“Dad,” I call out, looking up from saddling Paddy, his prized two-year-old colt. “Will you come over and check this knot to make sure it’s right?”
After a long day working in Southeastern Ohio’s sunny, and hot hay fields, I spontaneously decided to take one of Dad’s horses out for a short ride. The sweet, earthy smell of fresh mown Timothy grass and white clover fills the early evening air. On this calm, quiet evening, I want to relax and take in the country’s peaceful beauty. I figure I’ll go down our farm’s long lane to the county road and back. I picked Paddy, my favorite.
It’s summer break at the end of my junior year in college, and I’m working on the family farm helping Dad make hay. About a hundred 70-pound square bales sit on the wagon in front of the barn, waiting to get stacked inside. To the barn’s right, fresh-cut hay rows lie up and down the bright, emerald green hills, drying out for baling tomorrow. My little red Farmall H tractor and rake sit on the hill next to Dad’s big Massey and baler. Luckily, the forecast is clear, so no rain should come and ruin our second cutting crop.
But really, if I’m honest, I think I’m on the farm trying to make sense of my life and figure out my future. Sometimes I feel like a downed jet, spiraling out of control and headed for disaster. I’ve changed my major twice, broken off an engagement to be married, and I’m drinking way too much. I’m hoping the hard work, animals, and nature will help calm me down, understand myself better, and find some direction.
Paddy’s a flashy, dark sorrel two-year colt with four white socks and a big white blaze that travels down his head. Even though Paddy is still young, he’s medium height and already has a stocky Quarter Horse build. Once he’s full-grown at around four or five-years-old, he’ll be a spectacular, athletic beauty.
Also, Paddy’s only green broke, meaning he’s had a saddle on his back, and he’s been ridden a few times by a trainer, but he doesn’t have a lot of experience with a regular rider. Dad says he needs “miles” put on him, which means to be taken out frequently for short, casual rides. It’s a little risky, but since I first saw him, I couldn’t wait to saddle him up and go for a ride.
I take the reins laid out across the saddle and guide Paddy’s head to rest on my right shoulder. At the same time, I take a deep breath and let the sweet scent of horse sink down inside me. It’s a smell like accidentally running into a best friend from your youth that you never forgot. I gently force Paddy to open his mouth and accept the bit. Paddy rolls the bit around with his tongue, making a slapping sound and peculiar faces at the taste of hard metal.
Dad calls this a “friendly” bit because it’s short, small, and sweet, unlike the big harsh bits for cranky, older horses. After a moment, I carefully loop the reins around the colts’ tipped forward ears, then tug on the long leather lead straps making sure they are even and secure.
Dad pops out from the barn, looks at me, and smiles. Dad likes it when I take an interest in his horses. I cock my head back, chin up, in an easy salutation and give him a quick smile back.
“Hold on,” he says. “ I’ll be right there.”
Over in the paddock to the barn’s left, horses graze peacefully with their heads down in the grass. They swish their long tails back and forth, batting off flies. These are Dad’s horses, foundation American Quarter Horses. The name is because no other breed can outrun them in a flat-out, go-for-broke, quarter-mile sprint. Dad’s horses are also cutting horses, meaning they herd and work cattle.
For as long as I can remember, I grew up hearing the names of foundation cutting Quarter Horse champion lines like Leo, King, Doc Bar, Little Peppy, and all the old greats. Dad also knows all about the current cutting horse winners. He’s not a big reader, but many nights he feverishly studies the monthly Cutting Horse Chatter magazine. He memorizes pedigrees, ages, owners, trainers, and the shows and purses the horses have won. Sometimes I tease Dad, saying he has horse fever. This is a disease I made up that’s an obsession for horses, and it makes people somehow tie everything in life back to horses.
Dad is inching towards 50, and each time I see him lately, he looks a little older. He’s a slim, handsome guy, with light brown hair on his gradually balding head. I see certain lines now around his piercing blue eyes I never noticed before. Dad wears a well-worn white t-shirt and soft blue jeans, usually with a few holes on hay days. And he walks with a slight limp and sometimes bandages his right leg above the knee because of “the accident” – a car wreck that happened before I was born.
I always want to know more about “the accident.” Once, as a young girl, I scavenged through my grandmother’s closet, looking for dresses, shoes, and purses to play dress-up. Hidden in the back corner, I found a trove of old photo albums and newspaper clippings in a dilapidated brown cardboard box.
In one of those albums, I found Dad and another child the same age. It was astonishing how the two little boys looked utterly alike. They were sitting on tricycles and all bundled up in matching coats, scarves, and mittens. At the bottom of each picture, in my grandmother’s writing, it reads, “Tom and Phil.” Phil is my father, but I didn’t know Tom.
