The Hurricane Dance
Sheryl was drinking a cup of black coffee in a thick porcelain mug with a picture of a dolphin on it when the phone rang. She reached over with one hand and plucked the receiver from its hook.
"Good morning," she said, glancing at the rooster clock on the wall of her kitchen. It was ten minutes after seven.
"Not really," answered Bill Caton, a deputy whose voice she recognized instantly. "We got a dead horse on Highway 12. One of the Corolla herd."
"Shit," Sheryl said, setting down her coffee. "What happened?"
"Car hit it. The driver's okay, but the horse flew ninety feet. We're over here by the Food Lion if you want to come down," he said.
"Yeah," she answered, glancing down at herself in t-shirt and underpants. "I'll be there in ten minutes. By the way, was it a male or female?"
"A teenage girl. She's crying up a storm. I've called her parents to come get her," he said.
"I meant the horse."
"Oh," he said. "It was a stallion." She closed her eyes. The coffee began a tingling burn up into her esophagus.
After she hung up, Sheryl went back through the cluttered living room with its black furniture covered with throws and up the stairs to the bedroom. Zeke slept soundly under the yellow and white quilt, his dark hair poking out in tufts, his face stony with slumber.
She found a pair of cut-offs on the floor and dug through a drawer for a bra, which she finally found hanging from the door handle of the closet. Should she wake Zeke, she wondered, or just leave a note. No matter what she did, it wouldn't be the right thing. Fuck it, she thought, I won't wake him or leave a note. It's a free country.
She got into her old Pinto, and thought maybe she should go back in. Zeke would want to know about the horse, but it would take too long. She scratched the back of her neck sleepily, cranked the engine and drove across the sound and over the barrier island. The horses' territory was at the north end of the island. They would be safe if they'd just stay there. And most of them did now that a fence had been built clear across the island from the ocean all the way to the sound.
She drove past the strip malls, the hotels, and the cheaply built condos. Even the expensive "community" on the sound side looked bleak to her. Zeke was always coming up with crazy plans to drive the developers away.
Finally, past the village of Duck she found Bill Caton by the side of the road.
The car—a Camaro—was crumpled like a discarded beer can in the front but an airbag had kept the girl from any harm. Sheryl stared at her—a sheath of white-blond hair, dark eyebrows and braces on her small teeth. The girl batted blue eyes at Sheryl and said, "I didn't see him. I didn't see him. Not until he was right in front of the car."
"I know you didn't," Sheryl said. "It's not really your fault. It's the damn tourists who stop and feed them. We spent six hours yesterday telling them not to do it. The horses don't stay up north where they belong, keep coming down through that shallow area thinking every car that drives by is going to stop and give them a carrot."
Bill Caton crossed his arms, arms which looked like he spent too much time in a gym when Sheryl really knew his muscles came from hauling shrimp as a boy. He had a big blunt head and the buttery Tidewater accent of the Outer Banks. He had been the one to call her a month earlier when another horse had been killed—this one by a family in a Dodge minivan on its way back home to Ottawa. She had cried in Zeke's arms for an hour after that one. No more crying, she decided.
"You people are going to have to figure out how to keep them horses on the north end." He went around the fence on the sound side. "You can still see his hoofprints on the beach," he said, leading Sheryl to the dead horse.
She bent down beside it, saw the blood trailing from its cracked skull, the thick lips still wet with saliva, the eyes mercifully closed. She thought of a story she had read in a book of mythology about a man in ancient Wales who had sliced the lips off his enemy's horses and thereby caused the ruin of two kingdoms. "The horrible things we do," she muttered.
She softly ran her fingers over the bones of the horse's forehead and through the coarse brown mane. He was one of the young ones. She didn't think he had even sired a foal yet. Her organization tried to keep a census of the horses without disturbing them. She wanted to lay her head against the felt platform of his neck. She never got this close to them except when they were dead.
"Animal control is on the way over," Bill said, his voice gruff the way men get sometimes when they try to be gentle. Sheryl held out her hand and Bill helped her up.
"I thought that fence would keep them from coming back down here," she said. "We need money, Bill. Money to buy more land for them."
"Good luck," he said. "Land here only goes for condos—'Sawgrass Hills' or 'Pirate's Haven' or some other dumb concoction. The tricks they pull these days. They're going to kill this place."
The clouds had gathered in the sky keeping the sun from its usual onslaught. Sheryl was glad. Flies had started to buzz around the dead horse.
Sheryl drove past the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. The brick wall took on the flat tone of the sky. It wasn't painted white like most lighthouses. This spot was where the tourists stopped to look at the wild herd, direct descendants from the Spanish mustangs that came here whether by shipwreck or abandonment no one knew for sure. The tourists and the red-nosed children complained of the heat and the stickers until they saw the horses. Nothing like the sight of them, wild like that. It touched a weird sort of erogenous zone inside the heart.
