The following Melanie Tem fiction is available to read for free online. Below the links, read the full text of “Half Grandma” for free.
“Fry Day,” at The Horror Zine
“Dhost,” from Nightmare issue 14
“Dhost,” audio on YouTube
There was a strange horse in the pasture. White. White and swift. White as concentrated light and swift as sound.
Amelia had been gazing distractedly out her kitchen window at the backyard scene at which she’d gazed distractedly for so many years. It wouldn’t have been accurate to say simply that she no longer really saw it; she saw it now in her mind’s eye quite as clearly and in as much generous detail as with her physical eyes, and lived it in her bones.
Almost always there had been horses in the pasture–her sons’, until they lost interest in horses, too; her younger grandson’s, but that had been more her idea than his, and he probably hadn’t ridden more than half a dozen times; her own until perhaps ten years ago when she’d decided, with surprisingly little disappointment, that she was too old to risk riding anymore; then a series of boarders. So it took a while this time for the fact to register that there was a horse in the pasture that didn’t belong there.
She went on fixing supper for herself and Brandon–mostly, if truth be told, for Brandon; she was hardly ever hungry these days–and contented herself, for the moment, with a discouraged sigh. She’d rented the pasture for two horses, and now, without saying a word to her, they’d put in a third one. Pretty little thing, from what she could see through the trees, but nobody was paying for it to be there. Now she’d have to decide whether to charge extra for it or not, whether to have an unpleasant confrontation.
She resented being put in the position of having to make a moral choice which by rights was not hers. She just wished people would be honest. Maybe she was wrong, but it seemed to her that people as a whole had been more honest in her day. Odd, sobering way to think of it, as though this day were not hers.
The back door slammed and Brandon came clattering up the stairs, talking before he even got into the room. His energy delighted and tired Amelia. They were no kin to each other, had known each other only since his family had moved into the neighborhood–which was, though, more than half his life. He’d taken to referring to her as his “half-grandma.” It gratified Amelia no end that people could consciously form relationships like that; sometimes, it also saddened her that they had to. “Look what I found!”
He had a bird, pin-feathered and apparently uninjured. His small grimy hands imprisoned it–carefully, tenderly, but imprisoned nonetheless. “Oh, he’s beautiful, Brandon,” Amelia told him, paying full attention. The waffles would wait. Trying to sound interested and not accusatory, she asked carefully, “Where’d you find him?”
The bird was emitting tiny frantic chirps that urged Amelia to set it free. But Brandon, clearly, was enchanted. He lifted the hollow ball of his fists to his ear and listened intently, face alight. “Hear him? He likes me!”
“He’s scared,” Amelia countered gently. She sat down at the table and pulled him onto her lap. He didn’t resist, but he was far more interested in the bird than in her. “He might be hurt. Did he fall out of the nest?”
Brandon shook his head. Plush gray light through the south window played across the downy back of his neck and on his tousled sandy hair. “I climbed up and got him out.”
Amelia caught her breath in alarm. Brandon squirmed when he felt her stiffen, but knew not to look up at her. “Where?” she asked, afraid to know.
Brandon said happily, “He’s my pet,” and slid down. Amelia started to object, but he was already out of the kitchen, down the noisy wooden stairs, out of the house. Temporarily bested, she went to plug in the waffle iron, mulling ways she might explain to a ten-year-old the concept of respecting another creature’s place in the universe.
Brandon loved waffles. Whenever he came to her house, he wanted waffles–for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if he was staying a while, for snacks if he was just visiting. Amelia always added one or more healthful things to the basic batter, so he got bananas, bran, yogurt, walnuts, raisins, without her calling attention to them. Among his mother’s numerous complaints about him was her assertion that he was a fussy eater, and Amelia guessed that was so, but she noted rather smugly that he’d never turned up his nose at her waffles, no matter what she’d sneaked into them. He’d been known to consume as many as eight at a sitting. Amelia hadn’t mentioned waffles to his mother.
Now when she called out the window for him to come in for supper, he answered, “‘Kay!” but he didn’t come. She made another waffle, which pleased her by coming out in perfect quarters, and then called him again; he answered again, but he still didn’t come. Less annoyed than amused by the vagaries of boyhood, predictable through at least four generations of boys she had more or less known–brothers and cousins; sons less well, as it had turned out; grandsons almost not at all–she stacked the waffles on a plate, covered them with a napkin, put them in the oven on “Lo,” and went out to get him.
