The Quotable

Under Cover

The stallion’s scream wakes me, and I sit bolt upright in bed, my heart adrenaline-slamming. If I can hear him with my windows closed and the air conditioner running, I know my Amish neighbors can hear him. His screaming follows the sound of his hooves, pounding the ground along his fence-line, from the barn at the top of the hill, down into the dip, thundering back to the high crest of the next hill.

I look out the window next to my bed. I cannot see him, or any of the other horses, in the darkness, but I know what has set him off, got him running and bellowing in the small hours when the civil world is sleeping. This is the third or fourth time in the last few weeks he’s done this during the middle of the night. It’s deep summer, and fog nestles like bolsters on the ground between the hills. The mares have grazed their way into the fog, disappeared from the stallion’s view, left him alone and apoplectic on his side of the fence.

I throw my covers aside and hurry through the dark house in my nightshirt, not bothering with clothes or even a robe. My heart is coming down from its adrenaline full-throttle, but I’m still anxious and hurried; aside from the stallion waking the entire community and souring my current good neighborly relations, I’m afraid he’ll hurt himself in his frenzy. Or run himself into an early grave. He’s an old horse, and I intensely want him to continue getting older. He scares me when he does this.

In the mudroom, I stuff my feet into a pair of muck boots, open the door, and step into the steamy wall of the night. I can’t see the road, so no one on the road can see me; I am nearly invisible. The moon, riding high in the sky, is bright enough to cast shadows. I follow my own shadow – fat and squat – toward the barn. My fat moon-shadow is not so far from my body’s truth, but it seems particularly harsh for even the moon to point it out.

I hurry down the drive to the barn, looking to my right over the pastures and catching my breath at the loveliness of the fog, piled like meringue in the valleys. All around, fireflies flicker. I want to stop and soak in the beauty of this nightscape, but I can’t, not yet. The stallion does not appreciate the beauty. He gallops his fence-line, screaming for his mares to return. I wonder if his heart’s about to explode, or if he’s battered his feet and legs to smithereens.

I hurry through the barn without turning on the lights, find a lead shank on a stall front, and slip through the sliding door into the mares’ pasture. The stallion hears the door, knows I’m here, and thunders back along the fence-line, sliding to a stop and spraying me with bits of dirt and pebbles. I cannot calm him – only his mares can – but he knows I’m here to retrieve them because we’ve done this before. I hope that knowledge will quell his anxiety. He stands next to me for a moment, just the fence between us; the heat pours off him and rolls over me like a wave, heavy and humid; I can hear and feel the slam of his heart in his massive chest; the air vibrates with it. Please don’t kill yourself, Old Man, I think, maybe even mutter it out loud to him as he blows and quivers next to me in the dark. My own heart-rate ramps up a bit, so I try to exude calm and quiet, hoping low-key vibes will calm him, help him relax and settle. Quite aside from the fact I absolutely adore him and hope he lives and sires foals forever, he’s an investment. I mortgaged my farm to buy him, and I’m barely placating the bank now as it is.

“Don’t worry old man,” I say, “There’s no fog phantom stallion out there stealing your mares.” I turn and hustle toward the wall of mist, and the stallion twists and bolts down his fence-line again, his bellow starting somewhere deep within him, gathering in volume and rumbling out as he gallops. He seems less frenetic, but I know he won’t fully settle until he can see his mares again.

The moon illuminates the fields, and I follow one of the trails the mares have made over the summer. I walk down the hill and into the fog; it instantly envelopes me. Taller weeds, bowing with dew over the trail, brush my bare legs, leave droplets and seeds. I can see nothing but the fog which somehow still seems to glow white even in the middle of the night.

I walk blindly for a while, hearing my breath and the tread of my own feet and somewhere, as if filtering through from above, other quiet night noises. I stop to listen. Behind me, muffled by the mists but distinct, comes the sound of the old stallion, still running the fence. I strain to hear the mares – a sigh, a tail swish, a mouthful of grass being ripped, telling me their direction and distance, but they’re still lost to me in the mists.

“You girls are probably all standing at the back fence hushing each other and giggling at the old man,” I say, and I myself laugh. I wonder how far my voice carries in the mist, if the mares can hear me, wherever they are in the six acres of this field. Next to me, clinging to the top of a tall stem of orchard grass, a firefly blinks in a steady rhythm. But its light seems stymied. How many more fireflies occupy this cloud on the ground, are in there blinking away, even though the fog swallows up every flicker? I look at my firefly, watch it send its light out, a light that dies only inches into the fog, but the firefly doesn’t stop flashing, and I’m not sure if it’s a stoic little bug or just naïve, following the basest of bug instincts.

I walk on, and must be three-quarters the way to the back of the pasture when I stop next. I stand again, silent, listening. The stallion thunders some distance behind me now, almost a background noise. At least he’s stopped his screaming. From the woods beyond the pasture fence I hear an owl, then another. The hem of my nightshirt is damp and clings to my thigh. In a few hours, I’ll be sitting at my desk in work clothes. I doubt very much any of my coworkers could begin to picture me as I am now, standing half naked in the middle of a pasture in the middle of the night, trying to round up a group of mares gone AWOL. It strikes me how atypical my nighttime activities are. When I leave my bed in the wee hours to roam my pastures, no husband or boyfriend waits for me to slide back under the covers with him. No one will be concerned if I do not return.

