Story: Wishes Are Horses
Same Walk, Different Shoes
“Same Walk, Different Shoes” is a community writing project that I organized as a practical exercise in empathy. The premise is simple. A group of writers anonymously contribute a personal story of an experience that changed their life. Each participating writer is randomly assigned one of these story prompts to turn into a short story. The story you are about to read is one from this collection. You can find all the stories from the participating writers at Catch & Release. Enjoy the walk with us.
“He’s the one, Daddy. That black one with the white face. Can we get him?”
I’m not sure why my father raised his paddle right there on the spot. He had never given me or my sister anything we asked for. But on this day when I was ten, he did. The auctioneer at the makeshift podium of apple crates standing in the dirt of the small corral acknowledged my father’s bid by pausing briefly in the stuttering cascade of words that flowed from his lips like he was possessed.
Two hours later, Amy and I were sitting in the backseat of the Oldsmobile trying to adjust to the idea that we were horse owners. A tall man with a leathery face was driving a truck behind us that pulled a trailer with not one, but two horses inside. Our father drove with his arm out the window and an easy smile on his face. We didn’t know who this man was who had replaced our father. We had caught glimpses of him a few times in the previous months—an odd laugh, a relaxing of our curfew so we could stay up and watch Gunsmoke. Then one morning, the strange man had been sitting across from us at the kitchen table with our mother beside him, their hands a knot between two coffee cups on the Formica top table.
“Kids, we bought a farm.”
I was so happy, not because I wanted to live on a farm but because us sitting at that table as a family with the sunlight streaming in on a Sunday morning felt like a new start, like a peace accord or at least a cease-fire. A month later, we woke before dawn, left our home in Cincinnati, and drove West for an entire day chasing the sun as the horizon opened up and flattened out before us like a wrinkled sheet beneath a hot iron.
The place we landed was in the middle of Iowa. I often wonder if my father had chosen it just for the name, Fertile. Had he been looking for such a place his entire life? A place where he could grow something that he could point to and hold in his hand. A wide-open place large enough to accommodate the sprawling reach of his romantic ideals that, since my birth, had been folded back on themselves to fit into an accounting ledger on a desk in a ten-by-ten office with no window on the twenty-sixth floor of a concrete tower.
He had no business being a farmer. We were not farmers. I loved my friends on the street in Cincinnati. I loved being able to walk to the comic bookstore. I loved going to the movies. As excited as I was for the adventure, the newness had worn off after a couple of months at the farm. When I got off the school bus, I just went into my room and did my homework or thumbed through my collection of comics that I was sure would never expand. Maybe that’s why he bought us the horses at that livestock auction on a Saturday morning in October of 1963.
I named the black stallion with the white face Hannibal. Amy named the old mare with the swayback Carefree. That first night we stayed out in the barn well after dark talking to them and listening to their snuffling, pawing, and rooting around in the hay we had spread in the stalls. The leather-faced man had given us a fifteen-minute lesson in caring for these creatures. Amy and I were confident we knew everything we needed to know. I had tried to feed Hannibal half of a Mars bar I’d saved from the fair earlier that day. Amy wouldn’t let me. At fourteen, she probably didn’t know what was okay to feed horses, but she had an instinct that chocolate was probably a bad idea. Amy has always just known how to do things. I’m more like our father.
I was not a physical kid and didn’t play sports. I inhabited my head, and my imagination was about the only aspect of me that got any exercise. Why had I chosen this powerful dark horse that I had no prayer of handling? He scared me but also sparked something dormant in me, something wild and a little dangerous.
“Here, try this,” Amy said, handing me a small apple she had produced from her coat pocket.
I took it and cautiously stepped up to the door of the stall.
“Hold it out to him, but keep your hand flat,” she said.
