Carla wasn’t afraid of horses, and this amazed her mother. Ariel was sure her five-year-old daughter would recoil from them as she did from large dogs and her six-foot, four-inch pre-school yoga teacher. (Carla’s school, in Boston, had been New Age before the term was invented.) Instead of retreating, however, Carla asked to be held in front of the horses so she could pet them between the eyes. She’d visited all six of the horses who occupied stalls at the May Day Stables.
After Ariel and her daughter completed a second loop of the stables, Ariel set Carla onto the hay-strewn concrete near the entrance. “Again!” Carla said. Ariel looked at her watch. Wanting to escape the misery in her mother-in-law’s house, she had given herself twice the time she needed for the drive and had arrived twenty-two minutes early for Carla’s inaugural riding lesson. It was the middle of June, and hot.
“Horses!” Carla insisted. She looked like Ariel, with her red-blond hair and faint blue eyes. She had Summit’s large, pouting lips. “Pet the horses again!”
But Ariel heard steps behind her, and when she turned, she thought she was looking at her friend Becca. The woman was tall like Becca, and she had the same black hair, cut Cleopatra style, and the same moon-white skin. She was wearing a pair of brown leather riding boots, a pair of jeans, and a red T-shirt with “Strive to Thrive” written in cursive across the front. The shirt reminded Ariel of her mother-in-law, who wasn’t thriving. Georgia’s lung cancer, in its last, terrible stage, was the reason they were in West Virginia rather than at home outside Boston.
From their single phone conversation, Ariel had expected May to be in her early fifties, with gray hair and sun-wrinkled skin. But she was Ariel’s age. “Do you want to catch a horse?” May asked Carla, who, in her customary shyness, had tucked herself behind Ariel’s legs.
May led them out of the stables and into the sunlight. To their left, down a short incline, was a wooden fence enclosing a pasture. Far beyond it, over several hills, was a forest. It looked, Ariel thought, both inviting and foreboding, like a forest from a fairy tale.
Four horses—chestnut, white, brown, and black—nipped at the grass, their tails swishing. May put her pinkies into her mouth and released a wolf whistle. All of the horses looked up; none of them answered her call.
May laughed. “One of these days, it’ll work.” She opened a gate into the pasture. “We’ll have to wrestle him back to the stables.” Looking at Carla, she said, “How strong are you?”
When it was clear Carla wasn’t going to respond, Ariel said, “Stronger than her mother on most days.” Ariel was grateful for May’s smile.
“You’ll ride Lightning,” May told Carla. “He’s the white horse.” When May approached him, Lightning made a happy sound, something close to laughter, and allowed her to put on his bridle. May clipped a lead rope to the bridle and handed it to Carla. “Guide him in,” she said.
Carla stood in place, grinning. “Go ahead, sweetheart,” Ariel said. But Carla moved only after Ariel gave her a gentle push between her shoulder blades.
In the grooming stall, May showed Carla various brushes and combs, speaking slowly and calmly, the way Ariel tried to speak to her young patients. May showed Carla how to work over Lightning with a currycomb. When Carla grew tired, Ariel said, “Let me try, sweetheart.”
As she brushed Lightning with her right hand and rubbed him with her left, Ariel felt the horse’s muscles. She wished Lightning could lend her his power and strength. Summit’s mother was dying. So, too, it seemed, was Ariel’s marriage. She would need energy and endurance to revive it. Lately, however, she had felt only the kind of listlessness bordering on exhaustion she often felt after a long drive.
A few minutes later, Carla was sitting astride Lightning in the middle of the indoor arena attached to the stables. It was about the size of a skating rink, the clay floor covered with sand. Barn swallows, bat-like in their swiftness and erratic flight, swooped down from the rafters.
“How do you feel?” May asked Carla.
This time Carla wasn’t shy: “Great!”
May attached a lunge line to Lightning’s bridle. “I believe the best way to learn is to do,” May said. “Which means you’ll learn to ride a horse by riding a horse.”
