I would like more sisters, that the takingout of one would not leave such stillness.—Emily Dickinson
I wonder how my sister always looks lovely, even in black. Kathleen's back from her latest funeral, wearing a silky, knee-length dress. There's a silver cross around her neck, falling delicately at the curve of her breastbone. I can't replicate this look, and I haven't managed to pull off a dress since Kathleen's First Communion party.
I am sitting at our kitchen table in a flannel shirt, dark jeans, and thermal socks, watching as she slips out of black heels. She's a cantor at our church, which means she essentially sings for all special occasions. We only ever manage passing conversation and generally just about the funerals.
"Who died?" I ask, wrenching my tangled curls into a rough knot as she shrugs off her coat.
"Sixty-five, grandmother." Kathleen responds like clockwork, hardly glancing up. "She had so many grandkids; she must have started young." She disappears into the fridge, searching for her last Slim-Fast. Her dark hair peeks out above the door, swept into a simple updo.
I realize, staring at her discarded stilettos, that I can't remember when she started to wear fancy dresses, makeup, or strappy heels. I'm twenty now, and Kathleen is just a year my junior. Mom used to say we looked like twins. We are just a year apart with the same dark hair, dark eyes, full lips, and bronzed skin. Kathleen is more petite than I am, though, more feminine. I hulk above her broad-shouldered, thickly muscled, and masculine. She's the streamlined version, classy: an Audrey Hepburn. I'm the Katherine.
She pauses and her eyes flicker toward my damp jeans. Her nose wrinkles. "Honestly, Kimmy, did you have to bring the barn inside?"
I shift uncomfortably under her scrutiny. Kathleen makes a hundred bucks in one hour; I make just about minimum wage. I've wanted to run our farm ever since I can remember. But Kathleen just seems to float along, in and out of the house, perpetually humming the notes to a different song. I don't answer the accusation, and, without pausing to acknowledge my silence, she moves off in a swirl of silk and music. I cross my arms over my chest, the collar of my flannel shirt itchy as I finish my tea.
Sometimes my memories seem all one-sided, like she doesn't recall chucking manure at me during long days of mucking stalls, or jumping into our half-frozen pond on the first day of spring. There are so many things I want to tell her, just to see if she still understands.
I've always had this dream. I'm standing beside a horse, a champion's necklace of roses draped over his neck. My uniform changes. Sometimes I'm in the bright silks of a jockey, sometimes in the crisp, black blazer of a hunter jumper eventer, sometimes in a baseball cap and polo monogrammed with the name of my stable in bright, white thread. The horse is the only thing that remains constant, standing silently, loyally, by my side. I'd hoped the vagaries of this fantasy would solidify with age because, naturally, you're supposed to pinpoint what you want to be when you grow up. The problem is that they haven't really. The last fantasy, by elimination, seems to be the strongest. This, too, is fading now, because Kathleen is leaving. After so many years daydreaming together, she's wrapped up somehow in my fantasies. I feel like they'll crumble when she goes.
We have three older brothers. The age gap is fairly significant between us, so it's always felt like it's just me and Kathleen. Kevin's the oldest. He used to be Dad's biggest help around the farm but now he's off at university in California. Joseph, next, is stationed out in Alaska with the Coast Guard. Jacob is training to be a pilot.
I grew up riding hunter jumpers and Kathleen barrel racing ponies. For a few years, my draft cross and her Argentinean pony ran circles around our competition at local fairs. We were a team. All year long we'd work, do school, and lesson with our horses. Summertime would arrive with a blast of heat radiating from the stainless steel sides of our horse trailer—a whirlwind of county fairs.
Kathleen found out she could sing when she was twelve. She never took it seriously until her pony died. I was sixteen; she was fifteen. I was just learning how to drive our trailer and I wasn't home when her pony colicked from dehydration in the mid-summer heat. The mare was under a blue tarp by the time I got back. Kathleen was watching movies in our parents' room with puffy eyes, an empty box of tissues, and a lock of chestnut mane. She tried for a little while to ride our other horses, but my parents didn't have the money to buy a new one of her own. One passion surpassed the other and, after a while, she didn't ride again. Everything we had in common has been vanishing ever since.
