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The Secret Horses of Briar Hill
Author:Megan Shepherd

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill

Megan Shepherd




In memory of my grandfather



Before the war, the hospital wasn’t a hospital at all. It was the house of a beautiful, rich princess.





I HAVE A SECRET.

I won’t tell Benny and the other boys. They are like dogs in the night, snarling at anything that moves, chasing cats along country roads just for the thrill of watching them run. I won’t tell Anna, either, even though she is nice to me and shares her colored pencils, even the turquoise one that is her favorite because it reminds her of the sea near her home. Sister Constance tells me that Anna could die soon, and I should be careful and quiet around her. Around Anna I have to tiptoe, I have to pretend that everything is okay, I have to keep secrets to myself.

But I’ll tell you.

This is my secret: there are winged horses that live in the mirrors of Briar Hill hospital.





ANNA IS ASLEEP AGAIN.

I lie on the foot of her bed so that I won’t wake her, drawing on the backs of the war pamphlets Sister Constance keeps in a stack by the fireplace for the groundskeeper, Thomas, to use as kindling for the wood he has chopped. There is a gilded mirror above Anna’s chest of drawers. It reflects the mirror-me. The mirror-Anna, snoring. The mirror-room, with its wool blankets strung over the window to hide our lights from outside at night. And, standing in the mirror-doorway, is a winged horse that isn’t in Anna’s room at all. The mirror-horse is nosing through the half-finished cup of tea that Anna left on her bedside table. He has a soft gray muzzle that is beaded with droplets of tea, and quicksilver hooves, and snow-white wings folded tightly. It’s hard to capture with a pencil how horse ears are both round and pointy at the same time.

Benny comes in and sneers at my drawing. His thin red hair, combed back with a wide part down the middle, and his sharp hungry eyes make me think of the rawboned hunting dogs that are always looking for something to make a meal of.

“Horses don’t have horns,” he says.

“Those are its ears.”

“They don’t have wings, either.”

My hand tightens around the pencil. “Some of them do.”

Benny rolls his eyes. “Sure, and Bog is actually a dragon, even though he looks like a flea-bitten old collie.”

Anna wakes, then, and tells Benny to leave, and he does because Anna is the oldest and because she asks him nicely.

“Come here, Emmaline,” Anna says, “and show me what you’ve drawn.”

She wraps her cardigan around my shoulders as I crawl into bed next to her, and gives me a tight squeeze, as snug as if I were home. “What lovely creatures,” she says as she inspects my drawing. “You’ve such an imagination.”

She smiles warmly, but she smells sour, like milk left outside too long. Her face is very pale, except for the places where it is so red it looks chapped, even though it has been many weeks since she has been outside.

I glance at the mirror.

The winged horse has grown bored with Anna’s tea and is backing out of the mirror-room, bumping his rump against the tight angles of the mirror-hallway. I cover my mouth to keep from giggling. Anna can’t see the winged horses in the mirrors.

No one can—only me.

It was late summer when I first arrived at Briar Hill. Sister Constance took me straight to her office and removed the identification tag pinned to my coat. While she made notations in a ledger, I tried to smooth my tufts of hair in the mirror above her desk. Then, completely out of nowhere, completely without warning, a winged horse clomped straight through the mirror-doorway, prim as anything, tail held high, as though Sister Constance’s office were the exact place he was looking for.

“A horse!” I yelled, pointing at the mirror. He was nosing around Sister Constance’s desk. “With wings! And it’s eating your ruler!”

Sister Constance gave me a look like I’d said Winston Churchill was holding a pink parasol while riding an elephant across occupied France.

“There!” I pointed to the mirror again. “Now it’s gotten your pencil!”

She turned to the mirror.

She looked back at me.

She called for the doctor.

Dr. Turner came and felt my forehead, and they spoke quietly to each other by the windows while I tapped my finger against the mirror again and again and again like I used to do with the live fish in the tanks at the fishmonger’s. The horse didn’t turn. He didn’t glance at me at all. He just leaned against the blackboard and fell asleep, while outside Sister Constance’s door, I heard the other children whispering about me.

“Emmaline?” Anna asks. “What are you giggling about?”