The Truth Each Carried
by E. Catherine Tobler
Trudy Morrison got the final call as she was flying down Highway 93 toward another penny horse in need of rescue. Chevy Apache windows open, summer air fingering through her silver pompadour, Trudy should have taken to the shoulder to handle the call properly when she saw where it was coming from, but she didn’t. The air was too intoxicating, the music too easy to sing along with. She was too focused on the idea of getting to Boulder, where an impossibly rare 1933 nickel-powered Hahs Gaited Mechanical Horse awaited her. Without thinking she said “Answer” to her phone, and it routed the call through without making triple sure she wanted to do that. Goddamn technology.
“Trudy Morrison? This is Elmira Dodd, from Restwell Manor in Wichita, Kansas.”
The Apache weaved right out of its lane. Trudy pulled over onto the shoulder, heart going like a piston in her throat. For a second or four, she couldn’t breathe, her foot mashed on the brake, her hands curled around the steering wheel. Cars slid past her on the highway, silent and swift as birds. The world felt black at its edges. Slowly, Trudy convinced herself to turn the truck off. Voices raised with songs on the radio, fluttering through open windows and into Colorado’s summer clouds and gone. Trudy sat with her hands on the wheel, listening to nothing but her heart.
“Ms. Morrison, you there?”
Trudy fumbled with her pack of cigarettes and lighter. She got one going, taking a long drag and snapping the lighter shut before she said, “Mostly” around the lungful of smoke.
She didn’t feel there, but the cigarette grounded her in a way that vaping never had, brought her back to the moment where the disembodied voice of Elmira Dodd from the Restwell Manor told her that Norma Lane had breathed her last, would never look upon the blue summer skies that stretched over Colorado again.
“Was it—” Trudy couldn’t get the question past her tight throat. Norma hadn’t been sick, last she’d known.
“Just age,” Elmira said. “Comes for us all.”
Trudy took an extra long drag from the cigarette. “Not fucking me,” she bit out, forgetting she was still on the phone at all. Phones were so slim, such a part of the world she now inhabited, she had a way of forgetting when the connection was open. “She was just seventy-six—I’m just seventy-six, Elmira. That ain’t nothing.”
A stretch of silence filled the connection, until Elmira said, “I’ll be seventy-five this fall—body reminds me otherwise but mostly think I’m twenty still, so … Yes.”
Trudy made arrangements to go as she always did, but it felt different this time. She was cold and shaking, trying to take a drag from her cigarette, but crying was getting in the way of breathing right. She mashed her cigarette into the Chevy’s ashtray, snapping it shut before she started the engine again. She thumbed the music app off on her phone and listened to the summer air as she continued down the highway, the entire day feeling as though it had lost its punch. Nothing looked different. The land that ran alongside the Colorado foothills was as lovely as it had ever been, ranches spread amid hard outcroppings of rock. Only Trudy’s impression of it had changed, because she recalled the last time she’d driven Norma out this way, to show her the house, the barn, its treasures. Norma had laughed like the girl Trudy remembered her being.
“What if they won’t do it for me? What if they won’t change?” Norma had asked softly.
“They’ll do it for me,” Trudy had promised and had taken her into the barn, where the air was soft with dust and potential. Norma never wavered, legs steady as she crouched before the copper horse with the golden eyes. “Here, come see this one,” and she pulled Norma toward an old, reliable roan. Norma had come, moving alongside Trudy as easily as she ever had.
Audrey had been the first of them to die, and they’d all joined Lucy in New Jersey to see her off. Just old age, everyone said with amazement; who lived to be seventy-eight anymore? Plenty of damn people, Trudy insisted, garnering a round of laughter and shoulder pats. Lucy, Audrey’s younger sister, hadn’t laughed though; Audrey had only been three years older than all of them. Ahead of them in school and now ahead of them in the grave. One by one, they were going. Lucy followed soon after—holding on to see Curiosity reach Mars—and now Norma.
And Rum? No one had seen Rum since she’d joined the circus.
Trudy reached for another cigarette but didn’t light it. She kept it between her fingers as she drove, seeing less of the highway before her and more of an older road, a road that crossed over a river and took her toward a circus waiting on the other side. She didn’t know if she was remembering it wrong—she was often younger in her own head, but her mind was every bit seventy-six, prone to dropping things. Trudy had been looking for that traveling circus for the past ten years, but how did you find a thing that went where it would on a whim? How did you find a thing that didn’t necessarily want finding?