Once, I caught her throwing out all her old ribbons: the tri-color champions, the blue firsts and red seconds, two trophies, and a photocopy of the first cash prize she ever won. I wanted to rescue them from the dumpster, but I only pulled the largest ribbon from the state fair—one with a picture of us on the back, hugging as we pushed our trophies in the air.
Despite the fact that our family has always had a horse farm, my brothers lost interest once they grew up. Now Kathleen is leaving, really leaving. She's graduating and going to a music school in New York City.
Then it'll just be me.
I run what's left, the few retired horses, the empty barns, the remaining tilled hay fields, holding on to a past only I seem to care for.
The house is oddly quiet. Dad is gone every week for about four days, and Mom has gone south for a while to help take care of Grandma, who is ill. Winter is coming. Kathleen knows because Mary Kay cosmetics released their winter colors: navy blues, hazelnuts, and ivy gardens. I know because I threw on an extra sweatshirt under my barn coat as I flew out the door today. It only takes me about five minutes to get ready in the mornings. I run a quick brush through my dark hair, brush my teeth, and pull on some jeans and boots. I still resent the breeding barn's schedule; we start feeding at 5:30 a.m.
I started working for Scott, our neighbor who runs a thoroughbred breeding farm, just a few weeks ago. I consider it an internship of sorts. Despite the fact that I've grown up around horses, I don't have much practical knowledge of what it takes to make a career out of them. When Scott asked if I wanted to earn some extra money as a stablehand, I eagerly agreed.
There are three barns: two smaller ones to house the stallions, and a larger one for the mares at the bottom of a long hill. The mares' barn is shaped like a big 'T' and has nearly fifty stalls making up the interior. My new job consists of mucking those stalls out on weekends and helping to do feedings during the week.
"You go to school here, don't you?" Colleen asks from two stalls down. She is a sun-crisped woman with smudged glasses and muck boots stretching to her knees. Her disheveled blonde hair is perpetually swept up into a loose ponytail and she has some sort of Dutch accent—gentler than German. She would be the senior stablehand if we had titles. I'm mostly an assistant. I think she enjoys my company and I hope she appreciates my help.
"At the community college. I'm studying History."
"Didn't want to go far?"
The corner of my mouth twitches and the question, however innocent, stings. I speak slowly, contemplating my defense. "Dad can only run the farm part-time; he works in the city for a construction company." I chuck manure into my wheelbarrow. The toss comes with more force than necessary and the manure splatters. "It's what I always wanted. I want to keep the farm going, maybe invest in some equipment, give a few lessons, take on some boarders—nothing wildly successful. I just want to be around horses, you know?"
Mucking stalls involves a full-body beat down; one arm is responsible for heaving your pitchfork while the other directs. After about three stalls the movements feel robotic, preordained, and rigid. I cock my head, stretching my neck.
Colleen doesn't comment besides giving a grunt of acknowledgement.
"We have some horses, grow our own hay. I guess I'd like to inherit the house, the land, all that." This response, well-practiced, comes easily. Colleen probably means no harm, but I can feel her question in my mind. It's one that's been posed to me before and it always sounds like Why did you get left behind?
"Your family... what do they think?"
"I'm the only one in line." I halfheartedly chuckle. I wait for appreciation, some signal that she understands. There is a longing, a fierce desire to always be around the land and to never forget the feeling of something breathing beneath you. Instead I hear a few heavy thuds and Colleen whispering to someone. I poke my head out and look down the aisle.
"Colleen? Are you okay?"
She curses. I don't understand her words, but I can pick out the anger. She's in Copper Penny's stall, a friendly chestnut yearling. Scott doesn't name any of the babies until they are old enough to break. For now, Copper just adopts her mother's name.
I squeeze out of my stall and jog down to Colleen's, peering inside. Copper is backed up against a wall, nostrils quivering as Colleen stretches out her hand. "She hurt her leg last week. I told Scott this, but he hasn't called out a vet." Copper won't put any weight on her left front and it's angled awkwardly past her knee. She shakes her head again as she presses her fingers to Copper's neck, quieting the filly's anxiousness.
"What will happen to her?" I ask, still observing from outside.
"If it's broken or the tendon's strained, she's too young to heal. And she'll be worthless if she can't run." Copper still hasn't relaxed, but her ears flicker in Colleen's direction, listening. I blink, slowly comprehending.