Georgia lived in a seven-bedroom brick house in the South Park neighborhood of Morgantown. The house had been magnificent when Summit’s father was alive, or so Summit said, but his mother had failed to maintain it; two windows of a far bedroom were covered in ivy, and dandelions grew in cracks on the tennis court in the back yard. The house smelled of cigarettes, which Ariel suspected Georgia continued to smoke with covert assistance from her around-the-clock hospice nurses. Georgia was confined to a hospital bed in the downstairs study.
When Ariel returned to her mother-in-law’s house, the scene was as she expected: Georgia in her hospital bed, on her back, her eyes closed. The television, on a stand six feet from the end of the bed, showed a muted program. Summit was sitting in a crimson easy chair in a corner of the room, flipping the pages of a Time magazine, which, judging by the president on its cover, was a decade old. He had long, thin fingers in keeping with how skinny—how gaunt, even—he had become recently, a six-foot, two-inch stick figure. Summit looked up when Ariel entered the room.
“How is she?” Ariel asked.
“Wonderful,” he said, his voice as bitter as his gaze.
Outside the study’s east window, Ariel saw Carla jumping rope on the dilapidated tennis court. The night before, Summit had told Ariel about his mother’s enormous debts. In the last few years of his life, Summit’s father had run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills defending himself from a financial scandal whose details Ariel had never mastered.
Next to the hospital bed was a foldup chair. The other choice of seats was an armchair in the corner across from Summit. For comfort’s sake, Ariel preferred the armchair, but if she sat in it, she would be farther from her husband. These days she was ever aware of the distances, emotional and physical, between them.
She sat in the foldup chair. The smell of the room—like faded flowers, like powerless medicines, like dust—was familiar from when Ariel’s mother was dying of cancer, when Ariel was fifteen. The smell had lingered—in the furniture, in the carpet, in her father’s hair—long after her mother’s death.
The hospice nurse, a slim, short, red-haired woman of about twenty-five, bounced into the room. “Sleeping?” the nurse asked, putting her face inches from Georgia’s.
“Or playing dead,” Summit said.
“No,” the nurse answered, ignoring Summit’s bleak humor, “she’s breathing easy.”
“I’m glad,” Ariel said, although for Georgia’s sake, as well as her family’s—and this was the truest way to say it—she wanted Georgia to die. Ariel glanced at Summit, but he was looking at the nurse. Ariel stared at him until he looked her way.
“The morphine’s doing its work,” she said.
“Where there’s life,” he said, “there’s dope.”
Ariel stood, walked out of the study, and stepped into the kitchen, where she stared out the window at Carla, who continued to jump rope, although with such lethargy she might as well have been doing it in her sleep. Ariel thought of joining her daughter, but Summit stepped beside her. He stared at Carla without saying anything.
The silence lingered. She listened to Summit’s breathing, a series of sighs. She thought about touching his shoulder or putting her arm around his waist. She once would have done so automatically. What was stopping her now? She said, “This is hard.” It was, she knew, the blandly obvious thing to say about Georgia’s cancer, although she might also have been speaking of their marriage.
Summit said, “I know you’re looking forward to it ending.”
“Do you mean am I looking forward to my mother dying?”
Summit was Georgia’s only son, and she lavished on him her attention and counsel, the way a queen would a prince. But although she loved Summit, she didn’t love the choices he’d made, particularly his choice of a wife. As genteel as she was, she didn’t refrain from insinuating that Ariel’s medical career had prevented Summit from following his father into politics, even if Summit had given up such ambitions long ago. Nevertheless, Summit felt he’d failed the old woman, and his uncertain career—he had a Ph.D. in philosophy but hadn’t found more than adjunct work—offered no compelling counterargument.
What annoyed Ariel as much as Georgia’s critique of Summit’s life was her exaltation of an imagined past in which she was the celebrated and revered wife of one of the state’s greatest politicians, a titanic statesman who deserved to be governor and, in her telling, nearly was. (In fact, Summit’s father had been trounced in the Democratic primary the single time he’d sought the office.) To Georgia, the present was an abomination, a fallen place. In redress, she smoked and drank too much. What she wanted of Summit and, to a lesser extent, of his sister, Madelyn, who was married to a German businessman and lived in Bonn, was, through them, to rewind the years so she could live them the way she imagined she had lived them.
