Green Hills Literary Lantern



Wild Horses



Her name was Darcy Patterson and she was in my third-grade class, my Brownie troop, and, on Saturdays, was my partner at Dorothy Cannon’s art studio, where the crowded shelves filled with cardboard, paper, paints, glue, stones, metal pieces, and a variety of other assorted materials beckoned us to indulge at our pleasure to create whatever we chose. On my office wall today hangs the butterfly picture I made on balsa wood. A butterfly whose body and antennae were formed of upholstery tacks, large and small, and whose two wings were painted in turquoise, orange, magenta, and green tempera and sprinkled with sand and glitter. My mother enclosed the butterfly in a golden hued frame and displayed it in the living room of my childhood home, where it shone proudly until she sold the house, just a few years before her death. But in spite of cheeriness of my butterfly, I was envious of what Darcy could do. On the butterfly day, as we sat side by side at the studio, two artists at work, compatriots sharing in the joy of creation, I stopped momentarily to glance up from my simple portrait of the bug with two colorful and pretty wings, my eyes falling on what appeared to me as Darcy’s perfect, in-progress depiction of the overlapping fore and hind wings of the insect, symmetrically aligned in size, shape, and design, each wing apexed, and bursting with graceful arcs bordered by delicate dots surrounding an interior of subtle colors. These words didn’t come to me then, but the understanding of the comparison still dawned full. ‘Naive.’ ‘Masterly.’ Darcy, catching my glance looked towards me. She held no swagger or conceit. She was as natural in her artistry as she was in our friendship. Lively, genuine, free. But my work looked like a nine-year-old’s creation, while whatever came from Darcy’s hand emerged so deep, true, and sophisticated, it was as if her ten fingers held magic from which flowed art from the stars.


Mrs. Walters, our third-grade teacher, was a tall, handsome woman with chestnut hair who once showed us drawings made by third graders who had been in her class in the 1940s, years before any of us had even been born, and who were now, she told us, grown up with children of their own. She was amiable and understanding, but always maintained a firm grip on a room full of middle graders, except for the time she read us a poem that had the word “bosom” in it. “Bosom buddies” was the term the poet used, but little difference that made. She cared for all her students and once, in the middle of the school year, asked my mother to come in for a private conference to share her concern about changes she saw emerging in me. I was becoming withdrawn, sullen, sad. “Was something going on at home?” she’d asked my mother, a few years still before the quietly rumbling fault lines my parents had buried hidden erupted in our home.


In the spring of our third-grade year, just as the longer sunshiny days were beginning to melt winter’s chill and summon all nine-year-olds to the out-of-doors, Mrs. Walters announced a new project for the class. One that would continue through to semester’s end. Modeling with ceramic clay. That moist and mushy, moldable sienna mud you could squish and squeeze between your fingers to explore and experiment, to flatten and roll, to build and shape and mold and create. A table was to be set up just outside the classroom door. A classroom table. And each day, one child would be allowed to sit outside the room, during regular class time, accompanied by sunshine alone, and sculpt with clay. Each day a new person.


Darcy was one of the first. She was second, third, or fourth only. We were going around the room by seating order. Only, we never got further than Darcy. When Mrs. Walters saw what Darcy could do, it stopped there. Every day, Darcy. Darcy only. I was shocked. It was not the delight or awe Mrs. Walters might have felt when she saw what could be born of Darcy’s hands that upset me, for I already was witness to that awesome skill, but instead Mrs. Walters’ reaction to it. She who was so fair and even-handed in all else. Here, now, singling out one child alone, talented or no, to be given the sole privilege of exploration. Never to know what might be possible from any other child’s hand. Never to give that opportunity to another. To damn all from experimentation save the one known talent. To honor one skill level alone. To find that one level only worthy of creative, muddy play.


Yet, by nature, I was a quiet child, so my protestations never made it to the light of the classroom day, neither to be volunteered in open comment, nor quietly confessed in a confidential conference, where, in either case, they might have reached Mrs. Walters’ ears, or even, her heart.


Every day that year Darcy sat outside the classroom for an hour and molded ceramic clay, sculpting it into whatever vision danced in her imagination. Usually horses. She loved horses. When I went to her house to play, we pretended we were horses. Gave ourselves horse names (horse names that have long since faded from memory) and ran through the neighborhood envisioning our manes and tails flying in the kiss of the wind. She would be roan, I palomino. How we’d race along the sidewalks and over the grass. She with her wavy auburn hair and classical look, in spite of the freckles that decorated her face, and I with my curly-haired mane.


When my mother insisted that I invite skinny little Sheila Gregory, who had no adventure, whom no one favored, who yearned to befriend me because I was kind to her, over on a Saturday, after her mother had cried and begged my mother to do so, until my mother acquiesced; whose father, years later, was the engineer in charge of removing the legendary sixty foot tall painted pink naked lady (who appeared mysteriously late one night, and lasted but a few days, on the rock face of the mountain cliff above the tunnel on Malibu Canyon as it snakes through the hills of Los Angeles from the suburbs to the beach), I introduced Sheila to the game of horses. Choosing horse names, horse colors, and running like a breeze, flying through blue-tinted skies with manes and tails floating through the clouds on cantering speed as our hooves danced.


It was all right. Just no magic. Little Sheila with her mouse-colored, stringy, straight hair, small eyes too close, and pole-like legs, an unadventurous soul (or so it seemed to us) whom everyone avoided. She didn’t have grand ideas. Wasn’t wild. And though she was game, she didn’t fly like the wind. Not like Darcy. For the love of God, no. Darcy was the real deal. No chop suey, she. Her spirit grander than a horse’s heart. Her soul was gallop. Her art, at just nine, even, a deep well that could humble a third-grade teacher. A partner in crime, a sister in imagination, a friend, a true friend. You know what I’m saying? Who better to have as a horse companion, free as the wind, soaring on a dream, running wild until at all of age eleven, when suddenly, unexpectedly, and to everyone’s surprise, in the middle of one night, Darcy died. Brain hemorrhage. Do wild horses die?


For half a century, my mother and I debated the best way for her to have handled the Sheila Gregory episode. An issue we never resolved. After sixth grade, Sheila and I, at different schools, lost touch. Many years later, I heard she’d become a librarian.


Darcy, she’s still running free.








Marilee Robin Burton is the author-artist of several picture books, one picture book app, and author also of middle grade fiction and nonfiction, as well as more than one hundred little books used in elementary classrooms across the United States. Some of her children's books include Tail Toes Eyes Ears Nose and Artists at Work. A former teacher and classroom kindergarten magazine editor, she has also been published in teaching and parenting magazines such as Creative Classroom Magazine and Comprehension Quarterly, and more recently, in literary journals such as Crack the Spine, Writers Tribe Review, and FRE&D. She lives in Van Nuys, California with her partner (who conveniently is also her electrician) and their two Rhodesian ridgeback dogs.