At twilight, Fox Hill is the most beautiful place on earth, with its long, blue views of Guardian Farm and its twisted black trees. Hank comes here often at this time, accompanied by the dogs, who are unusually subdued at this hour, as if they knew that bickering and snapping would be a crime against the silence down below.
Most of the time, Hank considers himself to be too obvious and too tall, but here on the hill, he is small and extremely well aware of his own insignificance. What is the difference between himself and a single blade of grass? The grass, as he sees it, is worth a thousand times more than he is, since it serves a purpose, and hard as he’s tried Hank has never been able to figure a single reason for his existence. All he’s ever been is a problem, a burden-but there must be a reason for this life that he has, there’s got to be. After all, he is here, just as surely as the fields he walks across. He is breathing this sweet, October air.
Sometimes, when he stops thinking of himself as Hollis’s adopted nephew and his father’s only son, Hank has the sense that there might be something worthwhile inside of him. It is possible that no one perceives the world the way he does, or views this landscape with the clarity with which he sees. This alone would be a reason for him to exist. When he thinks about the idea of his own singular vision, the world suddenly seems filled with endless possibilities, and he wonders if this is what hawks experience at the moment of flight. Expectation, that’s what it is. The kind you feel when you’re seventeen, and the air is cold and fresh, and the dogs lie down beside you in the grass, and everything is quiet, the way it always is right before something is about to happen.
The evening star rises into the dark blue night. But this star is only the beginning, like opening the cover of a book but not yet turning the first page. Below, in the pastures, there used to be dozens of horses, including the thoroughbred named Tarot’s Deck of Fortune, who was once entered in both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in a single year. Hank found a photograph forgotten in the barn, crammed between two stalls. When he saw the image of Tarot, draped in blue and white silks, Hank actually cried. He wished he had lived at the Farm in Mr. Cooper’s time. He’s heard from some of the older residents of the village that the ground used to shake when the horses ran together. You could feel it all the way in town; the floors of the bakery and the hardware store used to vibrate so badly several residents were convinced that the village was prone to earthquakes.
Of all the racehorses once boarded here, Tarot is the only one left Belinda used to spoil him terribly; she’d feed him sugar cubes and whisper in his ear. She always rode at the end of the day, when the sky was halfway between black and indigo, like ink spreading out on a page. Tarot still gets restless at this hour; he paces when he’s down in the pasture, and if he’s in his stall, he kicks, and that’s when you’d better beware.
Jimmy Pairish-who knows his horses if nothing else-has told Hank that before Tarot went crazy, Mr. Cooper had been offered five hundred thousand cash for him by a consortium in Atlanta. Even now, Tarot is still beautiful. He’s old, twenty-two, but few people would guess to look at him. Of course, he hasn’t been ridden for so many years that he’s even more headstrong than ever. The dogs are terrified of him, especially since last spring, when he kicked a pup who was too curious for its own good, snapping its spine, so that Hollis had to shoot the thing, to relieve the poor creature from its misery.
Probably, Hank should be over at a friend’s house at this hour, instead of coming up here to the hill. The funny thing is, the kids at school think he’s rich. They probably assume he’s at some fancy dinner party, or down in Boston, at the opera or something. A real laugh, although Hank can understand why they’d be misled. Hollis is rich, but that surely doesn’t mean the wealth extends to Hank. The reality is, Hank is as poor as any orphan. He owns nothing; even the clothes on his back were paid for by Hollis. The kids at school are certain that Hank chooses to wear old boots to be cool, and that he’s simply not interested in going out with them to the bowling alley on Friday nights because he’s got better things to do, but the mortifying fact is, he has no cash to spend.
He’s a great guy, of course, he’s got a million friends. If he ran for student body president today, he’d probably win. It’s not his fault that he’s always too busy for social events. Like tonight, for instance, there’s a party at Willie Simon’s house. Willie’s parents are in the Bahamas and he’s got the key to their liquor cabinet and all the prettiest girls will be there. And yet, in spite of an invitation, Hank is here, on Fox Hill, thinking about horses and fate. He’s concentrating so deeply that it takes a minute before he realizes he’s not imagining someone walking down the road. It’s a girl in a black ski jacket. Hank gets to his feet to see her more clearly and convince himself she’s not a mirage.
