Beware of the schlechter Draam — although not always in the way you expect.
By S.M. Grable
“There’s a trailer pulling in,” Ashley called from over the hay bale that she carried as Maggie passed.
“That’ll be the new arrival,” Maggie sighed, setting the water buckets down at the side of the aisle and tucking flyaway strands of hair behind her ears. “Can you get the lesson kids going while I get them settled?”
“Sure thing,” Ashley replied. “Do you think this group is up for a trail ride? The leaves are really turning out there.”
“Sounds like a great idea, Ash,” Maggie replied, wiping her hands on her breeches as she jogged for the door.
Fiery leaves crunched under Maggie’s booted feet as she stepped into the warm late-October sun to meet the truck and trailer, still maneuvering to park in the gravel yard.
“That’s fine, right there,” Maggie called, holding her hands up to signal the driver. The trailer lurched to a stop. A frantic scrambling came from inside, along with a nervous whinny.
“Best get her out quick,” the driver said as he got out of his truck. “She’s been fussy the whole trip. You got a rope?”
“Uh, yeah,” Maggie said, ducking back into the barn for a moment to grab a long line. “Is it just you?” she asked as she returned.
“Uh-huh,” the driver grunted, lifting the latch on the trailer door. “You ready?”
Maggie nodded and looked into the cavernous interior. A big-bodied black mare stood near the front of the open box, glaring over her shoulder at the barn manager.
“Come on, girl,” Maggie muttered, keeping her voice low and her eyes soft as she approached, her hand outstretched. “Settle down, now, and we’ll get you out of here, huh?”
The mare snorted and gave a muffled squeal. Maggie paused but crossed the last few feet to snap the line onto the mare’s halter.
Another scramble and they were out of the trailer, and Maggie got her first good look at the mare. She was big, at least sixteen-two, and mostly legs. Her sides heaved, and her nostrils flared, her attention flitting around the new barn, and a sheen of sweat still shone on her dark coat. Maggie realized in the better light that she wasn’t black, but a deep seal brown.
“We okay, girl?” Maggie asked, reaching up to stroke the mare’s neck. The mare squealed and pinned her ears but allowed the touch.
“She’s got some attitude,” Maggie said to the driver.
“Not my problem,” the driver replied with a shrug. He reached through the truck window for a manila envelope. “Here,” he said, adding a crumpled check to the envelope. “Owner said that should cover the first month’s board.”
“Thanks,” Maggie said, taking the paperwork and stuffing the check into her pocket as she watched the driver get back into the truck and pull the rig away, leaving them standing in the barnyard.
“Woo, she’s purdy!” Ashley’s voice carried. She rode out from behind the barn on her dappled gelding with the four students mounted on lesson ponies following.
“Give her some space,” Maggie warned. “She seems a bit flighty.”
“Right,” Ashley said with an understanding nod. “Come on, guys, let’s go out to the apple orchard!”
As the lesson group rode away, Maggie led the mare into the barn and put her into the box stall they had prepared for her that morning.
“New horse?” a voice behind her made Maggie jump. When she saw Obie, the elderly Amishman from down the lane, standing in the aisle, she relaxed.
“Yeah,” Maggie said, hanging the halter and rope on their hook. “She’s a handful.”
“Schlechter Draam,” Obie muttered under his breath.
“Schlechter Draam,” Obie repeated, pointing at the mare, who seemed to be looking down her nose at them inside her stall.
Maggie squinted, trying to translate the Amishman’s words.
“Bad dream?” Maggie said, arriving at her best guess. “Is that what that means? Like a nightmare?”
Obie nodded without taking his eyes off of the mare.
“Aw, she’s not a nightmare!” Maggie said with a laugh, reaching up to stroke the mare’s cheek before she peeled the manila envelope open to pick through the paperwork. “She’s got a name, hang on… Godiva. I suppose that suits her.” Maggie shook the papers back down into the envelope. “Come on, Obie, let’s let the lady settle in.”
Obie nodded but muttered something into his grizzled beard that Maggie didn’t hear.
“I’m sorry?” she said.
“Beware the schlechter Draam,” Obie said, with an air of foreboding that raised the hair on the back of Maggie’s neck. “Watch yourself, Miss Maggie.”
