“All of the people wore colorful clothing,” she said, her voice soft and tinged with emotion. She had been sitting cross-legged on the hard ground for over half an hour but she didn’t notice that her legs were cramping; her mind was elsewhere, struggling to relive a memory from her childhood. It was distant and abstract, not altogether clear but strong in positive emotions; such emotions were something she hadn’t experienced in a long time. “I suppose that since it was so long ago and I was so young, it’s understandable that I don’t remember much.” She paused. “No, that’s not quite true. I remember the smells: food from the vendors, perfume and cologne, and the ever-present animals. I don’t think I even knew what animals smelled like before that day. We didn’t even have a dog. But the racetrack smelled strongly of racehorses.
“We arrived right before the most important race of the day. My dad was so excited. I was excited too, but only because of him, and I remember mom pretending to be supportive. She didn’t like horse races and liked gambling even less,” the young woman said, rubbing a tear off her cheek. A slight smile creased her lips with the memory. “I remember dad lifting me up onto his shoulders. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be looking at. I thought he was showing me the grandstand with all of the people, but when the whistle sounded and the announcer began shouting I saw the horses. The atmosphere at the racetrack was amazing, all that pent up tension released in one moment.
“I couldn’t understand the race, but the horses were beautiful. I could hear my parents shouting in joy, and their intensity made me smile all day. I remember that my dad was happy,” she said, her thoughts shifting back to the present moment, the dirty floor she was seated upon, and the ache in her heart that wouldn’t go away. She glanced down at the crumpled piece of paper in her hand and felt new tears welling. “Back then I thought my dad loved me. I thought things would be okay.”
Ralph Malone killed the engine on his tractor and rubbed beads of sweat from his forehead, peering at the barn in the distance. His back was aching and his entire body felt numb from the vibrations of the engine, mimicking the sensation he got after his legs fell asleep. The sun was oppressively hot and the air humid and he wished he’d listened to his gut and taken the day off. Now the only thing his gut was telling him was that he’d missed lunch and he was going to regret it. He was going to spend several days recovering from his work in the fields; not that he minded too terribly much: at sixty-four, everything took a long time to recover from.
But his own exhaustion wasn’t what caused him to stop the tractor. He squinted against the sunlight, shook his head, and scanned the farm for his wife. She was picking weeds in the garden. Ralph climbed off the tractor and walked over to her, tucking his gloves in his belt and adjusting his coveralls. The farm wasn’t quite as big as twenty years ago—they’d been forced to sell a dozen acres to the state for an interstate highway, and recently they sold off almost fifty acres to a land developer—but it was still large enough that he was out of breath when he reached his wife. Cora noticed him coming and stood up, pushing her straw hat farther back on her head and clapping the dirt off her fingers. “Finished mowing already?”
“You look like death warmed over. Maybe we should take a break,” Cora offered. Ralph smiled at the corners of his mouth but shook his head.
“No, I’m all right, I was just wondering about something.”
Cora cocked her head to the side the way she always did when waiting for Ralph to explain. “Well?” she asked.
“I was wondering who the crazy person is talking to Maribeth’s Dream in the barn.”
Cora’s face scrunched up for a moment and then laughed. She faced the barn and noticed the young woman sitting in front of the first stall. “Are you bothered she’s crazy or that she’s talking to your pregnant mare?” Cora asked. “That’s the girl I hired yesterday to help clean the barn and groom the animals. Bridget, I think her name is.”
“I’m bothered that she’s talking to our horses instead of taking care of them.”
“Oh let her be, Ralph. She’s had things rough.”
“She’s had things rough? I had to sell Maribeth’s last three foals just to keep the farm.”
“You mean we had to sell them to keep the farm, right? Those were my foals too.”
“You didn’t love them like I did. I would have preferred to sell our children.”
“Too bad no one was buying,” Cora said. “Let Bridget be. She spent all morning cleaning stalls.”
“Yeah, and now sore legs need wrapped, manes and tails needs brushed, and the equipment needs cleaned.”
“We haven’t cleaned the equipment in six years, Ralph.”
“We haven’t had help in six years either!” Ralph said. “I’m just saying there are things that need done more than a discussion with a pregnant mare.”
“Bridget is pregnant too. Maybe she thinks they are kindred spirits,” Cora offered.
