A Long-Forgotten Madness
By Charles Matthias
Part II: Pas très vite
Ana was waiting to pick him up when his plane landed at the Billings Logan Municipal Airport. He’d stuffed the worst case scenario book into his jacket pocket as he’d stepped off the plane and gone to retrieve his luggage. William had only brought a single suitcase, and even that was not very large. He’d only brought three changes of clothes with him, even though he only intended to stay for one day and two nights. But there, waiting for him just outside of baggage claim had been his sister. Twenty years older, her youthful blonde curls having lengthened out and darkened into something a little less lively, and a fuller frame to match, but still his sister.
“Ana,” he called, waving his free hand as he saw her.
She smiled as he approached and held out her arms, embracing him in a sisterly hug. “It’s been far too long, Will. Why didn’t you ever call?”
William sighed and stared past her. Unlike O’Hare, Logan Municipal was not a madhouse of people scurrying around like ants trying to rebuild an anthill smashed by an impudent child. He could see clearly out through the main doors into the wide parking lot beyond. And beyond that lay a wide horizon.
“That’s in the past,” William said, breaking free of her embrace. “Where’s your car?”
“This way. Do you have everything?”
He nodded, and soon his sister was leading him out into the parking lot. To reach his own car in Chicago from baggage claim he’d need to take a shuttle for a fifteen minute ride. But Ana’s car was only a two minute walk, and soon, they were on the road in her small Miatta. She turned the radio on to a country station, and he frowned slightly. “Isn’t that Dad’s old station?” he asked after hearing the first song.
“Yes. You used to like it too,” Ana reminded him as she turned onto route 87 out of Billings. She did not say anything for a moment then, keeping her focus on the road ahead as they passed out of the city limits and began to see the first of the open ranges. “It’s been twenty years since we’ve talked, Will. I see you don’t have a ring, so I take it you are not married.”
“No. There was once a girl, but she took a job in Madison. We tried to stay in touch, but eventually we both agreed it wasn’t going to work. Occasionally when she comes to town we’ll get together still, but that’s all.” William frowned as he thought of Sylvia. It had been over a year since he had seen her as well. The love he’d once felt for her had long since diminished, but just thinking of the times they did have together made him feel very much alive again.
He then surveyed his sister’s left hand, and saw her finger unadorned. “I see you are not married either, sis.”
“I was for a few years,” she said, though there was bitter regret in her voice. “You remember Jack Collins?”
“From the debate team? Didn’t he want to become a lawyer?” Though he remembered Jack loving the land as much as any of them had in their youth, he had never imagined him settling down on a ranch to raise horses.
She nodded at that. “He wanted me to leave the ranch and move to Helena,” she said, obvious disgust in her voice. “He even told Dad that we should sell Aloysha! Can you believe that? Aloysha!”
William stared at the road ahead for a moment, feeling the sudden jolt as they passed over one of the cattle grates. “Aloysha?” he asked, the name seeming familiar, before the faint memory struck him. “Oh yes.” The mare that they had named after their mother. Aloysha had been what their father had called her in his love letters, what he’d told them after the mare had been born. They all had been especially fond of that foal.
“She’s still with us still. I take special care with her,” Ana added, smiling to him. “But Jack thought it foolish, and well, we finally got a divorce a few years back.”
“Any children?” he asked curiously.
The words should have been bitter, but there was a strange calmness to them that set William’s teeth on edge. Nevertheless, he felt his heart quicken, and he nodded slowly. “I’m sorry to hear that, sis. Did the courts side with him?”
She shook her head slowly. “Do you really want to know?”
“Is it too painful?” he asked then, wishing the miles would go by faster.
Ana ignored the question. “We had a boy about five years ago – Sean. He was only eight months old when it happened.”
He sucked in his breath, chest tightening. “When what happened?”