Obie shuffled away down the barn, vanishing down the side-corridor where Maggie kept the forks and shovels.
Maggie shook herself and left Godiva in her stall, the Amishman’s words rattling around her mind as she went back to the little office she kept in the corner of the tack room. She poured herself some coffee from the ancient drip pot, hoping that the brew would settle her nerves, and began to update her records to account for the new arrival.
Ashley returned with the lesson group before long, and Maggie shifted gears to help the students untack the ponies and get them back into their stalls. Then, as the last of the students left, Ashley and Maggie began preparing the evening feed.
“She is a looker,” Maggie said with a smile, finding Obie hovering at Godiva’s door when she arrived there with the mare’s evening ration.
“Just keeping an eye on her,” Obie said. “I suggest you do the same. Schlechter Draame can be tricky things.”
“Thanks, Obie.” Maggie dumped the scoop into the manger and bolted the stall door for the night.
Maggie sat bolt upright in bed, gasping for air and drenched in sweat. She pressed a hand to her chest, willing her pulse to settle as she gulped air, trying to shake off the shade of the dream.
Faintly, behind her, Maggie heard the whisper of a whinny. She twisted, looking out the bedroom window. The barn was there, a hulking dark shadow faintly gleaming under the light of the waxing moon. She gulped back the fading night terror and listened again. The whinny didn’t repeat, and nothing looked or sounded amiss around the barn. She settled back down into bed, and sleep slowly drifted back over her.
The week passed without a great deal of difference from the usual. Maggie did chores, rode her horses, and conducted lessons. Godiva remained fussy and highly strung, and by the end of the first week, Maggie decided that it was simply the mare’s nature. Obie gave the stall a wide berth when he was in the barn.
Maggie began to expect the unsettling dreams each night. Without fail, she would wake, soaked in sweat, the sound of whinnies echoing in her head.
On the third night after the mare’s delivery, as she sat up gasping for her mind to stop spinning in the darkness, the whinnies grew louder and louder. Finally, as one whinny seemed almost at her elbow, making her jump nearly out of her skin, she leaped into her slippers, grabbed her robe as she passed, and ran out to the barn.
The shrieking whinnies continued as she rushed through the chill late-October night, a crisp breeze ruffling her hair. She heaved the bar off of the door and strode down the central aisle.
The horses were fussy, most nickering restlessly, a few kicking or striking at the walls. The wind carried into the barn, whipping dust and loose hay and bedding into the air. Maggie reached for the light switch, but the lights didn’t come on.
“Damn,” Maggie swore, fumbling her way into the barn office for her flashlight so that she could see to check the barn properly.
Armed with the flashlight and a bag of carrots snagged from the mini-fridge in the office, she started going from stall to stall, looking for anything to explain the restless animals and trying to calm them.
Another crash rattled through the darkness, coming from farther down the barn, near Godiva’s stall. Maggie latched the lesson pony’s stall that she was standing in and rushed down the aisle.
Godiva stood near the back of the box stall, her head high, her nostrils flaring. She bobbed on her haunches, threatening to rear, her forelegs striking erratically. For a flash, Maggie thought she saw a strange gleam in the mare’s eye. Moonlight. Only moonlight filtering through the open window. Maggie tossed the last of the carrots into the mare’s feed bin and went back to the house, bolting the barn doors behind her.
Halloween morning dawned foggy and crisp, the bright sun quickly adding a layer of warmth. Maggie found Ashley already at work on the morning chores. Maggie joined, then left the barn around lunchtime to go to the feed store to put in an order and pick up some lunch for herself and the barn crew, plus an oversized bag of candy for any trick-or-treaters that might come by the barn that evening. She returned to find Ashley starting the afternoon lesson, her outdoor arena filled with half a dozen costumed students. Maggie smiled to herself as she parked the truck, but as her eye caught the brown mare, cantering restlessly along the fence of her paddock, seeming to glare at her.
Obie left just after they finished the evening feeding before the Halloween festivities began. He muttered a couple of words under his breath, and Maggie thought that she caught the phrase “schlechter Draam” again.
“Have a good night, Obie,” she said. “Thank you for everything.”
The elderly Amishman nodded, then, louder than the previous mutterings, said, “our prayers are with you.”
A chill ran up Maggie’s spine. She didn’t know how to reply and could only nod back and watch as her neighbor walked back toward his home.
