Palo Alto Weekly 22nd Annual Short Story
First Place Child
| About Elisabeth Yan
Growing up in Stanford University's shadow has had a profound effect on young author Elisabeth Yan. Her proximity to the university and frequent sightings of its ubiquitous Marguerite shuttles have given life to a story about the shuttle service's equine namesake.
It's far from just a history lesson. Yan tells the story from inside Marguerite -- inhabiting the trusty horse and bestowing the beast with a full spectrum of hopes, dreams and even dialog <0x2014> cleverly illuminating an early chapter of Stanford's saga.
In less capable hands it might not have worked. But even Yan can't quite explain how she pulled it off.
"A horse is a lot different from a human, but I had to think about what a horse might feel like. I don't really know how I did it," Yan said.
Marguerite's character is petty, jealous and irritable at the beginning of the story. Not really the qualities one expects from a loyal beast of burden.
"I wanted to show a change of attitude," Yan said. "If I was a vain horse, I would feel better after a hard day's work."
Even though she won in the age 9-11 category, Yan has turned 12 since she submitted her winning work. The Terman Middle School seventh grader credits her interest in creative writing to the program at Herbert Hoover Elementary School.
"I didn't do any serious writing until 4th grade," Yan said. That year, a particular assignment brought out a creative streak in her.
"There were six photos with captions under them, and we had to choose one of them and write a story about it," Yan said.
Soon after, she started writing in a coached after-school group, but quit after one year.
She got the writing bug again after reading a 100-year history of Palo Alto and learning about the horse-drawn carriages that used to transport students from the train station to the university.
When she's not dreaming up stories, she enjoys swimming on her Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics (PASA) team and playing the piano -- she's played since age 6.
"I play mostly classical -- it's simple, but fun to play," she said.
- Allen Clapp
by Elisabeth Yan
Oh my gosh! What a fine, leather saddle this is, adorned heavily with gold thread. Of course, fine attire wasn’t unusual for a magnificent, beautiful horse like me. But if Master thought this was all it would take for me to forgive him, he was so wrong! How could he have chosen Daisy to pull the wealthy Stanford family to the dance! Now she would come back, bragging about how she had stood, waiting, with the handsome thoroughbreds. And she would simper and neigh all night. Phhhhh! I blew my fringe up in frustration.
Thunder came up to me, his sleek muscles rippling. “Still moping about Daisy?” he asked in a chortling neigh. I tossed my majestic head, my mane fluttering gracefully.
“Master has the finest sugar lumps in the country, but his judgment of impressive carriage horses is inferior to mine.” I swished my tail haughtily.
Just then, Daisy trotted through the open gate with Master. Thunder cantered up to meet her while I ambled over reluctantly. “And he had the largest saddle ever, and it was studded with jewels!” Her eyes were bright and shiny. I hated the way foam trickled down her chin when she got excited. How low-class! “And he asked me if I wanted some of his hay!” she squealed. I snorted and left, galloping, and kicking up just a little more dust than usual.
“Hmmmmp! Studded saddles!” I munched my crisp golden hay, grumpily. Master came in. “Hello Marguerite,” he crooned softly into the darkness. I snorted and flicked my tail at him, still mad about Daisy. He laughed, a deep melodious sound, and gently combed my mane with his fingers. Nickering in annoyance, I shifted my great head towards Master. I could never stay mad at him. “Is someone still angry about Daisy? Well someone had to do the easy task of pulling the carriage to the ball if you’re helping me with something MUCH more important!” I gasped and whinnied in surprise and pleasure. He chuckled. “I am going to help my dear friend, Stanford, build a college in honor of his dear son,” he announced. He took a deep breath of sweet hay and horse manure. “And you, dear Marguerite, shall be the main wagon horse!” Ha! Daisy could prance around with all her handsome thoroughbreds. I would always be twice more precious to Master than Daisy. My long eyelashes gently shut. “Sleep, sweet Marguerite…”
Early next morning, I was ready to help Master execute his plan. I chortled scornfully at Daisy’s sleeping figure. Outside, Master was idly chatting with some friends about this college. I held my head up high, so proud that he had confided in me first.
“Gentlemen, you are looking at the finest horse in the whole country!” he announced, bursting with pride. I nuzzled him affectionately. The men all looked at me, awed, earnest expressions all over their faces. “Asa Andrews, you evil stable master, you are going to put this magnificent beast to work?!” one kind looking man exclaimed.
