by Sarah Hamill
It’s her I think of as I shovel horse shit.
My twin sister was big into horses. She wasn’t a horse girl like other horse girls—she didn’t ride. Parents couldn’t afford it. But she read those Heartland paperbacks until the books fell apart and measured everything in hands instead of feet.
When we were eleven, Dad found a pair of leather chaps for her at the thrift store up the road. They were worn down real soft at the knees and had careful curlicues tooled into the leather at the hips. Girly. She dressed up as a cowgirl for Halloween that year and every year after that. She begged me to be her horse but I wanted to be Dracula with slick black hair and fake fangs, not some filthy four-legged farm animal. She outgrew the chaps, but never horses.
Manure is a smell I can’t get used to, but I prefer shovelling shit under the big blue sky to being stuck inside.
“Think fast!” A moist turd plops onto the steel toe of my government-issue boot. Joey. Work takes twice as long when he’s around.
“Don’t let anybody see you flinging shit like that.” I try to scrape the crap off my boot with the sole of my other boot. Shit doesn’t wipe. It smears. You learn that quick in this line of work.
“Aw hey, I was aiming for the bucket, man! Told you to think fast, not my fault you think slow.” His hands wrap around the handle of his shit-shovel, and I see that F U C K O F F <3 is stick ’n’ poked onto his knuckles. I want to tell him he should take his own advice. It’s a bad tattoo, hastily done with a ballpoint pen and a sharpened staple. He thinks that makes him a hard man.
I ignore him. I remember what my counsellor told me, and focus on the in-out-in-out of my breathing. I look out at the prairies, beyond the chain-link fence where land meets sky. I try to bring my mind to a focal point. Psychological bullshit like that I don’t believe really, but I prefer looking out at the flat landscape over seeing Joey’s stupid fucking face.
I’m the newest shit-shoveller, promoting Joey to second-newest shit-shoveller. He never let me forget it. Joey’s got a real sense of entitlement, just because he grew up riding on his grandparents’ acreage in northern Alberta. His family’s got that early-nineties oil money. I know this because I’ve seen his mum on visitors’ day. She wears rings on every finger, and it doesn’t look wrong because she’s just that rich. I tell him I thought only girls rode horseback. He tells me a lot of girls do ride horseback if I know what he means and humps the air. “Horse girls put out!” And then he says, “Horse girls show jump and all that shit. I was a Junior Rodeo superstar.” He rode bareback steers and pulled wagons and did that thing where you lasso a calf. Joey knows that his talents are being wasted. I know that he knows because he tells me so, every day.
Besides the smell, shovelling wasn’t so bad. It got me one step closer to handling horses. And handling horses is why I’m here.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m here for the same reason these horses are. I have to be.
Sadie tried to tell me that horses are gentle giants. We were in the eighth grade when a horse at the Edmonton Valley Zoo bit the thumb of a three-year-old girl. She was feeding it a carrot, and I guess the horse confused the orange nub of a carrot with the flesh nub of her thumb. The horse bit her thumb clean off. It was all over the news: “Toddler Maimed at Zoo.”
I came home and Sadie was watching TV and tucking her thumb against her palm to see what a thumbless hand might look like. I looked down at my own hands, the tips of my fingers stained nicotine-yellow, cuticles ripped and bleeding. Nervous habit.
She palmed the thumb of her other hand. She held her hands out in front of her, arms bent at the elbow, palms down.
“Clipclop, clipclop,” she said and moved her arms up and down. She pulled her top lip back and neighed. I lit a joint and took a hit before tucking it between her thumb and palm. “Horses love grass.” When we were kids and playing farmer, I forced her onto her hands and knees and told her she was a cow. I made her eat grass. Dad gave me a good lickin’ for that.
She started to laugh, and the laugh turned into a cough. “This shit’ll kill you,” she said.
The words came out ahead of a puff of smoke. She laughed again and handed me the joint.
“Not if I kill it first.”
“You missed class again today. School called.” I acted like I didn’t care, and she acted like she didn’t notice. “They left a message. I deleted it.”
I nodded. She hated when I got in trouble. Dad was the kind of guy who would call the cops on his own kid just to teach him a lesson. He never hit Sadie, but he got me good enough for the both of us.
