Running with Horses
She heard the shuffle of feet downstairs. The sun was barely up but there was work to be done. The old stairs groaned as she walked down them towards the kitchen, running her hand along the wood. White paint flecks came off onto the floor. The door to the kitchen was painted a cheery red, but inside the room it was a cold grey. The flagstones absorbed the heat from her feet as she moved. The wood stove was rarely lit and stood dusty in the corner, a reminder. Her father had his head down putting on the obligatory boots they wore, always caked in damp mud, musty and old. His coat was on and fastened.
“Get a move on,” his voice was gruff and his eyes turned away. Without a backward glance, he opened the large farmhouse door and was gone. The warmth that his large and weathered hands had once held had disappeared. Only a rushing column of cold wind stood in his place. She shivered. It was his lack of words, the vacuum of feelings and emotions that chilled her to the core. If he didn’t have any then it seemed she was not allowed any either. Reaching for her own jacket, her hand brushed a much smaller one hanging to its right. The colours were bright and joyful; out of place on hooks that held tackle bands and worn ropes. It was his. She let her hand drop away and turned for the door.
She buttoned her jacket to the top and stepped outside. The fabric did not stop the icy wind from taking a bite at her skin. Old tractor parts lay strewn across the ground, damp hay bales sat uncovered, and paint peeled exposing ugly undercoats. The buildings slumped under the weight of the damp sky, uneven and bent. Holes gaped like shot gun wounds in their sides showing their decaying innards, spilling out onto the worn farmland.
* * *
Her mother had been the one driving. It was icy at the sharp bend. The paramedic said it would have been quick. A tree branch had punctured right through the windshield and struck her in the throat. Johnny was another story. He wasn’t wearing his seat belt, which was unusual, and was thrown about thirty metres before his small body had come to a stop on the gravel road. He suffered head injuries that caused him to die two days later, he never opened his eyes again. In his five year old hand was a yellow tractor. Michelle thought this may have been the reason he wasn’t wearing his belt. She had gone over it time and time again, frame by frame as if it was a movie. Johnny taking off his belt to get his favourite toy, her mother taking her eyes off the road to make sure he put the seatbelt back on. Gone. In one morning, when there had been so many, they were gone.
The ground was sodden and the sky overcast for the fifth day in a row. The clouds were low, bearing down on the land below. She had quit school. Her father needed her on the farm and she wouldn’t be missed. The token gesture by her teacher of coming out to the farm did not shake her resolve. He wasn’t losing a star pupil after all, and she never had any close friends who would miss her. The tie with the outside was broken: now it was just her, her father and the farm. No one spoke and no one came.
Her breath came out cloudy in the air; she was losing the small bit of warmth she had left. The path she trod held the imprints from the day before. Dust from drier days covered the grass and flowers along the edge giving them a muted sense of being, as if they too were covered in a feeling they could not lift. She scattered feed for the chickens that looked at her with suspicion and checked the water pails of the cows whose eyes looked as vacant as she felt.
A light mist had formed, and she could feel the damp even through her jacket. She hurried on down the path and remembered the times when her mother walked with her. She would have told her to wear her scarf and gloves, but they hung on the hook back in the house. Forgotten. She remembered her mother’s smile, her warm touch, the way she smelled. Lilies, she smelled of lilies. Tears clouded her vision, but they did not fall. She would not allow them to. Her father had caught her once sobbing in the barn.
“I can hear you.”
There was a pause, as he seemed to deliberate this sentence. Then he lifted a hay bale onto his back, grunting with the effort.
It was bitterly cold.
The neighbour’s farm backed onto theirs although the house itself was several miles away. She had never been there but she could imagine the family around the kitchen table, laughing like she had once done. There were times when she had craved a little silence, an empty room, and space to breathe. Now everything was abandoned and she desperately wanted the noise that once filled every crevice of the old house and every part of her heart. She felt hollow, all joy sucked out, her pale skin simply a shell.
Her mind brought up memories of her brother’s laughter, his face lighting up with the action, his eyes scrunched and the corners of his mouth curled up with joy. Michelle had kept one of her mother’s sweaters, but its smell was fading. She panicked when she couldn’t remember the details of their faces. How could she forget something that she had seen everyday? Her heart tightened as she felt them slip away, it left her gasping like an asthmatic. One day all she would be left with would be herself – not enough.