Sheryl drove back over the causeway and pulled into the circular dirt drive of the wooden house where she and Zeke lived. It was said that the house had been a hospital during the Civil War. Of course, all you needed to make a hospital then was some place to amputate wounded body parts. Zeke sat outside in the plastic lawn chair in front of the goldfish pond that they had made last year out of a kiddy pool. He had made a pump so that water flowed over an upturned log and down through large conch shells. The goldfish swam seductively above the algae-coated bottom and a family of small black water frogs clung to the sides of another log with watchful round eyes.
Sheryl sat in the other chair beside him.
"You don't have to work today?" she asked.
Zeke shook his head. He wore only an old pair of shorts. He looked fragile in a way with his ribs showing like the wires of a bird cage.
"Where were you?" he asked finally.
"Another horse was hit," she said. "Killed on Highway 12. I went down to see which one."
He was silent. Sheryl wondered what it was that had lurked between them lately. This gulf that neither of them would cross.
"I'm thinking of creating a special dance," he said, scratching his belly and gazing up at the laurel oak above them. "A hurricane dance. One that will smash all the hotels and the beach houses and that fucked up new development that's sucking all the water from the island. Then no one will come here and the horses can have the whole damn place to themselves. The turtles can, too."
"But how would the horses survive the hurricane?" she asked.
"Not all of them would," he answered. "But enough would. Enough to start a new herd.
"I don't think I like it," she said.
"You don't like anything," he said.
"I like you."
"You used to like me."
She didn't answer. He was right. She didn't like him as much as she used to. She thought of nights when they'd gotten up to move turtle eggs or stand watch to keep them safe from people who would trample on them or purposely smash them to crumbly slimy bits. She remembered the thrill of watching baby turtles head toward the ocean, Zeke's hand gripping hers as they lay in the sand quietly—their breath as light as feather strokes.
It seemed like everything died, no matter how hard you tried to protect it. She saw again the mustang's body, his twisted legs cocked up underneath him as if he were still running in the fields of heaven. People couldn't appreciate what was right before their eyes. She felt Zeke sitting beside her, holding back from her. Maybe he hadn't really seen her in a while. Maybe she hadn't seen him.
The thought sprang up like the water bubbling from Zeke's fountain: this didn't have to die. They'd had this relationship for five years. And it was the one she wanted for at least another five—hell, maybe longer, if she really thought about it. Who else would understand the part of her that was connected to the horses, to all things untamed? She glanced at him, the long nose, eyes in a thickness of lashes staring ahead.
"You think I don't like you?" she said. She stood and pulled the t-shirt over her head.
"What are you doing, Sheryl?" he asked, sitting up, his nipples dark and the black hair on his chest seeming to make the sign of the cross.
"I'm showing how much I like you," she said. "I'm doing the hurricane dance."
She unhooked her bra and flung it over a branch.
"You're nuts," he said. He looked around at the roadway just beyond a crowd of bushes. A car passed, but it didn't stop. She slid out of her shorts and out of her underwear, and then she stepped into the middle of the goldfish pond. Zeke stared, fish-mouthed. Then he got up, grinning, and shucked his own shorts.
"Do you think anyone will report us?" he asked.
"Bill Caton won't put us in jail, sweetheart. I'll just say I'm grief stricken. Or maybe they'll bill us as another tourist attraction—The Wild Humans."
She began wiggling her hips and waving her arms in the air.
"Come, oh mighty storm, blow through here like ancient Cronus swallowing his children. Bring on the Cyclops, bring on the Titans. Eeeeya, eeya, eeeee," she wailed. Zeke started to skip around the pool with its pictures of mermaids and seahorses. The goldfish swirled like worshippers at the new monoliths that had appeared in their midst.
"Your legs are like Stonehenge," Zeke said, stopping before her. "And you are the mighty Earth Goddess."
"Bow down before me, lowly one," she commanded.
Zeke stared at her. His eyes were the color of the algae at the bottom of the pool with flecks of yellow in them like goldfish scales. Then slowly he knelt and held his arms out toward her.
And she knew that life had nothing to do with happiness. That she would have to fight for the lives of the horses, and she probably would not win, that the island's water table would sink under the weight of ignorant humanity, that she would always have to work to keep this love a living thing, and that hurricanes would or would not come, but for this small moment, she could lick the triumph on her lips. She started a slow spin in the water, felt her toes on the smooth algae, and sang out like someone who was free and wilder than wild mustangs.