I think it began in kindergarten.
Mason Hinks threw rocks at a baby turtle that had fumbled onto the playground. I saw him chasing it and hurling the rocks, just for a second.
Then I saw the grass up close.
I felt the warm wet dirt under my feet. I dug into it and ducked as far inside my shell as possible while little hard things clinked off and around me. I opened my mouth, but could not scream. But I heard a scream, tiny but shrill.
Suddenly I was on top of Mason. I had him pinned under my knees and was grabbing handfuls of dirt and pebbles and dumping them onto his face. I liked that he squirmed and struggled underneath me. I wanted him to know how it felt to be powerless.
“Get off me, crazy!”
“No. You should learn to mind your own beeswax. It was just a little baby turtle, and you tried to hurt it!”
I heard someone far away yell my name – “Berry!” – then the teacher came and scooped me up off Mason, the turtle escaping into the trees on the other side of the fence. That’s when the screaming started. I don’t remember ever having a screaming fit before that, but it came like an ocean roiling from my lungs and would not stop. My head felt full of water, and I don’t remember anything else except looking up at the green leaves of the elm tree above us. They looked like smears of watercolor that moved in the wind.
I never liked being around other kids. Their games and interests never made as much sense to me as watching the animals on my family’s pig farm. People said we had one of the best farms in Brazoria County. The pigs got to run around in the pasture, plenty of exercise and sun. I loved watching them run and play. But mostly I loved that I didn’t have to talk around them. Talking made me tired, and the pigs, the duck family that lived at the pond in the thicket behind the barn, the baby rabbits we nursed with a bottle one year when their mom got snapped up by an owl, didn’t need words to communicate. I could hear them, they could hear me. But most of all, there was Falada.
Falada was the most beautiful mare in the world, the color of clouds in a summer sky, with rich chocolate eyes. We got her from the sell barn when she was a yearling. She was meant to be for me and Briar, my twin sister, but the first day I watched Dad break her in and felt the tight saddle straps chafe my belly, Dad’s crushing weight on my spine, the sharp bit hit the roof of my mouth and the flick of the crop pierce into my skin, I knew I would never get up on her or any horse’s back. I screamed for him to stop and Falada bolted. I felt panic like a cold knife slice through my body, heart beat so loud I thought my eardrums would pop, the tips of my ears on fire. Dad jerked the reins to slow her down but she kept going, and he flew over the corral and broke his shoulder. Mom spanked me until my behind was swollen sore and told me I was grounded from going down to the barn for two weeks. I cried, not because of my bottom but because cutting me off from the barn and the thicket hurt far worse. I read books and scratched at my arms to distract myself. It was fall then, so no one got suspicious when I started wearing long sleeves every day.
When the two weeks were over I went down to the pasture. Falada was grazing at the treeline, but when she heard me coming her ears pricked forward and she lifted her head.
Are you okay? I asked.
Well enough. They finally let you out, huh?
Yeah. I hated it, being shut up all the time or at school. But at least in my room I have privacy, since Briar’s usually out with her friends or staying at school for Student Council.
I sensed there was some tension between you two.
She’s so preppy and perfect and I hate her.
That’s a strong word, little one.
I know. Mom’s always telling me not to say it.
And don’t hurt yourself.
I gasped and tugged at the sleeves of the green sweater I was wearing.
How did you know?
You smell like pain. It’s all over you.
I don’t have to hurt myself as long as I can come down here. This is where my friends are.
Then don’t do anything to get yourself in trouble again. Come down here every day if you want to.
So I did. Falada and I were best friends after that and I never really needed any human friends as long as I had her. It made Briar green as pond scum, but we didn’t care. I hated when she dressed Falada up for shows: all the ribbons made her look like a carnival sideshow instead of an animal. To me she was just another person, a person with four legs.
We’d walk to the duck pond in spring and spend whole afternoons with the duck family. Mama Duck was bossy but loving, and I loved watching her and the ducklings swim. Sometimes I could see the pond from their eyes and I’d dive with them, feeling water all around me but not getting wet, and I saw the underwater world of lilies and tadpoles and minnows more clearly than I ever had before. Other times I saw out of Falada’s eyes, my body lying next to her on the cool green mossy bank. I saw parts of me I didn’t see when I was inside myself. Something like peace.
I was twelve when I realized what happened to the pigs once they left our farm.
Usually, they went to the sell barn when they left us. But that was 2008 and the recession had us in its grip. Daddy hadn’t broken even and Momma had to make her paycheck from her clerk position at the county jail stretch as long as she could manage. Dad agreed to let Briar and me sign up for the hot lunch at school, but he refused to take SNAP. When he finally got a good deal for the pigs, he didn’t have the funds to transport them. So workers from the meat plant had to come to the farm themselves.
I heard the screams from the house. And then I felt it – the bolt going through my skull, limbs gone heavy as sandbags, blade slicing my flesh hot red metal filling my throat bubbling from my mouth, kicking helplessly, the breath leaving and my lungs shriveling like empty pecan husks in the autumn dirt.