A few miles later, the mechanical horse awaited her in the driveway, shining silver and gray in the summer afternoon light. Trudy parked and stared at the horse a long time, not believing it was real. All this time, it had just been a drive down the highway they both lived along? It was weird how a thing could be there like that, just waiting.
“He’s a beauty,” Andrew Byrne, the horse’s present owner, said as Trudy approached, pulling her gloves on. Andrew gave her a curious look at the gloves, but didn’t ask.
The horse was made of cast aluminum and should have been dented, should have shown some of its age, but the longer Trudy looked, the less cause she saw for concern. The horse was damn near perfect for being eighty-six years old. The bridle and reins were intact, saddle, too, and Trudy found herself staring for a long time. She wanted to take her gloves off and press her hands flat against its sides. Wanted to feel the first intake of breath should it come.
“How in the world did you get this—and why you selling him so cheap?” Trudy asked. She rounded the horse again, looking for imperfections she might have missed.
“My folks lived in Missouri—people say people don’t live there, but I assure you they do and did.” Andrew gave a quick smile. “James was a family friend. Made these things for his own kids, then realized maybe other kids would like them, too.”
Trudy crouched beside the mechanical horse. Nothing showed wear, not a single thing. Maybe the aluminum was a little dark in places, but maybe it had always been.
“And the price?” She squinted against the sun at Andrew. He was limned in sunshine, golden and tall. “Why so low?”
“Less than I’d pay to have someone else haul it away for scrap, and when I saw your ad …” Andrew shrugged.
The local paper was small, and Trudy had placed an ad some months ago, asking for mechanical or penny horses, the kind that used to sit in grocery stores to occupy kids while their parents shopped. She’d gotten those, and had taken to repairing some that didn’t have any breath within, but she’d also gotten random carousel animals, mechanical cars, and assorted rockets no one knew what to do with. Trudy wasn’t entirely buying Andrew’s story about why the horse was so cheap. Was it haunted? Full of rats? She touched a cautious, still-gloved hand against the horse’s side, but it didn’t move or fall to dust.
“Why’re you so interested in the horses? Childhood thing?”
The words were on the tip of her tongue—ever since the circus—but she swallowed them. Trudy couldn’t get the circus out of her head. What had happened to them there, all of them. Audrey devastated from a botched abortion, Lucy trying to help her. They’d all been drawn in, because Rum was sick, too, sick as she became her true self. Trudy couldn’t forget the way Norma’s mouth had notched into her own, how they’d been so clumsy in their early explorations. How they’d never gotten to properly explore each other, despite how they’d felt.
She was never sure if she remembered it correctly or not, the way they’d crowded into an old train car to eat sweets and marmalades the whole night through. The marmalade had been strange, carrying with it all the hopes and dreams she wasn’t certain of, but knew were hers anyhow. She had only wanted the ability to see to the heart of a person, to understand the true them because Norma was strange and beautiful, and Rum was becoming something none of them could fathom. Just a dog, Rum said with a laugh, ain’t so strange, running away on four legs and not two.
Trudy straightened and nodded at Andrew. “Childhood thing,” she said, because it was easiest, those two words. “If you’re sure on the price, I’m sure on taking him.”
They hauled the horse into the bed of the Apache, and carefully fastened it down with bungees and ties, a blue tarp secured over the entire thing. Trudy didn’t have far to go, but she wouldn’t have the hide ruined by a stray flying rock.
She pulled her gloves off and put the music back on for the ride home, softly singing under her breath the entire way. She had driven the route in snow and sun, and didn’t prefer one over the other. She loved the snow as much as she loved the sun; loved the area because it had four distinct seasons—much like her childhood back East.
Her road was a partly hidden turn off the highway, lined with pine and reservoirs, land that had been mostly left open, dedicated to nature. There was a house here and a house there, but horses were more common, and cattle too, their black hides gleaming under the sun. Trudy had bought the place after her husband passed, when she needed to leave the suffocation of low, Eastern skies for the wide-open West. The house was small, a former ranch that had fallen into disrepair. The horses had moved on, but the barn remained, and so she filled it with the thing that had become her passion, penny horses. Fixing those she could, collecting those that were unlike the others.
She pulled the Apache into the drive outside the barn and cut the engine. She eyed the gloves on the seat beside her, but didn’t immediately take them. She took her time opening the barn door, carefully pulling the tarp from the truck bed. She eased the cords off and looked at the old horse, standing there with something like a sparkle in its old eye.