I did as instructed. Hannibal reared his head back and looked at me sideways. I could see the white of his eyes glimmer in the darkened stall, lit only by a single naked bulb that hung at the entrance of the barn. He snorted and I flinched but didn’t retract my hand. Eventually, he stepped forward, lowered his head, and took the apple from my hand in one bite. The cool, wet feel of his enormous mouth contrasted with the hot rush of his breath and gave me goosebumps down my back. I laughed, hearing the pleasurable crunch and the slobbering chewing that followed. I turned around to face Amy and was about to ask her if she had another apple when I felt a crushing pain in my shoulder like someone had just closed a vice on it. I screamed and jumped forward. The big horse startled and jumped too.
“He bit you!” Amy said. “He thought you were an apple.”
There was no coming back from that. My dreams of riding Hannibal, of us becoming fast friends in the way that cowboys did in the Westerns I loved were dashed. The unruly and fickle stallion became my father’s project along with everything else on the farm that he was ill-equipped to master. In the week that followed we watched him get thrown twice while trying to ride Hannibal. In both cases, the horse had allowed him to put on the saddle and had accepted the bit and bridle without much fuss. The horse had even allowed him to mount easily enough and to ride a few cautious paces before suddenly deciding he didn’t like the weight of the accountant from Ohio and pitched him off as easily as flipping a pancake.
After the second failed attempt, I remember listening to my parents bicker through the bathroom door as he soaked his sore back in the massive clawfoot tub.
“You’re a damned fool. That animal could have killed you and where would that leave me and the kids? All this was your idea. I was happy in Cincinnati. The kids had friends. We had a life.”
“Did we? What kind of life? Because to hear you tell it, Marjorie, you were fucking miserable. Nothing was up to your standards.”
The volley went on like that, each exchange ratcheting up in volume and venom until I had to retreat downstairs and then out to the barn so I wouldn’t have to hear them. My fear of Hannibal was nothing compared to my fear of the raw fierce thing that whirled recklessly in the space between my parents like a tornado, sudden and unpredictable in its potential for devastation.
I remember I sat shivering for nearly an hour watching the horses in their stalls, the plumes of fog billowing out from their nostrils. I hated my parents for their stupidity and selfishness. Why couldn’t they just be like normal parents? Why did they both have to want so much more than they had? Eventually, I saw the shadow of my mother in the dirt, faint and wavering in the dim light from the single bulb.
“I’m sorry, honey. Your dad and I are just trying to adjust to this new adventure. Why don’t you come back inside? I can make you some hot chocolate. It’s freezing out here.”
She then walked over to the stall, reached in, and caressed the enormous plane between Carefree’s watery eyes. She cooed to the mare and apologized to her too.
“We don’t know what we’re doing,” she whispered. “You should be with people who do.”
I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or the horses, but I suddenly felt scared that she would just leave us. I ran to her and threw my arms around her waist, hiding the stinging tears that had sprung to my eyes.
Carefree was everything Hannibal was not. She was old, her coat a lusterless, dirty gray, her flesh soft, the dip of her back well on its way to becoming a U. Her nature was demurring and slow. I think Amy had picked her at the auction because she was afraid no one else would. Amy had ridden her almost every day since we brought the horses home so it was a great shock to all of us when she fell off and broke her arm. I had been inside reading and didn’t see it happen but later Amy said that Carefree had just suddenly stopped and bent her front legs which caused Amy to slide forward and tumble into the brush where she landed on a rock.
In those first months of being on the farm, Amy’s arm was just one of many things that got broken. My father had failed to properly tighten the bolt for the oil pan on the tractor and as a result, caused the engine to seize up. A sudden and violent hailstorm had broken out two of the ground-floor windows in the house and made the hood of our Oldsmobile look like those hammered copper cups you drink Moscow Mules in. We weren’t doing it right and the horses knew it, the tractor knew it, and even the sky felt the need to punish our ignorance.
For all this, I wasn’t miserable which seems strange to me, even now, sixty years later. I had every right to be miserable, but I just accepted things as they were. Kids are like that.
