The sun, half hidden behind a projection of rock. Wooden fences and burnt orange dirt and the occasional bleached bone. Rusting cars scattered toward the horizon. And my six-year-old daughter, a bag of Lay’s chips crushed between her knees, melting into the passenger seat. As always, silent.
I’d picked up a book about reaching children after divorce a couple days before she showed up. Initiate the conversation, it had read. Welcome the child’s emotions. Do something informal – something the child enjoys.
Caroline seems to like driving through the desert all right. Every so often, she glances over at the white plastic mustang twirling from my rearview mirror. I’d bought it at a gas station for three bucks the other day after kid-proofing my car, throwing out wrinkled condom wrappers and the packs of cigarettes I kept around for emergency smokes. It bothered me, the horse frozen mid-gallop, its legs stretching out into nothingness. But I knew she’d like it. When she was younger, before the divorce, she drew horses on everything; misshapen horses with straight long legs and flat stomachs and smiling mouths with square teeth. I’d taken one of these drawings with me to New Mexico and hung it on my fridge.
A truck rattles by and dust explodes around us, funneling in through the half-open windows, staining the white horse a dull brown. She squeezes her eyes shut and claps a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. I haven’t heard a sound from her since I picked her up at the airport a few days ago. She’d always been a quiet kid, but stopped talking completely after I’d packed up and left, driving across the country until trees shrunk to sagebrush and the land rose up in columns of smooth rock. The rawness of it was what I’d thought I wanted.
‘What do you say, Caro? Wanna see some horses today?’
I hear little clicks of fingernails against teeth, and remember the book’s advice – don’t let the child drift away – but I let her sink into herself anyway. We crest a hill, and a squat building materializes through the shimmering heat. From here, it looks like a box with a torn tinfoil cover throwing off sunlight, as delicate and harmless as one of Caroline’s school projects. She pinches her nose as we pull closer. The smell used to make me retch, the stink of shit and sweat and something else I couldn’t put my finger on, something musty and thick.
‘Put on your shoes,’ I tell her. We park in a cloud of rising dust. The lot is almost full, crammed with beat-up trailers and old cars and a few nicer ones, too. The Innocents, we call them. They’re the ones that wander into the chaos with pure intentions – to buy a riding pony for their kids or a strong draft horse to pull heavy loads on their farms. They rarely return. I see Hank by the pen, a cigarette bobbing from his lips, and I wave. ‘Be nice to Mr Hank,’ I whisper to Caroline. I pull her out of the seat, but she won’t look at me, her gray eyes focused on some spot in the distance as she wraps her arms around my neck. Her hot breaths seep through the fabric of my shirt like a second heartbeat.
‘Rick.’ Hank’s smile reveals a mouthful of corn-kernel teeth. ‘Almost thought you stopped coming. Left it all behind you.’ He winks, and I feel Caroline lift her head from my neck. ‘Who’s your sidekick?’
I hoist her up a little in my arms. ‘Caroline. My daughter.’ She wraps her limbs around me more tightly, like a starfish clinging to an underwater rock, and hooks her chin over my shoulder. ‘I only have her ‘til the end of the week, and she loves animals, so I thought maybe we’d see some today.’ I set her down and pat her on the back, and a hollow thump rings out, like there’s nothing inside of her. ‘How ‘bout you go check out those horses over there?’
She looks up at me, her eyes huge in her tiny tanned face, before loping off towards the pen. She moves so freely that I envy her. I’ve become too conscious of my own body, of muscle pulling on tendon pulling on bone, the way they snap me into motion. But it’s a skill in the auction ring. I can pinpoint the weights of the horses within five or ten pounds, and can tell from the way the muscles coil and stretch if the meat will be high quality, the way Hank’s buyers want it.
‘Thanks for coming out,’ Hank says. His cheeks cave in on themselves as he blows perfect smoke rings around my face. ‘Another one dropped dead last night. Don’t understand it. Food and water, what else do they need?’
I think of the metal pen hidden behind Hank’s house, of the dozens of horses pressed against each other in the chilled desert air, heads hanging low, a mass of hair and flesh and shining, unblinking eyes. ‘So you’re only gonna need one?’
He shrugs, squinting at me through the sunlight. Hank’s face seems to change every time I see him, his eyes puckered and retreating into folds of skin while his mouth grows wider, floppier, stretching almost to his ears. It strikes me that maybe I’m the one changing somehow.
‘We’ll take as many as we can get.’ He looks over at Caroline. ‘Smart. Kid protection. No one’s gonna give you shit with her around.’
‘It’s not like that.’
He smiles lazily and takes a long drag. I can remember hating him, back when I first took the job. Hank had invited me over for a steak dinner, refilling my glass with red wine as soon as it was gone, asking if the meat was tender, if the mesquite wood-chip marinade added a necessary smokiness, if it wasn’t the most premium shit I’d ever had. It was only after I’d complimented his steak and my head was buzzing with wine that Hank leaned back in his chair and told me I’d had my first experience with horse meat. I knew it was a test, and knew I needed the money. I sat up straight and stared back at him, my heartbeats thundering against my throat, until Hank spoke.
