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Jailbird finally fell after the shock to her neck. It still sounds impossible because horses weren’t never supposed to stand no more than fifteen or so ticks after they is shot like that but the Jailbird wasn’t no typical-like horse. I always liked calling her Jailbird because it give her what I knew was the right amount of halo for a horse of her tier. A horse that was supposed to be nothing more than a worker slave, weighed down by boots and bad debt.
Through the swamp to find the shells, I could still hear pa yelling about the ones that gone missing. Jailbird’s wailing in my ears between his commands.
Believe this, had I known what was going to happen, only one of us would’ve been coming back to the turtle soup on the stove.
Jailbird; me had been tight from my first breaths. On that day, they said the sun was a black eye. Fourteen years and counting for a horse that was never meant to last more than four weeks.
Unc had noticed the lame spade in between Wednesdays at the track. Believe in it or not, Jailbird’s original master had given Unc the horse, and it was only years later, and Jailbird had been living here for as long, that Unc opened his throat about the particulars of that deal which had landed him the accidental stud.
The ground was sticky and wet from the summer heat and fresh footprints from the gators was going to make this trek across the swamp without a truck more menacing. For all of his ancient wisdom, and know-how about “putting things out of its misery,” pa had not only forgotten the shells but had mis-considered getting back across the wet during the nutrient rich start of gator season. The cabin was on the other side of the swamp, and though the crossing was rough, it wasn’t impossible in wrapped steel toes, ‘long as the gators weren’t in. Nothing in this heavy world would protect you from the water if they was, gasoline be damned.
I could take the long path around the river, but listening to her cry, the wails riding the breeze, tree by lonesome tree, had me in a hazy mood where I couldn’t think straight. I rolled up my V’s and said a prayer from the book of Matthew, making sure there was nothing other than mud for my ankles as I dropped one boot into the gunmetal water after the other.
Two years in, I was feeding Jailbird purple carrots in the barn whiles mama and papa was kissing somewhere behind us in the hay, and drunk man comes in waving his woo-wa around like some negligent priest. Before papa came over and lose his temper, Jailbird heave so much gummy spit on that drunk that he runs away, half laughing—half, I don’t know what, scared, and I woulda had no idea if Unc hadn’t been shoveling shit a few feet from his truck just how quick his V’s come flying off.
Other times we called her the singing horse because of the frail sounds she could make when hungry. To some they was lullabies. At four years strong, I would stay up late reading Jailbird “Goldilocks and the Bears,” pretending she was born mine, believing with all of my heart that I could mak er a good home if I tried.
During mama’s funeral, we tied her up to a carriage and let Jailbird tug her all the way to the well, quiet as ever but for the tide, as it is now in the corn-eye of dusk. I never needed something like I needed Jailbird when I was seven. Daddy was sucked into a reservoir so cursed, he almost never climbed out of it. What gambling was to Unc, bourbon was to become to pa for that time. The amount of cunts I caught him with; somehow we get through the next years before pa finds his preacher. At the time Jailbird and I had been in mix for longer than most roosters live on a farm, poor horse—pa couldn’t survive without church every other day—a mile trip down broken road with the howling of the hyenas, five times more dangerous less the sun.
I observed some oxygen bubbles on the surface of the swamp just as soon as I sparked the helmet light. At most, the gator was twenty feet from where I was in the water, and the only thing that was keeping us floating apart, was the wailing. I remembered something mama had said to me when I was six, a year before she was taken by the current, that if I ever found myself in the deep with a gator, the thing to do was piss. The urine tasted rancid to the gators, but even worse was the smell. I don’t think that’s what kept the gator away this night. One things for sure—time wasn’t still, and I had to run now, sogging in my V’s. Any more delays, and Jailbird would be bled out before I picked up the shells.
The lights were dim like dirty quarters in the front of the shack. Somehow the flag had spilled off the wall, lying covered in boot grease on the battered wood like mama’s ghost had been dancing on it in the light shards. I left it there to shine, and jumped into the bin for the shells. If I had ever been behind the wheel without Unc, or daddy by now, like I shoulda, I wouldn’t’a forgot to fix the mirrors before pressing down on the pedal.
A few years before whiles playing my harp for Jailbird, daddy walked into the barn, sat on a stool, and crossed his boots—one over the other like a cigar smoking rich man—few times on until it looked like he was dancing from the inside-bottom of his seat. Boot tips covered in salt crystals, or at least it looked as if they was; and would you believe it he tripped. Done once, it was all right, but he kept going at it, over and over again. Jailbird was loafing around the barn and getting to be nervous with the act, or maybe she just sniffed the calamity that was bound to occur. A man yelled out the window to turn my headlight on and I did.
Back at the well, I found daddy sitting in a pool of black blood. I told pa I wanted to load it when he handed me the rifle, and went mum when I wrapped my fingers around the barrel. Daddy pulled but I pulled harder. The yellowed eyes of Jailbird were yearning for something bigger than this life, and that’s when I knew I had to make her sing her lullaby. “Well,” daddy said. “Put her out of her misery.” I could feel their resistance for a long time. My boots were in the blood for the rest of the moon. Listen to the mountain.
A Kenyon Review Fiction Writer’s Workshop alum and award-winning filmmaker, Allen’s writing has been published in Black Warrior Review, Rip Rap, and the Los Angeles Review. He lives in Los Angeles with his family and writes the newsletter BASKETBALLWEATHER. https://basketballweather.substack.com/