She sniffled then, rubbing at her face. “In the bathtub, he...” Her voice collapsed then into bitter laughing, as if she were celebrating some terrible pyrrhic victory. “If only Jack hadn’t called me just then...”
“I’m sorry, sis,” William said, feeling empty in the pit of his stomach. He should have called, or at least written. Even once a year would have sufficed. How much of his family’s life had he missed out on? Though Ana was still his sister, she was also a stranger to him, and he could blame no one but himself for that. Suddenly, he felt terribly guilty, and turned his face out the window. He did not want to ask anymore, for fear of what other tragedies he might uncover.
Nor did Ana say anything for a time. They simply let the jaunty chords of the country music station fill their ears as they sped past small farms and large ranches along route 87. The land was varied, low mountains rising up in places, though mostly it was rolling hills. Whenever he spied horses grazing though, he found himself averting his eyes. The buffalo and cattle he would watch, but never the horses.
While his brother Scott had been alive, he’d admired horses. They were lovely creatures, and he still felt that way. But there was something about them, something that he did not want to think about. Not that he remembered what it was even when he did think about it. Even still, he turned his eyes elsewhere.
Casting a furtive glance to his sister, he watched her keep focussed upon the road ahead. Her eyes were concentrating, though there appeared to be quite a bit of thought churning behind them. Mixed emotions filled them, though mostly he saw remorse or anger. Sometimes she vacillated between the two in a moment’s notice.
It felt strange to him to be back with his sister, his only remaining family, after the last twenty years. He felt strangely disconnected with the world, as if he had left Earth behind at the airport and was now travelling down an alien thoroughfare, slipping further and further from the reality he knew with each passing mile. At times it bore an unearthly countenance, but at others, it seemed as if he were fading back into a dream, one that he’d had before, but had ended abruptly by rolling out of bed.
It was a little over an hour after leaving the airport when they finally neared Klein. William knew it was coming, as he began to recognize the land, able to name the owners of each tract, or at least, who had owned it twenty years ago. It would not be long before their father’s ranch would come up along the side of the highway.
“So, do you have a place to stay for the next few days?” his sister asked at last.
“I was thinking about the Holiday Inn in Roundup,” William admitted. He made reservations shortly after learning of his father’s demise. He’d never stayed there before, but he remembered passing by it on the way to school.
“You could stay at the ranch,” Ana pointed out, offering him an enticing smile. “Dad kept your old room apportioned for you should you ever come back. I’ve cleaned the sheets on the bed yesterday too. You are welcome to stay for as long as you like. It would be good to have you back for a little while.”
William shook his head. “I’ve already made my reservations.”
“Then call and cancel. It’ll be easier anyway. Mr. Mansbridge will be coming to the ranch anyway for the reading of the will tomorrow morning.”
“I can get a cab,” William said, feeling a strange revulsion to the idea. “I have the money for it. Besides, I won’t be staying long.”
“Oh please,” Ana begged then. “It’ll save you money. And besides, I told everybody that you’d be staying with us. You remember old man Pritchard don’t you?”
“Old Job?” William asked, remembering his father’s right hand man. Job Pritchard had been grizzled and gray even when William had been growing up. He and his wife had lived in the quarters abutting the main ranch house, and had done so for as long as he could remember.
“And his son and grandson. They came for the funeral and will be staying until the end of the week.”
“So Old Job still works at the ranch?” William asked, strangely curious. Job had been a nice enough man, hard at times, but always polite to William and his siblings.
“Has been for fifty years. Please, Will. Stay with us for a few days. You haven’t been here in twenty years. At least for a few days.”
With a heavy sigh, he nodded. “All right. I’ll stay at the ranch. But I won’t be here for long.” He idly wondered if there was a section in his book about how to handle grieving and pleading relatives, but he doubted it.
She smiled still. “You’ll have no trouble finding your way around, everything is pretty much as it used to be.”
“Even the paint?” he asked, feeling sullen and strangely waspish.
