“Nonsense,” said the rocking horse with the bristle brush mane. “You’ll never be more than what you are.”
“Mrs. Bunn says that being grows with time,” began the wooden comb, heirloom from the old country, mislabeled midcentury modern.
“No. Time is being’s enemy. And Mrs. Bunn is in the dumpster now, on her way to a landfill.”
“You didn’t see it,” the comb said doubtfully, miserably. “Nobody saw it. She might be alive out there. Really alive.”
“She’s dead. Nothing left of her, not even what we have, this half-life here. She and all her talk about running wild around the world. I know you liked her, but it certainly didn’t make things easier for me.” The horse was hard as hickory. “And anyway, what would you want to be? Mrs. Bunn could dream all she wanted about running quick through the woods. I could, too, if I wanted to split what’s left of my heart. What would you do? What does a comb have to do with life?”
The comb was quiet a while. “I want to think there’s something. I think there’s something.”
The horse creaked on its rockers. Back and forth, back and forth, dull echoes against the smooth stained concrete floor.
The thrift store was mostly dead. The things were mostly dead; the people who came in were mostly dead. The horse said this was because the world could no longer imagine itself alive. The horse said that Mrs. Bunn and he still had their half-life left because of the children, but that this life too was vanishing, that even the children’s imaginations were running down like unwound clocks. He said he would be glad to go quiet at last, like the spice mill and the music box, now still as little tombstones on their shelves.
The horse couldn’t explain the comb, though. “I don’t think,” the comb said, “that anyone’s ever imagined me alive.”
“It’s because,” Mrs. Bunn had told the comb once, before she disappeared, “you are still able to imagine yourself.”
It was getting hard to imagine. The comb missed its friend, and more and more it felt that the horse was right. It wanted the stories Mrs. Bunn told about the life she was dreaming herself into.
Suddenly January rushed through the door in the company of a girl poorly dressed against the cold. The comb took notice, because the girl was most certainly alive. The comb could always tell. The girl moved through the store urgently, scanning the shelves, looking for something.
The door opened again, and someone, something, came in. The comb’s teeth tingled. This one carried winter right in with her, even after the door closed. The horse’s marble eye rolled caution. The newcomer was like an old woman, buried in fine furs double her size. She didn’t feel alive, but not dead either. Something else—something that had played with life and death for a long time and had now grown tired of the game.
The girl moved quickly through the aisles. The comb lost her, saw her again. The woman-thing who’d just come in was close behind, snuffling and searching. The girl spotted the horse and, head down, ran toward it. The horse pulled into itself, trying hard to give no indication of life. But the girl knew. She was the most alive thing the comb had ever seen, and life knows life.
The woman behind saw her and rushed forward, a gale of coats and scarves. The comb took the moment to tip itself into the endless folds of those snowy garments. The girl was pleading with the horse to live, to run, to fly, to take her away from the thing pursuing her. Please. The comb added its prayers to the girl’s. Go! What are you waiting for? This is it!
But the horse was stubborn in its fear. It stuck its hooves with all its might to the rockers, and it deadened its marble eye, and the woman-thing was on the girl like a wolf on a deer. The girl rolled away, and as the old woman snatched at her hair, the girl’s swatting hand came away with the comb. She stared at it for a second as the woman recovered her balance. The comb stared back. Life knows life.
Every story Mrs. Bunn ever told—dark forests and big trees and creatures moving furtive in the twilight—ran through the twirling grains of the wood, and the comb remembered what she was, what she knew.
The girl knew it too. She felt the ancient wood of the comb and threw it with all her might into the January woman’s face. The woman shrieked as the world flew between her and her prey.
“Go,” said the falling comb to the horse, and its voice was not the little voice of the midcentury comb on the middle shelf. It was a voice that commanded. The cracked wooden heart of the horse began to hammer with hope long forgotten, and the hooves flew off the rockers. Life shuddered in all its limbs.
The comb fell, and the pines grew tall and dark where it landed, centuries in seconds. When the horse’s hooves hit the ground, they touched not old concrete, but a deep soft carpet of needles. When the horse carried the girl away, it ran like the wind that rose before the first dawn.
The comb kept growing. The horse and rider were long gone, safe, alive. The old woman wandered the woods for what may have been hours and may have been centuries. It was all one to the comb now. At last she retreated, an angry fading ghost of winter. The wind sighed in the trees.
Then the rabbits came. They came in hundreds, padding through the white clover growing in abundance in the patches that the light hit, scuffling into little pine-root dens, and the trees greeted them, almost weeping as they whispered: alive, alive, alive.
Spread the word!