Once or twice a year, when my brother and I were pinned in the house in bad weather, my mother took out the necessary equipment and made Impossible Cake. She mixed a bitter chocolate batter and blended a sweet milk, which she poured over top. At a certain point in the baking the milk and batter inverted and small animals began to grow. As the cake cooled and my brother and I hovered we could begin to see horses curled up in what looked like mud. And though it seemed like they never would, the horses began to wake and stir and struggle up, shaking the chocolate from their manes, ticking away crumbs like flies. They then set about their jumping course, leaping over the side of the pan and galloping off, disappearing as they cooled, gone in a fraction the amount of time they took to bake.
In the course of things my mother died. My father gave us some cough drops and said we could attend the funeral if we didn’t cry. My brother began to sob. I pretended. The day of the funeral we had nothing to do but play in the barn with my mother’s horse and wander around the village, shopping for minutemen yard ornaments. We thought we were really going to get it when we came home after dark but my father still hadn’t returned. So we let my mother’s horse into the house. What should have been the saddest day of our lives became the happiest as we taught the horse to dance and bow. My father didn’t come home for several weeks so we played with the horse and became inebriated on cough drops. When my father finally returned, he had a new wife. The horse, which had been so good-natured, became irate and chased him around the house. My father beat us and turned the horse out. At first the horse hung by our fence but then the hired hand shooed him into the hills where he had to fend for himself.
My father’s new wife was ridiculous but she could be a lot of fun. She taught us to pull origami birds on strings across the floor while the barn cats tried to catch them. When she was angry with my father she took us to the city and spent money on us. One day she was so mad she bought my brother a car. She said the mechanic would keep it for him until he was old enough to drive.
Eventually my father found out about the car. We lived in a small town, people talk. He put the woman out. Through the night she stood outside my window waving, hoping to be taken back. The hired hand picked her up in his truck and drove her into the hills. My father punished us further by telling us we couldn’t have heat that winter and went to see about getting a new wife. When the snow began to cover up the windows we nearly froze. We did everything to stay cheerful. We drew pictures of deep-sea fish and ships my brother hoped to captain one day. When my brother became sick we made up a game called My Darling, My Darling, in which you had three chances to guess a dying relative’s last words.
“My darling, my darling…”
“Take care of the child?”
“My darling my darling…”
“I am not dead I am only asleep?”
But the game became tiresome and my brother couldn’t keep his mind off the cold. I decided to show him a secret. But if he ever said a word I would have him killed. I told him there were men who advertized in the back of magazines that expressly killed kids who couldn’t keep secrets, real killers not plainclothes policemen. I then rolled up the top of my desk and showed him the sleeping horse that had survived one of our mother’s Impossible Cakes. He slept under a flannel cloth and on a handful of hay I’d taken from the barn. I’d dug up some roots to feed him. Nearly starved, my brother reached for a root. The horse whipped his neck around. I slammed the desk and reminded him about the killers. He didn’t sleep that night for fear of speaking unconsciously and bringing the men from the back of the magazine.
When spring came we sat in the field and thawed, drawing pictures of viperfish and angler. The day my father brought home a new wife, our church bell ringer, I asked to be sent to boarding school. The hired hand drove me to the train station. The day after that my brother was sent out to sea.
Julia Slavin is the author of The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg At the Maidstone Club and Other Stories and Carnivore Diet.