It was ten years older than her, and she wondered if it would crumble should she touch it. She touched her gloveless fingers to its broad nose.
“What if they won’t do it for me? What if they won’t change?” Norma asked softly.
Trudy gently took Norma’s hand, her skin already crinkling crepe. She guided Norma closer to the horse, touching her fingers to the broad nose, right above the nostrils. Norma didn’t even flinch at the touch of the cool metal. Trudy slid her fingers between Norma’s, so they were both touching the horse, so Norma could feel when the metal breathed itself into skin. The change was gradual, slow beneath their combined touch. Norma sucked in a breath and leaned back into Trudy as the change came, like she might tip over otherwise. Trudy held her close and they waited, watching the horse take its breath before them.
The change was gradual, as it often was with older horses. Trudy didn’t know why that was; she likened it to waking after a very long nap, and that the longer the nap, the longer it took for a creature to remember its proper self. Still, as it had with horses before, the aluminum hide dissolved into horsehair that shone in the afternoon sun, short and brown, but also awfully gray.
She did not know what kind of horse James Hahs had in mind when he made this one. It was no specific breed, only definitely a horse, with a broad back and four strong legs, and a thick mane you might weave ribbons into. The aluminum face simmered away until big black eyes blinked at Trudy. She could see herself reflected in the eyes, swimming in the black. The horse regarded her, then tapped a hoof against the truck bed. It made a hollow clang.
“All right,” Trudy whispered.
Sometimes it didn’t work; sometimes, mechanical beasts weren’t anything more than metal. But sometimes, there was a genuine beast inside the metal skin. The horse before her blew out a warm breath, nuzzling into her hand.
“Can you hop down?” Trudy asked, stepping down from the truck bed.
The horse followed her like it had stepped out of a truck dozens of times before, hooves denting the powdery ground of the driveway. Trudy gently lifted the reins, and guided the horse toward the barn. Once, the barn had held a different kind of horse; now, she’d turned the stalls into smaller cubbies and shelves, each holding a penny horse or a carousel animal. Rockets and flying Supermen lined the double doors at the back wall, sunlight dappling their metal skins where it poked through the wall slats. Each animal was draped with a soft blanket. Some animals had names like Champion, Bucky, and Thunder; others were nameless, but carved with such care, Trudy wanted to name them. She just hadn’t dared. The newest arrival whickered softly at the sight of them.
“Made you a space here,” Trudy said, gesturing to a far cubby, even though she was certain the horse didn’t understand. These beasts came alive, but they were still beasts. Most had only known the hollers of kids on their backs, the exuberant slap of tiny hands against their manes and ears. Some hadn’t liked the barn at all. Others had been curious.
“Never sure how long the change lasts—sometimes it’s quick and sometimes it’s slow.” She glanced back at the horse that still hadn’t reverted to aluminum. “I don’t know enough about it and can’t find that damn circus to ask.”
The horse shivered, its flanks having started to run with metal once more.
“All right. Come on.”
Trudy moved for the empty cubby, the horse following her as best it could. It was old and resuming the form it had known all its life—retreating to safety, Trudy always thought of it as. But she got the horse settled and draped with an old quilt before it had fully gone to metal once more. Trudy exhaled and touched the broad nose, but the change did not come again. Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t, and she hadn’t yet sorted the whys of that, either.
The cubby at the far end, the one right before the row of rockets, held Trudy’s favorite horse—the one horse that had never changed for her. She went to it now, because she always did, moving slow like it might startle at her approach. Maybe she hoped it would. But it didn’t move, its copper sides not heaving with breath, its golden eyes fixed, staring ever forward. Some horses didn’t respond; some were not imbued with the spark others had, but Trudy thought this one was. Maybe it was wishful thinking. She saw something of her girlhood in the horse, in the way it was frozen mid-leap, moving for something it would never reach.
She crouched before the horse and touched the white nose, where it was chipped alongside the nostril. She could picture the smoothness of the hair there, the soft velvet of the muzzle and the warmth of an exhaled breath. Could smell sweet clover and hay on the breath, and could maybe hear the crunch of a sugar cube between those straight teeth. If she could have willed the horse to life, Trudy was certain she would have, but it stayed still, eyes focused on something Trudy could not see.
• • •
“Is this a new horse?”