The evening of November 22 was sometime after Amy broke her arm but before the hailstorm. President Kennedy had been shot that afternoon. The four of us sat in silence around the dinner table. My mother reached for our hands and my father closed the circle from his side of the table. They had both cried that day. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I don’t remember everything that he said that night, but I remember how broken he looked. He was apologizing for the world he had brought us into. He said he had failed us by moving us away from everything we knew. He asked if we should give up the farm. He said he could try to get his old job back. We could go back to how things were. Neither Amy nor I said anything. Didn’t he know we were kids and couldn’t give him the answer to what he was supposed to do with our lives? Our mother looked across the table at him. I thought surely, she would have taken the opportunity to make her wishes known, but she didn’t. Her eyes welled with tears and a kindness I had rarely seen when she looked at my father.
“Let’s stick it out a while longer,” she said, squeezing our hands. “Just leave the horseback riding to somebody else, please.”
It was decided we needed a corral for the horses, for Hannibal in particular. My father engaged the leather-faced man to help him build one. It took them three days. I took a thermos of hot coffee and some brownies our mom had just baked out for them on the afternoon they finished. They sipped the coffee and surveyed their work. My father looked proud. I think he felt like a real farmer. The leather-faced man took his payment after finishing the coffee, loaded up his tools in the bed of his Ford pick-up, and drove away.
“What’d you think?” my father asked. “Hannibal the animal won’t know what to do with all this.”
I was sitting on the top rung of the fence, holding on to one of the posts.
“Can we let him see it?” I asked.
“Yeah. Run and get your mom and your sister. I’ll go get Hannibal.”
A few minutes later, the three of us stood, huddled in our winter coats outside the corral. I leaned on the rough-hewn timber of the middle rail and watched my father coax Hannibal out of the barn, the reins in one hand and a small coachwhip in the other. Hannibal was as defiant as ever, his eyes rolling wildly, his mouth working around the bit like he meant to bite through it. Eventually, my father got him inside the corral and started to close the gate behind them. Why wasn’t he afraid of the animal or was he and I just too young to see it?
When the gate latched, it made a sharp metallic sound that spooked Hannibal who reared up on his hind legs, tugging the reigns and pulling my father into the dirt. I was sure the stallion would come down and crush my father’s head. My mother screamed and so did Amy. The dark hammers of Hannibal’s hooves did not strike my father when he came down, but it was close. My father released the reins and crab-walked backward away from the horse who continued to whinny and stamp around, clearly not happy with his new confinement. As a kid, this made no sense to me. Why didn’t he rail against the narrow stall in the barn where we kept him most of the time? But as an old man looking back, I know that there’s nothing more frustrating than being able to see freedom without having it.
After a few minutes of watching him express his displeasure, we went back inside to warm up. We had barely had time to take our coats off when we heard a loud crash outside. I rushed out onto the porch with my mother and sister close behind. We saw the figure of my father standing alone in the corral, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed. One section of the fence lay on the ground, two rails broken in half. Hannibal was already thirty yards away across the field and headed toward the trees.
The next day, someone from a neighboring farm called to let us know they had our horse. Later that afternoon, the leather-faced man returned with his trailer and loaded up Hannibal and Carefree.
We were farmers for less than a year.
For many years after that, my sister and I looked back on the move like it was an embarrassment, a failure, our private joke. We thought our parents were crazy or stupid or both. How could they have ever thought moving our family to a farm was a good idea? What did they think was going to happen?
I have three grown kids of my own and I don’t see that move to the farm the same way I once did. My wife and I never took a crazy chance like that, but I’ve failed my children in so many other ways that probably don’t give them colorful stories.
My parents have long since jumped the corral they first railed against back in 1963. Looking back, I am in awe of their courage to challenge the boundaries that fenced them in. My father was an artistic soul who might have been a writer or a painter or anything that would have allowed him an ebb and flow instead of a sustained, relentless campaign to grow deposits in a ledger. I think he wanted the farm because it was as close as he thought he might get to being allowed to surrender to a natural rhythm of sewing, nurturing, harvesting, and rest.
I am not an accountant or a marketing executive. I am a writer because my father once bought me a horse that I would never be able to ride.
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