“Does she know the horse won’t talk back?” Ralph asked.
“I think she’s counting on it.”
They continued watching the girl for a few more minutes and then Ralph felt the cellular phone in his pocket begin vibrating. He pulled it out and saw a message. His mirth was sobered almost instantly: it was a missed call from Jasper Pennington, the man they bought hay and grain off of. “Who is it?” Cora asked.
“Jasper,” Ralph said. “He’s supposed to bring a load of hay by tomorrow.”
“Already?” Cora asked.
“The horses need to eat.”
Cora sighed. “I suppose we won’t be eating for a few days then.”
“Not that you need to anyway,” Ralph added with a smirk.
“Oh, is that so, Mr. Pudge? When’s the last time you saw your toes?”
“I don’t need to see them to know they are still there,” Ralph said. “I’ll have to cut Jasper a check and ask him not to cash it until Friday.” He hesitated, turning back to the barn. “Has she ever worked with horses before?”
Cora didn’t respond except to look away.
“Cora…” Ralph said. “If she doesn’t know anything about horses, what help can she be? We don’t have enough time to teach her how to look after the animals.”
“And she’s pregnant; at least a few months along by the look of her. How much will she be able to do around here anyway? In her condition she won’t be much better at caring for the horses than we are?”
“I know,” Cora said.
“We can’t afford to hire anyone right now,” Ralph continued. Cora looked at the ground. “You know that.”
“I know, Ralph, I know. I just felt so bad for her when she showed up. She hasn’t said more than a dozen words. And Ralph…” Cora’s voice trailed off. He turned to her.
“She had bruises on her sides and arms.”
A long moment passed. “You think that’s what she’s hiding from?” Ralph asked. “Who did she say it was?”
“She wouldn’t talk about it, so I’m sure it was the same one that put the bun in her oven. I’d bet the farm on it.”
Ralph sighed. “We don’t have enough money for charity, Cora.”
Cora hesitated then nodded. “She’s waiting to hear from family. Since I brought her in I’ll tell her it won’t work.”
Ralph shook his head. “No, I’ll tell her. If there was any chance of making it work we would, but I don’t want to lead her on. We can’t pay her.”
When Ralph looked back at his wife she was back on the ground digging in the dirt. “You’re right,” Cora said, her voice emotionless. He knew Cora had a soft spot for women like Bridget. Cora’s mother was beaten regularly by her father and she’d rarely talked to either of them for the entire time she and Ralph were married. Ralph felt the same way, believing any man who used physical violence against his spouse deserved the worst punishment possible, in court or out. But, quite frankly, he wasn’t as young as he used to be. He doubted he could even defend Bridget if a young man came looking for her.
And besides, that wasn’t his job anyway. She was a young woman, barely out of her teenage years, and Ralph and his wife were in the glory years. They were comfortable in their slow and quiet existence, an existence that wouldn’t work for a girl Bridget’s age. She would get bored with the animals and leave; and even if she didn’t, she was going to have a child, and this would be a difficult place to try and raise one.
Of course, internally Ralph didn’t believe that reasoning one bit. He thought back to his own children: they were all grown up now and scattered along the East Coast. His oldest worked for a radio station in New York and rarely came to visit her parents, and he and Cora never had enough money to visit her. Things just cost too much there and it would take months or years to recover from a weekend trip. His middle child worked at a lumber mill only an hour from the family farm, but even he only came to visit sporadically. He liked his privacy and Ralph was willing to respect it. His youngest daughter was married and pregnant—not necessarily in that order—before graduating high school and now she lived in Florida with her husband and Ralph’s only three grandchildren. None of them needed his input anymore, which he took as a sign that he’d succeeded in raising them. Still, it did depress him a little when they only came to visit during major holidays.
A part of what made them so independent was their time spent growing up on this farm. None of them stuck to working with animals, choosing to do something else with their lives, but the farm still left an indelible mark on their lives. They had spent a lot of time training and grooming horses, learning how to push the animals to achieve great results in the races. They also learned how to care for the animals, maintain their health and happiness and ensure their well-being. It made them stronger, friendlier, and happier people just understanding what it meant to raise horses. Ralph was convinced that it was a great way to raise kids. It taught them everything they would need to know about life: victory, defeat, friendship, hard work, consistency, and responsibility. In an age of America where responsibility was the last thing corporations or politicians admitted even existed, it was good to teach young people that they are in fact responsible for certain things.
