Dori knew that something was terribly wrong as soon as she glanced out the back window. The motion light illuminated her broodmares which stood frozen like life-size statues in the pounding rain. Trouble was evident in the way the horses’ ears were pinned back. She spotted the problem immediately, and her heart lurched as her beloved Zee lay on the ground before them. For a moment she froze in panic, but then she raced for the back door.
She made the paddock quickly and shooed off the other horses. She dropped to her knees in the mud. The mare was covered in dozens of puncture wounds. It was if a pack of wild dogs had attacked her, tearing meat from bone. Weeping, bloody wounds blanketed the animal, the normally sweet tang of horseflesh mixed with a metallic stench. Dori’s stomach rolled.
Zee was panting and a slick sheen of sweat covered her body. She didn’t try to rise as Dori approached.
“Easy girl. Shhhhh, Azeezah. Good girl,” Dori said, trying to control the panic in her voice. “Damn coyotes!” She silently cursed Amir for being away at the horse auction.
The hulking mare rested in the mud, one nostril bubbling as she lay in a dirty puddle. Azeezah’s eyes darted around looking frantically toward the heavens, toward the other mares, and finally coming to rest on Dori’s own eyes. Wordlessly she pleaded with Dori to help her.
“Got to get the vet out here...hold on, Zee. Just hold on a little longer.”
This was the mare that she had helped foal, the mare that she named – Azeezah, Arabic for ‘Close to the heart’. This was the mare whose eyes now begged for mercy.
Azeezah’s sides began to heave even faster and her breathing became labored. Her life was slipping away through the holes in her flesh. The other horses grew more and more nervous, blowing and stomping as they stood watch around her.
“Zee, come on girl, don’t leave me now...”
The mare tried to roll to her knees, groaning in agony.”
“That’s it girl, up you go!” but with a great huff the mare fell once again to the ground. Dori realized that the vet would never make it in time. She began talking; saying the things she knew she’d never have a change to say later and gingerly caressing Zee’s wounded neck.
“What a beautiful girl you are Zee! I knew you were my horse as soon as you were born. You were the first of all the horses to get to me when I called. You always outran your sisters when you heard my voice. Please, Zee, just hold on.”
Dori leaned toward her precious mare, brushed away Zee’s matted forelock and kissed her gently on the cowlick in the center of her forehead. The mare’s breath grew shallow and she shut her eyes against the pain. Dori continued to talk, reliving the precious moments they had shared and the strength she drew from this proud creature. Pausing momentarily, she knotted her hand in Azeezah’s mane, pressing her cheek into the horse’s thick neck. She inhaled the wonderful scent of horse, and choked on the lump in her throat.
Zee made a wet, gurgling noise and her body shuddered and then went still. Dori lay down, covering the horse’s body with her own, no longer conscious of the mess the blood was making. As her mind accepted the hopelessness of the situation, Dori buried her face in the mare’s neck and sobbed.
“I love you my Azeezah. You are taking my heart with you.”
She rubbed the horse’s muzzle, her neck, her mane and her withers.
“I’m going to miss you so much…think about you every day...”
Dori, unable to let go yet, kept rubbing and talking while the day dawned. She remained there stroking the horse’s mane as the farmhands arrived and dug a giant hole. She stayed with Zee while time passed surreally and shock and loss set in.
Before they lowered her best friend into the cold ground, Dori cut off a hank of her mane. She gripped that hair and stood over the mound of dirt in the corner of the farm until her knuckles went numb, mourning alone and in silence.
The farm buzzed with the news like a persistent mosquito sent to annoy her. Growing anger pushed her sorrow aside; this was an unnecessary loss. She felt like she was coming up for air as she buried her pain. Without realizing she was moving, Dori marched toward the hay barn. The farm hands moved out of her way after seeing her expression. She stepped into the nearly empty building and looked around, contemplating. Without turning, she spoke to the men who had followed her from a safe distance.
“Set up the temporary stalls in here before nightfall.”
“The ones we use for horse shows. All the horses get run in at night from now on. I’m not serving the coyotes an all-night buffet.” Dori didn’t have to ask twice.
