"The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing —
to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from —
my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing,
all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back."

~C.S. Lewis


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Black and white

On the north side of the barn, a large rock flattened by years of winters, with pitch night casting streaky shadows from flashlights. I set my leather church shoes on the rocky table, Minnesota April gusts ring my earrings like windchimes, and barn lights from seven stalls streak a lighthouse’s twenty-meter path from barn to car. The sandy ground pushes up between my bare toes; cold, though dry, no snow, I’m thankful for that. I pull on my boots.

From head to knees I remain in church—jeweled bobby pins, silver necklace, navy pea coat with four buttons and the long narrow belt that ties on the left. The feet are wrong, of course. I don’t suppose oversized untied mud boots go with my flared skirt. My thoughts drown in the smell of old hay.

The new hay is growing, its field stretching down from the barn for five acres before it joins to the woods like a seam on my skirt. The trees breathe life; I feel it from Maia’s saddle when I brush the fir branches from my face. We’ve heard the coyotes scrapping there some nights, and when we trot through the marsh, Maia always sniffs the air. Tomorrow perhaps I will ride among the birches and forget tonight.

It promises to be long, if I have to call the vet. I heard it said once that horses have a designated place to die, and they spend their entire lives looking for it. Phone lighting up in frantic silence during the Good Friday sermon—Chris never calls unless it’s serious. Perched on a stool, Scripture in front of me, I read my part of the evening service while visions of horses sprawled half-dead in muddy pastures emerge between descriptions of the manger and the cross.

And now, barn boots and church clothes.

And crouched in the dank stall with a blue nylon halter, and a hand on Laredo’s leg. Blood runs down his knee and onto my fingers, like the morning last summer when I cut proud flesh from Maia’s fetlock and stained hand and knife scarlet; I washed my blade and wondered why I didn’t feel queasy. But this cut wasn’t serious, just two horses impatient for supper and kicking each other for it—as if that helped somehow, one car passing another to be caught up with at the next red light.

When I leave my invalid’s stall, the horses are quieter, like tonight’s full moon crowded on the horizon, three inches wide. It is all of heaven I can see: stars are shy and only live in deeper country. When I was nine and knew only the farm, I read a children’s story that asked, what if the stars only came out once in a thousand years? At the time, I didn’t understand; it was like asking, what if you breathed only once in a lifetime? But now I stand outside the barn, thirty seconds’ drive from Fable Hill Development, and wonder if any of those children have stood at the end of their driveway and seen the Milky Way.

The boots are chafing my bare ankles. Leather lace-ups would have fit better—like those I wore last summer working weddings for Granville Carriage Company. White horse, black boots, white carriage, black skirt. White bride. I stood at Toby’s oversized Percheron head, grasping his bridle. No, flower girl, don’t pet him now, look at the bride, isn’t she pretty? I remained as footmen have for centuries, in the shadow of the horse, unseen, with all eyes on the lace-trimmed veil and low-cut dress and diamond on the left hand. I told myself that it was all right, that I was in black, and she was in white.

My rock is still there, twenty minutes later. I lean on it to kick off muddy boots.