The sunshine and clear sky Ed could see through the driver-side window of his old pickup felt jarring as he drove up the well-worn path to the farmhouse. Funerals are supposed to be overcast. Bill and Jessica were riding with him today, and Ed mused that it was probably the first time his kids had ridden in the truck with him in at least twenty years. They rolled to a stop, and he jammed the parking brake back. It took a few tries to stick, but that didn’t worry Ed. It was old and rusted- not much different than he was. Bill opened his door and ran around the hood. “Can I give you a hand, dad?” Ed waved him off and hauled himself down. Being an old widower doesn’t make me an invalid, d***it.
He stretched his neck and felt the familiar pops and pulls as they walked up the front porch and into the house. Jessica headed straight for the kitchen. “You two make yourselves comfortable; I can handle putting in the lasagna.” The Steelers were up in the second half, but Ed couldn’t make himself care. Instead, he found himself zoning out as he nursed a can of cheap beer and turned off his hearing aids. A small spider seemed highly occupied attempting to scale the post of Jenny’s reading lamp when Jessica called them in for dinner.
“Thanks, Jess. This all looks great.” Ed was surprised at how hungry he was, and the hot meal felt good going down. “So how’s the practice, going, sis?” Bill asked when they had settled down and started into the bread and pasta. “Surprisingly well, actually! Getting patients from a retiring psychiatrist is always a mixed bag. Some of them have very specific expectations as to what sorts of conversations we should be having and what kind of advice I should be giving them. But for the most part, they have been excited to get to know me and willing to work in a new environment. Everything going well with the insurance world?” “Yeah, for the most part. The last few months have been a headache with a huge lawsuit wreaking havoc in corporate. But I keep on working on policies, and they keep paying me.” “How have things been here on the farm, dad?” Jessica asked as she put her hand on Ed’s shoulder. “Oh, well enough, I suppose. The soy has been coming in strong despite the weather. Horses are healthy aside from a foal we lost in birthing. Jeff Kerby said he might even take Chett to a friend of his who buys Arabians for the track.” “Well that’s great! Never thought we’d be selling racehorses, did you, Bill?” Bill laughed and shook his head. Ed took a final swig and pushed out his chair. “I think I’m gonna go for a walk.” “Sounds good dad,” Bill replied, before getting up to clear the dishes and stealing a glance at a replay of some contentious foul.
Ed stepped onto the porch and took a deep breath. Scents of hay and manure mingled with the dusk air. The sun hadn’t quite set, but it was starting to drift down the horizon and behind the cattle barn. He walked out toward the horse pen and let himself inside. A few mares were tugging on tufts of hay and flicking at flies that flew too close. Ed walked along the fence until he could lean forward on it and watch the sun continue its lazy trail. Stanford, one of his oldest and most tired-looking draft horses, wandered up to him. In his day, Stanford had been quite the stallion. He had been rented out to breed cross-breeds with Thoroughbreds and occasionally employed to haul things when a tractor was out of commission. Ed pulled a sugar cube out of a jacket pocket- it was always handy to have some around- and held it out. Stanford slowly nipped it out of his hand, and Ed patted his neck. “Time’s been unkind to both of us, hasn’t it, old boy.” “It certainly has,” said Stanford with a sigh.
Ed jumped and looked around for the source of the comment. There was nothing but field between him and the farmhouse, and there was no brush in or near the pen for someone to be hiding behind. “Looking for someone?” asked Stanford with a hint of a chuckle. I could swear I saw his lips move, but that could just as well be him shuffling his teeth. “Are you talking to me?” asked Ed. “No one else to talk to around here,” replied Stanford matter-of-factly. I must be getting old faster than I thought… “I’ve been able to talk for a while now, actually,” continued Stanford. “Learned it when you hired that ranch hand who was studying to be an English teacher. I never spoke up, because I figured it wouldn’t be taken well. No horse wants to end up working as a circus freak or being paraded back and forth on color-screens. I like it here, anyhow, and I didn’t want to anything to mess up retirement. I’m just a workhorse who’s past my prime.” “So why are you talking to me now?” asked Ed, warily.
“In all honesty, I’ve been with plenty of mares in my time. And I’ve fathered just as many foals. All part of the job, I suppose. But I understand that having someone is… something special. I’m sorry about Jenny.” Ed sat quietly for a while. Am I going crazy? Is this just what grief does to people sometimes? Stanford rested his muzzle in Ed’s hand. Maybe I am. Or maybe this is just one of those coping mechanisms Jess likes to talk about. “Yeah… Me too, Stanford. Me too.” Man and horse sat quietly for a while as Ed watched the sun go down, patting down the old horse’s mane. Just as the sun was starting to hide behind the trees on the horizon, Stanford spoke up again. “Say, do you remember that time Jenny thought it would be romantic to go riding, you in a vest and her in that sun dress?” Ed chuckled a little. “Yeah, and she got that dang thing stuck on brambles before we even got into the woods. She always did have a soft spot for doing stupid things for fun.” He felt a smile dare to creep across his face. But it was gone as quickly as it had come. “I’d almost forgotten that. Everything feels like it happened a lifetime ago.” Ed sighed and pushed himself vertical again. “Well, old boy. This was a good chat. I gotta see to what needs doing before I can hit the hay.” “Night, Ed,” replied Stanford. I really should get that checked out…
Ed woke up early. Well, earlier than usual, at least. It was still dark out, and he walked downstairs gingerly. Bill and Jess wouldn’t be used to this schedule anymore. Nothing felt different about the morning chores. Ed was used to doing them himself – Jenny had never been a morning person. The air was brisk, and it stifled the normal agrarian smells as Ed went through his mental checklist. He let the horses out of their stalls and into the field while the dogs barked from the fence. When he came to Stanford’s stall, the old horse slowly unfolded himself, stood up, and shuffled out of the pen. See, nothing weird today. I’m fine. “Mornin’ Ed,” Stanford called over his shoulder on the way out. Ed shook his head and moved on to the next stall.