Perhaps I should be frightened out here, groping my way through the dark and fog, alone and vulnerable. But I am not frightened, whether I should be or not. I feel no fear of what lies in the dark or hidden by the fog, but rather a ripple of exhilaration that this is my here and now. This time and place is mine, and even the bank can’t see me here, can’t reach out to take it away from me.

I focus my attention. Soon I hear what I’ve been listening for, a little ahead of me in the fog: a contented, nostril-rattling horse sigh.

“Alright girls, time to stop playing games with the poor old man,” I say to the mares ahead of me, and walk fog-blind through the dew-wet grass toward the sound of a sigh, or thump of a hoof, listening for more evidence of them. I walk until the horse sounds and smells are all around me, and a darker form takes horse-shape in the fog. I recognize Indy, and she lifts her head to greet me; I reach out and stroke her forehead, feel under my palm the cool damp of the dew on her hair and then, rising beneath, the heat of her. I run my fingers through her forelock, and she nuzzles my nightshirt with her prehensile lips. Indy’s foal materializes from the fog and sticks his wet muzzle in my face, snuffling and lipping until I push him away. He turns, bumping against his mother, and I hear the smack and slurp as he nurses. Indy’s scent is just another current in the air, mingling with the scents of dirt and chewed grass and milk, and I could be content to simply stand here, sequestered in the misty night, with my hand on her forehead.

But the stallion’s mania still rumbles through the ground and fog to me, so I loop the cotton lead rope around the mare’s neck. “C’mon, Indy, let’s go back up before your old man has a heart attack.”

I turn and head back the way I’ve come, following my own tracks I can just see in the grass; Indy ambles by my side, placid and content; her foal falls in behind me, sometimes butting my back with his nose. I hear and feel the other mares and foals shifting in the dark and fog, moving with us, although I cannot see any of them. Ahead of us, the sounds of the old stallion’s snorting and running come to me through the mist.

As we get nearer the fence, start moving uphill a bit, I hear the mares flanking us pick up the pace, hear their four-beat walks accelerate into two-beat trots, hear their foals cantering, and they all pass us by, even Indy’s colt, running ahead with them, so when Indy and I walk out of the fog – like we are emerging through a door in a wall – I see several of the mares are already by the fence with the stallion. He stands tall, his huge neck arched, striking at the ground with his front feet, lashing his tail, nickering and squealing his greetings and reprimands. I let the lead shank slip from Indy’s neck as she too meanders toward the fence.

I climb the hill to the barn and lug a bale of hay out to the mares. They don’t need it, but it will encourage them to stay near the stallion. Chaff sticks to my sweaty skin as I spread flakes of hay around in piles for the mares, and toss a flake over the fence for the old stallion. Then I shimmy through the fence and run my hands over his chest and neck; he’s still hot but the sweat is already drying. He swings his massive head around me long enough to let me scratch his forehead, then turns his attention back to his mares and his hay.

Back in the barn, I latch the door to the mares’ pasture. In just a couple hours, in the gray pre-dawn light, I’ll be back down here, dressed in my grubby barn clothes, bringing the horses in through this door to feed them in their stalls, where they’ll snooze the day away, out of the sun and bugs while I’m at work, trying to finance this whole farm folly.

I put the lead shank back on the stall door, and trudge up the hill to my dark house. On the back porch, I stop and look over the barn and pastures. My moon-shadow is slightly taller now, but no less pudgy. The moon rides westward, and under its pewter light I can see the hills, the white shock of fog in the valley, the faint pale ribbons of the fence-lines, and fireflies scattered like glitter across it all; but the dark has swallowed the horses again. Owl calls float from the woods with the murmurs of some other woodland creatures, prowling through their night lives. Closer, horses chew hay, sighing, content.

I stand for a moment on the porch before I kick off the muck boots. I brush the chaff and bits of grass and seeds off my legs. I strip off my damp nightshirt, using it to wipe my face and blot the sweat gathering in runnels in my cleavage. For a moment, I stand naked on my back porch, looking out over my pastures, clutching my damp, balled-up nightshirt to my chest. The buzzing white-noise of my debt seems not to find me here. Here is the silent flash and fade of fireflies, wending their way through the air of my farm, floating among my horses, drifting around my home, lighting their tiny territories, igniting their miniscule fires again and again, gentle, resolute flickers.

When I open the door and step into the air-conditioned house, I don a clean, dry nightshirt and crawl back into my empty bed. I lie so I can look out the window, watching the night, and I feel a rare invulnerability, as if the dark and fog concealed me, a cloak or shield, beyond the influence of fiscal matters. Groggy, I gaze toward where – although I cannot see them – I know the old stallion, his mares and foals are gathered, the pulse of them primal, the heat of their bodies rising in curling eddies, cradling the fireflies and blending into the mist.


Karen Donley-Hayes is a regular contributor for several medical publications; her essays have been printed in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in numerous horse magazines (Equus, Dressage Today, The Horse, etc.), and have been published or are forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, the Blue Lyra Review, and The Healing Muse. Her work has appeared in the anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul – My Cat’s Life, and is forthcoming in The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, a Holy Cow! Press anthology to be published in October 2013. She has an M.A. in interdisciplinary studies, an M.F.A. in creative writing and is editor at Hiram College. She lives in Ohio with her husband, a menagerie of geriatric cats, a German shepherd, hens, and one horse.

Subscribe or Buy

Like this piece?

Support the artist!

Share This

The Quotable 9 Night and Day