“Want a donut?” I’d picked up a clamshell of mini donuts from the IGA. The kind coated with that powdered sugar that melts into a paste on my tongue and gets stuck in the corners of my mouth.
“Check the ingredients first.”
In the first grade Sadie went into her first anaphylactic shock. It was a classmate’s birthday, and his mum had made an M&M-themed cake. There were M&Ms everywhere. All it took was one bite, and Sadie’s tongue swelled too big for her mouth and her throat started to close up. After that the school stopped letting kids bring in PB&Js for lunch. PB&Js are my favourite sandwich, and I minded that I couldn’t take them for lunch anymore. But I was still allowed to make them at home, so long as I smeared the jam on the bread first to avoid cross-contamination.
I looked at the fine print on the packaging: MAY CONTAIN TRACES OF NUTS.
“Sorry,” I said and moved the donuts down the table, away from her.
She had turned purple before the paramedics arrived and I thought she was dead. So when Dad showed up at school in a panic, that’s what I told him.
“Shesdeadshesdeadshesdead.” Even after the paramedics resuscitated her, I didn’t trust that she was alive still. Each time she had a reaction, it got worse. Her throat closed faster. She died quicker.
Sadie shrugged. She was used to it at this point, I think. “Just give me another hit before you get your peanuty lips all over it.” I passed the joint back and licked my lips.
“Would you rather lose your thumb or your big toe?” I’d read something about the value of each digit in workplace accidents. A pinky finger could net you ten grand, but losing a thumb could get you upwards of a cool quarter million. The digits in between varied in price. I didn’t think toes were worth anything.
She thought about it. “Thumb.”
“Thumb’s the most important digit,” I told her. “The only thing separating us from them.”
“Maybe I want to be like them.”
After her second reaction, she got an EpiPen. I stopped eating PB&Js. Just in case.
Joey could tell I was pissed, but that I was trying not to be pissed and if Big Al hadn’t come by when he did, I know Joey would’ve flung more shit.
Big Al is a normal-sized guy, but somehow he manages to take up a lot of space. He rests back on the heels of his dusty boots, one thumb tucked into the belt loop of his Wranglers. He’s bowlegged from years of riding and when he stands like that he looks like a giant wishbone. Big Al didn’t work for the facility, but that didn’t matter. We always did what he said. I respected him more than the prison employees. He didn’t just do this for the paycheque.
“New batch of fillies coming through today.” The program is used to break wild horses and ready them for life in some rich rancher’s stable. The program is also used to ready us for life on the outside, provide us with some marketable skills. I get paid twenty cents an hour to shovel shit, but more important is each week of work knocks a day off my sentence. “I expect the fillies to be small, so could be a good opportunity for you to get some experience.” You meant me. That ticked Joey off. I could tell by the way his lips slid into a hard line and he focused extra hard on transferring turd to bucket.
“Missed a spot.” I point to a fresh pile of shit to Joey’s left. He was always missing spots.
Big Al follows my finger and says, “Just take your time, Joey! You’ll do a good job if you just take your time.” Big Al goes to pat him on the back, and then I guess he remembers who he is and where we are and just lets his hand hang there in the dead air. Joey grunts and continues to shovel.
The fillies come through later that day. Big Al opens the trailer door. “You gotta let them come out on their own time,” he says. I plant my shit-shovelling spade into the dirt and get ready to wait. Big Al waits too. He shells peanuts, littering the ground around him with nutshells. He holds his hand out to me, but I shake my head. “Source of protein,” he says, “Healthy snack! The wife is always getting me to eat healthier.”
“There’s more protein in pumpkin seeds than there are in peanuts.”
“Yikes, don’t let my wife hear that. She’ll be making me eat pumpkin guts next.”
Joey comes up behind Big Al and says, “I’ll take some! I love nuts.”
“’Course you do, Joey.” I can tell he wants to hit me but doesn’t because Big Al is there, and Big Al doesn’t want trouble. He just wants to break horses. This doesn’t keep me from calling Joey a Nut Lover just loud enough for him to hear and Big Al to not. I can’t help it.
