For once, the bayou sky is a clear, pure blue, and the air isn’t so thick with humidity that you feel like you could dive in and splash around. Estelle is weeding the scattered plants that serve as a garden, a cucumber vine growing over here, three tomato plants against the side of the shed, a zucchini dominating a patch of scrubby ground cover. The random placement helps keep the house hidden from casual view; neat rows of plants would be much too conspicuous. Claudia thinks Estelle may be eating the pests that were attacking the pepper plants, but she really doesn’t want to know.
Pen is on the roof of the shed with a few roustabouts from the Circus, repairing the shingles. A few of them curse like sailors. Dia wishes they wouldn’t, but the kids seem too distracted to notice. Dav and Lucas are busy building some sort of apparatus cobbled together from an old Boy Scout manual and a thirty-year-old copy of Popular Mechanics. No idea what the heck it is, or what it’s supposed to do. It’s possible that they don’t even know yet. Marcie is splashing in her wading pool and trying to drown her baby doll, saying she’s a mermaid. The poor thing keeps sinking to the bottom head first. Claudia will pop the dolly’s head off and empty her cranium of water once Marcie comes out of the pool and gets dried off.
The humidity is low enough that laundry would actually dry on the line, if she were able to hang it out. But her joints ache like she’s sick with the flu, and she just can’t seem to concentrate. She’s read up on fibromyalgia since she was diagnosed six years ago. It read like so much bafflegab to her, the reams of research and test results and academic speculation. The local clinic doctor still didn’t know exactly what it was. Still didn’t know how to cure it. Thank god that fibro isn’t degenerative. It’d be depressing to think that the symptoms are just going to get worse and worse. She shifts with a grunt on the boards of the back steps, rubs one knee through the old sweatpants that Pen loaned her to keep her joints warm.
The overgrowth by the kitchen window rattles. Claudia turns her head very carefully toward the sound and squints her eyes. Estelle taught her this trick — Pen’s girlfriend usually snubbed her utterly, but she had apparently been in a mellow mood. Estelle said that seeing wide, front-facing eyes glinting can make prey animals run. If you want to see them, you have to be slow, easy and nonthreatening. She’s seen lots of deer and nutria since she’s been here. Maybe the rattle is the pretty doe with the white-rimmed ears…
It’s not a doe. It’s a horse.
The animal emerges from the undergrowth, eying Claudia’s half-eaten apple greedily. She slowly–ever so slowly–sets the fruit down on porch as far away from her as she can reach. Then she leans back, turning away slightly, head bent. An invitation to approach.
It takes three careful steps toward the apple. It’s a deep bay, almost black, shading to cocoa on the flanks and ribs, and looks sleek under the patchy coating of swamp mud. A male, not wild. He’s much too refined to be a scrub stallion, with beautiful clean-made fetlocks and a short strong back. His long forelock falls over his dark eyes, and he flings it off with a toss of his head.
Two more steps. He’s almost there. The twitching of his tail betrays his inner turmoil, but he wants that apple. His nostrils flare as his neck snakes out, one wary brown eye fixed on Claudia.
Then Marcie squeals in the pool, throttling the poor dolly, and the animal wheels and kicks his heels in the air, vanishing into the underbrush with a squeal of his own.
The apple has vanished as well.
Lucas comes running up, nearly bursting. “Mom, did you see that? That was a horse! I bet Dav and I could build a trap for him, I bet we could catch him…”
“Mom,” he asks breathlessly, his eyes alight, “can we keep him?”