Later, I asked my grandmother to tell me about the pictures and the little boys. But she closed her eyes, hung her head low, and said a quiet and soft “No.” Then I went to Dad for more information, but he just looked off into the distance and quickly changed the subject. I asked Dad again another time, but he pretended not to hear me and didn’t say a word.
A short time later, Mom and I were driving alone together in the car, and I told her about the pictures I found in Grandmother’s closet. I said that there was a little boy named Tom in those pictures next to Dad and that they look exactly the same.
I asked her, “Who’s Tom?”
Fumbling a little at the wheel, Mom reached onto the dashboard for her pack of cigarettes.
“Okay,” Mom said. “I’ll tell you.”
Mom took one long white Salem cigarette from the pack and put it to her mouth. Then she put the pack back and reached for the lighter.
“Your dad is an identical twin,” Mom said. “His brother’s name was Tom. There was a big car wreck, and your father’s brother died.”
Then, one-handed, while still looking at the road, she lit the cigarette and took a big, long drag, blowing smoke out of a small crack in the window. She placed the lighter back on the dash.
“They were eighteen years old and traveling back to college from a weekend at home,” Mom said. “It happened in the winter. It was late at night, and the roads were icy.”
She took another long drag, blew out the smoke, and said, “They were taking a blind curve, and another car came at them in their lane. It was a head-on two-car collision. Apparently, the other car skidded out of control, and both cars were a mangled mess.”
Mom settled around in her seat as if to get more comfortable and went on, “This all happened before I met your Dad. I don’t know all the details. No one talks about it, and I don’t ask questions.”
Mom took another drag and, blowing the smoke out again, said, “Your Dad was banged up badly. The impact and metal crushed his right leg, among other serious injuries. He got steel rods and pins put in to try to save his leg.
“Some said your Dad might never walk again, but he did manage to walk after months of therapy,” said Mom, still looking straight ahead, billowing cigarette in hand. “But he still has a limp because one leg is shorter than the other. That never went away.”
Finishing up the cigarette and smashing the butt into the ashtray, Mom said, “Not many people know this, but Tom died a long, painful death while waiting for help. And on that night, the two brothers fought over who would ride shot-gun. Tom won the argument.”
Dad limps over to Paddy and me. He checks the cinch and tightens it up a few more notches. He looks at the bit and reins and is satisfied that I picked the right ones and put them on correctly. Then, Dad playfully tugs at Paddy’s mane, smoothening out the long, dark red hair along his neck, and gives him a quick, friendly pat. “Looks good,” he says, smiling at me again.
Tonight, Dad is drinking beer like he always does after a long day of hard work on the farm. But really, Dad drinks beer almost every night, no matter the occasion. Beer drinking is a big part of life in the German-descent culture of Southeastern Ohio. Lots of people even keep home-brewed kegs in their basements. It seems like around where we live, there’s always a reason to drink.
I like and love Dad, but I hate him at the same time. His drinking has cost him jobs, there have been constant battles at home with Mom, and we have moved so many times I lost count. Dad has even made himself sick for days from alcohol poisoning. All this makes no sense to me. I’ve often thought if I could just understand why he drinks so much, then maybe I would feel better. I sometimes wonder if it’s because of Tom and “the accident.”
I wish I could talk to Dad while walking in some quiet field near dusk, our arms loosely entwined, counting cows, and me asking, “What’s it like to be an identical twin? Were you best friends? How were you the same? How were you different?” But because I’m not allowed to talk about Tom, my questions stopped.
Dad holds Paddy’s head at the reins and stands firmly in place. I put my left foot in the stirrup, heave up and throw myself over the colt. I put my right foot in the other stirrup and move around on the saddle – both to get the colt used to someone sitting on him and even out the saddle—the soft, worn leather creaks and heaves beneath me.
“Don’t go too fast,” he says, looking up at me.
“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll be fine,” I say, rolling my eyes a little.
Paddy and I turn around and step away from Dad, heading in the opposite direction. Paddy is stiff in his neck because he’s not used to reins. I can feel he’s tense and uncomfortable, so I loosen the long leather straps to release any pressure from the bit in his mouth. I stay soft and flexible and don’t press his sides with my legs or kick him lightly to get him moving faster. I want Paddy to know that he’s safe and doesn’t need to worry.
It’s a gentle, peaceful ride to the front gate and county road. The sun is setting over the patchwork hilly horizon. Bats are out and fly overhead, diving at mosquitos. Crickets start singing as the temperature gets cooler. I think about all the schools I’ve attended and the different places we’ve lived. I recall my college classes and the professors who encourage my writing. I remember getting engaged for a short time but then calling it all off because I could see that getting married was not a solution to my problems. I think about the panic attacks I get in tight spaces, especially in heavy traffic.