Master laughed, “Marguerite can withstand anything!”
My wagon was a sturdy wooden box. Looking at it, I knew this was not a foal’s game. The students all depended on me to get them to school. Just at the very thought, I stood up straight and threw my head back. I would meet all their needs easily. Nothing would stop me, Marguerite, from doing my duty.
Beads of salty sweat rolled down my quivering flanks. All my muscles ached and my head seemed unusually heavy. The sun beamed down, scorching my ragged, damp coat. The leaves rustled with a breeze and I looked up hopefully, expectantly, but all I got was the stifling stillness of the air around me. I nickered mournfully. Not that any of my load noticed. They kept chattering and laughing. “How ungrateful!” I thought angrily. I longed to be prancing around freely with Thunder, even Daisy. But no, I couldn’t embarrass Master! I sighed and pushed twice as hard.
At least my hard work had not gone unnoticed. After depositing my horrible burden, I walked wearily through the back entrance of my stall. Everyone would laugh at me, proud Marguerite, broken after one day of work! There Master was waiting for me. The strong hand reached into the pleasantly familiar overalls and…OH! SUGAR LUMPS! The sweet grains melted on my tongue and trickled down my throat. “You did me proud back there, Marguerite!” Master murmured. The earnest, grateful words caused a more delightful sensation than the sugar had.
“Sleep well, Marguerite. You deserve it!”
The second day was even worse than the first! The students seemed to have gotten heavier overnight! My once powerful legs were stiff and rock hard. For…Master… For… Master, I thought with each painful step. I imagined the melting goodness of sugar. I thought so hard about a fresh, crisp breeze that I could almost feel it upon my sweaty face. My mane stuck in odd clumps along my neck and heaving sides. The muscles along my neck bulged brutally. Uhhh! How unfashionable! Thinking all my negative thoughts, my weary hooves clopped up the dirt road and before I knew it, the huge, exquisite college looming up along the horizon. As the students all hopped out, one shy-looking girl came around the front to me. I gave her my best superior “And what do YOU want?” look. She took an uncertain step back. “Thanks for taking us!” she mumbled quietly. The slender white hand shot into her pocket, a rabbit in its den, and withdrew a wilted carrot pinched between her narrow fingers. She held it up. I curved both of my lips, exposing my pearly, sharp teeth. The fingers shook. Snow-white gates snapped delicately shut on the limp vegetable. I yanked the carrot from her, tossed it into the air with a deft twist of my head, and grabbed it in midair, jaws snapping shut with a resounding click. She ran to catch up with the retreating gaggle of students, pausing to wave back at me.
I was preparing to trudge back up the gravel path when a deep voice called, “Wait!” A heavyset dignified-looking man strode up to my wagon. “Horse, you have served me well. Leland Stanford appreciates the hard work of others.”
He snapped his fingers. Immediately, a handful of men appeared out of nowhere. They swiftly sauntered up to my wagon, unhooked it, and reattached a new one. I frantically twisted my head to survey my new attire. “It looks exactly like my old one!” I thought with disappointment. But I was wrong. In a fine, elegant script the word MARGUERITE glittered in gold lettering. “There,” boomed Mr. Stanford, looking quite pleased with himself. I tried to gather my thoughts so I could thank him, but all I could see in my head were the beautiful gilt letters. After I had calmed down a little, I slowly bobbed my head in an earnest, exhilarated bow. “She likes it,” he called out to his friends. He turned to me again, “Until next time, Marguerite.”
He walked away, leaving me standing foolishly in the middle of the road. This had been my first encounter with Mr. Stanford and it left me with more self-confidence and a new wagon.
“…and the wagon has my name printed in GOLD letters! He said I had served him well!” I was bragging to Daisy about my wonderful day. I stared straight into her eyes, preparing for the mean thrill when I saw the jealousy in her expression. But I had no satisfaction. Her gaze was hopeless, and sorrowful, beyond sadness and jealousy, an even deeper pain. She wasn’t upset about my gift, she was aggrieved by the fact I had deliberately tried to hurt her. She had never meant to brag about the thoroughbreds, she had only wished to share her excitement. In this sudden rush of understanding, the world seemed at a standstill. Then I felt as though I had swallowed a bag of rocks. I sprinted to my stall and pushed my head under the loose hay. Like an ostrich, I was hiding from the world and the problems I had created. All the time I had thought myself so superior and grand, I had been hiding from myself, pretending not to be the horse I knew I was.
