My stories are now posted at http://www.goodyniosiwriter.wordpress.com
By Goody Niosi
I’d been drunk before in my life – oh yes. Very drunk. I’d been falling-down drunk and head-hanging-over-the-toilet-bowl drunk – but never like this.
And it wasn’t my fault.
It happened like this.
My husband, Pete and I were both hired on to a film crew to shoot an A&W commercial in Mexico – a series of commercials actually. Pete is a producer; I do continuity. A handful of us flew to Mexico City from Vancouver. We picked up the rest of the crew there.
We started work as soon as we arrived, shooting a “Tarzan-of-the-jungle scene with a half-clad Mexican hunk wrestling an alligator that only wanted to have a nap and that was so docile it didn’t have to have its jaws wired shut. The shooting when smoothly except for trying to make the beast look fierce. The director finally decided that the danger aspect would have to happen in the editing. A little CGI perhaps?
Back in Mexico City and with a day off before flying to Durango for the “Western Shootout” ad (Don’t ask – something to do with a good guy and a bad guy arguing over root beer), the client decided we should celebrate. So he reserved a table for a dozen at the best restaurant in town. Don’t even ask me to name it – could have been El Cardinal or Contessa or something else that started with a C.
As was far too usual, I was the only woman at the table. But I was used to it and this bunch of guys was civilized.
The food was amazing: spicy, not too hot, grilled fish – and no, I don’t remember specifics about that either. I do remember that after the plates had been cleared and it was getting late, the guys decided it was time for some Tequila shooters. I drink rarely – not through choice but through necessity. I have learned that two bottles of beer can put me into a coma and three glasses of wine will have me giggling, then dancing with the proverbial lampshade – and that usually deteriorates pretty quickly into unconsciousness.
My husband knows this about me.
Still, when the client insisted that I had to have a shooter too, Pete said, “Yeah – you’re one of the boys tonight, right?”
The other’s chimed in. “Come on – have a drink!”
Pete said, “Be a sport – go on!”
That’s when I gave him the fish-eye. Right – you want to see me drunk? Fine I’ll give you drunk! I turned to the waiter. “I’ll have a shooter too. And hey! Make it a double!”
The men hushed. They were impressed – I could see it in their eyes. Even Pete looked mildly stunned. “All right then,” he said.
The waiter brought the drinks on a cart (just to give you a sense of how much alcohol was involved). He set a small glass with a clear liquid in front of the men – two in front of me. And then followed up with a taller glass of a red liquid that looked a bit like V8 Juice.
“Here’s how you do it,” Pete said, lifting the shot glass and slugging it back, quickly following that up with some salt and lemon and swigging back the red stuff.
I shrugged, belted back both shots at once (yechhhhhh!) quickly following with the red liquid that was some kind of vegetable concoction.
‘You’re supposed to do one shot at a time,” Pete said.
“That’s what I did,” I gasped, tears blurring my eyes.
“Yeah – uh no. One shot then the chaser and then another shot.”
The client was already signalling for another round.
“Another double!” I said.
“Maybe you should have a single,” Pete said.
“Shut up,” I said.
This time I did what Pete had suggested – one at a time. It was still pretty awful. On the next round, I didn’t order a double and after the fourth round I marvelled that I actually felt clear-headed and relatively sober. Maybe a bit of a buzz? I was fine.
After the fifth round, the client threw down his black Amex card and the guys shrugged into their jackets. The waiter brought the card back, the client signed, and we stood up. Actually, they stood up. I gave it a good effort but for some reason the signals from my brain weren’t reaching my legs.
“This is very odd,” I said to Pete. “I can’t seem to manage to stand.”
“Uh-oh.” This from Joseph, the burly art director who’d been sitting on my other side.
I pressed both hands down on the table and gave a good push. I half stood but I was being supported by my arms. My legs had become slinky toys – the kind kids used to push downstairs.
Pete grabbed one of my arms and Joseph the other. Between them they heaved me up pretty easily and efficiently. We strode out of the restaurant in a group, the guys surrounding me while I tried to make my legs move back and forth in a walking motion.
They deposited me in the back of a cab and Pete slid in next to me. The car pulled into traffic.
“Stop!” I said.
Pete looked at me. He tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Better stop.”
“Here? There is traffic!”
“If I were you, I would stop.”
The driver glanced in his rear-view mirror and braked. Pete reached across me and opened the door. I leaned my head out and puked mightily in the direction of a passing BMW.
That done, I faded back against the seat. The driver had a look of horror in his eyes. He slowed down, hugged the curb. This was a wise move because he had to stop two more times before we reached the hotel.
I believe Pete tipped him generously.
Joseph got out of his cab just as we pulled up. He waited, took my right side again while Pete manned the left. They got me up the stairs and into the lavishly carpeted lobby of the hotel, where I stumbled and fell forward, puking on the plush Oriental hand-woven rug.
Most people in this state of inebriation would black out and have no memory of the night’s events. Regrettably, my memory was not only lucid but appeared to be working overtime. The men pulled me into an elevator, dragged me along the hall, and deposited me on the king-size bed in the room Pete and I shared.
It must have been about two a.m. A good night’s sleep might have helped. Our flight to Durango left at seven a.m. Our wake-up call came at five. Pete wrestled me into the shower and helped me pull on jeans and a T-shirt.