"So Scott won't do anything?" I think back to my horses' injuries. Even the ones who died had a vet by their sides until the end. I stayed with them until they stopped moving.
Colleen shrugs. "It's too expensive and being on the track is a hard life." She pats the filly's neck one more time, then slips out and slides the door closed. "Such a shame really; her mama was a fine racer."
I clomp inside, my hair damp with snow and sweat as I peel off layers of warmth from my overheated body. Of course the snow came early this year, just days after Thanksgiving—a holiday which none of our brothers made it home for.
Kathleen's reading a magazine with a chocolate Slim-Fast in one hand. She looks up as I slouch into a chair by the pellet stove in the kitchen. "Rough day at work?"
I nod, catching my breath. "It's hard to do stalls with all the snow. Pushing that wheelbarrow sucks and leading the horses out is even worse. With the snow drifts, it was up to my hips in some places."
She snorts. "I couldn't do it." I wince. It's as if she never shared that life with me, as if it were so far removed that she doesn't even remember. She sips from the aluminum can. "Well, you'll have great looking arms come summer at least."
I want to ask her if she remembers trail-riding, something we did nearly every day in summer. We explored every inch of land within a six-mile radius until the horses memorized our tried and true routes. We'd shove our hands rigidly in the air, lacing our reins around the pommels of our saddles, and notice how long the horses would plod along on the path until they realized they weren't being given any direction.
I get up to make some hot chocolate. Without all my layers the dampness has started to chill. For a while, all I can hear are the flames crackling and I peer over at her. Kathleen is staring at me, hands resting in her lap.
"Why don't you tutor or something? You get good grades don't you? It'd be easier."
I'm already irritated and her comment chafes. "I just don't want to teach right now."
"Then why did you major in History?"
This question makes me pause. There was this time Dad took us down to Gettysburg because he was a Civil War buff. We trailered our ponies to a campsite and rode around the battlefield until it got dark. We slept in the back of our van when the rain soaked our tents. When we galloped through misty fields in the early morning, past shadowy monuments and old wooden battlements, I'd felt like I could inhale the magnitude of the place, reliving its tragic past. It sparked massive research in the war, and others in American history, so it felt like a completely natural interest to pursue in college. Now the reasons seem fuzzy, passion blurred by practicality. Why, for instance, do I even go to school at all if I never want to leave the farm?
I sit by the fire again, closing my eyes as the steamy liquid burns in my throat. It's the longest conversation we've had in a while, and I struggle to think of something else to say. I want to tell her about Copper's impending doom. I can't help but wonder though, if I mention hooves, strained tendons, or treatment methods, will I have to define everything? Would I have to lecture her on terms of horsemanship as if she had never spent days alongside me in our barn?
I wonder if she could even garner up a sympathetic glance for the filly. When I don't respond, Kathleen shrugs and leaves. She's been preparing to leave for a while now, but I hate that it already feels like she's gone.
January marks the beginning of the birthing season. There are about thirty pregnant mares on the farm. The foals sell for thousands before they are even broke to ride. I've never experienced a horse give birth, and I try to get up as early as my body will allow on the off chance that I might get to see one.
Rumba Numba is due first. I arrive a little earlier than Colleen that morning. She's usually here by now to start feeding, but there isn't anyone around when I slide open the barn door. The lights are off. I take lengthened strides to reach the mare's stall, peeking inside over the door. In the hazy light she seems oddly smaller than yesterday. Without the barn lights on, the stalls are dark with faint morning beams streaking from the windows high up in the walls. Dust swirls around her, shadows playing on the light.
It's awfully quiet too, but there's no baby anywhere beside her. She stands alone with her head lowered and her eyes drooping. I frown, studying her mellow form before turning and starting to work. By the time Colleen arrives, I've finished feeding and started my first stall. She walks in just as I empty my first wheelbarrow.
Then I see it. It looks odd there, lying in old tire tracks and frozen manure. I don't know what to think of it actually; mostly because I don't really know how to describe a dead foal. If someone asks you what a horse looks like, you generally start with their color, their size, their personality. But dead horses, dead foals are just that, dead.
