Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Junebug



I once lived on a farm.

Terrified of horses, I’d never spent much time in their company. But soon I found myself racing home after work to walk along the stalls, giving treats to the many horses who boarded there. The stout, strong Arabians flicked their tails in greeting, while the paints whinnied at my approach. And then there was Tot.

Tot, a horse of questionable breed, stomped and neighed the loudest when I entered the barn and was quick to flash his teeth when I asked him to smile. I learned from Tot that horses are really just big dogs, who love getting hugs, and will often hug back, digging their noses in your shoulder with pleasure when you rub their flanks and sweet-talk them.

Reed, the migrant farmhand, lived in the half-abandoned old house next door. Baby owls nested in the eaves of that old house. I often wondered over to check on them and to while away some time talking with Reed. He worked on the horses, cleaning their hooves, feeding them and tending to their minor ailments.

Reed knew Oregon, having lived there for a time, working in the orchards. We often reminisced about the state’s natural beauty and the warm and open friendliness of the laid-back people who live there. And he told me colorful stories of warming up the cool Oregon night air with smudge pots, and sleeping under cherry trees at night-time. He also told me that he’d move on eventually. And one day he just disappeared. The farmhands’ way of giving notice.

And then there was June. The old farmer who owned the land lived next door with his wife, a lovely mature Kentucky belle. I would often talk to June when I was working outside in my little garden. Her language mystified me with its strange cadences and odd pronunciations.

“I love them flares.” Flares? “Them flares you planted. I jist luv ‘em.” Oh, yes. Flowers.

And there was an old, old white pony that had a large outdoor pen by itself and its own beautiful stall. A hand-tooled saddle worth a fortune hung on the wall but was never used. I could never understand why they spoiled that horse so. Until one day the farmhand told me. The pony was a long-ago gift from a young man to his beautiful bride and was also her namesake. Junebug.

The next time I bumped into June I called out to her, “Heyyyy, Junebug.” And she blushed. Blushed, remembering a love that was kick-started by a bucking pony and a brash young man who loved her so.

Sometimes we’d wake in the middle of the night to bright lights and commotion. A horse had taken ill. An unexpected injury turned into infection. Those nights were tense and we moved quietly around the workers the next morning, trying to stay out of their way as we got ready for work.

And it was one of the happiest times of my life. The saddest too, because it marked the beginning of the end of an important relationship. But I wasn’t happy. The only thing I’ve ever wanted is to live my life honestly and without pretense. I was living a lie. In a funny way, Junebug made me see it.

Seeing that pony quietly chewing on grass. Watching June trip gracefully up the steps to her little home. Joyful. I knew I wouldn’t be spending my twilight years with him. And I knew it just wasn’t fair to go on letting him think he owned my heart. My heart that wanted to be free like a white pony’s spirit. That wanted to be spoiled with the love of a good man.

It was sad saying goodbye to the horses. Walking through the barn one last time. Sadder still was my dog, who always worried when she saw packed bags, knowing it meant we were leaving. She kept nosing her way into the boxes, picking up odd items of clothing and running away with them. Telling me to stay. That’s what broke us down, finally. Weeks of being overly polite worn away by a dog’s fear of the unknown. She marked our fear of the unknown, too.

We cried a lot that last night together.

And in the years since, his continued devotion still makes me sad. No one can take away our time together, I told him. And it’s true. We’re happy now, living separate lives but still bound together by a mutual respect borne from a relationship based on fidelity, honesty and trust. And just like I knew he would, when I called he offered to move me across the country. Friendship. It’s not so bad.

And sometimes, I get to remembering. I remember the nights when the train tracks thundered in the distance. When the sky opened up for a meteor shower. And the flares gave off a scent that was heady, as I rubbed my dog’s head and sat on the porch swing.