THE PONY MAN

By John Thomas Tuft

The old man, Mister Mercy, has been doing it since forever. Trudge out the back door, across the porch, down the grassy slope past the pump, into the barnyard—sometimes muddy, sometimes frozen—dogs nipping at his heels the whole way, slide open the doors with a loud screech that sends the barn cats scurrying, take the harnesses from the tack racks, and line up the ponies. Dawn has barely pierced the mist, but he’s there, nevertheless, scooping oats and brushing their coats. Almost no one knows where the pony farm is located. Almost. Children know. Special children. Elizabeth knows.

Elizabeth first showed up when she was 5 years old.  He was brushing Pinto when he felt her presence and turned around. “Can I help you, Darlin’?” he asked the girl with the blonde braids and runny nose, eyes red from crying. She nodded. “Do you know the song?” he asked, not unkindly. She started singing, softly, hesitating, “When it’s midnight on the meadow, and the cats are in the shed/And the river tells a story out the window by my bed,” she sang, growing stronger. “If you listen very closely, be as quiet as you can/In the yard you’ll hear him, he is the pony man.” Mister Mercy smiled.

“What did the river say, Darlin’?” he asked as he scooped her up and set her on Pinto. “She said, don’t be scared,” Elizabeth murmured, as she petted Pinto’s pretty neck. “Would you like to go for a ride?” asked Mister Mercy. She nodded. He attached a lead line and led the way out of the barn. All of the other ponies followed along, some were white, some were brown. Through the paddock, out the gate, through the field, and into the woods they all went, the ponies staying close, never letting the girl be out of view. They neighed and snorted, blew gusts of vapor through their nostrils, chattering like a group of middle school friends on their way to the cafeteria. Eventually they came to a stream of cool, clear water. And they all sat and listened. To nothing. To everything. Okay, the ponies didn’t sit, but they did play in the water.

Elizabeth showed up at the pony farm again when she was 11. The braids were gone and she brought her backpack and phone this time. Her eyes were red from crying. He made her leave the baggage behind when he set her on Pinto. She sang the song. “What did the river say, Darlin’?” he asked, per usual. “Mister Mercy, sometimes everything is too big. She said, don’t give up,” Elizabeth sighed, as she petted Pinto’s pretty neck. “Would you like to go for a ride?” asked the pony man. She nodded. He attached a lead line, and led the way out of the barn…..all of the ponies chattering as they stayed close to Pinto’s precious cargo, not letting her out of sight. Maybe it was the bag of carrots and apples she’d taken from the backpack. They came to the stream of cool, clear water. The picnic was grand. And yes, the ponies ate. Every last bit.

Elizabeth returned when she was 15. Wearing jeans with manmade holes in the knees. And pink hair. Only to announce that she was too big for pony rides, and besides, who cared about ponies anyway. Mister Mercy kept doing his thing, feeding and brushing the ponies. And the river kept telling stories.

One day years later, the pony man did what he has been doing since forever. Trudge out the back door, across the porch, down the grassy slope past the pump, into the barnyard—sometimes muddy, sometimes frozen—dogs nipping at his heels the whole way, slide open the doors with a loud screech that sends the barn cats scurrying, take the harnesses from the tack racks, and line up the ponies. Dawn has barely pierced the mist, but he’s there, nevertheless, scooping oats and brushing their coats. Almost no one knows where the pony farm is located. Almost. Children know. Special children.

He was brushing Pinto when he felt her presence and turned around. “Can I help you, Darlin’?” he asked the woman with short blonde hair, eyes red from crying. She nodded. “Do you know the song?” he asked, not unkindly. She started singing, softly, hesitating, “When it’s midnight on the meadow, and the cats are in the shed/And the river tells a story out the window by my bed,” she sang, growing stronger. “If you listen very closely, be as quiet as you can/In the yard you’ll hear him, he is the pony man.” Mister Mercy looked deep into her eyes.

“What did the river say, Darlin’?” he asked as he scooped her up and set her on Pinto. Elizabeth remained silent as she petted Pinto’s pretty neck. “Would you like to go for a ride?” asked Mister Mercy. She nodded. He attached a lead line and led the way out of the barn. All of the other ponies followed along, some were white, some were brown. Through the paddock, out the gate, through the field, and into the woods they all went, the ponies staying close, never letting the girl be out of view. They neighed and snorted, blew gusts of vapor through their nostrils, chattering like a group of middle school friends on their way to the cafeteria. Eventually they came to a stream of cool, clear water. And they all sat and listened. To nothing. To everything.

“Mister Mercy, I’m pregnant. And I don’t know what to do.” The stream rippled. The ponies grew still. The pony man handed her Pinto’s lead line. And swung up on the pony’s back. “What do you need, Darlin’?” he asked, not unkindly. “What do you need?”

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.