‘Never show emotion,’ he’d said, stabbing his fork through a piece of red meat and pointing it at me from across the table. ‘Better yet, just don’t have it. There’s no place for pussies in the auction ring.’
The meat sat heavy in my stomach as we discussed the arrangement. Hank didn’t get around so well anymore – his legs curved out in a diamond shape from years of riding horses – and the long drive to Mexico made him ache. I would buy the horses at his auctions, deliver them to the slaughterhouses, and keep my mouth shut in exchange for half the profit. Sixty cents per pound of flesh, about seven-hundred pounds a horse, anywhere from ten to twenty animals bought at a time on good days. I quit my job at a fast-food joint off the highway the next day.
Caroline is standing near the horses, my white T-shirt flapping against her skinny thighs, her face blank and unreadable. Handlers are dragging cows and horses and themselves along invisible but well-traveled highways cutting through the dusty parking lot, paths stretching out from the barn’s double doors to their old trailers. No one looks at each other. I catch glimpses of her through the traffic. Her arms are pressed back against the rungs of the pen like she’s trying to steady herself.
‘Listen, she likes horses, and what else is there to do out here anyway? Play with the scorpions?’
Hank isn’t listening. His eyes are darting around the parking lot, scanning the license plate of each car before meeting mine. He wipes the slickness from his forehead.
‘We’ve got a few buyers over there.’ He points to a group of men huddled underneath the torn roof, their forms tiger-striped by the beams above. I recognize Charlie, an old veteran from Albuquerque who lost an arm in Vietnam. He tells other bidders that he runs a therapeutic riding facility, or that he’s buying horses for his sick granddaughter, depending on the day of the week, and no one bids against him. There’s Bob, an ambitious twenty-something with a twangy Southeastern accent and a crippling gambling addiction. We all know each other the way clouds know rain, conscious of each other’s existence, vaguely aware that we originated from the same combination of elements and chance. Charlie catches my eye and raises his glowing cigarette in a kind of salute.
‘I’ve seen at least a few seven-hundred pounders here. Maybe even an eight-fifty or two. Should be a good day.’ Hank claps a hand to my shoulder, then walks off towards the barn. Caroline is on her tiptoes in her sandals, the soles of her feet caked with red, her fingertips tracing the velvety skin around a mare’s nostril. She’s so gentle that it hurts. I’d forgotten this about her, forgotten most things about her, really. My book says I shouldn’t feel guilty about this sense of disconnect. What I really feel guilty for is that she is half me.
I take her hand and walk with her into the dark barn, down the aisle studded with yellow circles of light. I pick up a bidding card and step into the auction ring, a circular room with whitewashed walls and a thin layer of sawdust on the concrete floor. Caroline’s hand is sweating in mine – or is it my hand that’s sweating? – and I hold on more tightly as we step down through the bleachers arranged around the pen, pushing through white Stetsons and straw hats and one bright green baseball cap with a blonde ponytail flooding through the opening. I set Caroline on my lap and glance over my shoulder. Four words are stitched in black above the rim of the woman’s cap – Angel Acres Horse Rescue – and her eyes are fixed on me. She’s sitting on one of those bleacher seats, the ones people bring to football stadiums, and I can smell her coconut sunscreen. I reach over and wipe a smudge of dirt from Caroline’s cheek.
‘Rick Hayes,’ she says. ‘It’s been a while.’ Her voice is saccharine sweet. Caroline wags her fingers at the woman shyly and burrows back into me. I don’t turn around.
‘You look like a horse girl to me,’ she says to Caroline. ‘Maybe your dad’ll buy you a pony today. What do you think?’ I hear her bleacher seat squeak as she leans forward. ‘Your dad buys a lot of horses, you know.’
I turn Caroline around so she’s facing the pen and jiggle her on my lap like she’s riding a bronco. She used to love this, but now she is still and limp, her head rolling from side to side. I feel like I’m hurting her.
‘What a lucky girl you are,’ the woman says to my daughter.
Someone slides open the big Dutch doors behind the pen, and the room floods with burnt sunlight. Hank appears through a side door, tipping his cowboy hat to the crowd as the old-timers stamp their boots and whistle through puckered mouths. He positions himself behind the podium and taps on his microphone, sending out a dull note that bounces off the walls. ‘Let’s not waste any time here, folks,’ he says, flashing that toothy grin as an old chestnut gelding stumbles through the opening.
‘Aaaand we’ll start off here with a 25 dollar bid, now 30, 30, will ya give me 30? Okay, I got 30, let’s do 35, 35...’
The horse stands in the center of the pen. His coat is clumped with clouds of hair. Flies buzz drunkenly around the blood pooling on a cut above his hoof. The handler shouts some Spanish words, then brings a whip down swiftly upon the horse’s hindquarters. Caroline flinches in my arms. The horse blinks once, but doesn’t move, his legs buckling from the effort of standing. ‘Sold!’ Hank cries, pointing to a spot just above my head. ‘To the young woman.’
