Marie asks me to go riding with her at Candage Stables. I’m excited! I’ve never been on a real horse before. I don’t know about Marie. She grew up in Japan because her dad was in the Air Force. The invitation is for this Sunday, so I can’t go until after church, and after Grandmother comes over for Sunday dinner.
Then, of all days, my dad makes me rake leaves before I’m free. I hate raking leaves because we have so many. At least it’s just the front yard. I take the bamboo rake and the old pink blanket out of the shed. I scratch a pile of leaves into the woolly rag, sling it over my shoulder like Santa’s sack, and dump it in the ditch at the edge of the road. That’s where the town truck sucks them up like a leaf elephant. My favorite navy gingham blouse is smeared with damp earth, but I don’t bother to change when my dad finally lets me walk to Marie’s.
It’s already three o’clock when Mrs. Gardener drops us off in the farm’s parking lot by the dusty pony ring. Marie and I race to the barn sweet with hay. I pay with my saved allowance, and a teenage girl in cowboy boots boosts me into the stirrups of a tall Palomino named Silver. It doesn’t seem fair when Marie pays the same price, and the teenager leads her to the kiddie ring, unhooks a Shetland, and says, “There are no more horses for hire. Your pony’s name is Candy.”
Marie mounts her short steed, and the minute the teenager clomps out of sight, Silver gallops down the hill and through the gate into open pasture. I lurch backwards and grab the saddle horn to keep from falling. I think you pull the reins back to stop, but Silver won’t stop. I pull right. I pull left. He prances round and round and rears in a way that makes me yell, “Marie, you want to trade?”
By the time, Candy ambles down the hill, Marie kicking her chubby sides, I have somehow dismounted, and Silver is calm without a stranger on his back. I lead him back to the gate, and we switch reins.
Marie swings herself up onto the high horse, and Silver tears across the clumpy grass towards the trees-lined trails by the Mohawk River. No matter which way I turn Candy’s bit, I can’t get her to budge. She won’t go through the gate into the meadow even when I get off and pull. Once I let her have her way, she trots up the hill and circles the outside of the pony ring. It’s a dazzling Indian summer afternoon, and I’m sunburned, bored, and sweaty by the time Marie careens back to the barn on Heigh Ho Silver.
Monday, we have a social studies quiz on the Age of Exploration. Marie sits next to me in the front row. I’m crouched over my purple ditto when she covers her mouth and whispers, “What kind of climate does Bolivia have?”
I whisper back, “Hot and sticky.”
Marie stifles a giggle. “I said people, not climate.”
I grin. “Hot and sticky people!”
Mrs. Barrington rises from her desk, her heavy brows, an angry V. I fill in the real answer, mestizos, but Marie’s eyes bug out, and we both burst out laughing when we come to the blank for the birthplace of the Incas, Lake Titicaca.
I know the teacher has us in the front row, so we’ll behave, also because we both wear glasses. But Marie forgets hers all the time, or they’re lost, or broken, so she’s always asking to borrow mine since we share a similar prescription. For film strips, in the dark, sometimes we fold up the ear pieces and each look through one lens. It’s kind of a pain in the neck, but she’s my new friend.
I invite Marie to join our girl scout troop which meets in the school cafetorium. My mom is one of the leaders. Linda, my best friend from third grade is in our troop too. But this year she has Mrs. Melenkamp. Scouts is about the only place I can hang out with Linda without her older sister, Laura, bossing us around. Not exactly bossing. I’m just glad she’s not in our troop.
For our world culture badge we’ve already baked Mexican wedding cakes, yummy almond-flavored cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar. This week we’re building a papier mâché donkey pulling a cardboard flower cart. Marie is good at art like Linda. Together they wrap the gloopy newspaper around the chicken wire Donkey while I twist colored Kleenex into carnations and secure them with a wire stem.
As we’re cleaning up. Laura races into the room. “Mom’s waiting in the car.”
Linda gathers her coat, and Laura saunters towards the donkey. “Nice!”
Linda and Marie smile.
Laura pilfers one of Elaine Van Vorst’s Kleenex carnations. “Nice too! But what’s it for?” She pretend wipes her bottom and drops the flower on the floor before dashing back to the parking lot with Linda.
Marie laughs. I laugh, not because it’s really funny, but because I don’t want to be made fun of like dorky Elaine. I just need to keep Laura off my back. And I don’t want her snatching Marie!
The next day, in social studies, Mrs. Barrington introduces the term colonialism which gave the Explorers permission to conquer the Amerindians not decimated by European diseases and seize their natural resources. We map the triangular trade of slaves, sugar, and rum. For my independent project, I craft a shoebox diorama of El Dorado, the legendary City of Gold.
Around Halloween we climax our unit with a play about key explorers for the rest of the elementary school. I’m cast as Queen Elizabeth, probably because of my red hair, and Peter, the boy I think is so cute, as Sir Walter Raleigh.
For my bit, I scream, “Oh, a mud puddle!”
Peter flings his cape across brown construction paper taped to the stage and bows. “My lady.” If only his gallantry came from the heart, not the script. If only I could reign over Laura’s tyranny.
The grand finale is Donny Batchelder, in a tin foil helmet, as Hernan Cortez introducing horses to the New World (a stampede of kids leftover because we ran out of explorers).
On the few weekends before snow flies, Marie and I ride at Candage’s on Saturdays, early, and I always ask for Smokey, a medium-sized appaloosa, who kindly does whatever I ask. Marie asks for Silver who is much more obedient now that they trust each other. Cantering the trails by the river, the sun low, the air chill, mist hovering over the surface of the water—just Marie and I—is like discovering a new continent, a place where I can begin again without guise or defense. How can I keep this golden friendship untainted by the old-world order?