Prize Day


“What’s that?” Mr. Hornsby raised an eyebrow in mock alarm. The girl wearing Number Seven had swung her mount’s head hard to the left, breaking free from the circle of riders to create her own inside track. The sorrel’s long, shambling gait now carried her quickly past the others through the morning mist. The child, a slight, pretty twelve-year-old with bobbed hair, had simply abandoned her effort to contain the huge gelding, clearly a hard-mouthed handful who couldn’t stand to walk behind. A horse Hornsby hadn’t seen before.

His voice was lowered to reach just the two women standing with him in center ring: Miss Edna and Miss Jean, the co-owners of Camp Greenlake. Today, in the final games of the summer, the pair would take their reward, affirming what each girl had achieved in the camp season.

Mr. Hornsby, a local breeder who volunteered annually to judge the riding, was enjoying this moment of surprise.

“She actually chose to leave the line,” he murmured.

“That’s Red Boy,” explained Miss Edna, a small, sleek figure in black jacket and jodhpurs, familiar at horse sales where, as a rule, she acquired manageable mounts for the girls. “Good enough for the corral. I didn’t expect him to show well – hard mouth, rough gait. But a gift at the price.” She expelled a brusque sigh.

“The child’s ingenious, in a way,” observed Hornsby, noting the improved look of the pair, now framed in solo against the soft swells of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Too bad she’s disqualified for a win. Does she not notice – or doesn’t she care – that no one else is walking inside?”

“That’s Maner Louise,” Miss Jean said. “Marches to a different drummer.”

A big woman, Miss Jean rose over her two companions like a classical pillar. She surveyed the small catastrophe underway with a studying look. “I’m never sure whether her misfires are blunders or inspirations.” She turned to Miss Edna. “It is a regrettable choice of mount – did she draw last?”

“No. First pick,” reported Miss Edna. “Her teammates – she’s with the Odds – called out the obvious choices. Lots of grumbles when she chose Red Boy. Of course, the Evens were delighted.”

Miss Jean mused, “That’s pretty oblivious, even for Maney. She has grace, and a win would have given the Odds a needed boost. What does deafen a child to sound advice?”

“Romance,” said Miss Edna. “She fell off that horse three times her first day, but once she stuck, she never rode anything else.” Watching how brutally Red Boy pulled on the girl’s hands, Miss Edna imagined the headstrong colt whose eager bigness had driven some fool to toughen his mouth with a punishing bit. And now, here was this rapturous child, whose handlers would likewise be tempted to rein her in too harshly.

“She’s not bad.” Hornsby’s parting assessment held a note of regret as he released the outlaw to her fate. He called for the trot, and the girls rose dutifully on the offbeat.

 

“Heels down, toes in, knees tight, hands level, back straight… Good boy, that’s my boy, we’re doing fine!” In the ring, Maner Louise posted cheerfully, seat kissing the saddle lightly in a slow, springy rhythm that lofted her up and over every other jolt, like playing half-notes instead of quarter-notes. She chanted into Red Boy’s flickering ears, wooing him, naming him her own. She wasn’t sure how the others figured out which horses you were supposed to want. What was so special about Betsy Brown, that drab little mare everybody bid for? Or Silver Cloud, a splotchy gray like old pewter! Red Boy was much the handsomest. But it was loyalty, not looks, that bound her to him, she told herself, promising never to desert him, no matter what the others said.

How happy he was since she had stopped holding him back in the bunched up line; she felt the smoothing of his stride. Luckily, no one else had the same idea. She could trot him out like a prince, no one behind to make his rump pinch, no one ahead to block the view. She knew just how he felt.

Her bouncing eyes caught on the three adults rotating in the center of the ring. Miss Edna, whose sharp nose and chin cast her as the Wicked Witch of the West, had done up her flyaway black hair in a braid looped like the tail of a show horse. She looked tiny next to the blonde fortress of Miss Jean, Glinda-the-Good, in creamy jodhpurs and plaid jacket. That kindly pink moon face followed Maner Louise now like a searchlight – and Miss Edna too, and the man with them, all turning to watch her go round.

She swatted aside the suspicion that she might not be getting it quite right. Miss Jean was probably noting her straight back and snug knees, her easy spring on the upbeat.

 

“Sometimes I wince for that child,” Miss Jean was saying. “Her big sister Winnie is sure to take more than one ribbon for the Evens today. While this one…” Observing Maner Louise, whose exuberant posting carried her nearly a foot out of the saddle on every rise, she couldn’t help thinking of Winnie, older by only a year, but mature in the way of certain big girls, a natural athlete who sat her horse as if born to it. An ideal Greenlake girl as well, with a likeable confidence and social sure-footedness that attracted the older girls. Her only misstep, shortly after arrival, was to pin a large red-white-and-blue “I LIKE IKE” button on her tennis whites. Miss Jean, resigned as she was to the Eisenhower mania sweeping the South, had nonetheless asked that the button be tucked away for the duration. A simple principle, she explained: for women, politics took second place to politesse. Although she had to admit, Winnie’s advertisement of her political passions had stirred admiration among her peers.

