Somewhere between the melting mountaintops and simmering seas was a magical land called Polk County, Iowa. The people there worked tirelessly for almost no money, and what little they could save, they wagered on horses at the Altoona Raceway.
On the outskirts of Altoona sat a pittance of a farm, ironically named “Queen’s Acres.” Its owner was Juno, an ornery woman who had inherited the property “fair and fucking square” from her thankfully departed mother, Sybil.
The farm had passed over Juno’s sister Pinky who had once been the apple of Sybil’s eye but had failed so spectacularly at life that even her own mother could not, in good conscience, bequeath her any more resources with which to finance her ruin.
Some years before going AWOL from rehab and presumably ending up dead in some forlorn alley, Pinky became pregnant by Ace Jenkins, a local gambler and hard-living man. She birthed a girl-child named Vicky-V, who, despite her luckless life, grew up to be as self-possessed as a wild-living mule.
After Pinky’s departure, Ace and Vicky-V lived in a rusted-out trailer parked in a vacant field adjacent to Queen’s Acres. Ace had come to realize that, although outwardly unyielding and rotten, Juno was sometimes surprisingly soft-hearted and was likely the only person in town who would not call the sheriff when he spliced her power line to steal hydro.
This uneasy arrangement might have persisted indefinitely were it not for a horse named Princess. Around the time of Pinky’s escape from rehab, Juno returned home with the hardest-muscled mare Polk County had ever seen. Juno told everyone in town that she intended to succeed where both her mother and sister had failed, tame the fearsome animal, and bring home the Altoona Tri-State cup.
Unfortunately, the horse proved wild and unmanageable. No fence could contain it, no saddle would stick, and two broken arms and a missing tooth later, Juno was forced to concede that Princess could not be broken and set the horse loose in the pasture.
The sight of the magnificent beast galloping through the nearby fields presented too great a temptation to Vicky-V, who, being a motherless child, was in search of a more worthy vessel for her adoration.
After several clandestine journeys over the electric fence, Juno pulled Ace aside and told him to keep his creep kid away from her horse unless he wanted to find himself with a throat full of teeth. Ace was not entirely drawn in by this bravado but did sit Vicky-V down to explain the possible downsides of messing with her Auntie Juno.
“Juno’s a witch just like her mother Sybil was,” he said.
“Horseballs, and you know it,” Vicky-V replied.
“Nope. Your grandma was fiercer than Satan’s left nut. It was her curse that killed our Pinky.”
“Didn’t like that Pinky was a partier. Thought she should be on horseback 24/7 so she could sweep Tri-State.”
“Sounds like a better option than the one she took.”
“Trouble with our Pinky was, the only sure way to get her to do something was to tell her she had to do the opposite. Also, she hated to be in the saddle. Tri-State was Sybil’s dream, not hers.”
“So Mama’s dream was to get herself addicted to Percs, pull a runner from rehab, and leave you to raise her charming child?”
“One thing I know is your mother loved you. Just some things are bigger than all of us. She wasn’t strong enough to break Sybil’s curse.”
“Sybil told your mother if she didn’t quit the drugs and win Tri-State, she’d curse her to a life of shit.”
“Parents are always saying stuff like that.”
“But Sybil’s curses were legend. Back in eighty-nine, when your Aunty Juno’s only pal Darla said Juno was ugly as a cow’s udder and called off the friendship, Sybil told her she’d see soon enough what ugly looked like. The very next day, she got that face-fungus that never really cleared up even after they sent her to that hotshot clinic in Boise. Not gonna tell me that’s a coincidence. Polk folks say the reason I’ve got such rotten luck is that I was fool enough to hitch myself to Old Witch Sybil’s prize horse.”
“Probably got more to do with you always betting too much on the long shots.”
“Smartass like your mother. God, I miss her.”
“Tell you what, Dad. You can take that whole curse nonsense and shove it. I love that horse. Don’t ask me why, but something glues me to Princess. I almost feel like I can read her thoughts. As far as Princess is concerned, Juno can eat shit. It’s me Princess trusts, and if Juno would just let me ride her, I bet I could make Tri-State, and then Mama and Sybil both would have to rise from their filthy graves and congratulate me.”
Ace and Vicky-V were so deep into their conversation that they didn’t notice Juno approaching.
“A fifteen-year-old punk will never make Tri-State,” Juno growled. “Especially one who’s spent more time in the ditch than the saddle.”
