It snows in the morning, and waking up to winter after a few weeks of spring is like finding yourself in a foreign land with no recollection of how you got there. It’s jetlag without the travel, and though the thing has passed by afternoon and most of the snow is already gone, it still leaves you disoriented.
There’s a woodstove and a warm meal waiting inside, but there are chores to do first, and the low rumble of thunder is like the voice of an old friend, calling for your company. You can’t bear to be inside. You check on the dogs, grab your gloves and your book, shut the door behind you and head out to the horses. The gelding and the big mare are in their usual places, waiting expectantly for supper, but your own mare is standing at the peak of the little hill, staring in the opposite direction, neck held high and ears pricked, not her usual self.
That rigid set of her neck always unnerves you a little. She’s led a life in the wild, and she’s wiser than you. With any other animal, you might dismiss it; with her, you simply wonder what she knows that you don’t.
She comes easily at the shaking of the grain pan though, and eats her fill, and only raises her head a few times to listen to the storm that’s closing in. She’s wary, but she’s not afraid. She’s even willing to stay under the shelter with the other horses. She turns her nose easily into your hand, then buries it in sweet-smelling hay, seemingly content.
You leave the horses to their supper, tuck your book inside the front pocket of your hoodie, and scale the ladder back into the hay loft. The barn cat is there, and tries to deposit himself in your lap while you’re still climbing the ladder; you push him away gently, one-handed, and miraculously you manage not to trip over him as you step deeper into the loft, brush the loose hay from a few bales and sit. You call to the cat, cluck your tongue and murmur to him, expecting to make an easy job of attracting him close enough to pet, but the sound of rain just starting against the roof unnerves him, and he’s hungry for his own supper; he disappears down the ladder and leaves you to yourself.
Through the open hatches in the loft floor, you can hear the rustling of hay as the horses eat, but it’s soon drowned out by the beginnings of a rain shower, a dainty and uneven scrambling like birds landing on the metal roof. A low bass-line of thunder leads into a long, cacophonous percussion solo, rain pounding the ground slick and hitting the barn roof so fast and hard that it produces one continuous roar of noise.
There’s a feeling in your chest that’s excitement and fear and joy and the wet air is like something alive, something reaching out. You sigh it in and feel it wind its way around your insides, laying gentle roots.
The book’s pages are crisp and dry beneath your fingertips. The temperature is dropping. Bruce Chatwin writes from two decades ago about human ancestors huddled in caves, hiding from long-toothed predators. He writes about Australian Aboriginals singing their world into being, and you sit in the hay loft and listen as the world sings back.
The rain turns to hail, then back to rain, and slows to a gentler tempo, thunder still muttering to itself but further off now. Soon it’s too cold for bare fingers. You slip the book back into your pocket and descend the ladder.
Two of the horses are still eating, front feet and muzzles buried happily in hay. Your mare is out in the weather, standing again on her hill, staring fixedly at some monster only she can see. You pull up your hood and slip through the gate, sloshing through the new mud until you’re standing next to her, one hand light on her withers; she turns her head to greet you, then attends again to her sentry. You peer together into the gathering gloom, but your human senses detect nothing.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.
They’ve been in the dry lot all day, and you’re not particularly keen to open the paddock only to have to round the horses back up again to go in for the night, but a closer look might ease your mare’s fears and let her get back to her supper, so you open up the paddock gate and walk through. The mare doesn’t follow, not until you’re nearly out of sight behind the trees, and then she charges in at a canter, unwilling to let you face her nightmares on your own. She comes to a stop at your shoulder, blowing air, brave and alert and ready to face the enemy.
The trees are glistening with tiny drops of water, as if they’ve put on their own decorations. The only sounds are the mare’s breathing and the soft patter of rain. Nothing moves. You warm one hand against the mare’s neck. Everything is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. She turns her head and breathes against your knuckles, as if checking you’re alright.
You venture into the thicket and she follows you for a short distance, then stops as her pasture-mate comes charging in after you both, late to the battle but ready to wade in, if the threat had been found.
The part of you that Chatwin wrote about — the lizard-brain that remembers being hunted by giant cats — tells you not to go further into the thicket. Maybe it’s just unfounded paranoia, or the fixed set of your mare’s ears, or having watched too many horror movies in your lifetime, but you stop, and you back out of the thicket and back to the relative safety of your “herd.” Whether the threat is real or imagined, you’ll need to get the mares back into their lot for the night, and if there is something lurking here, you’ll hardly help the situation by blundering over it in the dark. It’s time to retreat to more certain ground.
You wrap a hand around your mare’s lower jaw, fingers burying themselves in the thick winter hair there, the whiskers on her chin tickling your knuckles. You turn away from the thicket, leading her by the jaw, and she follows easily, willingly, with nothing but your fingers pressed lightly to her skin. The big mare comes along too, bringing up the rear, glancing occasionally over her shoulder, unconcerned but curious, as if wondering what all the fuss was about.
You let your mare go when you’re nearly inside, so you can close the gate, but she refuses to leave you alone in the pasture, and you have to round her up a few times to send her through ahead of you so you can get the gate shut. She goes along with a lightness you’re not accustomed to, putting herself into your hands. When you walk back to the scattered piles of hay, she follows, and for a moment she stands with her head pressed against your arm, eyes drooping shut, just breathing beside you. When you ask her to eat, she eats, her worries seemingly forgotten. She’s confident that the predators treading their paths through your shared genetic memory will go hungry tonight.
You run your half-numb fingers through the fair blond hair of her forelock, and step out through the gate, leaving the horses to their hay and walking back over hail-spotted ground toward the house. You’re ready now for the woodstove and the warm meal. The morning’s snow is gone, along with the sense of displacement it brought. You know where you are.