J. Bowers

Born and brought up in south central Pennsylvania, J. Bowers now lives in Columbia, Missouri, where she teaches writing at the University of Missouri. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Portland Review, Redivider, The Indiana Review, The Laurel Review, and other journals. In her free time, she thinks about the hungry ghosts of silent cinema while riding her little yellow pony through the wilderness.

Lady, the Mind-Reading Mare
fiction

an excerpt

Hear now the legend of Lady Wonder: tell her nothing, she tells all.

There she was and is and always will be, cross-tied and magisterial in her box stall, watching Mrs. Claudia D. Fonda of Chesterfield, Virginia disappear into the tack room. The equipment is locked up nightly to deter teenage thieves and the wary neighbor women who sashay past the Fonda pew weekly, crossing their gingham hearts against the evil eye.

First Mrs. Fonda wheels forth the sawed-off kinderklavier with its soldered-on doll’s chair, cushioned throne of Pudgy the Pomeranian, canine virtuoso. Yapping, he weaves between Mrs. Fonda’s legs as she wheels his instrument into the barn’s sitting area. This lurid island of orange upholstery is where she knits when business gets slow, orange coils glowing in the ceramic heater, Pudgy snug in her lap.

Next comes the typewriter/xylophone. Handcrafted by Mr. Clarence Fonda, a miner for the Tredegar Iron Works, the contraption boasts thirty-six hinged tin keys, one for each letter of the alphabet, plus all ten digits, padded with sponge rubber. Portable, it clatters and squeaks across the barn floor on repurposed furniture casters. But the racket doesn’t spook Lady Wonder, for whom the world’s only typewriter/xylophone is as familiar and friendly as a halter and lead.

The horse snorts, expecting breakfast: two flakes of timothy hay is enough roughage to occupy her until noon, when they open up shop. But Mrs. Fonda doesn’t feed her. Instead, she leaves to smoke a cigarette in front of the roadside sign she had Clarence repaint yesterday: LADY WONDER WILL SPELL AND SUBTRACT MULTIPLY DIVIDE TELLS TIME ANSWERS QUESTIONS. She frets about the white smudge he left under the Q.

Lady Wonder knows all, but that doesn’t mean she can divine why Mrs. Fonda reenters the barn reeking of tar and unease, then busies herself rearranging a vase of silk flowers. Lady Wonder whinnies her disapproval, and receives a harsh shush. She can’t tell that Mrs. Fonda is dressed for company, her ebony hair pinned with a rhinestone peacock, her patent-leather shoes buffed to a beetle shine. What Lady Wonder can sense is Mrs. Fonda’s anxiety. She stretches her muzzle toward the padded keys. Working her lips around the lever, she flips the letter Y into place with a tinny click. Then she reaches for the worn E, then S—a familiar pattern that gets results.

This done, Lady Wonder butts her bony forehead against Mrs. Fonda’s midsection, snuffling at her coat. But Mrs. Fonda does not praise her, or draw a linty knuckle of carrot from her pocket. Instead she resets the letters, shaking her head.

***

Below is a facsimile of a business card enclosed in numerous letters sent unsolicited to Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, care of Duke University’s Psychology Department, by the worried citizens of Chesterfield, Virginia.

Note the revised hours scrawled onto the card’s side, the injunction that tax is included: both amendments are Mrs. Claudia D. Fonda’s concessions to neighborhood paranoia. There are church murmurs about cars coming and going all hours, rumors that the Fonda mattress is stuffed with ill-gotten dollars—or worse, talking horse as Biblical harbinger, modest Chesterfield seat of imminent apocalypse.

Of course, for every doomsayer, there’s another local who enjoys the horse’s antics for what Mrs. Fonda says they are: innocent entertainment. One voluble man-on-the-street, quoted in the July 18, 1927 Richmond Times-Dispatch, even declared Lady Wonder the heroine of her kind:

“In this age when horses have lost caste due to the automobile, she gets my respect. I mean, imagine a flivver telling you the square root of 81!”


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