Ariel said, “You know what I mean, Summit. Don’t you want your mother’s pain to be over?”
“She’s filled from head to toe with morphine,” Summit answered. “I don’t think she’s in much pain.”
No, Ariel thought, but you are.
The next day, after lunch, Ariel walked with Carla to the Blue Moose Café, a dim, cavernous place with sticky floors, and treated her to a strawberry-banana smoothie. They sat at a wobbly table next to a window. Across the street was an adult bookstore, its windows tinted silver. As Carla inhaled her treat, Ariel snapped open her cell phone and called Becca, who was in Michigan to perform at the Grrls with Guitars Festival.
“Are you holding up?” Becca asked.
Ariel said, “Sure,” and Becca said, “Liar,” and they both laughed.
“I’m rooting for the old lady to die pronto,” Becca said, “so you and Summit can find each other again.”
“I don’t know if he wants to be found.”
“Do you want to find him?”
There was a pause.
“Air?” Becca asked.
“I do. I think. But I’m tired. Everything seems like an ordeal. Dying. Living.”
In sweet, little-girl murmurs, Carla counted the squares on the checkerboard painted on their table. She skipped thirteen, although Ariel couldn’t remember telling her the number was bad luck.
“You’re in the wrong place to make any life decisions,” Becca said. “So don’t make any, all right?”
“I’ll do my best.”
In Georgia’s house, Ariel slept in a king-sized bed with Carla in the second-floor guestroom. The following morning, before dawn, she thought she felt Summit beside her. But when she woke, he wasn’t in the bed. Doubtless he had spent the night either in his easy chair at the end of his mother’s bed or in his old bedroom, which his mother had left unchanged since he graduated from high school. On their last visit to Morgantown, soon after his mother learned her cancer had metastasized, Summit discovered a two-decades-old Playboy magazine under his mattress. “Ah, Miss July,” he said, “she never calls, she never writes, she never screams, ‘Help, I’m suffocating!’”
This might have been the last time they’d laughed together. Afterwards, despite Ariel’s efforts to comfort and distract him, Summit withdrew into sullenness. He drank more. He often came home later than he said he would, never offering the exaggerated excuses he might have if he’d been having an affair but always with a cold, depressed indifference to what she said in worry or remonstrance. He found other places to sleep in their house besides their bed.
Months ago, Ariel suggested they go to a marriage counselor, and Summit said, “So we can be told what we already know?” At the time, she assumed he was only parroting his gender’s mistrust of mental health professionals, shrinks who said the obvious and charged the ridiculous. Now, however, she wondered if he had seen the crossroads ahead of them, had understood they soon would be walking down separate paths.
Lying beside Carla, Ariel thought about when she would be back at work at the Boston Children’ Care Center. She had expected Georgia to die quickly. But Georgia had never done anything to convenience Ariel; so Ariel continued to be part of a prolonged pre-mourning ceremony, which included not only Ariel, Summit, and Carla but various neighbors, friends, and well-wishers who dropped by as late as ten at night to stroke Georgia’s dry hands and speak to her in loud voices, as if she were deaf as well as dying.
For her part, Georgia could manage only a few words per conversation, “no” being the most frequent.
“No, no, no,” Ariel whispered to herself now. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
Most of the drive to May Day Stables was on paved road. The last mile, however, was uphill on a single-lane, dirt road, slick as ice in places, cratered with foot-deep potholes in others. Ariel wondered if May was ever snowed in, even with her pickup truck.
But if May’s truck failed her, she had a means to leave her home on the hill. Ariel pictured the stables on fire—the entire hilltop on fire—and May emerging from the flames on Lightning’s back. It was a scene out of a romance novel, or a terrible futuristic fantasy, but it held Ariel’s imagination.