That being said, a farm was also a difficult place to raise children. He couldn’t even count the number of times he and Cora were terrified that one of their children was seriously injured. He remembered Brian, his middle child, training a two-year old when Brian was thirteen. He raced around the track at a fast pace, but the horse stumbled along the backstretch and sent Brian catapulting over the horse’s neck. Ralph had never been so terrified, sprinting around the track to find his son and fearing the worst. It was the kind of throw that broke men’s necks, so when he saw his son up and walking and unhurt he’d felt as if a weight was lifted off his chest. It was the most difficult thing Ralph ever did just letting his son climb on another horse to train after that.
Ralph paused at the entrance to the barn, hearing Bridget’s voice spilling out the open double-doors. It was thick with emotion, as if she’d been crying, and Ralph felt a pit grown in his stomach. He was determined to walk in, explain the situation in a concise manner and then offer to help her with money for a bus to whatever her next destination would be. But as he stood by the barn listening to the sadness and hopelessness in her voice, his conviction failed. “It says, ‘I am glad that you finally left Jared, but unfortunately your father and I can’t…’” Bridget’s voice trailed off, replaced by sobbing. Ralph let out a long sigh and Bridget turned to face him. She stood up quickly, rubbing her eyes. “I…I’m sorry,” she said, dusting her jeans off and sniveling. “I didn’t…”
Ralph shook his head. “It’s all right,” he said.
“I finished the stalls and I didn’t…I don’t know what else I should…I’m sorry.” Ralph didn’t reply, not sure what to say. He was thankful that Cora was never this emotional—except a short period of wild-eyed hysteria when her body entered menopause—so he didn’t really know how to console her. He just patted the air in front of him gently, hoping to calm her down. It worked on his horses, after all, so why shouldn’t it work on an emotional woman?
Bridget rubbed her nose, sniveling a little less, and then suddenly broke out crying again. Tears streamed down her cheeks and Ralph blinked. “You’re…going to…fire…me…aren’t you?” she asked, her words coming out in short bursts between snivels. “I don’t…even…know what…I’m supposed to…do here.” She hesitated. “And I don’t have anywhere else to go…” she added breathlessly, covering her face with her hands.
A long silence passed between them: Ralph was sixty-four years old, married and raised two daughters to adulthood, yet he was still uncomfortable around a crying woman. Luckily, he wasn’t the one that broke the silence: he watched as Maribeth’s Dream stuck her head over the stall door and bumped her nose against Bridget’s shoulder, knocking the young woman off balance to get attention. Bridget turned, lowering her hands from her face, and gently rubbed Maribeth’s neck, not crying as hard. “I’m sorry for...this. It’s okay,” she said finally, “if you are going to fire me. I’m not much help here anyway and I understand.”
Ralph shook his discomfort away and rubbed a hand through his thinning gray hair. He heard his stomach grumble and let out a long sigh. He was internally torn and running out of ideas, but that, at least, was one problem he could solve. “You’re probably hungry,” he said. “I know I am, and I can never think straight on an empty stomach.”
Ralph sat at the table chewing on a mouthful of his ham and cheese sandwich. Bridget was staring down at a similar sandwich but had only nibbled at the corner. They ate in silence, and Ralph was thankful that she had at least stopped crying. The food acted as a sort of buffer, giving Ralph the opportunity to think of something to say to try and console the young woman. The words she read from the note in the barn stuck with him, however, and made him feel sick to the stomach. Who would abandon their child when she needed them most? He couldn’t think of any situation that would warrant such a response from any parents, and he was hoping to think of something to tell her to make her feel better. Unfortunately, the silence hadn’t elicited a desired response yet, so he continued chewing on the bread softly.
“Feeling better?” Ralph asked. The words sounded hollow even to him, but he couldn’t think of anything else. Bridget nodded numbly.
“Yes, thank you.”
“It’s going to be hot the rest of the week,” he added. Great Ralph, next you should point out that the track is still going in a circle. That’ll help.
Bridget nodded again. They sat for another few minutes in silence, then: “I can’t stay here, can I?”
Ralph thought about how to answer. “Have you ever been to the races?”
