At thirteen, something inside you already knew not to cry in the company of grown men. First time you helped unload a trailer of hundred pound sacks of horse feed packed in scratch-ass burlap, all other farm work was suspended. Everyone was pulled in to make a human conveyor from truck to feed room where Wesley was last-man-stacking. Big Nelson, Shelby, Captain Cooper Carter, Pee Wee, Angel, Bill, and Ned stood in line while Tank hefted each bag down off the truck. Clockwork left-right body swings fed the next man, and you, the new kid, hired for grass cutting, placed in the middle, with expectation to equally share what was coming down the line.
You learned the hard way, beyond the burlap sand-papering all exposed skin: if you bobble, if you can’t handle the weight getting medicine-ball-times-ten slammed into your chest, then expect no mercy from men. The bags continued getting tossed your way, while everyone waiting created new names for you – “Mama’s Boy,” “Pussy” – the ones still active in the line smirking and silently jeering as they keep ’em coming, bag after bag burying you long after you’re down. They only stop when they become too consumed with laughter at your buried predicament and your pitiful idea of what cussing back amounts to.
Kind of like the anvil now. Everybody saying they’d love for you to graduate from push mowers and the numbing buzz of weed eaters along miles of fence line, and become a real horseman. But they got rules. If you can’t pick up that black iron anvil sitting on the round-cut of hardwood out in front of the barn, then no, you can’t test yourself against a thousand pounds of fiery beast ready to kick-stomp-bite your insides out of you.
Two hundred and fifty-pound anvil – that’s your man test.
You want to become a horseman, be part of a barn crew. Inside are the smells of rich sweet feed, cured hay, the dusty liveliness of horses, oiled leather from halters and lead shanks, and the ever-present bluster of men. The steady sounds of hooves scuffing, the tines of steel pitchforks ringing, a banging of buckets, and man-laughter. You catch whiffs and glimpses when you take breaks to enter the barn’s tack room where saddles and medicines are kept, poking your head under the faucet in the sink for the rescue of water. Letting it run over your head, face and neck, trying to calm the steady broil from cutting grass in the heat of the day.
Sometimes when you find yourself out by the training track and you’re trimming the grass around each and every fence post to keep the farm looking sharp to passersby, you pause while they’re working out the horses being groomed and aimed at big purse races in Kentucky and Maryland and New York. You hold your breath at the majesty flying past you, the power and heart. Angel tells you there comes a time when the young horses no longer need the crop – the short leather whip brandished by riders. He says the horses in training go from being asked and urged to wanting to throw themselves around that track, legs blazing with wild focused purpose, daring one another to run faster. They live for it.
You tried the anvil at day’s end one Friday, before taking off for the weekend. Everyone gathered. You felt the cords in your neck flaring like fish gills out of water, you asked the muscles in your biceps and forearms to obey, but you could not inch that piece of iron into the air, and the men sniggered and sniggered, awarded you new names – “Candy Ass” and “Girlfriend” – before taking off in dented trucks and on loud motorcycles with their payday checks, everyone intent on raising hell. Your mother picked you up in her Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon.
The men allowed you in for unloading hay. A tractor trailer load of timothy and alfalfa shipping in from Pennsylvania. What you learned this time: bales are easy to toss from the top of a truck across and into the barn loft. But as layer after layer is removed, and as you grow more tired, you must toss the hay bales higher and higher. And if you miss the loft, if an errant bale falls to the floor of the barn, then you become christened with new names. Ugly names. Names you don’t want to own or live under. But you do, each day, as you roll your mower past the horsemen around the barns, heading to the outskirts of the farm.
Midsummer comes, and the Boss is unhappy with you. His cigarette-burned throat gravels at you, harsh edge to his praise.
“You’re a damn fine grass cutter, but I need more help with the horses on weekends. The men work twelve-and-a-half days on, then a day-and-a-half off every other weekend. The horses don’t care about man-needs. Water, clean stall, hay and feed, plus time to stretch legs in a grassy paddock – those are their every-day-gotta-happens. If it was Christmas Day they wouldn’t care, their needs are their needs, and the men of this farm are entrusted to take care of those basic things. I want you here on weekends to help get the job done. It would be your first step into becoming a horseman.” Some of the men shuffle along the poorly-lit edges of the barn’s main aisle, eyeing you when the boss turns and walks into the office.