Momma found me screaming, hands over my ears, on my bed. I don’t remember her slapping me, but later she cried when she apologized for it. The next thing I was in the shower and it felt warm and good and almost soothing. Then the water turned red and scalding and reeked of metal. Blood stained the blue tile and splashed my skin, and I screamed again. Briar’s fists on the bathroom door. Then white lights.
They took me to see Dr. Paulsen after that.
Dr. Paulsen was young, like maybe he’d just gotten out of college or something. But for having such a boyish face, he had a receding hairline, although his hair was still dark brown without a fleck of gray.
“What are Berry’s symptoms?” he asked my parents.
“Well, she screams a lot. Like she’s terrified, or in some sort of pain,” Dad said.
“Screaming at people? Cursing, threats?”
“No, no. She’s a sweet kid. She just…screams. For no reason.”
“Because I feel things, Daddy,” I peeped.
“Berry’s sister found her passed out in the shower,” Mom said. “When she came to in the emergency room, she told us blood had been coming out of the showerhead. It was the day they came to slaughter the pigs. I think it really upset her. She loves animals.”
“Do you think it’s some sort of attention seeking behavior?”
“That’s never been Berry.” Dad said. “She doesn’t like to be the center of attention, even on her birthday. She’d rather go down to the barn or to the woods.”
Dr. Paulsen asked them whether or not I had mood swings, if I’d been sleeping and eating normally, if I had a lot of friends, whether or not we attended church. He didn’t ask me anything.
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Mr. and Mrs. Pulley,” he finally said. “Teenagers, especially girls, can be very emotional. Berry will probably grow out of these delusions as she matures. But I’ll prescribe some Prestiq just in case.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s an antidepressant,” he said to my parents. “It will help alleviate some of her mood swings.”
“But Dr. Paulsen, I don’t feel depressed,” I protested. “I see strange things. And I can hear animals. They talk and I understand them.”
Dr. Paulsen folded his hands.
“Berry, can I ask you something?” It was the first time he had looked at or spoken directly to me.
“Where did you go to medical school?”
My face got really hot. My mouth filled with saliva and I was afraid if I opened it a spit bubble would come out and embarrass me even more than I already was. But everyone was looking at me, waiting for an answer.
“Well, then maybe you should leave your diagnosis to the doctor.”
He looked back at my parents. “I also suggest she stay away from the animals, at least until her symptoms improve.”
“Berry, please.” Mom said.
“Berry!” She snapped. I was about to shout how if anything could help me, it was the animals. It was Falada. But her eyes were red and watery and her face looked like it was about to burst apart with sadness and frustration and fear, like maybe she was afraid she was the one who’d done something wrong, so I let them lead me out of Dr. Paulsen’s office.
I took the pills for two weeks. I couldn’t hear the pigs anymore, or the ducks, even Falada. I just heard grunts and snorts and whinnies. That scared me most, because Falada’s voice was the only voice I was certain I trusted.
Despite Dr. Paulsen’s orders, no one made a fuss when I went to the barn. I saw Falada every day and brought her sugar cubes from the pantry, but she ate them without joy. Instead of talking, I sat on the grass and cried while she rubbed her head against my back. Maybe that’s like talking too, in its own way, but not the way we were used to. Not the way people like me and Falada are meant to talk.
So I stopped. I couldn’t handle the sad look in my best friend’s eyes.
I pretended to take the pills for three days. Then I went out to the pasture. Falada looked like a faerie horse in the late afternoon sun, opalescent, her mane glowing like a halo, but more solid than she had seemed in weeks.
She lifted her head to look at me, nostrils flared with a slight snort.
Yes. I’m not leaving again.
But you were getting better. I felt it.
No, I wasn’t. That stupid doctor just wanted to shut me up, make me like normal people. But I’m not normal and I don’t want to be. Not if I can’t talk to you.
Even if that means feeling pain? Pain you could easily avoid?
She lowered her big head and pawed the dirt. Small pieces of green grass caught in her hoof.
If your mother knew, her heart would snap like a twig. You know that.
I don’t care. I don’t belong in her world and I never have. I belong in yours.
She looked in my eyes. Hers were brown and gentle, as they always were, but there was a firmness to her expression I’d never seen before.
Honey, you’ve got two legs. You have to learn how to walk on them.
I’d rather run, like you. Someplace far away from here.
I flopped on the grass and pulled my knees up to my forehead.
Maybe someday I’ll live in London or Los Angeles and I’ll write songs about the world I see, that other people can’t. To me it seems more real than the way people live in my parents’ world, wanting and fighting and always sad. I never want to live like that, Falada. If the way I see the world is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
You still got to live in the world, babe. We all do.
It’s hard to be a human, Falada.
She stomped the ground with her hoof.
It’s a peculiar thing, being a horse.
What do you mean?
A long time ago, your species hunted my ancestors for food. A thousand generations later, you fancy yourselves an extension of the horse. You dress us up in the skins of other animals and jump us over fences and around barrels for kicks. It’s all sort of ridiculous, don’t you think?
