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Ten years ago at Saratoga the mockingbird sang in the moon-blanched roses all night long. Grove and I, newly wed, were already too well-advised to imagine that our future lay before us like a land of dreams, but it seems now that we did spend the next nine and a half years sleepwalking. Not even sirens shrieking through the night woke me. I heard them, but my trance went on, almost three more days.
The night I heard the sirens scream by our farm, the April moon was rather like my life, not perfectly full, but so nearly, that a casual observer would have thought it so. A few hours earlier I had walked to our barn under that fair moon, with Grove safely home for the night, with our son and daughter asleep in their beds, our three mares, all pregnant, in their stalls. Surely it would have been difficult then not to feel that Grove and I had been granted a divine dispensation.
Now it is June, and our mares stay out at night with their foals. Now the barn's big doors stand open to catch as much as possible of the wind that was an enemy in April. Now the enemy is something else.
The night I heard the sirens, I was sitting up with our youngest mare, "Thankless," because she was due to foal in nine days. I customarily take the first shift, and Grove, who gets home tired from his veterinary rounds, takes the second. We can observe the foaling stall without leaving the warm tack room, through a window in their joint wall, and I had brought a book and a coffee thermos, and a letter from our son's godmother, Eva von Strehlenau, thatI meant to answer before I permitted myself to open either. Katisha, our elder barn cat, had darted into the tack room between my feet, settling herself lovingly in my lap the minute I sat down. My lap is warmer than a concrete floor.
Eva von Strehlenau was my favorite roommate at the University of Kentucky. When my parents gave me a trip to Europe for graduation, I flew to Munich, where Eva had promised not to begin her "pencil-sharpening job" until she and her handsome brother had introduced me to the seats of Western culture. Four years later, about the time I married Grove Brough (it rhymes with tough), Eva was promoted to editor. I sent her the little rectangular Bigelow carpet sample from our new house, along with one of Bigelow's cartoon ads. In our letters to each other, I dilate on Eva's "title on the door" and she dilates on my beautiful horses and children, but the truth is that each of us chose what she most wanted.
Is it not ironic, that letter I was answering mused, that the girl from the USA with its Equality for Women, Careers for Women, Power for Women, turns out all Kinder und Küche while Mr. G. B. Shaw's "worthy, respectable, dutiful German" is picking up men at the races at 34? And dropping them as fast as hot rivets, never fear, and scurrying back to her "title on the door."
A rhetorical question, but I laid down Eva's letter and contemplated Thankless, phlegmatically chomping her hay. With a son, a daughter, five thoroughbreds and two cats, I had supposed that my letters were lively.
My local contemporaries, too many of them, give me free advice and ask questions beginning "But don't you—"
Women of my mother's generation approve of my choice of professions. In February, when Grove and both children had been down with rotten colds, I had suggested to Eva that such approval came from vixens with bloody brush-stumps, gratified to see a fresh tail in the trap. "Never try to be funny in a letter," my mother counselled my brother and me when we were growing up. "The person who gets the letter can't see your expression or hear your tone of voice, and may not know that you're joking." Eva always knows. Page one of the letter I had just laid down was an ink sketch of a tail-less vixen smugly knitting four booties.
As a schoolgirl, I planned on having all the children my husband could afford. Beyond pre-teen thoughts about how nice it would be when I was discovered to have a peerless soprano voice, I never envisioned any other job for myself than bringing up children. I savored the picture of myself in beautiful gowns on the stages of the major cities of the world, but I never took singing lessons. I read every column on child-rearing that passed before my eyes.
My voice is and has always been very ordinary.
In college, I became "aware" and "responsible" and lowered my demands on the earth's resources to what just three children would consume, no matter how rich a man I married. I would have one of each sex. For the third I was graciously prepared to accept whichever side of the coin faced up. Grove's enthusiasm let me give myself permission for a fourth, possibly one of the things that had made me love him.
Page two of Eva's letter was encouraging me about my plans for my daughter, who will be old enough to go to kindergarten come September. Already friends had been asking if I would go back to my old desk at The Blood-Horse. I preferred, as I had told Eva, to teach Joanna to read myself and have that one more year with her.
We didn't send Lang to kindergarten.
The most rewarding work, I told Kat silently, is the work for which one is uniquely suited. You are uniquely suited to killing mice. I am uniquely suited to being Lang Brough's mother, Grove Brough's wife, Joanna Brough's mother. Because I love them more than anyone else can love them. Because I care intensely about every snarl in their hair, every inflection in their voices, every smile, more than I care about anything else in the world. They are my "without which nothing."
Around ten the wind began to rise, rattling the barn's end doors. For the sake of diversion, I leaned over to dial the local weather recording. I tried not to jiggle the sleeping Kat, but she abandoned me in disgust.
For a second I thought the line was dead. Then I heard Grove's low laughter and reflexively hung up. I remember the laugh well—half delighted, half bemused. My deserted lap felt cold. Time to replenish everybody's hay, I decided. By the time I reclaimed my chair from Kat, the wind had quieted. There was no reason to pick up the telephone again.
When sirens screamed by at quarter of two, I supposed there had been another wreck on Russell Cave Road. The last one killed a teenager coming home from too much party, coming home in his first car, his birthday present. He was sixteen and had had his license three days. I thanked God Lang was in his bunk, safe, from that, for eight more years.
We were all four safe that night.
Horse vets are pre-dawn risers. At 5:35 the morning after the sirens, I was caroling "Sun's up" at Lang's door.
"Son's up!" Lang called back. This ritual joke, his own, marked him as my child. Jokes and Grove repel each other before breakfast (and Joanna is going to be just like him).
In April I have to draw a whole gallon of water before the water begins to run warm enough to wash my hands. I know, because I catch and use it in the humidifier. When we used to laugh a lot, this was one of the things Grove laughed at.
