Once upon a time, there lived a horse brighter than sunshine. His shimmering yellow coat rivaled dandelions and daffodils. The horse towered so high above the rest of the farm animals that his combined height and yellowness made him the most magnificent creature in all the land. The details of his appearance further amplified his sheer splendor. His flowing mane grazed his front legs and his tail trailed behind him like a bride’s graceful train. The yellow horse charmed all who merely glimpsed at him. Over the course of his lifetime, hundreds had begged the horse’s owner to ride him but the farmer never relented. He permitted only brief contact, from a few strokes to a single hug. Many chose the latter. All who pressed their heads against the yellow horse’s soft neck and sniffed him claimed that he smelled of nascent dew.
In an effort to maintain the creature’s glorious coat and enchanting scent, the horse’s suspicious owner fed him bales of buttercups and forbade him from drinking anything but fresh buttermilk. The farmer deemed any other diet bad luck. The farmer’s daughter also brushed the horse three times daily and cleaned out his stall just as often.
“Your coat is your treasure,” the farmer regularly said, articulating every syllable, as he patted the horse, “Your coat is your purpose.”
The horse, who took religious pride in his yellow hair and hooves, did not slog like the other farm animals. Instead of putting the yellow horse to work in the fields, the farmer put him to work in shows and fairs. The yellow horse won every pageant in the region. More of the horse’s blue ribbons and trophies lined the shelves in the farmer’s house than books. No other animal drew more spectators in all the land. Visitors paid a shilling just to visit the horse in his stall outside of pageant season. With that money, the farmer was able to buy new bulbs, seeds, agricultural supplies, and anything he and his family could not produce on their land. The horse shared the farmer’s fear that labor would dull his brilliant color.
“You,” the farmer told the horse again and again, “Must remain in your stall. Only I am allowed to free you. There’s no need for you to go out into the fields like the ox or the mule. They are ugly and meant for work.”
The yellow horse nodded, understanding every word. While the ox and the mule toiled beneath the skies darkening with rain or in the unmerciful summer air, the yellow horse stayed in his stall. He munched on buttercups or lazily followed butterflies with his expressive eyes. With each day, the yellow horse became even more beautiful.“You’re lovely,” the farmer’s daughter told the yellow horse every morning. The girl woke up early with the rest of the family to begin the day’s work, but she was always the first to the barn, eager to stroke the yellow horse. The early morning was the only time during the whole day the girl could admire the horse by herself. Too often, visitors pushed the girl out of the barn, demanding that she serve them cookies and lemonade. But at the birth of cockcrow, as the girl bolted out of bed and pulled on her gingham dress, she did not have to worry about any visitors.
The yellow horse basked in the girl’s ritualistic praises. Each one of her caresses made him feel prouder and prouder of his unusually hued coat. Meanwhile, the mule’s hooves tore through mud, smearing worms across the soil, and the ox’s back sagged just a little bit more than the day before. Nobody, not even the farmer’s daughter, ever bothered to visit the mule or ox. Never once did anyone remark on the color of their coats, except to call the animals common. The mule and ox did not feast upon buttercups or drink sweet buttermilk. They ate the food of beasts meant to work.
One day, the farmer sent his daughter to the buttercup patch to gather more of the yellow horse’s food.
“See how little there’s left in his trough,” the farmer said, “How can he ever survive on such meager portions?”
The daughter immediately set forth, swinging her wicker basket and humming a fairy’s tune. Undoubtedly, the girl wanted to provide the best for her yellow horse. She left the barn and climbed over a steep hill not far from her house. When she reached the top, the girl lied down on the damp grass and rolled to the opposite side of the hill.
“Yellow, yellow, yellow!” she shrieked all the way down. Farm life rarely let her enjoy such frivolity. Upon reaching the opposite side of the hill, the girl scampered to the buttercup patch. She did, after all, have many chores ahead of her. But instead of finding flowers, the farmer’s daughter stumbled across a flock of birds.
“Shoo!” the girl yelled. She ran around frantically, waving her arms in an attempt to scare the birds to the skies. They all ignored her. Figuring herself outnumbered, the little girl started up the hill again. The climb up was much harder than the climb down. She already feared her father’s reaction.
“What do you mean there are no buttercups left?” the farmer asked, “What will the yellow horse eat?”
The girl stared at the ground, counting the pebbles beside her feet. “Twenty-two,” she muttered.