We got into a cab – not the same driver although this one too eyed me with a look of foreboding. We made it to the airport and gathering in front of the departure gate. How I got there? No clue. Did I walk? Perhaps. How did I get checked in? Did Pete handle that? He sat me down on a plastic chair where I curled up and went to sleep. Then I had to pee.
“Pete!” I yelled.
“I need to pee.”
He walked me to the bathroom. I found a stall, stumbled in, and sat on the toilet. I heard a sharp banging. “Lucy! Lucy! Are you okay?”
I shook my head. Had fallen asleep. Had I peed? Probably.
I flushed and came out, peering at Pete. “What?”
He sighed and walked me back to the gate where we were boarding. He sat me down by the window. I fell asleep. An hour later we were in Durango. Another cab – the sun in the desert was hot and bright. I couldn’t see. We pulled up to a sprawling motel complex, walked into the lobby and up to the desk. I can do this. I’m better now. I smiled at the clerk, put my head down on the counter and went to sleep.
The rest of the day was devoted to location scouting. They didn’t need me for that. I went straight to the room and slept until the team came back in the evening. Pete woke me up. “How are you feeling?”
I took a shower. My hair hurt. My toenails hurt. My eyelashes hurt. I had a glass of water and a cup of tea.
The next morning our wake-up call came at five-thirty. We were on the set at seven-thirty: a perfect western town – a saloon with swinging doors, a jailhouse, a hotel with an upper balcony that was perfect for stuntmen to fall from as they were shot at from any number of rooftops. The sidewalks were wooden, the main street dusty.
Just beyond the set was a tiny settlement of perhaps half a dozen adobe houses, each with a small garden plot and washing hanging on a line. The inhabitants of the village stood back from the set watching us – with interest? Their faces gave nothing away. They watched.
We rolled in klieg lights and reflector boards, mics and stands, a dolly, risers – all the gear a film crew carries with it. I sat on my apple box, took photos of the set, prop placement, wardrobe, the star actors – all the details I would need for reference. I made elaborate notes, marked up the script.
The actors argued in the saloon – about root beer. In the afternoon, we moved to the main street for the shoot-out. By four, we were almost ready to wrap. The villagers were still there but by this time they had brought lawn chairs and a cooler of beer. One of the women was cooking sausages on a little barbecue.
Me? I was functioning on autopilot. I’d done this enough times to not screw up. But I was beginning to feel like I should join the tribe of villagers.
At four we had one more shot – a new tag for all the A&W commercials. We needed a lovely country path winding through a pretty green field up a hill and fading into the sunset. The A&W bear – not riding a white horse but dancing and twirling up the path.
The bear costume is a hot and stinky one. The actress who plays the bear had been on standby all day.
Problem: we were in a desert.
The prop man drove to the nearest town – a few miles beyond the makeshift village. He came back with a couple of spray guns and cans of paint.
For the next hour, the actress sweltered in the lower half of her suit while props and his assistant sprayed the desert green.
The villagers had stopped drinking. They sat very still, watching. I picked up my apple box and moved close to them, sat down, watched the action from their angle.
At about six o’clock, the hill and surrounding landscape were green with a gently curved path bisecting the land. The actress pulled the bear head down. The director yelled “Action.” She danced, hopped, and skipped up the path until she topped the gentle rise and vanished.
The villagers broke out more beer and sipped.
One of the men handed me a cold Cuerveca.
I took a long, cool sip, nodded at the villagers, smiled. The oldest of the women, a face like a beautifully carved piece of granite, broke into a beatific smile and shook her head.
Drank some more.
Miss Polly Esther
By Goody Niosi
A month after Lucy’s first and surprisingly popular children’s book launched, she answered the phone. “Lucy Enderby?”
“Sonia Hemmings, here. I’m the chair of the Vancouver Island Children’s Festival.”
Lucy allowed that she had no idea there was such a thing – although she was well aware of the smashingly successful Children’s Festival in Vancouver.
“Well,” Sonia said. “We’re bringing it right here to Vancouver Island. And we’d like you to participate!”
Exciting news indeed. Of course she would participate. “What would you like me to do?” Lucy asked, picturing herself dangling from a wispy silk scarf in a Cirque Eos act – and instantly thinking “no!”
“Well, stories. Your book is soooo amazing,” Sonia gushed. “All that everyday magic – such fun!”
Lucy liked it when people gushed. She still hadn’t got past the thrill of seeing her books on the shelf at Chapters/Indigo.
“You want me to read from my book?” she asked.
“Well, we thought maybe something a bit more entertaining – not that reading isn’t entertaining – but you know – something more visual. Something really exciting. We have so many incredible acts coming – stilt walkers and hoop dancers and acrobats – and we want the children to be hands-on and involved.”
“Fine,” Lucy said. “I’ll do a storytelling workshop.”
“Oh wonderful!” Sonia said. “So – for the brochure – what shall I say it’s all about?”
“Um – well – the group of children and I – we make up stories and sort of act them out. With costumes and things – all very fast, fun and active. Very – uh – hands-on.”
“Perfect. The festival runs three days – so – three shows a day? Thirty minutes each? We’ll put you in the reading room in the library right off the main square.”
Well then. How difficult could it be? She had two months to prepare, which was a very long time, so she filed it under, “Things to do at some other time.”
