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The Bell Mare
By Gina Ochsner
First Place, Published Author

We were having one of those autumns plagued by sour winds carrying distant and foreign scents and geese with poisonous droppings that seared holes into the leaves and limbs of the trees. The kind of autumn when anything, anything at all, might happen. Rent was due in a day and you could hear everyone up and down our street of cramped clapboard duplexes stewing about it as they oiled themselves up in their lawn chairs and sat out under the gummy sky. Then a U-Haul pulled in next door.
A small man in suspenders and a smaller woman wearing a bright red headscarf climbed out of the truck. Behind them an enormous dog, big like a Great Dane, only bigger, jumped out and padded to the front porch. I'd never seen a dog so big, and I craned my neck to get a better look.

    "Do you have to be so obvious?" Karl yanked the curtain cord and sent the drapes lurching across the window. Karl liked to sneak up behind me in his wheelchair. He could use crutches if he wanted to, but preferred the stealth of the chair. He kept it oiled, broke it down at least twice a week, lubricating each part so that he could wheel around our tiny duplex in his noiseless machinery.

    The TV cracked to life in the living room, and I turned my attention back to the open window, straining to catch what the man and woman were saying, but it was something soft and Slavic-sounding. I went to the freezer and pulled out a welcome casserole that I had been saving for just such an occasion, a three-alarm chili Tater-Tot, and opened our screen door.

    "You get too cozy with neighbors and they'll end up in bed with you," Karl called out from the living room. Since the accident, Karl had been nothing but a royal pain in the ass. I stepped onto the walkway, I made sure the screen door slammed shut with a loud bang. The man and woman heard the noise and turned to watch me make my way up their narrow walk. They stood on their porch, a little way behind their spotted silver dog who looked like he'd been rubbed down in ash and tall enough to slap a man in the mouth with his tail.

    "Nice dog," I said, side-stepping that tail.

    "He's a bell mare," the man said, pointing to a big cowbell tied around the dog's neck. "He's mostly friendly," the man said, an apology reshaping his face. "But sometimes not."

    "I thought bell mares were horses with bells."

    "This one's a dog. He's almost as big as a horse and much smarter; he can perform simple arithmetic."

    "Yes," the woman said, stepping out from behind her husband. "He's very smart."

    "Sometimes he talks," the man added.

    "I didn't know dogs could do that," I said.

    "This one can," the man said, stepping forward to pat the bell mare or dog or whatever on the head.

    I could see that the dog was very well behaved, trained to stand perfectly still. While I stood there with the three-alarm casserole, the dog hadn't moved, not an inch, even as a thin trickle of urine sped down his front leg. "You probably don't believe us," the man said, still smiling. "But it's true."

    I nodded. I didn't believe him, but I also knew it didn't matter what I believed. In sixty years I'd been proven wrong two dozen times at least, probably more. "Well, my husband, Karl, and I just live next door. If you need anything," I said, offering the casserole.

    "Yes. OK," the man said, bowing slightly and quietly shutting the door. When I got home, I slid the casserole back into the freezer. Karl was sitting at the front window. "Their dog can talk," I said.

    Karl straightened up in his wheelchair and looked at the ash-colored dog still standing on the porch. Then he wheeled himself into the living room where Judge Judy barked from the TV.

    Since Karl's accident, he had had no patience for long TV programs and could only tolerate the short half-hour shows: Judge Judy, his favorite; and a host of game shows. He was afraid of dependencies and kept my egg timer wound and counting out the minutes next to him on the TV tray. Each day he tried to stretch out the doses of his pain medication by ten minutes, or by one commercial break, whichever he could manage. I wished he would go ahead and take his meds on schedule, hell, even ahead of schedule. He wasn't the only one suffering around here.

    Judge Judy was laughing. She had to be a smoker. Only smokers can laugh in two octaves at once. The sound of it reminded me of the day I brought Karl home from the hospital. Once and only once Karl told me what happened and even then, the story was shot full of holes. He had turned on the TV that day to the Judge Judy Show. A buggy-eyed peroxide blonde was suing her former boyfriend for running off with her credit cards and marrying her older sister, and it was clear the peroxide blonde would never forgive them. Judge Judy had retired to chambers, so I knew whatever Karl had to say, it would be quick.