I wish I could stop Briar’s show tomorrow. I wish you didn’t have to do it.
I do to. But I’ll tell you a secret.
I peeked out from under my bangs. Falada lowered her head to eye level with me, nudged me with her soft nose.
I won’t really be there.
I begged Dad to let me tag along at Briar’s show. I hated to see Falada tied under the bridle and saddle, her snowy body covered in dead cow skin. I hated Briar for using the bit and the crop; I could feel the bit cut into soft skin of mouth, the spasm of pain as the crop rippled across nerves. I grabbed my shoulders and rocked softly back and forth, but I did not scratch. Falada looked up at me; her eyes were calm, muscles relaxed. She flicked her tail in my direction, then turned her attention back to Briar tightening the bridle.
“Hold still, Falada!” she snapped, jerking her muzzle down. Falada snorted. I threw my half-full Coke can in Briar ‘s direction, but it bounced off a lower bleacher. Falada started from the noise, knocking Briar off balance. She fumbled to the arena floor, staining her riding outfit. Falada bobbed her head at me.
“You know, I hate you so much sometimes, Berry,” Briar hissed as she rubbed dirt and dried horse shit off her rhinestone-studded jeans.
“You hurt Falada.”
“I did not. All horses are fussy before a show. And I’m sick of you acting like Falada is your horse. You’ve never even ridden her once!”
“Don’t you get it, Briar? She hates being ridden. And in case you forgot, Dad got her for both of us.”
“That was before you made him break his shoulder!”
“I did not.”
“You screamed and Falada bolted!”
“You don’t feel the things I feel, Briar. The bit and crop and saddle straps hurt. Do you think they’d feel good if they were strapped on you?”
“God dang, Berry, stop being so selfish. Everyone knows you make this stuff up.”
“If I’m making it up, why’d the doctor make me take medicine?”
“Probably to give Mom and Dad some peace and quiet. Because of you, we can’t do anything normal families do. You and I can’t do anything normal twins do. I can’t even have friends over because everyone at school knows I have a psycho for a sister! Mason Hinks, from the basketball team, he still remembers when you beat him up in kindergarten. Over a turtle.”
“It was just a baby minding its own business, and he tried to kill it. And if you hate me so much, Briar, why didn’t you just leave me in the shower?”
Briar straightened her hat and mounted Falada. The horse shifted as Briar’s added weight settled onto her spine.
“I don’t know. I guess it was just the right thing to do. Doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re nuts.”
She turned Falada towards the participants’ area.
Don’t let it get you too bad, girl, Falada said as they walked away. She’s hurting, too. We all are.
It was during the barrel race that it happened.
Falada was moving pretty stiff, like she hadn’t been warmed up right, and Briar was getting frustrated. She kept kicking Falada’s hip creases and whipping her, and the next second Falada turned the barrel too quickly and I felt the bone snap. I screamed and they were falling, they were down, Briar sandwiched between the barrel and Falada. Dad jumped into the arena. My right arm throbbed, but I followed him over the rail. While he pulled Briar from the pile – she looked like an accordion with all the music squeezed out—I was at Falada’s side. Maybe someone told me to get back, I don’t remember. What I do remember is holding onto my friend and looking into her eyes, calm and brown as a forest clearing bathed in moonlight. Then I was lying in the dirt, pain shooting through my body, right foreleg flopping from the snapped canon bone, people talking and lights burning. But there was no screaming, just a sudden sweet sharpness then quiet, like being underwater, then nothing at all.
I don’t hate my parents for sending me to ASH. I know they were scared, so scared, while they were waiting for me to wake up in the hospital. Even Briar, in her back brace and cast all the hospital staff had signed, was crying when I came to.
“I’d lose it if I lost my sister and my horse. I couldn’t handle that, Berry. I just couldn’t.”
I asked the nurse for a Sharpie, and drew a black horse head on Briar’s cast.
I told my parents about the medicine. I said I didn’t want to take it, but that I wanted to find a way to live with the voices. Thing is, the voices won’t ever go away. And honestly, I don’t ever want them to. They’re a part of me, like a heart or lung or larynx. What I want is to live with them, in the world. A world that may not hold me, but I can hold. So they sent me here.
The staff is alright. We do arts and crafts and we write and play music and talk with our counselors and in group. People don’t think I’m crazy when I tell them I hear animal voices, that sometimes I go into their bodies. They listen.
And Falada listens, too. I still hear her voice sometimes, mostly if I’m feeling sad or angry. She tells me, “You always have your own voice, girl. It whispers, so listen.”
Nori Hubert earned an Associate of Arts in Creative Writing with Honors from Austin Community College in 2014, and is scheduled to complete a Bachelor of Arts in English Honors with a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Texas in 2017. Her poetry, creative nonfiction and short stories have been published in The Rio Review, Feminine Inquiry, Musings of a #LonelyFeminist, and featured at the 2015 Art as Activism Showcase hosted by the UT Gender & Sexuality Center.
Artwork: Alexandra Khitrova, blue sign