There is a picture of a horse that hangs in my house. Framed in compressed wood and glass, it is longer than it is wide. It fills a narrow space to one side of a doorway; when the Realtor unlocked the front door and showed me the place for the first time, I remember seeing that spot – bare and unaccommodating. I was sure I would never be able to find something to hang there. A year later, it is as if the horse has always hung on that nail, on that wall, in my life. When she gave it to me, it was unframed – wrapped in brown paper. Inside the wrapping, flecks of pencil still clung to the paper. Her name in small letters hid in the corner.
It reminds me of the horse I learned how to ride on when I was very young. That one was a palomino named after a Notre Dame Football player. His golden mane and tail faded to white as I grew older, and he died in a pasture after I went away to school. Like him, this horse’s head is broad and sturdy. His eye is curious. His ears are alert, listening to me cook dinner or hammer away on my keyboard. His large nostrils fog the glass of his frame when he is bored and I am away. Every so often he must stomp and buck with restlessness, because I am constantly leveling the frame on its perch.
Sometimes there is no horse to see. Instead, there is a picture of her in the narrow sandy-colored frame, hunched over her work while it rains outside. The clouded sunlight from outside is dim on her page, forcing her to squint at the horse more than she’d like. I see the heel of her hand, smeared metallic from her pencils and her dirty blonde hair hangs in her face, and a few strands get in her mouth as she vigorously erases a bit of muscle. To fight the draft from the window, she wears a baggy sweater that matches her eyes. The large sleeves get in her way, so she is constantly shoving them up her arms and tucking them behind her elbows, only to have them fall back around her hands when she bends her arms. This battle leaves her arms streaked with the graphite from her hands.
Twice, she gets frustrated with her work and abandons her post to pace the house. She distracts herself with music and eats her lunch over the kitchen sink, dropping crumbs onto the damp steel. Without her the unfinished animal waits grotesquely on the page, calling to her as she wanders room to room. I can’t be sure if she tries to read, or maybe watch television, but I know eventually the beast’s call gets the better of her and she returns to finally give it life.
The horse’s head emerges from the neck, and her motions speed up. Whereas before she doubted each mark, now her hands fly through the mane and down the nose. Her eyes narrow as she adds flesh to the skeleton lines, adding depth and shadow. Once, while she furiously darkens a spot under the ear, her pencil snaps, scattering black dust across the page. The spell is broken and she must resist the urge to tear the page to tattered shreds out of frustration. She sharpens the end to a point with a penknife and sets out again to finish.
As the final line is drawn, I see her smile – small and secretive, but pleased with the final result. Sometime before she signs her name, the rain stops and the sunlight warms her face.