A couple of weeks later, she noticed the brochures sitting in a rack in a downtown store. Sonia emailed to tell her they had been distributed to the schools and her group slots were filled. She was more popular than the pottery workshop. The last show of each day was reserved for the public. No reservations. She might get a group of three or fifty.
Four weeks before the festival, Lucy thought she ought to turn her attention to what she was actually going to do. Costumes – she had promised dress-up. She called her friend Ruth who was also known as “Candy the Clown.”
“Ruth – do you still have your tickle trunk? The old one? The one you don’t use any more?”
“”The one with the cast-offs?”
“Can I borrow it for the Children’s Festival?”
“Sure. I noticed you’re doing a storytelling workshop. I’m in front of the library all three days making balloon animals.”
“Wonderful – I’ll pick the trunk up tomorrow.”
She had a pretty good idea what was in it: lots and lots of hats and head gear: a pirate’s hat, a plumed three-cornered hat, a tiara, a floppy gold crown, a jewelled turban, reindeer antlers, a knight’s helmet, a Viking horned helmet, a green elf hat, a top hat, a bridal veil, a musketeer hat, even a Robin Hood hat. The trunk contained several capes, a pink tutu, a giant rainbow parachute, various plastic swords and spears, big clown shoes, banana coloured vests and a pair of wire wings. Ruth had spent half a lifetime buying anything that looked like it might be useful clown gear. The stuff she actually used ended up in the good trunk – this was her, “Maybe-someday-but-I-don’t-really-think-so” trunk. As far as Lucy was concerned, it qualified as hands-on costumes.
But what was she going to wear? She bemoaned her lack of costume to her friend Ron over lunch a week before the festival.
“I’ve got something,” he said.
“Something you’ve worn?”
“Only once,” he said. “A couple of Halloweens ago.”
“I don’t know,” Lucy said. “Look at us.”
Lucy weighed just over one hundred pounds and managed to clear five-foot three if she stood up straight and tall. Ron’s heady six feet topped out at well over two hundred pounds.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Finish your eggs benny –we’re going to my place.”
He was right – he did have something: a complete polyester suit – lime green pants with red suspenders, a rainbow-hued checked shirt, a neon-yellow suit jacket and a purple vest. “You see,” he said, as Lucy climbed into the outfit, “The size just makes you look all the more magical and cute.”
Lucy drove away with the outfit in the back seat. She called Sonia from the car. “Have you made up the sign yet for the workshop?”
“Doing it tomorrow.”
Okay – the name of the storyteller is Miss Polly Esther. I’ll spell it for you.”
The night before her first show, Lucy opened the trunk. She’d found a couple of items in the local dollar store that she thought might be useful: a plastic fireman’s helmet, a plastic swashbuckler’s belt and some green dragon horns. She dug down to the bottom of the trunk and found a few things she hadn’t been aware off – a shiny red belt, a couple of pink wigs and a wand. It was a lovely wand: silver and gold with a star at the tip and a flutter of spangles weaving their way down to the handle. It looked properly magical.
Her first show was scheduled for eleven a.m. She arrived half an hour early dressed in her polyester and with the trunk’s red clown shoes on her feet. A team of jugglers was already dancing around the square. From a tent came the sound of drums and back at the far end of the square, a group of children of all sizes and ages were learning hip-hop.
She installed herself in the reading room where the tiered benches rose in front of her. She estimated that the room could hold about sixty people.
She set her trunk down on a long foldout table and sat next to it, dangling her oversize red feet over the edge.
Pretty soon the door opened and a young teacher poked her head in. “Is this the place? Miss Polly Esther?”
“Welcome!” Lucy said with her biggest smile. “Come in!”
The door opened wide and in marched an orderly line of children – grades one and two – boys and girls holding hands two by two. “Top rows first!” the teacher called out. The rows filled, another teacher bringing up the rear. And there they were: a full house of eager, anticipatory faces waiting for something magical to happen.
Lucy took a deep breath. Show time!
“Once upon a time,” she began. “There was a little girl whose mission it was to save the world. But she didn’t know how to do it. The great wizard had only told her that she had to set out on the road and follow the clues she would find. It was a big job for such a young girl but she was brave and decided she would just do it. So she set out on the road. And it was a lovely country road. It wound through fields with horses and cows – and under big shady oak trees. There were flowers in the fields and bees buzzing. Birds were singing songs. It was a perfect summer day. And then the road wound up a hill and just as she got to the top – what jumped out at her?”
A boy in the front row yelled, “A helicopter!”
“Yes!” Lucy cried, jumped off the table and dug up the beany cap with the propeller on top. She fetched the boy, put the beany on his head and started whirling him around the room. “And the helicopter flew around and around and really scared the little girl a lot! But just then, to save her, along came a?
“Prince!” a girl in the top row yelled.
“Of course!” Lucy said, signalling the girl to step down. She quickly placed the floppy crown on the girl’s head and ran around and around the room with both children chasing and giggling. “And the prince chased the helicopter away and made everything safe again.”
With both children seated again and the room already in a chaotic uproar (even the teachers were guffawing deep belly laughs) Lucy felt her nervous butterflies evaporate.
