We have come to the Maryland shore this August day to dig our heels in pebbly sand and swim. Already we have seen the barrier island’s most famous ponies grazing, and deer so tame they seem to pose for pictures. The clouds, dark, clotted thick as cream, permit no sun. Neighbors to our campsite tell us they’ve seen neither the blue of water nor sky in days.
As we struggle with tent poles and tarpaulins and DEET-immune mosquitoes, the past pushes through like hermit crabs through sand: it’s twenty-six years since we visited as children, when parents, though separated, weathered each other’s company to give two daughters a holiday, the illusion of family.
What we remember is like the sheen on a shell spat from the waves, ephemeral but glistening: a morning when she and I slipped from our tents to play with a yellow ball in the surf, only to have the undertow suck it from our reach till it glinted puny as sun breaking horizon. We could not get our father to retrieve it for us. “Too cold,” he’d said. We thought him selfish
Another flash: two ponies saunter to our picnic table, begin to eat apples Mother has just cut for us. From the car where we wait, my sister laughs, and one turns toward us, pressing his oversize black-as-pumpernickel head through the car window. His muzzle snuffles her hair, begins to chew; we squeal, like gulls: half in panic, half in glee.
A guidebook suggests today’s herds descend from those that belonged to 18th Century Virginia farmers who did not wish to pay tax on unfenced ponies, “nuisances” within the Commonwealth. So owners set palominos, piebalds, Appaloosas, and sturdy browns to wander Assateague, mate, grow wild as sea grasses. Yet how used to human company they appear.
Everywhere, park signs warn us not to feed or pet them, but my sister has left out grapes. Both of us envy the family that a young, gray mare stops to visit, her head bowed to accept sugar cubes and hugs from a child. They might have been us years ago, but now we are only sisters, looking for waves and sun, trying to forget a family broken as the fence slats, high on the dunes.
JC Reilly has work published or forthcoming from Rougarou, Pine Row, The Daily Drunk, The Antigonish Review, and elsewhere. Her Southern Gothic novel-in-verse, What Magick May Not Alter, was published by Madville Publishing in 2020. When she’s not writing, she crochets or practices her Italian, and serves as the Managing Editor of Atlanta Review. Follow her on Twitter @aishatonu (or follow her cats on Insta @jc.reilly).