Once upon a time, there was a little girl of about fourteen.

Things had not been all that pleasant, that summer. Being a girl at that age has its positive aspects, but the negative ones are pretty hard to ignore, and they get harder every day. She could have been happy?it wouldn't have taken much. There were just too many things working against it.

For one thing, she was physically precocious. Things had started to happen to her body before they'd begun to affect her schoolmates. It was soon very obvious that she was going to be a beautiful young woman. Her schoolmates weren't quite that sure of what they had to look forward to. She had to be punished! No matter whose fault it was.

Accordingly, the other girls, her age and even older, said unkind things about her. Even the nicer boys, of whom, there were some, couldn't help but stare. What the less kind boys did and said won't be repeated. Adolescence. Her fellows at school were all right at the threshold of a new kind of life. They were all more than a little scared about what was going to happen to them. Every time they caught sight of the little girl?who was still a little girl, for her mind had not changed as rapidly as her body?she made them think of things for which they were not ready.

The rumors were very bad, and she didn't hear about them from friends. The whispers were worse, and the stares made her very uncomfortable. She had never made friends easily, and the few she had stayed away from her, once this started. Her teachers were all past caring, and so went her days at school. From the frying pan, she found herself hurled into the fire.

Her parents had finally openly acknowledged the fact that they did not love each other. One nice thing about a divorce, when you're a child, (whatever you look like), is that it makes you feel so powerful. You really do think that you're responsible for your parents' bad choices of many years ago, and the anger and despair that suddenly surrounds you. Being responsible for something doesn't mean that you can do anything about it, but at least the girl's guilt made her feel as if she had some small control of her life.

Obviously, the two people whom she loved so much couldn't be selfish, or wrong, and she was obviously the sort of person who would destroy their marriage. Weren't they saying things just like that at school? And now she had what was going on to prove it.

Her parents were rather busy eviscerating each other, and inflicting and taking blows like that tends to make people rather selfish and very insecure. The little girl was just another object to be tossed back and forth, thrown into a corner, and quarreled over. Complaining didn't help. The both of them EXPECTED her to be rebellious at that age, so they took every action on her part as proof of just that, and welcome evidence that they weren't the only people at hand acting like spoiled children. The truth be damned, and was damned, or, at the least consistently disregarded.

It's rather tiring to be told you're being rebellious when you just want to know what is to become of you, when your whole life is hanging by a thread, and when no one has the time or the love to take a few moments out and explain things to you. It doesn't help when that message is screamed at the top of your mother's lungs, or said in a tone that makes you know that your father regrets the fact. Both her parents did try to use her as a weapon, but a question no one ever asks in Baseball is whether or not it hurts the bat.

She began to wilt. People do, you know.

She got quiet, and didn't smile, and kept to herself, and nobody cared. She had dark gray eyes, and hair cruel people called 'dirty blonde,' and her smile was something you didn't forget, once you'd seen it. Nobody seemed to miss it , or her. She wasn't coiled up in a tight little throbbing knot of worry and pain?she was just sulking, the vicious thing!

Simple, harsh explanations worked better than accepting any personal responsibility. Obviously, she was vain, and manipulative, and any other adjective you cared to hurt her with, and hurting her was all right, too, since she so clearly deserved it.

This would be a rather short and dreary little story except that she DID have an uncle. He was her mother's brother, a man who made a point of noticing what was around him, while it was, still, around him. The uncle wasn't much of a man by most standards, something of a failure on many fronts. But, he did get upset when he saw what should have been a smiling and beautiful young maiden turning into something that looked like a plant kept in darkness, and he did more than be glad the problem wasn't his.

It was the end of that hellish semester, the one before a new and terrifying ordeal when she was to move on to High School. The girl faced the long months of summer in close confinement with those two quarreling people, and it was then that her uncle rescued her. He didn't come in gleaming armor on a shining white stallion, but with a sarcastic tongue and an ironic mind and a suggestion that played into her parents' desire to get her out of their problems, out of their lives.

The girl had a great-grandmother in Oklahoma. That woman lived, nearly all alone, in a huge old frame farmhouse in the precise middle of nowhere. After asking her parents if they weren't QUITE sure that she was suffering enough, the uncle offered to drive her down to spend the summer with the old woman. He would take care of her and look in on his grandmother and make some repairs to her house while the summer's events proceeded on the traditional, disastrous course.