It looks sort of bay, a darkish brown color with black legs, mane, and tail. Its coat lacks the glossy softness of a newborn foal, instead grey and dull. He, she—I'm not really sure—is too thin and small, like someone poked him and his muscles deflated.
I jump when Colleen comes up behind me and nearly fall headfirst over my tipped wheelbarrow into the manure pile. "She came out too early, got stuck." She pulls me up by the scruff of my jacket. "So sad."
I don't want it to stay there, lying alone in the frozen filth. "Will Scott bury it?" I ask, unable to turn away.
She considers this, her glasses fogging as she breathes. "If he has time; he's sleeping now. We were up all night with her." She points to his tractor parked behind the manure pile. "It's a lot of work putting something so small in the ground when it's frozen like this." She slips back inside, muttering and pulling carrots out of her pockets for Rumba.
Colleen is so brusque; it unnerves me. I've only done two stalls, but I know I can't come back out here to dump manure seeing this. Nauseously, I grab the nearest pitchfork from inside. I wish I had something to say, something to let it know I would remember it. I shovel steaming manure onto the emaciated body until the tire rut is filled and the foal disappears from sight.
"Will Rumba be okay?" I ask, shoving my wheelbarrow into the next stall and then joining Colleen at the mare's door. She has an organic carrot in an outstretched hand; she likes to spoil the horses with little pleasures. Rumba doesn't move, doesn't even acknowledge our presence. I can see a feeble trickle of blood seeping down between her back legs to the floor.
"She had a long night." Colleen gingerly pockets the carrot with a sigh. "She tried very hard, but she'll forget in a few days. They always do." She crosses her arms over the stall door. "They'll breed her again and then next year she'll have some new baby to think about."
Her matter-of-fact tone continues to startle me. I want to say something, but what? The mare has lost that brilliant shine to her chestnut fur that accompanies pregnancy. She seems matted and dull, mutely alive. It feels worthless. The foal didn't have a name, nothing to mark its passing—like it had never been. I shove my hands deep into my pockets as I retreat back to the other stalls.
I'm more sore than usual by the time I make it home. My barn chores stretch to an agonizing length. Jeb, my old show horse named for a Confederate Calvary general, is nearly twenty and has arthritis. We still trail ride, but don't jump anymore as it puts too much strain on his legs.
Kathleen never got another pony after hers died four years ago. Our parents didn't have the money when she was interested. Then, when they did, she didn't seem to care. Now her life is wrapped entirely around her music. When she isn't practicing, she's tinkering on our piano, taking music lessons, or singing for this recital or that funeral. Gaining early admittance to Julliard is the highlight of her life, and she'll leave for a preparatory program in June.
I've never told her, but I always wanted to attend Bowdoin College in Maine. It was the school of General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, my favorite Civil War commander, both before the war, as a professor, and after, as the president. The history of the campus proliferates every building down to the last stone. There are monuments erected by the classes well back into the 1800s. Several classrooms have historical plaques, delineating Chamberlain's activities there. He is, to this day, the college's most honored faculty member.
But I am not brave, like Kathleen, and I chose a local school instead. I can study history in either location, but I know it isn't the same. That's the thing about horses; they tie you to the land. Equestrian careers aren't transportable. Even though Maine is only nine hours away, it might as well be nine lifetimes. The thought of waking up alone, far from the white-fenced paddocks and aging red barns of home, makes bile rise in my throat.
The water spigot freezes in the barn sometimes, like tonight, and I have to haul water in five-gallon buckets out of the basement. Jeb has four other companions: a miniature pony Kathleen and I used to ride and three of my Dad's old driving horses—now retired. I wish they were more appreciative. Jeb looks disdainfully at me through soft, dark eyes as I dump the bucket into the trough in his field, huffing. Billy, the pony, trots over eagerly—quite forgetting his advanced age in anticipation of dinner. Jeb stares as I crunch toward him, slipping in the snow. I rub his shoulder and watch his breath curl on the evening air. He nibbles at the zipper of my jacket, an old, familiar trick. With a rush of affection I hug him, burying my face in his neck, relieved when he doesn't move away.
When you're in the horse business, it's to breed, train, or ride. If I were honest, I'd admit that I'm not sure I can truly succeed in any of those options. I know there is a disconnect. I can't have both—remain tied to this place and pursue histories I've only ever read about. I can't decide which urge is stronger.
