Nothing bad had happened all day. The aged Arabian gelding tossed his shaggy, black mane and expelled a deep, resonant sigh, a contented sort of whoosh sound an old horse might make when his world is in order. The sun's amiable rays toasted his swayed back and bony withers all afternoon. He flared his nostrils, inhaled deep the Louisiana gulf breeze, fragrant with lilac and a hint of wisteria. He sighed again. Utter contentment. Blessed day.
Right on time. The stoop-shouldered, retired plantation foreman lugged a faded red bucket holding the old horse's dinner mash of molasses-laced bran, crimped oats and chopped carrots to the weather-worn feeder hung slightly askew on the paddock fence. In no rush, the gelding slurped up the last gooey glob, methodically licking the old bucket's sides and under its rim as it slid up and down the worn wooden slats of the feeder with a muffled, rhythmical thump. Someone he couldn't quite remember had said that sweet, chunky gruel helped keep meat on his ribs and the look of eagles in his eye. The gelding welcomed the old foreman's fond touch; every evening his caretaker flexed gnarled hands and massaged the horse's prominent hipbones and thickened joints with familiar care as he inhaled his dinner. The gelding sniffed the pungent hint of pipe tobacco in the back pocket of the man's faded overalls when he bent over; it made him wrinkle the delicate, curved edge of his nostrils. The horse's wide-set dark eyes missed no detail of the man's routine. Hoist the clean-licked red tub out of the feeder and set it by the twine-tied gate, straighten tired, stiff shoulders, trudge back across the paddock with a slight limp and stamp up the five wooden steps of the weathered farmhouse a stone's throw to the east, no glance back. The ritual pipe would emerge from his overalls, followed by a soft, sucking sound as a lazy wisp of smoke trailed over the man's shoulder and drifted up into the evening sky. The gelding raised his head, swiveling an ear in easy salute as the sagging screen door banged shut. He yawned broadly, revealing grooved and worn yellowish molars, licked off a few gummy carrot shreds with a deft, rubbery tongue and decided he was thirsty.
As he had done every evening for years at this time, the horse meandered down the three-rail paddock fence towards a moss-coated concrete water tank, scuffing lazy tracks in the dust with the toes of his unshod hind hooves. He halted at the sunflower-bordered trough, a hock creaking as he cocked a back leg to rest. Ears bobbing to and fro with each sip, he gulped in mouthfuls of cool, clear water. He let the overflow drip down in tiny rivulets from his mouth's corners, down his long chin whiskers to the bottom of his loose-hanging, inky black lower lip. Drip, drip, drip, back into the trough. He stared at his distorted reflection wavering in the ripples below his muzzle as the sun and moon traded places just below the broken canopy of abandoned pecan trees next to the paddock fence. As the water faded from murky green to somber blue to iridescent black, he could no longer make out the crooked stripe down his face in reflection. Blinking a cloud of pesky mosquitoes out of his eyes, he moseyed with muffled tread down the vine-draped fence-line towards the single tall, healthy cottonwood gracing the paddock's far back corner. Time for an evening nap under his favorite tree. The moon, now glorious, full and radiant, drifted far up above the line of weary pecans, and shone a clear, safe route to his destination.
About halfway to the tree he halted in his tracks, baffled. A human sat at the tree's base, legs stretched straight out, half-hidden by the unclipped wisteria girdling its trunk. Almost forgotten, she sat patient and still, waiting for him. His heart raced as he stared hard in disbelief. It was his best-loved human -- that serious-faced girl with mahogany-hued braids down her back who shared her youth with him, called him brother. She was the first to feed him tubs-full of oats with chopped carrots and molasses, the first to scrub, brush and rag-rub him until his coat gleamed like burnished copper with huge dapples and his fit muscles tingled with vitality. The look of eagles, she'd said. He remembered the pictures she drew of him and nailed to his paddock walls in their north Dallas home's backyard. He didn't mind the scolding she gave him when he'd sampled a few. They had little taste, compared to the chopped carrots she tossed daily in his feed tub. Here she was again, in the flesh, hunkered down beneath his personal tree, gazelle-like legs stretched out and crossed, jeans tucked into square-toed Wellington boots. Her customary worn Stetson rested easy, brim up, in her lap. He had not seen her in years, not since she had hauled him in the two-horse rig to this remote Louisiana plantation.
