Authors: Jane Yolen
She snorted, a very horsy sound. “An old joke.”
“Doctors used to have expectant dads boil water just to keep them busy and out of the way. I bet your dad did that when you were born.”
“I wouldn't know,” I said, “since I was a baby then!” I didn't want to visit that particular hurt. “I think he was on the road with his band anyway.”
“Don't snap at me, Missy. You're still a youngster to me, for all you're grown up in so many ways.”
It was pure Martha, of course. She can never just apologize. But I got the hint and went to clean out the rest of the stalls, leaving Robbie behind.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The horses knew something was up. Hopeâwho'd never done anything of the sortâwas so anxious, she accidentally slammed a hoof down on my right foot not once, but twice, and boy, did
Gorn, normally the sweetest of the horses, tried to get out the door, shouldering me aside so roughly, I had to haul him back by his mane.
Just then I heard a rumbly Jeep drive up and knew it had to be Dr. Herks, so I went out to greet him.
Dr. Herks has a face that's handsome enough in some lights, but there are wrinkle lines on his forehead that look like the stripes on a flag, and deep grooves around his eyes. He's about six feet tall and all muscle, which helps when you're pushing big animals around. But he doesn't act tough, which was something Dad, who was only about five foot nine, always did. When I think about himâand it's not that oftenâit's always him yelling at his band members and roadies and cursing. I've never heard anyone else cursing like that. Mom flinches if I even say “drat!” or “darn!”
By contrast, Dr. Herks is a softie. You can hear it in his voice when he talks to the horses, but he still manages to keep them in their places. Martha admires that and says so often. Never to his face, of course. In fact, she bosses him around as if he was a kid.
Sometimes I had the feeling that Dr. Herks had a crush on Mom, and I kind of hoped she liked him back. I bet he'd make a great dad. And yeah, it would help with our vet bills, too. And then he wouldn't have to stay in the apartment over his operating room, which Martha called “living over the store” and was an odd thing to say, since that's sort of what we do, too. Except we aren't
it, but on the side.
“How's it going?” Dr. Herks asked as he got out of the car.
“I'm supposed to be boiling water.”
He smiled. “Good. I'm going to need all the help that I can get.”
“I thought that was supposed to be a joke.”
“The help part is no joke.” He winked.
I nodded. “I'll give you all I've got. But I think we'd better hurry.”
“Hurrying here,” he said as he grabbed his doctor bag and headed toward the barn.
I matched him step for step, which wasn't easy because he had really long legs. It meant I had to run.
At the barn, I swung open the door to Agora's stall to let Dr. Herks go through.
“About time, Herkel,” Martha said in her no-nonsense voice.
“Goshâ¦” I could barely breathe.
Dr. Herks had put down his black bag and was pulling on a pair of rubber gloves without looking at either Martha or Agora.
But I'd looked.
Agora was panting heavily, still over on her side, but she'd already given birth. Martha was holding the brand-new foal, unsteady on its feet and still wet from its birthing.
Or something. It was hard to say if I was dreaming or the light was bad. It wasÂ â¦ nothing I'd ever seen before.
A cold shudder ran through me. Maybe fear, maybe disgust. It sure wasn't wonder or awe.
“Isn't that the coolest thing you've ever seen?” Robbie asked. “Not gross at all.”
“Gosh,” I said again, because the foal was only a pony from its hooves to the top of its body. Where it should have had horse shoulders, where the pony neck and head should have been, it looked just like a baby boy, with arms and hands, curly reddish hair, blue eyes, and a big toothless grin.
“Gosh!” I said a third time. For someone who desperately wanted magic in her life, that was a pretty small response. But as Martha often said, wanting and getting can be difficult neighbors. And from all the fantasy books I'd read, I knew that the line between gargoyle and angel could be pretty thin.
The pony boy was too new and too strange for me to really take in. I wasn't thinking magic, I was thinking
Dr. Herks finally looked over at Martha. His eyes widened.