The voice of a young girl drew Trudy’s attention from the new penny horse she’d just installed at the store front. She didn’t have to be in Wichita for a week and figured work would be a way to ignore all the rude feelings that had come to plague her ever since Elmira Dodd from Restwell Manor had called. She repaired and replaced horses where she could—it was one way to find the living ones—though penny horses were becoming scarce as the future wore on.
Not every horse would come to life; some were just metal, as was the one she’d just installed. It was sleek and black, gleaming like the one under her truck tarp no longer did. Its name was emblazoned on its base: Champion. The horse she was hauling away had seen too many riders, and had never had a name; if it had a saddle or reins, Trudy couldn’t say, because they’d long since vanished.
The young girl appraising the horse was dressed in a sweatshirt decorated with a sequined unicorn, and a skirt that was an explosion of silver tulle. Red cowboy boots and turquoise tights finished the ensemble. Trudy immediately felt she was in the presence of a kindred creature.
“Yes ma’am, it is,” Trudy answered.
The girl stuck a boot into one of the metal stirrups and threw her other leg over, settling herself onto the saddle before picking up the braided leather reins. “I like this horse. The other one never had a saddle, just a hard back.” She patted her skirt, as if realizing for the first time that it lacked pockets. “I don’t have a penny.”
Trudy always carried pennies. She slid a penny into the slot and the horse glided into motion. It didn’t hitch or groan like the old one had, but worked on a nearly silent motor, pleasing its young rider.
“This is a great horse,” the girl murmured, petting the plastic fall of its black mane.
“Seems quite fine,” Trudy said, casting a glance toward her truck and its tarped cargo. “You ride that old one much?”
“Every week for …” The girl thought about it, Champion moving through three more leaps. “Five years. Five.” She showed a spread hand of fingers to Trudy. “Is he going someplace nice? He was awful broken, but he should be someplace nice.”
Trudy placed five pennies on the edge of the coin collector, and nodded to the girl. “Someplace nice,” she echoed. Champion hadn’t hitched once, the motor still quiet as anything. Technology could put robots on Mars and it sure as shit could guarantee a quiet penny horse ride if someone thought to take the time. “A place where he won’t want for anything and will be surrounded by friends.”
“All right then,” the girl said, and she nodded.
Trudy lingered until the girl’s mother finished at the checkout. “I’d better get this old horse to his pasture.” She turned and headed for the truck without a goodbye, though the girl called one out as she clambered off the horse. Trudy didn’t look back, climbing into her truck and sitting while the family drove away. She eyed the black Champion in front of the store, then looked in her rear-view mirror, where the nameless horse looked back at her through a fray in the old tarp.
“It’s going to be better,” she told the horse, and turned the key in the ignition. “Just wish I could damn well find that circus because no one around here knows what the hell to do with y’all.”
It wasn’t for a lack of asking; she’d made gentle inquiries to antique dealers, and junk yard men; no one she’d spoken to seemed to have any idea that the mechanical animals could be anything more than what they were. The idea that a living, breathing creature could be inside all that metal … It didn’t make sense.
Trudy didn’t know how it worked, either, and the theory she’d developed was certainly full of holes. She called it the Velveteen Rabbit Theory—that, being so well loved by every child who rode them, the animal came to life.
“Full of holes,” Trudy said and pulled out of the store parking lot.
She didn’t drive immediately home, but to the nearest railroad crossing, where the tracks were scuffed from all the traffic crossing them. She parked on the shoulder and dropped out of the truck, walking her way to the rails. There was no sign of any train, least of all the circus train she remembered. She bent to the tracks.
She touched her fingers to the elevated length of metal, the way she touched the mechanical animals, and felt a tingle run up the length of her arm. The day was warm, the tracks warmer, but she couldn’t explain the tremor in her arm when she withdrew.
“Old lady, that’s the explanation,” she said. Still, she didn’t move from her crouch and it wasn’t because she was unable to stand up. She touched her fingers to the tracks again, the railroad ties beaded with creosote. The air smelled like a fire that had been burning for a thousand years and could still go a little longer. It smelled like pine and magic.
She had tried it before, touching the tracks and whispering all the words that felt important. It was the same way she’d first touched the penny horses, thinking it was the words she spoke that caused the reaction. She wasn’t a witch and didn’t know how to summon anything—unless it was mosquito bites at the lakeshore. She flattened her palm against the metal rail and closed her eyes and breathed and thought come tell me what to do because everyone’s gone (Norma, oh god why’d it have to be you) and I don’t know when I’ll be gone and I keep saving gone things like I can make a dent, like I can stop them from being gone and—
“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you all right?”