The girl herself was frightened, a bit. She didn't really know her uncle. Moreover, her home, family (to call it that) and neighborhood were all she'd ever known, despite their slow conversion into Hell. On the other hand, she quite sure that she wasn't going to last, much longer. She had been able to hide in silence, and in dreams, a little, but her imagination was cracking under the pressures mounting upon her, and what would happen when all she could do was sit and listen? Her uncle had memories enough of his own youth to mount prevailing arguments. He induced HER to go by promising her that there would be NO other girls for miles around.

She was brave enough to go and try and find a reason to live. He was brave enough to try and save her. Delightful world--he faced not ogres and dragons, but I-25, and the danger that she'd already been damaged too much and would accuse him of molesting her, or worse. Something like that would destroy him, of course, but no one cares about that, it seems. Uncle and niece both took risks, indeed, but faith is rather important if anything good is to happen in such a world.

They got into his old white Dodge, and the trip south, for what it was worth, passed smoothly. He talked and didn't worry if she did, which suited them both, although she found herself listening to him more and more as the hours and days went on. He told stories. There were regular stops, candy in the car, and large, cold root beers whenever possible. She could smile again by the end of the drive. They made it in good time.

Oklahoma was a land of wide spaces and few hills. They drove for miles past the small town and the strip-mall where the uncle had stopped to buy groceries. Around a curve of the road, they came upon the large bleached wood of the farmhouse, still guarding its dignity and still dodging twisters after nearly a century of resisting time. The uncle was smiling as he pulled the car into the old foreyard, which reassured the little girl, but she had never met the woman who lived in this strange place. The girl's mother had not been, to her own loss, the sort to tell tales of the rest of the family.

The little girl opened the old wooden screen door. Old frame houses have a smell that you can't describe to someone who's never been in one in a hot summer, but you never forget it, and things like a newspaper or an old book can put you in hallways that vanished decades ago. But that smell, for the rest of her life, would remind her of when she came into the dark parlor, where the curtains were down against the heat, and saw the old lady sitting in the ancient lace-covered upholstered rocker in the corner.

The old woman smiled, and held out her arms, and it was very nice to be loved again.

The uncle would spend most of the rest of this story cooking meals, and fixing whatever he could around the house and buildings during the day. There was the smell of oil paint, and sweat, and the whine of a large electric drill. The two in the house could hear him singing in the afternoon and listen to the muted clatter of the keys of his laptop computer in the evenings. She could see him working when she went out to wander around the empty stable, or, wistfully, run her hands over the aging rails of the old wooden corral, long abandoned out back..

She'd fetch things for him when he was making repairs, or help in the kitchen, a bit. Most of the time the girl passed her days in the parlor, or in the old lady's bedroom when she was ill, listening to the stories. There were a lot of them, and the days would pass in hunting down things the old woman wanted her to see, and putting them back again when they'd served their purpose.

In the evenings, the uncle would work on whatever it was with a glass of bourbon next to him, and they'd all sometimes sit out on the porch and watch the thunderstorms sweep by, looking for trouble. The setting sun would gleam through the curtains over the old photo albums and pictures, and the winds could not silence the tales the old images could prompt from the old woman's memory.

There were stories of when the president came through, Theodore Roosevelt, not William Clinton, and how the man had traveled, on the platform of a Pullman train, not perched in Air Force One. There was 'John,' the long-gone husband, and the other John, the long-dead son, and that tone of urgency people get when they try to make someone live for you who's never stopped living for them. Two medals gleamed in a case near a picture of a young man in an olive drab uniform.

There was the monstrous old shotgun, and the bear it had killed, and a bearclaw to have for her own, taken down from the treasures on the mantelpiece. There were pieces of Indian pottery found in the fields after plowing, and the dead son's collection of arrowheads. There were the strange-looking stones, and the pressed flowers, and the light from the lamps shining off the faded photographs after the sun went down in the long, slow, evenings.