She wove the story: wizards and wolves happened upon the scene. When she asked for a suggestion, which was often, dozens of hands shot into the air. The story contained vampires, lions, knights, puppies and witches. And in the end, as the clock’s hands in the back of the room inched close to eleven-thirty, she wrapped it up with the little girl finding what would save the world: peace and love. She unfurled the giant rainbow parachute and invited everyone underneath it. Shrieks, dancing, laughter, and exhaustion.
The children tumbled chaotically out of the room, breathless and giddy.
“Thank you,” the teachers cried over the their shoulders, trying to round up their mob. “That was wonderful!”
Lucy glowed. She packed up the various hats and swords and bits of netting, stuffed the parachute back in its bag, and packed everything back into the trunk, closing the lid – although it seemed much fuller than before. Bad packing.
The two o’clock session was even more fun than the first. Again the room was packed. At five she prepared for her first public show. Parents hesitantly came in with their children. Was this the right place?
Only the two front rows filled with a group of about a dozen children and five adults. They were the same ages as the school children except for one tiny girl at the far right end. She couldn’t have been more than three years old, sitting with a woman who was probably her grandmother. The girl half-hid her face in the pleats of the woman’s dress, her cloud of blond curls crushed on one side and flying free in corkscrews on the other.
The energy in the room was quieter. Lucy started with a little boy on a quest to save the world. A couple of twin boys front and centre gleefully shouted answers: they suggested warlocks and dragons. In minutes the other children jumped in. The room erupted as it had before. Lucy dashed around, throwing capes over boys’ shoulders, clamping a helmet over a girl’s head, fighting a dragon but not slaying – making friends with it, and everything ending under a parachute that even the parents crawled under.
At five-thirty, the children and adults filed out, still laughing. The only ones left behind were the grandmother and the little curly-headed girl who had sat quietly in the corner.
“Oh,” Lucy said. “You’re still here.”
“Go on,” the woman said to the girl. “Tell Miss Polly Esther.”
Lucy walked close to the girl, and kneeled down face to face. “What do you want to tell me?” she asked.
“I said, ‘a cloud.’”
The woman leaned slightly forward. “When you asked what came around the bend in the road next, Sandy said, ‘a cloud.”
“Ohhhhh.” Lucy searched her memory. “I didn’t hear you. I’m so sorry.”
Sandy looked down at her feet, scuffed her toe along the carpet.
Lucy looked up at the woman. “I didn’t hear her.”
The woman nodded. “I know. She whispered it.”
Sandy looked up again, tears spilling over her pale blond lashes.
Lucy wanted to gather the little girl in her arms. She wanted to rewind and do it all over again. She wanted to flagellate herself. She wanted to make it right.
“Tell you what,” she said. “Come back next time – tomorrow if you can – I’m going to tell a story again and I’m pretty sure we can have a cloud in it – or a princess – or anything at all that you think should be part of the story. Okay?”
The girl nodded.
“I don’t know if we can come back tomorrow,” the woman said.
“I hope you can.”
Lucy watched them go. Please let them come back.
She packed the trunk. She couldn’t quite put the lid down. And she noticed a new frock coat and a pair of butterfly wings. Why had she not seen them before?
She slid the trunk under the table, ready for her first show in the morning.
The school sessions the next day were even better than the day before. The only word Lucy could think of to describe them was “magical.” The frock coat paired with the top hat was perfect for the boy who yelled out “Dracula!” And, amazingly, there was even a plastic set of vampire teeth in the bottom of the hat. And when a little girl said that a butterfly came to chase away the dragon, there were the butterfly wings!
After the second show, Sonia rushed in. “Oh my gosh, she said. “Everyone is talking about your workshop! All the school groups, even the older classes, want in. And of course, they can’t – you’re full! You’re the talk of the festival!”
“Wow! But really, it’s just telling a story.”
“You have no idea!” Sonia said.
At four-thirty, the room was packed for the five o-clock show. Lucy noticed that a new policeman’s hat had appeared as well as a pair of Mickey Mouse ears. The trunk was overflowing. Who was donating these objects?
She looked for Sandy and her grandmother. At five she was ready to close the door. She poked her head out – no sign of any latecomers.
The show was raucous. Lucy barely kept it under control. She walked (or ran) the fine edge of pandemonium and semi-orderly fun. The parents gave her a standing ovation.
When the last person had left and the door closed. Lucy sighed. She gathered the jetsam of the show and began placing it into the trunk – or trying to. Maybe a reorganization would help. She took everything out. How had that new purple vest materialized? And the floppy red bard’s cap? At the bottom of the trunk lay the wand. Oh – she needed to use that. She’d quite forgotten about it down there. The star glowed softly in the light, almost as though it had a light of its own. Batteries, she wondered? No, just a reflection.
She shoved the trunk under the table.
The next morning, she noticed two new sparkly headbands added to the gear overflowing the trunk. Aha! The librarian! Wonderful! All contributions were welcome.
The morning and afternoon shows were exciting and exhausting. As she prepared for the last show of day three, Lucy congratulated herself for getting through them – for doing well – and mostly for the day of rest in her future. Who knew that this silly little workshop would be so exhausting?
She organized her trunk for the last show. There was a new cape – quite small. It was a gossamer thing that came around, clasped in front and would easily wrap around an entire small body. It was white with little shimmers running through it – perhaps a bit of pearly grey with the tiniest tinge of blue. Lucy couldn’t name the material – it was the softest thing she had ever touched. Where had the librarian found it? And how did she manage to sneak these things into the room?
