The late day summer haze stretches its long gaze over the paddock fields, highlighting the dandelions into tiny bundles of spun gold and stirring lazy flies out from the freshly grazed grass onto chestnut haunches and white fetlocks. The horse sighs audibly as he swats his tail in the unending battle to ward off the determined flies. He lifts his head, suddenly noting the low orange sun in the sky and begins to make his way slowly down the hill to the gate to wait for the woman. This walk has felt stiffer and longer lately, in a way that frightens him with a sense of a dark place that seems to lie just beyond the edges of his vision.
The woman had come every day since his time on the farm to collect him to his stall and feed him his grain and hay. Now the girl, who really was no longer a girl, came instead. She opened the gate. He stood still for her to affix the halter. He gave her a long sideways look as if to ask a question. “Poor boy,” she said as she hugged his neck. He felt moisture from her eyes dampening his hair and skin. “You’re waiting for her, aren’t you?” He felt a sadness that he did not understand, emanating from the girl’s body as he followed her through the gate and down the lane to familiar red barn. He saw the woman’s old Ford truck parked in the front lot, but the woman was nowhere to be found. Dust from the road had settled in a thick film on the hood and the windows.
He remembers his first day arriving at the farm, the long shaking ride in the musty trailer, challenging his nerves and balance until coming to a stop at this new and unknown place filled with mysterious odors and strange equines. He was backed down the ramp of the dark trailer into the bright and cold courtyard. There was snow on the ground, a novelty for a Southern-raised horse. He had snorted with surprise and delight at seeing his own breath puff from his nostrils. The snug blanket that had been tucked around his body, itching and irritating now felt like a protective barrier against the New England wind, which held an odd mix of salty sea air from some distant shore that he could not see. As his legs danced beneath him, he came face to face with a woman with wild blond hair jutting out in curls from underneath a knitted striped cap. She smiled at him with kind eyes and assured him that this new place would indeed be a safe one. “You’re home, boy” she said.
Their first rides had been auspicious ones. The saddle was constricting and frightening. The stiff metal bit pushed his tongue and tugged uncomfortably on the sides of this mouth. More than once the woman had landed in the dirt on her back side after his playful bucks had gotten the best of them. Eventually, the horse began to feel differently about the woman and looked forward to seeing her wild hair over his stall door in the mornings. Her weight on his back was not so much fearful, as comforting. She called him boy and felt that he belonged as he had not since leaving his dam’s side. He would nicker to her in greeting, telling her that she belonged to him too.
Their lives shifted again when the woman began to take him in the trailer to manicured show grounds filled with gleaming jumps and shouting crowds. He had felt the electric tension in his body down to his tail the first time they cantered into the ring. The woman gleamed from ear to ear at the ribbons they collected. As he became more confident, his neck had arched with pride at the faces in the crowd and carrying the woman seemed like his purpose.
The show season and excitement came every year until one year, it didn’t. “Boy, it’s time to slow down,” she said, as the grey dappled gelding was loaded into the trailer. The horse was confused, but accepted it. The woman’s children had begun to ride him, first her boy and then the dark haired girl, which was a welcome distraction. He loved the carrots that they brought him and the children brought him joy. They would take him into the forests and then to run on the beach. The first time he felt the ocean waves splash against his legs he understood where the salt air had been hiding away for so long. The winters arrived with regularity, and playing in the snow never lost its novelty.
The children grew and spent less time at the farm, and the woman herself rode less and less. Her wild blond hair had streaks of grey. “Boy, you and I are becoming old-timers,” the woman would say. She would complain to him about her aches and pains and he would look at her with his kind eyes, telling her that indeed, he understood.
The days continue as before but the dark haired girl comes to bring him out to his paddock in the mornings, when the fog still lingers on the ground. He spends his days companionably grazing with his fellow barn mates. His friend, the buckskin gelding stands head to tail as they keep the flies at bay. Still, he misses seeing the woman. Her old Ford was sold by the girl. “Boy,” she told him, “Don’t worry, Momma will wait for you, she’ll be waiting for all of us.”
The horse thinks that yes, he understands now.
Read all ten finalists’ entries from HorseChannel’s 2013 Fiction Contest >>