There was, most of all, the understanding. The girl came to have a grasp of what it had meant, all these years, to be a woman usually all alone, passing long days with the men in the fields and no daughters over 25 miles from, in those days, the nearest town. Age was not, perhaps, something to be feared or faulted. There seemed to be a reward for all the hardships the old woman had endured.

Chores there had been in plenty. It was a big house, it had been a hungry family, with the farm hands to feed as well. Clothes were dear, luxuries and company were scarce, and the only thing plentiful was the work. And yet, the old lady could still smile when she described it all, and her eyes could still gleam with the joy of all she'd accomplished. The love could still be heard in her voice when she talked of a son lost, and of a man dying in a furrow from a heart asked to give too much and failing at the last.

She had some secret, the girl decided. She didn't know what it was but maybe she could learn it. Between the old woman's smile, the cracked voice telling stories and the younger male voice singing songs, things were beginning to look real again, or at least worth wondering about. The world was coming back into focus. The color came back into her, and she was moving like someone who'd stepped out of a wheelchair and was going to stay that way. She was hearing things, and smelling things, more, it seemed, than ever before, or that the girl she'd been had dreamed possible. It was all much too good to last.

She was standing nude in front of the mirror in the quiet, curtained room the girl had lived in that summer. She had been trying, once again, to understand what was happening to her body as she prepared to dress, when she thought to open the envelope the uncle had brought up the stairs and put under her door earlier that morning.

She could not understand, usually, why she felt so horrible at times, so happy at other moments. She could pretty much explain why she felt so horrible, right then and now. Too often, letters from home are NOT good things. The uncle was to bring her home, and she was going back to school, and back to being a weapon. She was to spend six months with a hateful father, and six months with a sullen mother, neither willing to let the other have something neither wanted. She would be the new girl in the neighborhood and the school on either side of the swap, and more alone than she'd ever been before.

The old woman used a walker, breathed harshly, and could still move like a creature not of this earth when she wanted to. At the stifled sound of sobbing, she had opened the door and come through. She took the girl, still nude, by the hand, and the two of them sat on the huge old poster bed.

"Dear," the old lady said, "Don't try to understand things. There's joy, and there's wonder, and it's all around you, hiding in the curtains, behind the blowing grass. You need to do what's needful, do it well, and the happiness you create for others will follow you.

The girl started crying, and old woman's failing eyes were still good enough to make out the letters on the tear-stained paper that fell from the young girl's hand.

There was the feeling of a soft touch on her wrist.

"You want to run, don't you, child?"

The girl nodded--she was already past speech, again, and just wanted to crawl into a hole and pull it in after her. It would be back to the sitting, and the silence, and the whispers. Why did it all have to happen to her? Something HAD to balance it out.

The old lady just put a bony old arm around her shoulder.

"I used to run, dear. When I was alone, and it was quiet, and the wind blew just so. But I had men to come back to, and the boy hollerin' for me, and things I had to do if I was going to do my part for the ones I loved."

"You don't, child. Maybe you ought to run."

The girl looked, amazed, at her great-grandmother through the tears and her gathering despair.

"Come with me, child."

The girl paused a moment to put on the thin cloth summer dress that had come from the catalog not too long before. It wouldn't do to give the uncle a coronary. Then she followed after the old woman.

You wouldn't think an elderly lady could have made it up all the way to that attic--and it wasn't a fast trip, but there was never a halt. There were wooden banisters on either side, two old wrists with a grip like iron, and stairs, stairs, stairs, all ending in a little locked door. Across the dusty golden light and the treasures of the room?this wasn't one of those threatening attics?was an old cedar chest and a thick weathered wooden door, both just badly enough built to last forever.

"My man made that cedar chest, child. Here's the key to the hasp, and it opens that door, over there. Bring me what's in the chest first."

From out of that long-withered bosom out came a tarnished silver key on an old beaded chain, lightly rusted with the old lady's sweat and the contact of long, long years.

The girl went and opened the warping lid. There wasn't much inside, just an old garment of some kind, wrapped in yellowing paper. She gave the old woman the package, and helped her unwrap what was inside. It was a long skirt of weathered gray leather.

"Put it on, dear."

She took the piece of limp material from the old lady, not wanting to say anything wrong--but what ever was this all about?

