By Douglas Allen
Mary wiped her hands on the thighs of her jeans in that matter-of-fact way of hers, you know the way, that said in a manner of speaking that she was done with one thing and was now moving on to the next. She did it like she had done it a thousand times before, but this time she paused for a moment as she came out of the barn, put her hands on her hips, and set her face to the sky and closed her eyes, letting the rain and wind sweep over her.
It was more mist than rain but drops began to slowly coalesce and run down her cheeks and into the collar of her sweatshirt. It was not every day she allowed herself the luxury of playing in the rain, letting her chores wait a few minutes until she was ready for them, although they always seemed ready for her. She thought of the old barn they had come from, its horses, the barn hands, its architecture, the landscape surrounding it. She thought of silly, small things, like the way the light hanging from the ceiling by Lily’s stall swayed on a blustery night. The way that Lily would be unsettled by the sounds of the wind and move as close to her as she could. “Easy now,” Mary would tell Lily “everything is going to be all right.”
She would watch the light for a minute, and it would remind her of the way the light hung precariously over her in the train car when she was four years old and travelling back from the Canadian Prairies after watching her grandmother, a woman she had hardly known, be buried on the coldest day anyone could imagine. She had worried so much about that light falling that she could not sleep. She knew what it felt like to be unsettled by things over which she had no control.
The barn had become a very special place for Mary, etched, as it was, with memories of her horse and the antics of the other boarders vying for her attention. They had become like her children, or at least nieces and nephews, in an odd kind of way. It had come to be a place of her own, where she felt a little more alive and a little more herself. She felt like Lily and the barn were hers in a way that few other things had ever been. Lily and the barn had become interwoven so tightly into her life that she could not imagine her life otherwise. They had become like a quilt that enveloped her and made her feel safe. It was where Lily had been happy and even playful. It was where, when Mary felt a little melancholy, Lily grew even gentler with her. Ready, seemingly, to listen to what was on Mary’s mind.
“I’m going to miss that old barn,” Mary thought. Over time she had learned that it is, at base, as much a question of what you bring to the barn as it is what you take from it. Still, the question remained in her mind whether it was the barn or the horse that wove such magic?
The new barn was farther, much farther, from the city. Farther from the busyness and sound of traffic and construction. True, it took longer to drive to–she tried to imagine a homebound trip at night in the middle of the winter. But Mary could not
help feeling that this place was worth the effort. “I like the feel of this place,” thought Mary. “It’s like a real barn.” The fields stretched northwards from the yard. There was plenty of room for a horse to roam here. There was even space enough for Lily to run. And plenty of peace. Just the sound of the wind. Not even a passing car, really, to speak of.
Still, Mary knew there were also losses for Lily to deal with, too. There was Lily’s equine friend, Lady Day, who had stayed behind, who had stood close beside Lily whenever she could, knowing and accepting that Lily was the strong one. Lily had been tender with her. She had guarded her against a few of the more aggressive geldings. Lily had kept the peace. And now things had changed, and it fell to Lily to get along without her.
“We miss those whom we have come to protect when they are taken away from us,” Mary thought. Perhaps it is a little like when children grow up and leave. “Rather than feeling free, we feel as though we are missing part of ourselves. Even though we are supposed to be the strong ones.” Lily would have to be the strong one now, with new companions to explain things to, new boundaries to be drawn.
Mary walked along the pasture lane from the barn to the paddock, the grass was overgrown in places, the path muddy in others, evidence of the owner’s acceptance of an imperfect pasture lane, one, nevertheless, beautiful in its own right, suggesting also days when the number of chores to be done was greater than the number of hours in a day. Mary smiled. “So, there you are,” she said.
The mare raised her head from the grass, still chewing, and looked at her, ears up, when she heard Mary’s voice. It had been more than a few days since Mary had seen Lily, what with the move of barns and everything happening at home, her daughter fighting a bad cold for the last week. The stress of the move showed on both of them. Mary stopped and looked at her. Her heart sunk a little. It had been, admittedly, hard on Lily. Lily seemed to have even dropped a little weight. Mary had been trying to rearrange things so that she could see Lily at the new barn more regularly. She would have to try harder.
“Changing barns is a little like changing schools when I was young,” Mary told Lily, “for both of us.” When she had changed schools as a girl, she had been quick to learn that there was an inner circle and she had found herself decidedly on the outside of it. There had been girls at her new school who wore brightly coloured sundresses, who thought themselves all that, whereas she had worn the only thing she had – bright red stretchy pants. The girls used to point to her from the far side of the school yard and giggle, their cupped hands shielding their mouths, pretending to hide their laughter. “Where did you get your pants?” the bolder one among them would ask her over and over again. She would not reply and would just turn and walk into the school, one of the teachers invariably asking her why she could not manage to find someone to play with. She one time found the nerve to answer that it was on account of her stretchy pants. But the teacher could only fight back laughing at her and told her to find her way to her classroom. If her mother would only buy her a dress, she thought at the time. Or a horse. Or just change something about her so that the other girls would like her. When she thought about it, she could even now feel the laughter of the girls in the yard raise the hairs on the back of her neck.
