“How could anyone not be interested in horses whose ancestors appeared in the cave drawings in Europe?” — from a work-in-progress

horses at Jocko Creek

The horses are Alice’s, Pete explained, as we walked towards a grey barn with a weathervane creaking in the breeze, stopping every few feet to take another spoonful of soup. A weathervane of a copper fish, parts of it completely green. And three horses waited at the gate.

     They like to know what’s going on, Alice told me. They’re curious about the new foal. She held her cheek against the cheek of the darker horse for a minute and one of the others, the colour of polished chestnuts with a rump dappled with white spots, nuzzled her hair. Then she turned to me and said, quietly, as though to keep the trio from overhearing: There was a twin, a colt, but he was born underdeveloped and I don’t believe he even took a breath. Rare for mares to have twins and mostly it doesn’t work out for the babies or the mare. I’m relieved that the filly survived and her momma was able to expel the placenta completely. I had to reach in and help her to let it go.

    (Her hands, the long fingers, the rough palms, had been inside horses. Had stroked her husband’s body afterwards, or before. I kept looking at her, in wonder.)

     In the barn, pigeons cooed in the high rafters and the air was sweet with hay. No, not hay just yet, said Pete, when I exclaimed, but just a few armloads of grass for the new momma. Hay comes later, when the grass is frozen. The mare was in a large stall, munching on the grass in the corner cradle, twitching at flies with her black tail, while her stilty-legged baby tugged at her milk-bag. I put my soup bowl on a bench and asked if I could pat the filly.

     Oh, sure. Angel’s an experienced mother. She won’t mind. Here, let me – and Alice slid the bolt open on the stall door.

     The foal was still damp from her mother’s licking. I put my hand out and her soft nostrils rested briefly on my palm. Then she returned to suckling. Her eyes, when she paused to look at me, were deep pools. They had only known daylight for a few hours and I thought of her still curled up in her mother’s body while I’d slept the night before, curled up with her brother who didn’t even taste his mother’s milk. I thought of them asleep in their watery darkness while I swam in the river, wanting to let go of life to join my own lost brother. Touching the filly’s spine as her tail flickered, I was surprised to find myself wiping away tears.

     It gets me every time, Alice said quietly, and ‘course this time it’s sad too. There are foals every year and I deliver most of ‘em myself, unless there’s a breech or other problem, then the vet comes from Kamloops. And I always cry. But look at these two! This baby’s going to be a beauty. Her momma’s a marble roan and I’m hoping she’ll develop that too, though it’s too early to tell. You could write a book about the Appaloosa colours, she replied, when I asked if there were different names for the patterns. Her eyes shone. How could anyone not be interested in horses whose ancestors appeared in the cave drawings in Europe? The ancient wild horses – many of ‘em had the spots on their hips and rumps. I saw photos of those caves in National Geographic and I knew the horses right away.

     They showed me more horses, including two mares with visibly moving foals still within them. (Put your hand right there, Alice said, guiding mine to the unmistakable thump of a tiny hoof against its mother’s side; my fingers tingled, held the sensation. Hers knew what it was to enter the body and ease shoulders through a narrow cervix.) An old red tractor parked by the barn, a pitchfork leaning against a stall door, a long wooden box spilling what looked to be shoeing tools, a cat sleeping in a bar of sunlight on the floor, the drowsy sound of flies: it felt like a place out of time where you could be invited in for a bowl of soup and then never leave. Three horses by the gate, their faces mild, long lashes fringing their eyes.

–from The Marriage of Rivers