Later that evening, Dori found herself once again kneeling over the familiar wooden box she kept in the hallway closet. This was her memory box and sadly, she had one more to add now. Lifting the lid, her fingers caressed the pieces of her heart inside, a stack of old photos, and various other souvenirs, next to which she placed the lock of Azeezah’s mane.
“I love you, my Azeezah. I’m going to miss you so much.”
A chill crawled up her spine and she shivered. As she gazed at her treasures, the force of her memories hit her like an invisible fist. These mementos were bittersweet; the fact that they were only memories now reminded her that they had passed out of existence. Searching for something specific, her fingers moved silently in the dark. She needed no light; she knew the feel of every item in the box.
Suddenly, Dorianna felt childish and debated putting the box away. She wondered how many women were up at this hour searching for a memory that would keep their reality glued together.
Her husband had returned mere hours ago and exhausted, fell into bed. Dorianna heard him cough now, and froze, worried she would be discovered. After a moment she heard Amir’s rhythmic drone from down the hall. He was surely as she had left him when she snuck away, insomnia plaguing her once again. His small frame somehow took up more space than it should and his nocturnal renderings were a way of having the last word, even in sleep. She imagined he had been like that for the greater part of his 62 years, his youth having been spent before they had married six years ago. Her hands released the box to settle on the collar of her matronly bathrobe, tightening it against the night.
The light green terrycloth garment, last year’s Christmas present, was adorned with crocheted flowers in pink and white, and looked painfully similar to one her grandmother had worn. She donned it every night despite the fact that this style wouldn’t feel right on her for a few more decades. And while, for her husband’s sake, she pretended it was her favorite, it always made her feel as though she were playing dress-up.
Dorianna rose, one hand clutching the robe closed, the other cradling the box close to her. She stole to the living room and settled into the glow of a small lamp on a threadbare couch.
This corner of the living room where she sat was her favorite place in the house; her thinking spot. Clutching the box, her eyes swept the room which was cluttered with books and toys. It was no secret that there were two young girls living here. The doll house in the corner, a hand-me-down from a neighbor, normally claimed the center of the coffee table. In the weary predawn hours it was almost easy to see Layla and Dahlia perched in front of it, lost in imaginary play.
Dori sighed. She was only thirty-three, but tonight she felt old. Returning her attention to the box in her hands, she opened the lid once more. The smell of cedar comforted her as she looked over the contents of the box. These were the treasured pieces of her life and she was embarrassed that they fit in such a small container. She found the thin stack of photos she had been searching for after running her fingertips across a few dried flowers, two intertwined hospital bracelets and some dog-eared letters.
Three teenagers grinned at her from the photo on the top. They were dressed in costumes reminiscent of the 1950s and wore heavy stage makeup. The photo of her and her two best friends was taken moments after the dress rehearsal.
Dorianna cupped the image as if it were the first, delicate flower of spring. Tilting her head, she allowed the memory to replay in her mind. She heard the cadence of an adagio and could smell the familiar scent of worn leather and sweat. They were performing that evening for representatives from some of the most reputable companies in the country. She could still hear the accent in Madame Petrovsky’s voice as she proclaimed, “This could be the night that determines the rest of your lives!”
Ironically, that evening did hold Dori’s defining moment. She led the company brilliantly, executing each move with magical precision. But in an instant of bad timing, or perhaps a case of jangling nerves, her partner’s hands failed to catch her as she transitioned from a jeté entrelacé into the poisson. Three surgeries later on her shattered knee and she was able to walk. Dancing, however, was out of the question and her helium balloon dreams began to pop, one by one, falling to the ground with leaden thuds.
The next few photos were of Dorianna in college and some random shots of the year she spent studying abroad. She skimmed through them quickly like slides in a projector; standing next to the Arc de Triomphe, visiting Monet’s garden at Giverny, at the entrance to the Place de la Bastille. It was heady and exotic. These memories made her feel rare and special.
Next were several black and white photos of Amir with his prized Arabian horses, Latif and Rema, surrounded by and admiring crowd. She had fancied him handsome back then, and adventurous like Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones. Having emigrated from Lebanon, his speech still carried the guttural accent of his native tongue. Amir loved to tell her stories of his life with the Bedouin tribes. She spied a photo of him and his family in the old country. He had given her this when their relationship was still young; when she found even the most minute detail of his life intriguing. She remembered him pointing out all of the people and pausing when he got to his uncle. The story echoed in her mind as she stared at the grainy image.