Ana gave him a suddenly stern look. “The house was painted a few years back, but it’s the same colour. The fences were completely replaced a few years before that as well. But the house itself should be as you remember it.”
He nodded, even as she turned off the main road, heading down the familiar side street that would wind amongst the hills up to the ranch house. The fencing had indeed been changed, he could see. The familiar dark wood with three bars and the electrical wire atop it was gone. The new fencing appeared to have been painted white at first, and it sported four bars as well as the electrical wire along the top. Out in the fields, he could see the horses grazing.
And then, around the large bend where he remembered sledding in the winters, appeared the ranch house. William sighed as he saw it, as if it were a photograph plucked from an aged album after the pages had yellowed. Of course, it could have come from the setting sun that framed the two story edifice, but there was also the fine lineaments of memory drawn there too.
The front porch was covered and ran almost the length of the façade. To the left of the door was the long swing, and in it sat old Mrs. Pritchard, swinging gently back and forth as she set to her needle-point. She did not even look up when Ana’s car crunched the gravel driveway to come to a stop before the garage. And as he scanned the windows, he could not see any lights on inside.
The garage itself was about the only thing that seemed out of place on the house. William remembered it being built when he was fifteen. When their dad had finished painting it, they had all gathered in front, Mom and Dad arm in arm, while Ana, Scott and he had stood before them shoulder to shoulder, all smiles. Did he still have that picture some where? He couldn’t remember.
“Well, here we are! Home sweet home!” Ana said, shutting the engine off. William offered her a half-grin, and then slipped out of the Miatta and stretched his legs. There was a chill in the evening air, as well as the thick overwhelming scent of the horses and the countryside.
“Oh my,” he said after rubbing his nose. An older stallion that had been grazing lifted its head at the sound of his voice and stared at him curiously. It offered a sudden neigh, but William had already turned away from it and back to the house.
“Good evening, Mrs. Pritchard!” Ana shouted at the top of her lungs as she climbed the wooden steps up to the porch.
The old lady, gray hair kept under a small net looked up and stared at her with rheumy eyes. “Hello Ana,” she said in raspy tones. “William? Is that you?”
William nodded and smiled to her. “Hello Mrs. Pritchard. It’s been a long time.”
“Eh?” she asked then, a look of annoyance flashing across her face. “Speak up, I can’t hear you.”
“I said hello, Mrs. Pritchard!” William said loudly, though not quite shouting as Ana had done earlier.
She smiled then and nodded. “I’m glad you’re back. Are you going to run the ranch like Jonathan?”
William felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment. “No, I’m going back to Chicago in a few days.”
She smiled then, and returned to her stitchery. She appeared to be making a blanket that was a mish-mash of hues, none of which seemed complimentary. “Won’t that be nice,” she crooned as she made those needles work.
William blinked, and then followed Ana into the house, leaving Mrs. Pritchard out on the swing. “You’ll have to forgive her,” Ana began as she set down his luggage in the main hall. They still had the old dark wooden floors that he remembered as a child. “Both her and Job have gone a bit deaf I’m afraid.”
“And senile.” He straightened out his jacket slightly, noting the bulge of the book still in his pocket. “Seems like the only thing still working on her is her hands.”
“Don’t say that. She still can cook very well. You used to love her oysters.”
William smiled despite himself at the memory of when they had let Mrs. Pritchard cook oysters. Being in Montana, they were rather expensive. “True.”
“Will you be joining us for dinner?” Ana asked then, as she straightened an old picture. William recognized it, as it was he standing in the picture, though he of thirty years ago. Dad was there with him, looking on proudly as William was riding one of the stallions, complete with cowboy hat on. He hadn’t worn a hat in years, and certainly not a cowboy hat.
“No,” he said then, stretching his arms. “I’m rather tired from my flight, and dealing with the airport hassle. I will join you for breakfast tomorrow though.”