    "It took us most of the morning to round up the chickens. We followed their shit on the road, shit everywhere, like a game played by the sphincter muscle. Finally, we found them all. We were loading them onto the truck, and then this one chicken looked me in the eye and said "Karl." I turned to Gary.

    "Did you hear that?" I asked him. "That bird just said my name, plain as day."

    "Gary thought a minute and then spat. They say all kinds of things when they know they're about to die. Once I could've sworn a rooster said Triple Crown and I don't even go to the races. So I wouldn't worry about it.

    "But I couldn't shake the feeling that the shit spelled a story, that it meant something, something bad. I kept studying the chicken shit, burst over the road like the fall-out of a Roman candle, trying to find out what it would be. Later, when Gary's foot slipped off the clutch and the truck pinned my leg against the butchery wall, I knew that was it, and that I could stop trying to figure it all out."

    The egg timer had sounded then and Karl popped a pill with a hard swallow you could hear two rooms away. "So all's I'm saying is, its OK. Nothing to get het up about. The leg and all."

    "Huh?" I had said.

    I think about that story all the time now. I want to believe what Karl said about his leg, about his being OK with it. But it's clear Karl is unhappy. I tell myself Karl's problem is a simple depression or a complicated separation anxiety. But now I am beginning to think it's sorrow, a true and fundamental sorrow, and that there's probably nothing I can do about it.

    All that week Karl watched TV, the timer counting out the numbers that completed his day. I watched our new neighbors. They kept to themselves speaking that soft language while their enormous dog scraped long scars into the red dirt with tremendous swipes of his hind legs. Their blinds were always drawn. But no matter what the time of day or temperature, they had a roaring fire and smoke pouring out of their chimney. And then one night, a week after they'd moved in, a blue thing, the smoke from their chimney, entered our bedroom window and into my dreams. I couldn't separate the blue smoke from my dreams no matter how hard I tried. There wasn't a crowbar big enough. With the smoke came the dreams of the neighbor woman, who longed for spices she couldn't find here in Louisiana, and for trees from her homeland in Serbia, which couldn't grow in our soil. In the blue fog, I heard her weep openly: She hated the thick smells of the Burger King behind our duplexes that roiled the air and fluted the edges of her skirts hanging on their clothesline. I learned, too, that her name was Emoke, and that she hated her duplex, its small spaces, and that since the move, her husband had gotten on her nerves entirely. Nobody here in Shreveport would hire him, and without a car he couldn't interview with the larger companies in Alexandria. It felt strange knowing Emoke's troubles, like I had gone beyond mere eavesdropping into outright voyeurism. It was like discovering a couple making out on the beach, knowing you should back away without a sound, but so startled by their nakedness or maybe their passion, you can't. For privacy's sake, I lined my side of the bed with clay to see if that wouldn't keep out the fog, which rolled in each night at midnight. When that didn't work, I shrink-wrapped the windows in plastic, blowing dry the adhesive with my old hair dryer. That worked.

    But after a few nights, I grew to miss the mystery of the fog during the day and couldn't wait for night, though it was the only time when things made any sense. I tore off the plastic, and after a few weeks, I felt more at home in the blue fog of Emoke's dreaming than in my own dreams. In them, she would eat calf dance, a dish made from the first milk a cow gives after calving, but it would be I who tasted it. She'd feel the impulse to sneeze, but my sneezes shook our bed frame. I found myself beating my pillow each morning against our scrawny magnolia to make her dreams more tender, thinking that if I could understand how she managed this strange drift of both desire and despair that I might learn how to make my dreams large enough for any change, any sorrow. And after a few more weeks of blue fog I thought I was getting the hang of it as I mapped constellations, ate fish caught from the Muresul, raised golems in distant attics, and drank from broken pottery. In the morning I'd awake, rub the salt from my eyes and trace patterns in the filmy grit the dream fog left on our window panes, reading Emoke's desires left like fingerprints on the dirty glass. I knew then that before the blue fog, I hadn't really lived, not during the days at least, and until now, not during the nights, either.

    For nearly two months the blue fog entered our bedroom each night. I thought that eventually Emoke and I would combine dreams, swapping nighttime stories for daytime boredom. I thought this as sure as their ashen dog stood guard on their porch, pissing down his front legs. But I was wrong. The fog only drifted one way, from their chimney through our panes, never the other way around, which was all right with me. The most interesting dream I'd had before Emoke moved in had involved Karl's amputated leg, all alone up there in heaven. And I was glad Emoke couldn't see the colorless quality of my own dreams and how they crumbled at morning's light like a fossil inexpertly handled.