There are two more births by Saturday, one live and one dead. The dead foal looks flawless, too, when I bury it, too, in the manure heap. It might have been sleeping. The live one I miss by minutes. The tally is still so uneven, death overwhelming a place where I had expected life. I turn to Colleen when she appears at my side, angry that I've missed this chance. I clench my fists as I watch the foal stumble about his mother.
"You should have called me when it started happening," I snap, snatching my pitchfork. Colleen studies me carefully over the rim of her glasses. "Do you really want to be here when something goes wrong?"
The ground is so hard that I can skip from ridge to ridge of frozen mud in the paddocks. My feet catch on the edge of hoofprints petrified in the soil. The ashen trees lining the fences twist to a dull, grey sky. I pull my knees tighter to my chest and sink deeper beneath the quilt around my shoulders. I'm in our dining room, hidden away in a corner against the window. There's a fire blazing across the room from me and the accompanying heat leadens my eyes. I press my forehead to the coolness of the window and let my warmth steam the glass.
Kathleen is upstairs, packing. She's not leaving for months yet but the decision of what to bring is a daily struggle. She's just so happy, which I can't fault her for. Julliard is a prestigious school and, despite the fact we've never really spoken about it, I feel like she'll fit in just fine. She sings; her voice trickles down the stairs.
I peer through our lace curtains, watching the snow fall. I always feel tired lately, hardly energized enough to do the little homework I have. I still find immense beauty here. The rusting farm equipment, dusty saddles, plowed fields hibernating under layers of snow, hay seeds hoping for a breath of spring. I wish I could remind her how warm horses are when you mount them bareback, or how smooth their tongues are when they lick your bare arms in summertime, hoping for salt.
I wish she would show me she still remembers the pleasure we used to find in the life she now avoids. When I told her once that I would wait everyone out and try to inherit the farm once she and the boys were all gone, she laughed. "I don't think you'll have much competition."
Although true, this stung. I never want to leave. I want to be invisible here, just me, the horses, and the land. It seems so straightforward when I'm on my own like this, buried under blankets and hugged into denim and flannel. This is what I want. There is a tightness in my chest as I recite this affirmation. I won't allow myself to equivocate it to doubt, but I bite hard on my bottom lip until it bleeds.
Sometimes I forget this rift, her jests and disdain. I remember, with painful clarity, that once she wanted to go to school in Texas so she could compete in the rodeos. Her keeping me awake as I braided Jeb's mane before a show, helping me polish my saddle and show boots for rigid, elegant riding, teasing me because she only had to wear sequined shirts and black leather chaps for her barrel racing shows.
Lately, I wish I could forget how keenly I feel the loss of that nearness. I close my eyes. I bristle as I listen to her sing, notes whisking through the silence which otherwise pervades the house. I haven't listened in a while. I fidget, the old oak floors creaking beneath me. I used to be so proud when this whole thing first started. I'd cheer in the front rows during her recitals. She's gifted. I used to anticipate the day when she'd shine.
I remember curling up beside her on the couch, rewatching footage Dad dutifully took during our competitions. Laughing at how the judges mispronounced our names, dropping ice cubes down each other's shirts, displaying hands dyed black from sweating in leather riding gloves.
I sigh; steam shoots up the window.
I am halfway through feeding, nearly a week later, as I reach Gypsy's empty stall. I let the grain bucket dangle from my fingers as I study everything. "Colleen, did you let Gypsy out?" I call down the aisle. She appears in an oversized woolen sweater, red-nosed. Her thin legs are concealed beneath layers of denim and knee-high muck boots.
"She had her baby last night, but the little guy didn't make it. He got stuck and was killing poor Gypsy. Scott had to take him out in pieces."
My hands stiffen around the handle. "Pieces?" I repeat weakly.
"Yah. Sad part is, they couldn't even save her. She died anyway from blood loss and internal damage." Colleen leans against the door, shaking her head.
"But why are so many dying?" I ask, too stunned to look away from the empty stall. "Is this... normal?"
Colleen shrugs. "There are over twenty mares here who birth from January till April. It might be the weather or something they've eaten, but it's the reality of this business. No one expects every foal to be born alive."
