In a previous post I mentioned how different our memories sometimes paint the stories of our childhood, and that how, for me, the underlying theme of Housmans’ Rocking Horse Land was so much changed between my reading of it as a child and my reading of it as an adult.
Well, one of the pictures I took for Christmas jumped out at me. My daughter’s old rocking horse “E” (short for E,I,E,I,O) was in that picture. He is a little worse for wear, having survived not just her childhood but a number of friends’ children who hugged him and hung off his neck when they came to visit. Of course, he weathered all this attention with the stoicism that all well-loved toys do. I can’t bring myself to let him go, so he is now a permeant decoration at Christmas. He was a rescue, like so many other things around my house (such as the wide-eyed cat next to him whose previous home had been the parking lot at my husband’s work). We found “E” at Home Depot where he had already been broken by a couple of larger children who had used him roughly, so he came home with us.
Anyway, I don’t know who to blame, the picture or the post, but a story popped into my head which I am now sharing with you. It is heavily influenced by my memories of Rocking Horse Land, but you will find a number of differences between the original and my retelling, the most notable being the underlying theme. Still, I hope you will enjoy it!
(Fair warning, this is a first draft. The sketch is conceptual and typos are likely!)
The Rocking Horse
When the children woke on Christmas morning they found piles of presents under the tree. There was something for everyone: George had his clockwork mice and Teddy his paint set. There was a working train, complete with bright red caboose, for William; and a silver comb and mirror for Sarah. And for Nell a tea set of her very own, packed neatly in a picnic basket for her to take on her adventures. However, everyone agreed that the grandest gift of all was the great black rocking horse that stood at the far end of the nursery.
What a fine proud head it had! And the rippling mane that fell from its high-crested neck was long and full, it nearly touched the ground. The tiny golden bells which hung from its saddle and reins chimed merrily with each graceful sway of the rocking horse’s head. A small brass plate affixed to his bridle proclaimed his name to be Roland.
The children, one and all, hugged the creature’s beautiful neck and stroked its soft nostrils. They, each one, kissed the broad forehead between its eyes. And what eyes those were! Great eyes the color of fire which shone so wonderfully bright. They seemed as though they must really be alive as if at any moment they would blink and look around. But they did not, only continued to stare ahead, unmoving.
Each child took turns riding on the great creature’s back; its swaying gate carrying them off bravely into battle, or into the unknown of wild frontiers and landscapes as yet unseen. He was their gallant charger, elegant palfrey, or loyal packhorse.
But eventually, the children’s interest waned. George returned to his clockwork mice and Teddy to his paint set. William gathered up his train and set off in search of places to set its tracks and Sarah used her silver comb to brush her doll’s hair. One by one they all drifted away, all except Nell.
She dearly loved Roland, and all day long she sat upon his back, rocking furiously as she imagined them riding through wildflower meadows and along rainbow streams flowing beneath sherbet-colored skies.
In fact, Nell was having so much fun with Roland that she forgot about dinner entirely. And when bedtime came, she had to be lifted from the saddle, having fallen asleep with her arms wrapped tightly around the rocking horse’s neck.
So it should come as no surprise that having missed dinner, she was quite hungry when she woke later that night. She slipped from her warm bed and padded down the hall towards the stairs that would lead her to the kitchen.
As she passed the nursery door she paused, having a great desire to check on Roland. She longed to see the grand creature with his splendid, rippling tail and great fiery eyes, just for a moment.
When she opened the door she was surprised to find the corner where he had been empty. The soft chiming of bells drew her eyes to the other side of the nursery. There Roland stood in front of the large windows, as though he watched the clouds moving across the sky high above. Nell wondered how he had gotten there and went over to see, resting her hand on the soft black nose. When she looked up into the rocking horse’s eyes she found them full of tears. One fell silvery bright onto her hand, where it lay warm and real.
“Roland, gentle Roland, why are you crying?” she asked.
“Because I miss my home sweet Nell,” Roland answered. “I can hear my mares and foals whinnying to me as they race over the hills.”