His sister looked disappointed by that, but did not argue with him. She lifted her arm to point upstairs, but a banging from the rear of the house drew both their attention. Small feet bounded across the wooden floors, and soon a boy of about ten stood breathless with flushed cheeks before them both. “Mrs. Ana! Mrs. Ana!” He chirped excitedly. “Grandpa says he thinks Beth is going to have the twins tomorrow night! Says he wants you to feel for yourself.”
The boy only then noticed William standing there looking stunned. “Oh, hello mister!” the boy said, though still breathless.
“Hello there,” William replied, not quite sure what to make of him. “Is Job Pritchard your grandfather?”
The boy nodded enthusiastically. “Him and Dad are out in the stables right now, they sent me to come get Mrs. Ana!”
Ana smiled pleasantly and turned back to her brother. “Do you want to see the horses before you go to bed?”
“Perhaps tomorrow as well,” he demurred. He planned on demurring tomorrow as well. Just the smell of horses pervaded the ranch house, and he found it distasteful now.
“Who are you?” the boy asked suddenly, as if finally realising that they were not acquainted. “Are you a stranger? My Dad told me not to talk to strangers.”
Ana smiled affectionately to the boy. “This is my brother William. He’s just come in from Chicago and will be with us for a few days.”
“Hello, Mr. William,” the boy said, a bit wide eyed. His eyes had grown quite large when Ana had mentioned where he was from.
“And this is Job Pritchard’s grandson Elliot.,” Ana said, smiling to him. “He wants to tend horses just like his grandad.”
“Ah. It is good to meet you Elliot.” William offered his hand, and the boy took it, still a bit awed. He shook quickly, and then looked back to Ana.
“Now run back to your Dad. I’ll be along in a minute,” Ana said, smiling. The boy nodded and tore back down the hall, slamming the backdoor as he dashed out. Her smile held until she turned back to her brother. “Are you sure you don’t want to see the horses before you retire? You used to love them just like Elliot.”
William took in a deep breath. “Not tonight. I would like to get some sleep first.”
Ana nodded, grimacing. “Well, you know your way around. I have to go out to the stables. Good night, Will.”
“Good night, sis.” They embraced briefly, and then she followed after the boy, leaving him alone in the foyer.
He waited until they were both gone, and then retrieved his suitcase. He briefly contemplated exploring the house to see how much of it had changed in the last twenty years, but felt too weary to do so just then. Setting his feet to the stairs, he climbed up to the landing and turned down the right hallway to his boyhood room. There were two rooms on either end of the upper floor landing. One had always been used as a guest room, even though they rarely had any guests. William, Ana, and Scott had each had one for themselves.
William turned the handle on his own door, and felt like he had stepped back twenty years. When he’d left for Chicago, he’d not taken much with him, at least nothing personal. But here all of his things were as he had left them. They were well dusted and cleaned, but he suspected they had only been moved to be cleaned in the last twenty years.
Staring in befuddlement, William saw that his old Chicago Bears poster was still hanging over his bed, not to mention the equestrian trophies he’d won when he’d been a teenager. They were all neatly arranged as he’d liked them on top of his bookshelf. And there were some of his high school textbooks still stacked in a neat pile upon his old desk. The lampshade was even tilted to one side as he always kept it. Even the rug, though a bit threadbare, was still the familiar sable that he’d enjoyed running his toes through at night.
After setting his suitcase down and closing the door behind him, William slipped off his shoes and socks and stood barefoot on that carpet, smiling ever so slightly as a thousand memories of early mornings with the scent of pancakes and bacon came rising up into his mind. He crossed to the desk, opening the first drawer and finding his pens and pencils, their sides worn where he had clutched them so tightly. There was a carving he’d made with a pocket knife in the inside of the drawer, and he ran his fingers over it, feeling the shape of the horse’s head he’d fashioned.
Turning about, William strode to the closet, and drew open the doors. His old clothes had been placed in plastic covers to protect them, but they were still there. He counted five from the left side of the closet and found the tanned vest he used to wear while out riding. He always thought it made him look more like a cowboy. It was too small for him now, but he still remembered it well.