We’ve just put down new gravel on our lane, and the rocks are hard on Paddy’s tender, young feet since he’s not wearing shoes. He stumbles along, but I don’t force him to go faster. I only want him to step slow and easy, getting used to a rider. As we approach the front gate, he tugs and pulls at the reins a few more times and fiddles with the bit in his mouth. But mostly, Paddy is quiet and relaxed. Once we arrive at the front gate, I gently pull down on one rein to turn Paddy around. A slight breeze rustles the tree leaves, and tall blades of uncut grass sway in the wind.
Just then, Paddy spooks.
Paddy probably catches something moving out of the corner of his eye or hears an odd sound, and it scares him. He starts to shy and then pricks his ears, moving them quickly back and forth. It’s not unusual for a green broke colt to be fearful of something unfamiliar, but I’m no trainer, and I’m not sure what to do next. I try to calm Paddy down and say, “Whoa Paddy, whoa Paddy, whoa,” in a sing-song, soothing voice. My soft words don’t help. Then, I try whistling gently as a distraction like Dad taught me. That doesn’t help either.
Paddy starts moving forward, to the side, and back quickly, like he’s dancing around. He looks longingly down the lane towards the barn and the safety of the herd. I draw up hard on the reins to remind him I’m in charge, but he gets even more nervous and starts to whinny in short little spurts. So, I try to drag Paddy’s head away in the opposite direction to break his concentration, but it’s no use. I can’t move him because he’s too strong.
Right at that moment, Paddy makes a decision. He pushes down hard on the reins and, in one great leap, barrels down the lane. I heave up mightily on the reins to make Paddy stop, but he’s clamped down on the bit with his teeth, and I’ve lost all control. When I look down, the gravel road is a blur, and I can vaguely make out the little watery ditch flying quickly beside us. To the side, we are steaming past green and brown clumps of what I take to be bushes and trees.
I think, maybe I should bail off, but then I think, he’s going too fast. I know that if I fall off Paddy at this speed, I will probably get broken bones at best and a brain injury at worse. My whole body is tense with fear and dread that I’m going to fall. So, I do the only thing I can do. I crouch down low, holding on tight to the saddle horn with one hand and Paddy’s flying mane with the other, and close my eyes.
One night, when I was a teenager, Mom was alone washing dishes at the kitchen sink. Since no one was around, I snuck up from behind and asked her to tell me more about Tom. Mom stopped and looked at me, with a wet plate in one hand and a scrubby in the other. She hunched her shoulders in tired, quiet desperation and said, “Why don’t you just leave this alone?” But I just stood there, looking into her eyes, and wouldn’t go away.
Finally, a few seconds later, Mom cocked her head back as if straining to remember something and said, “Your father once told me that if I had known Tom, I would have picked him to marry over your dad.” She quickly added, “Of course, I said to him, ‘That’s ridiculous.’” Then she went back to scrubbing the dishes. I stayed put, not moving, and let that settle into me for a while.
Mom went on, still scrubbing dishes, and said, “The day your father came back home from his stay recovering in the hospital, your grandmother came running out of the house to greet him. He was still on crutches, and as he hobbled towards her, she cried out in hysterics, “Tom! Tom! Your alive!”
Then Mom stopped, looked off into the distance, and said, “Your dad told me that then he knew for sure what he suspected all along: that Tom was the preferred twin, and everyone secretly thought the wrong son died.”
At that, I felt an intense and strangely empty wind rush through me. My stomach felt oddly heavy like I had eaten a bag of stones. It was deep grief and sadness for Dad. I wanted to dash out to find him and comfort him, saying, “Dad, that’s not true! You’re all wrong. The right son lived; otherwise, it would have simply happened in reverse. And also, without “the accident,” you would probably not have met Mom, and I would not have been born.”
Mom looked at me and said, “I’ve told your father many times the same thing I’m telling you now: stop thinking and worrying about Tom and “the accident.” It’s not productive, and there is nothing to be done. Just move on.” Mom turned her back to me, moved a few steps away to rinse off the dishes, and the conversation ended.
Right then, in some strange sense of loyalty and devotion to Dad, I was furious at Mom for being so callous towards Dad about Tom and “the accident.” How could anyone “just move on” from such a traumatic event? And I was angry at Grandmother for treating Dad so poorly when he finally got back home from the hospital. I was even upset with Tom for leaving Dad to fend for himself in this crazy, messed-up world. And finally, where was God on that early February winter night? I guessed he was off-duty or on break, as is so often the case in these situations. It took me a long time to calm my rage over Dad’s misery and pain.