Big Al affixes a government-issue spoon to a government-issue broom handle and says, “Simple, yet effective.” He clears his throat.
“Now, don’t touch the horse with your hands, not yet.” I tuck my thumbs against my palms. “First step: spoon.” He demonstrates with a fawn-coloured filly. Wild horses don’t look much different from domesticated horses. This filly was clean with a silky mane, same as the horses on the covers of all Sadie’s books. But the filly’s eyes were like big black marbles and the way she rolled them around, it was as if they were trying to escape her skull. A subtle white star marks her forehead. A metal tag hangs around her neck: #0219.
Big Al drags the bowl of the spoon along the horse’s withers, and she responds by trit-trotting along the inside of the fenced pen. He smiles.
“Good girl, that’s a good girl,” he says. “You’ve got to let her come to you, you see?” He slides his hand along the broom handle. #0219 stiffens up a bit and snorts, nostrils flaring. He slides his hand back. “Alright, alright.” He lowers the broom handle and takes a step back. “Probably enough for today.”
I wasn’t around when Sadie died the summer after we graduated high school. Sadie was going to a university in the city in the fall. She got a full ride—track scholarship. I barely collected enough credits to graduate. The school threatened to not let me walk across the stage, but Sadie said she wouldn’t go if I couldn’t go. And so we both walked, together.
The RCMP busted me for underage drinking and maybe if it had been the first time they would’ve crammed me in the back of their cop car and dropped me off at home. But it wasn’t the first time, and I needed to be scared straight.
I don’t know what happened. They made me empty my pockets and take off my belt and unlace my shoes. Next I know I was passed out and dreaming about the time I made Sadie eat grass. She wanted to pretend, but pretend wasn’t good enough.
“Eat it! Eat it!” I pushed her face into the ground, and wet dirt smeared on her face. She bit the grass and chewed and swallowed, before smiling wide at me. Blades of green stuck between her teeth, and she looked so stupid. It made me sad which made me mad and then I decided I didn’t want to play anymore.
Dad got angry with me. Spanked me hard across both cheeks.
“You’re. Supposed. To. Look. Out. For. Your. Sister.” He emphasized each word with a hard slap. I didn’t cry and that made it worse.
“You think you’re a hard man? I’ll treat you like a hard man.” He walked away then and came back with a dried dog turd. “Eat it.”
“Oh! Of course. How could I forget.” He went to the fridge and returned with ketchup. “Now, eat it.”
I woke up with a sore ass from a night spent on a hard cot in the drunk tank. Sadie had been with me the night before. We’d gotten ready together and walked to a party together, but after that things get hazy. I remember cracking into a two-four of Lucky and slamming back more than a few shots of Crown. The rest is a black hole of nothing.
Her EpiPen was with me. She’d been wearing this dress, and it didn’t have pockets. “I don’t want to take a purse . . . can you hold this?” We were inseparable. My pocket was as good as her pocket. She’d slipped the yellow pen into my pocket, and now it was in a plastic bag along with my wallet and belt and shoelaces and a handful of change. And she was face down in a field. Throat swollen shut. Skin purple from the neck up. Eyes open and empty. Dead.
I can’t remember when I started to call her Star, but the name stuck. Big Al told me that none of these horses were really ours, but that didn’t matter to me or Star. We belonged to each other.
A week into training, and she let me touch her with my bare hands. Big Al was impressed. He thought we’d be saddling her in no time.
“You’re a natural,” he tells me. I am meticulous with Star’s care and training. “Maybe when you’re out, you can get a job on my ranch? I could use a fella like you.”
I nod. “I’ll think about it.” His praise makes me walk tall, but I know it can be dangerous to show how much I care.
Joey hoses out the stable and water runs into the paddock. He always seems to be around, eavesdropping and whispering stupid shit.
“Fucking skid.” Joey knew me as a calm, quiet guy. “Sister-killing skid.” He’d been picking my ass for weeks, and I’d never reacted.
“What did you say?” I didn’t wait for him to answer.