He was down the hill at the edge of the pasture, staring up at the roof of the shed with his arms crossed and a glower on his face. He was such a perfect picture of outrage that Amelia wanted to laugh, but of course she didn’t. As she made her way to him she glanced into the pasture. The renter’s two horses were there, the black filly and the bay, but she didn’t see the white horse. Uneasily she wondered if it had gotten out, then sternly it wasn’t her problem, it wasn’t even supposed to be there, and went to stand beside Brandon. “Waffles are ready.”
“He ran away,” the little boy announced unhappily.
Relieved, Amelia nodded. “He went back where he belongs.”
Brandon shook his head vehemently. “He belongs to me. He was my pet.”
“What if he didn’t want to be your pet?”
This idea was quite beyond him. “Why not?”
“He’s a wild thing. It’s not in his nature to be anybody’s pet.”
“But I didn’t want him to go away.” Brandon was close to tears. He cried easily, a trait which Amelia found endearing although she guessed that many other adults–and, for different though related reasons, children–did not.
She took his hand, and together they walked back up the hill toward the house and the peach-yogurt waffles. Amelia felt and acknowledged the brief shooting pain in her chest that had lately become familiar. Acknowledged: did not welcome, but did not deny, either. It might be nothing. It might mean her heart, or something less discrete and definable than an organ at the heart of her old body, was preparing to stop.
Brandon wasn’t done. “But I wanted to keep him!” he wailed.
“I know you did, honey.” Amelia smoothed his hair, reflecting tenderly that there would be–probably already had been–countless other things in his life he would yearn to hold onto.
He stayed quiet and teary through his first waffle. After a few unsuccessful attempts to distract or cheer him up, Amelia did her best to respect his feelings and restricted herself to a pat on the hand and an extra dollop of sugarless strawberry preserves. By the time he’d started on the second waffle, hot from the griddle, he was chattering again, telling about his numerous friends at school, all of whom were, as far as Amelia could tell, his best friends. She tried to explain that “friend” was too important a word to be used carelessly, that people didn’t become your best friends just by being in the same room at the same time, but he would have none of it.
When he pushed his chair back and pronounced himself full, he’d eaten only four and a half waffles, which worried her a little. Wasted food made her feel sad and guilty; maybe the horses or the little wild cats who lived in the shed would eat them.
Brandon wanted to watch t.v. More than she ought to, Amelia found herself lying on the couch with the television on; pseudo-presence of voices and activity assuaged loneliness if she didn’t think too much about how phony they were, and often she just didn’t feel alert enough to do anything else, even read. Sometimes she was mildly resentful when visitors dropped by, generally one of her three sons who currently lived in town or her older grandson; she did not always want to extricate herself from the murky state of semi-consciousness into which she more and more easily sank, and television provided a host of handy excuses: “I must have dozed off.” “It really does turn your brain to mush.”
There was practically nothing on that she thought a boy Brandon’s age ought to be watching, and she was somewhat appalled by the number and types of shows with which he seemed to be on intimate terms. Finally they agreed on a nature show, and she settled down in the rocker to watch it with him.
For a minute she was dizzy and sick at her stomach. Gripping the arms of the chair and staring fixedly at the regular repeated pattern of granny squares in the last afghan her mother had crocheted, nearly twenty years ago, she dreaded another days-long siege of feeling not at all well. But it passed. There would come a time, she supposed, when such things would not pass. When that happened, she would manage, but she was just as glad it was not now.
As the television program and Brandon and her living room came back into focus, out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed a white horse’s head. It wasn’t there when she looked directly out the window.
The simple cast of light could give rise to odd shadows and reflections. Years ago she’d had a dog named Jake, one in a long line of dogs and cats all of whose names and idiosyncrasies Amelia remembered fondly, who’d chased mirror reflections and the double circle of a flashlight shined on the ceiling; at certain times of the day at certain times of the year, plain light through the picture window had kept him leaping and mock-snarling for half an hour at a stretch.
