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2017-08-11 / Features

An early snow, a beautiful horse and a secret meadow

By Marcia Hage
HTF Contributor

Marcia Hage with her beloved Harley. Submitted photo. Marcia Hage with her beloved Harley. Submitted photo. KELSEY – I stand beneath a somber sky and breathe deeply the smell of damp jack pine and tamarack. Snowflakes drift lazily to alight in my hair and upon my shoulders. I let them accumulate like a cold blanket and look up into the darkening sky. They melt on my eyelashes and cheeks like tears. An early snow, the needles still cling to the tamarack, glowing golden in the fading light.

The snow falls faster now and I shiver, but I am not ready to return to the warm farmhouse just yet. I follow the row of pine trees, across the stubble harvested hayfield to the entrance of the trail that leads into the woods. I hesitate for a moment, as it is nearly dark, but I know the way by heart, so I continue on, my eyes picking out the opening in the trees where the path leads.

As I walk, I imagine the snow melting away and the sky lightening and it is not an early winter, but a late fall and I am no longer alone. All but a few leaves have fallen from the aspen and the oak. They litter the forest floor and crunch underfoot, startling the horse who walks beside me. It has been a long time since he and I have been on the trail that leads to our secret meadow within the woods. And longer still since he’s carried me on his strong back. I remember his warm body beneath me, the rocking motion of his long strides as he galloped across a field belly high with swaying grasses and daisies.

I walk beside Harley now with my right hand resting lightly on his withers. It is one of his better days and he feels good, trembling beneath my fingertips, aching to go faster, yet he stays beside me always. Sunlight filters down through the bare branches of aspen, slanting across his soft mahogany coat; a coat I have lovingly brushed thousands of time. Warmth rises. The air is nearly still in the forest. A faint breeze coaxes the few remaining leaves to flutter through the air and light upon our path.

The trail widens in front of us and we ascend the hillside that forms our clearing. On one side a grove of aspen and burr oak grow together with branches intertwined. We stop, and I allow him to lower his head to graze.

One last bite of forbidden grass, one last time beneath an autumn sun. I don’t know how long we pause there, only that it isn’t enough, would never be enough. I watch him as he pulls mouthfuls of grass and chews contentedly. I memorize the fine lines and noble characteristics of my Arabian horse. Every whorl in his rich coat, every white hair mixed in with dark is committed to memory. Stored, to be taken out on days like this when I must walk this wooded path alone. He raises his head, fixating on something just beyond the tree line, and in the depth of his eyes I see the shape of mountains reflected there.

I remember him as a wobbly colt just learning to walk in a tangle of legs.

When he was born, I was there to witness it—the first person to touch him—and I imprinted him with my hands as well as my heart. My fingers traced the outline of the white patch on his forehead the shape of South America.

He grew up trusting me to guide him through life.

I think of him as a spirited three-year-old, when I climbed upon his back for the first time and he turned to look at me quizzically. He did not try to throw me or bolt, he merely moved forward hesitantly, feeling the strange new weight upon his back. I had wanted to train him myself and even though I did not know what I was doing, we worked it out together.

When Harley was five, I trained him to pull a 1912 doctor’s buggy we had picked up at an auction in Princeton. He took that, too, in stride, and even though he was afraid of the fire trucks, he pulled it in the Cotton Centennial Parade that summer, one ear trained on me and the other on the throng of onlookers pressing close to see the handsome horse pulling the buggy. There were trail rides and clinics, fairs and overnight camping excursions. It didn’t matter what we did, he was happy just to be there with me. I would turn him loose in the yard while I gardened, and he would graze nearby, always keeping me in sight.

My thoughts are interrupted by the whine of an ATV and the deep lugging of a John Deere tractor. Harley startles for a moment—jerks his head up and dances around in objection to the interruption, grass still dangling from his lips. But I speak softly to him and he quiets himself, gaze fixed with curiosity upon the two approaching vehicles. They stop respectfully a distance back from us and my husband approaches slowly with the veterinarian in tow.

“Ready?” he asks. I swallow the large knot in my throat and somehow manage a nod, unable to find my voice.

I lead my beautiful horse then, to one side of the clearing, near a gaping hole where the tractor had carved a deep niche out of the hillside. I feel resistance at the end of the lead rope and turn to Harley, who snorts, fear in his dark eyes at the freshly turned earth that smells of decaying leaves and dampness. I speak to him and once again he quiets as I hold my hand out to him, palm raised to the afternoon sun. His whiskers brush me lightly as he begins to lick the salt off my hand, self-soothing.

I recalled how, when he suffered from lameness and was no longer sound for riding, he would stand mournfully with his chin resting on the pasture gate, waiting for me to return, long after I had gone back inside the house. How he had never failed me or questioned anything I asked of him. Not then and not now.

The vet gives him a sedative first, something to relax his muscles and lay him down. I stroke his velvety nose with its snip of white as he continues to lick my hand, but his movements are sluggish, tired. He begins to sway slightly, fighting the effect of the narcotics. The vet warns me to stand aside as Harley starts to lose control of his limbs. There is a confused look in his eyes as his hindquarters buckle, then his front legs and he goes down. He stretches out onto his right side and lies there, trembling, his breathing labored, legs twitching. I sit beside him and take the noble head into my lap and brush his forelock out of his eyes. I talk to him quietly, saying everything will be okay, that he will have no more pain, as the vet deftly slips the hypodermic needle into his carotid artery with practiced hands.

I continue whispering to Harley even after he grows still. He licks my hand again, one last time, and then he is gone. There is a perceivable shift when the light in his eyes goes out. I reach down to gently close them and see myself reflected back in their depths. The mountains are gone. I am the last thing he sees. One lone yellow aspen leaf drops and comes to rest on his mahogany coat. The woods are silent.

I blink and it is no longer fall, but winter. I do not know how long I have been standing there, but I have somehow found my way to the edge of our secret meadow. I kneel on the damp ground and find the cold granite I am seeking, brushing off the snow, my fingers tracing the letters that spell out H-A-R-L-E-Y and 1998 – 2012. There is an undeniable finality in words carved in stone.

I swallow the lump in my throat as my hand finds the silver chain I wear around my neck. An antique glass carbuncle encloses a single braid of horsehair, a tiny poem and a sepia toned photograph of Harley. It is warm against my skin, comforting me as I remember carefully snipping a strand of his ebony mane after he died, slipping it into my coat pocket.

I was there when my beautiful colt came into this world, and I was there when it was time for him to leave it. He faced death the same as he had life—without question—his faith in me unwavering, even as he drew his last breath. We buried him here, beneath the shielding branches of a bur oak at the edge of this meadow under a sky so blue it hurt. Where I removed his halter one last time for he no longer needed the trappings of domestication.

He was free—running across a field of swaying grasses and wildflowers belly high.

Marcia Hage lives in Kelsey, MN.

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