The wind burns my face as Willow and I bound over tree roots and the soft earth of the forest. The sun-dappled woodlands stretch invitingly before us. The majestic spread of leaves lies like a masterpiece, untouched by human or horse. Eagerly Willow gallops into it, causing the leaves to blow up like a bomb. The horse snorts delightedly.
It is a crisp late-November morning in Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania. To our left glitters the frigid cobalt lake. The ducks, Jack and Sydney, patrol along the shoreline, making sure everything is under control. To the right is nothing, just the tangled mass of skeletal maples and dogwoods.
Suddenly I hear the faint call of my mother’s worried voice, signaling Willow and me to come back to the barn. Reluctantly and somewhat irritated now, I turn the horse back in the direction of Strawberry Grove. Willow is as deflated as I am as he heads back to the barn at a reluctant trot.
The untamed wilderness turns into a well-worn path. Various footprints trample it. I think back to how many horses have galloped on these lands. Let’s see, there was Rosebud, Juno, Penelope, Pumpkin, Typhoon, and so many more.
My parents have owned Strawberry Grove Farm since they were newlyweds of twenty. Now, nearly twenty-five years later, the strong stone walls of the barn and the old farmhouse on the hill are going strong.
My mother stands at the hayloft window with her binoculars in hand, worried lines creased on her weathered forehead. My black bangs fly up when I sigh in exasperation. Ever since the accident, my mother has become increasingly more of a worrier than she ever was. It is irritating sometimes, but I simply remember what Dad has drilled me to tell myself, “She’s worried because she loves you.”
“Dylan, please stay closer to the house where I can keep an eye on you. Or better yet, just ride in the paddock. Why don’t you get back into showing?”
I sigh yet again and shut my eyes. I fight the urge to yell.
“Mom, Willow and I know the woods like the back of our hands. Or hooves in Willow’s case,” I told her, cracking a grin.
But Mom’s face remains stern and a little bit sad. I can tell she’s thinking about Georgina. The sight of Georgina’s pale face lying in the leaves with her cloud of dark hair lying eerily around her still haunts my mother.
“Dylan, please. You’re my only daughter left. I don’t want to lose you too,” Mom tells me in a choked voice, and hurries back toward the house.
Sighing in frustration, I untack Willow and let him loose with his pasture buddies, Comet, Tiny, Warrior, and Persia. The eldest horses, Pumpkin and Rosebud, recognizing me, nicker softly and lumber forward.
I feel a surge of affection for the sweet horses, who are in their high twenties and the oldest horses at Strawberry Grove. But their chestnut coats still gleam a healthy shine and their brown eyes shine. My parents had bought them as a pair when they were a shade over four. We are old friends.
“Hey, guys,” I greet them, pulling some fresh carrots out of my coat pockets.
Greedily but daintily they nibble each one, grateful for the attention. Suddenly the horses prick their ears and the sound of the rattling trailer comes up the road. Dad’s back with the new horse.
* * *
All three of us, along with the yellow-and-chocolate labs, Banana and Ryley, gather around the roomy box stall that is now occupied with a gorgeous gray mare, dappled white and complemented by a black, gray, and white mane. Her name is Baby Blue, nicknamed Baby, and she is my newfound interest in the horse breed.
Baby munches calmly on the hay, casting her three awed onlookers curious glances once in a while, but otherwise the move hasn’t affected her.
“Dad, she’s gorgeous,” I breathe for about the millionth time.
Since the moment my father backed the finely conformed Arabian mare out of the trailer, I knew she was something special. But how to find out . . .
The afternoon swiftly flows into a milky pink twilight, the winter sky dotted with cotton-like clouds. The last of the procrastinating geese fly overhead, frantically fleeing from the frigid cold to the tropical south.
In the warmth and coziness of the huge stone farmhouse, I can hardly concentrate on the dullness of my math homework. Baby occupies my mind now. Dreamily I sketch a horse head on the margin of my paper. She has a finely dished face and intelligent wide-set eyes. My mother is overlooking.
“What interesting math homework. It’s changed quite a lot since I was in sixth grade,” Mom observes dryly.
“Oh, um . . . I was just getting a head start on my art project,” I reply weakly.
Mom just raises her eyebrows and continues with the dishes.
“Dylan, if this horse is going to inhabit your mind, I’ll have to find another home for her,” Dad tells me from his nest of newspaper on the couch.
“Oh, no, Dad, she won’t,” I vow hastily, and quickly flee back to my math homework.
