Old Hoss

by Laura DeHaan

“You’re sure you don’t mind?” Janelle said anxiously even as she sidled closer to the screen door.

Edward smiled distantly and wiped his father’s mouth with a napkin. “It’s a little late to be asking that,” he said. His years of living overseas hadn’t taken away the British soil in his accent and Janelle loved it, loved it for making even the most tired phrase sound distinguished.

“It’s just the first time you’ll be here all alone with him…”

“I daresay two such strapping lads will be able to fend for themselves. You didn’t take your yoghurt cup.”

“Oh.” She skipped breakfast when she could; it was almost a game to see if she could do so without his noticing. “Do you want me to pick anything up on the way home?”

“Your breakfast for tomorrow. Go on, goose.”

“All right. Love you.” She paused halfway out the door. “And that hobby horse still stinks!” She ducked out, not waiting to hear a reply.

“Old hoss.” Maynard, Edward’s father, banged his fork on the table.

“Yes, you’re taking good care of my old ‘obby ‘oss,” said Edward. It leaned against the table, politely looking away while Edward cut up the sausage patties.

“Said… said…” Maynard pointed at the door. “Smell bad.”

“Happens to the best of us,” said Edward.

“She won’t… she won’t… get rid.”

“No, I daresay she won’t. Eat up, dad, I’ll get the washing started.”

Edward brought the unfinished yoghurt to the fridge and his plate to the sink; washed it, dried it, put the utensils away. He coughed loudly and turned back to his father and the empty plate before him. His father had his hands over his eyes.

“All done!” said Edward. He tidied that plate as well and helped his father stand. “Righto, let’s go to the living room. Shall I bring the hoss?”

Maynard waved his hand. Edward interpreted it as a dismissal. They went to the living room, leaving behind the hobby horse who now rested beside his father’s chair, nose pointing where the plate had lain.

#

“How was he today?” Janelle asked when she came home that evening.

“Perfectly fine. I read to him a bit and he napped most of the afternoon.”

“He slept?” Janelle frowned, unwrapped her scarf and hung it on the hanger with her jacket. “I don’t know if I like him sleeping so much during the day. He isn’t a bat, you know.”

“He’s still fit and happy. He just prefers to take his morning constitutional at night, that’s all.”

“And I don’t like that, either!” She went to her husband and put her arms around him. “I’m sorry, love. I’m just cranky. I wish the commute weren’t so long. And I do worry.”

He stroked her hair. “Dad has always managed to find his way home, like a cat who knows where his food comes from. He never stays out past ten, and everyone keeps an eye out for him.” His eyes twinkled. “I think he makes a model teenager.”

“But that attack…”

“The most exciting thing to happen here for years and years and years.” He still smiled, but his eyes were sad. “And even then someone noticed and got help and everything turned out all right. This isn’t Boston, goose. Dad is safe and happy here.” He touched her nose with a finger. “And I know you’re going to mention the size of the house next, but I spent all afternoon slaving over a pot roast, and that is my final word on the subject tonight. Take a shower, you’ll feel better.”

As she trotted upstairs, Janelle once again blessed her husband for being the man he was. Never had she suspected she would be one of those women who thanked her lucky stars for finding a man who so completed and complimented her, but she found she was happy nonetheless.

In the shower, though, her thoughts turned once again to the less than happy circumstances that brought them to this tiny house in the backwoods of Britain. Edward’s mother had died in a car accident when Edward was quite young, and his father was ever after a changed man — less coherent, more given to daydreams and empty contemplation. Within a year, Maynard had married another woman, one Janelle suspected of having some sort of — well, for goodness’ sake, some sort of a kink for the mentally unbalanced. She bore him two more sons and left him before her boys had become teenagers, perhaps finally realising that Edward was doing more in the role of a father than Maynard. The twins had kept in incidental contact with their father, visiting once or twice a year from Glasgow. Edward, who had moved to Boston after the separation, managed five or six times a year before the attack.