When they arrived, May was leaning against the doorframe of the stable, her brown riding boots crossed. She wore a red, spaghetti-strap blouse and faded blue jeans frayed near the pockets. Her armpits were unshaven. She was cool and attractive in the way Becca was; she wore her rugged life casually.
Holding up a bridle, May asked Carla, “Are you ready to catch a horse?”
This time, Carla didn’t hesitate: She raced to the gate, and when May opened it, she ran toward Lightning.
“I think she has the fever,” Ariel said.
“Inherited?” May asked.
“How long did yours last?”
“Until I was ten, when I learned to play the guitar,” Ariel said.
“It’s usually boys who end a girl’s horse fever.”
“And create a fever all their own.”
“God’s truth,” May said and laughed.
“You seem to have avoided it,” Ariel said.
“How do you mean?”
Ariel hesitated. “You’re not wearing a wedding ring.”
“Which only means I’m not married. It doesn’t mean I’ve escaped the fever.”
“That was insensitive. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Before they reached Carla, who was stroking Lightning’s belly, May said, “Next time you come, bring boots or shoes you’d feel comfortable riding in. You can see if the fever returns.”
Ariel was looking past Carla and Lightning to the forest beyond the pasture and hills. She wondered how deep it was and what it held. Wiping sweat from her brow, she thought, It must, at least, be cool. “I’d like that,” she said.
When Ariel and Carla returned to Georgia’s house, Summit wasn’t home. The red-haired nurse, whose name, Ariel thought, was either Liza or Lisa, said he’d gone to see some high-school friends. To Ariel, it seemed as if Summit was the only member of his graduating class to have ever left town.
After feeding Carla dinner, bathing her, and tucking her into bed, Ariel returned downstairs to look in on her mother-in-law. Georgia was sleeping. Liza or Lisa, sitting in the chair next to Georgia’s bed, was gazing at the television, which showed a man or a woman—someone tall, anyway, with sculpted features and long legs—running in a dark city, pursued by something shadowy and large.
Ariel was about to excuse herself when Georgia opened her eyes and turned to look at her. In the old photographs in the hallway, Georgia was beautiful, with lustrous black hair and a long, sleek body. In her bed, however, she had been reduced to recumbent bones, her hair like cotton balls glued to her head.
Liza said, “I’ll leave you two alone.” Before Ariel could protest, she scooted out of the room.
Georgia opened her mouth. Her lips were chapped. Please don’t say anything to me, Ariel thought. To preclude the possibility, Ariel was about to tell her something gentle and innocuous, something about Carla’s love of horses, but Georgia spoke first. “Save,” she said.
“Save?” Ariel asked.
“Some,” Georgia said.
“Some?” Ariel didn’t intend to be an echo chamber, but she wanted to understand.
“Something,” Georgia said.
Ariel refrained from repeating the word.
“Something!” Georgia said forcefully before coughing. Her bottom lip glistened with saliva.
“I will,” Ariel said.
Georgia nodded. As if the words she’d spoken had been too much, she closed her eyes. A stillness settled on the room. Save something. What? Ariel thought. My marriage?
My peace of mind?
Are the two even compatible?
In the kitchen, Ariel found Liza watching the same show as earlier. “They’re gaining on her,” Ariel said.
Liza turned to her. “It’s a him,” she clarified.
Three hours later, Ariel was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a stale sugar cookie and drinking decaffeinated tea, when Summit returned. He was drunk; she could tell by how slowly he moved and how much time passed between when his lips opened to say hello and when he actually said it. He eased into the chair next to hers.
“How was your high-school reunion?” she asked. She hadn’t meant to be sarcastic. It was, sadly, what came naturally to her now when she spoke with him.
She wondered how long his silence would last. After a minute, she couldn’t stand it. “How’s the home team?”
He put his elbow on the table and his chin in his palm. “You’re beautiful when you’re angry.”
“I’m not angry.”
“You’re beautiful when you’re lying.”
On another occasion, she might have smiled. Why couldn’t she now?
“The home team, as in my friends who never left planet Morgantown?” he asked. “They were in winning form. We had drinks at a bar we used to sneak into when we were in high school. I remembered it being far more alluring. So I tried to drink my way back.”
