The day everything started began as any other summer day: bright and sunny. Blue skies and a hint of rain in the air — in essence, perfect. It was a Sunday, a few months before the competition Anne had been training for the past few weeks.
Anne woke up early, as she usually did, no matter how much she wanted to stay in bed. It was a well-worn ritual, as well-worn as the boots that immediately found their place on her feet. Her morning, during summer, was always the same. Wake up. Check on Prancer. Serve his breakfast. Have her own breakfast. Begin her training routine.
For a twelve-year-old, she was very disciplined.
Looking from the outside, Anne was an ordinary girl. Brown hair in a braid, swinging merrily with every step, blue eyes shaded by the black riding helmet (safety first!). She was no different from any other girl you might see in a 4-H club.
After the events, people would say they knew there was something off about that girl. But as they say, hindsight is always 20/20; nobody suspected a thing. Not until it was too late.
The barn was Anne’s favorite place in the world, as is the case for many little girls. It was quiet, and shaded, and housed only four horses — one for each member of her family. Anne’s own was the last, on the opposite side of the house. He’d been the last to come to the family, as she was the youngest.
Walking in, she breathed in the smell of horse and hay she loved so well. The horses greeted her just as happily. Mother’s painted mare, Father’s chestnut gelding and even her brother’s spotted colt.
It didn’t occur to her, immediately, that there was a voice missing in the gentle snorts and whickers that serenaded her arrival. Oblivious, she filled her bucket with water and lugged it in the direction of her horse, Prancer.
Anne’s parents had perhaps more money than sense. They saw fit to gift their daughter a horse several levels above the girl’s skill, needs and age. The handsome, black Hanoverian was sixteen hands tall and a champion in his own right. He was in the prime of his life — far from what one expected a little girl to want or need.
It was a case of love at first sight. Once her eyes landed on the gelding, there was no force in the known world that would have separated her from him. Surprisingly, the horse seemed to bond with her as well.
Having parents with more money than sense made Anne a little bit spoiled. In the end, it was clear her monumental tantrums, crying spells and charm managed to break through her parents’ sensible reservations. Prancer became hers. She was eight years old at the time, and so was the horse.
Of course, his show name was not Prancer. The girl was eight, however, and would not be moved from calling her behemoth anything else. Prancer became his barn name, and that was that.
Unfitting name or not, Prancer soon became her best friend, playmate and confidante. He was the reason she woke up in the mornings and the last thing she thought of when she went to sleep. You could always find her in the barn, brushing and braiding his hair, the gelding near asleep, relaxed by her side.
When they were not bonding in the barn or in the paddock, they were training. The horse’s long legs flew over obstacles, his sides gleaming like obsidian under the sun. Soon it became clear they were a gifted team — truly gifted. They breezed through practices, training and competitions as a red-hot knife through butter.
So you can imagine the young girl’s shock when, whistling to herself and excited to greet her best friend in the whole world, she found Prancer lying on his side, slicked with sweat and trembling with exertion.
Colic. The equestrian’s worst nightmare. By the time she recovered enough from the shock to realize what was happening, Prancer’s soft, dark nose pressed against her thigh, the horse making a valiant effort to stand. It was clear he was in great discomfort, far greater than she’d ever seen in her life.
The following events happened in a blur. Later, she would recall screaming, crying, asking for help — veterinarians, hospitals, surgery. Had he had any change of diet? No. Dental disease? None they knew of. Eaten something he shouldn’t? No, no, no. There was no clear cause, no real reason why a twelve-year-old gelding, in the peak of health the previous day, would wake up that bad the next day.
There was no reason why a girl of twelve would lose her best friend like that, and watch as the light faded from his eyes. But that was how life was.
Or, that was how life should be.
They buried Prancer at their property, at the young girl’s request, although it was not their practice to do so. It was a kindness, and she felt it so much, so why not?
Maybe that is when they should’ve noticed something was off about the whole thing.
One rarely heeds the warning signs, though.