“When I was younger my…my dad liked to gamble and he would take me along to the races. But not that often; he liked to be alone.”
“I’ve only bet on a few races in my entire life,” Ralph said, “and that was more to prove that I supported my horses than because I hoped to make money.”
“You’re against gambling?”
Ralph shook his head, smirking. “I couldn’t be against gambling and train horses, but the truth of the matter is that the bets don’t mean that much to me. The horses do.”
“They are beautiful.”
“Why did you choose Maribeth’s Dream to talk to?”
Bridget shrugged. “I don’t know. She let me pet her, I guess.”
Ralph nodded. “I’ve had her for almost thirteen years now, and she’s become a member of the family. When she was young, she had a lot of spirit and everything she did was to cause problems for me. She was impossible to catch as a baby and she would always push me into the wall and lean against me when I was in the stall with her.” Ralph paused. “When she was a yearling she got her back left leg caught in a fence and ripped the skin down to the bone. By the time we got her loose and the vet showed up it was already too late to repair most of the damage and we knew we’d be lucky if she was ever able to walk again.
“The veterinarian offered to put her down without charging, but I’d already become attached to her. She’d become a part of the family, and even though I knew she wouldn’t be able to race I was still hopeful that she’d be able to become a broodmare. But it was just wishful thinking. If her leg didn’t recover enough for her to be able to walk safely on it then she would never be able to give birth to any foals. At that point she would just be a burden on our farm and give us nothing in return.
“But I had hope for her, and hope in her,” Ralph continued. “I knew she wouldn’t let me down, and she hasn’t. Maribeth’s Dream recovered and learned how to walk on her crippled leg, and since then she’s given me a number of foals that have performed well in races all around the state. Two of her foals are racing now at Belmont Park each winning more than half of the races they are in.”
Ralph paused for a moment, looking out the window of the small kitchen. He wasn’t sure if he was talking to Bridget or himself, and he wasn’t sure if that mattered either. “We can’t pay you,” he said, “but you are welcome to stay with us for as long as you want or need. We’ve been thinking about hiring someone for a few years to work with the foals of our three broodmares. I haven’t been able to train anything for years now, so we’ve been selling the foals to make sure they see the race track. But it’s been too long since Cora or I saw Saratoga or Belmont with a good horse.”
“I don’t know how to ride,” Bridget offered.
“I’ll teach you, if you want to learn.”
“I’m pregnant,” Bridget reminded him.
“The foals won’t be ready to break for at least a year, and the training won’t start for two. That would give us plenty of time to teach you what you need to know,” Ralph said. He added, “That is, if you want to.”
“I don’t know,” Bridget said finally. “I don’t really know a lot about what I would have to do, and I don’t want to cause you and your wife trouble. You’ve already been so kind to me, and I don’t want to infringe—”
The door opened suddenly and Cora stuck her head inside. “Maribeth’s down. She’s in labor.”
Bridget followed them out of the house and to the barn in a rush, struggling to keep up; the excitement in the air was palpable. Beads of sweat ran down her neck and she brushed a few flies away, determined not to miss anything. Ralph hurried into the stall with his wife and they knelt down next to the mare. “We have to move her away from the wall so she has enough room,” Ralph said, moving to the hips of the large animal. Maribeth’s Dream didn’t struggle, and the look in her eyes seemed to be a mix of anticipation and fear, though not as much as Bridget would have expected. “We have to move fast. Hold her head and I’ll rotate her back end.”
Bridget watched as they strained to adjust the mare inside the cramped stall. The horse moaned softly, pushing its head against Cora as the woman knelt beside her. It was struggling to lift off the ground but both of its owners gently held her motionless. “What is it…what is Ralph doing?” Bridget asked softly.
“He is feeling to make sure the baby is in the right position and its head isn’t wrapped in the umbilical cord. Don’t worry; these two have done this dance together five times already.”
“Five…” Bridget mumbled, rubbing a hand across her stomach.
“Don’t worry, it won’t be as bad as you imagine,” she said.
“No, I’m lying,” Cora replied with a grin
Maribeth’s Dream moaned. “Hold her still,” Ralph said. “I’m going to start working the foal out.”
“Take it easy Ralph, she’ll be okay,” Cora said.
“I’m not worried,” Ralph said.
