At least one thing won’t change, Donna thought as she slipped her hands into the alfalfa bale, pulling a flake for the horse her daughter left behind. Thankful for the one familiar routine of twice daily feeding, she missed all the other daily tasks that composed a life as the mother of an only child who was now gone off to college to start her life.
Donna carried the flake around to Grendel’s stall where the mare was always stretching her neck to steal a mouth full before the feed hit the manger. But Grendel wasn’t at the trough nickering for the alfalfa. Alarmed, Donna slipped into the stall then out the back into the largish paddock. Grendel stood there in the shade of the barn, her head held low, tail barely swiping at flies. If a horse could cry, Grendel’s body language certainly showed such emotion. She swung her head around to look at Donna, then dropped it again, disinterested.
As a girl, Donna learned to beware of changes in a horse’s demeanor. She didn’t always know what a change meant, but her grandfather had warned that anything visible in equine attitude was usually connected to something important. “Horses aren’t big talkers”, he explained one summer at the old Langley Prairie farm when Donna was just a girl. “You have to hear them with your eyes, not your ears. Keen observation is your most important tool for knowing if they are just conversatin’ or they’re screaming at you.”
Donna felt Grendel’s sadness as she slowly approached, then began gently rubbing the mare’s withers, then crawling slowly up the mane to scratch the roots. “Kerry was the light of our lives, wasn’t she?” Donna said in a low voice. Grendel’s eyes flickered at the sound of a familiar name. “I haven’t been hungry either. There’s nothing for us mamas to do now that we don’t have a baby.”
Grendel pivoted and pressed her head into Kerry’s waist. “I know girl, I know,” she murmured. “It’s the same for me too.”
For the past weeks Donna had been wondering what to do with her feelings too. It was empty nest syndrome all right, and she was in a real funk. Was it time to go back to work? Perhaps she could start a new career, or go to school for something she really wanted to do. But there was nothing in her mind that asked to be done, and nothing seemed powerful enough to fill the void.
The thoughts of equine body language brought back memories of her grandfather. “It takes age and wisdom to really bond with a horse,” he’d said once. “Sure, you can ride the hell out of them when you’re young, but now that I’m looking eighty between the eyes, I see a lot more in them. And I suppose I move a lot slower so I notice little things they do. It’s the same as a horse speaking to me in their language. When I was a young man I never caught half of that. Now these days I seen ‘em all different.”
Donna gently urged Grendel back to the stall one step at a time. She broke the alfalfa flake in half and shook it out to let all the tender leaves fall in a small pile into manger. She scooped up a handful and held it under the mare’s nose, offering the most savory of all feed. The mare still didn’t eat.
“Sometimes they get depressed,” Grandpa had said so long ago. “Seen a mare lose a foal right after birth and she just laid down and didn’t get up again. Then we brought in an orphan colt and she was up and back in business.”
Donna felt like lying down too, but if she did maybe she just wouldn’t want to get up again. Sure, she had more time to spend with her husband now that Kerry was gone, but the economy had him to so he spent more hours at the office than ever, making Donna feel her isolation that much more acutely.
She leaned against the mare’s warm soft coat, closed her eyes and struggled to hold back tears as the image of her grandfather crystallized in her mind. He wore his old sheepskin coat and his ranch hat stained from years of sweat and dirt. In his hand was the halter and lead, and he held it out to her as if he was inviting her to return to the farm.
Donna knew she had lived every day for her daughter, putting all her wants behind all of Kerry’s needs. Somewhere along the way her own childhood dreams of training colts had vanished with college, then marriage and childbirth. Those summer days on the farm wandering the hills bareback and bare foot, had faded away into distant memory. But now in the void they seemed to return stronger than ever.
Perhaps it was the menopause that did it, she thought. The midlife loss of estrogen seemed to draw her back to her former self before puberty made living so damned complicated. Now she yearned to be back there with her grandfather, marveling at the nuanced dance of silent equine behavior.
During those summer nights in the attic bedroom of the farm house, she’d dreamed of her own foal to raise, but grandpa wasn’t breeding stock anymore. Instead she spent those days with him working the last colt, a two year old quarter horse in the slow methodical process that Donna had absorbed and remembered. Every single minute with Grandpa was stored deep in her memory, lodged beneath Kerry’s first baby steps, potty training and the trauma of first grade.
Donna left Grendel and opened the tack room door, which they had made by converting the second stall of the stable. Inside Kerry had tacked pictures to the walls that chronicled her life with the mare. The earliest faded photo was Kerry as a stringy haired girl astride Grendel, the jack-o-lantern smile of missing teeth. Then another picture showed her older in costume with her friends in the neighborhood fiesta day parade. Another portrayed a triumphant twelve year old who’d won the dollar bill marathon, a wad of money clutched in her slender fingers. And finally that shot Donna had taken with a long lens from the grandstands as Grendel went around the barrel, Kerry standing toes-down in the stirrups, her hair flowing free. The pictures chronicled a life centered on the gray mare and a girl gone away to become a woman.
Donna took the rope halter off its hook and pondered the fact that she seemed to be moving through life in reverse. The change had found her de-evolving to open the door to the true loves of her childhood. There seemed to be nothing in her way any more, and perhaps the first loves become the final loves of her senior years. She had come full circle.
Donna entered the stall and Grendel’s head came up from its sad droop as she eyed the halter. The mare’s ears shot forward and suddenly that lackluster performance was gone. Grendel politely dropped her head and Donna tied the knot.
In front of the barn she laid the lead rope over the hitching rail and thought a moment. In the old days she would have swung up Indian style, but instead she stepped away and returned with a foot stool to boost herself up onto that wide speckled back. The memory of her muscles responded absolutely to the posture she’d given up decades before.
With a gentle nudge Grendel turned and headed toward the bridle trail that ran through their community. She stepped out into a fast clip when Donna settled into a relaxed seat, her pelvis moving with the rhythm of the mare’s stride. She reached up and took the clip out of her greying hair, letting it fall free.
As they walked through the magical evening light she pondered what it would take to remodel the stable. She could add a new tack room so the old stall could house a horse as originally intended. Donna could feel herself warming to an idea, one that brought her back to the little attic bedroom that looked out onto the pasture.
She had longed for a foal to appear on the farm but one never did. She longed for the daughter to return and that wasn’t happening either. Now in the twilight she could see Grandfather watching at the edge of the woods, his stained hat nodding that she had made the right choice. By the time they returned to the stable at dark Donna pondered just one unresolved question as Grendel gobbled up the alfalfa. Would she prefer a buckskin or a palomino?