To Fly Without Wings
The sun was up at last, casting a dim morning glow over the snowless pastures. I sighed and buried my face in Blue's thick sorrel mane, soaking her hair with tears as the mare munched contentedly on the broken pieces of candy cane I mixed in with her morning sweet feed and hay. Across the aisle my gelding, Jack, nickered softly as though to say, Hey, I'm hungry, too.
"I'm coming, Jack," I called, leaving Blue with a kiss on her muzzle. It was just as I was tossing Jack's second flake of hay into his stall that my mother strode gingerly into the barn. Her eyes were glowing, I noted, the way they always did on Christmas morning, a child seeing her presents beneath the tree for the first time.
"Merry Christmas, Lena," she chirped.
Watching the floor, I crossed the aisle again, taking up the manure fork and slipping into Blue's stall. The horse sidled away obediently, allowing me freedom to work.
"Don't bother with that now," said my mother. "Wait 'til they've eaten, and I'll muck then."
I scooped up a pile of manure, dumping it into the nearby wheelbarrow with an unceremonious thud.
My mom sighed, exasperated. "Really, give me the pitch fork."
"Aunt Judy will be here with Becca soon."
"Go take Jack for a ride. Relax. By the time you get back we'll be ready for presents."
In his stall my horse began to paw, as though on cue, urging me to just let go, to just move on, to get in that saddle and just ride. Come on, Lena, what'cha waitn' for? He said. Who cares if there's no snow? Big deal? It's Christmas morning. We always ride on Christmas morning. Let's go. Let's run. Let's fly."
"It's what Grammy would have wanted," added my mother, soberly.
And there it was, the statement I anticipated and yet dreaded, the reminder of the one thing I wanted to forget. A fire erupted in my chest. Fresh torrents of tears streaming down my cheeks, I let the manure fork fall to the ground and ran from the barn, knocking my mother aside as I passed, the sounds of my own footfalls echoing in my ears as I ran up our gravel drive towards the house and right into the waiting arms of my Aunt Judy. I let my body crumble into hers and my memories consume my thoughts.
"Riding,” Grammy whispered, tucking me into bed, "is just the same as flying, only without any wings to hold you up.”
I giggled and pulled the wrinkled comforter to my chin. It smelled of dandelions. "Are we riding tomorrow, Grammy?” I asked, knowing the answer but wishing to hear the words nonetheless.
"My dear Lena-bean,” she scolded, her brow furrowed, "We have gone riding in the snow on Christmas morning every year since your fifth Christmas. I don’t see why your seventh would be any different.”
"But it isn’t snowing. Will we still ride if it doesn’t snow?”
My grandmother sighed. "Of course we will. But, I promise that when you wake up in the morning, if you ever get to sleep, you will find that the farm has turned white overnight.”
I smiled and settled beneath the comforter. "Promise?”
"Cross my heart.” With that, Grammy left me with a kiss on my cheek.
But, before I drifted off to sleep, I gave a quick glance out the window. Sure enough the first flakes of snow began to fall from the sky. My smile, if possible, grew wider.
"Lena," a tiny voice whispered. "Lena, what's the matter?"
I pulled myself from my aunt's embrace to find my tiny cousin Becca standing in the doorway. Her ponytail was a knotted mess; her "happy horsey" pajamas were wrinkled and worn from hours spent sleeping on the road.
"Lena just misses Grammy," whispered Aunt Judy, planting a kiss on her daughter's red head.
"I miss Grammy, too," Becca muttered, her chin beginning to quiver.
What followed was silence, heavy and foreboding, as the weight of Grammy's absence settled over the room. Becca sniffled. Then, the tears began to flow.
"Hey," I whispered, stooping down to wipe away her tears while blinking away a few of my own. "Why don't we go out to the barn? I can ride Blue and you can ride my Jack. How does that sound?"
Becca pulled on her coat and slipped into her boots and was halfway down the drive before I could finish my question. Leaving Aunt Judy with a weak smile, I sauntered after. When I entered the barn, both horses were out of their stalls, my mom standing by as my cousin meticulously brushed every inch of Blue's legs, the only bit of him she could reach.
"Is Blue Grammy's horse?" I heard her ask of my mom.
"But why'd she name her Blue? Is she sad?"
"No, no. She's a happy old girl." My mother smiled, patting Blue on the neck. "She named her Blue because – Well, do you remember that song Grammy used to sing to you and Lena every Christmas morning?"
Becca shook her head.
"'Blue Christmas'." I replied, surprised by my own voice.
They turned, gazes meeting my own.
"She used to sing us 'Blue Christmas'."
Quietly, Becca returned to brushing Then, my mother spoke.
"I just remembered I forgot…something," she declared unconvincingly. Then, over her shoulder as she exited the barn, "Have fun, girls!"
Fun? Not likely. I forced a smile as I glanced back at my cousin. "Come on, Becca why don't we go and get their tack. I bet my old saddle will fit you perfect."
Together we and went back to the far corner of the tack room, digging through old saddle pads, sheets, blankets, bell boots and whatever other items have become worn with use and time. Buried beneath mildew saturated blanket was my very first saddle. I ran my hands over the leather, feeling every detail of the intricate floral tooling. I shut my eyes, my mind trying desperately to recall how it felt to sit in its seat, but all I could summon was the caress of my grandmother's hands as she positioned me carefully on the back of my horse.
"Lena?" Again a tiny voice interrupted my thoughts. I opened my eyes and found Becca staring at me, forehead creased in confusion.
Without a word, I rescued the saddle from its resting place amongst the cobwebs and set to work tacking up Jack, always aware of Becca's thoughtful stare as I explained each and every step and led both horses from the barn, where I stopped dead in my tracks. A fresh blanket of snow now covered the farm.
"All ready?" I asked, finding a smile return to my face.
"I don’t know," said Becca, a nervous look in her eyes.
Carefully, I lifted her into the saddle. "You'll be fine. Jack will take good care of you."
"Are you sure? What if he gets scared?"
"Listen," I replied softly. "Remember last Christmas, when you put on those fake angel wings and ran around the couch saying you could fly?"
"But I couldn't and I got a boo-boo."
"But, see, riding," I put the reins in her hands, wrapping her fingers loosely around the leather. "Riding is just the same as flying. In fact, Grammy used to tell me that to ride was to fly without wings.”
"Nothing bad will happen?"
"Cross my heart."
She studied me for a moment, a curious new insect.
"Okay." She breathed deep. "I'm ready."
Carefully, I mounted my grandmother’s old horse and picked up my reins. "Now, it's Christmas morning and there's fresh snow on the ground, so what are we just sitting here for?"
A smile flicked across Becca's face. "Giddy up, horsy!" she exclaimed, bouncing in the saddle. Her little legs barely reached around his back as her feet kicked uselessly at the horse's side. "Giddy up!" She cried again, her eyes glowing, all signs of fear and doubt instantly erased. Though it all my horse stood, calm and patient.
I smiled. Then, I laughed.
I laughed until my sides ached and breathing hurt. Then, suddenly, I stopped. I looked at my cousin, just 5 years old--the same age I was when I had my first Christmas ride--sitting on the back of my horse, in my old saddle, and me, astride our Grandmother's mare. For a moment I felt a warmth that seemed to flood my whole body. I closed my eyes and leaned over to whisper in the horse's ear. "Come on, Blue. Let's teach her how to fly."
Read all ten finalists' entries from HorseChannel's 2013 Fiction Contest >>