The skirt was very creased, although it had lain flat in the chest, the tanned skin weathered by what the girl thought must have been the sun and wind the old lady recalled. She stared for a moment at the pattern the creases seemed to form. The skirt looked limp, but not worn, and very, very old.

Blushing just a little, for all she'd been caught naked just before, the girl lifted up her dress, and put the skirt on. It fit snugly around her waist and hung comfortably on her hips. She and her great-grandmother must have been of a size, at that age...

The next thing she sensed was the sound of the summer dress tearing.

How to describe it? There was the feeling of growing larger, heavier, and much, much stronger. There was also the indescribable sensation of no longer being, or ever being, the creature you had been just moments earlier.

She didn't question what her senses had told her. She just lifted up the torn lower part of the ruined cloth dress and looked at her new lower body. From the waist down, she was an appaloosa filly, with gleaming whitish flanks, a spotted rump, and a flowing tail of shining dark gray. It twitched slowly, brushing against her hocks.

Balancing and walking on four white hooves felt more normal than what she'd done for all the years before. She easily clopped over to a streaked standing mirror in the corner to have a better look at herself. She was beautiful. Behind her reflection she could see the old lady smiling, or was it crying, as she looked at her? Both. There were definitely tears. With something, already, of a filly's wondering stare in her eyes, she wheeled and moved carefully over to the old woman.

"You're me, child. What I was, so long ago? I haven't run since the day John didn't come home, although I wanted to, when the telegram came later... But you're of my blood, and now you're one of us. You're beautiful, dear."

For a moment, the old woman held her closely, pausing to stroke the gleaming pelt of her barrel and cannons with a gnarling old hand, gentling her like the new mare she had just become.

She found her voice again.

"Grandmother..." gasped the centauress. "How...?"

She got slapped on the rump for that.

"Child! I told you! Sometimes the happiness just comes. No need to ask where or how. Just be what you are, and be happy."

With the new feelings growing stronger, she shied at the slap, jumping with unaccustomed muscles, but the feeling that went through her was like turning a wheel and watching a flood of clear cold spring water come gushing out and turning a desert green. She pranced for a moment, and sighed at the wonder of the muscles her every thought sent quivering with readiness to obey.

The old woman smiled at the sight, then hobbled slowly past her to stand against the door on the far wall.

"Now, child, when I was younger, John and I ran here, on the ranch. There were no other folk of THEIR kind for miles. He bred me for the first time in that grove you can see from the parlor. We only had the one, your grandfather, you know."

"You can't run in these parts, now. Planes, the highway, your uncle... There are things he doesn't WANT to know, not yet, at least?"

The new centauress felt herself getting ready to wither again. She had changed, she was beautiful, she was still trapped in a world that already hated her for what she was, and she would just be a different kind of animal in a stronger cage. The old woman's voice pierced through the gloom like a searchlight.

"Run HERE, child. Here! Look!"

The old lady had unlocked and opened the old door on the far wall, and the light coming through was blinding. There was the smell of rain-swept grass, and clear water, and the scent of something that made her tail lift for a moment and set her flanks and haunches to trembling.

She stood there dazzled until she felt her grandmother's old hands removing the remnants of the cloth dress from her shaking upper shoulders.

"'Our folk don't wear such, dear. Not THERE."

For the last time, she felt those bony worn arms around her. The old lady's dress felt harsh and damp against her exposed young flesh, and what lay beyond the open door beckoned and urged her on, but the centauress held onto her great-grandmother like she would never let go.

"You'll have kin, child, and they'll know you. You can run with the herds, and find a stallion who suits you, or you can come back, if it's too much. It shouldn't be. There's nothing left here that needs to fret you."

"We'll report you as a runaway--and that's what you'll be. But you've nothing to run back to in this place, child. What you'll be there is what you were meant for. You'll be happy.

The old woman embraced her a final time, and then slapped her HARD across her equine rump.

She never saw her grandmother's tears, and she leaped before she could think to say anything or look back. And from behind her came the sound of a door locking, and a key being turned.

And she ran.

"Running," Copyright 1997 by Rob S. Rice. Permission given to Print and Distribute with Original Authorship Maintained