“To high school?” Ariel asked.
When they were dating, Summit told her all about his high-school friends. There were ten in his group, five boys and five girls, and they had mixed and matched partners like characters in a madcap romantic comedy. A couple of the girls had married and divorced. One of the boys had four children. Ariel might have asked about them now, except she couldn’t keep their names straight. Had she failed him by being so inattentive to the particulars of his past?
“It’s like Becca’s song,” Summit said. He licked his lips, which, like Georgia’s, were chapped.
“‘Ten years later, the hotdogs at Sam’s Grill are rolling on the rollers still.’”
“‘Hometown Blues,’” Ariel said. It wasn’t one of her favorites.
“Come here,” Summit said, although no gesture accompanied his words.
Ariel ignored him.
“Come on, babe,” Summit said. “My mother’s dying, for God’s sake.” He might as well have said, “It’s supposed to rain tomorrow.” When had he become so emotionless?
She scanned the last year of their lives and saw no joy. It occurred to her why they were here: to mourn the death of their marriage as well as the soon-to-be death of his mother.
“Why do you always blame your unhappiness on me?” Summit asked her.
“I’m not unhappy,” Ariel said and burst into tears.
Summit stood up but had to clutch the end of the table to keep from toppling.
“Don’t bother,” Ariel said.
“My mother’s dying,” he said.
“I know, Summit, and I’m sorry.”
He looked at her as if he thought he’d said something else and was confused by her reply. Ariel was no longer sure what they were hoping to say to each other. Whatever it was couldn’t be clarified by beer or wine or whiskey—whatever he’d thrown back with his high-school friends.
“You look unhappy when you’re unhappy,” he said and smiled or sneered.
“You look drunk when you’re drunk,” she said.
She said goodnight, left the kitchen, and climbed the red-carpeted staircase to the guest room. She slid into bed next to Carla, whose warmth she felt immediately.
During the night, she woke up several times, each time thinking Summit had come to bed. The last time, Carla woke and said, “Mommy, you’re hugging me too hard.”
The next day, which dawned gray and grew grayer, Ariel told May she could use a refresher course in riding. So after Carla’s lesson, May set up Carla in a lawn chair outside the gates of the indoor arena, supplying her with crayons and pieces of construction paper and two juice boxes. Ariel sat astride Lightning and felt, in her first moments aloft, like she was five-years-old again and the world was magic. Soon, she was flying around the ring. Ariel hadn’t felt this good since—when?
“Beautiful,” May said. “From walk to canter in, I don’t know, four point six seconds? To hell with the refresher lesson. I should have set up a steeple-chase course.”
Rain fell, smashing against the tin roof. Ariel thought she heard a distant crackle of thunder. She pulled up next to May, who stood in the middle of the arena.
“You’re welcome to come here on your own sometime,” May said, her voice soft.
Ariel thought: She knows somehow about me and Summit. She’s offering refuge, a pasture of one’s own.
“Next time, the weather will be better,” May said. “We’ll ride outside.”
“I’d like that,” Ariel said.
Ariel looked at her daughter. Carla was no longer coloring but staring at her with a look Summit sometimes gave her. The look asked, Whose side are you on?
“She’s dead,” Summit said as soon as Ariel returned. (Carla had raced upstairs to the guest room.) They were standing in the hallway, with its twelve-foot ceilings, its sparkling chandelier, its Gone With the Wind staircase.
“What?” Ariel asked. She had expected Georgia to damn the doctors’ prognostications and endure all summer.
Summit released a long sigh. “Caput,” he said. “Fini.” His lower lip, which seemed to be swollen, trembled. He turned from her, and she knew she should go to him, put her arms around his waist. She said, “She was a fighter.” It was what anyone might have said to him, something mild and clichéd. She felt silly and also angry at herself for failing to come up with soothing words. Her mother had died in the same manner Georgia had, and Ariel might have drawn from this to comfort her husband. But she didn’t want to invoke her mother in the same sentence as Georgia. Her mother had never said a nasty word to anyone. Her mother would have loved Summit.
