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LOST RIVER HORSE
A Frost Harrow™ Halloween Story – 2022
“Go! Go! You can win!” Four-year-old Ivy Frost’s hopes soared as she crouched next to the small, fast-moving rivulet, her blue-gray eyes fixed on the fat brown acorn racing downstream.
Morgan Frost, ten, stooped next to her cousin, cheering on her own contestant. “Don’t you listen to her! Go, Greenie, go!”
The acorns tumbled down the little brook, slowed not at all by the heavy burden of childish hopes they carried. First one caught the current and then the other, each surging ahead only to fall behind, tiny thoroughbred coursers on their meandering watery track.
“Oh, no! They’re caught!” Ivy pointed to a leaf-packed eddy pool downstream and pouted.
Morgan’s violet eyes flashed mischievously. “The one that gets free first will win!” Not waiting for her younger relative, she dashed toward the mire.
Ivy sprang after her, shorter legs churning whirlwinds through the fallen leaves.
Morgan laughed, and the late afternoon sun blazing through the autumn forest turned her red hair to spun gold. Ivy wished she had such wonderful hair, rather than the wavy black strands that snagged under her mother’s brush.
She had no time for such envy now. Morgan reached the pool first and immediately began searching for a stick with which to prod her green acorn free.
Ivy’s contender lay closer to shore; she could push it loose with her hand—if she didn’t mind getting her knees soiled. She plopped down and knelt in the wet, leafy verge to liberate her racer. But as she reached for the fat brown nut, tangled amid the floating leaves, something glimmered beneath the surface of the water.
Morgan threshed the murky surface of the pool with her stick. It wasn’t quite long enough, but she came closer to her green acorn with each try.
Ivy reached for the gleaming object. The chilly waters prickled goosebumps on her slender arm while she dug, fingers questing in the mud.
She smiled as she seized the object. It felt cold and heavy in her hand, and the muck tried to suck it back away from her, but Ivy managed to free it and lift it out.
Her eyes went wide with wonder. “…A horse…!”
Even caked with mud, the discovery made Ivy’s heart flutter.
“Who lost you?” she wondered.
She scooped some clean water from the pool and began to wash off her prize. It was as big as both her hands put together and very beautiful, made of metal, not plastic. It sported a shiny black coat and a fanciful tack of swirling gold and red designs. The little horse’s eyes shone brilliant blue.
“I’ve won! I’ve won!” Morgan declared, jumping up and down. She pointed to where her green nut tumbled past the creek-spanning stick they’d set up as the finish line. “You didn’t even get your stupid acorn out of the mud.” She beamed triumphantly at Ivy, but only until she noticed that her cousin wasn’t interested in the race anymore. Then she pursed her lips. “What have you got there?”
Ivy grinned and held up her find. “It’s a horse—a circus horse!” The metal animal’s filigree shimmered in the setting sun.
Morgan pursed her lips. “It’s my prize… My prize for winning the race!”
“No. It’s mine! I found it.”
“But I won.”
Morgan reached for it, but Ivy clutched the horse to her breast.
“Give it to me, you little brat! I won the race, and it’s mine. ‘To the victor goes the spoils,’ like daddy always says.”
“I don’t care what Uncle Dan says. It’s mine!”
Ivy tried to turn away—she wanted to run back home to Frost Hall—but before she could, Morgan grabbed her by the shoulder with one hand and snatched away the horse with the other.
“Ah ha!” Morgan’s red hair whipped around her like a fiery mane, and her purple eyes blazed triumphantly. She held her ill-gotten prize above her head, like a trophy.
“It’s mine! I found it! Give it back!” Ivy pleaded.
Morgan sneered at her.
But just then, a shadowy figure appeared atop the wooded hill above the brook.
“Give it back to her, Morgan,” a grave voice intoned.
Morgan’s pretty face twisted into a grimace. “Go home, Tony! This is none of your business.”
Tony Frost plodded downhill toward the girls, his violet eyes fixed on his older sister. “I wondered what you two were doing.”
“We were racing acorns, and I won, and this is my prize,” Morgan declared, pressing the metal horse to her chest.
“It’s not!” Ivy blurted. “I found it. She won the race, but it’s mine.”
Tony glared at Morgan. “Give it back.” At just a year younger than his sister, Tony and she were almost the same size.
Morgan scowled at him. “You’re my brother, not hers! Why do you always take her side?”
“Why do you always pick on her? She’s half our age.”
Morgan looked as though she might spit at him. “Take it then!” She held out the horse. “Take it, you baby!”
Ivy didn’t wait for Morgan to change her mind.
The little black horse stood on the nightstand next to Ivy’s bed. She’d smuggled it into the house beneath her coat, concealing the precious object even from her parents, lest anyone should try to take it from her again—or make her put it away until morning.
While she settled beneath her covers, the metal animal pranced proudly between Ivy’s nightlight, her hairbrush, and her copy of Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book. The wan blue glow from the tiny lamp threw a large-as-life shadow of the horse onto the wall of her room.
Ivy smiled. “Good night, horsey.”
The horse’s eyes glimmered like aquamarine gems in the dim light.
Ivy’s eyelids grew heavy, but as they fluttered, she would have sworn that the full-sized horse shadow on the wall leaned in and smiled at her.
“Would you like to go for a ride?” the horse seemed to ask.
Too tired to reply, Ivy merely nodded.
Somehow, she found the strength to climb out of bed and onto the shadow horse’s broad back. The animal felt cool to the touch, and it smelled vaguely of pond water. But Ivy thought all that made sense, since she’d found him in the little river.
