The Solstice Horse

I wondered for the snow last night, Solstice Eve, and considered that it might not arrive before the colt was born. For days, my heart had filled with sadness and loss, and somehow the idea of a white Solstice encouraged me believe everything would, after that, be fine. It had been a year, this millennial cusp, when more friends passed on than I recalled having.

The sun set faster as it always does during the year’s final season, when night seems to embrace the Earth as if never planning to release it again and the past morning feels like a distant memory. Then one by one, the stars twinkled through a pale layer of night-shadowed clouds that reminded me of my breath on cold winter air earlier in that day.

Behind me, my grandfather’s handcrafted sleigh sat where it had been parked after I repaired it, adding new leather to the harness, replacing a split board in the yoke, polishing the runners with wax and the brass with oils. We rarely use it now, but its upkeep seems important, a continuity with the past. The barn, now a looming dark shadow amongst the trees, housed our animals, the horses that would pull the sleigh, the chickens, pigs, and cows.

Listening carefully, I heard a horse neigh, chickens clucking, welcoming nightfall, knowing their day’s work completed. I looked up, leaned slightly to see directly overhead.

A light went on in our small house. Just a candle’s flicker, a wavering illumination beckoning me to return to the warmth of the hearth, the embrace of her arms as she waited for me. I studied her silhouette in the window for a moment, then looked distantly into the forest that surrounded the land I call my own.

The years had been good here, although I’d piled up six decades faster than drifting snow.

The horse neighed again, drawing me to wonder if she too felt the loss such a quick passage of time brings. I smiled wryly knowing it could not, but wishing that it did so I could finally share the pain of regret after all these long years.

But do I myself understand it even now when I feel so certain I do? I questioned myself.

Yes, I knew, or thought I did. Do we ever really know anything? Did something really happen to make Solstice Eve so terribly important to so many people? And if not, is that as important as is how this night makes most of us feel and act regardless?

If only it would snow, I thought, then being a doubtful irascible, old man wouldn’t be half as bad. Snow would bury the lethargic decline of life, everything would be all right, and I just know it.

I looked at the sky again. Thin lines of clouds wavered past the face of the waning moon, as its radiance danced across the limbs of trees undulating, swaying to a stronger breeze. A chilled zephyr that pressed against my exposed flesh, my face and hands, those parts of me that wore the age I carry, the character that defines who I have become, molded by myself, I suppose but more by circumstances and the outside influences of others.

I wish it would snow, I mused, that might freeze these thoughts, and when spring arrives to renew life one more time thaw my fears and send them to the ocean with the snow-melt.

The back door of the house opened. I heard it but did not turn. Out the corner of my eye, I peered and saw her as she watched me with, I imagined, the same questions in her mind, or ones so similar that they might be mine. Will this be our last Solstice?

That’s my fear revealed at last and if so, do I understand its, meaning its purpose well enough to accept what I’ll have lost?

I let my eyes travel away, and heard the door snick shut as if she too knew I was not ready to return and get warm.

The mare neighed softly, alerting all that her time was drawing near, as she moved closer, I knew, to the edge of the stall like she does at night. I watched once and saw that she and her stallion seemed to like to nuzzle some before sleep arrived.

Turning to the barn, I decided I’d like to see that one more time too, but did not move except from the waist up.

The breeze pushed itself into a light wind that carried the odors of autumn’s end. The snow did not fall, but the clouds charged my heart when they thickened briefly and blotted out the stars overhead, shivered the moon’s pale light enough to obscure the trees and the roof line of the barn.

I felt something new in the air. “Would it be enough? Am I ready this time? Will I miss it again, as I have so many times before? Is the wonderment in my heart real? Will it suffice if this is our last Solstice?”

I was not sure, but I needed to find out. The days leading me to this moment had been fraught with doubt, and worry.

A drop of rain fell on my hand. My heart knew before I realized it wasn’t rain. The breeze that had started several minutes ago, or perhaps an hour or more, swirled something that was halfway between rain and snow. I wanted to cheer, shout don’t let me down!

I smiled and turned my face up, studied the clouds and heard the horse neigh, a sound more restless.

“She knows,” I told the moisture collecting on my brow, dripping from my cheek. “She knows.”

The rear door of the house opened briefly. I heard it, saw the flicker of candlelight dance across the thin coating of snow clinging precariously to each blade of grass like tiny cattails, or Solstice candles carried by the multitudes that once, a very long time ago, marched across the lands to rejoice the celebration.

Footsteps shushed through the wet lawn, and a moment later the irregular circle of radiance from the candle reached out to wrap its illusion of warmth around first my feet then up the length of my bent body to illuminate my face.

I was happy, but I couldn’t smile. I smelled the wood smoke in her hair, the light scent of lilies from her soap.

“It’s time,” she said speaking softly a whispered tenderness, the same tone I heard the first time she told me she loved me.

Her hand settled dove-like on my arm, and I nodded, and turned to the barn.

“Yes,” I replied after some hesitation.

The falling snow thickened, coated everything with a, sugar whiteness as if now in a hurry, as if it too knew time ran out.

Our mare Sparks neighed again, and as I pushed open the barn door; she whinnied a welcome. We walked carefully through the straw covering, until we stood at the entrance to her stall. She was struggling gallantly and her newborn was beginning to show. I stood to the side and wrapped my arms around her muzzle — careful to avoid pressuring her spiraled horn so sensitive after the fall growth — stroking the long soft face with my gnarled hands and knew without knowing why, that everything, for me, was about to change forever. I inhaled the smell of her hair sweat the wet straw underfoot.

She quieted. Then her body convulsed again, and again. With a deep-throated sound almost like a human groan, the colt was born.

I released the mare’s head and Sparks turned to the little spotted horse and began licking its face, clearing its nose and mouth as we pulled away the sac. I saw it draw its first independent breath and felt an old man’s tear roll down my cheek, and my wife’s arm encircle my waist. The little one had the horn, tiny now but in several years, it would reach a length of several feet. He was the first one born to us in two generations, a sign of promise and hope for the future.

We stood still, holding each other, watched life unfold, and marveled at our good fortune, that we were here to participate, here to witness the promised gift of life renewed, the breath of God passed onto yet another generation. We walked outside.

The snow was a curtain, the sleigh, the house and forest obscured. A chill that started somewhere deep inside, rolled slowly up my spine and along both arms until it tingled my fingertips. I imagined I could look across the gulf of ten thousand years, felt a peace I never knew as it filled me and made me want to cry out in joy.

With my arm around her waist, I squeezed her, my wife I’d known for so long but never long enough. We returned, bedded the mare and her newborn, covered both, with blankets, and hay. Then we waded through the fresh snow.

I thought, perhaps this is not the last Solstice after all. Maybe there are still enough souls listening to carry the hope of the season.

Then I listened to the snow’s blanketing stillness, in the far distant mountains to bells from McIan’s Tower greeting The Solstice God’s arrival.

Finally, the New Year held promise.

Copyright 2018 Gabriel FW Koch all rights reserved

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