He’s on the ground and I’m on top pummeling and pummeling and pummeling. His hands cover his face and I get a few hits in on his exposed torso before he rolls out from under me. He’s face down in the paddock. I crunch a knee into the middle of his back. His skin slides against his spine underneath my kneecap and I like it. Who’s in control now, hard man?
“Eat shit.” With one hand on the back of his neck, I press his face into a fresh pile of crap and hold it there until a CO pulls me off.
“Settle down. Settle down!” A knee is hard in my back and I’m face first in the dirt. Cuffs click around my wrists. I turn my head, one ear against the hard ground, and I look over at Joey. He’s sitting up, and another CO has cuffed him up too. Shit is flaked on his puffy lips, swollen from the beating I just gave him. His left eye is purpling and his right slides over to look at me.
I stick out my tongue. He leans over and gives me the finger with his cuffed hands, the one with a crude C stick ’n’ poked on it, and smiles. Shit smears his teeth. He got a face full of shit, but he knew I’d be getting something much worse.
Three days in the hole. Not much to do in the hole but think. Think and stare at cinderblocks, painted government-regulation beige.
Dad wished that I was dead instead. He never told me so. He didn’t have to. Sadie had
He was the one who told me. Didn’t sugar coat it either. “She’s dead.” He told me how a jogger found her. How her face was swollen and purple.
Some dink was going around the party with a supersoaker filled with booze. I’d seen him. Sadie didn’t normally like that sort of thing. She didn’t need to drink to have fun. But she wrapped her mouth around the gun, and, that asshole, he pulled the trigger and liquor came rushing through. And no one knows what happened next, but I can imagine. She reacted to someone’s peanuty lips and her throat closed and her eyes bugged out and she needed her EpiPen, the EpiPen in my pocket, the pocket I was emptying at the goddamn RCMP station. Away from her. And those people are just assholes, and they wouldn’t call 911 because they worried about getting caught, about getting blamed. So they ran away and left her. Trapped inside a body desperate for air. It would’ve taken about six minutes for her brain to die. I forced myself to learn that.
In lockdown, I can see through the window in the places where the frosted film has chipped away. I have an almost clear view of the paddock. My second morning I peep Star trit-trotting in a wide loop. Joey is in the centre of the ring, holding the long rope that ends around Star’s neck. He smiles, and I wonder if he knows I’m watching him. He’s doing it wrong.
With me, Star pranced. Her hooves clip-clopped a melody across the dirt. Her body language with Joey is all wrong. She fights the rope and the halter, and he yanks and yanks and yanks some more. He pulls her head back to a right angle with her body, and I bangbangbang against the window. He’s going to snap her head clear off.
“Stop stop stop stop! You’re hurting her. Stop!” He’s going to break my goddamn horse.
Big Al finally notices and ambles over, shouting something at Joey. Big Al takes the rope, calms Star down, and waves Joey away. I can tell he’s sulking. Idiot.
My first day back, and I want to see my girl.
Big Al comes through the paddock, shifting side to side. Both thumbs hooked through belt loops. He looks down.
“Ahh . . . Star’s gone, son.”
“There was a bad accident . . . broken knee. She’s gone-gone.” They’d put her down, behind-the-barn style. Big Al done it.
“Gone-gone.” I wished he would call it what it is.
“I’m sorry, pal.” Big Al had told me she wasn’t my horse. And maybe if I’d listened to him, this moment would be easier. “Accidents happen. New fillies coming through today, though.”
I nod. “Where’s Joey?”
“Also gone.” A different kind of gone. No longer welcome in the program.
“You know, I don’t think I like this line of inquiry. Let’s keep it to the horses.” I don’t push it, even though I want to. Big Al has always been good to me, and I don’t want to put him in an awkward position. And there’s work to be done. Joey is gone, and shit doesn’t shovel itself.
I pick up my shit-shovel and get to work. Shit to bucket, shit to bucket, shit to bucket. Back and forth and back and forth. My back aches and my shoulders ache, but I don’t care. Maybe someone would take me behind the barn too.
Fillies come through later that day. Thick muscles ripple under their felt pelts. As they trot out of the trailer, I roll my shoulders back, matching the movement to the clip-clop of their hooves.