Sitting on the floor at her feet, Brandon allowed her to stroke his hair a few times before he pulled away. Obediently she put her hands in her lap, not wanting him to break contact altogether. Really, though, she didn’t think that was likely. Brandon wasn’t the least bit skittish or reserved; it wasn’t as if she had to win him. Still, her satisfaction was deep and sweet when he tipped companionably back against her knee.
It wasn’t necessary or even wise to pay close attention to the program, although Amelia was rather interested in astronomy. Brandon would tell her all about it anyway. His memory and enthusiasm impressed her, so that she could put up with, even enjoy, his determination to recount every detail, not necessarily in sequence, not caring if she’d heard it the first time from the primary source. He did that with movies he’d seen, too, and cop shows, which she found considerably less fun to listen to.
Last summer Brandon had gone with his parents on vacation to the Southwest where he’d learned about Kokopelli, the hump-backed flute player of Navajo legend whose likeness he’d seen everywhere, from ancient pictographs ON the walls of Canyon de Chelly to postcards for the Santa Fe tourists. Brandon had brought her a pair of Kokopelli earrings. “He makes girls have babies!” he’d chortled, and Amelia had laughed, hoping he knew what really made girls have babies. “I told the man they were for my half-grandma, and he said Kokopelli makes people live a long time, too. Live forever.” She’d heard a lot about Kokopelli for a while there, and she wore the earrings every time Brandon came over, though he didn’t often notice anymore.
It still made her smile to imagine the clerk, doubtless bemused by Brandon’s term of relationship to her. Frequently she was saddened–mildly most of the time, but once in a while profoundly, heartbreakingly–that she wasn’t his whole grandma, his real grandma. But his exuberant claiming of her, quite as though there were no need for blood or legal bonds between them, also raised her spirits and renewed her often flagging hope, for him, for herself, and for the world in general. All this from one small boy. Amelia smiled and reached around to pat his cheek. She felt him grin.
She dozed. The older she got the more irregular her sleep patterns became, so that she was asleep when most people were awake and awake when they were asleep a good deal of the time. This accentuated her feeling of being not entirely of this world, and for a while she’d struggled against it, forcing herself to stay awake when she craved sleep, lying sleepless in her bed because it was the appointed nighttime hour. But lately it had come to seem not a problem.
“I want a constellation on my bedroom ceiling,” Brandon declared.
“Maybe we can find a poster or stickers,” Amelia agreed.
“No, I mean a real constellation. Orion the Hunter.” He made a sort of all-purpose gesture of aggression.
“A constellation is huge,” she pointed out. Surely he knew that. “It wouldn’t fit on all the ceilings of all the rooms of all the boys in the whole city.”
“Okay, then a star.” She could tell he was playing, but there was a real dreaminess in his expression that made her want, foolishly, to give him a star. A real star. “I want a star for my very own.”
“Stars belong to everybody. They have their own places to be. When they fall to the earth they aren’t stars anymore,” Amelia told him, and immediately softened her tone. “You can’t own a star.”
He was openly unpersuaded, and he was also abruptly bored with t.v., for which Amelia was glad. “Can I feed the horses?”
Amelia readily gave permission, and got herself up on her feet to accompany him to the pasture. His parents insisted he have supervision, a parental caution that Amelia recognized as more symbolic than functional, since she wouldn’t be able to do much to protect him anyway. But she liked watching him, and she loved the horses, and it was good for her to have an excuse to walk that far. When she stood up her ears suddenly rang, her vision blackened, and her head swam, but she steadied herself on the unsteady arm of the rocker until the danger of fainting had receded, for now.
Brandon ran ahead down the hill and then circled back, solicitous of her without seeming to be. He stopped now and then to stuff his pockets with stuff–bugs, flowers, caterpillars, shards of shiny rock and metal–that wouldn’t be the same when he put them on his shelf. A bit unsteady still, Amelia kept her gaze mostly on the ground and on her own feet, so Brandon was first to see the white horse in the pasture. “Oh, cool!” he cried. “You got a new one! And look! He likes me!” Indeed, the white horse had come right up to Brandon and was nuzzling his proffered hand. “Hi,” he crooned. “Hi, there.”
Setting aside her feeling of unwellness and her refreshed annoyance at being taken advantage of by the underhanded renters, Amelia stood back and gladly watched the boy and the horse. Such a lovely tableau they made that there was a sensation of etherealness about them, an out-of-this-world quality at the same time that they seemed utterly, thoroughly, here and now and of her life as well as their own.