The girl looked directly at her father and said, “We could feed him wheat.”
“Wheat? You mean hay? It might be good enough for a mere mule but not my precious yellow horse! What would happen to his coat if we fed him wheat? How many awards would he win for being a blonde horse? Everyone has seen a blonde horse! But a sunshine yellow one? Think!”
“What if we give him the freshest, most golden wheat?”
“No,” the farmer spat, “Do not disgrace me with such stupid talk. I want you to go into the forest and search for buttercups.”
“But there are wolves in the forest!”
“They sleep during the day. You will be safe. It’s early yet. Why, the sun has only just risen.”
The farmer’s daughter gulped.
“Come on,” the farmer said, “You don’t want the yellow horse to starve, do you? What would happen to our family then? Without the yellow horse, we starve, too.”
The little girl shook her head and turned toward the forest, basket in hand. From a distance, the clusters of oaks and sycamores appeared black. The girl was surprised by how full all of the trees appeared. She did not recall them having such thick foliage.
The girl hesitated before entering the unknown realm. Never once had she played there, too frightened by what lurked behind the trees. Her mother had scared her with too many witches’ tales. But the farmer’s daughter had an obligation to her father and, more importantly to her, the yellow horse. She poked her toe onto the first inch of wild land.
As soon as the girl stepped into the forest, an explosion of cawing and twittering rushed into the air. The flight of thousands of birds toward the clouds disrobed the trees. Feathers had formed what the girl saw as such peculiar foliage. Praying that the birds’ cries would not deafen her, the farmer’s daughter threw her hands to her ears. She fell to the ground and folded into the tightest shape her bones and tendons would allow. Over and over she wished she were still on the farm, petting the yellow horse’s pretty neck.
Finally, the birds disappeared, evaporating like drops of sweat on a mule’s hairy back. The girl stood up and brushed herself off.
“Are there any wolves out there?” she asked the forest.
The forest responded with silence.
The girl took yet another ambivalent step forward, holding her basket behind her. She trembled, thinking that the forest was even bigger and farther from the farmhouse than she remembered. It was quieter and darker, too. With so little sunlight touching the forest floor, the girl questioned how buttercups could grow there. Yet she returned to her father’s words. The girl would not let her family starve. She wandered from log to toadstool, from toadstool to pond, from pond to stump, and from stump to shrub. She repeated the process as many times as she could muster her courage to do.
However, not once did she spot a buttercup, not even a stray petal nestled between two blades of grass. Mostly, the girl found briars that whipped at her lean legs, scraped her hands, and tangled themselves in her hair. She licked her blood and shuddered at its saltiness. One cut ran so deep, however, that her tongue could not heal it. The girl walked up to a stream and tried to hum but found that she could not. So she set about washing her wounded arm. When the girl finished, she examined her reflection. She looked exhausted. Not wanting to think about her fatigue, the farmer’s daughter wondered how the yellow horse would react to his own reflection.
Suddenly a wolf howled, long and deep. The girl dropped her basket and rushed back to the farm. She jumped over rocks and plants she did not bother to recognize. The harder she ran, the harder the girl pushed herself through briars, thereby cutting herself more. Yet she continued running, not once stopping to lick her wounds.
“Papa!” she screamed as soon as she reached the barn, “Papa!”
The farmer put down his hoe. “Did you find buttercups?” His voice brimmed with hope.
“No! I looked and looked—“
“No? You were gone hours, child!”
“I heard a wolf!”
“Nonsense. I told you, wolves sleep during the day.”
“Now what will we feed the yellow horse?”
“Wheat, Papa. The mule and ox—“
“No. That is unacceptable. We do not feed the yellow horse what we feed the mule and ox. He is not common like they are.”
“Then what will the yellow horse eat?”
The farmer stared sternly at his daughter and ordered her to clean the chicken coop while he mulled over a solution. The little girl sighed, worried what would happen to the yellow horse, but she dared not disobey her father. She raced to the chicken coop, pigtails soaring. Perhaps some buttercups grew there along the fringes of the coop.
The yellow horse whinnied as the farmer approached him.
“No need to be afraid, yellow one,” the farmer whispered, “You know me well. I would never hurt you.”
The man ran his calloused fingers over the horse’s shiny coat. He pinched the tiny ears and zigzagged his chapped palm across the elongated snout. The horse shuddered instead of responding warmly to the farmer’s kind touch.
“I know you’re hungry. I just have to think.”
