|The lure...October apples on my fenceline|
When Ken and I first moved into our retirement home not far from the Canadian border, he pointed out that the sprawling building in the back pasture wasn’t really a barn, as I’d referred to it, but a stable. He always admired precision in language, I’d learned.
“Look, it’s mostly open to the air, and it’s got four stalls. We actually could house a few horses. We’ve got plenty of pasture for them to graze on.”
I looked around the fields doubtfully. A western movie fan, Ken knew the breed, gender and name of every one of his film heroes’ horses, but confessed he’d ridden only a few times as a youth. For a man who bragged about rising daily at the break of noon, I doubted he’d be up at dawn tending to large animals. Plus, I knew full well who it was who walked, fed and combed Tsunami, the Akita he’d brought home as a puppy, swearing I’d never have to lift a finger or a pooper scooper.
“Ken, you’re really not much of one for riding,” I finally said.
“Hey, probably more than you,” he said, laughing. “I bet the closest you ever got to a horse was a painted pony on a merry-go-round,”
“Not so,” I cried. That afternoon I dug in my duffel bag of childhood photos. My grandfather had been a blacksmith, shodding plenty of horses when gypsy caravans travelled through southwest Los Angeles in the early ‘40s. I yanked out a couple of old black and white Brownie shots of Grandpa at his anvil, and waved them.
“I don’t see any horses.” Ken smiled a bit condescendingly.
I plowed around a little more. OK, this would do…here I was, draped in a serape and sporting a sombrero, seated side saddle, valiantly struggling not to look terrified.
Ken glanced at the picture and shook his head. “You’re not very observant when it comes to equines. It’s not a horse; it’s a donkey. Are you sure you can tell a whinny from a hee-haw?”
“Well, I was five, and probably didn’t know the difference. But Monte Montana, the trick rider, came once to my elementary school with his pinto, Rex. Monte was decked out in a rhinestone and sequin-studded outfit that made my own majorette uniforms look pale in comparison.”
|Monte on Rex|
Ken smiled again. “And did you ride Rex?”
“No, but I petted him. I didn’t exactly grow up with spurs that jingle jangled, but once the summer before I started junior high Daddy drove us out to Corriganville and we got to ride. I cantered through the streets of Silvertown and around Robin Hood Lake.” I didn’t add that I could barely walk for the following week from muscle aches and saddle sores.
“Let’s just settle for admiring our neighbors’ horses,” I said, after a brief reflection. “The guy next door has three or four, including a pretty gray mare that keeps coming up to our fence.”
“Well, you can toss her an apple from time to time. Just don’t let her bite you. I hear those old gray mares ain’t what they used to be.” He tussled my hair. “They can get cranky when they get old, turn into real nightmares!”
“I’ll keep my distance,” I promised.
Though I never learned her real name, I called what I now thought of as my foster horse, Mary. She’d gallop across the field up to our adjoining fence whenever I took the dog to the back pasture for grooming. This was often, since Tsunami frequently went into seasonal shed mode, especially in this colder climate. I’d toss Mary a carrot and wait until she was busy chewing it before I’d reach across the fence to pat her silky mane.
Maybe I don’t have my own horse for a pet, I thought, but what a neat arrangement. I didn’t have to feed her, groom her or exercise her, yet Mary would run to the fence to keep my company and would act happy to see me. Especially now in October when our apple tree branches sagged under the weight of the fruit.
Ken announced an alternative plan for the stable. “With a little chicken wire, I can fence off part of it, so when Tsunami is ready to have puppies, we’ll have a safe place to raise them.”
Those plans soon were dashed when Tsunami tore her anterior cruciate ligaments and needed surgery. Ken decided it might be a congenital weakness, and rather than risk passing any fault to potential pups, he reluctantly had his beautiful tri-color purebred spayed.
After that, he settled into a sedentary routine, which excluded much ambling about the pastures. True to his earlier promise, he rose late in the morning, and whiled away the afternoon watching his beloved westerns. He’d listen patiently as I’d babble about Mary, how tolerant she was of Tsunami’s growls and grumbles, and how her eyes seemed to light up when she saw me coming her way, but never volunteered to join us for our afternoon rendezvous.
“Yep,” he’d say with a chuckle. “You girls make a fine trio, three old dames, set out to pasture.”
I’d just giggle, but it was an image I held dear…an aging lady, her dog and her foster horse.
One afternoon Ken returned from The Flour Mill, a feed store in town, with a wiggling ball of black fur.
“I felt the need of male companionship,” he announced. “This is Natty. You have Tsunami and
For several weeks Natty cuddled on Ken’s lap most of the day, and nuzzled Tsunami at night. Soon, though, the pup grew too big and too adventuresome to roam outside by himself to take care of his business. Now he needed to be leashed. Once again, the dog walking fell to me. I noticed, however, that when I’d take him, rather than Tsunami, to the back pasture, Mary behaved differently. She’d edge close to the fence, but as Natty neared, she’d snarl. She acted as if she hated him.
“Something’s wrong with Mary,” I told Ken that evening. “She snorts, rather than knickers when I take Natty out. I don’t think she likes him.”
“I’ll go out there with you tomorrow. We’ll see if it’s Natty, or if it’s men in general that she dislikes.”
On our way to the far pasture together the next afternoon, I pocketed some apples. As we approached the fence, Mary ambled across her field and neighed in a welcoming way. I tossed my apple. She bobbed down to retrieve it. Ken grabbed my empty hand.
“Honey,” he began, squeezing my fingers. “Remember when I said you probably couldn’t tell a whinny from a hee-haw? Didn’t know a burro from a pony?”
“Come on, Ken. I know Mary’s not a donkey. Look how big she is. She’s a horse.”
“Indeed she is, but the old gray mare not only ain’t what she used to be…she never was.”
Mary whinneyed and I tossed her an apple with my free hand.
“When you look at that animal, what do you see?” Ken sounded genuinely curious.
“Big teeth, kind eyes, a nice mane, a fluffy tail.”
“That’s your problem. You don’t look closely enough. It’s a he, baby, not a she. That’s why this animal doesn’t like Natty. He’s jealous.”
I looked dubious. I scanned the underside of the horse quickly, but didn’t notice anything that I’d always referred to as an animal’s dingledangles.
“I don’t see how you can tell.”
|The apple tree in blossom|
I blushed with embarrassment at never having taken the time to check, for simply assuming. Ken had joked before that I couldn’t tell a Mercedes from a Maserati, but I’d always thought I could tell male from female, except, maybe in kittens. Or goldfish.
Ken looked amused. “Johnny Cash sang about a boy named Sue,” he said. “Guess you can call a boy horse Mary.”
“Oh, shut up. Don’t try to make me feel less stupid. I’ll just call him Marv.” At that moment I felt I hadn’t any more sense than God gave little green apples. Let alone any horse sense.
I turned toward the horse and tossed the poor old boy another apple. Poor thing. He deserved a treat, I decided.
After dinner, Ken switched on the TV. “Hey, here’s a show you might want to watch,” he declared.
“What’s it called?”
“Grey’s Anatomy. A good one for the girl who didn’t notice the gray’s anatomy.”
P. S. Later, after Ken died, I located a 1917 photo of Grandpa Joe in front of his blacksmith shop...with plenty of horses! Here he is, a hundred years ago.