For the rest of the summer, Anne locked herself in her room. She came out to eat. Would sometimes talk to her parents and brother. Most of the time, she was in her room, with her laptop. Her parents saw nothing wrong with that; they knew she was overfond of Prancer. It was her right to grieve for the loss of a horse that, for the last four years, was the whole of the girl’s world.
“She will come out when she is ready,” they answered when people questioned her isolation. “It is understandable she is not feeling well,” they said.
The competition came and went. They had an eulogy for Anne’s horse, a sincere lament for all she went through, at such a young age. Everyone knew how close she was to Prancer. Many of the other girls felt a measure of empathy for what she went through. Many hugged their own horses a little tighter.
Anne didn’t attend.
Anne didn’t do much of anything, other than surfing the web in her bedroom. Not even the barn could entice her. The other horses missed her, but what could they do? Their friend was miserable without the big black one she loved so much.
Just as abruptly as it began, it ended.
It was a week before the end of summer. A Sunday much like that fatidic one. She came downstairs, smiling bright as if nothing happened. Went back to the barn, helped her mother brush the gentle paint and the sweet chestnut. Fed the spotted colt carrots and apples. She talked to her parents and her brother, she called her friends and went out with them.
It was as if Prancer, and the tragedy of summer, had never existed.
Or, at least, that’s what they told themselves. If the circles around the girl’s eyes hadn’t lightened; if there was a sort of feverish distance to her; people were quick to note that it was understandable. They were quicker to accept the apparent normalcy of her behavior at face value.
School came back in session. Anne went back to her activities. She did not ride anymore, no matter how much her parents coaxed her. They assumed it was due to the trauma of losing her four-legged best friend.
Nobody noticed the scars on the palm of her hands, or the strange scent that seemed to cling to her. Almost sweet, acrid, like black earth and decomposition. Her memory would falter sometimes, and she would explain the redness in her eyes as lack of proper sleep. Studying too much, she said. People believed it; they accepted it.
It was true her grades were as good as ever — better, even. Especially in science and history, subjects she was never too fond of. Children change, her parents said; so do their interests. Perhaps the loss of her horse sparked her interest in science. It was a plausible explanation, wasn’t it?
Sometimes she would stare, and smile, as if listening to some unheard voice. Daydreaming, her parents would say, and smile. Anne was twelve, almost thirteen; a tween, and these always have a strangeness around them.
Sometimes they would hear strange noises, like the beating of hooves, late in the night. A neighbour’s horse, most likely, they would explain, although their farm was large, and far from others.
Noise carries in the night, especially when it’s quiet. When the clouds shadow the moon and nature holds its breath.
Sometimes, they would find black soil in the oddest places, inside her room, besides her window. But young girls are sometimes untidy. Sometimes they forget to clean their clothes when running inside after a day about the farm.
(Another new aspect of Anne’s personality. She had always been fastidious and clean. Teenagers change, her parents would say, and that was that.)
She no longer wore her braid, and the other girls at school sometimes wondered. But there was a strange sort of beauty to her, even in her young face. Her brown, riotous curls framing and tumbling around her pale face. She was pale — much paler than before. But then, she hadn’t been riding. Hadn’t been outside at all hours like before. So, it made sense her tan would fade as the months went by.
Days ran into weeks, ran into months, a semester. Fall became winter, winter became spring. Anne’s strangeness soon became normalcy again. People, as they do, got used to the new girl that rose in her place after she lost her horse. By the time summer rolled by again, they had accepted her changed self. They no longer questioned the changes in her appearance and personality.
People change. Especially after a trauma.
That made sense.
So when summer came about, and with it the competitions for young horse girls, nobody truly expected Anne to write her name in, and add Prancer’s name alongside hers. It surprised even her mother, who went with her to do so, oblivious to the true intent. She was not quite sure she even remembered why they went to put her name in, in the first place.
Has she lost her mind?
Oh, poor darling…
Maybe her parents got a new horse for her…
No, I hear she doesn’t even ride anymore.
Nah, she helps her mum with the horses, she hasn’t changed that much.
