Writers are those sometimes-spacy people who walk around with stories unreeling in their heads. They miss cultural clues: the woman behind them in a checkout line pushing subtly with her cart, wanting the writer to wake up and get her apples and toilet paper on the conveyor belt. But the writer is finishing a living-color scene from her past that might be worked into a smart short story for a Writers and Poets contest. She apologetically responds to the cart on her heels, and loads the belt, rushing now, bagging and paying and then fleeing to her car to sketch down the basics of the tale fading in her head—the color of the light in the woodshed, the sounds of the wind blowing through the Valley Oaks outside, the moaning of a child curled in the hayloft, dust particles floating in the thick farm air.
A writer is—genetically?—spacy, living in two worlds equally vivid and present. She might be painting the scrubby front door or making a green salad with red-green October tomatoes and leafy arugula that floats from the Trader Joe’s package like green snowflakes; but too, she is in that creaky woodshed-barn, can smell the hay that just last week was harvested and baled. She hears the whimpers of that child. She goes back again and again to look around, searching for clues to what is happening there. What animal curled up in the loose hay—skunk, raccoon, cat, dog? The whiff is animal, but neutral animal, and tainted by the smell of the sweaty child in the loft and the pungent scent of the bay gelding that leans his head over the paddock fence into the shed, watching, now and then snorting quizzically.
The rather tall young man rubs the forehead and cheeks of the gelding as he gently calls out, “Suzie?”
The whimpering in the loft stops abruptly. She sniffs, wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of her hands. “Yeah,” she replies.
“Come on down.” The gelding whinnies, wanting more rubbing, wanting the young man to pay more attention to rubbing him than to the small girl working her way down the crude ladder, missing one rung, from the loft. On the floor, the girl stands still, hands shoved into the pockets of her favorite red denim pants. She is unwilling to look up into the eyes of her teenage brother. He touches her shoulder, “What’s going on?”
She shrugs, but turns to look to the new hay behind her, where a small impression in the straw appears to have been curled into and slept in. She says nothing, but wipes again at her eyes.
He walks to the nested hay, kicks at it with his boot. “Is this where the puppy was?”
Her lip juts out, and she nods, head still down, while he shuffles a square boot toe around in the hay nest, wondering, perhaps, what to say. “Puppies don’t always live, you know…. Sometimes they get distemper or something, before they are old enough to get their shots.” He squats at her side, puts his large hand around her thin, delicate arm at the elbow. Her lip trembles.
“You were out here a lot, weren’t you…with the puppy?” She nods, head bobbing. “But you know we already have a dog. Buddy’s our dog,” he says, “Mom doesn’t want another one to feed.”
“I would have fed him,” she snaps firmly. “I told Mom.” And then the lip, out again. She kicks at years of old hay on the floor, and marvels as dust springs up to float and dance in the soft rays of sun, as tears, a couple, run down her cheeks.
“How were you going to do that, with school and your dance lessons… and piano?” He’s grinning, trying to get her to smile, but she refuses to look at him.
“You have football practice, but you feed Comet,” she says, glancing up toward the horse. The gelding appears at the fence, tossing his head back to snort, banging his chin lightly on the fence.
“You’re being a pest, Comet,” the young man says, reaching out to pet the horse again, scratch between his ears, ruffle his sloppy mane. He shouts, “Go!” motioning toward the paddock. The gelding strains his neck around but remains steady at the fence. He snorts, as if protesting.
The young man turns back to the girl, tugging softly at the elbow of her shirtsleeve. “Sometimes we lose things we love, you know… life is not all sweet peaches….” He takes his cowboy hat off, squints, bends to look her in the eye. She nods. The jutting lip returns.
“Come on,” he says, lifting the girl who is heavier than he remembers into his arms. She has grown. “Let’s saddle up Comet and ride down along the river… see if we can spot any raccoons.” When he reaches the tack room, he puts her down. Still brushing at her cheeks, she gives him a weak half-smile. He pokes her lightly in the chest, “Go get the reins and the bridle. I’ll get the saddle blanket. We don’t need the saddle.” They have stirred the hay that, in its gust, smells sweet, as fresh-mown hay will. Behind them, the horse sniffs the air.
“I like the saddle horn,” she says, momentarily glancing up, although not into his eyes.
“Okay, you’re the boss…. We’ll use the saddle.”
November 5, 2020
Ida Rae Egli