Trudy jerked at the sound of the voice. She became aware that there were tears on her cheeks—they felt strangely cool when the wind blew. She looked at the man beside the tracks, the man who had apparently pulled his car over behind her truck, because he was … Trudy squinted. Concerned? Was that the expression twisting his young face?
“Lord,” he said, only he said it in a way that it sounded like “Lard,” and Trudy swallowed a sharp laugh. He wasn’t from around here.
“Lard, if I left my grandmother at the side of the road … Come on—let me help you.”
He moved toward her, for her arm, and Trudy wrenched herself away, hand coming off the tracks. She felt somehow empty when she wasn’t touching the metal, like she’d been connected to something bigger than herself when she’d had a hold of it. The speed with which she moved startled the young man; he stopped dead still and stared as she put the tracks between them.
“Ma’am, this isn’t safe.”
There was still no sign of a train and Trudy allowed herself a laugh this time. “What exactly do you think I’m doing?” she asked. She bent back to the tracks, flattening both hands onto the rail. Listening—no, feeling for that faint vibration that would give a train away. Feeling for the very thing the animals did when they shed their metal and became flesh. Wich, the tracks seemed to whisper.
“Ma’am, it seems like you’re trying to kill yourself.” He put his hands on his hips, then swung them to the sky. “Lard! If you would just—”
Trudy put her ear to the rail and the young man gasped. Trudy shushed him, but listen as she might, she didn’t hear anything from the metal or the world around them. Only the low swish of distant traffic. Wichita, it seemed to whisper, and she didn’t like it one bit.
“I am not trying to kill myself,” Trudy said, looking at him from her position on the tracks. “There’s no train coming, nor other traffic. I can’t summon a train and I’m not about to lie here all afternoon until one ambles by.” She lifted her ear and exhaled. “There’s nothing coming this way.” Wichita, the wind seemed to whisper as it blew west to east.
“Ma’am, if you would just get back in your—”
Trudy picked herself up and stepped over the tracks, walking past the young man whose mouth gaped open in astonishment. “You can go on now,” she said, opening the truck door and climbing back in. She slammed the door and stared at him; he had not moved, but had at least closed his mouth. “There’s nothing coming this way—I have to go to it.”
The truck was back on the road before Trudy could hear the young man choke out another “ma’am.”
• • •
The carnival lights made a rainbow splash across the grass and dirt parking lot, and Trudy’s hand slipped into Richard’s as they padded through the colored light, toward the shrieking crowds and groaning Ferris wheel. She squeezed his hand hard, because she kept thinking about that carnival a handful of years ago, of the train car and the marmalade, and she hoped they would have both things tonight, because if they didn’t, tomorrow everything would change.
“This it, baby? This the one?”
Trudy and Richard bought their tickets and pushed deeper into the crowds, but it didn’t look right to Trudy. “I’m not sure,” she said, but didn’t let go of his hand. As much as she wanted to wander, she was also terrified to. If this was the right carnival and Rum was here, Trudy wanted to find her and sweep her up in an endless hug. Wanted to know what had happened in all the in between, where she had gone and what she had seen.
She and Richard weren’t supposed to be here—weren’t supposed to even see each other before the wedding, but Richard was a good sort, always open to mischief, so it had been easy to convince him to ditch his bachelor party. The boys were likely here somewhere—they didn’t want to miss out—but Trudy didn’t care. None of them knew why she’d wanted to come, why she’d needed to come.
“Tru, look, a carousel.”
Richard tugged her toward the ride and every bit of her body tingled like she’d stuck a finger into a socket. The carousel was gorgeous, with its striped yellow and red roof, and its countless animals endlessly circling. The entire contraption made her think of a book she’d read the year before, about a carousel spinning backward, turning people young again. She couldn’t imagine it—being old. Twenty was beautiful, twenty was glorious, even if she were marrying Richard and dreaming of Norma all the while. Norma had gone her own way, and the world went on, too.
The world wasn’t ready for some things, she told herself as Richard pulled her onto the ride. She spied an elephant with wings and headed toward it, while Richard sat beside her on a giraffe. Trudy grasped the golden pole and settled herself into the elephant’s saddle as the carousel started to turn. Richard laughed and Trudy grasped, steadying herself with a hand against the elephant’s neck.