The soft gray coverlet of clouds had come untucked in the west, and the setting sun made an edge there like yellow satin. Brandon’s hair and skin shone, and he stood very still to receive the horse’s greeting; Amelia almost couldn’t bear his stillness, for she understood what it cost him and what he was longing for in return.
The horse’s coat shimmered like mother-of-pearl. The animal’s movements were so graceful that Amelia found herself thinking of them as poetic, musical. It was light-footed, sure-footed, and its neck arched finely, its mane and tail flowed. Amelia took a step and put her hand out to touch it, not wanting to displace Brandon but suddenly yearning to lay her palm on that smooth iridescent neck right where the flesh curved inward under the jaw.
“It’s a unicorn,” Brandon whispered, just as Amelia, too, saw the protrusion from the delicate forehead, above and between the huge limpid brown eyes.
Her heart sank, as much for Brandon as for the horse. Something was wrong with this creature. It had been injured. It had a parasite under its skin. It had cancer or some other terrible condition that would cause growths like that.
Now there was an ethical principle at stake far more important than honesty. Keeping animals was a responsibility not to be taken lightly. This poor thing needed medical attention, and, indignation at the renter flaming into outrage, Amelia thought she would just call her own vet to come tend to it and send the renter the bill.
“It’s a unicorn, right?” His tone was obviously intended to have shed all awe, was almost taunting now. But he wasn’t looking at her. He was fascinated by the horse, which was now making as if to eat out of his hand, never mind that he had nothing to feed it. Amelia all but felt the vellum-soft nose in the creases of her own palm, the warm breath so deceptively like her own and Brandon’s from a creature utterly unlike them.
“No, something’s wrong. Come here. baby. Let me see.” She had enough time to note that the lump was hard and pointed before the horse tossed its head out of her reach, making its mane undulate with light fractured into rainbows more brilliant than she would have expected this close to dusk. It whinnied, peculiarly melodious and high-pitched, then pawed the ground in preparation for flight.
“No, no,” Brandon admonished, as if he were training a dog, and put a restraining hand on the glimmering withers. “You stay right here.”
The beast shivered his hand off and backed away, nostrils flaring, ears straight up and deeply cupped. It tossed its head again, and the knob below its forelock caught the fading light, sharpening and elongating.
“That’s a good horse,” Brandon breathed, gently, desperately. “You’re not going anywhere.”
The animal ducked its head in a gesture whose message was indecipherable–if, indeed, it had a communicative meaning and wasn’t simply a muscle stretch or a quick survey of the ground for edibles. Amelia couldn’t help but notice that the thing protruding from its forehead was long enough to score the earth, and that when it did so it bent.
“Look!” Brandon was thrilled. “It’s bowing to me!”
But then the animal faded into the dusk. Amelia was a little shocked that it vanished so completely; she’d have thought its white coat would collect and reflect what little light remained.
“It was mine!” Brandon cried after it, outraged.
Amelia felt dizzy, found herself sitting and then lying on the ground. It didn’t seem an unnatural position to her, and Brandon scarcely took notice. She shook her head against the moist twilit grass and dirt, but couldn’t bring herself to enunciate anything.
Dimly she realized that she didn’t know what to expect from him now, whether because she really didn’t know him very well or because of the essential unpredictability of significant events. He might have sprung at her. He might have stalked away. Instead he sank beside her, the warmth of him seeping under her skin but not all the way into the reservoir where she was neither warm nor cold.
There was a silence that seemed long. Brandon ran his hand, then both hands very lightly over the tufted grass, barely disturbing it, not picking a blade. Amelia drifted with the motion of his hands, the motion of the grass. Brandon said finally, “I just want to keep things I love forever.”
Amelia reached for his hand, not knowing whether she took it or not. They stayed there together until it was all the way dark.
Eventually she was able to get to her feet, with considerable help from Brandon. Vaguely it surprised her that she didn’t mind relying on him for support and orientation, wasn’t embarrassed by her own need or frightened by her own dependence. It seemed to her equally acceptable if they did or did not make it back to the house, equally likely that being with her in this way would prove of value to Brandon as that it would traumatize him.