It doesn’t take long for Hank to realize this is the girl he saw at Mrs. Dale’s funeral. She’s small, but she has a tough sort of posture. She stops and takes out a crumpled pack of cigarettes, shakes one out, and lights it. Hank has the sense that he’s doing something bad watching her like this. She’s really pretty, but that’s not what’s getting to him. He feels like he knows this girl. He experienced the same thing at the funeral parlor; it’s as if he’d been waiting for her before he ever saw her. She was so upset after the service; she seemed to be crying, but as soon as people began filing out the door, she acted as if nothing was wrong. That was what got to Hank, that she wouldn’t let anyone witness her pain. It’s exactly what he’s been doing all his life.
Now, he wonders if he should announce himself, cough or holler; or maybe he should turn heel and get out of there fast. But he’s too interested to leave. Beside him, the dogs are jittery, so Hank holds up his hand as a signal, forbidding them to bark.
Down on the dirt road, Gwen paces back and forth while she smokes, so she won’t freeze. Beneath her T-shirt and the ski jacket she’s worn only twice before on trips to Big Bear, her arms are covered with goose bumps. She’s got on two pairs of wool socks, and some old boots she found in the hall closet, but it isn’t enough. She’s simply not used to the cold. And this is only October, it’s mild as far as people around here are concerned. Well then, in Gwen’s estimation, people around here are crazy. Let them live in New England and pull on long underwear and gloves and go about their business, all the while pretending they aren’t freezing their asses. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe this kind of weather does something for you, if you ever get used to it-it purifies you and gets right down to the bone, leaving only the parts that can face up to hardship.
In spite of the cold, Gwen is relieved to be out of that dreadful old house. Since they’ve arrived, they don’t seem to be going anywhere fast. Gwen’s mother is spending all her time sorting through Mrs. Dale’s belongings, dividing them into what should be thrown out, given away, or kept. March doesn’t seem to be sleeping at night, a fact Gwen knows because she herself is sleeping in the little sewing room and can hear her mother searching around in the attic, or in the kitchen at odd hours, fixing tea. Only last night, Gwen woke to see her mother on the stairway landing, looking out the window, concentrating so hard you’d think the most important thing in the world was out there.
And then there’s the dog. Gwen’s mother waits on the dog, as if she’s doing some sort of penance for forgetting it in the first place. She feeds the raggedy thing canned tuna fish and cooked chicken, in spite of the fact that the dog has twice tried to bite. The stupid beast sits by the front door and howls, and when Gwen is forced to take it for a walk after supper, the awful creature will not follow unless Gwen tugs and curses and, finally, begs it to come along nicely.
Last night, when she called her friend Minnie to complain and decompress, Minnie wasn’t home. Her mother said she was sleeping at Pepita Anderson’s house, but that’s nothing more than a code all the girls use, a fake friend, a disembodied name given to parents when you want to be out all night. The old Pepita excuse, Gwen planned to tease Minnie, if she ever got to talk to her. Well, I hope you enjoyed yourself. I hope you had a whole bunch of fun, because I sure am not having any. If she were home, Gwen would probably be over at the Shopping Center; at least she could spend some money and feel better. Here, when she wants to get away from her mother there are only these silver fields, and the fading light, and the woods filled with things that are probably watching her-raccoons and weasels, and hopefully nothing more.
As she walks along this empty road, Gwen realizes that nobody knows her. No one could begin to imagine what it’s like to be her. Ever since she got here, she’s been desperate to get back to California, but if she’s really going to be honest, what is she going back to? She’s a loser, that’s the truth. She hates school, she hates all her friends, except for Minnie-who, when you come right down to it, is even more of a loser-she hates her last two boyfriends, both of whom she had sex with for reasons she can’t remember anymore. Admittedly, the sex was nothing. She’d heard so much about it, but it turned out she was floating outside her body while she did all those things. It wasn’t love, that’s for sure. It was all so nothing. If a nuclear bomb fell from the sky, would it really matter? Wouldn’t it be better to be blown away, completely and utterly, before she screws up the rest of her life?
