The Horse on the Lake: A Short Story

Judith Trustone
7 min readNov 20, 2022
Horse running through snow in mountain setting.
Horse running through snow in mountain setting. Photo by Sheila Swayze on Unsplash

Patrice leaned on her elbows as she scrutinized herself in the mirror. The weekend was turning out to be a bummer. She wished she hadn’t let her friends talk her into coming to New Hampshire, especially in the middle of winter to attend the weekend workshop for older singles.

It was supposed to somehow give her a jump start on the life, which had been put on hold by Mark’s death a year ago. No matter how hard the other participants tried to reach out to her, she felt outside the group — alone. She was skeptical about all that hugging and sighing and sharing and crying. Each hour brought her a sense of shrinking even deeper inside herself.

She presented a good front. When it was her turn to share, she described a recurring dream she’d been having about a horse in a cloud of white. Processing it kept the group busy for an hour without ever knowing her true feelings. That way, she didn’t have to touch any current stuff. Like the fact that she still felt like crying every night when she faced the empty bed, that her body ached so with longing for Mark that her skin hurt. She carried a piece of his old flannel shirt with her wherever she went, tucked in her bra. His smell was still everywhere in the apartment, or was it a combination of their smell, slowly fading into just hers?

Patrice saw in the mirror a thin, forty-something woman with dark hair just beginning to be streaked with grey, which she wore in a close-cropped helmet. The severity of the cut enhanced her deep-set green eyes, which Mark used to say had a hundred different shades, depending on her mood and her outfit. The smile lines next to her mouth and the wrinkles that were becoming etched around her eyes made her nervous.

She and Mark had married in college; he was her first and only love, and she couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. Her friends kept trying to fix her up, but she declined, saying she wasn’t ready to date again, as if she’d ever dated in the first place. She wondered if she’d ever feel ready. Despite the fact that her many friends viewed her as a sophisticated woman, the idea terrified her.

Life and its demands overwhelmed her at times, and she was quick to take to her bed, seeking comfort under the covers that she once shared with her husband. Her friend, Madeline, newly divorced, urged her to redecorate the bedroom, but she wanted it just the way it had been when they were together.

Patrice worried that she was always so tired, always so sad. What did she have to live for? The public relations agency that she and Mark had founded was doing so well she didn’t have to worry about money, but the work no longer held any challenge for her.

A flash of brown rushing by the window of the first floor bedroom caught her attention. She hurried over to see what was happening. It was a horse galloping toward frozen Mascoma Lake, just like in her dreams.

Patrice had grown up with horses. One of her favorite times in her adolescence was galloping bareback on her palomino, Sandy, on the interstate before it was opened to traffic. Even now, when she was stuck in a boring meeting with pompous men, she’d close her eyes ever slightly and, visualizing, recapture the feeling of freedom, imagining herself once again holding the bridle loose, letting Sandy run at top speed, both of them flying. It refreshed her.

She was worried about the brown horse. It had no bridle or saddle, just a piece of rose around its neck. She knew it had broken free and was in a panic.

Throwing on her jacket, she rushed down the rustic stairs, jumped into her boots, and went outside to see where the horse had gone. The cold was bitter; she could feel her hands and feet beginning to go numb, but she paid no attention as she ran around to the back of lodge, which faced the water.

Mascoma Lake was frozen solid, and a two-foot thick covering of snow made it look like a large pasture. Patrice had never seen such thick ice; she and Mark had always tried to avoid winter’s harshness with frequent vacations to the islands.

The horse was galloping wildly, his eyes frantic, his coat flecked with foamy sweat. She was horrified to see him run headlong to the lake. Not even pausing at the edge, apparently thinking he was on solid ground, the horse started onto the ice.

Patrice followed, her focus narrowing to the horse and herself.

She was vaguely aware that others had come outside to see what all the excitement was about.

