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To Fly Without Wings

Shoshana Schwartz

And then Daddy let slip that it’s not horseback riding lessons, it’s horseback riding therapy. Been there, done that. Thanks, but no thanks. Since Mom died I’ve done a gazillion therapies, and I totally don’t see the point

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

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Photo: Shutterstock

Y ou gotta be kidding. I am not, not, not getting on that… that… thing. It’s bigger than my house!

I raise my eyes to Libby.

“You ready, Ellie?” Libby asks.

When Daddy said I could learn how to ride a horse, I was picturing, like, a smaller horse. A pony maybe. Or a friendly horse. This one looks… aggressive.

“Your left foot goes here in the stirrup, and you grab the horn with your left hand.”

Horn? I don’t see a horn. I see a joystick poking up out of a rowboat. I’m guessing the rowboat’s the saddle.

“Here, I’ll help you.” Libby makes a little cradle with her hands. “Step here, I’ll give you a boost.”

I laugh out loud. Libby is maybe an inch taller than me, and I’m 13. How’s she gonna boost me up onto that mountain she’s calling a horse?

She smiles, and I wonder if she knows what I’m thinking.

“I’m stronger than I look,” Libby says.

Okay, she definitely knows what I’m thinking. Which is not good, since I don’t want her, or anyone, to know how scared I am. Or other things about me.

I put my foot into her cupped hands.

“Great,” she says, way too chipper, “now grab the horn.”

I reach for the joystick, but my hand doesn’t quite make it there. Instead, it slips down off the side of the rowboat, and I make contact with the hairy mountain itself.

“Ewwwwwwwww!” My hand jerks away by itself, and my foot slips out.

Libby doesn’t even blink. “Here, let’s try again. You push against my hands and I’ll push up.”

“I touched it! It’s all dirty and disgusting.” I shudder, in case she didn’t get it.

“You want to ride, right?”

Yeah. Oh, yeah. Leora’s been riding since she’s a little kid, and you should see her eyes when she talks about riding. “But no one said anything about touching this thing with my hands!”

“Tell you what,” Libby says, “today no touching, just riding, okay?”

Relief fills up my whole body. I guess Libby’s not gonna force me to do things I totally hate. If she does, I’m outta here. Like I told Daddy.

Daddy has big hopes about this riding thing. He says maybe it can help me focus, not be so spacey. When he offered it to me, I was like, yessssssssssssssssss! I had visions of sailing through the wind, whizzing past the trees, flying into the sunset.

And then Daddy let slip that it’s not horseback riding lessons, it’s horseback riding therapy. Been there, done that, thanks but no thanks. Since Mom died I’ve done a gazillion therapies, and I totally don’t see the point. So what if I’m spacey or “too quiet,” like my teachers always say. So what if I’m lousy at division, and other math stuff. I don’t need fixing, and I don’t need therapy.

Daddy said I would learn to ride and that I’d have fun. And I could just picture my long brown ponytail whipping in the wind behind me as I sail and whiz and fly, and I want my eyes to look like Leora’s, and so here I am standing next to a horse. A very tall horse the color of butterscotch. Its tail is the exact same brown as my ponytail, and I kind of wonder what it would look like if our ponytails flew behind us at the same time.

I nod at Libby and she cups her hands again. I put my foot in, reach up.

“Push down hard against my hand,” Libby says.

I push, and the next thing I know she’s throwing me halfway over the saddle. I grab the joystick with my left hand, but my right hand hits horse hair. “Ewwww!” I rub my hand on my leg and glare at her.

Libby squints up at me. “How does it feel up there?”

I look around. Wow, I’m up high. Too high.

“You can hold the saddle horn if you want to.”

I look down at my hands. Ah, the horn. Yes, the horn and I are going to be good friends.

Libby explains to me how to sit, where to look, what to do with my hands and feet. How dumb does she think I am? The horse is gonna do all the work anyway.

She shows me the rope she’s holding. “This gives me control over the horse, so I can tell him what I want him to do. Ready?”

“Sure.”

Libby makes a noise with her mouth and the mountain starts to move.

Someone screams. Loudly.

The mountain stops moving, and I look at Libby.

“You okay?” she asks.

I nod, but avoid her eyes. I can’t believe that scream came from me.

“Let’s start again,” Libby says, “but this time you signal when.”

“How?”

“Just click with your tongue like I did.”

“Click?”

Libby comes closer and holds the horse tighter. “Like this.” She demonstrates. “Practice a few times. I’ll hold him so he won’t move till you’re ready.”

I have to practice clicking. I am so pathetic.

Libby steps back, still holding the rope.

I grab the horn with two palms and all ten fingers, then click.

The horse lurches forward. I let out a squeal.

Libby stays a few steps in front and a little to the side. She doesn’t speak, and neither do I. It’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s just that the ideas get all bunched up inside, crossing over each other and twisting into little pretzels that I can’t straighten into neat sentences. Right now, the only thought I can pick out of all that tangle is, I’m gonna fall!

“Stop!” The word escapes before I know I’m thinking it. “I wanna go off!”

Libby tugs the rope and the horse stops moving.

“I’m going down.”

“Okay, if you—”

Before she can say another word or explain what to do, I’ve already swung my leg back over the side and slipped halfway off the saddle. But my feet miss the ground by a mile and I’m just hanging there, terrified.

Libby places her hand on my back.

I’m totally stuck. “I can’t do this.” I hate that my voice is shaky.

“Sure you can, I’m right here.”

My hands are getting sweaty, and I start freaking out. “I’m falling! I’m falling!” I’m babbling and whining and can barely feel her hand on my back. But when I let out a sob, I’m able to hear her say, “Just let go.”

“I can’t! I’m gonna fall!”

“Just let go of the horn and you’ll slide down.”

I grip the horn tighter. My face is buried in horse hair, but I can’t think about anything but the horn. I squeeze even tighter.

My hands are slippery, my arms are shaking, I can’t do this anymore, I have to hold on, I can’t, I have to or else—

I lose my grip and fall.

I land softly on my feet and gasp.

That was it? That’s what I was so scared of? I can still feel Libby’s hand on my back. I turn to her, look her in the eyes.

“You okay?” she asks.

Good question. “I’m such a baby,” I confess.

“What makes you a baby?”

“I’m scared of everything. Scared to stay on and scared to get off.”

“Which one is scarier?”

“Staying on. Getting off. I don’t know, what’s the difference?” I step away from the horse. “I’m never getting on that thing again.” I start to walk away.

I look over my shoulder, expecting Libby to follow. Instead, she’s like an inch away from the stupid horse, patting it. I think she’s even talking to it.

I want to open the gate, run out of here, go find Daddy. But… there’s something about that horse….

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