“Centaur,” said Martha, “I neverâ¦”
“No one never,” said Dr. Herks, which was totally ungrammatical but made perfect sense. And then he fainted, which didn't make any sense at all. Crumpling down from such a height, it was amazing that he didn't smash his head on the wall.
Now, that was something I
didn't understand. I mean, Dr. Herks wasn't just a vet, but a Vetâa marine who'd fought in Vietnam and been decorated for bravery. And wounded, too, Mom had said. Wounded, but not badly. Just badly enough.
“Get your mother,” ordered Martha. “I've got my hands too full with this pony boy here, Agora there, and Robbie by the wall, to be able to manage a fainting vet.” She seemed unimpressedâor at least undisturbedâby the magic or whatever it was in front of her, just as if creatures out of myth had always been born in our barn.
“You don't have to manage me, Mrs. Grump,” said Robbie.
“I do when you need managing, Munchkin!”
I was happy to be out of there, but Mom must have seen Dr. Herks' Jeep in the driveway, because she was already standing in the doorway of the stall, and I nearly ran right into her.
“Good grief,” she said, then added, “Gerry?” in a strange voice, and went to kneel by his side, which may have been the strangest thing of all.
O THERE WE WERE
, Agora on
side, Dr. Herks on
side, and Mom with her arms around him. Martha was holding the newborn whatever. Robbie looked astonishingly pleased, but me, I was just agog.
was Martha's word, not mine. She had just said to me, “Hey, Ari-bari, stop opening your mouth like a frog, all agog, and do something.”
She made an annoyed
ing sound, as if she'd never heard of any such thing.
I knew better than to ask her what I
do then, just as Agora got to her feet. She went right to her foal, pushing Martha aside, and started nuzzling him clean, making no distinction between the horse part and the boy part. He was simply hers all over.
All at once, I knew she was right
, I thought,
I should forget fear and concentrate on awe.
At least I hadn't passed out.
It was a start.
Meanwhile, Agora was simply doing what a mare does with a new foal. When she got to his face, he giggled and pushed her away, then giggled again before struggling out between her front legs. He was wobblyâwho wouldn't be with those four legs each trying to go in a different direction?âand waved his little hands about for balance. Wrinkling his nose at all the new smells, he took a couple of tentative baby steps, and then headed straight for Robbie, who was the only one his size.
Robbie held out his foreshortened arms. The pony boy stuck his head between them and nuzzled Robbie's face. They stayed that way for about a minute, and then the pony boy turned a bit unsteadily and found his way back to Agora, where he began to nurse, his tiny hands kneading her sides. The curls on his head, like wriggly red worms, were already dry, and they bounced as he drank the milk.
Now that I'd gotten over the strangeness, a part of me was suddenly jealous. After all, I was the only one who'd wanted magic in my life, and the magic had just gone over to Robbie instead. But Robbie needed the magic more than I did, so I fought the jealous thought down and smiled. It was a crooked smile, but I let it stay pasted on my face.
“Well!” Martha said. “What was
“We're brothers,” Robbie announced. “We even look alike.”
“Don't be dumb,” I said, smile disappearing faster than a Cheshire cat's. “He's aÂ â¦ a horse. And youÂ â¦ well, you aren't.”
“But I'm half something, just like he is. Half
, the kids said at my old school.”
“Those kids were stupid, mean,” I said, “and plain ignorant.”
stupid,” Robbie said.
“Not all the time,” I told him. “You aren't ignorant, not by a long shot. But saying you and the pony boy look alike is stupid. You don't look anything like him.” I took a deep breath. “He's got red curly hair and bright blue eyes. You're like me. Auburn hair, slate blue eyes, andâ¦” I didn't say we both looked like Dad, not Mom. I knew that, but how could Robbie have known? We had no photos of Dad around.
?” Martha said flatly. “Whatever gave them that silly idea?”