The metal warmed beneath her fingers and she looked down to glimpse gray skin. The animal felt ancient, wrinkled and soft like a shirt she’d worn a thousand times. Before Trudy could understand what had happened, the elephant snapped its golden wings in the air. The feathers whipped against Trudy’s cheeks as the elephant bucked. Trudy clattered to the carousel floor, others on the ride starting to shriek and bolt in their panic. Trudy lay there stunned. She could only gape as the elephant fought its way out from the other carousel animals. Pinned like butterflies on foam, she thought—skewered straight through, but alive? Alive.
Then, the elephant was in the sky. Fat and flying and gone.
“Tru.” Richard wrapped Trudy up in a hug and set to searching her for injuries.
She pushed his hands gently away. “I’m all right,” she said, smoothing down her skirts. “But that … What—” Trudy looked to the sky and wondered where the elephant had gone, and why, and how. It was just the thing that would have happened at the circus that had taken Rum away—but of Rum there was no sign, nor the caboose Trudy remembered, nor the marmalade.
The next day, walking down the church aisle, she couldn’t help but think of that winged elephant, of the way it had broken from everything that held it, and trampled its way to the sky.
• • •
Trudy couldn’t sleep—it felt exactly like Christmas, only absolutely was not. Whoever might compare a funeral to Christmas was surely a few eggs short of a full dozen. Being that she couldn’t sleep, she packed the truck. She didn’t know if she meant to make the drive in a day or not—five hundred and twenty-three miles, that’s what the map told her, and a thousand things could go wrong between here and there.
But a thousand things did not go wrong. Mostly, it was hard to leave the house and the barn, even though she knew she’d be back right after the funeral. She hadn’t left in a handful of years, had kept to the roads and places she knew, but now she was Wichita-bound, and she felt that same tremor in her body as the sun came up and illuminated the road she’d already been on for a few hours as when she’d touched the train tracks.
She took comfort in the tracks, the way she knew they’d run east until they could run no more. They kept going and going, carrying people and cargo, but also circuses, and she made a bet with herself, the minute she reached the Colorado-Kansas line.
“I bet you that we’ll find a carnival before we hit the city limits,” she said. She could picture it all, the carnival sprawled in a field somewhere outside the city, near the train tracks so it could just park there like so—like no other train needed the tracks to run to and fro. “Before the city limits.”
It was desolate out here, but she didn’t care. She loved the nothingness. She loved the way everything shut up so the land and sky could have a long conversation. Sunflowers and wheat fields glowed and sorghum showed amber under the sun. The sky held its blue the whole day through, as if clouds didn’t dare cover any inch of it up. Trudy let the radio go while she drove, but also snapped it off to roll the windows down and listen to the world. Here and there, fields were dotted with black cattle, and she made lowing sounds at them as she passed.
The Sedgewick Arms was a small motel off the highway, not too far from the funeral home, and as she pulled into the parking lot, she couldn’t help but note the battered mechanical horse outside the office. Trudy parked and sat for a long while, looking at the horse, watching parents either drag their shrieking children past the horse, or plop them onto it, only to discover it wasn’t working.
The man behind the counter looked none too pleased when she came in, and she hoped it had to do with the shrieking children that had just been escorted out. “Twenty-five a night,” he said, “no animals, no noise.”
“That’ll do fine,” Trudy said, and paid for three nights up front. That would cover the funeral and some scouting around, but maybe the manager had seen something. “You happen to know if there are any carnivals about?” She took the key he offered, but he didn’t immediately let it go.
“Carnivals,” he said.
The word was strange in his mouth, like he didn’t know what it meant—but also like he knew exactly and just hadn’t heard about them for a long time. He raised an eyebrow at her, the kind of eyebrow that had seen some things. It was gray and gnarled, exactly how Trudy felt as she tried to free the key from his hold.
“Circuses?” she asked. The key came loose with a little jingle and she tried not to stagger back.
The man took a step back from the counter and nodded. “They set up in Seely’s field, down by where the rail lines meet the highway. You come out for that? Could have stayed closer.”
Trudy’s spine prickled. A carnival. In Seely’s field. Well shit. “Got a funeral,” she said and gestured in the vague direction of the cemetery, “but I thought I’d …” She trailed off. “Childhood thing.”
The man grunted, but then finally smiled. “Yes ma’am, I get that.”