Scott mounts wipe-off boards to each stall door. It usually says the horse's name, medical information, any dietary restrictions they may have. Gypsy's is wiped clean. I step inside, glancing around. Colleen had already mucked it out.
I don't know what I am expecting, blood stains on the walls maybe. Gore staining the earth, the bedding. There is nothing.
I can hear Kathleen down the hall. Her voice drifts. She must be on the phone or maybe watching a movie. I don't understand how she is always laughing. She creeps into everyone, so confident and lively. She's always been like that. Our first job together was at the old Jensen stable, before Mr. Jensen died and his widow sold the farm. I was twelve, she eleven. I brought her along for company, but I stood behind her when we introduced ourselves and asked for a job. Mr. Jensen hired us together. Kathleen's curls stood out on end then, a polka-dotted headband making a small dent in the dome. I had the same dark curls but always pulled them into tight braids.
She makes me jump when she walks up behind me. "Homework?"
I nod, staring dejectedly at the pages before me. All the words blur together. I rub my eyes with my thumb and index finger. I can feel her studying my face.
She peers into the fridge and, after a moment's indecision, closes it in defeat. "You look tired."
I want to tell her about the foals, about Gypsy. I've always considered myself to be sort of, well, tough. I'm so much thicker, broader, than Kathleen, I used to brag about the muscles lining my arms. I liked the distinction of being so much stronger that she was. I wanted a purpose to my bulk; it was one of the reasons being around horses felt so natural and necessary. It is a life that demands strength, something I have an abundance of. But I'm shaken by the foals, how it can be natural for so much death? Does it get easier? It must, surely, if you were to make a lifelong career out of it. The thought of dead foals becoming commonplace makes me feel sick.
I'm not sure how to explain that to Kathleen though. Admitting my doubts, the horror of the life I've always wanted, tastes too much like defeat. I think I want her to listen with rapt attention, to nod sympathetically. The last time I tried to talk to her about horses, mentioning some exercise we used to drill our mounts, she stared at me as if she had never practiced for hours or compared strategies. I feel fragile, naked.
"I don't know how you do it," she says. I'm surprised when she continues to talk to me, leaning on the doorframe. "Pushing wheelbarrows in the snow, getting up so early, and just about every day?" She shakes her head.
My hand aches from gripping my pencil so hard. I stare at her. "Don't do that."
She looks surprised by my tone. "What?"
"Don't pretend like you never did it too. Like we never used to get up at five a.m. to work together, or break the ice off of water buckets in winter." I'm standing now, facing her rigidly across the table. "Don't pretend like you don't know what I'm talking about."
Kathleen stares. "I'm not pretending. I remember."
I wait, resentment chilling me. I want to blame her; dump our estrangement for giving up everything we had in common. We were going to have our own barn, K&K Stables. I want just one glimpse, a hint that she remembers the dreams we used to share.
"So I don't like horses anymore, so what?" she continues, getting her footing. "It was a long time ago and it's not the end of the world."
There is a silence and I sit back down, dejected.
She clears her throat. "Anyway, I have a recital on Friday. Want to come? The parents are away and—"
"No," I snap. "I'm working." I focus on reading the lines before me even though I don't comprehend any of the words.
She tries one more time. "Kimmy, what happened?"
I study my sister's face. She really is beautiful with her slender figure, wild dark ringlets, and large brown eyes. I attempt to formulate a response. She is trying. I owe her, at least, to meet that effort.
"We've had a rough start. Nobody thinks anything's wrong; I guess stuff like this happens all the time. But, it can't—I mean, it shouldn't..." I falter. Fear of her response, of disinterest or lack of sympathy, chokes me. I'm not sure I can reveal how badly the foal's deaths have shaken me. This is what I want, isn't it? What I've chosen? What does it say if I admit that I never want to see another dead foal again in my life? What does it mean if I never want to step foot on Scott's property ever again?
Kathleen waits, looks at me expectantly. "What shouldn't?"
"The foals, they keep dying." I panic. It can't be typical, can it?
"Is that unusual?" she asks. There's a gleam in her eyes, an eagerness which surprises me. I wonder, for the first time, if she's missed me too. I'm temporarily speechless, and after too long a pause, Kathleen reads this as defeat. She looks away, disappointed, and turns down the hall. I know I should call after, beg her to come back. I'm a coward, and I don't say anything at all.