Memories flooded in. They galloped together all over the suburban sprawl of Dallas, Texas, in the booming 1960's, from the exploding glass and concrete skyline near downtown out past the "colored only" shantytown above Valley View Lane, a close-knit pair on a private, sweaty odyssey of exploration. It happened a long time ago, before multi-lane highway loops flanked by massive shopping malls girthed the city and mushrooming McMansion developments wiped out the creeks and grassy expanses. They had hurtled full out on the fresh scraped dirt of expansive, flattened roadways, barely avoiding the huge, screaming dirt-mover machines as they careened along, carving out the course of the future multi-lane LBJ Freeway. They rode for so long and far daily, using a nearby abandoned railroad bed as their starting point, that his iron shoes wore clean through at the toes before the amazed horse-shoer could nail on new ones.
H remembered how he fell once when she urged him to canter across a busy thoroughfare, hooves shooting sparks every which way as they slid and scrambled sideways, crashing down on the hardtop mid intersection. Cars screeched to abrupt halts both directions as the girl leaped free, tugging him back up to his feet and waving carefree reassurance to the drivers staring in horrified astonishment from behind the windshields of massive 1960's American sedans. They were always safe as a pair. They felt lucky, watched over by some wild, secret spirit that allowed them to skim by the dangers unscathed, wild mane and braids flying in the breeze.
Mostly they followed the railroad greenbelt, away from traffic. The old horse closed his eyes, luxuriating in pleasure at the thought. After the iron tracks and stinky, creosoted railroad ties disappeared and the tractor-mowers' monthly shredding ended, the verdant overgrowth skirting the old railway bed exploded. It ushered in a natural preserve, teeming with soaring hawks, tiny hooting owls and monarch butterflies, all sizes, colors and shapes of snakes, lizards and frogs and a myriad of brownish furry creatures that scurried squeaking away into lairs or underbrush to avoid his ironclad hooves as they dashed by. It became a private pathway to freedom in wildness, hidden from Dallas' 1960's urban sprawl, shared by one fit, bay horse and his special, adventuresome girl. Their treks inspired her pensive scribbles on the tattered writing pad stuffed into his saddlebags, along with his carrot and the shared water bottle. No adult invaded this resplendent realm to dampen their insatiable wanderlust or curb their companionship. He believed their time together there would last an eternity. Until it ended. Early one humid, mosquito-swarming summer morning they rode up to the green belt from the well-worn creek-bed path behind their home to find that jeep tire tracks had smashed down wide swatches of waist-high grass. Numbered surveyor stakes topped with orange plastic tape strips lined both sides of the nearly obliterated railroad bed in even rows, as far as the eye could see, both directions. The girl checked him to an abrupt halt mid-sward, loosed his reins so he could graze on the lush Johnson grass tickling his belly and slung one leg over the saddle horn to contemplate the invasion, brow furrowed. After a few minutes passed, she picked up his reins and swung back astride, carefully side-passed him over smashed down grass until he stood next to a stake beside her leather-covered wooden left stirrup. She wrapped the reins around the saddle horn and leaned over casually to wiggle the stake, pluck at it, just to see. It came out of the ground smoothly, one sharp tug of her leather-gloved hand. She looked up and down the line of orange strips bobbing in the breeze, but no objecting adult emerged from the dense underbrush cradling their personal wilderness. The stake sailed right between the gelding's forward pricked ears and tumbled far into tangled honeysuckle brambles. He found the rest of that ride a hot bore, no customary mad dashes with tricky leaps over logs and half-hidden streams at breakneck speed, foam flecking his pounding chest and heaving flanks. After several hours of the tedious side-pass and stake-toss routine, not one stick remained visible. This seemed to please the girl. The railroad green belt regained its serenity, all theirs once more. Several days later, a jeep pulled up to their nearby home's driveway. Two men stepped out, somber and official, with weatherworn faces. They doffed hats, knocked on the home's back door and went inside. Soon, the girl burst out of the house and ran to the horse in his backyard paddock, burying her face, awash in tears, in his thick mane. He curled his head and neck over her shoulder and squeezed tight, not comprehending, but steadily watching, ears at worried attention, as the stern-visaged men paused at the back door and gazed stone-faced at the pair before setting hats back on their heads and speeding off in their jeep. He would protect the girl if needed, but they never returned.