The other thing was that you could not help but know that the Sundress-Sunshine-Bet-You’d-Like- to-Ride-My-Horse Girls, as Mary used to call them to herself, all had horses of their own, as they had endlessly chattered about them at recess, and because to make it even more obvious, they would prance around the school yard pretending to ride hobby horses. They were happy about having a horse of their own. Mary wanted one too. But Mary had a feeling that for these girls who seemed to have everything, the one thing they still longed for was attention. Mary, being the old soul that she was, felt a little sorry for them as far as that went. But there was no need to be cruel.
And Mary had so wanted a horse when she was a little girl. She remembered the moment when she first asked her mother if she could have her own horse; she had been receiving riding lessons for about a year at the time. Her mother had simply said, however, with her air of adult aloofness and immutability, “No.” The word had come down hard in Mary’s mind, like the way the classroom door sounded when the teacher had shut it hard when the class had really misbehaved. There was not even a discussion about it. It was that way with most things. She cried that night, and the nights afterward.
It took her a few days, but she shortly came up with what she thought was a brilliant plan and asked for a picture of a horse in her room.
“Just a picture,” she told her mother, “it would still be my very own.”
“It will just make you tiresome as you chatter on about wanting a real horse, when I’ve already told you the answer,” her mother had replied.
It was not even a question of money so much. What it was a question of Mary was not sure. As a girl she did not formulate the question directly. The conflict with her mother settled in her stomach and made it hurt. Her mother’s implacability was like a hazy cloud that encircled her. It was like a tent made of brown paper bags that she could not escape from or see out of. It was only when she had fully grown and had children of her own that she began to put her feelings into words. Was it a matter of simple control on her mother’s part? Or just pure meanness? Was it that her mother had not had a horse when she was a girl?
Mary knew that Lily was facing, in coming to the new barn, something like what she did when she was the new girl in the schoolyard. Mary understood. “There is no hurry here,” Mary told Lily. Mary knew that, in the long run, Lily was strong enough to redraw any circles that she was excluded by. The barn manager, Alyssia, had placed Lily alone in her own paddock with what seemed like the best grass. It was kind of her, and wise. But grazing all by herself was not something Lily had been used to. She needed the company of Lady Day.
Her mother’s answer of “No” to that question of so many years ago had reverberated in Mary’s mind over the years. She heard her mother’s voice in her head even now. Mary felt as though she were walking through a cloud from which she could not find her way out. A layer of control that seemed to check her hand, as though she were a kind of puppet with her mother pulling her strings even now, even now with her mother having been gone for a number of years. Lily was, herself, in a way, Mary’s answer to her mother’s “No.” It was the smallest assertion of her will to be who she wanted to be and do something real and hard and solid. Having Lily as her friend was all of those things.
Lily moved a little closer to Mary, as if sensing Mary’s uneasiness. On those days when Mary felt particularly fragile, she would swear that Lily understood and seemed to take a little extra care of her, staying a little closer to her, as if protecting her too. Mary wondered sometimes if this was all in her head. She wondered if she were projecting the love and concern that she wanted and needed onto her horse. Could Lily feel Mary’s discontentment?
Still, there were other times, too, when the two of them seemed entirely interwoven, moving as one unit over the hurdles placed in front of them. At times the intimacy between them seemed palpable to Mary. Times like when on Sundays Lily would stay at the far end of her stall and not allow the barn hands to lead her out to pasture the way they usually did. It was as if Lily knew that Mary would soon be along to load her up and trailer her out to a romp in the woods. Mary would pull into the yard with her trailer and see the other horses already in their paddocks. But Lily would not be there among them. Mary would get a funny feeling driving up the laneway towards the barn. It was like the feeling you get when someone is expecting you for dinner, and you feel as though they have sensed your arrival. Or, it is like that one time when Mary drove out on country roads alone to find the home of a new friend, not really sure of where she was going, and she drove by the house without knowing, and her friend later tells her that she happened to be at the kitchen sink by the window looking out at the road about the time Mary said that she drove by, and had felt as though Mary was near.
And now the question in Mary’s mind was whether all that was going to find its way to the new barn, or had there been some kind of magic in that old barn that had made things that way?
The rain was steady now. The autumn wind through the nearby trees rising and then abating. A steady rhythm of rain fell from a uniform grey sky. Late, late afternoon. Evening settling in. The lights inside the barn beckoned her in from the dampness and rain, reminding her of when she was young and the light on the porch meant that it was time for her to come in for supper.
Mary took up Lily’s lead, the gate swinging open, creaking as it did, and she gently turned Lily towards the barn. Lily made no argument. She did not even try to stop for the sweetest grass as she came out of the paddock. It was as if she knew that things were going to be okay now, now that Mary had finally found her way from the old barn to the new.
Douglas Allen is a writer who is currently working on a novel exploring the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations on the Canadian Prairie. He is also a student of Medieval and Renaissance history at the University of Toronto. He is particularly interested in using identity as a lens to understand human motivation and action.
The Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest is sponsored by The Plaid Horse, and promotes fine, literary prose involving horses and the equestrian experience. This contest is open to writers of fiction and non-fiction, regardless of any previous publications, and awards three prizes. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.