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  • The First Ride
  • Harriette Simpson Arnow
    Fall 1989

She heard her mother's voice hoarse, with fright pressing it into a flat stream of sound, "You'll have to hurry." And then her husband's call, "I've fin'ly got him saddled," while Rebel the big gray stallion neighed and pawed by the porch steps as if he too knew the joy of the long wild ride that lay ahead. Her husband came to the door, and her father turned [End Page 12] slowly away and then back to her so that she saw his old face, puckered into pale lines of fright and sorrow. She smiled at him and saw thoughts written into his eyes plain like words. He was loath to have her go and feared for her the long ride. She laughed to show him that she was not afraid, but her tongue seemed heavy and useless for words so that she made them no answer as she galloped away.

Behind her she heard their calling and the crying of the child. She did not turn her head or hesitate. Her name on their tongues was enough; they wished to advise her thus and so and warn her of this and that and maybe tell her again of the need for haste. Soon the wind had blown their cries away, and the road, white sand on the ridge crest now, ran smooth and straight between the black trunks of the high pine trees whose deep moon shadows lay like black bars across the silver of the sand.

She raised one hand and half rose in the stirrups and pretended to snatch at a twig on a black gum tree as they flew past, and dropped again to the saddle and laughed to herself as the wind quickened about her ears and raised her hair like the horse's mane. That was the way to make Rebel fly, Luke her brother had once said. She too had wanted to make Rebel fly, but her mother would never let her ride as she had always wanted to ride; her mother lived for the neighbors and God. The neighbors and God, but tonight she could laugh at the neighbors and God. This night was not like other nights, there was the road and the moon and the wind and the ever-quickening need for haste. She thanked the woman sick and about to die who gave the reason for this ride, and sorrow for the woman lay vague and weightless in the back of her mind behind the half-believing wonder that it was she who rode so, riding as she had always wanted to ride, with trust for her body in the horse's feet, and her soul flung to the moon or maybe to [End Page 13] the wind. Tonight the wind came neither west nor south, but out of the neverland that lay beneath and held the freedom and strength of the west and the lazy whispering laughter of the south. The wind was the smell of spring with larkspur and wild roses by the creek and the clover in the hill field and the pine scent sharp through the sweetness, and over it all was the sound of the great trees on Fiddle Bow Mountain and the willows by Laurel Run and the simple wail of hills against the beating, rushing waves of air.

The big horse went like a brother of the wind and seemed to know the need that made her drive him so. He went like a horse undriven, like a horse of God with wings and a dragon for his heart. He did not pause when the road curved and swooped down a hill, black in the shadow with white rocks glimmering and sparks from his iron shoes rising and dying like hasty fireflies. She laughed as they went sliding down into deeper darkness, and knew that she could go there and home again in time. The woman would not die, and she would have this ride, wild and heedless and free as she had always wanted.

She laughed to think she was a woman now with heedless ways and causeless...


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pp. 12-19
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