Authors: Jane Smiley
Or, if you happened to look out the window, as soon as your eyes went in that direction, Mr. Jepsen would say, “Abby, is the great outdoors that much more fascinating than this classroom?” and of course you couldn’t say yes, you had to keep your mouth shut. Most of the other kids seemed to like Mr. Jepsen, at least they laughed at all of his jokes. Even so, I had a B in math—A on homework and tests, C on class participation—and that was good enough for Daddy, who didn’t expect me to be going to college anyway.
In our seventh grade, there were only thirteen girls. Eight of them were in the other section. The four girls I liked least—the Big Four was what they had called themselves since fifth grade—were all in my section, and Gloria, who had been my friend since kindergarten, was in the other section and I didn’t see her much. All day I wondered if, at the end of the day, she would still be my friend or whether those seven girls in the other section would finally capture her. We had one new girl this year, Stella Kerkhoff, who had come into seventh grade from another school in the district. She had tried to be friends with almost everyone in the class and discovered what we all
knew—that there was no room in the Big Four for a fifth wheel, that Maria, Fatima, and Lucia kept to themselves, that Debbie Perkins (who I was friends with in third and fourth grade) was not only amazingly quiet, but also lived on a ranch at the furthest end of the school district and could never come over or have guests, and that the Goldman twins, even though they were friendly, really were twins—it was hard to tell them apart (and they didn’t mind playing tricks about that), they didn’t really need another friend, and anyway, they were so smart they took half their classes with the eighth graders.
So Stella had decided before Christmas that Gloria was the one—Gloria’s backpack was always filled with folded-up little notes from Stella, and at lunch Stella made it her business to sit between Gloria and me whenever I didn’t get there first. For the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I did what Mom told me and pretended not to know what was going on. Gloria did, too, so it was impossible to tell who was winning. That Monday, I was so stiff from my fall (you’re always more stiff the second day than the first) that of course Stella got in there, no problem. And then they went to the girls’ room together, and I was just sitting there until the bell for sixth period rang. So, it was a bad day.
And then the bus broke down on the way home and was stuck for an hour while it was getting darker and darker, and so I knew we weren’t going to get any training in, and Daddy was going to say, “Well, the hay was wasted today, since the horses don’t know a single thing that they didn’t know yesterday.”
All of this is just a prologue to the thing that happened next.
HE NEXT MORNING
HAD MADE UP MY
mind not to get caught by the school bus, so I got up really early. It was dark and pretty cold. Even by the time I was dressed and ready to go out and start with the hay, Daddy and Mom were still in bed. I didn’t mind that—I did the morning work by myself fairly often, and I liked hearing the horses nicker to me, seeing them standing by the gate looking for something to eat. Even horses who don’t know you or don’t like you are happy to see you if you have an armload of alfalfa.
I hayed the Georges first, the littler George (chestnut), the George who had dumped me (named, as far as I was concerned, Ornery George), and the pony George. Then I went back in the barn and came out with hay for the Jewels. We only had
two mares at the time—Daddy had just sold two to a ranch up in the valley, nice horses and pretty enough so that he could get a little extra for them. He always said, “Even the most dried-up old cowboy will pay for a good-looker, and don’t you let them tell you different. You could have the greatest horse in the world, and if it had a head like a bathtub, I couldn’t sell it for beans.”
But only one of the Jewels was standing by the gate. That was a bad sign, and I was glad that it was starting to get light in case there was something out there in the paddock that I had to look for and report back. I threw down the hay in three piles, the way you’re supposed to, one more than the number of horses so they won’t fight over it, and then I climbed the gate. Most of the mares’ pasture wasn’t visible from the gate—it ran in a gentle slope down to the crick. For a while I didn’t see anything. Then, over to one side, I saw the second mare, standing under a tree. She turned her head toward me. She wasn’t down and she didn’t look like she was in trouble. When I got a little closer, I saw that she had something with her, and then, when I got closer than that, I saw that that something was a foal. The foal was standing next to the mare, and when it saw me, it skittered around to the other side of her and peeked at me under the mare’s neck. When I got even closer, I could just see its legs and its nose.
You never know with a mare, no matter how friendly she is on her own, how she will react to you when she has a foal at her side, so I stopped and stood there. After a minute or two, the foal came around the mare again, gave me a look, and then began to nurse, his back end to me and his little tail switching
back and forth. He looked to me to be at least six or eight hours old, which meant that maybe he was born before we went to bed and we just missed the mare in the dark. When you don’t know a mare is pregnant, I guess it never occurs to you to wonder whether she is having a foal.
This Jewel was one of three horses Daddy had bought right after Thanksgiving. One he had sold already, and the ornery George was the third one. What with Christmas and all, we hadn’t done a lot with her or even paid much attention to her, though I thought she was nice, and I always gave her a few extra pats. She was pretty without being distinctive—no white on her at all, not too big, not too small, good head, decent feet.
Now it was getting to be day. I took one step toward the mare, watching her, and then another and another. She looked at me, but she didn’t pin her ears and start switching her tail, and so I took another step. The foal kept nursing, his tail turned to me. He didn’t have any white stockings that I could see. I took another step. The foal’s head popped up and he ran around the mare again, so that she was between the foal and me. Now I was fairly close, close enough to lean forward, stretch out my hand, and touch the mare on the neck. I watched her, though, before I tried. She still gave no warning signs, so I stretched out my hand, leaned forward from my hips, and touched her, then I touched her again, just a little stroke, down her neck. I took one step closer. Then I was very still. The mare’s tail moved slowly back and forth, and the face of the foal appeared. Its little dark ears were pricked and its nostrils wide, and it was staring at me. No white on the face. Prominent forehead. “Hey, baby,” I said softly.