Lucy kept the door closed until ten minutes before five. When she opened it, a tidal wave of children and adults burst in – and in the middle of the pack were Sandy and her grandmother. Lucy beamed at them, couldn’t stop grinning – she thought her face might split. They found a seat front and centre and the show began. A little girl – off to save the world. Sandy sat close to her grandmother, leaning against her but not hiding her face. Good. The usual suspects quickly appeared – a Wizard (with a wizard’s pointy hat) and a dragon (with green, scaly horns) and then an enchanted rabbit – and magically, there was a huge pair of pink and white bunny ears spilling out of the trunk.
Lucy kept her eyes and mostly her ears on the front row, centre.
“And then the girl, after hugging the enchanted rabbit good-bye walked back down the road and as she came around a corner she saw a…”
“A cloud!” Lucy said. “Yes – a beautiful white cloud with sparkles!”
She reached out and took Sandy’s hand, enveloped her in the soft white, sparkly grey with a tinge of blue cloth. It was made for her – just her size; it completely enveloped her little body leaving just a wee head topped with a halo of yellow curls poking out. Sandy’s face was wreathed in smiles.
“And the cloud floated down the road, showing the little girl the way,” Lucy said, taking Sandy by the hand and skipping around and around the room. Sandy giggled and giggled – skipping and hopping.
“But it was a magic cloud!” Lucy said, reaching for the wand with its star tip that wasn’t just glowing – it was flashing light. “And the cloud floated up and up!” Lucy touched Sandy’s head with the wand – and Sandy floated up and up while the cloud cloth threw down rainbows. Sandy giggled twirling in the air; the children squealed, catching rainbows that turned to sparkles in their hands before vanishing in a puff of silver.
“And then the magic cloud came down to earth!” Lucy said.
She waved the wand.
The cloud alit. Sandy ran to her grandmother, still giggling.
Lucy put the wand down. “And after the cloud left,” she said, “Along came a…”
“Policeman!” a girl shouted. Lucy topped the girl’s head with the new policeman’s cap.
And in the end, the big rainbow parachute covered everyone in the room, including Sandy who was still dressed as a cloud. And still giggling.
At five-thirty, the children and adults filed out. “Thank-you; thank-you; that was wonderful; thank you!”
Lucy smiled. Sandy and her grandmother were last to leave.
“Now give that lovely cloak back to Miss Polly,” her grandmother said.
“No,” Lucy said. “It belongs to Sandy. It’s her magic cloud.”
Sandy beamed, hugged her arms around herself. “Thank-you,” she said.
“I don’t know how you do it,” the woman said. “The first one was great. But this! How did you make it look like she was flying? – and all the rainbow stuff! David Copperfield couldn’t have done a better job. Really amazing! Honestly, I don’t know how you did it.”
The door closed behind them. Lucy walked to the trunk and the table full of hats and capes and crowns. “I don’t know how I did it either,” she said.
And she noticed as she packed the trunk for the last time that some items were missing: like the policeman’s’ cap, the bunny ears, the frock coat and vampire teeth. The wand was just a plastic wand with a thick silver cardboard star on top. And the trunk lid closed quite easily.
By Goody Niosi
On his fifteenth birthday, Sam decided it was time to chase his dream. If not now, when? Maybe he was a bit old to still be infatuated with horses; the other boys in his class hid copies of Hustler and Gent in their backpacks. He saved his meagre allowance to spend on Young Rider or Equus. He’d read every copy of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, even the prequel, The Young Black Stallion.
Every fall, during the two-week span of the Canadian National Exhibition on Toronto’s lakefront, Sam took the streetcar to the Spadina gates and walked determinedly to the horse barn and rings. He would arrive when the ticket booths opened and leave at midnight – closing time. If he could afford it, he would go twice. Mostly, he didn’t have the money. He walked up and down the line of stalls, touching silky noses that poked out at him from the bars. He watched horses being shoed, brushed and washed. He watched manes being braided. He studied the tack, memorizing every piece: saddles, stirrups, bridles, halters, reins, bits, harnesses, martingales, and breastplates. He spent hours sitting in the stands at the practice ring, watching riders perform dressage. But mostly, he just leaned into the stalls as far as he could, gazing into big brown eyes and falling in love.
He imagined himself as a North American Alec, heading west where wild horses still roamed – although he had no idea if they still did – and finding his own Black. The Black might be a young horse or he could be the leader of a herd: magnificent and free. Sam saw himself standing on a wind-swept hill, gazing out toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the herd thundering toward him in the grassy valley below. And suddenly The Black would stop, lift his head to the wind and see him. The boy and horse would freeze and see each other in mutual recognition. The Black would leave his herd and walk toward him, head down in greeting – and Sam would reach out his hand to stroke the silky neck, caress the muzzle.
The Black would bend one leg and Sam would swing himself up on his broad back – one, long, graceful movement – and they would be off, sailing across the grasslands toward the mountains, outracing the wind.
The dream hadn’t changed in seven years. It had only intensified. Every time he was moved to a new foster home, he lost himself more deeply in the dream. When he’d read all twenty Black Stallion books, he started over again, savouring them. If one was missing from the library, he lived in agony until it was returned.