But I could change that! The thought hit me like a bullet. My head shot up. Hay flew through the air like party confetti. But it wasn’t time to celebrate yet. Not until I healed the wounds I had cut.
In the morning I woke up early, determination on my face like a mask. When I saw Daisy on my way to work, I gently nudged her back with my muzzle. She swung around, surprised. I flashed a sincere, apologetic smile. She grinned hesitantly before galloping off to chat with Thunder.
At work, I steered my disobedient mind away from negative thoughts but instead thought about the rewarding feeling of triumph I would surely get at the end. Again, the shy, pale girl brought a carrot. Slipping back into my comfortable, arrogant personality, I rolled my eyes. I caught myself, pupils skyward, grabbed the carrot, and nuzzled the girl’s cheek in apology and thanks. Her eyes twinkled, huge, glassy, and glittering, and she smiled. Her wide grin barely fit on her long, pale face. She timidly petted my sweaty, overgrown forelock. The voices of her peers were growing faint. She hurriedly waved and ran away. As I watched her grow smaller and smaller, I thought, “I should really ask her to start bringing me sugar lumps!”
She continued to faithfully bring me carrots every single day. The meager offerings weren’t the juiciest, sweetest, or freshest, but the very thought that one person at least appreciated my hard work warmed me all the way to my hooves. Quite soon after meeting her, I realized that life wasn’t all about gilt saddles or sugar lumps. For so many years of my life I had been lacking one of the most important things: a friend.
One night, Master came in to bid me goodnight. “How’s the job going, Marguerite?” he asked, after presenting, with a flourish, the daily sugar offering. I raised my head and stared at the rafters, with its elegant, delicate array of gossamer spider webs. It was true, the work was hard, but that only made me feel more triumphant after surviving another day. But most importantly, I had made a friend, the only one I had ever had except for Master. My gaze fell from the wooden ceiling back onto Master. I pawed the ground happily and sighed with contentment. Seeing Master’s smile I knew he understood.
Four years later, my first best friend graduated. I was heartbroken to see her in her baggy graduation gown on the makeshift stage. She was no longer the shy, self-conscious girl I had meet four years ago, but a bold, confident adult. How far we both had come.
Now she began descending the steps. The sun shone full in her face, and I saw perfect rainbow tears glistening on her cheeks. She spotted me, towering above everyone else in the crowd. She ran over, threw her skinny arms around my neck and ran her fingers through my mane. I tried to look unemotional but I was so proud of her I felt as if my heart would burst.
Nearing the end of the ceremony, Stanford himself walked up onto the stage. The cheers were deafening. When the roar had subsided, he proclaimed in a deep voice, “Here at Stanford, young men AND women are all equal. Thanks to the success of you pioneers, many others are taking up our vision of education for everyone!” He broke off and grinned widely at the crowd, “Due to the huge increase in enrollment, we shall get many more fine, noble wagon horses like Marguerite who has worked way more than any average horse. In honor of our proud, hard- worker, the carriage transportation system shall be called “The Marguerite!” All heads swiveled to me. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed. Years ago, I would have basked in their admiration. But now I just thought, “I really did nothing. I truly gained a lot more than I gave!”
Stanford continued, “Yes, Ladies and Gents, let’s hear it for Marguerite!” This time the roar was twice as deafening. If a horse could blush, I would have.
I watched, sadly, as my best friend’s figure disappear along the bend. I thought with anguish, “I wonder if I’ll ever make another friend!” I turned around and gasped. She was standing right in front of me. But I thought she just left! I glanced over my shoulder in confusion. Wait! Looking closer I realized it wasn’t her. It was a new student. “Hi, you must be Marguerite!” she called timidly. I grinned and thought maybe this is the start of a new friendship!
The days of the horse and carriage are now over, but on Stanford Campus, now and then, you will see a stout white and red bus trundling along with one word on the back:
This fine story uses fantasy to bring history alive in a convincing and skillful manner. Deftly told from a horse's point of view, "Marguerite" offers readers an emotional gift: the observation that friends matter. Moreover, it's all tied up in a package that contains our own backyard! A most enjoyable and imaginative story.