The Wooden Horse

by Stephen Paden

First Published in The Bell Tower literary magazine, 2013

Angry Bear watched the foreigners from the tall grass in the field next to the town. A white boy, probably the same age, walked out of the store with a smile on his face while his mother carried a rocking horse made of wood. The brilliant colors of blue, red and yellow painted accessories contrasted with the horse’s dark coat and even darker mane. The foreigners thanked the shop owner and walked down the main street towards the other shops. The boy sat down and disappeared in the grass. He smiled and began to daydream.

The wind raced through his hair as his horse sped quickly over the open field. The sweet scent of honeysuckle and jasmine mixed with the fresh rain filled his nostrils as his horse galloped even faster. The sun was making its way slowly to the horizon, turning the lake near his home into a sparkling pool of liquid silver. He looked back for his father, who remained in the distance like he always did in these visions. The boy stopped the horse and turned around to look at his father.

“Why do you always linger?” Angry Bear yelled.

The man in the distance waved his arms and seemed to yell something the boy could not hear. He stopped waving his arms, then turned around and went back into the woods on his horse.

Angry Bear kept still as the wind carried the man’s voice. It echoed in his mind until he realized it had changed to a female’s voice.

“Angry Bear! Why do you linger in the fields? It is time for dinner,” his mother yelled from the edge of the village.

Angry Bear awoke from his vision and cried.

The boy sat at the table staring down at the soup bowl—back into the window display. He imagined himself sitting on the back of the horse, galloping into adventure after adventure.  At the end of the day, when the horse would surely be tired and hungry, he would take him to the watering hole to brush him and feed him and tell him the stories his grandfather had told him. He replayed this event over and over again in his head until his grandfather finally spoke.

“Child, why will you not eat your supper when there are those who have no supper to eat?”

“I’m sorry, grandfather. I was dreaming that I was on a horse, riding through the valley with my father, but I could not see him that well. He was always far behind me and then just before mother awoke me from my vision, he turned around and went into the woods. But grandfather, I rode faster than the wind! I rode so fast that my hair was in a straight line behind me! I was leading the horse to the watering hole near the village after the hard ride so I could feed him and brush him, but the sounds of mother’s voice awoke me from my vision.”

“Ah,” said the old man, “those are good thoughts for a young boy to have. I am proud of you and your father would also be proud. His spirit was with you, and that should comfort you, but you are too young and small to ride a horse. Please take a bite and we will continue the conversation.”

The child reached into the bowl and pulled out a handful of corn. He frowned and then shoved it into his mouth. He chewed the food and looked back to his grandfather and said, “I would like a horse so that I may be like my father. He was the bravest of the Lakota!”

The mother, who had sat quietly throughout the dinner, smiled into her bowl of food and the grandfather saw that the boy’s words had pleased her.

“Perhaps when you are older and have grown and can properly take care of one, you will ride the plains proudly like your father before you,” the grandfather said.

“But…”

“Please take another bite and then speak so that we may continue the conversation.”

Angry Bear took a quick bite, wiped his hands on his bare chest, then stood up with his fists in the air and his bony arms flexed.

“I found a horse today that even I can ride!” said the boy.

“I don’t like you going near the white men, Angry Bear,” his mother said. She turned to the grandfather. “He speaks of a small horse made of wood. A white man makes them from the trees north of the town.”

“I see. Well, that is another matter. And how would you take care of this horse, boy?” he asked. “Please sit down and take another bite so we may continue this conversation.”

The child obeyed and rested on the ground, anxiously waiting to hear his grandfather’s verdict on the matter of the wooden horse. After a few moments had gone by, the old man spoke.

“It seems to me that a wooden horse would indeed fit you much better than a real one, but the love and care they require is the same.”

“But it is just a wooden horse, grandfather. It does not eat or need to be brushed or taken to the watering hole at night. And it is just my size!” said the boy.

“Angry Bear, before we began this conversation, were you not riding on the plains, and leading him to the watering hole after the hard ride to be fed and brushed?”

“Yes, but that was in a vision.”

“The responsibilities of men are the same, regardless of the circumstances. If you do not feed your wooden horse in your imagination, you will not feed the live one. The things that we desire in haste often become ghosts in the corners of our heart and our mind. When you are ready, you will own a real horse,” replied the old man.

“May I have the wooden horse so that I may practice riding it and feeding it and taking it to the waterhole?” asked the child.

The old man stood and looked down at his grandson.

“I will think about this while I sleep. Your father would indeed be proud. Please go to bed so that I may talk to your mother.”

“Grandfather, why does my father stay far away in my visions?”

The old man nodded for a minute and closed his eyes. He opened them a few moments later and replied, “Your father’s spirit is watching over you, but he knows that the time will come when you are a man, and he will watch over you no more.”

“Where will he go then?”

“To the South Wind. Go,” he said and pointed to the furs.

The boy crawled into the furs that covered the floor of the back half of the tipi. The grandfather and the mother stepped out through the slits in the fur and into the brisk night air. The old man looked up at the stars and meditated for a few minutes, thinking about his ancestors before him and how they imparted wisdom onto the next generation. The mother waited patiently until the old man turned to her and smiled.

“The boy will have a wooden horse,” he said.

“He is too small,” replied the mother.

“His father’s spirit has given us our answer. He stays behind because Angry Bear will be ready to become a man soon. That is all I have to say.”

In the tipi, with the evening’s fire surrendering to warm, glowing embers, the child fell asleep under the buffalo skin.

The dreams were always the same; the wind would race through his hair as his horse sped quickly over the open field. The scent of jasmine and honeysuckle would fill his nostrils and the smell of the wet ground and grass beneath him would whisper at every touch of the horse’s feet. And he would look back to see his father riding away from him.

This dream began the same way, except this time he kept riding. He pushed his horse onward to the end of the day where the sun would fall and night would come. Patting his horse gently on the side of its neck, he looked over the village and smiled. He motioned his horse forward and never looked back.


2 thoughts on “The Wooden Horse

  1. I like the flavor of the folk tale this story evokes. The pattern of repetition in the grandfather’s words captures that folksy, fable-like quality. This piece is a standout for effectively creating atmosphere and leaves so much for the reader to derive from the tale while saying so much in a short length.

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