He changed schools so often that he had no time to make friends. He also rarely got bullied. He was small and quiet and kept to himself. He was an average student and would likely have done better if he’d paid attention rather than staring out the window wondering, if he squinted his eyes down to slits and gazed long and hard enough, would he be able to see beyond the houses, grey factories and stunted trees to open land? Rolling grasslands?
When he was thirteen he began to lay plans for his escape. He would hitchhike. That would be the easiest way. Just get out on the highway and stick out his thumb. Maybe a trucker would pick him up – a long distance trucker who was going all the way. He’d sleep in the cab of the truck, entertain the driver with his old harmonica – the only thing he had left from his dad.
And then, eighteen months later, he was moved again – another family that already had three other foster kids. He shared a room with a boy close to his age. The boy didn’t talk much and didn’t spend much time at home. That was fine with Sam. He lay on the top bunk bed reading his Stallion books.
The route to and from Parkdale Collegiate crossed an overpass. He would stand there on the way home and look straight down at the freight trains heading west – lines of flatcars and boxcars, even longer lines of containers. It came to him when he watched the trains; they ran slow here because they hadn’t left the city yet – and always there were open doors on the boxcars – and there was space inside. Always.
His first thought was to jump off the bridge, land on top of the boxcar, and swing himself inside like a Ninja. But when he judged the distance to the top of the car below him, he knew he was likely to die in the attempt. And though he had a fleeting thought that dying would be better than life, he knew that he had to keep living – for the dream.
And so he developed another plan: sneak down the embankment and just jump in. His strategy didn’t go much beyond getting on the boxcar. He started collecting bits of food from the house. Not so much that anyone would notice. He would take an extra cookie or a cracker or two. He would tuck a can of tuna under his mattress. He took the extra bits of food to school and hid them in his locker. He collected matches. He wracked his brain. What else did he need? He couldn’t get past matches – to keep him warm. Maybe a knife. And then he’d just wear a lot of warm clothes.
His birthday was September 15. No one said Happy Birthday to him because they either didn’t know or had forgotten. He stuffed his backpack as full as he could and wore his warmest clothes. He went to school and sat through classes, his foot tap-tapping under the desk. There was no going back. He had crossed a personal Rubicon. This was it.
It took forever for the bell to ring – end of his last class. Sam walked to his locker and dawdled, pretended he’d forgotten his combination, waited for the guys around him to leave. He opened the metal door and put his food stash into his backpack. It wasn’t big: a can of soup, a couple of tins of tuna, a muffin from yesterday –he’d have that for supper – and crackers, a small box of corn flakes, Dad’s chocolate chip cookies. He heaved the pack on his back, walked out the doors of the high school for the last time, and headed west on Queen Street.
He scooted down the embankment beside the bridge and sat, waiting. It didn’t take long – he’d been watching for weeks. Today was the day. The train came. He jumped on an empty boxcar, holding his breath, not knowing what he’d find inside. Explosives? A wild bull? A police officer? Nothing. It was empty.
Sam’s heart was pounding so loudly he could hear the pulse of blood in his ears. It had been too easy. He worried that the train wouldn’t go far – maybe only to Oakville – or even worse – Windsor and then south of the border. He needed the train to rumble up to Sudbury and then along the side of Lake Superior. It had to go north before heading west.
He sat in a dark corner of the boxcar, slowing down his breathing, hungry but too nervous to eat, listening to the clackety-clack of the wheels on the tracks.
Sam slept. When he woke it was dark; the wheels kept to their lullaby – clackety-clack. He ate his muffin and curled up against the cold.
When he woke, light was pouring into the boxcar. It was stopped. Where? Was he in danger? He crawled cautiously to the edge of the door and peered out: more tracks – lots of them – freight cars, flatcars, container cars, smoke rising from chimneys. He crawled back to his corner and ate a couple of cookies. The train started again and the day passed. Another day and another night and another day. No one came to his boxcar. It was as if it had been specially designated as his transportation to the foothills of Alberta.
Sam lost track of the days. He ran out of food except for the tuna and soup. He stabbed the tuna cans with his small knife until he had slits wide enough that he could dig for the fish.
Once or twice a day he peered out the door, looking for grasslands and foothills. The grasslands came – the great prairie – and for days there was prairie.
One hungry morning, Sam checked and thought he saw something more than just a small hill on the horizon. His heart started to beat hard. Was it possible? Could he actually have made it all this way? Didn’t stuff like this just happen in books and not in real life?
He crawled back into his corner and waited. When the light changed and he knew it must be afternoon, he edged toward the door again and looked. There was no mistaking it – foothills – and beyond them, mountains. Sam studied the ground by the train: the tall grasses looked soft enough. Should he jump and roll? Should he wait for the train to slow down or stop? His heart was doing that loud thump-thump again. He strapped on his backpack and hunkered by the door. Wait? Not wait? When? Now?
He waited. Was he waiting too long? If he jumped, would he break a leg? If he did, he would die out here alone.
The light had changed again when the train slowed, wheels grinding and screeching. Slower and slower. Sam jumped and rolled, picked himself up and watched the rest of the long line of cars pass by. Far ahead was the beginning of a town or city. He was safe. His plan had worked. And no one could have been more surprised than Sam.
In the west, mountains were blue-black silhouettes against a red sun. Shadows were so long they were blending together, growing into darkness. Sam walked, his legs wobbly after so many days and nights of sitting and curling up on the floor of the boxcar. He felt dirty and stinky and tired. He wanted a hot shower and something to eat but more than anything, he wanted to sleep. He wobbled across the grass, shaking out his arms and legs. The ground wouldn’t hold still – moving to the rhythm of the clackety-clack of the railway track.