“Oh shut up. Of course you’re worried. But just relax. Remember, she gave birth this time of day last time.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ralph muttered.
“What’s wrong?” Bridget asked, kneeling beside Cora and touching the mare’s face.
“Most births happen at night, and it’s considered a bad sign—” she raised her voice as she said, “—to some people…Ralph…when births happen during the day.”
Ralph didn’t respond. They waited silently for a few minutes, then he said, “Okay, I think they baby is all right. He’s starting to come out.”
Cora glanced up at Bridget. “Normally, a horse giving birth is a spectator sport: the baby comes out easy enough and the umbilical cord breaks on its own. All we usually do is put iodine on the feet and ends of the cord to make sure there aren’t any infections. But the first time Maribeth’s Dream gave birth she had some…problems…and we almost lost her. Since then we’ve been careful to make sure things go smoothly.”
“So you don’t have to do this every time?”
“Nope, just for her,” Cora said, then lowering her voice she added, “Plus, this is Ralph’s little baby. He’d never let anything happen to her.”
Bridget watched as Ralph helped the baby slip out and onto the ground, hardly breathing. It was one of the most amazing things she’d ever seen. The foal came out slowly, front legs first with the head tucked in between. Ralph moved with care and precision, guiding the baby to freedom. Bridget wasn’t sure how long the birth took, but by the time they were finished the sun had already moved clear past the precipice and she guessed it was around three o’clock. “Can you hand me a towel?” Ralph asked, and Bridget jumped in response, moving through the barn for find a suitable cloth. “It’s okay girl, relax,” she heard Ralph say behind her, but whether he was talking to her or the horse she couldn’t be sure.
She returned a few moments later with a towel. Cora was still holding the struggling horse down as Ralph checked her over. He saw her approach and nodded toward the baby on the ground next to him. The baby was whinnying and gasping, but it wasn’t moving much at this point. “Clean him off, and I’ll take care of her,” Ralph said.
“Clean…clean him off?” Bridget echoed. Ralph smiled.
“Yeah, it’s a he,” Ralph said, misunderstanding.
“I won’t hurt him, will it? He looks so fragile.”
Cora laughed. “Believe me, if you try to hurt him, Maribeth’s Dream here will have something to say about it.”
Bridget knelt down and began gently wiping the foal off with the towel. “It’s feet look weird…is that normal?”
“All foals’ feet look like that when they are born. In a few hours they’ll look normal. That’s what we put the iodine on.”
Bridget gently rubbed him. “He isn’t breathing right, Ralph,” Cora said after a moment.
“What?” Bridget said, crawling away from the animal and looking scared. “I didn’t…”
“It’s fine,” Ralph said, coming over to the baby and kneeling. It was whinnying, but the sound seemed muffled and distant. “It just has mucus in its throat. Here, Bridget, I’ll hold his mouth open, and I need you to use your fingers to scoop whatever is clogging his throat out.”
Bridget didn’t reply except to crawl forward again and gently reach into the animal’s mouth. She could feel his tongue working over her hand and she struggled to push her own trepidation and revulsion away. She gently pulled the mucus out of the baby’s throat. It took a few moments but then she was satisfied that there was nothing left to block his lungs. “Okay,” she said, and Ralph let go. The baby began whinnying again, but this time it looked more energetic and the sound was stronger.
“Well done,” Ralph said, standing up and walking to the bathing stall across the barn.
Bridget sat next to the foal, gently wiping it clean as Ralph washed himself off. The action was calming, and it took her a long while to realize that she wasn’t thinking about her family or her life. All that she cared about for those moments was making sure the foal was okay. “That’s it?” she asked when Ralph returned.
“That’s it,” Ralph said. “Now Maribeth’s Dream will do most of the work to make sure the baby is healthy and grows well. We’ll call the veterinarian to give him his shots tomorrow and make sure he’s healthy, and sometime this week our other two mares should give birth too.”
The foal shifted its head to look at Bridget, whinnied, and then began moving its legs around to try and stand up. Bridget petted him gently, stood up, and walked over to Cora and Ralph near the entrance to the stall, watching the baby as it tried to stand for the first time. She was crying again, but this time it had nothing to do with her parents or the baby she was carrying. This time she was smiling. “So,” she said, wiping her hands off on her pants and glancing at Ralph and his wife, “what are we going to call him?”