The signs out on the county road and on the side of his barn say Pony Rides, but they’re not really ponies. What you have here are donkeys. Most of the kids don’t know the difference. The grown-ups don’t care, so long as the kids are happy. So he can stand on the porch overlooking the barnyard, watching the sun glint off his old windmill, knowing the distinction is pertinent only to God. He is a man without pride, in the midst of humble beasts.
Today he feels tired and sore, like the hot shower wasn’t enough to wake him up and warm his bones. The mug of coffee he grips in both hands is warming them, but as he drinks it in loud slurps, the rest of him aches for the sun to get up and get busy. The damned thing is dawdling in the tops of the cottonwoods, no help at all to a man with things to do.
In the kitchen, he rinses his cup and sets it in the sink. He takes the teaspoon from the counter near the coffeemaker and drops it in the cup, so that it won’t slide down into the disposal and get beat all to hell. These little things matter now. His wife ordered their silverware years ago, from a catalog. Now that she is gone and he is old, he means the set to last the rest of his life. He will buy no more spoons or dishes, towels, sheets, doormats, wallpaper. He is finished with the replacement of things that have any hope of lasting; he buys nothing for the sake of something new.
The radio on the shelf above his spice rack – salt and pepper, basil and thyme – says the day will be sunny with wind soft from the east. The radio was hers as well, redeemed from the Green Stamp Store, years and years ago. It’s held up better than any of their cars. Some things do.
Out in the barn he follows his shadow as it falls ahead of him — cast by sunrise slanting through the big doors — down between the stalls where a dozen animals are awake and waiting. They’re hungry and he feeds them. He always wonders why they are happy with the same food every day. They’re happy to see him too, as he speaks to them, calls each one by name, and rubs their ears as they bend to eat.
In the last two stalls are Sweetpea and Louie, a mare and her colt. Sweetpea has carried the children for years, turning in her circle slow and patient, with love for her burden. Laughter settles on her back like sunlight. But at night she dreams of a field. The grass is green and the man is not there.
He needs to train Louie to walk in a circle steady and calm, to carry children carefully. These animals are bred for the work, but no one has ridden this colt yet. Louie is the only thing new on his place, the one concession to legacy and the years that roll on beyond the trees that border his land.
He opens the gates to the paddock and corral, and lets the animals out of the barn to play in the sun and drink from their trough. He mucks their stalls, spreads fresh hay, and takes the long training lead out to tether the colt to the center pole.
“You and this pole might as well get acquainted now as later. Don’t let it spook you, boy. Soon enough, it’s like the whole world turns in this barnyard. But it’s not a bad life, I think.”
He fills again the cup he left waiting in the sink. He stands drinking his coffee, with cream and sugar, watching Louie test the limits of the rope. Then two men come walking through the gate and up the path from the road. He sets the cup on the porch rail and hurries down from the house, as they enter the corral and untie Louie from the post.
“Hey now, what do you men suppose you’re doing with my donkey there?”
They look up at him. The sun is fully in the barnyard now and one man says, “The Lord has need of him.”
Soon the sun is full and bright, and the man and his animals are warm in the spring air. Sweetpea takes some consolation in his petting of her long ears and stroking of her neck.
“He’ll be back,” he tells her, and the old windmill shudders and turns in the breeze that was promised.
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Pony Rides by Kyle Kimberlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.