Hank’s chanting blends into the background noise of low chuckles and buzzing insects and the sound of the warm wind howling through the Dutch doors as horse after horse – nervous colts, draft horses, Thoroughbreds with limps – go to the woman behind me, her clear nail polish glinting as she thrusts her bidding card over her head like a trophy. Some of the other kill buyers slip out of the auction room quietly.
‘Alright, ya’ll,’ Hank says. ‘Last horse of the day, and she looks pretty good.’ He lets his eyes settle on me for a moment, then looks towards the chute. A gray mare bursts forward, her tail willowing out behind her, and throws herself against the rungs of the pen. She stays pressed there, her black ears pivoting back and forth. There’s a haphazard braid in her mane, tied at the bottom with a faded ribbon. She’d been loved once. The animal has to be nine hundred pounds, at least, and I can feel my fingers drifting towards the bidding card lying next to me. The mare flings her head up and snorts. I barely notice when Caroline slips from my grasp and goes to stand near the pen. The sun bleeds into the sky above her.
‘150 dollars, now 175, 175… come on, folks, gimme 175...’ Charlie thrusts up his card. ‘Got 175, let’s see 190, 190 for this great little gal here, 190...’ Hank’s mouth is still moving against the microphone, but his eyes are on me, and I turn to look at the woman. She’s sitting there with a twenty-dollar bill smashed between her fingers, her shoulders sagging, a few blonde hairs clinging to her damp forehead. A wilting flower. Go to hell, she mouths to me.
‘190! Let’s see 200, 200...’
Caroline is leaning against the railing, her face pressed against the metal bars, and I want to tell her to step away from the pen but I can’t make myself speak. The fingers of the sun are curling into the room, groping along the walls.
I close my eyes and raise my card.
‘I’ve got 200,’ Hank crows. I glance over at Charlie, but his hands are in his lap, his eyes shaded by the brim of his straw hat.
‘Going... going... gone. Sold for 200 to the man in the front row.’ Hank bangs his gavel, and both Caroline and the mare jump at the sound. The handler leads the horse out of the ring, her braid swinging with the motion of her walk. The sun meets the horizon in a burst of light before slipping away behind the earth, and I sit there, watching the sky bruise violet as the bidders shuffle out.
Caroline trails behind me as we walk back to the parking lot. Hank’s leaning against his old trailer, gripping the mare’s halter, and she’s dancing in place, her milky eyes rolling and bright.
‘Put this on her, will ya?’ Hank tosses me a ratty horse blanket and I lay it across her trembling back. The mare’s head is pointed towards the naked slopes of the Western mountains, and she sniffs the air, a snort rumbling through her nostrils. She turns to me and nuzzles my collar. My stomach clenches.
Hank leans in, his hot damp breath tickling my ear. ‘We both stand to make a couple hundred bucks from this horse alone. Good call, kid.’
I feel that familiar itch for a cigarette springing from my fingers. The mare halts and shrieks when we try to push her into the trailer meant for cattle. The ceiling is too low. Hank smacks her rump and she bolts inside, her hooves clattering against the metal grooves.
‘Hank,’ I say. The mare’s neck is twisted sideways, her muzzle nearly touching her chest, but she isn’t struggling anymore. He turns to me, his hand on the trailer door. His face is all sharp angles and shifting shadows in the low sunlight. I try to catch his gaze, but it is floating, elusive. He doesn’t see me.
I could tell him I’d pay him more than the slaughterhouse in Mexico would. I could give the mare to Caroline, something permanent she could call her own. We could set up a lean-to in the backyard, next to the saguaro cactus, in that spot where you can see the flat mesa tabletops and the dips of faraway canyons. I could teach her how to ride – heels down, chin up, back straight and strong. I could go into town and find myself an honest job at the grocery store or the post office, work for eight hours a day, every day, shoving other people’s food into plastic bags or delivering their mail. I could.
Hank taps his boot against the earth, a flat tuneless sound that brings me back. I see my daughter, severed and separate from the world, my child who doesn’t even belong to me. I see the doomed mare and know that saving her would change nothing at all.
Something cold and permanent blooms inside me.
‘Never mind,’ I say.
Caroline and I stand in the empty parking lot as the trailer disappears down the road, watching a cloud of dust hover overhead like some indecipherable sign. The stars are punching through a layer of ink-blue sky. I realize that Caroline is shivering next to me. I drape my leather jacket over her, rubbing the hollow space between her shoulder blades until I feel warmth seeping back into her skin. She’s tearing strips of nail off again with her teeth, one by one, and letting them float to the ground.
‘Where’s she going?’ Caroline’s voice is deeper than I’d expected. Her face turns to mine, those eyes filled with a kind of resignation that make me look away.
I can smell the stinging metallic blood, can feel the cold machines and latex gloves ripping out pink meat that is cut into uniform squares and shoved into sealed plastic packages, and for a moment, lost in the darkness of the desert, I’m convinced that I’m the one headed to the slaughterhouse.
LAUREN WARD is a second-year fiction student in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Montana. She’s been competing in horseback riding since she was young and uses these experiences to inform not only this particular story, but much of her writing. This is her first publication.