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Gone Lawn 25
Summer, 2017

New Works

Carol Murphy

Pooka


Sometimes in the middle of the night, a far off whinny echoes. Startling awake, I turn, adjust my pillow, and gaze through the window to the oaks near the back gate where the moon illuminates a mist that slowly amasses into a small white horse. Shimmering in the haze, the phantom glides slowly, chomping on the grasses my husband has labored to keep pristine. I try to keep my eyes open as long as possible until the form seems to evaporate or I fall asleep.
Then there was that old book I found at a garage sale, the one that I keep safely in my office on a shelf next to her picture, about the mystical organization of little people. Each of them has a habitat, certain characteristics and behaviors which distinguish them. Many come from the sea, some can change form, but they all have particular purposes. Inside I underlined a passage. "The Irish believe a pooka is a changeling fairy, an animal always, but typically a white horse, that, if respected by its human, will return joy, love and knowledge." (Irish Fairy Notes, 1937) In the desk drawer is a lock of her tail hair in a clear plastic bag. It still has the same silver glimmer she did.
Or maybe it is just déjà vu that I have sometimes seen a white prancing pony in the hills or heard a vivid neighing on the ocean breeze that softly blows through my garden. I even rounded a corner at an art show recently and there was her beautiful countenance staring starkly from a canvas. Catching my breath, I had to lean against the nearest wall. These occurrences can't be real I tell myself even though they evoke an otherworldly consciousness and haunt my mind. Tears come when the memories wash over me like buckets of stardust.
But I am a silly old woman. Maybe my mind is playing tricks, although there is one thing I know for certain. She could not have been a real horse.
I had been frantically searching for a large pony for my daughter when a dear friend gave me the video. I was shopping for Christmas presents in the local department store where she worked the men's clothing department. Oddly, I didn't even know she liked horses. I just needed a good listener.
"I don't know where to look," I complained as she rang up a shirt for my husband. "They're all so very expensive, even the ones that have no training at all."
She reached under the counter and handed me a DVD. "I think you'll like this one," was all she said as she moved to help a customer.
I was astounded, but gratefully I rushed to pick up my daughter from school and then home where both of us sat in front of the TV transfixed as I started the video.
The owner, a small woman of indeterminate age with a swingy blond pony tail and dressed in black English jodhpurs emerged from a barn leading a lustrous white horse with a thick tail that touched the ground. Immediately we were mesmerized. The pony glided through the film as if she were following a ballet. Its owner rode the mare bareback inside a covered arena, performed well trained movements, jumped her over several obstacles and then at end made this beautiful creature bow. Momentarily there was a dazzle in the corner of the film. My daughter sighed and said, "Oh, Mommy, she looks like Pegasus!"
Immediately I booked three train tickets to Oregon for my mother, my daughter Katy and me. It was January. Icicles and snow covered much of the scenery, casting a wondrous aura around the journey, like we were entering enchantment.
We were met at the train station by the owner and her son who took us immediately to the barn where the pony was covered in two red blankets, leg warmers and a hood. Our combined breaths rose around as we watched the unveiling. Life slowed as each piece of horse attire was carefully removed, folded and placed on a bench, all the while the owner talked soothingly.
"Someone special has come to meet you and I know you will be a good girl." All the while the pony's two huge black eyes were fixed on Katy who stood quietly, looking back.
When all of the blankets were removed, all we could do was just be awed. She was so white she was dazzling. I at first thought perhaps it was the high lights in the barn but when I looked up there were no lights. My mother, who knew nothing about horses and who rarely praised anything, sighed and said, "That's the most beautiful animal I've ever seen."
Then as she put the saddle on, the owner recounted the mare's history. Searching everywhere in Ireland for just the right horse for her own daughter, the pony had finally been found on a small farm. Her name was Curra Queen and was descended from Connemara pony royalty. The Irish breeder had been reluctant to sell her, but another three trips to Ireland and Curry, as she was called for short, was finally allowed to come to the United States where she was quarantined for 18 months before being allowed to travel to Oregon. "You would have thought," she added, "that such a long drawn-out trip, not to mention being held for over a year, would upset her or cause some kind of negative reaction, but," she let her voice drop and leaned closer to me, "I have never seen her upset or out of sorts."
With that last sentence, Katy took off on Curry and simply floated, a match made in a dream.
I turned to the owner. "I know you wanted a lot more for this mare. She's certainly worth it, but I only have so much money." Katy's heart would be broken if we couldn't buy this pony.
"What are you going to do with her?" the owner asked.
"Well, she will be with a trainer, of course. And, we will put her in Connemara shows, maybe pony club."
