The Visitor

Posted on August 25, 2014

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From The Write Place at the Right Time, Summer 2014

Although individual southeastern Wyoming farmers had milk cows and sold fresh milk to our neighbor Schafer’s dairy, and others raised a few steers to butcher for beef, the area wasn’t suited for cattle grazing. Some of the dry land farmers kept horses to plow their plots and pull harrows; the farm kids would ride them, but except during the yearly fair and rodeo, one seldom saw riding horses, a luxury most farmers could ill afford—especially during the winters which often lasted from sometime in October until late April or early May.

Even before the winter winds began, one could feel their bite. The trees would tremble; dogs would bark. Then silence so tense one feared to speak, to move. It would begin to snow. Gently at first, a marvelous enchantment; everything sheathed an incredible white. Rooftops glistened. Fields became oceans of rippling clarity. I often sat for hours in the dormer window of my parents’ upstairs bedroom gazing at cottonwood branches glazed with ice. The sky, pale blue as though awed by the changed landscape, seemed to pull away to give the spectacle beneath it more space. Now and then a lone crow would fly slowly past on its way to nowhere.

Then the wind would begin again, a low moaning as though something far across the prairie was in pain. Gradually other voices would answer—other voices also in pain. Imperceptibly, the voices would grow louder, closer, more intense. One could hear trees quivering, rattling. Fences, porches, roofs began to creak, shed doors to bang. The house began to shudder. One could hear things crashing, falling as though the house was being torn from its foundations and was riding the wind and would ride it and ride it until it landed somewhere far away.

These blizzards would last for days, at times seeming to abate then sweeping across the prairie with renewed force. So much were they a part of life on the Plains that by the time I was twelve or thirteen, the winters seemed to have condensed into a single long confinement. Only a few incidents stood out. One that lingered for years occurred before my brother was born, when my dad and mom and I lived in a little rented cottage on the outskirts of town. My mother and I were startled by a heavy thudding. She stopped what she was doing and stood frowning in the middle of the living room. The thudding sounded again. I distinctly remember her hesitating, her hand on the knob, her lips pursed amid intangible thoughts, then she opened the door wide enough to peer out.

“Oh!” she said as frigid air blasted her features. “Oh!”

An enormous dark form filled the doorway. Its face, covered with steam, bobbed up and down as its pained gargling continued. For a moment—a moment that lasted as long as any that I can remember—I imagined that some hideous invader had descended from worlds beyond ours; then I realized that a horse was standing there facing us. Its huge red nostrils quivered as puffs of steam emerged; the hair around its eyes and ears was so crusted that it seemed barely able to see. Instinctively my mother opened the door wider, as though to invite it inside.

“Good heavens! You poor thing!” I heard her exclaim. She swung around and started to pick me up, then changed her mind. “Wait here. I have to get someone!”

She grabbed her coat and thrust it around her shoulders, patted me on the head and darted into the storm, leaving me staring up at the huge animal. It shivered violently and peered down at me. For a instant I saw my own quaking form reflected its eyes and I started to cry. Not out of fear but because I felt an emotion greater than I’d ever felt before.

“Good heavens! You poor thing!” I managed to whisper and the horse, the huge quivering freezing beast, placed its harsh, half-frozen, steaming face against mine.

We stayed that way, neither of us moving. It was as though time stopped and something important passed between us. As I heard my mother return—she’d only gone as far as our landlady’s house—the horse shook its head and snorted. I reached towards it, to touch it again, but my mother shooed me back inside the house. A short time later some men came with blankets and took the horse away.

For years afterwards, when I recalled that stopping of time, I again felt that huge horse’s presence; although I never was able to define what it was that passed between us, linking us not in fact but in memories that still send quivers through my hands and cheeks. I wanted to believe that the men who took it away warmed it and fed it and returned it to its owners. But having grown up in Wyoming I knew that the horse’s owners probably beat it or worked it to death or sold it to a butcher to be carved up into food for soldiers or for WWII Prisoners of War or for dogs. Nevertheless, for many years I imagined that the horse remembered me and shared an emotion that I only can define as love.

Bio- Robert Joe Stout’s articles, poetry and stories have appeared in many publications, including The American Scholar, America, South Dakota Review, The Rambler and Notre Dame Magazine. He is the author of The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives and Why Immigrants Come to America.

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Posted in: Wyoming