Once upon a time, a foal was born on the farm, so pretty that the farmer called her Beauty. Beauty grew up with green meadows and sparkling streams with the azure sky over head perfectly clear and sunny. She was never afraid; in fact, she had no idea what FEAR was. She could run and kick up her heels all day and it was the best fun she’d ever hoped to have.
Even when the farmer introduced a halter, bit, and saddle, it was still all good fun. Now she could go places! She could see the world outside the secluded meadow. Besides, she loved the farmer, and if he told her this was the right and proper way to go outside, then she believed him.
She did not know that she was to be sold.
At first, she didn’t understand why the farmer left her in the middle of the bustling town. The noises hurt her ears and she shied and whinnied for him to come back, but he never once turned his head at her desperate clamor.
People came to look at her. They pried open her mouth. They jerked at her ears and sniffed with disdain at the size of her haunches. “Too pretty for work,” one person said, and another, “Too plain for my carriage.”
There are many, many pretty horses, you see, and Beauty was quite ashamed to be left standing in the once-crowded market place with a droopy-eared mule and a broken-down hack. She was relieved when a man laid a kind hand on her neck.
“Don’t you worry, Beauty,” he said, stroking her gently. “I’ll train you to harness. I’ll teach you how to work. Then they’ll be beating down the stable door to acquire you. You’ll see.”
He led Beauty into a dark barn and put her in a stall with walls so high she couldn’t see over the tops. Gone were the days of grazing in the meadow and running with her mother and the other young foals. Now, she learned to work. The man buckled and pinched and prodded her into a heavy leather harness. It chaffed and rubbed her raw, but she accepted it. After all, this is how things were done, and if she wanted to be taken away from this dreadful market and be loved, then this is what she must learn.
The work itself was not hard. At first. The man taught her to pull her weight, and then even more, loading the wagon down with goods. She tried to keep her head high and her tail cocked with a jaunty air, but soon it was all she could do to pull that weight. Her head came down so she could lean into the harness. Her hooves slipped on the cobblestones, hard and cruel after the sweet green grass of the meadow. Her rear hoof cracked, and she began to limp. Just a little. But now, even though she was pretty and knew how to work, no one would take her home from the market.
“Lame,” said a man, shaking his head, and another, “Poor broken-down dear.”
Broken down? No, Beauty, shook her head and snorted. She would show them. She would pull more crates and barrels than ever. She would master the steepest, most brutal hill in town. She threw herself against the harness, straining and sweating, laboring up that hill with a mountain of cargo behind her. Impatient, the man lashed her sides with the whip. She strained for him, trying to please him, trying to show how much she could do, and she felt something tear inside her chest.
She slipped, slamming her knees against the cobblestones. Wet and shaking, she could not rise. Something had broken inside her. Beauty knew a cold, suffocating fear, then, that she might never get up. She might never run in a green meadow with love and joy bubbling up in her heart ever again.
“What a failure,” the man said bitterly. In disgust, he struck her one last time with that whip, and then he threw down the leather reins. “If anyone wants her, she’s yours.”
Another man picked up her reins and coaxed her to her feet. She followed him, head down and weary, for what else was she to do? The drudgery continued. Beauty worked for each owner, but she no longer loved them. She couldn’t. The once great heart within her was broken. She came to hate the harness and the cramped stalls. The hay was moldy and stank of rot and manure. She couldn’t even turn around! She couldn’t run, or see the stars, or feel the breeze ruffling her mane.
With every exhausted beat of her heart, she yearned. She yearned to be free.
Work, work, work, day in and day out, more loads because she couldn’t haul as much as the magnificent Belgians and Clydesdales. Sometimes she passed the pretty carriage horses on the street, tails and heads high, but instead of envying them, now she sneered with a show of yellowed, mean teeth.
What do you think of that bearing rein that holds your heads so high? What do you think of waiting in the rain and snow outside the grand mansion for hours and hours, shivering and miserable? At least I’m working!
But she couldn’t help but snap at the man who came to throw the harness on her. She tried to kick the stableboy in the head. She pounded her hooves against the tight walls and screamed out her rage. If I am ever free, I shall run for the green pastures and never ever come back!
Then one night her prayers were answered, for the man came on unsteady feet, wavering back and forth down the aisle to check the angry, trapped horses one last time. He tripped over a rake and fell, slinging the lantern against the wall. It exploded with hungry, crackling flames. Fire engulfed the stable, and he ran from stall to stall, slinging open the barred doors and waving his arms at the frightened horses.
Some of them were frozen with terror, but not Beauty. She bolted for the door and ran as fast and hard as her sore hooves would take her. She heard the screaming, dying horses behind her and the shouts from the firemen, but she ran on without looking back, just as her once beloved farmer had abandoned her to a lingering death in the city.
She ran. Through cramped streets, leaping over crates, knocking people out of her way. When she found the green meadows, she was tempted to stop and rest, but she remembered how the farmer had come and taken her away, so she kept running despite the foam flecking on her shoulders. She ran to the mountains, the most barren and forlorn place she could imagine.
But she was free. Here there were no people to throw a harness over her back. No miserable little cell of a stable. No one to sell her away from everything she loved.
So what if she did have to move constantly, always looking for food. What was a little hunger for a free creature? Her ribs might show in stark relief beneath her ragged hide that had once been sleek and shiny with health, but she’d rather be hungry than suffer the harness again. She’d rather her hooves crack and ache from the sharp rocks of the mountain than the hard punishing flagstones of the city. And so what if she were lonely? At least there was no man with a whip to beat her into submission.
Sometimes when she was especially hungry or the night was bitterly cold, she would stand on the cliff and look down at the valley below. Sheltered by a line of sentinel pines, a snug litle cabin and stable were tucked up against the side of the mountain. A man lived there; she often saw him shading his eyes, staring up at her if she lingered too long.
He had horses too, and sometimes she whinnied to them, tempting them to break down their stalls and come race the mountain with her in freedom. Silly horses, though, they wouldn’t leave their stalls.
Their warm, safe stalls.
In howling blizzard winds, Beauty was tempted enough to creep closer to the stable. A chestnut nickered through the stout log walls. “The man made us a warm mash tonight and I have a lovely blanket. Let yourself be caught, wild thing, and eat your fill. Our work is easy, there’s plenty of food, and the master is kind and wise.”
Beauty could smell sweet hay and rich grains inside. Warm lights glowed from the cabin window. She’d never heard the man speak harshly to his horses or lift a hand against them in anger. Once she’d even see the barn door wide open and the chestnut loose and free, but the mare didn’t gallop for the hills, despite Beauty’s frantic call.
Warmth, food, shelter from the snow. It would be ridiculously easy to allow the man to throw a rope over her neck and lead her inside. Inside to stalls and harnesses and chains and whips. She snorted and backed away.
Snow stung her eyes and chilled her legs up past her hocks. There would be no food to be found. She’d already nibbled the tips of the trees as high as she could reach, and pawed a small patch of ice and snow away to find the dead grass beneath. Free she may be, but she couldn’t help but remind herself that it had been a great many years since she’d felt lush green grass beneath her hooves and the joy she remembered in the meadow.
How much longer can I survive free…flitting here and there in search of food? Do I refuse the safety of the stable out of spite? Was working beneath the harness always drudgery? Would carrying a man with a light, sure hand and good seat be such a travesty?
Where is my place? Where can I be safe and happy? Where can I work and yet love, too?
Beauty clamped her tail tight and shivered. Maybe if she survived this blizzard, she could make a decision. Tomorrow.