Everything you need to have a beautiful morning, sleepyhead.

Daily Lit: White Horse

on December 27, 2011



In this short story by bestselling author Margaret Atwood, a white horse, rescued from mistreatment, comes to a new family with its own secrets and struggles. Through this simple premise Atwood offers a glimpse into how families—and all living things—relate to each other, in good times and bad.


In their second year at the farm, Nell and Tig acquired a white horse. They didn’t buy this horse, or even seek her out. But suddenly, there she was.

In those days they picked up animals the way they picked up burrs. Creatures adhered to them. In addition to the sheep, cows, chickens, and ducks, they’d gathered in a dog they called Howl–a blue tick hound, possibly even a pure bred: he’d been wearing an expensive collar, though no name tag. He’d wandered in off the side road–dumped there by whoever had mistreated him so badly that he rolled over on his back and peed if anyone spoke a harsh word to him. There was no point in trying to train him, said Tig: he was too easily frightened.

Howl slept in the kitchen, sometimes, where he barked in the middle of the night for no reason. At other times he went on excursions and wasn’t seen for days. He would come back with injuries: porcupine quills in his nose, sore paws, flesh wounds from encounters with–possibly–raccoons. Once, a scattering of birdshot pellets from a trespassing hunter. Though he was a coward, he had no discretion.

They’d also sprouted a number of cats, offspring of the single cat that had been transported to the farm from the city, and was supposed to have been spayed. Obviously there had been a mistake, because this cat kittened underneath a corner of the house. The kittens were quite wild. They ran away and plunged into their burrow if Nell even tried to get near them. Then they would peer out, hissing and trying to look ferocious. When they were older they moved to the barn, where they hunted mice and had secrets. Once in a while, a gizzard–squirrel, Nell suspected–or else a tail, or some other chewed-up body-part offering, would appear on the back-door threshold, where Nell would be sure to step on it, especially if her feet happened to be bare, as they often were in summer. The cats had a vestigial memory of civilization and its rituals, it seemed. They knew they were supposed to pay rent, but they were confused about the details.

They ate out of the dog’s dish, which was kept outside the back door. Howl didn’t bark at them or chase them: they were too terrifying for him. Sometimes they slept on the cows. It was suspected that they had dealings in the hen house–eggshells had been found–but nothing could be proved.

The white horse–the white mare–had a name, unlike the cats. Her name was Gladys. She had been installed with Tig and Nell because of Nell’s friend Billie, who was a horse-lover from childhood but who lived in the city now, leaving her no outlets. Billie had seen the white horse (or mare) standing in a damp field, all by herself, hanging her head disconsolately. She was in a sad condition. Her mane was tangled, her white coat was muddy, and her hooves had not been dealt with for so long that her toes were turned up at the ends like Turkish slippers. Any more time in that swamp, said Billie, and she’d develop foot rot, and once a horse had that, it would soon go lame and that was pretty much game over. Billie had been so outraged by such callous neglect that she’d bought Gladys from a drunken and (she’d said) no doubt insane farmer, for a hundred dollars, which was a good deal more than poor Gladys was worth in her decrepit state.

But then Billie’d had no place to put her.

Nell and Tig had a place, however. They had lots of room–acres of it! What could be more perfect for Gladys (who was past her prime, who was too fat, who had something wrong with her wind so that she wheezed and coughed) than to come and stay at the farm? Just–of course–until something else could be found for her.

How could Nell say no? She could have said she had enough to do without adding a horse to her long, long list. She could have said she wasn’t running a retirement home for rejected quadrupeds. But she hadn’t wanted to sound selfish and cruel. Also, Billie was quite tall and determined, and had a convincing manner.

‘I don’t know anything about horses,’ Nell had said weakly. She didn’t add that she was afraid of them. They were large and jumpy, and they rolled their eyes too much. She thought of them as unstable and prone to rages.

‘Oh, it’s easy. I’ll teach you,’ said Billie. ‘There’s nothing to it once you get the hang of it. You’ll love Gladys! She has such a sweet nature! She’s just a cupcake!’

When he heard about Gladys, Tig was reserved. He said that horses needed a lot of care. They also needed a lot of feed. But he’d accumulated all of the other animals–the ones that had been chosen and paid for, rather than just straying onto the property or being spawned on it or dumped on it–and Nell had had no say in those choices. She found herself defending the advent of Gladys as if she herself had made a deliberate and principled decision to take her in, even though she was already regretting her own slackness and lack of spine.

Gladys arrived in a rented horse car, and was backed out of it easily enough. ‘Come on, you old sweetie pie,’ Billie said. ‘There! Isn’t she gorgeous?’ Gladys turned around obediently and let herself be viewed. She had a round thick body, with legs that were too short for her bulk. She was part Welsh pit pony, part Arab, said Billie. That accounted for her odd shape. It also meant she would want to eat a lot. Welsh ponies were like that. Billie had made the trip in the horse car with her; she’d bought her a new bridle.


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