The horse

Secretariat

Secretariat. Charles LeBlancCC BY-SA

They’re gathered at the kitchen table—Daddy, Mama, Grannie, Earnie— as Mama shuffles the cards. With a riffling “flflflflflflflflflflt,” she makes the cards fall in a fancy bridge finish. I don’t know how she does it. They’re playing Canasta. Cigarette smoke hangs thicker than fog in the close kitchen; Grannie is the only one who doesn’t smoke. I sometimes think that the white cloud pouring like an upside-down waterfall from Earnie’s lips straight up to her nostrils looks kind of dragonish. I wonder again why she’s not married, being my mother’s older sister. My sister and I almost never call her Aunt. She’s just Earnie. 

I can’t stay in the kitchen for long. The smoke stings my eyes and makes me cough. I watch cartoons with my sister for a while on TV, then drift back to my room to look at my at rock and mineral sticker books, until I am thirsty and come back to the kitchen for Kool-Aid. The grown-ups pay me no mind; they’re into their game. I pay them no mind as I get my drink from a pitcher in the refrigerator.  

Until I hear them saying a strange name. One I’ve heard on TV.

A lot. 

It sounds like “secretary.”

Earnie is a secretary. For something called Sybil Service. For the Army, I think, but she doesn’t wear a uniform. She can write in shorthand. I have seen her notepads and her little squiggles look made up. How can those little curly marks mean anything at all?

But they’re not talking about a person. I can tell by the way they say the name that there’s something very important about it. 

“Who is Secretary It?” I ask. I gulp my Kool-Aid. 

Secretariat,” Daddy says, enunciating clearly, frowning at his cards. “He’s a racehorse that just made history. He won the Triple Crown—ran so fast that he left all the other horses behind like they were just standing still.” 

Secretariat. Secretariat.

The name is as strange as Earnie’s shorthand. It uncurls in my head like a wisp of smoke. The way Daddy says it is the way people speak in church before the preacher preaches. When the music is just beginning. 

Part of me suddenly envies this horse who can run so fast, who’s so strong. I can’t run. When I do, I can’t breathe; my asthma is as heavy as a horse sitting on my chest and all I can do is wheeze until it passes.

But another part of me tastes something sweeter than Kool-Aid when I whisper his name.

Which I do, over and over.

Secretariat.

*******

I don’t remember seeing him run or win the Triple Crown in 1973. I didn’t know he was the first such winner since 1948, that he broke records with his times, that he won the Belmont by 31 lengths—so much that when I look at the old footage now, the other horses aren’t even in the frame with him. I didn’t know anything about horse racing at all, nothing about the big money, or betting, or odds.

But I remember the awe, the utter reverence, with which his name was spoken. His image, a magnificent, glossy red horse with three white-stockinged legs, soon became familiar to me.

What I understood instantly, the day I learned of him, is that he was the stuff of legend. His name tasted of rare glory, of something almost otherworldly. It’s possible that Secretariat was the beginning of my love of things fantastic.

I celebrate Justify’s recent Triple Crown win. I pulled for him all the way, holding my breath, tears flooding my eyes when he crossed the finish line, another beautiful chestnut horse excelling at exactly what he was born to do.

And I marvel at my weepiness, at my need to go back and watch the clips of Secretariat, to read about him one more time. It’s a longing born of wonder, of the crystallized moment that this big red horse with the strange name seeped into my heart like the red Kool-Aid stain above my lip, sparking something magical in the little girl that I was.

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6 thoughts on “The horse

  1. I was pulled to your slice because I loved horses growing up. I read all sorts of books about them, fiction and nonfiction. There is some kind of magic in watching a horse run. Thank you for sharing this memory with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree about the magic of watching a horse run – few things are so magnificent. Secretariat seemed to take it to a near-mythological level. Thank you for reading my nostalgic remembrance of him.

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  2. I hesitate to comment because the beauty of the way you told this story lingers in my mind and I don’t know what to say other than WOW! What a gift you have weaving the threads of the story pulling the reader into that smoky kitchen and sipping that kool-aid too. I’m not a follower of racing, but I appreciate the accomplishment of any horse to complete the Triple Crown.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Elsie. Took me a few years to realize the magnitude of what Secretariat accomplished, but I vividly remember learning his name and the reverence of it. So glad you enjoyed my slice of long ago. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Once again, I feel like I’m tasting a memoir that should be on my library shelves. I could smell that smoke and taste the KoolAid, and I’m pretty sure I owned the same sticker book. Thanks for your storytelling magic, Fran.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d forgotten the sticker book until I immersed myself in this long-ago scene. It’s fascinating what comes flooding back when I mentally walk there again. The moment I learned of Secretariat is so oddly vivid in my memory. Funny how old things can stir and breathe again after lying dormant for so long. Thank you so much for savoring my story, Chris.

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