“Beautiful specimens.” Big Al points to each of them, commenting on the length and strength of their legs, the colour of their pelts, and the sheen of their manes. He reveres these animals.
“Why do you break them? Why not leave them wild?”
“If you’re not riding, you’re being ridden.” He grabs his spoon-handle. “Should we get started?”
This time I don’t name any of the horses.
Big Al click-clicks. I go to put my shit-shovel back, and that’s when I notice Joey’s shit shovel. I know it’s Joey’s because he carved F U C K O F F into the handle, and I scratched it out and carved N U T L O V E R. The metal part is dented, and I know that isn’t right. Sometimes you just know when something isn’t right.
“That fucking skid mark.” I had watched Joey yank Star around the corral, and I’d been angry. Angry that I wasn’t there to push him off her and show him the right way. Instead of being angry, I should’ve been scared.
Big Al spills the beans.
“I know I shouldn’t have left Joey alone with her now. Hindsight’s 20/20.” He didn’t want to tell me what happened. But he needed to. He was the one who had to point the gun at Star’s forehead, her subtle white marking a bullseye. He was the one who pulled the trigger.He watched her big eyes roll back into her head. He watched her die. It wasn’t his fault, but we don’t need to be at fault to feel guilty.
After that day in the paddock, Big Al told Joey he wasn’t ready to break horses. “Too big of a temper, I said to him, ‘You need to learn how to calm down. Anger isn’t good for the horses.’” Big Al thought Joey heard him, but Joey didn’t listen to anybody but himself.
When Big Al turned around, Joey picked up his shit shovel. I didn’t need to see this. I could imagine it. Joey ran his hands down the handle, and fingered the words etched into the wood. And Joey was already mad, but this really sent him raging. And Star, she was just in the wrong place. She belonged to the wrong guy. Joey flipped his shit-shovel so the spade was facing sky instead of ground. And then he swung.
By the time Big Al got the shovel away from Joey, Star was crumpled on the dirt. Her big beautiful body crippled. She was broken, finally.
I ask Big Al why Star didn’t run away.
“He killed her.”
“I killed her. You alright, pal?” I nod. We both know it’s a lie, but we also both know that I can’t tell him the truth. Big Al is a rancher and I’m a delinquent, and we don’t talk about those things. I tamp the flat of my shit-shovel against the dirt and wish it was Joey’s face. He’d be unrecognizable when I was done with him—mincemeat where his big stupid mouth used to be.
The new batch of fillies is harder to break. They’re a strange mix of wild and unbothered. The horses pay zero attention to me when I’m working around them, shovelling their shit. But when I attempt to graze their withers with the rounded edge of my government-issue spoon, it’s impossible to get any of them to stay still.
Big Al is annoyed. Time is money, he always says. My time is only worth twenty cents an hour, but he makes the big bucks selling these horses.
“These horses would be worth more dead at this point,” he tells me. I don’t know if he means it, but I don’t care.
Big Al is supposed to supervise me, but sometimes he takes long breaks in the back. He might get rolling on a paperback and not want to stop, or he might fall asleep, or he might just need to “make a deposit.” He tells me this, and I know he’s taking a dump. I’ve got time.
I head to the big gate, the one that leads out into the stretch of prairie surrounding the centre. It never used to be locked but since the altercation between me and Joey, Big Al was forced to crack down on us a bit. A chain loops through the gate and wraps around a pole cemented into the ground. I jiggle the chain. Yank the padlock. The lock is rusted, barely a security measure. I grab Joey’s shit-shovel and head back to the gate. A couple good whacks and the lock falls apart. I kick the rusted bits off into the long grass and lift the peg that keeps the gate in place. The gate swings open wide.
The horses are milling about the paddock. I let them out. “Come on, come on. Pick up the pace.” They don’t listen. “Get. Get!”
I palm my thumbs and start to run, making wide circles around the horses. Soon they’re thundering around me. We’re all worked up. Dust puffs up from our hooves. Clipclop clipclop clipclop.
Big Al runs out. I see him waving his hands and moving his mouth, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. I break from the wide circle and the puffs of dust and I run through the gate. The horses, they finally get it and follow me and next I know we’re running wild. We’re free.