And now there was a shout from up the hill—“Abby! AAABBYYY!” Daddy’s voice. “Ruth Abigail! You out there?” He only calls me by my full name when he’s worried or mad.
I was backing slowly away from the mare and foal, not wanting to shout and startle them.
Daddy appeared on the brow of the hill. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. Surely from there he could take it all in—me, mare, foal. I backed up two more steps. There was a silence. Then I heard him say, “What the—” He never finished this sentence, because he never spoke the name of the Lord in an idle fashion, but sometimes he came close.
I turned and ran up the hill.
He said, “Is that a foal?”
“It is, Daddy. It’s so big and pretty.”
We stood there for a minute, and Daddy said, “Well, I’ll be—” And then, “It’s always one trial or another.”
“Should we bring them in?”
“And put her where? Those stalls aren’t clean enough for a foal. They’re better off out here.”
“But it’s cold.”
“Well, she should have thought of that before foaling out, don’t you think?”
I looked at him. We were walking up the hill, almost to the gate by now.
“Mares can wait, you know, not like humans. You ask your mom about it. I’ve heard of mares going three hundred eighty days, just because the weather’s no good.” With every word he said, I sensed him getting less and less happy.
I said, “It’s so cute, Daddy. It doesn’t have a speck of white on it. It’s got a pretty head.”
“What can I do with a foal? What can I do with a mare who has a foal? Can’t wean it for five months, then it’ll take another two months or so to get her in shape. That’s seven months of burning hay before we can even begin to sell her. That’s probably why they sold her to us in the first place—they knew she was in foal and they didn’t want to deal with it. Woke up one morning and one of the stallions was out with the mares, or something like that, so they crossed their fingers behind their back and threw her in with the others just to get rid of her.”
Mom was at the door. “What? What is it? Is everyone okay?”
“Got a foal is all,” said Daddy as he went past her into the kitchen.
“A foal!” She put her hands on my shoulders. “Do they look okay?”
I said, “It looks great, Mom!”
“Should we call the vet?”
Daddy said, “First, we’ll call the Lord. The Lord will decide.”
I kind of did not like that, because in my experience, the Lord didn’t always decide as I would have.
Daddy said, “Abby can help me outside. She’s already missed the school bus.”
Mom looked at the clock and said, “Well, she has.”
That was the second good thing to happen that day, and it was only seven a.m.
We had some toast and went back out. The first thing we had to do was clean the biggest stall and put all new straw in, and lots of it. I was happy to think that the Jewel and her foal would be able to snuggle down into the bedding and stay
warm. Then we took a halter down to where the mare was. We approached her carefully, but she was friendly, just the way she had been before she foaled. After I put the halter on her, Daddy stood looking at the baby. It was now full day, and even I could see that he was a colt, and a nice one—strong, with a well-set neck and an alert look about him. He wasn’t crowding against the mare, either—he already had a mind of his own (“Not a good sign,” said Daddy).
The colt would turn away from the mare and stare out over the crick or up the hill, then leap into the air and kick out or trot around in a little circle, and she would nicker at him, but not sounding as though she was worried. More of an “I’m here” than a “Watch out!” In the end, we didn’t try to touch him, we just walked the mare slowly up the hill, letting her stop and call him anytime she wanted to. He came along, but not without jumping and frolicking. I couldn’t stand the idea that we might name him George, but Daddy was strict about the names because he said I already got too attached to some of them. If he let me name them, then I would pine for them after they were gone. So I didn’t say anything.
When we got to the top of the hill, Daddy held the other mare so that she wouldn’t try anything, and we went through the gate. The Georges were all eyes and ears, too. Every one of the horses was whinnying.
The hardest thing was getting the colt into the stall. The way we did that was, I held open the stall door as wide as it would go, Mom stood inside with Jewel, and Daddy ranged around behind the foal, not driving it, but being a barrier if it wanted to go away. The key was to let the mare call him and
let him find her. Even though it took a few minutes for him to make up his mind to go through that scary doorway, and even though her nickers got just a little louder and more nervous, neither one did panic, and pretty soon we had them locked in the stall. If you ask me, the mare looked relieved. She had a nice clean bucket of water and she drank about half of it. The colt gave us a stare and then started to nurse.
Mom said, “Did you look around down there?”
Daddy shook his head, then said, “You two should do that. It’s time she learned.”
“What?” I asked.
Mom said, “We’ve got to go down the hill and look around for the bag and placenta. We’ve got to see if all the placenta came out.”
“I guess you’ll tell me what that is when we get there.”
“You know what that is. It’s what feeds the baby through the umbilical cord when it’s inside the mother. If any of it stays inside the mare, she can die.”
But the placenta was there, lying crumpled in the grass. Mom carefully laid it out, fitting together the pieces we could find the way you would a jigsaw puzzle. “Seems complete,” she said. “We had a mare once—” But then she decided not to tell me that story, and so I knew it was a bad one.
“Daddy doesn’t like the foal.”
“A foal is a lot of work. And a colt is more work. A big lively colt is the most work.”
When we got back up the hill, Daddy said, “Well, I guess if you aren’t going to school today, you’d better start riding.”
I rode the pony George first. Daddy said that there usually wasn’t much market for a pony, but when someone needed one, then a pony was exactly what they needed and the only thing. Our pony was medium-sized—he came up about to my chin (all the horses were taller than I was by at least an inch or two). Once the spring rolled around, Daddy thought he could sell that pony to some people who had an English riding school out on the coast. In the meantime, no pony burned much hay—in fact, you had to be really careful about giving a pony too much feed or it would founder, which is when a horse’s feet get hot and swell inside the wall of the hoof, except there’s nowhere for the feet to swell to but down through the sole, so the horse (or pony) can get crippled and die.