How could someone so compulsively careful about details as I—one gallon of water!—be so careless about things of infinite importance?
As Grove and Lang took off their barn boots that April morning, I could tell by their faces that Grove didn't think any of the mares was about to bless us early. Officially, our best mare had sixteen days to go before foaling; her dam, twenty-three, and Thankless, eight. "Stuffed their guts all night," Grove announced, and set the empty coffee thermos on the counter. "Is there more?"
He had drunk a quart since relieving me at two o'clock, and his eyes were bloodshot.
"That Thankless is so dumb," Lang followed Grove into the kitchen to tell me. "When I go to feed her she gets in between me and her feed tub. I'm only trying to help her and she makes me hit her every day."
"Just like a woman," said his father.
Lang cut his eye at me. I made my best tigress face. He smirked, wrinkling the little scar that he picked up last summer. "I wish Thankless would hurry up and foal. I promised Breck he can come see it when she does. Is that OK?"
"Promise first, ask later," observed his father.
"Breck is welcome." I sidestepped the issue of sequence. "But remember: you wait for that bus by your own mailbox. No running down that public road at rush hour to wait at Breck's."
"Honey, you've been telling him that every day for a week. Just tell him once and if he forgets, land on him. Let him do the worrying. He's younger than you."
Lang put on one of his own standard repertoire, the 100% unjustly attacked face. He had never disobeyed our order since we realized we needed to give it. "Hey, I forgot that," I answered Grove, "he's getting so tall."
"Tall!" Grove laid his hand flat on top of Lang's head. "He's a midget. He just combs his hair straight up to fool you."
In fact, his crown is nearly level with my shoulders. Less than a foot and he won't have to look up when he gives me backchat. "Two minutes of seven, giraffe," I warned him. "Time to shave off that mustache and go."
He dropped his napkin on the floor, wiped the cocoa off his upper lip with the back of his hand, and ran for his book bag and baseball cap.
At 7:10 I took the binoculars off the sideboard, where they live for quick appraisals of the front field (dubious horse behavior; trespassing dogs; seldom-seen birds) and focused them on our mailbox. I had done this daily for the past ten school days—ever since Grove, driving back from a dawn C-section, had seen that red baseball cap at the Smith mailbox, a quarter of a mile from home.
Yes, he had gone to play there before. Whenever the bus was late. No, it had not occurred to him that this might not be OK. "I don't walk on the road, I walk beside the road."
I remember how the backs of my knees felt light, how my mind's eye saw his body flying through the air, his blood. I wanted to grab him by both shoulders—to keep him safe, to shake him. Such visions are a legacy of my brother's violent death, I guess. I kept my voice reasonable. "You can't walk any further from the road than David Trimble's fence, and you saw what somebody's truck did to that last summer. You think you'd be harder to bust up than a stone fence?"
Focusing my binoculars through our dining room window on a red cap, I admonished myself that Grove was right: telling Lang once was enough. The boy under the red cap was standing straight as the mailbox post beside him. "Is he there?" Grove asked quietly.
"Like a soldier."
We smiled at each other, the immemorial helpless smile of parents, in which pain, joy, pride, and astonishment intermingle like the colors of sunrise.
The long yellow school bus groaned to a halt. In my mind's ear I heard the cheerful frog-chorus of the children already aboard, the wheezing open and slamming shut of the door. The bus shuddered on. Grove and I verified that Joanna still slept, then we went to the barn.
When we could joke, Grove liked to predict that Joanna will sleep through the Second Coming, if He comes before 8 a.m.
"Wash the pregnant mare's udder daily," says the book Grove gave me our first Christmas. "This massage accustoms her to the treatment she will get from her foal, and...."
Anyone can groom our old mare and her valuable daughter unassisted, but the gray mare is a horse of a different choler. We call her Thankless because her registered name is "La Dame Sans Merci." We assume the breeder omitted the "Belle" only because the Jockey Club rejects names that fill over eighteen spaces—there's nothing wrong with Thankless's looks. Grove bought her, in foal for the first time, last November. In April, she was still tossing her head at the glimpse of a washcloth. Eight days before she was due to be surprised by joy, her evasive leaps were as breathtaking as any gazelle's, or Giselle's. "She'll never nurse," Grove kept assuring me.
"Thankless will be a fine mother once she sees the foal," I kept assuring him. I remember weeping the first time I was pregnant because various ambivalences made me dread that I would not love our child properly, that it would somehow sense my reservations from the way I held it as it nursed, and so would grow up criminal. "There are more things in heaven and earth," I told Grove, "than are dreamt of at Ohio State University vet school."
I led Thankless to join the other two mares in the front field, and Grove put out the colts.
Already last fall Grove had warned me off attempting to lead Ten. "Ten is too dangerous," he said.
"Ten is too valuable," I amended. Whether Ten is nicknamed for Tennessee Williams or Bo Derek depends on who asks. He is the best colt we have ever bred—handsome enough, Grove had assured me, for August's select Saratoga auction. We've never before raised a yearling good enough for that sale. This was going to be our most joyful summer since the one when Lang was born. If Ten had jerked free of me and taken off, he wouldn't have had to break a leg or collide with the front end of a truck on Clay Pike to devastate our hopes. Just a little scrape keeps a yearling out of the summer sales. It's no accident that the colts' spring pasture is behind the house where they're inaccessible to the kind of driver who pulls over and fires his shotgun for the joy of making big animals run. Such an idiot paused long enough on Holcomb Road one day to put a plastic bag over a Secretariat yearling's head and presumably stood there laughing (or salivating) while it ran itself to death. A yearling will walk up to the fence to see what the stranger with the bag has, but a mare will keep her foal the field's width away.
Why have I not been as good a mother as the stupidest mare alive?