The owner and I watched Katy glide over a few jumps, then she turned to me. "I need to talk to Katy alone."
After the ride, Katy and the woman huddled in a corner of the barn. I couldn't hear what the conversation was but at the end, the owner hugged her. Katy came running to me. "Curry's mine," she said softly, "but I had to promise we'd never sell her. We won't, will we?" Her hazel eyes pleaded the answer.
I looked at Curry staring at Katy. "No, we won't."
We went home grateful. Curry came the next week, got off the horse transport quietly and walked with Katy up to the barn. Both were dressed in red, Curry's head down, close to Katy. I had that odd premonition then that this was a special bond, one that went beyond time.
After we had Curry for a few months, the woman came to a horse show, probably more to check on the pony than to watch my daughter. While Curry was being groomed, she took out a peppermint wrapped in cellophane and opened it, the crinkly paper making a distinctive sound. Curry tilted her ears forward and moved closer. While she rubbed the great white head, she whispered, "My pretty pony. Be happy and take care of this little girl. I will always miss you." Even though mints were Curry's most favorite treat, she stopped chewing, and closed her eyes, the two of them standing for several minutes.
She turned to me then while she began braiding Curry's mane. "You'll find out she's unusual, different. I have had many horses and I know this one is not a real mare." Then, pausing with a lock of hair, she looked me straight in the eyes and put her hand on my shoulder, saying, "Curry understands everything you say or what you are feeling. I had to be careful around her. Truly, she only looks like a pony." She smiled. "I used to believe she had once ruled a fantastic faraway realm." She smiled, shook herself and continued to braid, humming a Celtic tune.
Every year she sent Curry a Celtic birthday card. I called her several times to tell her how Curry was doing, sent her pictures or newspaper clippings about Katy's performance. She had sold something precious, even though I also thought the woman was a bit foolish, that she was just one of those crazy horse people who treat their equines like they had human feelings, and, of course she had spent endless amounts of time with her own daughter riding Curry.
Over time, however my belief changed, and it started when I had to take Curry to a vet hospital three hours away.
Curry had very sensitive feet, so sensitive that she often looked like she might be walking on hot coals. After trying various methods to alleviate what pain she appeared to have and nothing worked, the vet was called and still no cause could be determined. "You'll have to haul her up to the university's equine hospital," he advised.
The trainer, Katy and I loaded Curry up and started the long haul. Traffic was terrible, stop and go until we reached another cutoff that would take us to the hospital. About twenty minutes into the new highway, with a terrible jolt the trailer fell off the hitch of the truck, causing the truck to drag it along the freeway until I could slow down and eventually come to a halt. It was still connected by chains. There was no way to move it further and the front end of the trailer was now down, pointing Curry down too.
I panicked. "What do I do?" I asked the trainer.
"Just try to edge it off the road," she said, "And no matter what any CHP tells you, do not take that pony out of the trailer."
But I couldn't budge the truck and trailer so we were stopped in the middle of the freeway with cars streaming past on both sides. The trainer got out to check on the pony. Curry just stood calmly in the trailer like she'd been in that position before with her front lower than her rear.
Suddenly it seemed, a flat bed truck appeared, parking on the shoulder of the road. It had nothing on it. Two huge blond men looking like they had just arrived from some Nordic country made their way across three lanes of traffic and came over to my window. "I think we have just what you need," one said holding up a hitch pin. Then the two of them went behind the truck, lifted the trailer back onto the hitch, put in the pin and crossed back over the freeway to their truck, all in about three minutes. I drove off and gazed over to spot where the men were parked. They were gone!
As we picked up speed, the trainer reached down on the floor and picked up a magnet. It read, And His angels shall have watch over you.
"I think you'll want to keep this," she said and fixed it on the dashboard.
It was only much later that I let my mind wander to what could have happened. Where did those two huge blond men come from? How could they possibly pick up a trailer with a horse in it? How could they just disappear? How could a pony remain oddly quiet within chaos when her balance was thrown?
Then I remembered what the previous owner told me.
I needed to know more about Curry. I had her papers so it wouldn't be difficult to do the research. Curry was from Connemara royalty, genetics at its best. Pictures of her looked exactly like her grandfather who was a grand champion. Her many show performance wins, stately carriage and demeanor were also attributed to him. But those were surface traits, ones that other equines had. A seemingly deep intuitive knowledge about the world, people and life permeated her, a surreal quality that was evident the longer I knew her.