The sprint back to the barn is short, but it seems like an eternity. Paddy gets back to the barn and stops hard near the horses’ far gate. He’s hot, sweaty, prancing, and neighing while trying to figure out how to get back with the herd.
I straighten up a little in the saddle, slide off Paddy, take a few steps, and then collapse to the ground into a puddle. I’m exhausted from the hell ride, and all I want to do is curl up and go to sleep. I faintly hear Dad running over from the barn to meet me.
He crouches down beside me and says, “Jen! Jen! Are you alright?”
I nod my head slightly and speak in an exhausted, weak voice, “Yeah, Dad. I’m okay.”
Dad jumps up from my side and runs a few feet over to Paddy. He grabs the loose reins that are draped off the horse’s head, the tips hanging to the ground. Dad drags Paddy towards him and starts angrily yelling, “You-son-of-a-bitch! You son-of-a-bitch! I’ll make you pay!” Then he pulls Paddy to a fence line where he ties the colt up. He loosens the saddle and quickly pushes it off to the side on the ground.
Dad runs back into the barn, finds a long buggy whip, runs back out, and starts whipping Paddy with ruthless abandon. He’s screaming, “You-son-of-a-bitch! You-son-of-a-bitch! I’ll make you pay!” over and over.
After a minute or two, I can’t stand it any longer. I fear for Paddy, so I stagger up and stumble over to Dad and the horse. “Dad, please stop,” I say as loud as I can. “He’s just a dumb colt. He got spooked. That’s all. He didn’t mean it. Let him go.”
Dad turns and looks at me, and I almost don’t recognize him. His eyes are glistening cobalt full of rage and fury. Dad is all keyed up and can barely get out the words, “A horse like this ran off with Tom one day and almost killed him!”
My jaw slackens, and my mouth pops open. I look at Dad in shock and disbelief. My father never brings up Tom. It’s hard to register that he’s just said his dead brother’s name. Dad quickly turns his back and keeps whipping the horse. Paddy crouches up against the fence, trying desperately to get away from Dad and the whip. “Dad, stop. He’s just a dumb colt,” I say again, but it seems like he can’t hear me, and he beats the horse harder.
Then I scream, “Stop, now!” I try to push Dad over to the side and wrestle the whip out of his hand, but he’s much stronger than me. There is no way I can make Dad stop. So I decide to go up to the house to get away from this heartbreaking scene, rest, and lie low.
A few hours later, I look through a house window, and the sun has disappeared from the sky. I see Paddy standing alone under the bright barn safety light. His head is low, and he leans on his haunches like he’s exhausted. Dad is nowhere in sight. I dash out from the house over to Paddy and try to untie him, but I can’t. The straps are fastened too tight around the board from the horse pulling hard to get loose. I grab the reins and push them off Paddy’s head. He leans back and stumbles to the ground. Startled by this freedom, the colt quickly scrambles up and runs off towards the herd.
Dad hears me, sticks his head out the barn door, and he sees that I’ve let Paddy go. He storms out of the barn towards me, looking at me with wild, frenzied, burning blue eyes, each hand in a fist. Dad seems like a stranger, and he scares me. I tremble and start to slowly back up, moving away from him towards the house. Then, Dad suddenly turns around and goes back into the barn, where he stays all night, probably drinking.
Early the next morning, I go down from the house to check on Paddy. Somehow, he’s managed to jump a fence, and he’s peacefully grazing with the herd. I walk up to the fence where Paddy was tied the night before and try to loosen the reins to put them away. I don’t want any reminders of the frightening night before. I try hard, but there is no way I can untie the reins. It’s like they are cemented to the wooden boards. So I leave the reins there and go back to the house, hoping to loosen them later.
In a few hours, Dad stumbles into the house. His eyes are bloodshot, his hair is a mess, and his clothes are dirty. I’m pretty sure Dad spent the night in the barn, but I don’t ask questions. I offer Dad a fresh, hot cup of coffee. He takes the coffee, and we sit down at the kitchen table. Dad gives out a big, long sigh. He seems tired and worn out. I wonder what he’s thinking. But as usual, he acts like nothing happened the night before. Dad stares blankly out the kitchen window at the clear blue sky and says,
“Looks like a good day for hay.”
“The forecast says it’s clear,” he adds.
“That’s what I heard.”
“Well, then, let’s go,” he says, getting up slowly from the table and limping towards the door. I quickly stand up behind Dad, grab my pack of smokes and unfinished cup of coffee, and tiptoe behind him into the new day.
Years later, even after Dad dies, no one has been able to loosen those reins. And as far as I know, they are still there, tied to that fence.