Seven Horses and a Cow
What is the first thing you remember? Is it your mother’s face or her gentle voice lulling you to sleep?
For me, it wasn’t a face or a sound. It was a smell — the sticky smell of sweet feed — oats and corn doused in molasses. From our homestead on the edge of the plains, my Papa ran a feed mill. There he mixed corn and oats with his own hands and the smell of fermenting molasses was everywhere.
Mama couldn’t stand the way his clothes reeked of sweet feed and what it branded her — a common miller’s wife.
But I loved that smell. When I was very small my Papa would find me out in the grain barn asleep on the dirt floor, my little body curled around the big round grain bin.
This led to my second oldest memory, the paddling I got from Mama’s wooden spoon for wandering off into that place and coming back smelling like Papa.
Mama had come from a big city and tried her best to make me into a “proper” little lady. But I spilled the fancy tea, and dropped the dainty china cups. When she cinched me into a corset, my ribs cracked and I passed out. Parlor life was not for me. I was glad we lived on the prairie where I could run in the grasslands and chase tumble weeds and the whirling dirt devils that blew in from the west.
When I turned thirteen, Mama received a letter that her sister back in Philadelphia was ill and needed her help. I had never seen Mama move so fast as she threw her things into her carpet bag, telling me to pack my clothes, too, because she wanted me to come with her.
Papa said the wagon was hitched and ready, and if he took her to the station right away, she could make the train. But if she waited for me to pack, we would miss it. The next train east didn’t come for three days.
Papa gave me a wink. Mama sighed and waved me goodbye. I could stay!
That summer for three glorious months, I followed Papa everywhere as he taught me to grind the corn kernels in the big iron wheel. He took me to the fields where the corn stalks grew in long even rows like soldiers marching over the hill. He showed me how to check the ears by peeling back the silky tassels. And when Papa danced in the fields for the sheer joy of a rich crop, I was right there beside him, whooping for all I was worth.
Best of all, he shared the stories of his life, speaking to me as if I wasn’t just a child but someone who mattered. He told me how he had convinced Mama to marry him and how hard he had tried to make her happy. But it hadn’t worked out that way.
Then he told me about the time Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had come to town. Papa had smoked a pipe with Sitting Bull, played cards with Frank Butler, and watched Annie Oakley shoot a cigarette out of a man’s teeth at 20 paces. Then Buffalo Bill, the great man himself, walked right into our grain barn, shook hands with Papa, and said it was the best feed he had ever seen.
I was so proud of my father. And as I worked by his side, matching him step for step, I had never before been so tired or so sore.
Or so grateful for my life.
But my magic summer couldn’t last. When Mama’s letter came, rancid with her perfume, a shadow came over my father.
“Your auntie’s recovered,” he told me. “Your mother’s train gets in the day after tomorrow.” Then he slid back into himself, unwilling to say any more.
Mama swept into the house bursting with tales of fine parties where the ladies wore hats made with feathers and everything was so grand. Now she scolded Papa to his face for all the things that he wasn’t.
He trudged off to the grain barn, ignoring me when I tried to catch his eye to let him know that I understood. He wouldn’t even look at me, as if we were strangers. As if the summer had never happened.
Mama’s zeal didn’t fade but only grew stronger. She wrote to her city friends nearly every day, and was thrilled when her sister’s neighbor’s son, a few years older than me, agreed to marry me when I turned fifteen.
“They have even promised to pay for the wedding!”
Mama said I should be thankful. I wouldn’t be going there alone; of course she would come with me.
I felt like a cow being sold off at auction. Surely Papa wouldn’t let me be married off to a boy I had never even seen.
But Papa didn’t complain. He said I was growing up and it would be wrong to deny me the life that I deserved. Then he dipped his head, turned his back, and headed out to the grain barn. For the first time, I understood how Mama could get so mad at him.
Somehow I had to convince him that I didn’t belong in the big fussy city, and that I was worth fighting for. But how?
Three nights later Papa didn’t come in for dinner. I took a bowl of stew out to the grain barn, eager for the chance to talk to him away from Mama’s prying eyes.
I found him by the big wooden grain bin where Buffalo Bill had shaken his hand, right where Papa used to find me as a toddler. This time it was him folded up on the ground. But he wasn’t asleep.
The doctor came and said it was his heart, that it had quit like a faulty pump. I think it just broke.
The lawyers and bankers weren’t far behind. Like crows, they came in their black suits, pouring over Papa’s records to see how much his life had been worth.
Mama was shocked to find out. “All that money,” she said, “from a dirty old feed mill? Well, what do you know? Your father did one thing right after all.”
The next day as they carted Papa’s body away, my mother sold our place, feed mill and all. She said that now we didn’t have to wait until I was fifteen to move east. In the morning we would leave for Philadelphia where I would be married off before anyone could change their mind.
I tried to protest but she slapped my face. What did I know? I was just a child. Everything she did was for me.
That night, sleep fought me. Everything fought me. Even my blanket waged war with me. I wrenched it off me to find the air strangely hot and thick and sticky.
Sticky with the smell of sweet-feed.
And a voice, not quite my own, echoed in my head.
Without thinking, my legs carried me out to the grain barn. There I found one of Papa’s horses. She was a patchy old nag that Papa had got on a trade. A bum trade, Mama had always said, because Spackles was too nervous to pull a cart. Mama didn’t like the horse’s color, either, all splotched like stains on a white blouse. I guess the lawyers and bankers agreed because someone had tied the old horse in the grain barn away from the proper wagon stock.
I un-hitched Spackles to walk her back to the stables with the other horses.
But there on a stool I saw my father’s saddle and some of his clothes. In my mind I heard that voice again, so much like Papa’s, pounding inside my head.
That would be reckless. Horses are afraid in the dark and Spackles was green-broke and skittish in the best of conditions. One fall and I could land on a rock and split my head open.
Was it Papa’s ghost that had told me to go? Or was it was my own inner voice, repressed for so long but trying to come out?
Either way, I threw on Papa’s old barn coat and saddled that horse.
Spackles squealed as I climbed on her. As I steered her out the barn door she bucked like a demon.
I dug my heels into her sides, clinging to her back like a spider as a thousand pounds of horse flesh and muscle tried to throw me off.
Outside the cold air stung my skin as blackness closed around us like a giant angry mouth. What was I thinking? How would I live? I was a girl on a panicked horse with no provisions, no funds, and nowhere to go.
As the night swallowed us up, there was only one thing I knew for certain.
Whatever happened, I would not go back.