The Horses and Ponies of 8th Avenue

by Jennifer Lesh Fleck

One June we became ponies and horses, all of us aged nine to twelve years old, most of us girls. I was slow to adopt new games, cautious as a rule, but soon I was swept up along with the rest. Horse heaven, hay fever, a dream of hoofbeats, curved necks and flowing tails, as summer rose green and humid from postcard yards and from the deep, untended grasses in the housing development staked out with pink flags.

The change found me on a desultory Tuesday, skin burnt from swimming, muscles sore from a complicated kind of tag we played in the alleys. I was twelve. Getting too old for bedroom shelves of gilt fairytales and plastic toy horses lined up by color: black, dapple grey, bay, chestnut, palomino, alabaster. They stared with their blank black eyes as I shed my nightdress and turned sideways to the mirror, searching for positive developments.

Flat as ever. As always, my birth defect — the sunken sternum, a fey god’s thumbprint pushed deep. A shadow along each rib where the flesh ran thin. Spine growing crooked — I couldn’t see it, but X-rays told the stark truth. I tossed my head. I wouldn’t let it bother me, even if my differences were visible in every bathing suit I owned.

That’s when my lank locks turned. Against my shoulder blades now swung a mane, heavy and bristling.

I shivered, scalp to the arches of my feet. I snorted and stamped as the change took hold.

Down my street, the change ran like a fever. Within days, most of us had shifted.

We ponies and horses could not be contained. We were animals. We burst forth to join our own kind, a herd making loops through birch and mimosa shadow, back into sun. Hedges became steeplechase obstacles we flung ourselves over. Sidewalks sparked with our flinty toes. 

A noise came from me, from a throat grown long. A whinny, the sound a great warhorse makes when the battle line breaks into a charge. From the base of my skull to the tip of my flagged tail, my spine ran straight and true, twisting with sinuous ease as I feinted and turned. My chest was large and my heart freed from its stoved-in cage. And my lungs unfurled, like a secret pegasus, wings on the inside.

I — who could never run — galloped for hours that day. And every day after, all summer.

My mother fed and watered us, all the horses and ponies of 8th Avenue. We jostled along her breakfast bar, hides stinking pleasingly of dried salt. Hay stuck in our throats. Clover turned a green and bitter froth. But, by some miracle, our digestive systems permitted toasted tortillas slathered in peanut butter, bean soup from a can.

Mostly it was my best friend and me, there for luncheon, gone again. Nikki: a bright bay with a blaze. I was chestnut, though white splashed my cannon bones and feathered my fetlocks, like I’d stepped into moonlight, waded across the maria of the moon.

Many nights, Nikki stayed over. Beasts were not permitted in her home, though her parents clashed and came at each other regularly, claws out like a wildcat and a hawk. 

Horses rarely sleep lying down, only when very young, or sick, or old. So each night we took pains to change back into girls. We washed our hands and feet of the grime left by our hooves. Then crawled under the flowered sheets my mother had pressed.

All this would go on forever. It’s what I believed as a horse. But when I was human, I felt time passing, a mall escalator rising through floors of sunrise and sunset, never letting anyone off.

In July, Nikki woke bleeding into the sheets. Changing into a horse didn’t stop the flow. She had to run with a bandage on. I saw how it slowed her, as sure as a hobble.

In August, as though of one mind, a band of girls — destined to become cheerleaders and tormentors — stopped changing. Near the sign that read ‘Future Homes of Arbor Ridge,’ they straddled a busted cement pipe, rubbing tanning oil on their legs and arms. Skeptically they watched us stream across the small prairie, yelling out mean things that our human minds inside our horse skulls could still understand. Then heavy equipment showed up, dozers and graders the color of bananas on the edge of rot. Our oppressors preened for the men and redoubled their efforts to cast shame and ridicule upon our kind. Some of us broke loose with curses that sounded more like English and less like neighs. All of us broke inside.

Some left and went home, then a few more.

Finally we moved our dwindling herd to new pastures. The vineyards and orange groves to the east were less favorable for prey animals, but our choices were limited. We galloped up and down rows of vines and leaves as big as our hooves. The dust we made coated the heavy fruit, which we sometimes stole and rubbed clean, finding it an agreeable food for our kind.

By September, we’d all changed back to girls. 

There was a new kind of hair clip, woven of ribbons by the moms of the future cheerleaders. I begged for my own. It slid down my lank strands.

One afternoon when my parents weren’t home, boys came over. They teased me about the rows of toy horses. I pretended not to care, even when the boy I liked toppled them like dominoes. We went outside for a game of chase. Barefoot, I broke a toe running away, but he still caught me. When he kissed me, I twisted so he couldn’t touch my sternum.

Later I limped to the curb to wave goodbye, my hurt foot a soft, throbbing thing that was both a part of me, and not.

About the author

Jennifer Lesh Fleck has resided in the Pacific Northwest for much of her adult life. Her family’s old cottage is the spitting image of the Amityville Horror House, only it's painted a cheery jade green (and she can often be found on its front porch, frowning at a laptop). A past Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, The Arcanist, The Main Street Rag, McSweeney's, VoiceCatcher, and various fiction anthologies. She was born with a rare genetic disease that affects skeletal and connective tissue growth.

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