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The Big Quiet: One Woman's Horseback Ride Home
by Lisa D. Stewart
“I’m Lisa Stewart. I’m riding around Missouri—from Kansas City.”
“I’m Nathalene. These are my grandchildren J.J., he’s six, and Allissa. What are you?” Nathalene asked Allissa, then said, “You’re nine.”
The woman looked about sixty. She wore hair long enough to pull back, and loosely fitting, stretch denim pants, and a blouse.
“I’ve got them while their mother works.”
“I couldn’t resist stopping when I saw you kids,” I said to them. “I’m really just looking for a little water for my horse.”
“Kansas City!” Nathalene said. “Settle down around the horse,” she said to J.J. in a tone that knew its strength and trusted good results, and therefore was quiet.
“You’d be welcome to stay here the night,” Nathalene said. “Our pasture is leased, but your horse can help me by eating down the side yard.”
I surveyed it: a 150-by-100-foot grassy rectangle bordered by the road. Fencing bounded it on only two sides, which meant Chief would not be contained. He would have to stand in one spot, picketed all night.
“I could certainly try farther down the road.”
“You’d be most welcome if you want to stay.”
I slid into the arms of two country children and their grandmother.
I watered Chief while the little boy jumped like the first kernels in a pan to pop. I bent at the waist and looked into his feisty eyes and whispered, “We have to be very gentle and quiet around Chief. He gets scared.” J.J. simmered down. I hated to discourage him. I was not concerned for Chief, but that the horse might crush a little foot. “Stay far away from his behind. Come right over here by his shoulder where he can see you,” and the truth is, all Chief wanted was his saddle off, and to tear at the yard with his teeth, and look and smell around for what might be prowling. Allissa did her best to reason with her brother. I reassured her that he was just perfect.
Nathalene returned to the house. My feet felt glued to the earth as they always did when I dismounted at the end of the day. The children chatted and wiggled, while I strategized my order of duties—each one, I realized, to include them.
Later, I grazed my horse in sandals and shorts. Nathalene returned with thick slices of watermelon for everyone on doubled paper plates that soon went limp. She had been keeping the watermelon in a deep spot in a creek. It tasted like icy cotton candy.
When we finished, Nathalene led me to the cold, spring-fed creek she clearly treasured. The land sloped steeply downward from her small backyard, and we took small steps to keep the round rocks from slipping our feet out from under us.
“This old creek carries three, year-round springs,” she said.
The water flowed from a narrow hole in the hill we just descended and drained off into an ancient cut in the woods. From the creek behind the house, the land rose into lush meadows interrupted by puddles of trees.
“When we were young, my husband had set a metal pipe here in this outcrop. He died ten years ago.”
“That’s too young.”
“I would agree with that.” She spoke about the creek as one who tells the story of a favorite novel she has read a dozen times.
Icy water flowed from the pipe her husband had set, a faucet that never turned off. The little creek was only a few feet wide, perfect for wading to the ankles. Wild watercress waggled in the steady flow, and minnows flashed their bodies every time they turned around. The creek curved out of sight into the trees.
“We had a dairy in the early days. We stored our milk here.”
Nathalene pointed to a giant old cottonwood tree about twenty yards down the creek. “When we first cleared this area for our home, we killed eighteen copperheads under that double tree over there. That was thirty-three years ago.”
“Wow. I guess they’re all gone,” I said looking around with my eyebrows raised.
“Oh they’re still around. Not as many. It’s too bad. I feel bad about that. There’s so much development there aren’t many snakes anymore.”
We inadvertently gave the diminished snake population a moment of silence. As the wildlife goes, so go we—we both knew this. Every farmer can name species of birds and animals they hadn’t seen since they were children, and not a one didn’t know humans could be next if we weren’t careful. Hunters are some of the best custodians of wildlife—Ducks Unlimited a case in point.
“I love watercress,” I said. “I might come back and pick some for a salad tonight.”
“If you’re not used to it, you might be a little careful with it. It can work on you.”
“I actually had an encounter with too many wild lilies two weeks ago.”
“Ha. You’ll only let that happen once!” she said.
“I think I’ll leave the watercress alone.”
On our way back to the house, Nathalene stopped and pointed to a spot in the grass on the gentle slope. I could see the faintest path.
“I meet a big scorpion here almost every day. He comes and goes to and from the pasture like he’s clocking in for work.” Just then I was struck by sadness for the millions, billions of people who would never meet Nathalene, or anyone like her. They would fly to Paris or to New York for enrichment, when Nathalene lives right here with her scorpion and her spring in a peace that could inspire any striving soul. How many Nathalenes must be within driving distance of us all if we would just get out of the car and ask for a drink of water.
The children had not yet caught up with us.
“Their father died last year,” Nathalene said to me quietly. “My son.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Allissa has a lot on her shoulders.”
“Life goes on.”
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