Last night at the closing campfire, Winnie had been tapped to wear the “G.” Unusual in one’s first year, the honor meant she would serve on Camp Council and be eligible for a junior counselor position next summer. Meanwhile, little Maney, in spite of her all-out effort, would no doubt earn her “G” only at the end of her final summer, a courtesy never withheld. Quite an artistic touch she had, with ceramics and copper enameling. But she wasn’t Council material. Appealing as an elf, with plenty of spunk, but over-eager and too often off the mark. A bed-wetter still at twelve, bless her heart. How would she handle her defeat today?

Hornsby’s call rang out for the change. “Sit the trot.”

 

In the ring, Maner clenched her jaw to keep her teeth from rattling. She hated this gait, a stupid return to the days before she’d learned to post. “Heels down, toes in…” She bit her tongue as Red Boy jolted her cruelly. Tightening then releasing her stomach, trying to ease the stabbing under her ribs, she asked herself why she was doing this. Maybe horseback riding should have stayed between the covers of books she read on Sunday afternoons, sprawled in sun puddles on the oriental carpet in Little Grandmother’s library.

But here she was, in the Show Ring, holding her seat. She remembered those first three falls, and how, over the weeks, she had released her death hold on the pommel, learning to grip with her knees, staying on board when Red Boy first broke into a trot. How she had “sat the trot,” shaken but secure, able to take it. Maybe she would even become someone Winnie wasn’t ashamed of – though she couldn’t think about Winnie since last night. The distance between them opened sickeningly and wouldn’t be looked at yet.

When the judge called an end to the jouncing, relief startled Maner Louise into a sort of bliss: she could hear the clink and creak of tack, the thud of hooves, could smell the leather and manure in the warming day. Posting evenly, she knew a moment of perfection. The air swept up her bobbing hair as the rhythmic rise and fall carried her past the others like a range rider trotting past cattle.

An image of open prairie seemed to flash from rider to horse, and Red Boy broke into a canter well ahead of Hornsby’s call for the change. Maner Louise, hearing Miss Edna’s terse, “Collect your horse!,” was humiliated. She wrestled Red Boy back to a trot, and just for good measure pulled him into single file behind Betsy Brown. Maybe they gave points when a horse misbehaved and the rider got him under control, she reasoned, checking her form: heels down, knees tight, back straight. Focused on subduing Red Boy, she now missed the call for the canter and was still holding him back when the others opened into the faster gait.

 

Hornsby had never seen a child try so hard to get so much wrong. He surveyed the string of riders and began to sort his winners, fourth to the plump palomino, Sunshine, third to the mean little chestnut they called B-29, managed competently by Number Fifteen.

Calling for the change of leads, he was distracted again by Number Seven, as she brought her mount back to a walk, swung his head around in tandem with the other girls when they turned the line to travel clockwise, and broke directly into a canter again, neatly shifting the forward foot from left to right. Not bad for a novice with too much horse under her.

Her radiant face stirred a memory: A ride he took as a boy, when he saddled up and cantered off one day without permission, a solitary moment when he had first felt he might like his life. On the strength of that promise, he had stayed with horses ever since—although, buying and selling, judging, training, he wasn’t often reminded of that epiphany, especially by these well-schooled girls.

And now, to his secret delight, the child once again pulled her red horse out of line, clearing him to canter powerfully past the others, lapping the field. Hornsby chuckled.

“Annie Oakley?” he inquired.

“National Velvet,” offered Miss Jean.

“King of the Wind,” countered Miss Edna, closest of all.

 

Poised, erect, sitting several hands above the girl on Betsy Brown, Maner Louise fell silent as the solemn triumvirate stood conferring in center ring. Endlessly, it seemed. How did they decide who was best? She examined the bright red welts across her palms, and her blood sang with triumph as she relived the great rollicking race at the end. The rolling canter she had once dreaded for fear of being pitched over the horse’s head had carried her into a dream: I am riding! I am riding! And the love had nearly burst her heart.

Slowly she became aware that the judge had called two horses forward already; fourth and third place had taken the white, then the yellow ribbon, colors she had modestly set her sights on. Nasty little B-29 with his ears laid back got third! She couldn’t believe it. Both Red Boy and Betsy Brown were still waiting in line, but so was Silver Cloud, the other so-called good horse. She closed out this information, grasping her bafflement like a shield – if she didn’t know what was good, maybe she was better than she knew. In her heart, the dark truth stirred, but she held onto the image of a bright horse showered by colored ribbons.