A year later we went to a horse show that had deep fog for three days straight, the kind of fog that was too dangerous to drive in, a fog a white horse could get lost in. My daughter already was practicing total trust with Curry even though I had sounded like a broken record telling her to be careful because we really hadn't had her long enough to know all her tricks. We got her out of the trailer and I handed her halter to Katy with a stern, "Now, its only 90 minutes until the show comes alive and she has to be ready, so don't let her eat any grass before the classes start." I went to get a helmet. In that brief moment they vanished, lost in the heavy mist. Panicked, I called out Katy's name and walked around searching for several minutes, but only lost my truck and trailer. They were white, too. Finally, in desperation I yelled out, "Curry!" and like a flying Pegasus, she came cantering out of that whiteness with Katy giggling and holding tight to her mane, then stopped right in front of me.
"Mom", my 9-year-old exclaimed when she caught her breath, "It was like being in a fairy story!" Curry just looked at me, her large black eyes, a mother queen's eyes saying, "Don't worry. I have her."
Later, another mother warned me to be careful of the field where they had been galloping because it dropped off a cliff at the edge. After that, I mostly stopped being anxious. It was then, too, that I began to believe she wasn't exactly just a pony.
According to the on-line encyclopedia, the Irish believed in changeling fairies until the late 1800's, although stories about them continue to this day. They are creatures that can change from animal to human at will, with magical powers given to them by the fairy queen. Also, since Connemara ponies had a long history of sometimes living inside with their humans, they developed an almost empathetic relationship with them. They have been able more easily than other breeds to stay in tune with a rider or know when an owner was unhappy or upset, using that knowledge in time of trouble. These legends included a Connemara saving a person's life, finding a lost child and even one pony going to get help when his owner's house caught fire.
Sometimes I would see Curry standing in the pasture with her eyes closed as if she were deep in thought, as if she were planning royal covert maneuvers. Coming from Connemara with an elfishly regal name, Curra Queen, signified that she possessed a noble gnome's wisdom, a spritely spiritual discernment, like she had sent out a knight to assess her kingdom's state of affairs and he had returned with secrets which she held close until just the right moment.
I came to appreciate that Curry's special perception and profound knowledge distinguished her from other ponies and horses, especially when the so-called equine expert humans said, "Well, their brains really aren't that big."
One night I had just gotten off the phone with a relative with whom I had a raging family issue, and stalked down to the barn to put on her blanket, her royal robe. As I neared her door, I could see those luminous black eyes staring at me and she whinnied softly, not her usual commanding nicker. When I grabbed her blanket and slid the door open, she took one step forward and put her head on my shoulder. I think we just rested there in the barn like that for a long while, until her sigh seemed to take my fury from me, out of the barn and up into the twinkling night, never to return. Somehow she knew my unsaid unhappiness, that I probably would never have this person again in my life.
There was an unmistakable visible difference too about Curry. She was a magnificently brilliant white that seemed to glisten and she always stayed pristine, even in a pasture. This typically left other horse handlers speechless, especially when they would ask, "How do you keep that horse so clean?" I always answered rather timidly because I knew we probably would not be believed. "We don't do anything", my daughter would answer rubbing her pony's face. Folks just stared and turned away to clean their own always almost white horses. She'd be put in a stall at a show and amazingly, even though she had lain down at night, she never had a mark on her. On the rare occasion when a spot did appear, left alone it would disappear. The odd thing about her cleanliness was that Katy was just this side of being a bubble baby, a child so allergic to her environment that Stanford had once prescribed thirteen medications. She should have been allergic to horses, but never was to Curry. It was odd, though, her staying so spotless, like the elves had come during the night, just like they had for the shoemaker, to make sure Katy did not get sick from any dirt and Curry was always ready to receive her court.
I first heard the word pooka in that old Jimmy Stewart movie, "Harvey", a comedy-drama about a man with a 6 foot invisible rabbit as a friend whom he talked to throughout the movie. Later I found out more about Celtic mythology in a book about fairies. Curry was certainly not invisible, but Katy and I had conversations with her, ones where she would answer with snorts, whinnies, loud breaths, nudges, and head tosses. Uncannily, these often proved amazingly true.
At a breed show once there was a costume class so we dressed her up like a unicorn with Katy as a princess. Curry's wide tail touched the ground and sparkled. Katy was all pink gauze with a flowered crown. Together they marched into the costume class. A spectator started everyone clapping and, as if on cue, Curry reared and someone shouted, "A fairy tale horse!" A rainbow of glitter flew all over them. It was like magic. Oddly, I never did find out where that glitter came from.
My practical husband, who Curry adored, said later quietly, "She must be a fairy horse."