“This is my Amo, Youseph,” his accent charged the story with mystery. “Shortly after this was taken my Aunt and cousin died in an accident. He took it very hard. Time passed, but he never began to heal. We found out later he went to live in a monastery.”
“He became a monk?”
“No. People who are grieving can go to a place called Sed Naya. The virgin appeared to a weary man there. She healed his old bones and nourished his muscles so he could continue his pilgrimage. The monks chose to erect a holy building there and open it to those who are searching for peace. Although we hoped spending time in such a Holy place could heal my Amo, he withdrew completely. We never heard from him again.”
Dori missed the days when they would sit together and tell stories. It seemed like a different lifetime when they would stay up late at night while he sang her Arabic songs. At the time she’d considered him mature. These days she just thought him old.
A tear fell on her thumb, threatening to erase a fragment of the photo she still cradled in her hands. She glanced around the room, embarrassed, making sure she hadn’t been discovered. Amir stumbled into the room as she fought to regain control of her emotions. She realized too late that his snoring had ceased several minutes ago. She closed the box and wiped the tears from her cheeks, praying he hadn’t noticed. One look at his face told her that he had.
“Come back to bed, it’s late,” was all he said. He stared at her expectantly, eyes heavy with his own dreams. After an eternity, having received no answer, he retreated to the bedroom shaking his head and mumbling in Arabic.
Dori exhaled slowly and waited for the telltale snores to begin again. She began to count her heartbeats. Long after she reached one hundred she heard Amir stirring again from the bedroom.
“Coming,” she mumbled to herself more than anyone. She placed each of the treasures inside the box and delivered it to its hiding place in the hall closet. Before going back to bed, she decided to check in on the girls.
Dahlia was wedged into the corner of her crib. This was how she slept, her eyes shut tightly against the world, pudgy cheeks perfect in the dim glow of the nightlight. Normally busy, her hands rested in gentle repose and even her wild dark curls relaxed against the pillowcase. Dorianna pulled the blanket up, tucking her in again. One sleeping hand began searching for a favorite toy and Dori tucked Lovey Bear back under her arm. Dahlia relaxed immediately and began sucking on her pacifier. After a quick kiss, Dori headed to her older daughter’s room.
Layla’s cotton candy pink room was next. Pink was more than her favorite color; to her it was the only color. She adored her pink carpeting, pink curtains and bedding, pink princess dresses with which to play make-believe. Dorianna sighed and approached her bed. She needn’t worry about waking this one up; she’s sleep through an earthquake. Dorianna hefted her three year old back up onto the pillow and brushed her curly blond locks from her face. As Dori leaned over to kiss her, Layla gave voice to the dream she was experiencing.
“I like you, Mommy,” she mumbled. “I like you and I love you and I love you and I like you.”
Dori had loved that phrase from the first time Layla had uttered it and it had become a special part of their nightly ritual. Her heart warmed and she repeated the phrase to her sleeping daughter.
“Sleep now, my angel,” she added softly and left the room.
The warmth lingered only briefly as she climbed into bed. Amir did not stir. There was a time when the slightest movement on her part would cause him to turn over and throw a protective arm about her. She missed that. She began drawing a mental list of all the chores she needed to complete the following day while waiting for sleep to find her. Outside, a lonely howl pierced the silence of the night.
“Shut up and stay away from the horses,” Dori mumbled.
A second coyote responded, but this one was much nearer to the house. Dori hugged the blankets closer to her chin. She’d grown up in a predominately urban area and while this house was home to Amir, the forest lining the horse paddocks had always left her unsettled. It was beautiful to be sure, but frightening and wild. She had once promised Amir that she would live in a tent in the desert if that was what it took to make him happy. Now she wasn’t so sure.
Tomorrow will be better, she promised herself. It just had to be! She longed for something that would make her feel confident and alive again. She didn’t know what that something might be but she wanted it badly. She wanted it like she wanted air. She lay awake long into the night listening to the howls, only briefly finding the sleep she had been searching for.