“I said, do you want some more eggs?” “Uh, no. Thanks, though.” Ed forced himself from a brief reverie to pay attention. “So how are you doing today, dad?” asked Bill. “Fine, I guess. Or as fine as can be expected. How are you two doing?” Jessica sighed. “I miss mom. I do. I know I have to recognize the loss and accept it to be able to grieve properly. So I’m doing my best to go with that.” Bill nodded. “Same here, I suppose. But I think it was her time. She got to live a long and happy life, full of love.” But what am I supposed to do, now? Ed nodded as forks clinked against plates. “Do you two remember that time mom was mowing the lawn and saw that snake coming at you across the lawn?” “Not really, no,” Bill replied quizzically. “She thought it was rattler and charged straight at it. Chopped the thing to bits!” “Huh!” said Jessica, “Sounds like something mom would do.” Ed felt somber all of a sudden. “Yeah, that was her.”
The sun was setting again. It did that. Ed went out to the horses and did his rounds, making sure none of them were worse for the wear from the day. Stanford sidled up to him again as he watched the sun go down. “Evenin’, Ed.” “Evenin’ Stanford.” Might as well go with it, even if I know I’m going a bit crazy. “Nice day in the field?” “Hay was a bit more mealy than I like, but no complaints otherwise. You?” “Not bad all things considered.” Ed looked toward the sunset again and sighed. “Say, Stanford, do you remember that time Jenny saw a snake slitherin’ toward the kids on the lawn?” “Ha! She went at that poor thing with a vengeance. Made me glad to have been born a horse- far less misunderstood.” Ed laughed at that. Ed stayed a little longer tonight, swapping stories with the old horse. He met him the next morning, and horse and farmer greeted each other with congeniality.
Ed stood up after lunch and put on his dusty Steelers cap as he headed through the screen door. “Where you off to, dad?” asked Jessica. “Oh, just off to have a chat with my imaginary friend,” he replied. Bill chuckled at that, but Jessica looked nonplussed. It had started getting hot out. Ed didn’t love this time of day- it was the hardest to work in and the most exhausting right after lunch. But after finally persuading Bill and Jess to help out with watering the part of the field he didn’t rent out, he felt he had some time to spare. He walked under a tree overhanging the fence and pulled out an apple for Stanford when he sauntered up. “Thanks, Ed.” “Sure thing, Stanford.” Ed leaned against the tree and pulled out an apple of his own, chewing slowly and listening to the sound of the horses shuffling against the flies and pulling on tufts of hay. Dang things ate a lot of hay.
“Hey dad,” Jessica intoned as she poured him some orange juice. “Bill and I have been talking, and we were wondering why you’ve been spending so much time out in the horse pen lately.” “Oh, it’s nothing, Jess. I just enjoy the company; that’s all.” “The company?” she asked incredulously. “We’re the only company around for miles, dad.” She flushed and looked down. “Sorry… that was a bit insensitive of me.” “What she means, dad,” Bill interjected, “is what kind of company do you mean, exactly?” “I just like talking to Stanford. He’s a good ol’ workhorse with a long memory. Likes to joke that it’s why he’s glad horses are different from pigs that way. If a pig remembered what they were there for, it wouldn’t make the farm experience quite as much fun.”
Bill and Jessica exchanged a glance. “Dad,” started Jessica. “Look, I’m not crazy,” Ed said. “Or at least not that crazy. I know horses can’t actually talk. It’s just… nice to have someone to talk to.” “We’re here, dad! At least through the weekend. You can talk to us.” “Yeah… I know, Bill.” “And in my professional opinion, I don’t think it’s healthy to try working through grief by building a dependency relationship with a horse. You know what’s real and what isn’t. Heck, you taught us to see the world as it is, not as we would like to see it. So I don’t think you should be spending any more time out there than you need to.” Ed nodded, blinked, and stood up heavily. “Yeah. You’re right, of course.” Bill nodded in agreement. Ed walked out toward the porch. “I think I’ll hop on by the feed store and be back before supper.”
The sky was just turning ocher as Ed drove in from town and up the hill toward the house. He circled around a bit so could offload feed from the truck and hopped out. He opened the tail gate but stopped short of taking anything out. I should probably just get this over with. He turned toward the horse enclosure below and walked down to the fence. “Stanford! Stanford!” The old horse came sauntering up as he usually did. He wasn’t in a hurry, after all. “Evenin’, Ed.” “Look, Stanford. I know I’m not going crazy, and I know horses don’t talk. My kids are right that I should stop coming out here and wasting my time being stupid.” “But Ed, I’m talking to you right now. How can you-” “HORSES… CAN’T TALK!” Ed stammered out, a bit flushed now. Stanford looked down for a moment, but started whinnying when he looked up again- “Watch out, Ed! Behi-” But Ed had turned off his hearing aids and closed his eyes. Horses can’t talk. He took a deep breath and turned around before opening his eyes. The last thing Ed saw was his truck, still weighted with feed and hurtling down the hill at him. That stupid parking brake…