My body moves sluggishly the next morning, like a deadweight. I try to shake the heaviness from my limbs, swinging my arms in between chores. Feeding and turnout go smoothly though the leaden feeling has, apparently, now infected my brain. My head starts to ache. I'm breathing heavily by the time I start doing stalls at Scott's. After the first two I heave the wheelbarrow out to the manure pile. It takes me a moment, but I freeze and stare upon recognition. A small hoof sticks out from beneath the muck.
There is a rising tide of nausea in my throat and I lean on the handles to catch my breath. A dreary February sun beats down on my back through the thick grey haze above. I can't remember the last time we had blue skies. It doesn't pass. I stumble back into the barn, whisper apologies to Colleen, and drive home. I feel overheated, not the usual gradual warmth after a morning at the barn. I peel off damp layers of clothing and stretch out on the floor, pressing my cheek to the cool, wooden boards.
I'm asleep within minutes.
There are lights flashing outside my window. They cast an orange glow on the floor, which I observe hazily, until I spy the back end of a police cruiser and then I'm sharply awake. Shivering as I push myself off the floor and pull on boots, I stagger from my bedroom and run to the back door where I can hear persistent knocking.
"I'm sorry to wake you," he says. I oddly appreciate this apology at four in the morning. "Are you missing any horses?"
"Missing?" I repeat slowly.
"We got a call about some loose horses wandering in the road. You're the first farm on this street and we're checking up on all of them."
Kathleen is suddenly at my side, breathless. "We'll look," she says loudly. An oversized sweater hangs from her shoulders. The officer nods, says he'll keep an eye out as he makes his rounds.
My mind is still foggy, a bit achy. I wonder if I'm catching something. Kathleen is thrusting a jacket at me, pulling muck boots on over her leggings. She grabs my arm as we walk to the paddocks. Everything is still, swallowed by darkness. What little light there is spills from the house and highlights patches of snow.
We have three paddocks, each about an acre. The biggest one stretches all the way to the back of our property. I usually let the five of them out in this large one, because it's like a playground. It has a little thicket, a stream, and plenty of grass in the summer. But it also means that, in order for us to figure out if any of them are loose, we have to walk around the entire perimeter, checking for broken boards or telltale hoofprints on the wrong side of the fence. We clamber over the nearest portion of fencing and start walking.
"You know," I say groggily, "I don't think I fed them tonight." All my senses feel clogged and unreceptive. I want so badly to be in bed and even the cold isn't waking me up.
"I'm sure they'll survive one night without you," Kathleen insists. She is ahead of me by a few paces, peering into the darkness. She points. "There are Dad's horses."
"Jeb will hate me," I mumble. "I promised him an apple." I stumble over a pile of frozen poop and Kathleen takes my arm.
"Are you going to make me find your decrepit geezer and that stupid pony all by myself?"
I shake my head. The motion makes it ache and I moan. "Jeb's over there, by the trees." My giant is curled up, his whiskers brushing the snow. He pricks his ears our way when we thud past, but he isn't curious enough to get up.
"Are you sick?" she asks, stopping to look back over her shoulder at me and frowning.
I don't answer and we trudge on a bit farther.
"This is why I never want horses." She rubs her thighs, wishing warmth into the thin layers of clothing.
"You used to."
"So? You wanted to dye your hair blue and I'm not bent out of shape about it still being brown."
I'm freezing now, too, and my hand jerks to my mouth as I feel acid in my throat. Kathleen hears me gag and stops. "You're sick. Totally sick. We should let that little shit get eaten by a coyote and just go inside."
I wave her away, swallowing down chunks of something and gasping for breath. I try to spit the flavor out of my mouth. "Just don't pretend like you never wanted to or never did."
"Don't take this the wrong way," she begins in response. "I'm going to give you some advice. You're stuck in the past, Kimmy. People change you know, when they grow up. I changed. What's waiting for you here—have you asked yourself that? You're always insisting that this is what you want to do, how you want to live. But you're running a retirement farm. There's no future for you in that, you're trying too hard to hold onto something that's already gone. What were you expecting, exactly? That I'll give up New York and stay here with you? It won't happen."