The horse gazed into the farmer’s eyes. For a second, neither one of them moved.
“Girl!” the farmer finally hollered, “Come here!”
The girl put down the hen resting in her lap and scuttled out of the chicken coop. When she came to her father’s side, the farmer withdrew a couple of coins from his pocket. “Take these,” he said as he placed the coins in his daughter’s hand, “And go into town. There, go to the florist’s and buy all of the yellow flowers available.”
“And if she has no yellow flowers?”
“Why, of course she will! She sells flowers in every color but green. Now, you won’t be able to carry all of them, so take the wheel borrow by the rabbit hutch. They should fit in there.”
“Yes, Papa.” The girl turned to the horse and petted the tip of its nose. “Bye, yellow horse.”
The horse twitched.
“Go,” the farmer told his daughter. “He’s hungry.”In the time it took the yellow horse to blink, the little girl had left.
“Just imagine all of the fresh tulips you will have for lunch,” the farmer cooed. He delivered a hearty thump to the horse’s back and then headed to his tractor to continue the day’s work.
The yellow horse shifted in his stall and then gazed out at the field. Not once had he stepped onto it, lest he pick up ticks and other parasites. The field was wet and verdant, so unlike the dim, dry barn where the stench spoke for the creatures living in it. Perhaps if the yellow horse had known how to run—and the pleasures of wind against his coat—he would have yearned for freedom. Now he only yearned for food. The yellow horse had always eaten buttercups and expected to eat them for as long as he lived.
An hour later, still fixated upon buttercups, the yellow horse heard an exchange between the farmer and his daughter:
“Papa, the floral shop is closed.”
“Her niece is giving birth.”
“But what of our yellow horse?”
“Wheat, Papa. Give him wheat.”
“I already told you—“
Before finishing his sentence, the farmer entered the barn. He faced the yellow horse and noticed how the animal trembled from hunger.
“Fine. But this is an exception.”
The farmer crept to the back of the barn and stared at the faded bales of hay that lay there. The hay seemed old and flavorless, so unlike the freshly picked buttercups the yellow horse was so accustomed to eating. The farmer plucked out a piece of straw, folded it in his mouth, and slowly chewed it. It tasted like damp soil.“Better a little paler yellow than dead,” the farmer muttered to himself as he spat out the piece of straw. The straw stuck onto a strand of saliva that slipped out of his mouth. He wiped the saliva away with the back of his hand, sighed, and grabbed a clump of hay.
“Yellow horse,” the farmer said, slowly nearing the creature, “Try this.”
The towering animal stared at the tuft of food that was not even as golden as his faintest of eyelashes. Then he bent down his massive head and began to eat out of the farmer’s palm.
“Good,” the farmer murmured, “Good.” Since the yellow horse did not reject the hay, the farmer decided to fill his trough with it. The famished creature immediately devoured every last straw.
“He is no weaker,” the farmer told his daughter as stood outside of the chicken coop, “Only less yellow.”
“After only one feeding, Papa? You must be imagining it.” The girl emerged from the coop, smelling of egg yolks.
“No. I can tell, child. He does not shine as brightly.”
“The buttercups will return, Papa. They have to.”
“Not with all of those nasty birds plucking away the buttercup buds before they even blossom.”
The girl fiddled with her pigtail. “Then we will keep feeding him straw until…” Her tiny voice trailed off as she perceived the disappointment growing in her father’s expression. The farmer was a tired looking man with dark, perpetually moist eyes. Wrinkles lined his forehead, the corners of his mouth, and any other space they managed to fit. Although his daughter was still young, the farmer’s hair was already grayer than the ox’s. It was so close to completely whitening.
Days and weeks and months of feeding the horse straw passed. The buttercup patch never recovered from the birds’ vicious attack. Scraggly weeds grew there instead. The florist moved away to live with her niece, the new mother, and no one else in town thought to replace her business. The family also discovered that no other yellow flowers had the same beautifying effect on the horse.
“Not even yellow roses can restore your greatness,” the farmer’s wife mumbled to the horse. She no longer touched the creature per her husband’s demand.
“See what happens when you touch him?” the farmer bellowed at his wife and daughter. “The little color he has left rubs off! Save his yellowness for the visitors.” This restriction hurt the farmer’s daughter more than anyone. She stopped arriving first at the barn in the morning. The sight of the lightening horse nearly unbraided her hair with grief.