A jealous neighbor told the instructor one day, "Well, you think that pony is perfect!" All she said was, "Just about," but that trainer had seen almost everything a horse could offer. I know one thing, she taught Katy and me how to ride, and even though Katy was athletic and could have ridden a bronco, I was bumbling and clumsy and didn't do well for years. But Curry personalized her style to each of us, a jumping coach for Katy and complete safety for me after I broke my arm on another horse. Then later, she remade herself again to be a therapy horse. And that was the fifth time I heard another human say she was something other than just a horse.
After she had competed in just about every show, won about everything she could win, and Katy got a larger mare, Curry became a therapy horse for some of the kids I worked with. With squiggly ones, she was dead calm. With quiet ones, she talked. With scared ones, she was gentle. The mothers thought she was the most beautiful horse they ever saw. She was all of these things.
One child, a girl, was very anxious but wanted to learn to ride more than any child I had worked with. She almost certainly had some form of undiagnosed autism and was fraught with funny fears, so she never got Curry past the point of just walking by obstacles. But one day, she said to me, "I can talk to Curry." Well, everyone talked to Curry so I sort of dismissed it, but the following week, she said again, "I can talk to Curry." But this time she stared into my eyes, a gaze so intense I was startled. We had worked on eye gaze.
"Does she say anything back?" I asked, intrigued.
"Of course, always." She took off her walking shoes and reached for the riding boots beside her.
"Hmm. And what does she tell you?" I watched her little body struggle with pulling on a boot.
"What I need to hear." She stopped tugging, shrugged and looked up.
"What do you need to hear?" I almost didn't breathe.
"Oh, you know. What I am supposed to do and stuff." She looked deep into me, trying to judge whether I would believe her or not.
"And what are you supposed to do?" I waited a long time for the answer.
"Do you think Curry is a real pony?" she suddenly threw out.
"What do you think?" I knelt down closer to her face.
"She's not a real pony even though she looks like one. I know it sounds stupid, but I think she is some kind of magical horse." She started fiddling with the boots again.
"So do I," I answered.
The day Curry died, the colic was horribly ferocious. She had fallen in her stall but got up when I coaxed her. I walked around tugging at her lead rope, thinking that perhaps I might be able to stop the inevitable, might be able to save this beloved animal that I knew was more spiritual than some clergy. She lay down on the cold ground so I covered her with a blanket and we stayed together all night. The pain seemed never to go away even with heavy drugs. But when morning came, she stood up and appeared calm. My head was covered in a sweatshirt, something she had seen for years, but she didn't know who I was. She backed away with such a frightened grimace I am sure now that the elfish spirit who loved us had left some time during the night.
Years have passed but her pictures remain on the bookcase next to my family photos. My daughter and I were reminiscing about her the other day as we often do when we're grooming our horses. Katy said, "You know mom, I used to talk to Curry all the time."
"So did I. Everyone did. What did you tell her?"
"How pretty she was, how the other ponies could never beat her, how much I loved her."
I laughed with fond memories. "Did she ever answer you?"
"Oh, sure."
"What did she say?" I asked, coming to watch Katy brushing the paint mare.
"That she knew she would always win and she loved me, too." She stopped brushing and looked at me, tears welling up yet again.
There are no words for this kind of loss.
I have finally located the place in Ireland where Curra Queen was born. Her lovely head and deep black eyes appeared when I touched the contact button on a Connemara website. Incredibly, the daughter of Curry's breeder talked to me for a half an hour and we felt a kinship distance did not diminish. Her ponies were Curry's image, an ocean apart, but appearing to be of the same character, talent and beauty. During our conversation, I remembered that many years ago I encountered an old horsewoman who was standing smoking a cigarette while watching Curry gracefully and effortlessly take Katy over a jumping course. Without turning to look at me, in a husky voice she said, "You will bless the day you bought that horse." I am sure she had seen hundreds of ponies but she knew then what I have truly come to believe. Curra Queen's fairy spirit now wanders through the oaks and might be seen eating grass by my back gate, especially in the moonlight.



Carol Murphy, MA, is a writer, consultant and speech-language pathologist who has written essays, interviews, stories and poems about children, language development, learning disabilities, the therapeutic and almost mystical influence of animals, and the many ways language, or a lack of it, colors life's experiences. Two of her stories were "Likely Story", published by Special Education Advisor and Auricle" published in Good Dogs Doing Good. She has also published professional articles and a newsletter for over twenty years. A few recently published stories are "Becoming a Grandmother", by an area news magazine, "Whiffs" by Red Dashboard Press, and "Dispersion" by Solarwyrm Press. She finds daily inspiration for writing through her experiences with the interplay of communication and the many ways lives can go awry, or be set straight, simply by a precise word at a pivotal moment. She lives with her husband, two cats and a horse in Santa Cruz, CA. Writing has been a lifelong passion. A favorite quote is "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." (Ludwig Wittgenstein)