I want to reply because I'm dully aware that I should be angry. Instead, I stop and turn away to throw up in a steaming pile. The sound startles the driving horses, one starting from his sleepy pose. Their heads swivel to look at us, ears forward. Kathleen takes my arm, pulls it over her neck, and drags me back towards the house.
In a daze I see Billy, laying out flat by the gate in a pile of hay. As we pass, he lifts his head to examine us, lowers it again, and drifts back to sleep.
My head still hurts. I have cloudy memories of crashing into the bathroom, throwing up into the toilet, and then passing out again on the cool, polished floors of my bedroom. The sun is much too bright, especially for winter, and the light streams in cheerily to form a golden pool on the boards before me. I blink and spy Kathleen hovering with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. She squats, looking penitent—sheepish even—and dangles a little cup with thick pink fluid before me.
"I called Mom; she's still at Grandma's and isn't coming home for another couple weeks. She said you probably have a stomach bug. It's been going around."
I think I'm supposed to be mad at her, but the details are vague. I slowly prop myself up on one elbow to accept the cup, gulping it down.
"It's only supposed to last twenty-four hours."
I sit up, shakily pull myself into bed, and drown myself in quilts. "Thank God."
Kathleen is quiet, which is different for her. Even when we're not talking to each other she's chirping about something. She's always taking up room with her voice: talking, singing, laughing. I know Kathleen is so excited to start her new life that it overwhelms her. I suspect that's why she is always making noise. She's alive with her passion, with an eagerness to chase what's she's always wanted. I can't remember the last time I felt such enthusiasm for anything. It is something I hide from, because the realization is cutting.
"You never get sick," she says.
"I know." I want to fade and wake up tomorrow without slimy leftovers coating my teeth. "It's been a rough winter."
"So you've said."
With my eyes closed tightly, I assume that she'd move on after playing nurse. I feel her sink onto the bed beside me.
"I'm sorry for tearing into you yesterday. I just get so angry. I know you're mad at me for leaving and that we're not close anymore. But whenever I try to talk about it, you close up on me."
She's right; I've probably always known that. Kathleen is moving on and I'm stuck. If I move forward in either direction, I'll have to give up one dream or the other. I'm not sure I'm ready to make that decision. I hate her a little for chasing after something that will further divide us. It isn't just that she is leaving me behind; I know I can make new dreams without her. It's the fact that she's leaving and is so happy about it. I'm jealous because she knows exactly what she wants out of life, and that makes me doubt everything.
"I know," I say simply. "I've never liked change."
I remember her curls streaming out the back of her helmet, a T-shirt snapping against her bronzed stomach as she whipped around barrels on a chestnut blur. I remember hugging her when she dismounted, cheering when she raised the tri-color champion ribbon, sweat dripping down sun-dusted shoulders and reddened cheeks. Leather and horses swirl in a whirlwind of memories.
"You want to talk about it?" she asks, hesitating. "I feel like I haven't been around, with you, much."
"Not really." I breathe, burrowing deeper into my quilt. I want to be asleep. I still feel her beside me and I pause. "Maybe when my twenty-four hours are up."
She waits for a moment longer and then stands. I peer out at her as she heads for the door. "Thanks," I say and she turns to look back at me. "For the Pepto."
She smiles again. With her hair loose and slightly tousled, still wearing damp leggings from a few hours before, I almost recognize her.
Stormy's Got Game delivered a chestnut filly on March 23rd at 5:03 a.m.; I missed it by twenty-seven minutes on my first day back at work. I didn't mind. She's the tiniest little thing I've ever seen; a little round ball of fur on four too-long spindly legs. She's still damp, standing in the middle of her stall with legs splayed and eyes closed.
"It took her just a few minutes to find her legs." Colleen smiles, pointing as the filly begins to sway. "She thinks she won't be able to get back up again. So she stands there until she starts to fall asleep and then—" The filly jerks awake, tumbling sideways into a heap of hay.
"It's hard, sometimes," she says. "Very hard work, very hard life." Colleen points as Stormy sinks to the floor beside her brand new baby. She chews hay lazily from her new position, her lips brushing the stall floor. "But when it goes right, I can't imagine missing it." There's a pleasant quiet between us as we watch the filly, and it is enough. She's asleep within minutes beneath the glowing warmth from a heat lamp.
Title graphic: "Stable Life" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2013.