She started to think like this at the funeral parlor, and she’s been morbid ever since, going over weird concepts. What, for instance, will she do with the rest of her life? Now that she’s here, with no outside stimulus-no TV, telephone, mall, pot, boy-who is she really? Why can’t she go back to being the way she was before she came here, when she barely thought at all?
Gwen puts out her cigarette on the road, crushing the embers beneath her boot. She leans on a rickety wooden fence, and reaches into her pocket for a scarf. But before she can loop the fabric around her throat, she begins to feel a tingling sensation on the back of her neck. It’s as if someone was breathing on her; either she’s going crazy, or someone is right there behind her. She might have turned and run home without stopping to see what sort of creature breathed out such warm air, if she hadn’t then heard a noise, one so small it resembled a question mark. Even before she turns and sees Tarot, Gwen feels as if she’s entered into a dream. This night, with its dark and silver edges, this horse on the other side of the fence who has come to her without being called. And perhaps that is why she has no second thoughts as she slips through the railings and goes into the pasture; it’s a dream, and it’s hers, and she’s desperate to see what happens next.
Up on the hill, Hank grabs one of the youngest dogs, who’s begun to yelp, and gives it a shake. He wants to see this, and he doesn’t want some idiot dog to announce his presence. Hank tries to be responsible in most things, and usually he is. He knows he should climb down the hill, fast, and stop this girl. If she stays in the pasture, she could get hurt. Tarot has charged at much lesser things-at the wind, for instance, at butterflies and bees. But Tarot seems completely hypnotized, maybe because the girl is so beautiful against the blue-black sky, or maybe Hank is the one who’s been hypnotized. In fact, the only time Gwen has even seen a real live horse has been at county fairs. She doesn’t even think to be afraid. She’s comfortable enough to stand beside Tarot and talk to him when most grown men would run. That’s what she’s doing down there in the field, where frost coats the soles of her borrowed boots. She’s telling this evil old horse that he’s gorgeous, and he seems to like what he’s hearing. He steps closer to Gwen, carefully, slowly, as if to hear more of whatever she has to say.
It is very odd, indeed, to see the horse everyone called a killer trail along, mild as can be, as the girl heads toward the rotten stump Hank should have pulled last spring. It had been a huge maple tree, before lightning split it in two. Ken Helm took it down, in exchange for the wood, and Hank was supposed to come here with some dynamite and get rid of what was left. Now, he’s glad he forgot. What remains of that old maple is the perfect height for this girl to get onto so she can throw herself onto Tarot’s back. When she nearly falls off, she gives Tarot a little slap, which, in other circumstances, would have sent him racing.
“Stand still,” she tells him. “You big cutie.”
Although Gwen knows nothing about horses, she’s right about his size. Tarot is sixteen hands high, which is even bigger when you’re up on his back, looking down at the ground.
“Be a good boy,” she tells him.
For his part, Tarot seems too shocked to move. If this girl does get hurt, Hank will have to live with it. A broken leg, a crumpled spine would be his fault. And yet, he does nothing to stop her. The muscles in his arm have tightened; his pulse is going fast. He keeps a hand on the yelpy dog, willing to shake it like a dust mop if the dog dares to bark and startle Tarot.
Gwen is leaning forward, her hands holding on to the horse’s mane. She’s afraid that if she blinks this will all disappear and she’ll wake in her bed to find she never even left the house; she never borrowed these boots, or walked along the road, or found this beautiful horse. If this is a dream, she wants to go on sleeping. She doesn’t make a sound; that’s how much she wants this to be real. And as he watches from the highest point on Fox Hill, Hank wants it for her just as badly. In this pasture, in the dark, Gwen’s life has made a major turn, something as rare as planets leaving their orbits to crash into each other and fill up the night. In a place she never wanted to be, on a night that will be cold enough to freeze the apples on the trees, she is no longer alone.