Before the last light left the sky, Sam spotted a barn and almost hidden behind it, a sprawling house with a light in the window. He walked to the barn, found the door open and crept inside – a hay barn stuffed with hundreds and maybe thousands of bales. He climbed up the ladder to the loft, sprawled down on the prickly hay, balled up a shirt under his head and slept.
In the morning he elbowed and kneed his way to the loft window that looked down on the house and yard. It was a friendly-looking house with a big covered porch, a couple of rocking chairs on it, a tractor in the yard, and a blue pickup truck around the side. The door opened; a dog emerged: black and white, tail waving in eagerness; a man followed, pulling an old slouch hat over his almost-bald head. He wore a checked shirt, jeans, a quilted vest and cowboy boots. Cowboy boots!
“Shep!” he called. The dog ran to him. He opened the passenger door of the truck. Shep jumped in. The man stepped into the driver’s side, turned over the engine, backed up a few feet, turned the wheel and headed down the driveway, dual plumes of dust following him.
Sam watched. Who else lived there? When his stomach demanded that he move, he climbed back down the ladder and approached the house. He recalled the door slamming shut but hadn’t seen a key being turned in the lock.
He stood on the porch. Out of habit he knocked. Held his breath. No sound from inside. He listened again. Hadn’t he heard something just now? Yes – a soft footstep. He turned. A black and white cat, tail held high, padding toward him from the barn. Sam sighed. Okay, he turned the handle; the door opened smoothly into a kitchen. Dishes were drying on a rack; a red striped towel hung from the oven door handle. A big, pockmarked and scratched pine table occupied all the floor space in the centre of the room. Sam eyed the white fridge and the row of cupboards.
Fridge first: eggs and butter, milk, a loaf of white bread, mayo, mustard, a jar of olives, some glass containers with what looked like leftover vegetables, There were apples and bananas on the counter. Sam didn’t want to cook – didn’t want to leave a trace. But he rifled through the cupboards and found peanut butter, jam, jelly, sugar, honey, tins of tuna and salmon. He made two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He ate two apples and three bananas.
He walked through the house. It was old-fashioned, like people had been living there since the nineteen-fifties and had never bothered to update the furniture: ratty couches, a comfortable but worn easy chair, a few end tables, a big coffee table and a flat-screen TV – a token nod to modernization. Upstairs were three bedrooms and a bathroom. Sam stripped and stepped into the shower. He soaped himself, poured shampoo on his head, smiling with pleasure.
He didn’t like stepping back into dirty clothes but he couldn’t stay long enough to do laundry.
When he came back downstairs, he heard another noise: a sound that made his hair stand up.
It sounded like a hoofbeat. And then a snort. Then a whinny. And another one pitched differently – higher. Was it his imagination? He tore out the door and looked in the direction of the sounds. He walked toward them: a section of yard fenced into what he guessed were corrals or paddocks – three of them with a horse in each one. Three horses! There was a dapple grey with a small head and delicate chin that made Sam think it might be an Arabian or have some Arabian ancestry. Another was a deep, dark brown with a long mane. The third was pure, spun gold with a white mane. It might have been the most beautiful horse Sam had ever seen, even more arresting than any at the fair.
The golden horse was galloping laps around his confines, tossing back his head, his silver mane rippling, dust spewing up around his ebony hooves.
Sam walked to the corral in a trance, stepped up on the bottom rung of the split-rail fence, and leaned his body over the top rail. Suspended by his arms, he rested his chin on his hands and watched the great beast gallop a few more circles and stop. He tossed his head, eyed Sam carefully and walked close. He sniffed him the way horses do, noisily blowing air through his nostrils, tickling Sam’s face.
Sam laughed out loud, closing his eyes, feeling the horse’s breath, smelling that distinct horse smell. There was nothing like it. It couldn’t be described. But any horse person on earth would know what he meant if he said, “horse smell.” It was like leather and warmth and heat and old grass and hay and pure animal joy.
Sam put his head down, felt the breath in his hair and then lips nibbling very gently on one ear. Sam lost his heart right there – lost it so completely that he didn’t hear the truck, nor the footsteps coming up behind him.
“And who may you be?” The voice was gruff but not unkind.
Startled out of a world where the horse and he were the only beings alive, Sam lost his grip on the top bar and tumbled to the ground at the man’s feet. He jumped up quickly, dusted off his pants. “I’m Sam,” he said.
“And where are you from? How did you get here?”
Sam’s eyes grew wide. He’d been prepared for almost anything: cold, hunger, miles of walking – but not for answering questions. He hadn’t made up a story and if he had, he doubted it would have done him any good. He was a notoriously bad liar; his first and only act of subterfuge had been hiding food in his locker and hopping on the train.
“Well?” the man was pretty big. He could probably pick Sam up with one hand. His dog was sitting beside him looking friendlier – tail waving, mouth open in a big, panting grin.
“I’m from out east,” Sam said, adding “Sir,” as an afterthought.
“How’d you get here? There’s only one dirt road and I just came along that. So you didn’t walk or drive up here.”
“I walked across the field,” Sam said.
“No sir, last night.”