* * *
A week later, now in the early stages of December, I am delighted to find at least a foot of snow draped dramatically over the earth like a blanket. The horses, even more enthused, frolic merrily about the paddocks. The dogs nip at each other playfully as they roam the property. The fat barn cat, Callie, lounges lazily in the snow, enjoying the weather at a calmer level.
School, to my delight, is cancelled today, so I take the opportunity to finally get on Baby’s back. The gray mare leans against the sturdy box stall door, relishing the fact that she could hang her head over the side. Dad told me that at her old home there were bars on the doors.
“Hey, girlie,” I greet her warmly, brush box in hand.
I brush the mare until her coat shines pewter. Standing back to admire my handiwork, I conclude she is Olympic-worthy. I head over to the tack room to get the saddle that my father and I had selectively chosen at the tack shop the day before. I run my hands appreciatively over the caramel-colored leather that is decidedly soft as butter. I feel the soft suede knee flaps in admiration.
My mom pops her head in from the doorway, a little girl who cannot have been more than five at her side.
“Hey, sweetie. Going riding?” she asks me brightly, with a little dread in her voice.
“Yeah. Taking Baby out,” I reply simply.
Mom’s happy expression turns into horror as I gather the saddle and matching bridle from their racks and head out the door to Baby’s stall.
“Um . . . Dylan, darling, isn’t it a little too early still? I think she should settle in a little more.”
The girl is looking on in rapt interest. Her mother, in high heels and a crisp blue suit, cell phone in hand, stands at the doorway of the barn. My mother gives part-time private riding lessons in addition to her veterinary service.
I sigh in exasperation and give my mom a look, and she looks at me sheepishly.
“Mom, relax! We’ll be fine. If you want, I’ll just ride her around the paddock today,” I assure her.
Mom’s worried lines cease a little and she manages a small smile.
“If you must. Be careful. Although Dad shoveled out most of the snow, it’s still icy,” she warns me.
I nod solemnly and begin to lead Baby out of the barn and into the winter wonderland. The mare flares her delicate nostrils and takes a deep breath of the crisp air. Her breath mists.
Grabbing my helmet from the rack, I can’t help but grin. I’m positive Baby is the horse for me. My mind races wildly toward summer.
“Think, Baby. By the end of the summer we’ll be racking up the ribbons at shows,” I fantasize aloud to the horse.
Baby, delighted about being outside in the wintertime, delicately prances toward the riding paddock. I had turned the weed-infested woodland into a nicely laid-out riding ring the previous summer. I had even splurged the remains of my savings on letter markers for dressage, which is a complicated division of riding that is considered ballet on horseback.
“Hmm, Baby. I wonder if you’ll be a jumper or a flat horse,” I muse.
I eagerly swing into the saddle without the help of the fence post, and Baby eagerly lumbers out, still relishing being out of the confinement of the stall.
I immediately fall in love with the horse’s trot, and her canter is gorgeous. I make my mom watch ten times before I slip out of the saddle just to give Baby a big hug for being so well-mannered.
“We’re going to rule the shows!” I tell her excitedly, punching the air with my fist.
* * *
Late that afternoon, after swiftly navigating through homework, I curl up on the striped love seat next to my father and begin sketching a full-sized drawing of Baby. The sketch is very detailed, I even include her muscles and shade in her dapples.
My father looks over curiously at the work.
“You really like this horse, don’t you Dylan?” Dad remarks, amused.
I nod eagerly.
“Dad, she’s great! Her trot is like we’re floating and her canter is as smooth as butter. We’re going to knock Casey Frances off her horse this summer at the shows,” I boast proudly, speaking of the rider who had beat me three times in a row in the dressage competition.
My father grins and turns back to his book. Mom, however, is not convinced.
“Dylan, are you sure this horse is safe? She looked like she was going pretty fast in the paddock today,” Mom tells me nervously.
I slam my sketchbook shut and glare at my mother, unable to control the irritation that I have bottled up for nearly one year now.
“Mom, that’s it! I am so sick and tired of your irritating worrywart attitude! It’s like you never take a chance on anything anymore! All you do is worry, and fret, and be miserable every time I ride. If you’re going to be a vet or own horses, you have to take chances!”
“Dylan,” Dad coaxes me quietly.
Mom’s jaw is dropped and her dark eyes are flashing. All the dignity she lost comes flooding back to her.
“Well, I’m sorry if I want my daughter to be safe! It’s hard enough just to watch you get on a horse anymore. Do you know how tough it is knowing that horses are why Georgina isn’t here with us right now?” Mom shoots back.