“Why don’t you go to them?” the girl asked.
“Because I am bound here, and so cannot leave,” the rocking horse replied.
“You are a prisoner?” Nell said. It broke her heart to see her gentle, patient Roland sad. So even though she would miss him terribly, she opened the window that he might go back to the home he so clearly loved.
“Ah, thank you, kind Nell,” he said. “But I do not wish to leave you either for we have had such a wonderful time together. Search through my mane until you find a silver hair. There will be only one. Pluck it, and wear it round your finger. When the dawn comes, open the window and call my name and I will return to you happily.”
She searched through his mane, and found the single silver hair, just as Roland had said. She plucked it and braided it to make a ring for her finger. The rocking horse nodded his head once, then with a joyous ringing of bells, he lifted up into the air. Through the nursery window he flew, racing out across the starry night sky, high up over the moon-silvered clouds, heading towards his home in Rocking Horse Land.
Nell went back to bed, her rumbling tummy forgotten. She ran her finger of the silver ring until she fell asleep, and dreamed of Rocking Horse Land. She could see them all racing over emerald hills as smooth as glass. Their proud heads nodding up and down, up and down in their particular way as they strove to go faster. Their shining manes streaming out behind them with their speed. Silvery dapples, coppery chestnuts and golden cremellos, one by one they raced by. And in front of them all, was the ebony figure of her beloved Roland.
She was up before dawn to make sure the nursery window was open, calling Roland’s name out into the pale morning light. And there he was, dipping and dancing through the fading shadows until he floated through the open window and landed at her feet.
“Did you have fun, my dearest Roland?”
“Yes, my sweet Nell, it was wonderful! Thank you,” and with that, he was still. His limbs ridge once more as his eyes stared fixedly ahead, just as one would expect a rocking horse to be.
Nell returned to the nursery again that night and every night after, to open the window for Roland. Every morning he returned as promised so that he might carry Nell off on her adventures the whole day long.
Christmas morning came around again, and again the children were greeted with brightly wrapped presents waiting for them under the tree.
George got a clockwork cat to chase his clockwork mice, and Teddy finally had an easel to hold up his canvases. William got little houses and stores with people to set up alongside his train’s tracks and Sarah finally got the pair of long gloves she had wished for all year, the ones with tiny pearl buttons. But it was Nell’s gift that was the most unexpected.
It came in the form of a lovely white pony and from that day on they went everywhere together.
Still, every night Nell would remember to open the window for Roland. And sometimes if the weather was foul or if she just had a mind to, she would go to the nursery to sit on his back, rocking to and fro as she told him of her latest adventures.
Eventually there were other children; younger brothers and sisters who hugged Roland’s beautiful neck and kissed him between his great fiery eyes. They would ride on his strong back and makeup adventures of their own. And they began to leave the window open for Roland at night.
There came a time when Nell realized it had been some time since she had been in the nursery. So she snuck down the hall that evening and peaked in the door. She found Roland standing at the window staring forlornly out at the trees swaying in the night breeze. His bridle was missing a bell or three and his mane and tail were perhaps not as full as they had once been, yet he was still beautiful and his great eyes still shone brightly.
“Ah, sweet Nell, have you finally remembered me?” he asked, and though his voice was sad, it held no blame in it.
“My wonderful, patient Roland, I am so sorry!” she exclaimed as she hugged his neck and stroked his long soft muzzle. “You gave me so many happy memories, shared so many of my dreams, and kept all my confidences. I love you so, but I see now that it is past time I set you free. Be well, my dear Roland.” With that she opened the window.
The great rocking horse swayed, dipping his head so deeply that it nearly touched the floor, and then with a jubilant ringing of bells, he sprang out into the night sky.
Nell unwound the band of silver that circled her finger and let the evening breeze carry it away to follow behind the one who had gifted it to her. She thought that she could hear the sound of joyous whinnying; a welcoming home to one long lost. Smiling, she quietly closed the window and locked it.