Your parents are devoutly worried about you. “Aged thirteen, and you have not yet accepted The Lord as your savior. We’re not about to let you work weekends until you’ve gotten straight with God.” They haul you to the First Baptist Church of Ashland every Sunday, hoping you will be converted, redeemed. But that light simply hasn’t shone on you, that calling hasn’t tugged away at your insides and made you whole just yet. Saturday nights your parents push conversation over fried chicken, tomatoes, and sweet corn on the cob, prepping you for the big decision you must make in front of the congregation in your suit and tie.
Nobody appears to be close-around one day when work ends, and you’re once again waiting for your mom to pick you up. Horses snort softly, contentedly in the barns, the now-familiar aromas of cut grass, bush-hogged fields and manure, plus the rackety buzz of cicadas all fill you with confidence. Orange daylilies bloom around the barn front, a decorative aesthetic circling the anvil.
No one is watching, no one around to call you names. You put your arms beneath the mismatched points of the anvil, you assume that bent-knee stance you’ve learned from hoisting feed bags and hay, and you lift. The anvil rises an inch. You drop it back in place, sit down with your back against it waiting for your mom.
A day later the Boss pulls up alongside the road you’re mowing, rolls down the window and starts barking: “Forget the damn mower, get in the truck, the boys need you – just get the hell in, Snot!”
You obey. He has given you this job, and he has expectations you must fulfill to measure up. You forgive him inside yourself for calling you “Snot,” because somewhere in the future you want a name like “Big” or “Captain” in front of what they all call you. You know: he pays you money for living your days in the open air, wages for this fight against the heat and the weight. And you realize you’ve never been more willing in your entire scratch-ass life.
Sliding to a halt, the truck throws gravel and doors bang open as if there’s an emergency close by. He yells,“Follow me and try to keep up!” The two of you go through a gate, into a pasture that tapers down to the Newfound River, a trickle that maybe shouldn’t be called a river though such things get misnamed all the time. Still, there’s a strong current, and there are fine pools that silver fish dart through. You’re puzzled: the men are all gathered there, each and every one of them knee-deep in the flow, holding hands.
The Boss grabs you by the hair and wrenches you backward into the water. He begins to drown you. Correction: he commences baptizing you. Even under water you somehow grasp his words.
“Oh Lord, we are gathered here today to redeem the soul of this lame wussy-assed sinner. He who was a boy must now enter into the kingdom of heaven and work, the province of sweat and manure, blood and muscle.”
Boss Man is holding you under a little too long.
“He was blind, but now he sees, he was weak, but now he’s ready to kick some serious butt.”
Bubbles begin fighting for sunlight.
“We are all witnesses – we who hitched back in barn shadow, we who stood on the hillside in the far-pasture, we who leaned on the railing in the barn loft – we who knew in the instant that your anvil of faith had been lifted. Please Lord, bless this sinner so that he might work on Saturdays and Sundays, attending the Church of God-Given Hard Work. Let him emerge a new man, a man who can labor on weekends and learn about horses. In Your name we pray, amen.”
Praise The Lord: you are lifted up, allowed to catch a deep and righteous breath of air. Tears all around, laughter, smiling, brotherhood.
Praise Him for enlightening your mother and father when later you get home all soaked and happy, recounting just the pertinent parts of the story for their appraisal. Heads nod in affirmation, their hallelujah arms raise high, and they wave you off to the blessed path of horse and God, farm and men.
Scott T. Hutchison’s poetry and fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review and other journals. He is the author of a book of poetry, Reining In, published by Black Bird Press. Scott worked sixteen years for Boss Man Ed Stevens at Rockett’s Mill Farm in Doswell, Virginia, where his farm baptism took place. He was happiest in the layup barn, helping the sick and injured. Ed liked to brag that “Scott’s never hurt a horse” which is saying something; there are lots of wrong moves one can make with horses. Scott left Rockett’s Mill Farm at age twenty-nine.