When the trick-or-treat traffic slowed, Maggie shut off the lights and retreated to the comfort of a hot shower and warm pajamas. She was already expecting another restless night as she settled into bed.
The whinnies started the instant she put out the light, and she fought to ignore them, the past few nights’ experiences telling her that it had to all be in her head. Maggie pulled the blankets over her head, but the ghostly whinnies only grew louder and louder between her ears, bringing a creeping dread into her heart that something was horribly wrong.
Maggie threw the sheets and quilt aside and grabbed her bathrobe. She jumped into her rubber barn boots as she rushed outside, desperate to settle her nerves of the inexplicable terror that she couldn’t ignore.
As she ran across the yard, she realized that the sounds were real. Whinnies and shrieks were coming from inside the barn. There were muffled snaps of shod hooves on wood and the clatter of bolts in their slides. Then, the smell of smoke hit her nostrils, and Maggie’s blood turned to ice.
She rushed to unbolt the door, her hands shaking. She managed it and threw the doors wide, releasing a billow of choking haze into the silvery night. Tears began to stream down her face as she rushed down the aisle, from stall to stall, tearing the bolts open and throwing the doors wide. She found a long lunge whip propped up against one of the doors and began to use it to try to chase the horses out.
There was a clatter of hoofbeats on cement behind her. Maggie whirled to see several of the lesson ponies cantering through the smoke toward the exit. She dove aside, out of their terror-blind path, and realized that she could see a red-gold glow behind them. She coughed, and as she tried to get her breath back, she inhaled a lungful of sour darkness. Pain exploded through her knees as they collapsed, striking the cement floor.
There was another shrieking neigh, and Maggie squinted through the gloom. She choked on the smoke, and her vision began to swim. Suddenly, she felt her clothes tighten around her chest and neck as something caught the back of her collar, pulling her upright. Maggie groped, blinking back tears as the smoke stung her eyes, and her hands found the familiar silken texture of a horse’s neck. There was an urgent nicker, and a muzzle bumped her shoulder. Maggie laced her fingers through the long mane, and the horse began to jog down the aisle, pulling her along.
Fresh night air flooded her lungs as the horse emerged from the conflagration, and Maggie’s grip failed. She tumbled to rest on the grassy yard, coughing and retching.
“Oh my god, Maggie!” Ashley’s voice filtered through the cacophony of roaring fire and emergency sirens. “Come on, deep breaths… oh God, we would have never known you were in there….”
“The horses…” Maggie choked. “All of the horses….”
“They’re out,” Ashley said. “I counted all of them. Everyone’s okay. Obie’s here; he’s working on catching them all and getting them into the pasture. But, God, Maggie, I’ve never seen anything like it. She saved you.”
“Godiva. She dragged you out.”
Maggie shook her head, unable to find words as the fire department opened their hoses on her barn.
Maggie sat on her porch overlooking the charred remnants of the stables. Her business notebooks lay arrayed around her as she fielded phone calls with boarders, insurance, and contractors for repairs. Obie was coming up the front walk, a bundle of envelopes and catalogs in his gnarled hands.
“I don’t imagine you’ve had time to collect your mail,” he said, laying the bundle in front of her as she hung up the phone and rubbed her temples.
“No,” Maggie admitted as she began to leaf through the envelopes. “I’ve barely had time to breathe. And I still can’t reach Godiva’s owner. Oh!” She paused as her eye caught on one piece of mail, pulling it out of the bundle and tearing the envelope open.
“Important?” Obie asked as Maggie read down the paper, her face blanching.
“It’s from Godiva’s owner’s son,” Maggie said, her voice thick. “Her owner died last week. The day the mare arrived.” She looked up at Obie’s wizened face. “She died in a house fire, Obie…”
Obie took off his hat and looked skyward, murmuring something in his muted Pennsylvania Dutch before he looked back at Maggie.
“I told you that schlechter Draame can be tricky,” he said. “But I was wrong about the horse.”
“The son wants to know if I’d be willing to keep Godiva,” Maggie read on, the paper trembling in her unsteady hands. “He says he doesn’t know the first thing about horses or what to do with her now.”
Maggie gazed out at the herd of horses, grazing safely in the pasture. Only Godiva had her head raised, gazing back at her.