was the same in the wintertime. The foliage was gone leaving bare closed shutters and wayward wires; there were no vines, no plants. Nothing lived.
I broke the large pane of glass on the back door, my hand protected by the sleeve of my heavy farm coat. The glass cracked at first, and then I punched through the spiderweb of fractures to unlock the door.
I put the groceries on the kitchen’s tin-covered counter and tested the stove, while your mother took you into the living room. There was no gas. No lights came on when I flipped the wall switch. I had considered these needs in advance and dreaded the task of melting enough snow to keep us hydrated and clean. Yet, I welcomed as much work as I could find, not to keep my mind off our old apartment and its decent old furnace, but to keep your mother thinking that I was productive.
The sound of news announcers’ voices came from the other room. Your mother held a plastic portable radio and adjusted its volume as I walked in. I was surprised to see her without you in her arms. A used diaper in a plastic bag lay on the floor, and the smell of baby wipes permeated the air. You lay on top of a white sheet draped over the couch by a side window —asleep, yet again.
“I want to hear some music,” she said.
“Wait.” I heard a British newsman speak the word “horse.”
“The kidnap, the first of its kind in Ireland began when two armed and masked men burst into the home of Mr. Fitzgerald at the Ballymany stud in Newbridge.”
“What a shame,” I said. “They haven’t found him.”
She turned the knob until a tinny tune struck the air. “Here’s a good station.”
“You ought to turn that off so we can use the batteries later.”
Without speaking, she flipped off the switch and returned the radio to the brick mantel.
“It’s going to get dark here soon,” I continued, “and we’ll need to use our flashlights for a little bit. You sit down and rest while I find some candles. I forgot to pick some up at the grocery store.” Already the afternoon’s dimness required us to strain our eyes to find our ways.
In the kitchen, I unpacked the groceries from their paper bags, poking through drawers for extra matches, and tried to memorize its layout in anticipation of the dark night. I took the milk outside and pressed it into the snow by the back stoop. Then, I surveyed the path we’d taken—I’d go for firewood soon—but the footprints we made earlier had nearly disappeared in the fading light.
I returned inside to find your mother pulling the sheets from the chairs and folding them into tidy piles that she set beside you on the couch. You were like a king in a small fort of linens. I leaned in and gave you a kiss, my whiskers scraping your perfect skin, though you didn’t flinch.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked.
“It’s got the same smell that I remember. And did you see these?” She pointed to a collection of photographs on the mantel. In each, the house’s front balcony served as backdrop for a photograph of a bride and groom. The blue ocean filtered through the thin tops of the birch trees, laced with leaves. “They must rent this out all the time,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place for a wedding.”
“Do you think they’re going to get their money for Shergar?”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
“They think the IRA kidnapped a horse in Ireland,” I began to explain and then stopped–she didn’t remember.
Your mother was busy picking up every knick-knack: shell, rusty screw, decorative box, touching and examining it with relish. You see, she had become someone else when she walked into the cottage. She flitted about as though she were discovering each dusty object, each gray sheet with a new energy that, through no fault of your own, had been absent since your birth.
“I should find some candles,” she said. “Like you said. We’ll want to sleep down here tonight, by the fire, won’t we? He’ll sleep between us, where he’ll be warm.” She sat on the edge of the couch and stroked your cheek with her finger. “What a sweet boy, isn’t he?”
I let slip a smirk and nodded. I was pleased she was so animated.
“I’m going to get some blankets from upstairs. Oh, and look for candles up there, too. There used to be a stash in one of the bureaus, I think.”
“Wait, let me come with you,” I said. “There might be animals or–”
“–Bring him with you,” she said. “Don’t leave him alone.”
I scooped you from your fort and followed her up the stairs, pausing for a moment to gaze through the large window on the landing that overlooked the yard and coast. The ocean’s murky horizon was so foreign to me, I felt like I was looking at the moon, like I was looking at what aching felt like. Despite our undetected arrival, despite your sweetness, despite your mother’s cheerfulness, the foreignness gave me a pang of unease.
I nearly hit my head on the low ceiling of the stairwell, guided only by your mother’s dark shape ahead. At the top of the stairs, the house was brighter; the door to the bedroom’s balcony and the windows on either side of it weren’t shuttered.
“Oh no, oh no,” your mother said from the bedroom. Framed by the doorway, her silhouette crumpled and bent towards something on the rag-rug covered floor. As I approached, in the gray light, I saw a look on her face that to this day I can see as clearly as my hand before my face. It was a look of doom.
“Charlie!” she cried, though I was but a few steps from her.
A woman lay across the floor. Her eyes were closed, and she was sprawled unnaturally, her right leg folded beneath her thigh, like she had tripped and fallen.
“Oh, Charlie, she’s just—oh, Charlie,” your mother said and took you from me. She pressed your head against her chest and put her hand across your face.
I’d performed some gruesome tasks in my life. I’d secured broken-down horses as the vets injected a hotshot. I’d cleaned bloodied bandages and balmed raw skin. I’d pulled torn flesh from wire fences. And yet the closest I could come to touching this woman was to nudge her side with my boot.
“I don’t know,” I said.
A crust of saliva cusped the corners of the woman’s lips and marred her blue cheeks. She wore an overcoat and, beneath it, a cable-knit wool sweater. We waited to see if she would move. I pushed her again with my boot. Then, we waited longer. Sure enough, through all the covering, we could see a breath swell her stomach.
