Tonight I lie in bed in an 1800s farm house listening to the low, deep hoot of a great horned owl, the insistent back and forth calls of coyotes in the distance, and the sound of sporadic cars driving past on the country road outside. The owl and the coyotes lull me while the road sounds take me back to memories from my childhood, to a time when I was probably 4 years old, to an old white farmhouse on a country road near Mechanicsburg, Ohio. My grandparents lived on this farm, gardened, raised horses, and always had wild cats living in the barn.
I remember the farmhouse, the front door that no one ever used, the door near the kitchen that everyone came and went through. I can’t remember now if they grew crops or not, but I clearly remember the horses. I was captivated by them. Captivated and a bit frightened. I was too young to be around them without adults present and much too small to ride them. Of course, I had ridden carnival ponies, chained to a merry-go-round that listlessly slogged around a circle, heads down, the squeals of delighted children on their backs filling the air. I didn’t feel sorry for those horses, not then, only excited to have a chance to ride them. My sorrow for them came later. But these horses were entirely different animals. They were huge, and beautiful, and strong. They ran in the fields, roamed in the pastures, grazing whenever and wherever they desired. They seemed so free.
Once, I was allowed near one of the horses, a big blonde gelding, when it was outside being groomed by one of my aunts. It was special that I was allowed to stay near her and near the horse. My aunt instructed me to stay away from its back legs and to never approach a horse from behind so I wouldn’t risk being kicked. She told me I could lay my hand along its back. The horse was so big, my hand came only part way up its side. I couldn’t reach the top of its back, so I caressed down its left side. I could feel the strong inhale and exhale of its breath, I could feel its contented sighs and nickers at being brushed and groomed. Then my aunt picked up the horse’s right front foot to groom its hoof, and it shifted to the left, right onto my right foot. The pain took my breath away and I couldn’t make a sound. I had no words to tell her that the horse was standing on my foot. I froze, completely still. I couldn’t move. Waves of pain coursed through my foot. Fortunately, the horse quickly shifted its weight and lifted its foot off mine. I moved away, sat down on the driveway and cried, silent tears of relief, pain, humiliation because I knew I wouldn’t be allowed out there again when a horse was groomed if anyone found out what had happened. Fortunately, the only thing hurt was my pride.
After that, I largely kept my distance from the horses, watching them from the safety of the far side of the fence. I was told never to approach the horses, but if they came to me, that was fine. One afternoon I was leaning against the fence separating the yard from the pasture and one of the horses who was grazing in the field came toward me. I wasn’t afraid because sometimes we were allowed to give them a piece of carrot, their soft lips tickling my hand as they took the offering from my open palm. On this occasion, I didn’t have a carrot. I was just leaning on the fence, watching. The horse grazed its way over to the fence and then for no apparent reason kicked me between the rails. It kicked me hard, knocking me off my feet. Again, I was fortunate. Nothing was broken, but I had a beautiful bruise for a while. I didn’t tell anyone about that either.
To this day, I find horses to be both majestic and mystifying, beautiful and unpredictable. Fortunately, I had better luck with the wild barn cats, especially the kittens. I have always been a cat person. I love cats. One spring, a litter of three golden kittens was born in the barn. We weren’t allowed to play in the barn because there were so many dangerous tools and farm implements in there. But I did have permission to carefully look for the kittens. They were born near the front door of the barn, so if I was quiet and lucky, I might catch sight of one of them. I knew not to scare the momma because she would move them. I didn’t want that to happen. Calmly I would sit outside the barn door on the driveway hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the three. As they grew, they got more curious. I learned to tell them apart. One was playful and confident, interested in everything, curious. A second elegant and languid, slow moving, but aware in its movement. The third was timid and looked for the others to move first. I wanted them to want to come to me. I wanted to pet them, to hold them, to tame them. “Barn cats aren’t pets”, my Grandmother said. I secretly disagreed. My sister got to hold one first. The curious one came right up to her and she picked it up. She and I were both “animal whisperers”, but she was better at it. One time she actually walked up to a blue jay in our front yard and just picked it up. So, I wasn’t surprised when the curious kitten chose to come to her. I was jealous, though, and more determined than ever to entice one of the kittens to me. One day the elegant one strolled near me and laid down in the driveway near my ankle. I reached out carefully, not wanting to scare it away, and it let me touch it. I ran my fingers down the soft baby fur on its back. The kitten let me pet it for a moment, then got up, stretched, and strolled back into the barn. Yes! I was going to stay patient and someday the kitten might let me hold it. The next time we visited, the mother had moved them farther into the barn and we didn’t see them again. Still, in that one moment, the kitten had chosen to me. I felt special.
Tonight, as I lie in bed listening to the sound of cars on this country road, I am transported back to my childhood and I remember another old white farmhouse. We rarely spent the night there, but, when we did, I could hear the sound of occasional traffic on the road outside and the deep quiet of the country. It was so peaceful, the world passing by as I fell asleep. I think I will sleep well surrounded by those sounds tonight.