“Coming from where? From town?”
Sam hung his head, willing himself not to cry, certain the man was about to call the police. “Yes sir – sort of.”
They stood in silence for a while.
“Golden seems to have taken a shine to you.”
Golden! Sam’s heart did a small jig. His name was Golden! “He’s a beautiful horse sir.”
“You can stop calling me sir – name’s Jack.”
“Yes, Jack – sir.”
Jack sighed, walked toward the horse. It shied away, rolled its eyes.
“Go on,” Jack said. “Call the horse.”
Sam turned back to the horse and held out his hand, shaking slightly. “Golden,” Sam whispered. The horse walked forward, placed his muzzle in the boy’s outstretched hand, snorted softly.
“I’ll be damned,” Jack said. “Haven’t been able to get near him for a week. Bought him from auction seven days ago. Closest I’ve come is throwing food at him. You better come in the house.”
Sam followed Jack, who glanced around, taking in the crumbs on the counter, the backpack on the kitchen table. “How old are you, Sam?”
“Where’d you run away from?”
Sam tried to hold the tears in check, cleared his throat and coughed. But when he opened his mouth, he found himself choking.
“Sit down, Sam.” Jack said. “I’m going to make a pot of tea. You just talk when you feel comfortable.”
Sam waited, cleared his throat again and wrapped his hands around the cup of steaming tea. It took a while to tell his story but Jack didn’t hurry him up – didn’t even interrupt once. Sam told him about his parents dying in the car crash, about how poor they’d been and about the distant aunt and uncle who’d taken him in but just for a while – just until they found out there’d be no insurance money. He told Jack about the foster homes. He’d never been beaten or starved – just treated with general disinterest. Mostly he told Jack about the horses – The Black and the stables at the Exhibition. He blushed red when he told him about his plan to come west and find a herd of wild horses. He told Jack about the boxcar and jumping out when he got to the foothills.
“Who’s gonna come lookin’ for you?” Jack asked.
Sam shrugged. “No one, I think.”
Jack nodded. “So when you find this wild herd of horses, what do you plan on doing?”
“Not sure,” Sam said.
“No plan, huh?”
“No sir, Jack.”
Jack sighed hugely. “Let’s go out on the porch,” he said.
Sam followed him and took the rocking chair beside Jack’s. From there, they could watch the horses, two of them chomping on hay, Golden standing at the rail fence, his eyes on the covered porch. Shep sat down beside Sam, leaned into him.
“The animals seem to like you,” Jack said.
Sam’s face lit up. “They’re wonderful!,” he said. “And Shep, he’s a beautiful dog!”
“Golden seems to have taken a shine to you.”
“He’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen.”
Jack nodded. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” he said. “I don’t know who’s gonna come lookin’ for you. You’re only fifteen. My wife died three years ago – no kids. I’m alone here. It’s not a big place – just a few head of cattle and the horses – the barn cat, Shep here. I kind of ramble around the place. There’s plenty of room. But I don’t know about the legalities of this. I keep to myself mostly. There’s plenty of room and you probably know that. Your clothes are filthy but your skin looks pretty scrubbed clean so I suspect you’ve visited the bathroom.”
Sam ducked his head, reddened.
“That’s okay,” Jack said. “Would’ve done the same thing. Pretty gutsy what you did – and lucky. No idea how you got all the way here undetected. Amazing really! But here you are. You can stay but you have to make your way: feed the animals here and learn about horses – how to ride and how to clean tack and look after them. Gotta help with hayin’ and cleaning up after yourself. You’re not gonna do it all. I’m a worker – you just gotta pitch in. And Golden – well, I think that one’s up to you. You can be in charge of him. God knows, he won’t let anyone else near him.”
Sam’s face took on a shine that was foreign to it. His heart did a flip it had never done before. “Yes sir,” he said. “I’ll do anything sir.”
“Then start by calling me Jack.”
“Yes, sir – Jack.”
“So you’ll stay.”
“I’ll stay. Thank you.”
“But don’t get ahead of yourself,” Jack said. “No guarantees or promises. I don’t know what’ll happen. I don’t know if they’re gonna look for you. I don’t know if they’ll believe that you’re my nephew from back east. There’s no telling. They might take you away tomorrow. I could get into trouble and I don’t need that. You understand?”
“It’s along shot – you understand?”
“It probably won’t work out, right?”
Sam smiled, “Right.”
“Things go all to hell in this world all the time.”
“So don’t get your hopes up.”
Sam smiled bigger. “No sir.”
“My name’s not sir.”
“No sir. Uh – Jack.”
Jack sighed again, stood up. “Okay, first, let’s get your clothes into the laundry. You can wear some of mine for now – roll up the pant legs and shirtsleeves. Pick whichever spare room you want. We’ll fix it up. There’s a reading room downstairs – lots of books – books about horses. Not your fanciful Black Stallion books, mind you – real books about breeding and riding and so on. We’ll have to get you a proper pair of boots.
Jack smiled the smallest of smiles. “Yeah – cowboy boots.”
“But before we go in,” Jack said. “I think you’d better go see Golden again. He looks like he’s ready to bust through the fence to get at you. Go on.”
Sam leapt up and jogged to the fence, reached up his hand, felt the horse’s muzzle and his soft warm breath on his skin. Horse and boy breathing great, deep sighs of relief.