And there beneath it were the boots he’d worn. Brown boots which at one time had been a deep red, but what years of use had rubbed off, sat pressed together looking forlorn. He pulled them out and compared them to his feet. They would probably still fit him, he realised, feeling a sudden urge to try them out.
Through the open window he heard one of the horses out in the pasture whinny. The sound startled him, and he put the boots back. His eyes briefly cast to the cowboy hat still hanging from a hook on the side of the closet, and then he shut the closet doors. Turning about, he went to the window and shut that as well. William let out a heavy sigh, and turned once more to the bed. It was a twin, made from stout polished oak, stacked two mattresses high. Thick quilts were lain atop it, including his favourite chestnut brown quilt. At least it had been his favourite.
Turning the sheets back, he let out a small smirk as he saw the horse print sheets that he’d used to sleep in. A small part of him wanted to strip those sheets from the bed and just sleep beneath the quilt, but that was ridiculous. Besides, he didn’t truly feel tired, he’d just said so that Ana might let him be for a while. Perhaps he would take a look around the house after all. Just a quick glance to see how much had changed.
When he opened his door, William could see Scott’s door just across the way. A bitter lump filled his throat then, and he took a long deep breath. The horse poster that Scott kept attached to the front of his door was still there. Tattered in a few places, a few corners ripped, but it was still there. The stallion depicted gazed right back at him, a serene peace in his eye, standing with an almost magisterial poise.
William found it hard to look away from the horse’s eyes, for they seemed to stare back at him with a life deeper than any shred of paper. Heart quickening suddenly, he managed to turn slightly, only to note another incongruity that made him shudder. Scott’s door was slightly ajar, and there was light coming from the room.
Tenderly, curiously, William pressed his hand to the poster, and gently pushed inwards. The door swung softly, hinges well-oiled, revealing a room trapped in time just as much as his own was. Even though it had been William who had won the awards for his horsemanship, it had never been he who had truly loved the animals. Apart from a Minnesota Twins poster along one wall and a hatrack filled with various baseball caps, every other decoration in the room was inspired in some way by horses.
The closet doors were covered with drawings that Scott had made himself of horses in various poses. They had been laminated to preserve them, but then they had been carefully placed back in exactly the same spot they had been taken from. The bedspread featured a rearing black stallion, while a very lovely painting of a prize mare hung over his bed. The lamp on the side-table featured an equine bust as the base, and around the horse’s neck was Scott’s silver cross pendant, as if the horse were brandishing it as a necklace.
His own desk was a panoply of equine paraphernalia, from small statuettes, to pictures of them in various poses, some idyllic, others dramatic, and even a notebook in the shape of a horse’s head. William could not help but open up that notebook as he stood before the desk, and he found even more drawings of horses, along with various musings ranging from school to the tending of the animals.
And then, as he turned to the middle of the notebook, he felt a jolt. His fingers trembled, and his eyes were locked upon the image drawn there. The pages themselves appeared to have been worked over very hard, for the words had been written and erased many times. But the picture itself was a very sketchy drawing of their mother. He felt anew the agony of her slow death. He could well remember his father’s heavy tears as he held tight her hand in those final few moments. He could remember the last kiss he’d placed on her forehead, the gentle hug he’d given her as her barest whisper filled his ears with her love.
He closed his eyes to quench back the tears. It took him a few moments to still the sobbing he felt at the back of his throat. It had happened over twenty years ago, he reminded himself. He was not here because of her. His father had passed away. It was time to mourn him after all.
When William finally managed to open his eyes again, he finally read the words that his brother Scott had so much difficulty with. After reading them, he shut the notebook, turned out the light in his brother’s room, and closed the door. He was in his own bed five minutes later staring at the ceiling in darkness.
Onto Part III: Très nerveux!
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