It is almost funny to see Marcus struggling with not asking whom I am texting all the time. I told him I cannot stand his jealousy and he is trying not to be anymore. But he is gloriously failing. I catch him reading my texts to Jacob on my phone one evening and we have our first major row since the near-breakup. After that, Marcus is absent more frequently and for increasingly longer times. Stress at work, he says. I know from a friend of ours that this is not true. He is playing poker and drinking.
There was nothing conspicuous in our texts, Jacob and I mostly speak about the course of our days and his progress in gardening. Sometimes we talk on the phone, something I enjoy particularly because I love listening to his voice. With time I start to suspect that what he prefers fluctuates with how he is feeling physically. When his leg or arm bothers him, when he is in any sort of pain, he prefers the safety of written letters that tell nothing about his actual state and yet so much. When he is well he rather likes to speak to me directly. Once I called him after I lost patience watching the cursor blink for increasingly longer times, indicating he is writing, to receive short and fragmented text messages that only nourished my worry. He answered after an endless long time when I had nearly given up, his speech slow and elaborate, meandering through topics like a stray animal and I realized that he also does not call me when he is struggling on completely other levels. It makes me wonder again, about the details of his disability, and about the future.
While Marcus is gone sulking I try not to think too much about Jacob, how his body had radiated heat close to mine, how his spastic hand had felt on my shoulder… I am not falling for him. No, I love Marcus.
For all its worth, Jacob has stopped texting lately. I know it is not my business and he is not obligated to text me, but I am starting to get really worried. Two weeks after our memorable evening at the cafe, I wake up to the surprise of finding multiple texts from Jacob. I crawl out of bed, careful not to disturb Marcus who has come home late last night and is still asleep. I have to rub my eyes before I believe them.
-- Night shifts suck. --
-- My house is full of plants and soil. Want to help me prevent it from developing into a jungle? --
-- Honestly, I fear tomorrow I will be woken by a gorilla. Or a boa constrictor, trying to squeeze juice from me. --
-- Sunday for coffee at my place and afterwards playing Tarzan and Jane? --
-- Ok, I should NOT have sent that. It sounds terrible. I’m so sorry! Just forget you read that? --
-- But seriously, you have time? --
I grin despite just having woken up. I want to write a quick answer when I remember with a pang that I have another obligation this Sunday.
-- Sunday maybe in the afternoon? What about Saturday? --
I settle for a long wait for the next text because he is probably asleep after the night shift but when I sit at breakfast, trying to keep my eyes open over tea and toast, my phone chimes. I am wide awake at once. At least… more awake than before.
-- Sorry, Saturday is blocked. Later on Sunday is fine. Whenever you have time --
He sounds kind of desperate and I feel like l I have to explain some more.
-- I have an appointment with the farrier on Sunday. --
There are a few minutes of nothing, then several messages at once.
-- ??? --
-- I think I missed something here... YOU have an appointment... --
-- What? --
I stare at the texts, then laugh. I am really useless in the mornings.
-- Not for ME, obviously, stupid ;-) For my horse. Chardonnay. --
-- Right. The horse farm. --
I blow in my tea and type an idea that has just occurred to me.
-- Do you want to come and meet her? We can go to your jungle afterward. It should not take too long at the farm. --
I did not really think this through. Jacob obviously did not like the ranch last time he had been there. I just want to see him so badly.
-- I swear, no equine therapy involved. -- I add as an afterthought.
Jacob’s answer arrives within seconds.
-- Sure. I can help you with stuff. --
I take a sip from the still scalding hot tea.
-- I could definitely use a hand, yes. --
I stare in horror at what I have just sent and I want to bang my head against the next wall. This is truly the worst thing I ever texted to anyone. I am still searching my morning-drugged mind for an apology when Jacob answers.
-- Great. When is the appointment? --
The cold morning wind bites at my hands and cheeks and my leg muscles scream at me from exertion when I battle my way to the stable on my rusty bike on Sunday. The ranch is lying calm in the morning sun between vast fields but I know that this is probably because everyone got up way earlier and is already out at work somewhere.