Her hands slowed in the rhythm of her ablutions. They had received a call from a police officer telling them that someone had broken into Maynard’s house and had left him hospitalised. A neighbour had been alerted by the sound of breaking glass and had called the police, and a minute later had heard a man’s scream. A man dressed in black ran out of the house. Shortly after, the police arrived and an ambulance was sent for while they searched for the burglar in the woods behind the house, which the neighbour had seen him running towards. They found him quite quickly as he was stone dead, his head cracked open on a stone by the brook. It was assumed his feet had gotten tangled up in one of the many fallen branches and he’d tripped over it in his rush to escape.

Janelle had been horrified to hear that, but her husband’s reaction surprised her more. When an instinctive, “Oh, that poor man” escaped her lips, Edward had turned to her and said, “My father is getting his teeth removed from his tongue. That bastard can rot.” The hospital said that it seemed the burglar had hit Maynard so hard in the mouth that all of his front teeth had shattered. The trauma had also left him more addled than before. Janelle’s sympathy for the old man was acute, but it had dimmed considerably when Edward announced that he would be moving back home to care for his father and he would understand if she wanted to stay behind. Janelle immediately insisted she join him and they had sold their house in Boston and went to live with Maynard in his tiny two-storey cottage in the British hinterlands. Edward had decided to stay home as full-time caretaker while Janelle spent the two months of summer looking for work before finding another job as a paralegal in Dundee. It was not the life she’d envisioned.

And I’m not cruel, she told herself, as she often told herself. I’m just not as patient as Edward.

Clean and steadied, she went to the kitchen and saw the hobby horse leaning to look out the window. The batting in its head was lumpy, the ears were uneven, and the eyes had lost whatever colour they’d once had. Deliberately, Janelle picked it up by the pole and brought it to rest in the living room at the foot of the couch.

She went back to the kitchen and sat at the table where Edward and Maynard were already seated. “It’s quite an old thing, isn’t it?” she said, trying for an air of casualness. “His horrible old hobby horse.”

“Technically it’s my horrible old hobby horse, not his,” said Edward mildly. “You had one of your own, didn’t you, dad?”

“Mumming… clacking… clacking, catch you, blacking…”

Janelle smiled uncertainly. “What’s that again?”

“Dad did mumming back in the day,” Edward said. “Mumming, mummery. The Hero and the Fool and the Doctor. The Hero and the Fool were there to kill each other. The Doctor was there to pour an elixir down their throats and bring them back to life. Dad was the horse the Hero rode.”

“Clack! Clack!”

“His had a real horse skull, and a piece of cloth went from it over his head, and he’d go around assaulting the young ladies, didn’t you, dad.”

“Blacken you,” said Maynard.

Edward laughed at Janelle’s expression. “It means he just swooped them up under the skirt and would toss some paint on them. That’s all. No girl ever lost her virginity under the skirt of the horse skull.”

“Ah.” Determined to make a contribution, Janelle turned to Maynard and said, with painful enunciation, “Did you like riding the horse?”

“Rode by it!” Maynard said. He slapped his knee and laughed. Janelle’s careful smile froze.

“He was the horse, goose,” Edward said, and smoothly changed the direction of the conversation. “I was much younger then, of course, but I was quite taken with that old hoss, yes indeed. Dad made me that one instead.” He nodded to the stove, where the hobby horse leaned with its nose on a burner.

Janelle gave a start. “That wasn’t–” She stood swiftly and took it by its head. “I mean it might get burned or wet if it’s in here,” she said tightly. “I think it’s best if it stays out of the kitchen, especially at mealtimes.” She went quickly to the living room and set it behind the rocking chair in the corner; after a moment’s vivid contemplation of it looking over her shoulder, she set it flat on the carpet instead. She returned to the kitchen, washed her hands, and sat down again. “It’s a very fine pot roast,” she said.

“It’s very dear to me,” Edward said quietly, “and he likes to have it around. I wish you could be happier here, goose, really I do.”

Unwillingly, tears started forming in her eyes. “It’s the one thing I feel I have any right to control,” she said, hating the quaver in her voice, “the one thing, not the house not the commute not the people…” She knew she was babbling and forced herself to stop.

Maynard continued the slow process of eating. Edward watched his father’s hands hesitating over the cutlery.