    I thought, too, by now, that Karl would have noticed the whorls and smudges that I had been careful to leave untouched on our bedroom window. But he hadn't.

    I thought maybe this is what pain does to you; changes how you see, changes who you are. Karl had gotten belligerent, refusing follow-up appointments at the hospital and had taken to charging up our credit card with cheap figurines bought from the Home Shopping Network.

    "Maybe we could get a dog," I said to Karl the day I noticed the neighbor's enormous dog studying a deck of cards splayed out before his paws. Karl had sat in front of the TV, sweating for three hours straight. I wasn't sure if it was the pain or the fact that his disability check still hadn't arrived.

    The wind had picked up and I could hear the sad sound of the ashen dog's bell clanging.

    "Maybe you could get a job," Karl said without looking at me. I handed him a glass of ice water and his medication. The truth of the matter was that my nighttime diversions were wearing me out, and I was waking late in the morning, sluggish and without an ounce of motivation.

    "A really big dog," I said. "We could name him Codeine. We could teach him to play black jack." I wanted a small rise from Karl, a look, anything, but Karl had bent over his weeping stump to examine its puckered end.

    Each night, I learned something new about Emoke. In her dreams, she drank slivovica, prayed in three languages at once, worshipped salt, and felt no shame. But she wanted something real, something to break between her molars and rub raw the lining of her stomach. She wasn't happy, but her discontent was a gentle, soluble one that could be lived with. That's when I got an idea, a good one. If I kept Karl drugged, happily sleeping through his pain, then I could get true rest during the day and at night, in Emoke's dreams, watch the horizon of sky and tea-stained lands unravel the ends of day. I could grow drunk on her hills and rivers made of loved and lost things. Then I would be happy, or at least content, my life having grown large enough to endure anything. There was no good reason why Karl and I should keep suffering. I was tired of watching pain etch new lines on his face, rewriting him into a man ruled by Judge Judy and the ticking of an egg timer.

    The first week I started slowly, slipping in an extra pill between the early evening game shows. By the next week I had upped the dosage to the point where we could both get to bed around nine and sleep solidly until nine the next morning. Karl attributed his untroubled sleep to the triumph of his will, and I didn't correct him. I'd learned over the years to avoid fights let loose by stray comments. They were like summer tornadoes touching down without warning, the kind that leave you amazed at the territory covered and the things unearthed. I felt guilty about ruining Karl's anti-drug dependency regimen. But then I told myself that I deserved this and that I was doing a good and loving thing for both of us: Lord knew Karl wasn't any treat to live with even before he lost his leg.

    The seasons were changing and the last of the swallows flew on their backs in the watery air, the hoods of the parked cars on the street reflecting their dark wings instead of their white bellies. Karl was sleeping nearly 14 hours a day and I thought my life was, at last, perfect. Then one evening I saw Emoke's husband packing up a U-Haul, stuffing in the last of their houseplants. Though I knew she was unhappy here, nothing in Emoke's dreams had prepared me for a sudden move. I wiped my hands on my nightshirt and went over to beg her not to go. The porch light was on. I rang the bell twice but nobody came to the door. Their ash-colored dog was sitting, but managed to whip my shin with his tail anyway.

    "Your bell is gone," I said.

    The dog looked at me for a long time and then yawned. "It was only a prop," he said. "Go home," he added, not unkindly, and returned his gaze to the oily sky.

    I took the dog's advice and went home. Karl was in bed and snoring. I crawled in beside him, curling my body around his good side with the good leg. I lay there wondering about the stories that hang over us in our dreams, written in the thick air we breathe, in the condensation on the panes. With my eyes closed, I imagined Emoke, flitting in the shadows from ragged tree to ragged tree, looking for a fixed and true star while I was a bird, hesitating in flight, singing between two worlds. And because sleep is a kind of hope, and dreams a form of grace, I decided to keep sleeping, having kept this one window with its sooty maps and scratches. I would remember those other dreams, remember how the wondrous intersects the ordinary, so I would not go blind with the blank spaces left by the blue fog and so that I could find the grace to keep breathing.

Gina Ochsner lives and writes in Keizer, Oregon.
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