by Amanda Lightner
My mother called one gray February morning.
“Hi, Mom. What’s up?” Pinching the phone between my ear and shoulder, I scraped cereal from my son’s bib. “Mom? You there?”
She cleared her throat. “Yes. Yes, I’m here. Sorry to call so early, but I have a favor to ask.” A pause. “Please check on your dad at some point today. When I left for work, he was at the barn with Echo. Echo can’t get up. The vet’s on his way.”
“Of course I will. Is it bad?”
“I think it’s bad.”
Around ten o’clock, I drove in the farm lane, dusted with snow. The barn doors were opened wide. Dad, his face buried in his gloved hands, sat on his tractor. When he heard my car door close, he climbed down from the tractor seat, put his head on my shoulder, and sobbed with the abandon of a child. Between gasps, I caught fragments of the morning and pieced together the story. Fell on the ice…broke his hip…too high up to set…nothing could be done…sat in the straw…held his head on my lap…told him he was a good boy…prayed…the vet had to do it…I couldn’t…there will never be another horse like him. Dad’s nose dripped onto my coat. He trembled.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get warmed up in the house. We’ll sit at the kitchen table awhile.”
“My father didn’t like horses,” Dad told me once, handing me a picture of himself, a lanky boy of nine or ten with close-cropped hair. Wearing only jeans and boots in the photograph–no shirt–he clung to the halter of a black and white pony with a shaggy mane and tail that trailed on the grass. “Your grandpa was a dairyman. Only interested in making milk and growing crops. He preferred a tractor to a team of horses and couldn’t understand why I wanted to ride.
Well, I kept on him, kept dinging and dinging for a horse. Finally–I suppose to teach me a lesson–he went out and bought the meanest pony he could find. I named him Tony.”
“That’s him?” I asked, pointing to the old photograph. “Tony Pony?”
Dad nodded. “Tony didn’t just buck, he bit and kicked and charged. My sisters wouldn’t go near his stall even. You’re not getting a saddle, Dad told me. You want to ride? Then ride.”
“Grandpa didn’t let you have a saddle?”
“Nope. The first time I led Tony to the stone wall by the barn and crawled on, he promptly bucked me off. I’m telling you, I no sooner got my leg over his back and I was sprawled out, flat on the ground. Your grandpa just stood there and laughed at me. He said, You getting back on?
Well I stood up, looked him square in the eye, and said, You’re darn right I am.”
Dad chuckled. “What happened was that pony bucked me off another dozen times. He never got nicer, but I learned to ride him. I even loved that ornery son-of-a-gun.”
In 1986, Dad brought home an Arabian colt, its coat as black and shiny as onyx. My brothers and I named him Echo and spent hours, perched on a post of our riding ring, marveling as Dad worked his magic. He started by lunging Echo, standing at the center of the ring while the colt cantered in a wide circle around him. First, he lunged the colt bareback. Then, he added a blanket and finally a saddle. When Echo became comfortable with the ring, Dad tied white plastic milk jugs and red handkerchiefs to the posts. The jugs and handkerchiefs snapped in the breeze. Each time the colt shied away from the noise and motion, Dad would lead him to the source of his fear, let him nudge it, smell it, hold it in his mouth. “Easy boy. Easy now. Good boy.” In this way, Echo came to trust my father’s touch and his whispered words.
Echo was descended from a line of Egyptian Arabians. Like his ancestors, he was short-backed and fine-boned. His face was as dished as a crescent moon. When he pranced, his delicate ears perked forward like radar on high alert. His nostrils flared and his tail lofted behind, proclaiming his royal lineage. Once, an Amish neighbor visited our farm. He leaned against a fence post and watched Echo galloping across the pasture, hooves merely grazing the grass.
“What do you think of my colt?” Dad asked.
The Amish man shook his head in admiration. “He’s a fine one for sure. But I’d not be allowed to have a horse like him. Too many men would envy me.”
During the twenty-six years Echo lived on our farm, he worked. He pulled fallen trees from patches of woods where the tractor would not go. He rounded up heifers and steers that broke through their fence and bedded down in the brambles of multiflora rose. Dad rode Echo to church on Sunday mornings in summer and even, occasionally, to his job at West Perry High School, where he taught tenth graders biology and genetics. During lunch on those days, students streamed out of the school cafeteria to the courtyard where Echo was tied and stroked his neck, patted his shoulder, begged my father for a ride.
I was ten years old when Echo’s first foal was born on our farm in the dead of a January night. When Dad discovered her the next morning, already clean, dry, and nursing, he hurried to the house and called up from the basement stairs, “Amanda, come and see!”
I crouched outside her stall, peering through a gap in the boards. Just inside the gate, Dad, too, hunkered down, balanced and perfectly still despite the bulk of his insulated coveralls and winter coat. With one empty palm extended and the other one clutching a blue halter behind his back, he inched forward, all the while whispering to the mare, who whinnied and switched her tail and nosed her foal to the far cobwebbed corner of the pen. “Sophie. Sophie, my girl. No one’s going to hurt your babe.”
The delicate chestnut filly peeked from behind her mother’s white flank, wet and streaked pink with blood. Dad made a soft clicking sound in his cheek. “There’s the tiny one. Here, tiny one.”
One step. Two. The bold little filly blinked. Her front legs wobbled, ready for flight. Sophie pawed at the yellow straw, turning circles in place.
“You’re okay girl. Okay. Okay.” Still on his haunches, Dad crept forward again until the filly could reach her nose to brush his hand. She nuzzled his fingers, his palm, his wrist. Her twitching nose moved up his arm and found the zipper of his coat. He didn’t move, though I knew his knees were aching. She flipped the zipper up and down, up and down, then found the stubble of Dad’s chin and nibbled. While she played with the hood of his coat, Dad produced the little blue halter and let her sniff. She mouthed at the buckle and nose strap.
“Here we go, tiny one,” Dad said, easing the halter over her muzzle, then her ears. He turned to me, triumphant. “How about that? Halter-broke in no time at all.”
Summer is at its end. I can smell autumn coming. In my parents’ garden, tomato vines bend with their overripe fruit. Green walnuts drop in the lane. Dad and I saddle our horses and ride up the hill behind the barn, toward our pond and the old apple orchard beyond. We pass the weeping cherry tree and the granite slab that mark Echo’s grave. Dad rides Apollo, a dappled gray gelding. I ride Calypso, a sleek dun mare. Brother and sister–Echo’s offspring. Beneath us are the bones of horses and ponies I knew well: Sophie and Lacey and Harvey, Fern and Bluebell and Zap. There are also the bones of horses and mules I knew only from my father’s stories: Princess and Sugar and Lady and Kate. They are now the earth they worked. Their bodies sustain the grass that nourished them. I think of a poem, “Names of Horses,” I heard the poet Donald Hall recite in a dim college auditorium many years ago:
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground–old toilers, soil makers
Dad rides on ahead, his right hand holding the reins, his left hand resting on his thigh. His body sways to the rhythm of Apollo’s stride. He looks across the hayfields to Sherman’s Creek and the Blue Mountains beyond. On this farm, the horses’ work continues. So does my father’s. So does mine.
Category: Featured, Nonfiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student