Enjoy “Ponies,” a short story by Kij Johnson and the winner of the 2010 Nebula Award for Short Story.
The invitation card has a Western theme. Along its margins, cartoon girls in cowboy hats chase a herd of wild Ponies. The Ponies are no taller than the girls, bright as butterflies, fat, with short round-tipped unicorn horns and small fluffy wings. At the bottom of the card, newly caught Ponies mill about in a corral. The girls have lassoed a pink-and-white Pony. Its eyes and mouth are surprised round Os. There is an exclamation mark over its head.
The little girls are cutting off its horn with curved knives. Its wings are already removed, part of a pile beside the corral.
You and your Pony ___[and Sunny’s name is handwritten here, in puffy letters]___ are invited to a cutting-out party with TheOtherGirls! If we like you, and if your Pony does okay, we’ll let you hang out with us.
Sunny says, “I can’t wait to have friends!” She reads over Barbara’s shoulder, rose-scented breath woofling through Barbara’s hair. They are in the backyard next to Sunny’s pink stable.
Barbara says, “Do you know what you want to keep?”
Sunny’s tiny wings are a blur as she hops into the air, loops, and then hovers, legs curled under her. “Oh, being able to talk, absolutely! Flying is great, but talking is way better!” She drops to the grass. “I don’t know why any Pony would keep her horn! It’s not like it does anything!”
This is the way it’s always been, as long as there have been Ponies. All ponies have wings. All Ponies have horns. All Ponies can talk. Then all Ponies go to a cutting-out party, and they give up two of the three, because that’s what has to happen if a girl is going to fit in with TheOtherGirls. Barbara’s never seen a Pony that still had her horn or wings after her cutting-out party.
Barbara sees TheOtherGirls’ Ponies peeking in the classroom windows just before recess or clustered at the bus stop after school. They’re baby pink and lavender and daffodil-yellow, with flossy manes in ringlets, and tails that curl to the ground. When not at school and cello lessons and ballet class and soccer practice and play group and the orthodontist’s, TheOtherGirls spend their days with their Ponies.
The party is at TopGirl’s house. She has a mother who’s a pediatrician and a father who’s a cardiologist and a small barn and giant trees shading the grass where the Ponies are playing games. Sunny walks out to them nervously. They silently touch her horn and wings with their velvet noses, and then the Ponies all trot out to the lilac barn at the bottom of the pasture, where a bale of hay has been broken open.
TopGirl meets Barbara at the fence. “That’s your Pony?” she says without greeting. “She’s not as pretty as Starblossom.”
Barbara is defensive. “She’s beautiful!” This is a misstep so she adds, “Yours is so pretty!” And TopGirl’s Pony is pretty: her tail is every shade of purple and glitters with stars. But Sunny’s tail is creamy white and shines with honey-colored light, and Barbara knows that Sunny’s the most beautiful Pony ever.
TopGirl walks away, saying over her shoulder, “There’s Rock Band in the family room and a bunch of TheOtherGirls are hanging out on the deck and Mom bought some cookies and there’s Coke Zero and diet Red Bull and diet lemonade.”
“Where are you?” Barbara asks.
“I’m outside,” TopGirl says, so Barbara gets a Crystal Light and three frosted raisin-oatmeal cookies and follows her. TheOtherGirls outside are listening to an iPod plugged into speakers and playing Wii tennis and watching the Ponies play HideAndSeek and Who’sPrettiest and ThisIsTheBestGame. They are all there, SecondGirl and SuckUpGirl and EveryoneLikesHerGirl and the rest. Barbara only speaks when she thinks she’ll get it right.
And then it’s time. TheOtherGirls and their silent Ponies collect in a ring around Barbara and Sunny. Barbara feels sick.
TopGirl says to Barbara, “What did she pick?”
Sunny looks scared but answers her directly. “I would rather talk than fly or stab things with my horn.”
TopGirl says to Barbara, “That’s what Ponies always say.” She gives Barbara a curved knife with a blade as long as a woman’s hand.
“Me?” Barbara says. “I thought someone else did it. A grown-up.”
TopGirl says, “Everyone does it for their own Pony. I did it for Starblossom.”
In silence Sunny stretches out a wing.
It’s not the way it would be, cutting a real pony. The wing comes off easily, smooth as plastic, and the blood smells like cotton candy at the fair. There’s a shiny trembling oval where the wing was, as if Barbara is cutting rose-flavored Turkish Delight in half and sees the pink under the powdered sugar. She thinks, It’s sort of pretty, and throws up.
Sunny shivers, her eyes shut tight. Barbara cuts off the second wing and lays it beside the first.
The horn is harder, like paring a real pony’s hooves. Barbara’s hand slips and she cuts Sunny, and there’s more cotton-candy blood. And then the horn lies in the grass beside the wings.
Sunny drops to her knees. Barbara throws the knife down and falls beside her, sobbing and hiccuping. She scrubs her face with the back of her hand and looks up at the circle.
Starblossom touches the knife with her nose, pushes it toward Barbara with one lilac hoof. TopGirl says, “Now the voice. You have to take away her voice.”
“But I already cut off her wings and her horn!” Barbara throws her arms around Sunny’s neck, protecting it. “Two of the three, you said!”
“That’s the cutting-out, yeah,” TopGirl says. “That’s what you do to be OneOfUs. But the Ponies pick their own friends. And that costs, too.” Starblossom tosses her violet mane. For the first time, Barbara sees that there is a scar shaped like a smile on her throat. All the Ponies have one.
“I won’t!” Barbara tells them all, but even as she cries until her face is caked with snot and tears, she knows she will, and when she’s done crying, she picks up the knife and pulls herself upright.
Sunny stands up beside her on trembling legs. She looks very small without her horn, her wings. Barbara’s hands are slippery, but she tightens her grip.
“No,” Sunny says suddenly. “Not even for this.”
Sunny spins and runs, runs for the fence in a gallop as fast and beautiful as a real pony’s; but there are more of the others, and they are bigger, and Sunny doesn’t have her wings to fly or her horn to fight. They pull her down before she can jump the fence into the woods beyond. Sunny cries out and then there is nothing, only the sound of pounding hooves from the tight circle of Ponies.
TheOtherGirls stand, frozen. Their blind faces are turned toward the Ponies.
The Ponies break their circle, trot away. There is no sign of Sunny, beyond a spray of cotton-candy blood and a coil of her glowing mane torn free and fading as it falls to the grass.
Into the silence TopGirl says, “Cookies?” She sounds fragile and false. TheOtherGirls crowd into the house, chattering in equally artificial voices. They start up a game, drink more Diet Coke.
Barbara stumbles after them into the family room. “What are you playing?” she says, uncertainly.
“Why are you here?” FirstGirl says, as if noticing her for the first time. “You’re not OneOfUs.”
TheOtherGirls nod. “You don’t have a pony.”
Copyright © 2010 by Kij Johnson