I knew but didn't say it aloud. Robbie was a thalidomide kid, and the newspapers had dubbed all thalidomide kids “seal children” because many of them had flipper arms and sometimes flipper legs. Robbie's arms ended at the elbow, where there were only two fingers and a thumb.
None of it was his fault, of course. It was just the result of pills Mom had been given when she was first pregnant with him. Mom hadn't just had morning sickness; she'd thrown up all day long, hour after hour, till she cried with the pain. Dad had gotten the thalidomide pills for her when he was on tour in Toronto and Montreal since they were supposed to be a miracle cure for pregnant women who threw up a lot. And the pills
cure that. But it turned out they were a kind of poison, too, destroying parts of babies before they were ever born.
“Seal children.” Once that name hit the newspapers, the parents of one of the kids at school called Robbie that, and soon the kids all did, too. It was why Mom took him out of school and taught him at home.
Why she hadn't any time for me.
Why she'd hardly ever laughed these past six years.
“The pony boy
me,” Robbie insisted. “And I know him. We're brothers.”
“You're my brother, not his,” I said.
Dr. Herks had already come to and was sitting up, his eyes still a bit unfocused. Then he saw the pony boy and looked ready to pass out again.
Mom put a hand on his arm and gave me a fierce stare. “Ari, I could use help here! Dr. Herks needs some air.”
So I came over to help, but by then Dr. Herks had gotten up by himself. He walked a bit unsteadily out of the stall, saying, “I'm fine, Hannah, fine. Don't fuss.”
“I'm not fussing,” she said, running a hand through her hair, which made it look even more like a blond cloud. “I'm being practical. We need a vet here, and you're it.”
Then she turned to me. “Get your brother out of there. Agora needs time to bond with herÂ â¦ herÂ â¦ baby.”
“I think she's alreadyâ” I began, but Mom was saying to Dr. Herks, “If you're going to faint again, Gerry, at least do it where you won't disturb
.” She pointed over her shoulder back at Agora and her foal.
I suddenly remembered her saying something like that before: “If you're going to call me that, don't do it where Arianne can hear.” Or maybe it was “If you're really going to leave, don't do it when Arianne's awake.” Which might have been why Dad left without saying good-bye.
I pushed Robbie's wheelchair out into the walkway between the stalls, trying to avoid hitting either Mom or Dr. Herks, who was still as wobbly as a colt.
“I neverâ¦,” he began, embarrassed, stopped, looked down at the floor, and began again. “I've never fainted in my life, Hannah. And I've delivered some pretty startling creatures in my time.”
“I'm sure you have,” Mom said. She was looking where he was looking.
“I meant you've delivered some strangeâ¦”
And then they both looked up, staring at each other, saying, “Sorry. Sorry,” their voices fitting together like a song.
“What do we do now?” Dr. Herks asked. I wasn't sure if he was talking about the pony boy or about Mom.
Mom said at the same time, “We don't ignore it or turn our backs on it.”
“Him!” Robbie said loudly.
Mom and Dr. Herks both looked at us as if just noticing we were there. As if just realizing they were talking about the pony boy.
“The foal is a
, not an it,” I explained.
“I knew that,” Dr. Herks said.
“Right,” Mom said, a beat later. “We don't call the newspapers or
or anything like that.”
I rubbed my left arm hard with my right palm. “He's just a baby.”
“You got it,” Dr. Herks said. “Not the AP wire or UPI orâ”
“And Mrs. Angotti and the other riders and parents, none of them can know,” Mom added.
They were both speaking quickly, not looking at each other, but at Robbie and me.
“We protect him,” I said firmly.
protect him,” Robbie added.
Mom and Dr. Herks stared at the two of us with identical expressions, saying together, “Agreed,” though they were talking to each other, not us.
At that moment, Martha came out of the stall. “Doc, you get back in there and check that little guy out. He may need a bit more than I can give him. And no fainting this time, mister. Understand?”