The Wileys’ Horses
by Maggie Nerz Iribarne
One day, we looked out the kitchen windows to see the Wileys’ horses standing in our backyard beside our basketball court. The smallest one, Astral, the one with the big star on her forehead, was not there. There were usually three.
The Wileys fancied themselves farmers. Along with the horses—Inky, Ruby, and Astral—they had a pack of dogs, a flock of chickens, and a hoard of cats. They had a barn tucked down below the hill where their small house stood, but the horses were often out wandering, standing solemnly in different places all over their property, and often on ours.
They appeared and disappeared in our yard like ghosts, or the Scottish kelpies we read about in our picture book, gnawing and nosing at shorn grass, their tails whipping flies or blowing in a breeze. In winter, they’d be knee deep in snow, frozen in lack of activity, nothing tasty to nibble.
A Wiley horse sighting was always a source of excitement for us kids, but Mom didn’t think so and repeatedly phoned Mrs. Wiley to complain. “Dixie, your horses are here again,” she would exhale, exasperated, hanging up before Dixie could reply.
Tim was the 17-year-old son of Mr. Wiley’s dead brother. The Wileys took him in, since it was the right thing to do, but they treated him like an employee and not a son, a kind of Harry Potter without the promise of Hogwarts. Every day, we watched him come home from school and head out to haul garbage, shovel snow, clean gutters, and rake leaves. The three horses were just another overwhelming burden, so he left them to fend for themselves, just as he did for himself.
When Nora and I saw Tim from time to time, sitting on his stump at the border of our properties, we’d run over from our playhouse to talk to him. Usually he’d give us something, like an old blue bottle and tell us it was 100 years old or something. Not long after we noticed the missing horse, we approached him, but he stared off into space, barely noticing us.
“Hey, Tim, where’s Astral?” Nora said.
He took his red handkerchief out of his back pocket, wiped his face, and said, “Dead.”
Just like that.
When we delivered the news of Astral’s mysterious death, Danny and our parents reacted the same way, with that grimace one makes when one can’t decide whether to be amused or disturbed. Mom said it first, “Well how? Where is she?” We were fairly consistent spies of the Wileys, keeping tabs on our neighbors just because they were interesting to us, and we kids had not much else to do. We thought for sure that one of our many pairs of eyes would have seen the disposal of a horse, although we didn’t know what that would entail.
The next time Nora and I saw Tim, we asked what became of the animal, and again, in the same emphatic way, after a big gulp from a can of orange soda, he said, “Buried her. Back there.” He jerked his head over to the left and let out a huge burp. “Told them she ran off.”
At dinner that night, Mom said, “I would think the Wileys would be a little sad about the loss of one of their horses. I would think they’d wonder how the animal died. I would think there’d be some curiosity or concern about the whole thing.” But none of us wanted to make Tim’s life any worse. Though we couldn’t condone horse murder, we couldn’t blame Tim for being angry and desperate. Our conversations on the topic ended in silence and a numbed feeling overall, like the cold mashed potatoes on our plates.
Sometime after the alleged death of Astral, we awoke to the smell of smoke. I came downstairs in my pajamas and bare feet. Mr. and Mrs. Wiley were there, in our dining room, and the Wiley girls, Sue and Sam. No Tim. Mom was pouring coffee. There were soggy boxes lined all around our dining room. Mrs. Wiley was semi-sobbing, “I just woke up because of that smell. I can smell fire miles away. I just know. I gathered up all the pictures.” Mr. Wiley put his arm around his wife.
“Dixie had a fire in her house as a girl. Traumatized,” he said.
“Well, I hate to say it, but I am glad it was just the barn,” Dad said.
“What about Tim? What about the other horses? Where are they?” Danny blurted.
“We think whatever Tim did to Astral, he did to the others, and burned the barn. He always had it out for us,” Mr. Wiley said bitterly.
“Well, I think Tim had his reasons,” Danny said, his voice raised, before he walked decidedly out of the room, leaving us with just the ticking of Mom’s Regulator clock.
Three years later, at Stanhope farm’s big pumpkin patch, people gathered by a fence with a horse on the other side. I left my cluster of friends to take a look. The horse had Astral’s familiar star between her eyes. In fact, aside from her well-fed body and shiny coat, she looked exactly like the Wileys’ horse. I walked around to the side and discovered healthier versions of Inky and Ruby nosing a patch of grass. Excitement welled up inside of me, a hunch that had lingered since the fire finally found its resolution. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents, Nora, to call Danny in New York City and give him the news: Tim did have it out for the Wileys, but he did not kill the horses. Of course he didn’t.
Tim sold them. He set them, and himself, free.
That night, I gazed from my window, observing the Wileys’ yard and house, imagining Mr. and Mrs. Wiley inside, having their dinner, happy to be rid of Tim. I could see his stump in the yard, long abandoned. I pictured him working as a mechanic, or doing landscaping, or even in college, like Danny. I hoped with all my heart he found something better for himself than the Wileys’ farm.
About the Writer
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 53, living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.
Photo is in the Public Domain. Modified by Veronica McDonald.