The Wild Ponies of Ocracoke

By Melissa Barker

Early on, you took me to see the wild ponies of Ocracoke. The first stop on the island was their pen. A rickety wooden staircase led up to the platform, and we climbed it to get a better view. From there, we could see all the way across the island, the place where it ended, where it stepped right into the sea.

A small group of ponies were just barely visible beyond a low hedge of wax myrtle. Years later, when we brought the children, we saw a park ranger stuffing hay between the slats, and the ponies came closer, and I put my arms around the children’s shoulders as the ponies switched their tails back and forth while they chewed. They braced themselves against the onslaught of mosquitoes.

No one could pen the mosquitoes. Every summer they were fierce and thick, worse on Ocracoke than on any other island. They bit us through our shirts, they rained on us like needles. The rest of the family was more or less immune, but I was usually swollen with their venom.

What else is there to say about the island? There was a squat, unused lighthouse. A cluster of a town. Ghosts and pirates locked up in museums. People walking barefoot, and dogs eating ice-cream. Cool, clear rain sometimes, or the sun blaring at us as we walked down the streets searching for bottles of water. The beach was worse. Only a spot up at the entrance for trash. The ocean gasping stripes of froth across the shore, and the sand whipping up, a wall of it, stinging and scratching at our eyes until the children cried.

In order to leave the island, we had to wait in a long line of cars. Sometimes we would just miss the ferry. You’d put the car in park and I would get out with the children, run barefoot on the pavement while the sun went pink and the air broke into a chill.

When the ferry arrived, most people stayed in their cars, sleeping, even as the boat loosed itself from the dock and took off across the water. The children liked to climb up to the upper cabin, press their noses against the salt-smeared windows until nausea overtook them.

I always tried to get them to ride up by the bow, where we’d stand against the yellow chain, the only thing separating us from the Sound, where the boat broke through and peeled back the water to make the way forward. Other times, you were with me, and we’d lean belly-over the side, or swing the children up into the air so they could see the blue crabs making their rickety swim from one lip of land to another.

In the distance, the land drifted by. Sandbars bared themselves to gulls, and the terns spun and dropped and plunged. Everything was unmoored. Once we were lucky, and a fleet of dolphins swam alongside us for awhile, laughing as they broke up and out of the water.


Next Page