Vicky-V planted her hands on her hips and took a stance so aggressive it almost made Ace’s heart break from the memory of her mother.
“Just you two jerk-offs try and stop me,” Vicky-V declared.
Despite appearances, Juno was not entirely immune to the plight of her wayward niece. She started turning a blind eye to Vicky-V’s visits to the barn and eavesdropped on her one-sided conversations with Princess. At first, Vicky-V’s words were tentative, but eventually, her association with the horse became a sort of confessional.
One evening while Juno was out chain-smoking Virginia Slims beside corn stalks, she heard Vicky-V say, “Why didn’t she quit like Daddy did, Princess? He said I deserve better than two parents underground, and that’s what keeps him clean. But he’s not the sharpest knife. So probably he’s wrong.” Juno leaned closer as Vicky-V dropped her voice to a whisper. “Sometimes, I think I deserve all that comes to me because I’m so rotten.”
Princess only whinnied in response to Vicky-V’s musings, but the girl seemed to take some comfort from the horse’s listening ear.
Soon after that conversation, Juno confronted Vicky-V.
“This farm is mine, girl, and you’ve got no claim to it. You want to ride the horse? You work for me, as an employee, mind, not as family. You haven’t got a chance in hell of succeeding, but maybe it’s about time someone taught you your limitations. And if by some miracle, you do break Princess and make her a champ, maybe you’ll reverse the curse your mother brought to this family.”
“If I ride Princess,” Vicky-V said, “It’ll only be because I feel like it. I’ve got nothing to prove to you or my witchy old Granny. Got no curse on me, have I? Mama wasn’t much, but she never wished me ill.”
Suddenly, Princess squealed from inside the barn.
“Oh, have at her, you old nag!” Juno yelled. “Show her what it feels like to be a failure.”
Vicky-V balled her fists into her armpits and got right up in Juno’s face. “This time next year, it’ll be Princess and me in the winner’s circle at Altoona. Just you friggin’ watch.”
Juno waited as her niece marched toward the barn and, when she was sure Vicky-V was not going to turn around, she allowed herself to smile.
The first time Vicky-V attempted to climb into Princess’s saddle, the horse seemed skittish, and Juno had second thoughts.
“Maybe you should leave it,” Juno said. “This family’s had enough tragedy.”
But Vicky-V had determined eyes. “Nah. Princess is just excited. Look how her nostrils are quivering.”
“Can’t tell shit from the twitch of a horse, girl,” Juno said. “Old Sybil doesn’t need to curse you. You’ll have all the trouble you need on account of your bull head.”
“I’ll have no trouble from my Princess. We have an agreement. She’ll never hurt me because she knows I love her.”
“Can’t see how you’d make an agreement with a damn horse,” Juno said.
“Princess is my best friend. I know what she needs.”
“What a horse needs is lots of hay and an occasional kick in the ass.”
“Attitude like that; it’s no wonder the only folks that like you are livestock.”
Juno dropped her eyes, and Vicky-V was startled to realize she had hit bone.
Vicky-V softened her tone and slipped into Princess’s saddle. “All any animal needs is someone to be in their corner.”
Vicky-V urged Princess forward, and without so much as a snort, the horse complied.
“I’ll be damned,” Juno said.
Princess trotted haughtily past, and as she did, she pursed black lips and spat atop Juno’s boot.
It wasn’t many months before Vicky-V and Princess stood at the gate at the Altoona Raceway.
“How old are you anyway? Twelve?” sneered the jockey beside them.
“Sixteen,” replied Vicky-V, “and old enough to kick your pickled butt.”
Princess stomped the dirt beneath her powerful legs.
“Can it, will ya? Vicky-V hissed as she smoothed her hand across Princess’s jaw with more tenderness than her words seemed to justify. “Save it for the track and stop being such a dumbass.” Princess snorted with her typical rudeness but proceeded past the bars.
“Come on, girls!” Ace cried from where he sat in the stands beside the cross-armed Juno. The bookies had said that Vicky-V and Princess were the longest shot in Tri-State history, so, true to form, Ace had bet everything he had on the race. Despite his long list of past failures, both father and daughter were sure today was the day they would finally spit in bad fortune’s eye.
“Do it for Pinky!” Ace yelled.
Princess threw her head back, and Vicky-V snapped the reins. “Settle,” she said. “He ain’t talkin’ to you. He’s talkin’ about my Ma.”