Jacob's black jeep in the otherwise empty parking lot catches my eye as I pedal into the driveway. I am surprised he is already there. The farrier will not be here before at least an hour.
The bike squeaks and squeals when I rumble with high-speed down the bumpy trail towards the building for the privately owned horses. It is quite some distance from the rest of the ranch and the official parking spaces and I wonder how Jacob made it by foot. He could have driven, at least his car should be up to it in contrast to those we sometimes use to pull the horse transporters. But maybe he did not want to be rude and drive over private land without permission. Or he managed walking quite well. I have to admit, I know nothing about his capabilities.
His lanky figure catches my eye from afar. He is sitting on the bench in front of the stable, his eyes closed and head turned towards the sun. He wears jeans and his black jacket. His right hand is loosely curled around the walking stick's handle between his knees. His left underarm is resting across his stomach. When I draw nearer I am glad to see he seems relaxed, the lines of pain smoothed out on his face. He sits up and turns towards me as soon as he perceives me on my noisy bike.
"Hey," he breathes when I quickly lean the bike against the side of the bench and sit next to him.
"Hey. How are you?" Such a meaningless question oftentimes, I am putting everything inside that is on my mind. How is your leg? How did you manage the walk down here? Did you think of me as often as I did?
"Good, thanks. What about you?"
I shrug. "Hm… You are early." I wince. It was not supposed to sound accusatory.
He shifts. "Yes, I could not sleep and when I was awake already I thought I could come here and... well, I forgot to ask about the technical details. Parking and stuff."
I blush. I should have thought of that. "You could have parked here. I'm sorry I did not think of-"
Jacob touches my knee lightly with his fingertips, giving brief reassurance. "Everything is fine. Don't worry."
I clear my throat and jump to my feet. "Let's start, won’t we?” I walk towards the huge stable door and pull at the rusty lever in an attempt to unlock it. It’s stuck, like always and I have to hang on it with my entire body until it finally snaps to one side.
“That one seems to be in need of oiling,” Jacob jokes as he pushes himself off the bench.
I push open the huge stable door, it gives way only reluctantly, groaning and screeching as the opening widens. “There is oil for that purpose, somewhere…” I say, grinning helplessly.
Excited nicker greets us when we enter the stable. I breathe in the dusty air, scented with fresh hay and leather. Jacob’s cane bumps loudly on the concrete floor behind me.
“Keep away from this one. He is the devil.” I point at the first box stall we pass and as I do, a huge mass advances and the whole stable rings with the impact as the horse collides with the stall door.
Jacob stumbles slightly when he attempts to step back in haste, his left foot scraping the uneven floor. He catches himself quickly, though, wide eyes staring at the stall door. I inwardly curse myself; scaring him had not been my intention.
“Uh… next comes Bella.” We pass the fat pony who only lifts her head briefly before returning her attention to the hay again.
“And this is Chardonnay.” Soft nickering from the box stall can be heard as I speak.
“This is yours?” Jacob squints into the dark void behind me. He is keeping some space between him and the stalls now, I notice, and his voice is a little wary. Great start, Cait.
I open the stall door a crack and stick my hand through to let Chardonnay smell at it. She prods me expectantly.
“She is huge and hairy. Much like an oversized teddy-bear.”
I open the door a little more, keeping an eye on Jacob while I do. He remains in the background but I hear him chuckle a little nervously when Chardonnay comes into sight. “She is not what I had pictured by the name.”
I look at my horse, playing the offended. I know that the name does not fit the black cold blood horse of unknown mixed breed that could be rather pulling a cart of beer than being associated with champagne.
“But… she is nice,” Jacob scrambles to make up for his reaction.
“She is great.” I pull an apple out of my backpack, gripping it until she has taken a bite and it is less likely to get stuck in her airways by accident. Happily she munches away on it, dripping apple juice all over my hand as she searches for more. She knows there is more.