Blue was always Winnie’s, and sometimes Maner Louise coveted the blue notebooks or satchels, wishing she had a choice. Red, though cheerful, was undeniably second best. But what an amazing thing it would be to take second place in riding. She imagined telling her parents. She promised God she liked red best of all.

“Number Twelve, Silver Cloud, second place,” Mr. Hornsby called out, and there was only the blue ribbon left, and she couldn’t pretend not to know that first place would go to that sad little brown thing beside her instead of her own magnificent steed. The wrench in her heart was familiar. She comforted Red Boy, stroking his sweat-darkened neck and murmuring, “It’s okay, boy, it was a wonderful ride,” bound to him in this mystery: How others could fail to see the truth as she knew it. How wonderful it really was.

 

The brown mare went forward docilely to claim her prize, and the sun was bright now and growing hotter, and it was an ordinary day for ordinary girls. She was suddenly ashamed of the way she had dreamed last night, waiting in the outer circle around the fire. She had imagined a shadow moving out of the darkness, a white hand touching her shoulder, and had held herself ready, practicing how she would look up and keep her face still, rise with dignity to follow the shadow to the magic circle where the Council sat.

Her cabin counselor had explained the ritual that entitled girls to wear the G, a big green and gold letter that identified them as Leaders. She’d warned her campers that almost nobody got the G their first year, but she held out that almost as a lure, to keep them trying. And then Winnie had been tapped, though she was just as much first-year as Maner Louise. Maybe it was something about being a Reynolds, she dreamed for a moment, waiting for her tap. Two in the same family!

Afterwards she had lain on her cot shivering under the army blankets, trying to make a picture of herself that took in what others saw. She couldn’t believe the way her sister was claimed by the big girls. “Reynolds,” they called her. Or, sometimes, “Win!” But Win’s little sister they only called “Maney – May-knee!” Like a baby.

Number Seven.” The girl on her left had to repeat the judge’s call twice, in a loud whisper, before Maner Louise realized she was supposed to move into center ring with the ribbon winners. Startled, she nudged the big horse forward across the trampled ground and arranged him alongside the others. A trembling gathered in her throat. Every cell of her body tightened around it, this flutter of moths; if they broke free she’d fly apart, white as sunshine, wild as air.

Miss Jean was announcing something to the girls and the scattered parents who had come up the mountain for Prize Day – the others would arrive tomorrow to take their children home, and Maner Louise was sorry Mama and Daddy had not come early. Even Winnie wasn’t here to see … what was it? A special award, Miss Jean was saying. Only for this class of riders, and only when someone especially earned it. And now she was walking over to Red Boy. In her hand fluttered a bit of green – a ribbon? Simple, no rosette, but with a gold G stamped on the fold above where Miss Jean’s fingers pressed. Maner Louise held her breath, unbelieving. Save the best till last!

Miss Jean’s voice carried through the golden haze.

“This ribbon is given to the novice rider who shows the Most Improvement in one camp season!”

Miss Jean was smiling at her, waiting for her to lean down and put out her hand to take the ribbon. It was not the kind of ribbon one clips to the bridle at the temple, like the others. Maner Louise waited too, as the moment stretched, full of knowledge she did not want at all.


LucasAuthor’s Comment:
We live in separate realities. Nowhere is this more evident than in childhood competitions, when adults’ worthy intentions – to reward and encourage – meet a child’s complex and irreducible hunger for affirmation. As in, “Does anyone get how wonderful this is?” Writing this story, I use a dual point of view, wanting to credit these thoughtful, well-meaning adults while conveying Maner’s inward experience. What occupies me most in the telling is not her initial failure to keep herself in line, nor her consequent failure to “place,” but the gap that opens between how she sees herself and how others see her. I still ponder the baffling news she takes in, before she makes herself reach for that green ribbon.

Retired from a long career teaching writing to others, Catharine Lucas embraces the writer’s life for herself, sustained by a Zen practice, a medieval singing group, a terrific son, and a Berkeley garden that replicates life's impermanence – constant loss and constant renewal.

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3 thoughts on “Prize Day

  1. Roberta Llewellyn

    “A trembling gathered in her throat. Every cell tightened around it, this flutter of moths; if they broke free, she’d fly apart, white as sunshine, wild as air.” Such imagery and power in a line of words…I loved this story, and felt the horse, as Manor Louise had, with all his princely beauty and her knowing what his need was along with her own. Nice writing, Catharine Lucas!

  2. Suzi B.

    I am so drawn to this little girl: so spunky, so vulnerable. If only, if only she could figure it all out, but then, of course, she wouldn’t be the engaging child she is. A fine story.

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