Hidden in the early morning Virginia gloom, I crept into the stable a few minutes before dawn, opening the door quickly to stop the sound of creaking hinges. My riding boots made a crunching sound with all of the hay underfoot, and I slowly walked past the five horses in the stable. Two horses, the ones we were currently training to sell, shied back a little, but the three horses my family owned leaned over the oaken half-doors. They nuzzled my warm cotton jacket like they expected me to hand out sugar lumps as I normally did. But today wasn’t a normal day. This whole week hadn’t been a normal week.
When I reached the last stall, across from my brother’s white Welsh pony, it was empty. Nothing remained in there except for a bucket and a blanket draped over the door. Sinking to my knees in hay, I shut my eyes and slumped my head against the door. My hands clenched and unclenched uncontrollably as I thought, I failed you, Dory. I am so, so sorry.
Six days ago, around this time, the horse who had virtually been my second mother had breathed her last breath. I breathed in, trying to stop the tears that were already burning at my eyes, but I couldn’t. The first salty tear hit my knees, making them feel cold in the morning air. I wept silently at first, then gave in to the huge gulps that stole the air from me. My nose started to run, so I wiped it on my warm, woolen nightshirt.
I glanced at the haystack behind me. It still bore the impression I had made, sleeping there six days ago. I had woken up to the anguished moans of Dory and had instantly rolled off of the haystack, screaming to anybody awake in the house.
“Call Doctor Jennings!”
But when the doctor had finally arrived, he announced it was too late for Dory. I had turned my green eyes into her deep black irises the whole time, petting her white-and-black head until the life drained out of her. Those eyes still haunted me, calm and full of love one moment, then like lifeless marbles the next. I could still see them when I closed my eyes. Dr. Jennings and my whole family told me it wasn’t my fault Dory had died. They said it was the tumor’s fault. But no matter how many reassurances they gave me, I knew it was my fault. I had been riding her since I was two, and she had helped me do so much, so many things. And when it really mattered, I couldn’t give back.
And now we were going to Chincoteague Island in two hours, to get me a new pony, to replace her. A giant knot formed in my throat, a sensation that was all too familiar to me now. The pain would lessen, everyone said, but I didn’t believe them. Although sometimes I forgot about Dory the pain would always return, as fresh and sharp as mint tea.
I heard the door of the stable creak open, but I didn’t look up. I couldn’t be distracted by anything. Not now, when I was grieving for Dory, grieving when nobody else had tried. Soft footsteps arrived by me. I heard an intake of breath, and then my mother’s voice.
“Honey, you really shouldn’t be out here,” she said. “You could get sick in this weather.”
I glanced at her. “I don’t care about getting sick. I’m mourning Dory right now. Mourning how I couldn’t save her, and how we’re going to replace her in two hours.”
Sure, I was sounding like a stubborn, spoiled teenager, but I really didn’t care about that. And anyway, at least I was acting my age.
Mom sighed again. “Abby,” she told me firmly. “Dory wouldn’t want you to be like this. Sure, she would like you to remember her and mourn her, but you’re dedicating you whole life to depression.”
She was sort of right, but I wasn’t going to tell her so. My fingers automatically went to the tuft of hair and picture in my pocket.
“But everything reminds me of her,” I said softly. “Life reminds me of her. And the way everyone is acting, it’s like they didn’t even love her!”
I knew they were the wrong words to say. I knew my family loved Dory. I paused, waiting to be reprimanded. Mom went quiet for a moment.
“You know I loved her,” she said. “You’re just experiencing her death differently from the rest of us, since you two had a special bond.”
“I loved her so much!” I cried, the lump in my throat tightening. “And I can’t touch her anymore. I can’t ride her anymore.”
Mom sank down to her knees and hugged me to her chest, letting me sob into her shoulder and long red hair.
“You can see her,” Mom said, “in the sky, in the stars hiding behind the clouds.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, gulps stealing my breath away.
“You know how many stars there are in the sky?”
“Nobody does. It’s impossible to count.”
“Then who’s saying that some of them can’t be ponies watching over their friends?” Mom stroked my russet hair. “Getting a new pony isn’t replacing her, Abby. No one can replace her, you know that.”
I swallowed and looked up at her.
“Mom,” I said, gathering all of my courage. “Thanks. I think I’m ready to go to Chincoteague Island. I’m ready to get a new pony.”
“That’s the spirit!” Mom said, smiling. “Dory would like this too, I think.”
I saw my white-and-black horse inside my head, butting me with her head, eyes smiling.
“I think she would like it too,” I said.
* * *
As the car stopped in the parking lot of Chincoteague Island, I immediately got out and thudded into a person walking towards our car. “
Oomph!” I said, driven backwards by the blow.
Giant hands lifted me up and threw me into the air. I screamed, not knowing who it was. The hands put me back down again and a familiar, red-bearded face came into view.
“Hey, Abby,” Uncle Jeff said, ruffling my wind-blown hair. “Haven’t heard you scream like that since you were two, not wanting to eat asparagus.”
“You would have screamed if a giant mystery man lifted you up in the air,” I retorted.
Uncle Jeff laughed, his great pot belly jiggling underneath his white shirt like a bowl of jello.
“Right-o, Abby!” he boomed, then looked at our blue truck, with the horse trailer hooked up to the back. “Nancy! Joseph!” he said to Mom and Dad as they climbed out of the car.
Mom grinned. She and Uncle Jeff always got along, mostly because they were two extremely likable people. “Jeff! It’s good to see you. How’s the restaurant going?”
Uncle Jeff is the chef in a restaurant near West Virginia. It started out a little rough in the beginning, but now people have to call a few months in advance to get a reservation.