“It’s better that I don’t visit you anymore,” the girl explained to the horse on her last morning trip. “Let Papa feed you. It makes me too sad to see you.”
As the horse’s coat faded, even the most faithful of visitors started withholding their shillings. With no money coming in, the farmer could no longer buy new seeds or supplies. His crops began to wither and on more than one occasion, he forced his daughter to beg for bread from the neighbors. The farmer continued entering the horse into pageants for a chance at prize money. Yet the days of first place winnings were of the past.
“My acres may be few and my crop yields small, but I am the only man in all the land who owns a yellow horse!” the farmer screamed when he drunkenly meandered through the town at night.
One day, months after he first began eating hay, the horse looked beyond the confines of his stall. Half a dozen crops, from potatoes to turnips, marked the stretch of land for almost as far as he could see. While that was a third of what had graced the family farm a year ago, the outlines of previously tilled land still remained. The surviving crops fed the family and every animal on the farm. The crops even fed the occasional sneaky rabbit or crow that the farmer’s daughter failed to chase away. It was the ox’s strength and duty that helped clear that land. Without the beast’s work, the family would have nothing to eat except for an odd loaf of bread from neighbors. The horse’s gaze extended farther out. A gray and brown stonewall stood at the edge of the farmland, separating the crops from the forest. That wall defined the family property and discouraged hunters from crossing into their territory. The mule, with his humble face and lumpy body, had constructed the wall.
The horse restlessly kicked his stall door and tossed his head. Suddenly his stall felt too small and he craved the puniest buttercup petal. The horse backed up to the very end of his stall and then charged forward. His might cracked the door in half. Temporarily stunned, the horse stood outside of the stall. He had never left the barn without the farmer opening the door for him.
The grass felt cold beneath his hooves, not warm and crunchy like the mulch he knew. Even the air outside of the stall felt different. The horse trotted in place, surveying the horizon. It glimmered with a misty blue-violet. The horse never noticed such a color before and now it hypnotized him. Perhaps he could better acquaint himself with it. The horse galloped toward where the sky met the stonewall in his view.
Tied up to a stake jutting out from the wall was the downtrodden mule. Everything about him seemed to droop, from his skinny ears to his fly-flicking tail. The mule glanced up when he heard the horse’s giant hooves pounding the ground. A cloud of red dust imbued the horse as it charged straight for the patch of blue-violet.
The horse was just poised to jump over the stonewall when it came to a sudden halt, almost skidding into the mule. The mule backed away as far as its chain would allow. It almost fell into the wall but managed to escape injury. Instead the mule cocked its head at the horse, who heaved before the wall. The horse’s robust chest rose and fell in rhythm with the musical conversations of the forest birds.
“My beauty is my purpose,” the horse said to himself, not intending for the mule to hear.
“This wall is my purpose,” the mule replied.
Still speaking to himself, the horse said, “But I am no longer beautiful.”
“And yet my wall still stands.”
“What?” The horse only then became aware of the mule talking. “I did not know mules could speak.”
“You thought us too stubborn to learn?” The mule smiled playfully. The horse, embarrassed, kicked at a clod of dirt. “It is you who is stubborn, horse. You never built a wall. You never cleared land. You never—”
“Did anything but look beautiful.” The horse quickly moved back away from the wall.
“What are you doing?”
The horse sped up and leaped over the wall. When he landed, he did not turn back to face the mule. He kept galloping and let out a whinny before declaring, “To find some buttercups!”
The horse followed the same path the farmer’s daughter had during her first and only venture into the forest. He wove in and out of trees and bushes, bent toward the ground. The earth there smelled richer than what he knew in the barn. When the horse looked up from time to time, he noted that the sky no longer gleamed blue-violet.
Just as the girl had, the horse persisted for hours until he finally decided to rest. He walked up to a pond and took a long drink. His nose disturbed the formerly placid waters. A hundred ripples dispersed to every edge of the pond, scaring away the lingering dragonflies.
After drinking with closed eyes, the horse finished. Then he studied his reflection for the length of a firefly’s flash. From his bantam ears to his chiseled snout to his crooked teeth, it was the first time the horse had ever seen himself. But the horse’s reflection did not please him. Almost as soon as he saw himself, he recoiled and exclaimed, “I am white!”
The horse collapsed to the ground, ending his quest for buttercups. He pressed his chin to the soil, close to the worms the mule and ox knew well, and hoped he would die then as a white horse.