“Janelle,” said Edward, finally. “My dear dependable goose. Without me, you still have your friends and family back home, but my father has nobody else. My half-brothers aren’t going to take the responsibility, and frankly I wouldn’t trust them if they offered. If you really, truly cannot stand it here, then I ask you to wait for me in Boston, as I will be waiting for you in return. And in the meantime I promise I will keep the hobby horse in the attic while you’re home…” He winced, as though he’d been struck. “Provided it doesn’t upset dad. Would that be okay, dad?” He touched his father’s hand and waited for the old man’s attention to wander over. “We won’t get rid of the old hoss but keep it as a special treat when Janelle is away.”

Maynard nodded absently, his eyes drifting. Edward smiled apologetically at Janelle, who gave a very brief nod.

Edward kissed her cheek. “If you could clear up the table, I’ll go put the horse in storage, all right?” She nodded again and Edward left the table.

She scraped the uneaten portions of hers and Edward’s pot roast into a separate container and threw Maynard’s into the trash bin. In a low voice, shaking with inexpressible fury, she said, “Why the hell were you catching girls, anyway?”

Not expecting a response, she turned the faucet on hard, but a mumble caught her attention. “What was that?” she said, turning the water off.

“Magic dun’t work when it’s been’ watched,” Maynard said. Janelle pursed her lips and washed the dishes with a vengeance.

#

Janelle was sitting in bed, reading, when Edward cracked the door open and peeked his head inside.

“How’re you doing, goose?” he said softly.

Janelle held the book stiffly in her fingers. “I’m all right,” she said, trying to keep her tone level. “I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier.”

“I’m sorry I’ve been such a dolt,” he replied. “I thought you were just taking your unhappiness out on the horse. I didn’t realise it was as bad as all that.” After a pause he said, “If you do want to go back to Boston…”

“I’m staying here with you,” she said fiercely. “I’m not letting some rotten old hobby horse steal my husband.”

“Fancy a nightcap? Dad’s still out walking, if you can bear to see me alone.”

She attempted a smile and left her book on the bed. Downstairs in the dimness, with a glass of red wine and no hobby horse and no old man in sight, she began to relax.

“I haven’t really given this place a chance,” she said, nestled under Edward’s arm as they cuddled on the couch. “It’s just been so stressful…”

“I know, goose, I know,” he said soothingly. “Once you get comfortable at your new job you’ll be back to being stressed out about things you understand in no time. Workaholic,” he teased, and she nipped at his armpit.

The front door rattled and opened. Maynard’s shuffling footsteps and lengthy shoe removal didn’t stir Janelle from her comfortable spot, but then came the sound of a stick hitting the floor.

Her hand started to shake. “Edward,” she said distinctly, “did you not put that horse in the attic?”

“Dad must have gotten it while you were reading…”

“And you think I wouldn’t have heard it?” She pushed herself up off the couch and went to the mantle. It took several tries to set the wineglass down neatly. “I’m going to bed.” She looked at her reflection in the mirror over the mantle, trying to focus on the black of her pupils, nothing but the black — but just past her head was the old man and the ratty hobby horse bowing in his hand. “You can take your time,” she said tartly, and fled upstairs.

#

She knew she’d fallen asleep because she didn’t remember hearing Edward climb into bed next to her. His breathing was deep and regular and Janelle took her time sliding out from under the covers. She was going to break that horse — just crack it in half and pull the stuffing out of its lumpy, smelly head; take it out to the woods and set it on fire; bury it head-down in the brook and let algae and frog eggs cover it up. Quietly she pulled the rope to let the ladder down from the attic and crept up the stairs. She paused with her hand on the lamp-string; the light might wake up Edward.

Her lips pursed with sudden anger. Let him try to stop her. She would kill that horse. She would make it be dead. She clicked on the lamp.

She did not see the horse in the attic.

She clicked off the light and pushed the ladder back up. Surely, she thought, the sound would waken Edward, but no alarm came from their bedroom, nor from Maynard’s. It is still here, she thought. Edward did not throw it out. He might tell her that in the morning, and she would nod and smile and thank him, and he would try to find it again but he never ever would and he would never bring it up and he would let her go to work without eating breakfast and every morning she would drive over it — bump! — just a little bump in the road where a fox might have dug a hole.