The deep snow made walking difficult. At the edge of the lake, Patrice paused, suddenly afraid. Why was she going after the horse? Would the ice hold her? Would she and the horse both end up in its icy fathoms? She almost didn’t care.

Walking gingerly in the horse’s hoof prints, Patrice swallowed her fear and followed the terrified creature, feeling drawn by some unknown force. The depth of the snow, with its crunchy top, made movement awkward and slow as she continued toward the horse that by now was in the middle of the lake.

The sound of an engine grew louder and louder, until a small helicopter appeared over the top of the mountain just west of the lake. She remebered hearing that there were wealthy ski lovers in the area who used helicopters to get back and forth to the city. At the lake, they buzzed around in snowmobiles, tearing up the terrain and disturbing the deep quiet that snow brings.

The helicopter whirled around and around, circling the horse, attempting it seemed, to herd it back onto land. The wind from the blades caused a snow squall to erupt right in the middle of the lake. The noise of the engine screamed across the tranquil valley, tearing the silence like a violent, mechanical yodel.

The horse reared and neighed in fright, ears back, mouth foaming.

The whirlybird circled again, and this time the hysterical horse began running back toward the shore, running in its own hoofprints, right toward Patrice.

She stood as if paralyzed, watching the animal race toward where she was standing. It wasn’t deviating an inch from the path it had made, and she was knee deep in snow right in his way.

The frightened horse came closer and closer, his eyes rolled back in fright as the noisy machine followed him.

Still she stood, frozen on the spot, knowing that if the horse ran into her, she’d be injured, maybe even killed. Part of her wanted to just give up, to let it happen, for she was so weary of feeling sad and disconnected all the time.

Legs spread wide, hands on her hips, she faced the challenger, her heart in her mouth, her mind in turmoil. How nice it would be to just lie down in the snow forever.

The dark horse was framed by a circle of snow, making him appear to be galloping out of a cloud. Just like in her dream.

When the crazed creature was almost on top of her, she suddenly shook herself from her stupor and jumped aside, out of his direct path. His breathing was labored, and his sweat splashed her face as he ran by, just a few inches from her.

Patrice lay back in the snow looking up at the brilliant sun, the cloudless, blue sky. It looked like she would live after all. She took a deep breath and felt the tightness in her chest loosening. She spread out her arms and made the angel wings she was so fond of creating as a child.

Members of the group came out onto the ice where she was lying, sprawled like a fallen angel.

“Are you okay?” They asked, reaching for her.

Patrice laughed. “I’m fine” she said as they pulled her to her feet and wrapped her in a group hug right there in the middle of the lake. She sighed and began to cry, tears of relief and release.

Supporting her as she sobbed, they all clunked through the drifting snow back to the shore, where the rest of the group waited with the exhausted horse.

Patrice, calmer now, walked over and patted him, enjoying his smell, his horsiness. He nuzzled her shoulder as if acknowledging her attempt to help him. She threw her arms around his neck and whispered to him that everything would be okay. He neighed softly.

His owners, a couple of yuppy types, showed up then to claim him. They thanked her for her efforts to catch the horse.

Patrice smiled for the first time in a year, a real smile from deep in her heart, not the usual public relations smile she wore to fool people into thinking she was okay.

She was surprised when the whole group cheered her for trying to help the horse. They seemed to know that there had been a critical moment for her there on the ice. Maybe she should give them a chance.

They practically carried her inside the lodge and someone offered her a cup of hot cocoa. One woman pulled off her snow-filled boots and began to massage her frozen feet, another her icy hands.

Patrice began to cry again. “You know, my husband, who died last year, used to rub my feet all the time,” she said as she released a year’s worth of pent-up tears.

Books by Judith Trustone:

The Global Kindness Revolution: How together we can Heal Violence, Racism, and Meanness

Celling America’s Soul: Torture and Transformation in Our Prisons and Why We Should Care

The Cat’s Secret Guide to Living with Humans

--

--