Trudy gestured to the door. “That horse outside. You ever have anyone look at it? Want to get it running or replaced? That’s kind of my business. I buy them, too, if you’d rather.” He looked flummoxed, like he hadn’t considered it could be worth money. Trudy shook her head. “You can think about it—I’ll be around. Just hate to see a horse sitting when it could be running.”
• • •
The funeral was full of people Trudy didn’t know. The mourners, the family, the children too young to have known the deceased, but who had to attend on account of blood relations. Trudy kept to the back of the gathering, listening to the preacher who spoke like she’d actually known Norma. Trudy took comfort in the idea that it was a woman speaking, because she had so many memories of Norma cringing at the sound of raised male voices. Her home hadn’t been a happy one—strict and religious, and if her daddy had known she liked girls … Well. Given Norma’s husband was here, with a group of grown children, Trudy wondered if anyone other than her had ever known, or if Norma, like Trudy, had just gotten good at telling herself things were fine.
When the service concluded, Trudy made her way to the coffin, a highly polished walnut affair. She wanted to touch the lid, but it was rife with roses, and the family was lingering about, and she felt out of place. There were a few older ladies there, but they all seemed to know each other—Trudy pictured book clubs or church socials, and really had no idea at all what Norma had loved these past years. The weight of that grief made her reach for the coffin after all, her knees buckling a little.
There was a gentle hand on her elbow, supporting her, and Trudy looked, to find a young woman standing there—a young woman who looked like Norma had. The Norma Trudy had kissed breathless more than once.
“Norma’s granddaughter?” Trudy asked.
The girl’s grin was swift. “Yes ma’am.” With a gentle tug, she guided Trudy to a chair, and they sat together. “Did you know my grandmother then?”
Trudy laughed softly. “We were girls together, back East.” She nodded, clasping her hands in her lap because she found herself shaking. “Went to school together—” She broke off before admitting they’d gotten into trouble together, given that could mean a host of things. She didn’t want to tarnish Norma’s memory in any way whatsoever. “Parted ways after school, like most folk, I suppose, but she came out to my place in Colorado a time or two—”
“Oh!” The girl’s eyes widened and her cheeks pinked. “The Colorado trips. You’re—”
Silence fell between them at that, and Trudy didn’t know what to say.
“Are you Trudy?” she whispered.
Trudy felt like she’d been hit in the spine with a cattle prod. She sat up straight and stopped shaking entirely, because she was sure she’d forgotten how to breathe. Norma had told people about her? Had told family about her? “Trudy Morrison,” she eventually said.
“I’m Gertrude,” the girl said, “and my— I think I was named for you.”
Gertrude fumbled with her purse and Trudy still could not breathe, watching as she pushed aside a wallet, tissues, and other purse contents before withdrawing a silver lighter. Trudy’s breath hitched in her throat because she knew the lighter—it was her very own, carried with her everywhere until she’d pressed it into Norma’s hand, telling her it couldn’t quite contain every lick of flame Trudy wished to bestow on her. It had the name “Trudy” scratched into its metal bottom by Norma’s own hand.
“Oh,” Trudy said.
“You’re quite the legend,” Gertrude whispered, though no one had come to disturb them. “Grandmother spoke of you often—though never entirely by name, at least when there were others nearby. Gave me this lighter when I came out. She … Hmm. She told me some—about childhoods and adventures, and the woods, and a carnival—have you seen the one in Seely’s field? You must go.”
Trudy nodded, the world having blurred a little under unshed tears. “Tomorrow,” she said softly, then Gertrude pressed the lighter into her hand. “Oh.” The weight of it was familiar, and still warm like it had been in Norma’s own pocket. Trudy closed her fingers around it and could not stop shaking. Could not swallow the enormity of the idea that beside her stood a young woman named after her.
“You all right?” Gertrude asked and touched a gentle hand to Trudy’s arm. “Look like you’re about to pass out.”
Someone else might’ve thought it was the end come at last, but Trudy knew better. She laughed and took a deep breath and nodded at Gertrude. “Better than I’ve been in a long while,” she said. She opened her fingers to look at the lighter. At its shine deep in her palm. “Let’s bury her with it. Just tuck it into all those roses and no one will ever know, except us.” She breathed deep. “And her.”
• • •
Seely’s field was fallow but for the carnival, and though Trudy didn’t believe in ghosts, she felt Norma with her every step of the way. From the rail lines to the train cars, Trudy felt like she’d stepped back in time. That she was not in Wichita for Norma’s funeral, but rather walking across a rail bridge with girlfriends, toward a carnival that beckoned through the trees.