The old horse remembered how he enjoyed their extended treks, even when they got tangled in rolls of old barbed wire abandoned in fields or almost fell down forgotten grass-hidden well shafts on occasion. The gelding licked his lips remembering the frosty bottles of 7-Up they shared after each ride, one for him, one for her, ice crystals trickling down the bottles' glass sides. All exploration of the railroad bed wilderness ended soon enough, he recalled, as construction on the Dallas North Tollway finally cut off all access in the name of something he heard the girl spit out with fuming derision, called "progress."
He tossed his head in the Louisiana night as if shaking off cobwebs. He stared hard again at this headstrong, passionate girl now leaning up against his cottonwood tree and fluttered his nostrils with delight. So many years had passed since she drove away. He had felt abandoned watching the empty horse trailer clatter and bang down the dusty road towards the main highway. She gazed up at him under the cottonwood's canopy, eyes sparkling, all innocent young girl smiles, practically on fire in the moonlight; he melted into the warmth. No doubt about it, she had come back. He nickered an exuberant greeting and started to buck. Then he remembered his arthritic joints and contained himself. It was okay. She would understand. He floated towards her, never taking his eyes away. Reverently, gently, he placed his muzzle on top of her head and snuffled deep into her mahogany hair, pulled back tight into two neat braids down her back like always. He had never forgotten her hair's faint wisteria scent.
It occurred to him it would feel grand to lie down right next to her so she could stroke his ears and forelock like she used to in their little Dallas barn. With dignity and caution he folded stiff knees and hocks. He settled down under the cottonwood. Careful not to roll on her nor harm her with a stray hoof, he wanted to enjoy the reverie of this sacred friendship, renewed in the silent moon's glow. She shifted, leaning in close. He sighed again and stretched out his neck as she stroked his ears and disentangled his forelock, one long, wiry strand of hair at a time. The perfect end for a blessed day. Welcome home.
The phone rang about 10:00 pm, California time. " Dairaff died last night," drawled a woman's voice, matter-of-fact. "Our old foreman found him in the mornin' under his favorite tree, that ol' cottonwood in the back of the paddock? Looks like he just laid down to rest and drifted off, real peaceful-like. Thought you might want to know, him bein' your first horse, an' all." Click. Stone-faced, the riding instructor silenced her cell phone and stuffed it into a back pocket. Wondering if her mumbled thanks had sounded harsh, she made mental note to write a proper note in the morning. No other sound disturbed the silence in her well-ordered, older mobile home at her horse ranch in California's Sierra Nevada foothills north of Sacramento. "He was just an old horse who lived a good life, died in his sleep and didn't suffer" she half-shrugged, half-whispered. She tossed her head as if shaking off cobwebs. Tracing a finger down the outer seam of her worn corduroy breeches, she rubbed absently at a bald worn patch on the calf of one tall English riding boot. Maybe she'd write a story about him someday.
The woman stood straight, resolute, running a calloused hand through short-cropped mahogany hair streaked with grey. She felt ready to return to barn duties interrupted by the unexpected long distance call, which had jarred her memory and stirred up long-dismissed emotions. She needed to head back out the barn to check on a client's mare due to foal that night. Then from some place unrecognized she caught a faint whiff of wisteria, and she paused. Striding to an open window, she leaned out, frowning, then inhaling deep the unmistakable essence of wisteria. The moon glowed with an unearthly brilliance, floating far up above the broad-limbed oaks towering above her mobile home. She squinted, marveling. She gazed out beyond the treetops into the jet-black expanse of star-scattered sky, and her breath caught. She had a vision of an old bay Arab gelding lying still under a Louisiana cottonwood, bathed in the moonlight. His neck stretched out towards the base of the tree so she could stroke his ears and forelock one last time. A familiar barn owl hooted benediction and sailed in graceful sweeps across the face of the unworldly orb glowing above. Cherishing the vision for a moment, she whispered the words: safe passage. And softly stepped out into the northern California night, believing in her heart that it was.
In tribute to my childhood's closest friend and constant companion, Dairaff, who taught me the true spirit of nature and the true nature of spirit. And how to love. (1960-1987)