The pistol fired, and as soon as Princess’s feet hit the dirt, the air seemed to grow thin around them. It felt like something seismic was shifting just below the track’s surface as Vicky-V and Princess sliced through the atmosphere as one continuous being. Before long, the conclusion was foregone, and the crowd erupted into mystified cheering.
Vicky-V raised a victorious fist as they burst through the ribbon, but Princess skittered to an abrupt halt, let out an unholy howl, and fell to her knees. Vicky-V tumbled from the horse, and as soon as she had rolled clear, Princess righted herself and took off running. The crowd scattered in the stands as Princess burst through the confines of the racing circle and tore off across the parking lot.
Ace and Juno clamored their way onto the track as Vicky-V rose unsteadily to her feet. Juno turned and bolted after the disappearing Princess, howling like a wounded animal. “Come back, you asshole!” she cried. “You won’t get away from me again! Come back!”
Vicky-V came to stand beside her aunt and rested her open palm on Juno’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Auntie,” she said. “Princess always finds her way home.”
When they returned to Queen’s Acres, there was a rustling in the barn, but when they reached the stable, Princess was missing. In her place stood a woman covered, from her hairsprayed bangs to her acid-washed jean-cuffs, in translucent slime.
“Goddamn you, Juno! What’d you douse me with here?”
Juno’s gentle laughter filtered through the barn.
“Can’t expect a transformation without making a bit of a mess, Sister.”
The woman stomped her foot against the barn-boards and hollered, “Get your ass over here and make me presentable for my daughter.”
Juno smiled and raised her hands before her. Then, a bright light appeared, and the slime vanished.
Ace’s voice was thick with disbelief. “Pinky?”
“No, asswipe, it’s Mr. Blond come to cut your goddamn ear off. ‘Course it’s me. Now get over here and kiss me.”
“But Juno said….”
“I goddamn know what Juno said. Went up to that rehab, but by the time she got there, I was already gone? Lost me to the streets once and for all, and the best thing for everyone was if they told themselves I was dead?
“Don’t try to catch up, Ace. You’ll only confuse yourself.” Pinky turned to Juno. “Why don’t you tell him what you did, you old cow?”
Juno snorted. “Turned you into a horse right there in the rehab parking lot, didn’t I? Stuffed your sorry ass into the trailer and brought you on home.”
“All this bellyaching about me being mom’s favorite, and who’d Sybil give her magic to?”
“Why a horse?” Ace asked.
“Because she hates me,” Pinky said.
“No,” Juno said, looking beyond Pinky to the empty stable. “I did it because you were my best friend, and it was the only way I could figure out to keep you alive. Needed to keep you from the percs for long enough to dry yourself out. I can’t hold onto much in my life, can I? The only thing I know how to keep is horses.”
“Oh, buck up, Juno! I hate you when you’re mopey like this. Now listen. You didn’t even give me a voice! I had to communicate with my own kid through blinking and bloody horse sounds.”
“Let you see her, didn’t I? Even made her think it was her idea, so she’d be sure to stick with you. Couldn’t tell her outright. She’d have gone all hero, discover her own magic, and screw up my plan.”
“My own magic?”
“Come off it, Vicky-V. You never wondered how a 16-year-old kid could stick to the back of a racehorse no adult could tame? It’s obvious Sybil’s line runs to you.”
“Three years you kept up this friggin’ hoax!” Pinky interjected.
“Problem was,” Juno continued, ‘It wasn’t only my magic we had to contend with. There was also Sybil’s.”
“She’d live a life of shit unless she won Tri-State,” said Ace and Vicky-V in unison.
“And what did she just do, Einsteins?”
“She won Tri-State.”
“You see? The old bitch never specified which role Pinky had to play. There’s always a back door exit to a curse if you look for it.”
“What happens now?” Ace whispered.
“Happily ever after,” Pinky said, opening her arms toward her family.
“If you believe that,” Juno said, “you’re a bigger horse’s ass than you were five minutes ago.”
Truer words were never spoken.
There were more broken teeth, visits to rehab, and fortunes lost at the Altoona racetrack in the years that followed. The seas simmered, the mountains melted, and by the time the good citizens of Polk County were wiped from the face of the trembling earth, there was barely enough dry land to contain them. But everyone lived longer than they ought to have, and between their plentiful heartaches lived tiny moments of joy.
And maybe that is the happiest ending any of us simple animals can ever hope for.