She was halfway down to the living room when her ears picked up a curious sound. Not exactly shuffling, and not really thumping, just odd soft noises of slippered feet against a carpeted floor. Her hands went to the banister and she huddled down another step. She could see an odd shadow on the floor now, just a bit of one, moving in the sickly light of the lamppost outside.

She stopped soundlessly at the foot of the stairs and peeked out between the railings to study the shadow. It was Maynard’s, certainly. It could be no one else’s, not at that time of night, not dancing in the living room. Not dancing, either — cavorting, her mind supplied, he’s cavorting, and the shadow was wrong. Five limbs instead of four, the fifth where the head would naturally be, the fifth a strange boot-shape on the end of a pole–

Maynard cavorted a few steps to the left, into her direct line of sight. His knees raised and straightened, slapping a broken jig; his elbows flapped, his head was thrown back, and the hobby horse bobbed its pole down his throat.

Up and down, up and down, sinking in a little deeper each time. The ragged ears waggled; it might have been singing. The pole rotated and the blank, bare eyes saw Janelle crouched on the stairs.

Their gazes locked. She felt it in her spine. Suddenly, without even a heartbeat to measure the time, the bizarreness of the dance was ended; the dancing man was not a puppet of the hobby horse, but an old man gagging on a stick.

The blood started first, then Maynard fell over backwards, then his hands flailed at the rod, then Janelle had her scream.

Edward flew down to her with only the briefest of glances at the horror on the living room floor. “You’re all right,” he murmured uselessly as she screamed into his neck. “You’re all right. I’ll take care of it. You lie down. Have a pill.” Whether they even kept sleeping pills, she couldn’t recall. “There you go. Good girl. Lie down now, I’ll take care of it.” But he did not, he sat there for a very long time instead, long after she had screamed herself hoarse. Only when the first greyish rays of dawn pushed their way past the bedroom curtains did he leave her, and she stayed in bed the rest of the day.

She heard a vehicle drive up, and neighbours come by, and Edward’s low voice apologising but his wife was not up to visitors, she’d had a terrible shock in finding his father and he thought it best to let her be for a few days. The vehicle drove away and the house had an emptiness to it; whether Edward had gone or stayed, she could not tell and for the moment could not care.

When he came into the bedroom again it was night. They did not speak for a long time, while Edward combed out her hair and bathed her face and undressed himself in the dark.

“We’re off to Boston, then, aye, goose?” he whispered beside her.

“Yes,” she managed, “Boston, yes, Boston.” This is it, she thought, the words scrambling into each other, this is this is this is it this is this is this is it I’m this is this is it I’m this is it I’m mad.

There was a tiny thump, a tiny awful thump outside in the hallway, and Janelle convulsively covered her eyes with her hands, digging her palms into the sockets. Images of the dead burglar came to her brain, of his feet tripping over a stick — just a stick! just a stick like any other stick, lying in the woods! — who was it who screamed, that night of the attack? Maynard, his poor teeth broken in, a burglar’s fist in his mouth — the burglar, seeing that hobby horse pole just starting to drive its way in? — “Magic dun’t work when it’s been’ watched” — nobody mentioned anything missing from the robbery, did they?

Silence now, and did it fly like a witch’s broomstick? — did it slink along the floor like a snake? — did it glide, or hop? — Janelle tugged at her bangs and squeezed tight her eyes and it doesn’t work when it’s being watched

She flung her hands from her eyes. Her vision was spotted and dim, but there was clearly something in the middle of the doorway, stark upright and looking at her.

Her eyes focused. Their gazes locked.

The hobby horse, quite naturally, as was ordinary with no one there to hold it up, fell over. Thump.

Janelle grabbed her pillow and held it over her face, moaning and gnawing at the fabric. Somehow, she knew, and soon, the pillow would be moved aside and her mouth would open but she must not look, she must not look–

Beside her, Edward was breathing deep and regular, his eyes closed, his nerves readying themselves to feel the jangle of a broken jig on the mattress as his wife cavorted.

The End