Just then she heard the distinctive snort of a horse. Through the mist she could make out three of them in the farthest field. The sun shone in bands and she could see the horse’s distinctive outlines, strong in the morning light. She remembered them from when she was ten or so; she would hold Johnny up to their inquisitive noses and they would breathe their hot air onto him making him gurgle. Their low snorts would raise the short hairs on his head and make him blink, shocked at the sudden rush, causing Michelle to laugh at his simple pleasure. The neighbours had moved the horses after a while, but here they were, like a mirage through the mist, standing proud in the expanse of the rolling fields.
She had always admired horses. They stood so noble, their powerful muscles twitched under their shiny coats and their tails flicked from side to side. Their eyes were deep pools that you could lose yourself in. She turned off her path and walked towards them. The dew soaked the bottom of her jeans making them wet and heavy. She had to get closer. To touch their coat, so short and smooth, to smell their hay breath and to feel something that didn’t remind her of death, guilt, or emptiness. She drew the horses’ attention. Little else moved on the landscape except for the tall grass which pushed against her legs. Only one horse was interested enough to keep its head raised in her direction. She willed it to walk over and not leave her stood alone. Sure enough as she came towards the fence it moved forward to, slowly but deliberately.
He was majestic. His head held high, ears perked forward, assessing her. The light rain on his coat soaked the colour ink black. She reached a hand out tentatively, just under his nose, like her mother taught her. She held her breath as he nuzzled into her open palm. A movement she hadn’t felt in years spread across her face. She smiled. Tears she had never cried pooled in her eyes, which blurred the horse’s face before her. She let them fall. The weight she carried fell from her shoulders as tears made their way to the half-frozen ground. She cried out and the sound exploded from her like the detonation of a bomb. The horse did not move; it was still regarding her when she heard the sound of an engine on the road behind them. It was her father. Her heart beat staccato. The truck began to draw closer, it was passing the grey barn with the gun shot sides, it was at the first fence post, it didn’t come fast but it was coming. Her breath quickened and showed in the damp air, she was a rabbit trapped in the headlights. She could sense his eyes on her, disappointed that it was her there and not her mother or Johnny. Michelle held the rotten wood fence and refused to let go, the old ridges bit into her pale skin.
His emptiness approached like a shadow engulfs light. There amongst the cows, he could have been one of them - vacant. If he could sense the pain that built everyday inside of her then it did not show. His hands still worked the farm but there was nothing behind them. On the day of the joint funeral he had gone about his chores as usual and did not stay for the wake, but went back out into the fields. Her aunt had said he was hiding in the work; she had hugged Michelle and then returned to her own family many miles away. If her father was hiding, she believed she might never find him. The engine sound drew ever nearer.
She had never been close to her father. It was her mother’s warmth and energy that had made up for the lack of his. He had always seemed distant, not really involved with her life outside of the farm. Her mother and little Johnny had made him smile though. It was a rare thing but it softened his hard and weathered features. She did not know if anything she had done had ever made him smile. With a breaking heart she realised she might never know.
Adrenaline shot through her as if she had touched an electric fence. An instinctual need to survive had taken control of her mind, and her limbs simply followed. She started to run alongside the fence, the horse dropping behind her. Her heart was loud inside her chest and it filled her ears with a sound that echoed her urgency. Each footfall was an additional beat, the rush of the grass against her jeans the percussion, and just then the horse added his voice with his galloping hooves. He had sensed her need to run and joined her. His sleek black form covered the distance easily. The thunder sound of his hooves began to fill every part of her body; her fingers and toes throbbed with the rhythm, her hair whipped at her face in its own fury. As he caught up, Michelle realised he would soon her. She did not want to return to the damp and decay that seemed to infest both the farm and her father. She did not want to look into the vacuous eyes of the cows. She would fall behind and her father would catch her.
As the horse drew close she let out a slow breath, which hung, suspended in the air. Her next inhale expanded all the way through her body, it filled each crevice, every empty space, making her whole. Time slowed. She felt the drum of her blood and the rush of the wind on her face. The land and the sky moved in a blur, just lines of colour on a canvas. Her own hooves hit the sodden ground and she was flying. Imprints showed in the turf where her new weight had landed. She felt her muscles become those of a horse, the heat of its body became hers and she felt freedom in the powerful flow of movement. Muscle, sinew, and bone worked together. The combination was beautiful. She was built to run, to be free, to feel. The black horse lept over the dilapidated fence, but it was not alone. They were together, racing, pounding over the ground with their manes fanned out behind them.
Nothing else mattered, not her sense of loss, or guilt or loneliness. In a moment all else was lost. There was just the rhythm and the heat that took hold of her and allowed her to be free.
It was not cold anymore.