“Baby, mine,” your mother said. I squatted beside the woman, making sure she breathed again. “Baby,” she said, and this time I realized she was talking to me. “What’re we going to do?”
“I’ve got to get to a phone. I don’t suppose any of them work around here.”
“Who will you call?”
“Somebody to come help this woman.”
“I know, but what are we gonna do?”
It didn’t seem so difficult to understand.
“I mean,” she continued, “are we just gonna go hide out and then come back and stay? I mean, what are we going to do?”
“What do you mean hide out? She’s got to get to a hospital. Either we’ll bring someone up here for her, or we’ll have to take her down there.”
“Could we put her in another cottage? Close to the main road? So people won’t be coming around here?”
“That’s criminal, Valentina.”
“Well, what do you think’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know, honey,” I said, “but the woman is sick. She’s nearly froze to death, probably, and lord knows what brought her up here, or got her to the floor.”
Your mother reached toward the woman and removed a photograph from beneath the woman’s hand. It was like the wedding pictures on the mantel downstairs: a bride with long, sleek hair, just like the woman’s.
“Do you think she’s tried to kill herself?”
“I’m going to find a telephone.”
“Wait, I think we should go.” She pulled herself onto the bed. Her voice quivered. “I think we’re going to have to go now, leave here again. I mean, we can’t be here when someone comes looking for her. This house isn’t ours. We broke in.” She could barely speak the words, her throat seemed to clench on every sound. “We should leave her alone and go.”
I was torn. I knew what she meant. We had come a long way. I could have picked up that woman and carried her over my back, wobbling down the stairs and through the snow to the car. Or, I could’ve tried to make her warm, told your mother to bring some blankets, then gone down the hill to call someone. But all I could think then was how to get your mother not to cry. All her tears were like knife-pricks to my heart.
“Come on, then, let’s go,” I said. She relinquished you to me, and I followed her down the stairs. I didn’t even look back.
Your mother’s fingertips skimmed the banister and the square newel until she reached the wide window at the landing and put her hand on the pane, distorted as it was from age. “I used to love coming up here,” she said. “It always stayed the same, you know.” Her voice stopped quivering, but I could sense a stronger disappointment in her tone than I ever bore to speak of.
I took her hand and pulled her gently away from that window. “You’re bleeding,” she said looking at my forearm. My sleeve had crept up my arm revealing the print of blood the nurse had left. I hadn’t showered since the hospital.
“No, no,” I said and pulled her on. We had to re-pack the groceries, slug through the snow, and find our way back to the Chevrolet.
We stayed in a motel a few exits down the Interstate that night. The car felt colder than when we had driven up, and as soon as we got in, I was too tired to drive. The little bit of money I’d kept for our future seemed well-spent on one night of comfort. We opened the bread and peanut butter we’d bought earlier and sat on the pilled polyester bedspreads eating sandwiches and watching t.v.
No distraction—of Shergar or otherwise—provided distance from my thoughts. I secretly hoped a couple of things sitting in that motel room. One was that we’d see a news story about a woman, rescued from a cottage and brought to the local hospital where she would survive her traumatic experience, end of story. I never saw such a report that night, or any other night to come. I also hoped that your mother would never learn that when we pulled into the gas station, next to the grocery store, I called the operator to tell her that a woman needed help and to follow a set of footsteps to a three-story cottage, with a corner gazebo, that overlooked the bay.
Your mother seemed tired and took to being quiet again. You were awake, at last, wanting food. Your eyes squinted, then your face changed and you were fine and content again, unaware that your mantle had been taken, your princely kingdom cordoned off, your crown put on the shelf for another day.
“Tomorrow,” she said after a while, “you’ll call around and make sure everything’s okay.”
“With your parents?”
“With that woman. But it’s too late, isn’t it?”
“It’ll all be fine.”
She finished feeding you, then sunk into the pillows. I watched her doze off with you lying on her chest. Her chest rose and so did you. If that were the only image I had left of her, it would be enough.
My mind wandered to what would happen to us back in Saratoga Springs. Things would be different. I imagined the people we’d have to face, the stories I’d have to tell. I never once imagined that things would turn out all right, that I’d return to Hillcrest and start working off my bills.
They needed a new security guard for the stables; Shergar’s kidnapping had put a fear into the owners’ minds, and the truth was, I always suspected Jim Hill felt sorry for me. I didn’t mind, though, so I took the job and those too-wild to imagine occurrences wound up happening.
Even stranger things have occurred. You’ve grown, and you’ve asked me how I got the hair of Secretariat that I gave you so long ago, that you’re selling now, trying to amend your debts, and I’ve told you this story, long and sentimental. I could go on and tell you how working in security at Hillcrest allowed me access to the best thoroughbreds that came to race and be trained. I was friendly with the grooms still, and had a way with those horses—always had. It was easy to snip locks of their manes or tails and collect them in a cigar box, which I kept on my closet shelf. You should know it wasn’t stealing; we all did it.
I could tell you, too, how Shergar was never found, twenty-three years later, and how they thought he had been long dead, shot a couple of days after he was kidnapped. Some men panic in certain situations, and maybe these men did, not knowing how to handle something so powerful.
Yet, you’ve asked about a horse, and I’ve told you about your mother. It’s been twelve years since she left me, but everything, in the end, reminds me of her.
Marion Bright is a writer and teacher. More of her work can be found at marionbright.com.