Summit turned back to her. His eyes were rimmed in red. He seemed about to say something, but he didn’t speak.
“I’m sorry, Summit,” she said, moving toward him.
“What do you have to be sorry about?” he asked. Ariel stopped. She recognized the gambit, channeling whatever he was feeling into bitterness toward her. She was tired of his suppressed emotions, which so often bubbled out of him as hostility. She was tired of this ruined mansion. She wanted to say, “Carla and I are going home.”
Summit began to cry. His body remained still, but his tears fell quickly. Every so often he released a mournful groan. She stepped into his chest and wrapped her arms around him. He didn’t return her embrace.
She would add his stiffness, his unwillingness to be comforted, to her list of signs that their marriage was dead. The list was far too long. She began to cry, too. “It’s all right,” she said aloud, but also to herself, mostly to herself, as she held him. “It’s going to be all right.”
The next time Ariel saw May, she didn’t bring Carla. It was the day before their return to Boston, and Summit wanted Carla to spend more time with his sister, who had come from Germany in time for the funeral, held the day before.
May didn’t ask about Carla’s absence, and Ariel didn’t feel compelled to explain it.
“Maybe the two of us could ride outside,” Ariel suggested, and May nodded and said, “That’s what I was planning.”
She helped Ariel saddle Lightning. From a stall at the end of the stables, May brought the black horse, Midnight. “He could have been in the movie,” Ariel said.
“The Black Stallion?” May laughed. “Maybe The Horse From Hell. He’s beautiful to ride, but he eats the wood of his stall and he’s at the vet’s so often it’s like he has a second home.”
“Not exactly Pegasus, then?”
“I’d love to sell him,” May said. “But I’d have to deceive the buyer and say he’s worth the price. Whatever the price. I’m afraid he and I are stuck with each other.”
“In good times and bad,” Ariel said. “In sickness and in health.”
“Exactly.” May gave Ariel a sympathetic look, as if inviting her to say more. Ariel wouldn’t know where to begin.
They led their horses into the pasture before mounting. Smoke-gray clouds coated the edges of the sky, but sunshine shown on the grass.
“Have you ever been married?” Ariel asked the question softly; even so, she feared it might have come across as an insensitive non sequitur. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be—”
“It’s all right,” May said. “I had my son when I was sixteen. I wasn’t married.” May stroked Midnight’s neck and adjusted herself on the saddle. “My son is finishing up college at Pitt. He visits me twice a month.” She smiled. “Other men? Sure. But time limited. They all have their expiration dates.”
Ariel didn’t know if she envied May’s life or feared it.
May waited again, but Ariel said nothing. “Everything okay?” May asked.
No, Ariel thought. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. “Nothing a ride into the sunset won’t cure,” she said.
May smiled with sympathy. “It always helps me,” she said. “Let’s go.” She rode off at a canter; Ariel followed.
Soon they reached the fence on the other side of the pasture, and May climbed down to unlatch the gate. She led both horses through, shut the gate, and remounted Midnight. Ahead of them were rolling, grass hills and, beyond, the forest.
“This is all yours?” Ariel said.
“My inheritance from four generations of gentlemen farmers,” May said. “If they could only see me now.”
They rode again. Ariel felt the wind in her hair and Lightning’s strong body beneath her. Ten minutes later, and twenty yards from the forest, they slowed. At the forest’s edge, they stopped. Ariel found herself panting. She’d forgotten how fit one had to be to ride.
Beyond the sugar maples, the scarlet oaks, and the ash trees, it was impossible to tell how deep the forest was. “What now?” Ariel said.
“We ride back and do it all over again,” May said.
“We do? Can’t we go farther?”
“Where?” May asked. “Here?” She nodded toward the forest.
“There must be a trail,” Ariel said. “Isn’t there?” She stared hard into the dense woods.
“Maybe,” May said. “I’ve never gone in.” May glanced at Ariel. “Do you want to?”
“I don’t know,” Ariel said, but Lightning stepped over the overgrown grass at the forest’s edge and nudged past the first tree.