The event managers rejected her, of course, on the grounds that there was no living horse with that name. To their surprise, headstrong, stubborn Anne smiled and said, “see you!”, without so much of a blink.
For the first time, her parents thought maybe she did need some therapy. They agreed to see to it by the end of summer, before school started again. For now, they thought, it was best to let Anne be, let her deal with her emotions — it was the growing process, they reasoned.
Once again, days turned into weeks. Soon the final of the showjumping competition was upon them again — although, with Anne not competing, the household did not care much. If it surprised her parents and brother when she asked to attend and arrive early, they didn’t show it. Likely assumed she was recovering from her shock. That she wantake take part again, albeit in a different manner.
They arrived early, ready to watch the riders scope the grounds, the horses warming up. It was an atmosphere they knew well and enjoyed, each in their own way. Soon, all four were engrossed in the happenings, chatting with people they knew, and having a good time.
All, except Anne.
For some reason, while she talked and laughed with everyone, there was an odd little smile on the corner of her lips. As if she knew something they didn’t.
By the time the show was set to begin, they’d lost track of Anne. Although, they knew enough people there, and she’d been there often enough, that they didn’t worry.
Much like they didn’t worry when she chose to bring a backpack with her.
Maybe, just maybe: they should have worried.
The day everything went down was a Sunday, bright and sunny, without a single cloud in the sky. In spite of the heat, there was a cool, soft breeze blowing from the lake. It seemed like the perfect day to hold the showjumping event’s final.
Anne smiled to herself as she slipped through the crowd, to the bathroom, where she changed into her riding gear. Nobody took notice of the young girl with the braided brown hair and the large, blue eyes.
There was no one to see the feverish smile on her lips as she slipped past and out and into the road, and whistled.
No one there to hear the clatter of hooves against the asphalt, or the delighted yell that followed it.
People settled and waited with bated breath as the announcer called the name of the first rider, Carol something or another. A girl of fourteen and a favorite of the season.
Silence stretched, suspended like a knife over them, anticipation mingled with excitement.
Mingled with horror, disbelief, and a single, high scream.
The first thing her parents noticed was the print the large hooves left on the sand. The strange sheen on her boots. The way it turned sticky with strange fluids as he moved. It dripped down his chest, his flanks, matting the black, lackluster fur.
The face was the first to go. A lesson in anatomy as the bit settled against the pale bone of cheek and teeth. Nostrils flared and worm-eaten. The eyes were first to go, the empty sockets fathomless and strange, but the forelock still brushed past what remained of the white star, now bone.
Bones, and muscles, and slick, slick earth, sagging, like a moth-eaten cloth in an unseen wind. Pink and black and white and so many colors. A sharp contrast to the bright girl that sat atop his saddle, shoulders squared, flushed with life.
Anne always had excellent form.
The corpse pawed the ground once, twice, with a naked foreleg. The skin devoured by the maggots crawling under it, even as they watched. Bubbling and twisting and very much alive in the purest sense of the word. Alive the way the earth is alive.
If the girl felt any disgust for the dead thing beneath her, it did not show.
Quite the opposite. There was an affectionate smile on her lips, the kind her mother missed. The kind they thought was lost to trauma, to pain, to loss. The kind they watched, horrified, bloomed on her lips when she patted the corpse’s neck, her hand coming out black with dirt and hair and strange things.
They watched, stuck into place by shock and disbelief, as she rode through the circuit. As she cleared jump after jump, leaving a trail of fluid and flesh and who knew what else.
Perhaps they should have seen. Perhaps they should have known. That she was different, that she was lost. That some part of her died with the horse she so loved.
Anne was a headstrong, stubborn girl, who fought for what she wanted to the bitter end.
She’d never wanted anything more than Prancer. Her love, her friend, her partner, her world.
Perhaps they should have done something. Perhaps when the girl completed her circuit and bowed to them. Perhaps before she rode out of the arena, never to be seen again — not her, and not her undead horse.
But, as they say, hindsight is always right.