The Man on the Horse

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

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Part 1: Fiction

First is the house. It is large and wooden and there is smoke, which suggests someone lives there. But the house is empty. Empty and clean, which suggests someone lives there, but it is empty—except the man. This is where the truth gets cloudy—the memory. Who knows if the narrator can be trusted, her motives. Let’s give her the wooden house—and the man. Smoke and the smell of floor polish. The man is faceless and strong. He is not vindictive or mean. He is not nice.

Part 2: Frankenstein at the Swing

The man appears in strange places, like at the rope swing in the girl’s backyard. He watches the girl, who counts as she swings back and forth, toes dragging in the gravel drive—drawing lines in red. When the girl looks up, she sees his face. It is a kind of Frankensteinian mold, not green, but cast of un-owned parts. She is frightened. But more than frightened, she is sorry for him. This may be her biggest mistake. She continues swinging, counting, until he leaves. He walks slowly, like a sewn-up man would.

The part about him working in the mill is made up. In her mind, he works in the dark with fire. He is mighty and precise—skilled. She doesn’t know why she gives him this. He is not apologetic. That would be worse.

Mostly, he shows up in the basement, the woods, that house and sometimes on the bus. Most recently he is the man on the horse wearing a cowboy hat, which she detests. When she sees him, it is not fear, but pain. She closes her eyes to the smokestacks, the mill, the fire. She appreciates that he cleans what he can from his fingernails. She appreciates that he doesn’t ask her not to tell. He knows she doesn’t want to share this. What would she say? Frankenstein at the swing?

It is hard growing apart from the man. She has known him forever; he is part of her. This means he has done his job well. He is proud, has a work ethic. She carries him with her—his rough fingers, swollen joints, closed palm—into her grown-up life, which like the swing, has rhythm, a back and forth. She still drags her feet.

Part 3: The Naming

Characters need names, but the man remains nameless. The girl is called Ann without an “e.” Ann never calls out to the man or mentions him in a way that requires address. Sometimes she kisses boys and refuses to say their names.

She has forgotten more than she remembers. Drinking has something to do with it. The man drinks. She drinks with him. It makes them feel better. Sometimes it goes bad. She doesn’t blame the man for making her cry, for making her consider suicide. That gives him too much power. She adds an “e” on the end of her name.

For a long time, the man leaves. Anne feels a hole in her she can’t explain. Who will love her—her with the hole? She walks down Darlington Avenue, feels the wind blow through the hole, a pipeline drilled straight through her, missing the heart. The cold makes a sound not unlike a fox caught in a trap, mournful and scared, the sound of the amputee—the healing over what’s gone. The man remains nameless but now has a sound.

Part 4: Bullet Points

Jobs remain her focus. She has a work ethic, rewarded by more work. Sometimes she feels an anger rise in her, disproportionate. Her boss tells her the story is too long. Can she cut? Stick to smaller, more familiar words? The reader might be alienated by “chic.” She replaces it with “fancy” and transforms the prose to bite-sized bullet points, abandons transition. She pours a glass of cheap vodka and lets the rage settle. The ice melt. It doesn’t matter. There are gaps in the story. It doesn’t flow.

Part 5: Inequity

But then there is love, which too, is disproportionate. She understands inequity, the way she loves men more than they do her, men who give her only part of what she wants. They are important parts: poetry, song, a deviance that allows her to relinquish control, if only in bed. They don’t try to fix or fill her. They often leave once she brings up the hole, the sound, the fox. Nobody wants to marry a girl trapped like that.

Part 6: The Trap—The Telling of It

Anne has learned to both set and trip the trap. She will not enter, no matter how starved. When the fox nears, she throws it bits of chicken from behind the trip plate, ushers it from ambush. Day and night she stays like this, hiding her scent when the man approaches to bait. He cannot smell her because she is a hole, a sound now, the wind. She is camouflaged with sorrow.

The man set the trap to catch her. To catch the fox. To finish the game. But he tires of it, as men do. And when the weather turns cold, his visits become more infrequent, he feels a pulling apart, a detachment, a hole. Anne buys warm gloves, carries sardines, follows the fox far away.

When the man returns in spring, he finds the trap vacant; Anne has left no tracks. Not the house, not the swing, not the bus, not the basement, only a meadow across the state line. Here, in the meadow, the fox makes a den. Here, the fox has kits. Here, Anne listens to the sound of herself dusted with pollen. Here, she takes the man apart and buries his pieces, places his hat on a small grave, a marker. Here, she lets the horse run free.