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” he kept asking. Her arm around his sharp shoulders and her side pressed against his much thinner side, she could feel his whole body shaking.
It took several tries before Amelia could tell him clearly enough to be understood. “I think I’ve had a stroke,” she meant to say, but only a single syllable actually emerged; she hoped it was a useful syllable.
Apparently it was, for he said, “What’s that?”
“Something with my brain,” was the best she could do, because, in fact, something untoward had happened in her brain, and this was her brain commenting on itself.
In the flat glare of the halogen light over the back door, she saw his wide eyes flicker up to the top of her head, as though he might see what was wrong with her brain. When his gaze slid back down, it didn’t quite fix on her face. “Don’t die,” he said. She understood that she was supposed to assure him, but she had no desire to do so even if it had been possible.
They could not get up the steps. Interminably they tried it on foot, but Amelia, though it was clear to her that these were steps to be climbed, could not comprehend what was wanted of her or by whom. More than once Brandon exhorted, “Pick your foot up. Just pick your foot up.” He even bent and grasped her ankle and lifted her leg and deposited her foot on the first step, but then they were stuck in that position, even more precarious.
Amelia, however, did not feel especially precarious; in fact, she felt quite safe. Knowing that the boy was increasingly anxious, she wished she could do something about that but knew she couldn’t and was aware of the wish flowing out of her head.
They tried crawling. Brandon tried pushing and pulling her. By now he was panting, crying. Amelia was aware of being chilly, and of bumps and bruises and scratches where probably there had been none before, but the discomfort was minimal. “I can’t,” Brandon admitted. He sat down beside her, slightly above her on the step.
A warm breeze came over her like breath. Her pulse was like very distant hoofbeats, hesitant then quick. Something soft lay across the back of her neck, not moving away but becoming so immediately and thoroughly familiar that she wasn’t aware of it anymore. “Call.” This time she said as much as she thought, just the verb with no conception of an object for it or even, once she’d murmured it, of a subject.
Brandon was gone then. Maybe he’d gone into the house to call. Amelia lay in her yard. Her house rose above her, solid and out of her reach and therefore not her house anymore. There came the sensation of warmth above her, then beside her, as the white horse settled down. Amelia wasn’t surprised, though she hadn’t been expecting it, either.
Sleek hollows. Pliable horn tracing the outline of her face and body as the creature bent its head to her, and the rainbow fringe of its mane. The aroma of horseflesh and flowers without a name. A nickering at the border of words.
The creature snorted and leaped to its feet. A noose lowered around its neck and Brandon crowed wildly from the top step where he stood with braced feet and held the other end of the rope in both hands, “Gotcha!”
The animal reared, hooves like stars and high clear voice. The rope snapped. Brandon gave a heartbroken little shout and flung himself off the steps. He managed a handful of mane, pulling the horse’s head sharply around and the lithe body off stride, so that he was knocked down and a flashing hoof just missed his back. He wrapped his arms around a stamping, glancing leg and held on like a much younger child, whimpering.
Amelia knew horses. This one, though she conceded it was not precisely a horse, was spooked. Either she maneuvered around to the side of the frantic beast opposite the frantic boy, or the two of them together whirled; she was now pressed against–into–the glistening, quivering flank.
The animal shrieked and spun on her, wrenching itself free of Brandon, who shrieked, too. Amelia thought to flatten herself among the flying hooves and fists, but couldn’t be sure that she had. In some way, though, she was between beast and boy, protecting one from the other, and then the unicorn broke into a seamless canter that carried it between the dark earth and the dark sky where it disappeared.
“You let it go!”
Amelia intended to tell him, “Yes.” She had the impression that he held her accountable not only for this abdication but also for the escape of the bird and the inaccessibility of stars. And there was something to that. She wasn’t to blame for the impermanence of things, of course, but she had assumed the role of messenger, and she concurred with Brandon’s instinct that a certain moral responsibility accrued.
So she made an enormous effort and gathered him to her. He came easily. She couldn’t stay with him much longer. “Don’t go,” Brandon whispered.
She was floating and flashing like stars. She meant to tell him, “Good-bye” and “I love you,” but there was no way for either of them to know if that was what she said.
© copyright 1995 Melanie Tem