Hunkered down in the saddle, he tries to make himself smaller. He pushes his knees against the horse’s flanks. Faster, faster, they’ve got to go faster. No moon, no stars—he can’t see a thing. But the horse tilts into the bend of the road, ba-dump, ba-dump, never missing a beat. The hill rises up and around them, a darker mass shouldering the sky. He closes his eyes and prays, holding on, fearing with all his pounding heart what lies buried there under the earth.
She’d died in childbirth and he had not been with her. He had not looked into her eyes one last time. The women had run him off and when he’d come back, she was gone. They’d laid her out with her long black hair smoothed down over her shoulders, covering her clear to her waist. And the only sound was the squalling babe. He couldn’t understand. She’d borne six others before this one. How could it be?
They buried her up on the hill under a pine tree’s drooping branches. They stood there under that tree as the preacher said a few words. After the others left, he stayed behind to be with her for a minute and when he turned to leave, a pine bough brushed him, soft as her hair against his face when they had lain in bed.
At the house, her family sobbed quietly, putting out the funeral supper and tending to his children. He had no heart to look at the baby. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He stomped out of the house, mounted his horse, and galloped off. A week later, he brought back a woman, a stranger, to be the children’s mama. But he couldn’t sleep beside the new wife in the bed he’d shared with her.
Now every night, he waits until the others sleep and he goes out riding. But no matter how fast he rides, whenever he passes that burial ground, the air turns rank and moldy as wet timber, the taste of bitter herbs seeps into his mouth.
No matter how fast he rides, he can feel her presence rising up, bigger than the hill, filling the whole sky, leaning down over him, demanding with her eyes that he do something, help her, bring her back.
The trees swish as she jumps onto the horse. His heart pushes up through his throat as he feels the weight of her settling behind him. The saddle creaks and the horse whinnies with the burden. Her thighs grip his. He forgets to breathe and then his breath comes fast and shallow.
Now the wind whips her hair. Silky strands blind him, skein in his teeth as when they two had been tangled in the sheets. His world spins. Now the reins are hot and sweaty in his hands but he dare not let go to push the hair out of his face. Nor to look behind and meet her eyes.
Now he feels her cool fingers on his neck. Fingers move down over his shoulders and across his chest and then two arms circle him from behind. Now he feels her breathing matching his own. Ba-dump, ba-dump, never missing a breath. She squeezes him tightly. His heart pounds and pounds as the horse’s hooves beat the hard dirt of the road.