She felt surprised, though, when the horse jumped straight through the wall of her room. He didn’t use the door, or the window, or anything. But instantly, they were outside, galloping through the night air almost faster than Ivy could catch her breath. They darted across the lawn, quick as a wink, and into the thick woods surrounding Frost Hall.
The trees reached out with scraping, fingerlike branches as they flew through the forest. Ivy huddled close to her mount, but the horse grew colder… wetter. At first, they’d ridden through moonlight, but now a storm blew up.
Rain like cold needles pelted Ivy’s skin; she shivered in her drenched flannel nightgown.
“Stop, horsey! Stop!”
But the pretty circus horse didn’t listen.
Faster it surged, faster and faster.
The rain streamed down Ivy’s face, plastering her dark hair to her skin. Bare twigs flailed at her tiny body, stinging like the brambles that grew wild next to the acorn-racing stream.
“Stop…!” she burbled, barely able to get the word out through the downpour.
Impossibly, the rain got worse; it cascaded over Ivy in sheets. She couldn’t breathe through the deluge.
Ivy tried to slide off the horse’s back, but her fingers became hopelessly tangled in its mane.
She dangled across the black animal’s wet flanks, flopping like a sodden rag doll.
Ivy wanted to cry, wanted to do anything… but she didn’t have the strength.
Water surrounded her … Crashing… Swirling… Thundering…
Down into darkness…
“There she is! Edward… by the brook!” Ivy’s mother’s panicked voice cut through the chilly autumn night air.
“I see her.” Ivy’s father surged through the forest to the bank of the stream and scooped his daughter from the water’s edge. Her small body felt very wet and impossibly cold.
“Has she…? Is she…?” His wife crouched down next to them. Fear painted her face white in the moonlight.
Edward’s deft fingers cleared wet leaves from his daughter’s mouth. He blew lightly on her face, and Ivy sputtered, tiny bubbles spraying from her bluish lips. “She’s breathing, Roxie. She didn’t drown.”
Roxanne clutched her husband’s shoulder. “Oh, thank God. Let’s get her back to the house. Once we get clear of the woods, I’ll run ahead and call the doctor.”
Edward cradled Ivy gently as he rose. “Don’t worry. You know how little kids are; she’ll bounce right back. Probably won’t even remember sleepwalking in the morning.”
“Thank God Morgan got up to use the bathroom and saw her leaving the house.”
“That’s what she claimed, anyway.” Edward shot his wife a sly grin and started uphill, carrying their daughter.
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you notice the toy horse Morgan had hidden behind her back? I think the bathroom trip was just an excuse for some late-night play.”
“Either way,” Roxanne said, “We got lucky.”
“Even luckier she told us right away. You know how secretive our Frost nieces and nephews can be.”
Roxanne’s blue-grey eyes twinkled in the moonlight as they trudged through the tangled forest toward the mansion. She returned her husband’s smile. “Must be a family trait. Are you sure Ivy’s okay?”
“Pretty sure. She’s breathing regularly and warming up nicely.”
“What in the hell could have brought her out here and all the way down to the brook tonight?”
Edward shook his head. “Who knows? Probably just a nightmare.”
ABOUT THE STORY
At the end of the summer of 2022, we were finally having our driveway paved. Since I despise asphalt (black poison on the earth), most of the drive would be made from poured concrete and porous pavers—a type of cement lattice filled with gravel or soil that water can drain through. Installing the new surface meant scraping off the top layers of the old dirt driveway so that the new drive could be level with the existing grade to our carport and the drain in front of it.
Somewhere during that scraping, digging, and grading, an aged horse emerged from the ground. It was about the size of my hand, made of white plastic, covered with dirt, and seriously battered and broken. Probably it came from some kind of cowboy or circus playset.
I spotted it while cleaning the yard during the construction, rinsed it off with the hose a little—it remained very filthy, because God only knows how long it had been in the ground—and set it on the corner of our deck for later evaluation.
I mentioned my find online to my friends David Annandale (Marvel’s Doctor Doom novels) and Derek M. Koch (Monster Kid Radio). They immediately responded with things like: “It’s cursed!” “Don’t bring it into the house!” And we all had a good laugh about that.
But I left the horse out on the porch for a few days, never finding the time to properly clean it. I hoped at some point to get a better idea of what the toy really was and what decade it might have come from.
During that time, a seed of an idea formed in my mind—about a cursed toy horse, of course. And me being me, the idea also brought up notions of nightmares and the traditional water horse (kelpie) that would carry you off to drown if you rode on its back.
While the idea percolated, the workmen finally finished up my now-very-nifty driveway (weather stretched the construction process out to six weeks), and my wife and I cleaned up some of the residual mess. I even got a different builder to replace the stairs from the driveway to our deck.
And right around then, I noticed the horse had vanished.
Vexed, I reminded myself to ask the carpenter where he’d put it while he worked on that part of the deck. Sadly, he didn’t hold the answer.
Because, in fact, the battered and broken piece of plastic had been decluttered by my wife and—very sensibly—taken to the dump while we were cleaning up.
I felt deeply sad because now I’d never know anything more about the little horse, and also because I’d invested a lot of imagination and daydreams into that tiny archaeological find. It broke my heart to think that the white horse’s story ended that way.
Except of course, it doesn’t.
In fact, the tale of the plastic horse has two endings: One is the story you just read—“Lost River Horse”—and the other is something David said when I told him and Derek about the toy’s loss.
I mused that perhaps I’d avoided the curse by having my wife remove the horse from our house, but maybe someone in a future generation would dig it up a thousand years from now.
To which David replied:
“And there it lurks at the dump, waiting, waiting, growing in power and rage…”
—Steve Sullivan, 25-27 October 2022