“Do you want to give her an apple, too? So you get to know each other.”
Jacob scrutinizes Chardonnay for a moment and then shrugs, feigning calmness. “Sure.”
I squash the next apple with my boot on the ground. “Just… make a flat hand like that.” I demonstrate with one of the pieces I picked up from the ground. Chardonnay takes it from me and gulps it down in seconds. “She won’t bite.”
Jacob moves a little closer, shifting his weight to his right leg before offering me his cane to hold before he takes the other half of the apple from me. I have to suppress a grin when he stretches his arm as long as he can to give the apple pieces without having to get much closer to the animal. Chardonnay huffs a little through her huge nostrils as she searches for the glorious scent, making Jacob’s fingers twitch and stretches her neck to gently take the apple from Jacob. I am very proud of both of them at this moment.
Jacob grins wide and scratches the back of his neck. “Cool.”
I return the smile and offer him his cane. The wood feels nicely smooth and cold under my fingers.
“I’m going to take her outside. We need to clean her a little for the farrier, I’m afraid.” I take the headcollar from a nail on the wall on the other side of the stable. Chardonnay knows what to expect and already presents her head to put it through. Then I open the stall door fully, making sure Jacob has stepped back enough to let us through before I tuck a finger into the headcollar to signal we are going. It is not exactly necessary to lead her, on quiet days like this I let her walk outside on her own. She knows the way and if there is no food lying around to distract her she makes it without me. But today we are doing the whole program, for Jacob’s sake.
“Fuck, she is really huge.” Jacob seems genuinely surprised and definitely awed now that he sees her outside in the daylight. “How do you get onto her back? Don’t mind me saying that but you are not exactly tall.”
I chuckle while I tether Chardonnay to the fence across the stable doors.
“I take the bench.” I nod over to where Jacob has sat before. “It’s more comfortable for both of us. But I am perfectly capable of climbing up on my own, theoretically, it requires some artistry from my side though.”
I pull over my box of horse cleaning equipment and choose a brush to remove all the dust, dirt and lose fur that accumulates on my horse overnight like she is a big magnet to it.
“Can I help with something?”
I stop and turn to Jacob. “Yeah… uh…” I am still not sure what he is capable of. “You could brush her… maybe? That would be great. She is losing her winter coat these days. It really is a nuisance, I’m sorry.”
Jacob leans the cane against the fence and extricates himself from his jacket, coaxing his left arm to straighten more before he pulls the sleeve over it. Underneath he wears a plain black T-shirt. He throws the jacket over the fence and limps towards me. Without his cane he only does small shuffling steps, letting his left leg swing forward half a step and following up with his right. Chardonnay turns her ears towards him but otherwise remains uninterested. Jacob eyes her suspiciously when he slips his hand into the strap around the brush that I present to him.
“Don’t brush her head or her feet with that one. Actually, don’t touch her head at all, she does not like that. Never advance a horse from the back or directly from the front because it won’t see you. Keep away from the back hooves of horses. Mind the hooves in general; you don’t want more than half a ton parked on your toes.”
“Okay… um… thanks. Anything else?” He seems determined now, concentrated, as if he is starting a difficult task at work.
“No. Oh… yes. She is ticklish at the stomach.”
Breath leaves Jacob’s lungs as the laughter erupts from him. “What? You got to be kidding me!”
I giggle. “No. It’s true. Just be quick with the stomach.”
He studies me for a second as if searching for a hint of a joke and relaxes when he sees I am being honest.
“Oh… okay.” He turns to Chardonnay and lifts the brush, hovering over her back. “Uh… don’t be afraid, big girl, it’s just me.”
I turn to my equipment, concealing a smile. Out of the corners of my eyes I watch him tend to the horse, overly careful, the brush barely removing the first layer of dust. All the while he is muttering under his breath to her, trying to calm the animal but probably more calming himself. It is adorable.
