The weeds in the unused paddock grew five feet high and more, and I parted them gingerly with my hands as I walked across sandy soil to the pasture fence. There had been no equine hooves churning the ground impatiently this summer, prancing and pounding it to bare dirt as I approached for the morning turn-out. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a phantasmagorical forest of lacy and slender foliage sprang gracefully from the windswept soil, a tall, swaying barricade to be traversed before yielding the keys to memory.
I hadn’t started with this goal in mind. All I set out to accomplish was three quick turns around the edge of the property at a brisk walk for some exercise. Drenching rains and pressure cooker temps had combined recently to hatch a vicious crop of mosquitoes, and venturing outside had become like armed warfare. The bugs were winning, the humans cowering behind screens and air conditioners and aerosol cans of smelly insect repellant. But the weather had turned unseasonably cold again, and the chilly morning air and a stiff wind had temporarily parted the veil of bloodsucking pests. Time to press the advantage, and make the most of a walk in the woods before it turned warm and tropic again.
I walked happily up and down the hills and along the flats, down a path overhung in places with evergreen branches and through a field of grass shot through with morning glories and milkweed. My route took me alongside the pasture where the horses had grazed for two decades. Brush had grown up along the fence line over the past few years, making the posts and woven wire nearly invisible.
I basked in the sunlight as I walked, the wind clean and cool on my face. Not much occupied my mind but the sights and smells around me—a handful of wild mushrooms here, a discarded turkey feather there, pine cones and dead branches, a sumac leaf prematurely turning blood red in a field of green, heralding the inevitable end of summer—and the occasional thought of what new perennial or two I’d like to buy next for the flower beds.
But I slowed as I reached the wooden paddock fence at the end of my last lap, and stopped to look in. It was empty. The last of the horses had died the winter before. The steel water tanks lay tipped forlornly on their sides where they had rested for nearly a year, and the paddock felt strangely silent. No snorts of recognition, no hoofbeats thudding, no hearty knocks and scraping sounds as feed buckets clattered on their hooks while the two horses dove in to their twice-daily race to the bottom. It was always a competition, where the fastest eater then tried to get seconds by shouldering aside the slower gastronome.
I had never seen it like this, and I unlatched the gate. Tall grass had sprung up undisturbed around the base, and it took some tugging to dislodge. The wood had weathered to a splintered, silvery grey from years of use. I left it standing open. No need to bolt it behind me anymore, the casualness going against the grain of thirty odd years of habit in owning horses and cutting off their escape. (Most of the time…) I passed the two-sided shed in the corner of the paddock where they had weathered countless rain and snow storms, and took cover from the blazing sun on the summers’ hottest days. It felt like a ghost town.
The new forest of weeds finally behind me, I struggled a bit with the heavy gate to the pasture itself. It stood in a break between lines of tall evergreens. I stepped through, into the sunlight and three acres of pasture. The grass, ungrazed and untrampled, was deeper and more lush than I had ever seen it before. The clover had long since stopped flowering, but a field of Queen Anne’s lace spread across the middle. There was still a bare groove in the dirt approaching the paddock, worn by two decades of answering the call to the evening feeding at a trot or a gallop. New saplings sprang up at random, with no one left to chew them down.
I walked entirely to the far end of the pasture, something I had rarely done when Hoki and Babe were still alive. Then, my priority was usually to call them in for a feeding or a rendezvous with the veterinarian or the farrier. Vaccinations, hoof trims, examinations for various troubles, there was always a faint air of urgency and impatience to calling them back to closed quarters. This time, I had the twin luxuries of time and reverie. A flock of two dozen cedar waxwings flitted from branch to branch in a dead tree as I passed underneath. I looked for the flock of wild turkeys that had often frequented the pasture, but didn't see or hear them.
Memories came back as I walked, picturesque snapshots from the past. The hard times were forgotten, nailed shut and buried. No thoughts of blizzards, rain storms, colic, middle of the night trips to freezing barns, heartbreaks and desperate measures. The only images that surfaced this day were short, and fragmented, and beautiful. Babe, the palomino, looking like an equine pin-up in a field of flowers, ears pitched forward and brown eyes wide and alert. Hoki, the buckskin, trotting gamely along on arthritic legs to answer the dinner bell, his gait the sign of an old man, but his dappled coat gold and beautiful and, until his last year, still youthful. Babe, wheeling and prancing playfully, or rolling freely in the dirt to scratch her back. Hoki, dense but utterly devoted to his female companion, master of his one-horse “herd.” I finally turned back, feeling very lucky.
As I reached the paddock again, I stopped to check out the emergency fence repairs I had made a couple of years earlier. I still have the cordless drill I bought that same day, and the confidence I gained from having to use it. The boards I sawed and drilled and fastened still looked new. But the twine scaffolding I left hanging from one had disappeared, no doubt nesting material for some bird or mouse in the neighborhood. The pasture gate swung shut more easily this time, and I fastened it one last time out of habit. It would keep no one in or out anymore.
Then I made my way across the sand and back through the ghostly weeds, tugged the second gate firmly into place, shot the bolt home…and closed the gate on the past.