They’d seen a dead body that night—for certain values of “body.” Something that had once been alive had been no longer, and they’d watched a solemn ceremony to see the spirit along. Now, Trudy drank in the carnival before her like it was a healing elixir; the train resting on the side-track, the spill of tents and booths, the great lit wheel spinning into the sky. There was no carousel, but a wealth of strange creatures roaming the grounds as they would, not pinned by any contraption. Trudy bought her ticket and just stood watching the entire thing for the longesttime. Then, she realized she wasn’t watching alone.
A tickle at her leg made her look down and she found there a dog, whose hair was coal shot through with threads of silver. The dog’s tongue lolled out of its mouth, dark eyes taking in the carnival around them. Slowly, the dog leaned into her leg. Trudy reached down to scritch the curly head, and it felt the way she remembered Rum’s hair feeling, soft and warm, like a cloud had dipped down from the sunset sky. Trudy didn’t know if it was Rum—didn’t ask, because if it weren’t, she didn’t want to know.
“Just a dog,” she whispered. “Ain’t so strange.”
They stood in companionable silence for the longest time, until the dog got up and vanished into the crowd. Trudy exhaled and realized she was shaking. A Coke and a hot dog set her straight while she wandered, the marmalade stand beckoning her from the train’s caboose. The jarred marmalades lined up on the counter orderly and certain—lemon and orange and lime, grapefruit, bergamot. Trudy wanted all them, but the woman behind the counter offered her a jar of lemon without her having to ask or say a word.
The jar felt right in her hand and so did sitting on the back step of the caboose, dipping fat pieces of torn bread into the marmalade. She ate it just like that, watching the carnival and its people pass before her. The conjoined twins, the dwarves, the lions with their keeper, and a horse or two that had once been mechanical. She could see it in their gaits, in their eyes. She saw, too, the master of the carnival, a glimpse of his true, slithering form between the tents.
His eyes, shocking and crimson, caught hers and she thought of the girl she had been and the woman she was, thought of the horses and other creatures of the world that stood still and silent in her barn, and thought of this place, with its blatant otherness, how that otherness was allowed to thrive and be seen. The truth each carried was their own, and it did not matter if anyone else understood. They had been given free rein to be themselves; she could do so also, lest all the days be spent in darkness.
Just hate to see a horse sitting when it could be running. Hadn’t she said so?
She lingered the night through, until the lights were turned off and the field emptied. She walked back to her truck carrying her half-full marmalade jar, and came back to the motel as the manager was opening the office. She touched a finger to the nose of the mechanical horse outside the door and saw the shimmer of metal into hide, then closed her hand into a gentle fist.
The horse fit perfectly into the truck bed, covered with tarp and carefully tied down for the journey. Trudy waved to the manager as she pulled out, and only looked back once, at the tarped horse in her rearview mirror.
“It’s going to be better,” she said. “Real soon.”
Back home, where the afternoon sun slanted through clouds over the alfalfa field, she wore gloves to unload the horse, and left it standing in the yard while she crossed over to the barn. The barn had double doors on either end, and she opened both pair, rolling the rockets and UFOs and Supermen aside so the sunlight could pour in like it hadn’t in a while. She surveyed everything she had collected, everything she had wrapped up and protected, and blew a breath into the dust-mote air.
“It’s going to be better,” she said again as much for herself as them, and walked to each cubby.
One by one, she woke the horses from their metal slumber, and walked them into the sunlight where they stood blinking like newborns. When she touched her fingers to the white chipped nose of the copper horse, no change came, and Trudy feared she was too late after all. She left the the creatures who needed water—she would need to take them to the lakes or any other wet place they might like to go—but she brought out the horses, and the zebras, the ostrich and the hare.
Among them stood a red dragon and a beetle whose shell gleamed green and gold, and each of them yawned and looked uncertain when she guided them with treats to the wide field that had never been fenced. They roamed and they did not change back, as certain of their forms as Trudy was of hers. Of all she’d lost, of all she still had.
“You can go or you can stay, but either way … no more barn.”
The motel horse kicked up its heels in the field and shook the dust from its mane and tail. Trudy knew she had a brush around somewhere, and as she was thinking to find it, she felt the touch of a warm velvet nose against her hand. The nose edged into her palm, tentative but true, a shallow wound along the edge of one nostril, where white paint had once been chipped.
Copyright © 2021 by E. Catherine Tobler