I am surprised to notice he seems to be slow but deft even without his cane and I cannot help but be impressed by his courage. I guess he cannot jump out of the way when Chardonnay decides she likes to move, as little space as she is allowed on the leash. Thinking of that, I collect the bag of hay I prepared to place it in front of her. Originally it was meant for when the farrier is here later, but it will be enough for now, too.
“Is this okay?” Jacob asks when I thread my fingers through the hair falling over the headcollar, trying to comb out knots.
I look up at him. “You could maybe apply more pressure. Test it on your own skin. If it feels good for you, it feels good for her, too. But other than that… excellent.”
Jacob nods and takes the brush to his left arm, running it across the bent underarm. He frowns and brushes it over his right jeans-clad thigh. When he returns to tending to Chardonnay, his strokes have reinforced. Chardonnay plays with her ears; she probably just realized now someone is brushing her.
I switch to the other side, taking the hoof pick with me.
“I am going to clean the hooves.”
I hear Jacob’s sharp intake of air and the sound of him scrambling back as the huge mass of the horse tips a little towards him when she presents her hoof to me.
I chuckle. “I warned you.” Okay, I am being mean today.
Jacob huffs but I see him smiling over her back when he resumes brushing. He is taller than me and while I have to stand on tiptoes when I want to reach her back he can easily get up there.
After close to one hour of work Chardonnay starts to resemble more a horse than a bear. Her fur is gleaming after the careful administration from Jacob, I combed her hair, brushed her legs and head with a very soft brush and even cleaned her hooves from the outsides as well as the insides. Strewn around her is a carpet of hair and dirt and I swipe it away with a broom while Jacob sits on the bench, watching me with his left leg sticking out. He did not say anything for a long time now and I hope he did not overdo it again. I order him to keep seated and watch Chardonnay while I go and clean the stable since the farrier has not arrived yet. I knew he would be late, he always is. Jacob does not protest although I fear he looked through the thin lie and suspects, correctly so, that Chardonnay does not need supervision while I am still nearby.
I just finished with the box stall when I hear the rumbling of the farrier’s old vehicle and I go outside to greet the man, a gruff giant with hands as large as dinner plates but a quick laugh and a tender hand with horses. As always, he greets first the horse before he turns to me. He barely glances at Jacob’s arm or leg when I introduce them and quickly sets up all his equipment from the back of his bus. While we work on the hooves, the farrier doing his craft while I mostly stand by to hand him a tool if necessary or take one away, Jacob does his best to distract Chardonnay with hey and apples. We could be a well-trained team for the efficiency and the whole process is done in less than an hour.
After the farrier drove away I led Chardonnay and Bella outside on the paddock and we watch the two horses gallop side by side towards the far end, where Chardonnay destroys all our previous work within seconds by rolling in the sand with pleasure written all over her.
Jacob groans next to me. “She is doing that on purpose!”
“I bet she is.”
I store my equipment in the stable, throw a careful look into the devil’s stall, making sure he is still alive although I do not know why I care, before taking my bike from where I leaned it against the bench. Jacob has shrugged his jacket back on, cane in hand and waits for me at the beginning of the bumpy trail back to the parking spaces.
“I could get your car and drive here,” I offer carefully. “Pick you up.”
“No need for that. I’ll manage.” His tone is slightly clipped.
He quickly glances at me when we start walking side by side, my bike rattling over the bumps and holes in the ground while I push it, biting my lips in silence. Jacob stays at the edge of the trail, where the grass is higher but the ground is even. “I’m sorry.”
“I…” Jacob shuffles to readjust the position of his left foot before he stabs the cane somewhere in the ground further in front and sighs. “I did not mean to be rude. I guess I am just annoyed by all of that myself.” He nods with his head vaguely towards the left side of his body.
I watch him step forward with his right leg and then pull the left one behind, the sole of his shoe briefly catching in the long grass. “It’s okay.” I have so many questions nagging at me up to now, I do not know how I manage to contain them. But somehow I just do not know how to ask, either, and so we continue our slow ascend in silence.
--> Chapter 9
--> Chapter 9