Matt's morning was swiftly becoming an exercise of frustration, as many days on a farm have a tendency to do. As he approached the house he noticed a vehicle he did not recognize parked in the driveway. Sitting on the porch were Debby and an elderly lady, each enjoying a glass of lemonade. He walked toward them.
"Hi, honey! This is Mae Witt. She was raised on this farm!"
Matt climbed the couple of steps that brought him to the porch. He reached out a hand. "Hello, Mae. Matthew Thornsberry. Pleased to meet you."
Mae shook his hand with vigor. "Matthew? You wouldn't be named after a famous marshal they used to show on the television, would you?"
Matt laughed. "No. My mother named me after a fisherman that lived a long time ago. Now if she had named me Chester it's quite possible you might have been correct."
Mae chortled and turned to Debby. "Your Matthew reminds me of my papa: easy-tempered and a sense of humor." She grew quiet for a moment, seeming to withdraw within herself before turning her attention to her hoses. "I apologize for coming unannounced. I wasn't even sure if the old home place still existed."
Debby excused herself and went into the house, returning with lemonade for her husband. As she again joined the conversation she heard Matt ask Mae if she would like to walk around.
"Yes! It's been nearly a lifetime since I've been here."
The trio left the porch and walked at a slow pace toward the barn and the outbuildings, stopping here and there as the elderly woman was overwhelmed by emotion for time and places and people long gone. She spoke of this recollection, and reminisced on that memory, with such clarity it was as if she had never left.
Mae suddenly said, "There is one place on this farm that I would dearly love to see again. It's actually the reason why I came here today."
"Where would that be?"
She pointed to the wooded hill to the east. "On top of that rise there once was a small clearing."
"It's still there. We call it the ridge field."
Mae smiled wistfully. "It will always be Toby's Meadow to me."
Matt moved ahead. "I'll get the truck. We can drive there."
"I would rather walk, Matthew, if that's alright." Said Mae.
Matt stopped and waited for the two ladies to catch up. Mae walked past him, leading them toward the ridge ahead. Her steps seemed to gather speed the nearer they approached the clearing, as if something of great importance drove her forward. They cleared the timber and entered the small field. Moving with purpose, she veered to the narrower end of the clearing. Matt now knew where she was going.
The elderly woman appeared anxious for a moment. Her body visibly relaxed when she spied the small gravestone ahead. Her pace slowed. "There you are, Toby. I'm finally here." She approached the stone slowly, as if fearing it would disappear before her very eyes. She stopped with the stone at her feet, and then began weeping quietly.
After a few moments, Mae produced a handkerchief and wiped at her tears. She turned to the couple. "I want to thank you for keeping Toby's grave. It truly means so very much to me."
The husband and wife moved to her side. "When we bought this place it was in pretty rough shape. We lived here for two years before we ever found the headstone and realized what it was. We always wondered what the T.W. stood for. I guess now we know."
Mae's attention returned to the stone. "Yes, and now you know why I call this place Toby's Meadow." She sighed deeply. "Toby was my first love."
Debby was confused. "You mean Toby was your boyfriend? Your fiancé? Your husband?"
Mae giggled through tears that yet seeped from her eyes. "No. Toby was my horse—my friend—my companion—my place of solace—my refuge." She sighed again, this time from the depths of her soul. "I doubt I could even count the number of people I have known in my eighty-two years upon this earth, but not one ever seemed to understand me—or love me so unconditionally—as a mere animal did."
She paused, her eyes still transfixed on the gravestone at her feet. "We were both born in the spring of 1931. Me, here in the house you now live in. Toby, on a neighboring farm. When I was three years old Papa was in need of a horse to work the land."
Her mind now traversed the years and decades past. Her eyes no longer saw the stone; instead she saw the giant bay being led by her father as he walked Toby into her life. She no longer felt the breeze that cooled the day; instead she felt Toby's breath on her cheek as he stood by her side. She no longer felt the handkerchief in her hand; instead she felt Toby's coarse mane as they rode across a moonlit field. Tears burst from her eyes, this time emptying themselves from the innermost chambers of her heart.
Matt could hardly speak, a choking tightness filling his throat. He glanced toward his wife, who now had tears streaking down her face as well. It was difficult to witness such anguish.
Finally, the sobbing subsided. The elderly woman, with some measure of discomfort, sat down before the headstone, stroking it gently, using a finger to race the letters there.
"I can still remember the great clomp, clomp, clomp of Toby's hooves as he walked up behind me to introduce himself. Mama was tending garden and I was playing nearby. When I turned, there was Toby, big as the sky, making me feel so tiny." Mae's face beamed. "We were both only three, but Toby had a head start on me. Papa always said that Toby stood there beside me as I played, stood there for more than an hour as if he were my nursemaid. Papa told me he never saw anything like it in his life." She inhaled deeply. "But that was my Toby."
"From my first day of school, I constantly bragged to all my classmates about Toby, and how beautiful he was, how strong he was, and how intelligent he was." A twinkle now flashed in her eyes before chuckling aloud. "In those days nearly all us children walked to school. We had a night of storms and the creeks were up so Papa perched me atop Toby and waded across the flooded streams all the way to school. I was so proud as we got near and I could hear all the others shouting that Mae was coming on her horse. Johnny Dinkins began laughing and yelled, "that's nothing but a plow horse!" Well, off Toby I came. I ran up to Johnny Dinkins—we all carried our lunches to school, and I had a brand new, store-bought lunch pail, mind you—and I swung that pail at his head with all my might."
Debby asked, "Didn't you get in trouble?"
Mae nodded emphatically. "Oh yes, I did! Papa snatched me back about the time the teacher came around the corner. They decided it was best I go back home for the day." She reached forward and placed a hand on the stone again. "But no one ever called you a plow horse after that. Did they, Toby?"
"Toby was born at the wrong time. In the thirties, machines and contraptions were taking over. Once Papa got a tractor, Toby became less of a necessity for the farm. He tried again and again to sell Toby." For the first time, she looked away from the stone, turning toward Matt and Debby. "But I wouldn't allow it."
Mae paused a moment, looking around the small field, reacquainting herself with this place so special to her. "But less time in the fields for Toby meant more time he could spend with me. This was our place. There were many, many afternoons and evenings we came here to get away from the world. I would bring a book and read while Toby grazed."
"It was here that we had our most precious moments. When I felt a bit mischievous I would wait until Toby turned his back, then I would slip off into the woods and hide. When Toby discovered me missing, he would whinny and snort and come tramping through the trees to find me."
At this point Mae turned again to the stone before her. Her voice softened. "When I went away ot college, Papa said Toby spent nearly all his time here, looking for me. My leaving must have broken his heart. I suppose he thought if he could just look in the right place, he would eventually find me." Tears again welled in her eyes.
"Old friend. I'm here. Look no more. I'm finally here."
Read all ten finalists' entries from HorseChannel's 2013 Fiction Contest >>