Silence. Tears stream down my mother’s face. Dad shifts his weight uncomfortably, trying to keep out of our fight.
I can’t take it anymore. I have to get out of the house. I flee from the horrible living room and the cool air of the winter night floods onto my heated face.
Angrily, I stride off toward the direction of the barn and throw a saddle onto the dozing Baby, who is now startled into consciousness.
“C’mon girl, let’s ride!”
Cantering her for a few minutes, I head out into the unknown black inkiness of the forest. Fortunately, there is a full moon to light my way. The yellow light streams through the skeleton trees. I’m occasionally startled out of the saddle as Baby wildly trips over tree roots and fallen branches.
Nothing now looks familiar. The twisting willow tree that marks the end of my territory is nowhere to be seen. All that surrounds me is a tangled, thick stretch of trees and unknown turf. I tug on the reins to slow Baby, but she’s much too frightened and wild now to pay attention. We gallop forward at a maddening suicide pace. Frantic, I pull as hard as I can back on the reins, throwing myself to the back of the saddle.
Suddenly I feel the sensation of the air and then the hard, painful thud of the ground. I sit up woozily. Then, it feels like something shoves me back into the ground. I can hardly think. All I can think of is . . .
Sunlight pours through the window of Dylan’s fifth-grade classroom. As usual, her attention is not on English, but on the new paint horse, Calico, that her father had given her sister, Georgina, for her fourteenth birthday. Dylan’s thoughts about it are jealousy and happiness rolled into one. Suddenly the door flies open and there is Dylan’s aunt, looking wildly painstricken. “Dylan, you’re wanted home,” is all she reveals. All during the ride home, Aunt Ellen is silent. Tears slowly roll down her cheeks. Dylan is completely confused. The car isn’t even at a complete stop when Dylan throws open the car door and follows the figure in the red coat heading out into the woods. Panting, Dylan realizes that she is deep into the woods. She stops short when she sees her mother, father, and Dr. Matthews huddled around her sister, her dark hair wildly surrounding her satiny white face like a cloud. Blood trickles from her left ear. The doctor is feeling her pulse, he shakes his head sadly . . .
I wake up from my troubled sleep from the lemonade-like sunlight coming into my bedroom. Outside a thick blanket of snow is stretched out invitingly.
Woozily, I stand up and manage to stumble down the hall and stairs to the kitchen. My mother, startled by the fact her sick daughter is awake from her week-long sleep, smiles deliriously and runs forward to hug me.
“You’re awake! You’re awake!” she says again and again. Tears roll down her face.
“Mom, what happened?” I ask in a dizzy voice.
“Oh, darling, you went riding and you fell. Are you all right? You hit your head pretty badly.” My mother touches the bloodstained bandage wrapping my head.
“I’m fine, where’s Baby? Is she all right?”
Mom ignores me and breathes a sigh of relief.
“Oh, Dylan, you had us so worried! The doctor said you might have amnesia or brain damage. . . but you’re fine! You’re fine!”
She fiercely hugs me again.
“Where’s Baby?” I ask again, more firmly.
Mom looks away.
“Darling, I don’t want you to ride anymore. I just can’t take another one of those experiences again. I mean, someday when I get some confidence back, maybe you can. Oh, Dylan, don’t look at me like that. It’s for the best.”
I stare at my mother like she is insane. What does she mean, not ride anymore? No, she must be joking. But the sober expression on my mother’s face reveals that she isn’t.
I feel tears rising in my throat but I choke them back fiercely. Looking at my mother’s red, puffy eyes, I see that she hasn’t slept for many nights. Her face is paler and her dark hair is falling messily about her shoulders. I realize that Mom is simply protecting me and that I am her only daughter left. I feel a pang of regret for what a jerk I have been.
Suddenly my shoulders feel light and springy, the way they used to before Georgina died. I hug my mother fiercely and realize that I am more than an inch taller than her. Maybe I really am growing up. Before my father bought Baby, I was young and selfish. It’s amazing how much older you act within a few days. Looking at my mother’s tear-stained and puffed eyelids, I realize I have to do this for her. Biting back tears, I hug her fiercely. She embraces me back in surprise.
Looking outside from my position by the glass French doors, I see the snowcapped backs of the horses. Somehow I am smiling. The pewter mare, Baby, stands like a statue out in the center of the paddock, trembling in curiosity at something she sees. I’ll be back on that sleek mare, someday. I just know it. For now, I have to be neutral with my mother. Some things have to come first.