“Same as always, Nancy,” he told her. “I took two days off just to watch the pony bidding. What’s your family here for?”
“We’re looking for one pony and a foal,” Dad told Uncle Jeff. “A client of ours wants a famous Chincoteague pony, and we’re looking for a foal for Abby.”
“Abby’s getting a pony?” said Uncle Jeff, swinging his head around to look at me. “Why? Did something happen to Dory?”
I felt the tears burning at my eyes. That’s why I don’t like tears. They’re like mystery assassins that slip in between the cracks and betray you feelings.
“Dory died six days ago,” I said, trying not to cry.
Uncle Jeff smothered me in one of his famous hugs, warm and squishy.
“I’m sorry,” he told me. “I know how much she meant to you.”
Grateful for the comfort, I squeezed him tighter. The moment was warm and homey feeling, like I was hugging Dory once again.
* * *
After a nice lunch of plump hot dogs, Uncle Jeff and my family all lined up by the pens with the horses. Peering in, I saw many foals, but none looked like something I would want. I smiled, remembering when I picked Dory out of a pen like this, eleven years ago. I was two then.
I searched harder, thinking there would be nothing that grabbed my attention as easily as Dory did. Until I saw a golden-colored foal standing by herself at the edge of the pen. She was nuzzling everyone’s hands and when she turned to me, I saw her eyes. Full of life, and intelligence, they were too familiar. The foal had Dory’s eyes. I tugged on Dad’s arm ecstatically until he looked down.
“That’s the one I want,” I told him, pointing to the foal. “Can we bid for her?”
Dad smiled. “Of course. But maybe you should first pick a few more out, in case you don’t get her.”
Although privately I doubted this, I picked out two more foals from the bunch. One was a frisky brown-and-black male, and the other was a brown female full of energy. Even though these were good candidates for me, I kept looking over at the golden foal. She was so beautiful, with Dory’s eyes. I watched her until the cowboys took her out to be auctioned off.
Uncle Jeff and Dad all accompanied me to the bidding area. It was a huge lawn well away from the main pen, with grass everywhere. An auctioneer sat on a stage-like platform, with certificates of ownership in his hand, and a small pen sat in front of him. Feeling nervous, I twisted my hands around each other, wishing Mom was there. She had to go and buy a dark brown mare for their new client but promised to be quick.
The golden foal stood alone inside the pen, nickering and kicking her legs. I smiled, loving how excited she was. It would be a challenge to train her, but I loved challenges. If she were mine, that is.
Dad leaned down and whispered into my ear. “I’m not going to bid any more than nine thousand for her,” he told me.
I nodded. “Surely it won’t come to that,” I said, trying to be confident. I looked around and hoped most of the people bidding for the golden foal didn’t have a budget as big as ours. I shoved the worries away and focused my attention on the auctioneer. The bidding was now on!
Dad immediately raised his hand, settling three hundred dollars as the first bid. So many hands went up after that, it was hard to keep track of the price being flung around the yard like a frisbee. Soon, it was only Dad and a businessman in a pinstriped suit with a daughter around my age. The hands were raising more slowly now, and I had to fight hard not to start hyperventilating. The tension grew, and my stomach dipped as I realized Dad had just said the number five thousand.
The man said back in a very clipped voice, “Six thousand dollars.”
“Eight thousand dollars.”
“Nine,” Dad said, his voice rising higher and higher. My eyes widened. The budget was met. If the businessman continued bidding now, I would lose the foal with Dory’s eyes.
The businessman paused and whispered in his daughter’s ear. I saw how her face turned red, then purple as she held her breath.
The auction man was saying, “Going once…”
The businessman didn’t move. My face was going red, holding my breath. So close, I thought. I almost owned the foal, almost.
Dad gripped my arm. I dug my nails into his skin accidentally. He didn’t notice. The tension and fear in the air was so sharp you could cut yourself with it. The daughter of the businessman looked at her father with so much disgust and loathing it was a miracle he didn’t drop down, pleading for his life. There was a scream inside my mouth, threatening to claw its way out if the businessman continued bidding. Then, like a rainbow after a terrible storm, the auctioneer shouted, “…and SOLD, to the man in the front row.”
I felt like fainting but didn’t. Tears stung in my eyes, but for the first time in two days, it wasn’t from sadness. I blindly followed Dad up to the podium and grinned even wider, thinking my face would split when they presented us with the certificate of ownership. Standing there on the podium, looking down at Uncle Jeff, with Mom hurrying up behind him, I was completely and wonderfully happy.
While my parents coaxed the foal into our horse trailer, I sat dreamily on the ground, not noticing the turmoil and people around me. The beautiful golden foal was mine. It would be up to me to train her, and I would have to teach her how to have a rider on her back. I couldn’t wait.
I looked up at the sky again, searching for invisible stars. Although I didn’t see any, I decided to name the golden foal Stella, in honor of the place Dory was now. In the stars. Smiling broadly, I stood up and walked back to our truck. There was still one more thing left to do when the sky went dark tonight.
* * *
“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.”
I was lying on the green grass outside of the stables, looking at the stars. My voice paused the poem. What should I wish for? Then I knew.
“I wish to see Dory again, just one last time.”
As the last echo of my voice fell silent, I stared hard at the sky, watching for something, anything. The whole world seemed to be holding its breath. After five minutes, I dropped my gaze. Oh well, I thought to myself, it is just an old nursery rhyme.
And then I saw. Thousands, millions of stars swam in the sky. They darkened, moved, and then flared brightly, turning themselves into a galloping horse, the brightest star of them all forming the eye. I smiled and blinked, feeling the tears again.
“Thank you, Dory,” I said, because I knew it was from her.