Lisa J. Cihlar has a brilliant talent for turning paper characters into people you know or may have met. The Farrier is such a story. It sits perfectly on the page, a braided rope of thoughts, secret longings and guarded dialog tethering its characters to every line. Read it. Lisa Cihlar is one of my favorite writers.
She says of herself: Lisa J. Cihlar lives and writes in rural southern Wisconsin. I say Lisa is too modest.
Whenever the farrier came, he told her a story. Not really to her, but to the horses. She was the bystander who listened in, just in case there was a lesson to learn.
He didn’t actually need her there to hold the lead line, he could do it all by himself with his low, slow voice and his touch, a nudge to the flank here, a caress to the withers there. The horses loved him, she could see it in their big, dark eyes and in the way they relaxed in spite of the postures he coaxed them into that a sculptor would never believe, much less try to duplicate. When it was all over she handed him a check or cash and he shook her hand and that was as close as he came to her.
After a quiet week of vacation from the clinic where she was a nurse, she felt lonely for company and looked forward to this visit and even slashed on some Avon Cherry Delite lipstick before he arrived, but when the doorbell rang she wiped it off with the back of her hand, leaving a little smear on her cheek and just enough color on her lips so that it looked as if she had been kissed all morning by a lover who was still in her bed wrapped in a white sheet and dreaming of springtime when the bees filled the orchards with buzzing.
“Hello Ms. Freemont. Beautiful day. Beautiful day for a hoof trimming. You ready?”
“Ace.” She was never formal, he was always formal, no matter how many times she told him to call her Dot, short for Dorothy. “Please, come in, would you like a coffee while I get my boots on?”
She had answered the door in her stocking feet because she thought it made her look cute and sexy. Ace looked down at her feet and she felt only lazy. He probably kept his boots by the side of the bed and never, ever, walked the floor of his trailer barefoot. She blushed and the Cherry Delite on her cheek disappeared for a moment.
“No coffee for me. I’ll just meet you 'round back.”
“Ace, you can come through the house, you don’t have to walk all the way around.” She said his name every time when she spoke to him. It felt fine in her mouth. Ace. As if she was winning at some card game.
After she got her boots on she walked out the back door. It was a glorious blue-sky early September day. She felt fall in the air even though it was going to be hot. The summer humidity was gone and it was easy to take a deep breath. She stood on the deck and watched Ace across the yard by the paddock. He had already caught Blackie and had a lead on the gelding and was walking him in circles, checking to make sure all four hooves hit the ground with the same force, that there was no favoring which would show a problem.
Dot kept all three of her horses barefoot. No shoes for them. She rode them on trails through the woods back of the property or trailered them, hauling them to other trails in nearby parks or on friends’ land. Her horses never had to walk on roads or other hard surfaces so there was no need really to put shoes on them.
As far as she knew she was the only person living inside the city limits of Beyersfield who had horses. It hadn’t always been that way, but the town kept getting bigger every year, and as land was annexed her little farmette got sucked inside the city limits. She had ten acres left to her by her parents when they had died while she was in her twenties.
Within four months after they died, Dot sold her little bungalow on Pine Street and moved back into the house where she grew up. In a year she had three horses and some chickens out back and a lazy chocolate lab living in the house. Two years later her boyfriend moved in and began leaving his dirty clothes on the floor next to the hamper, saying he just wasn’t the marrying kind and could she move out of the way of the television. Five years after, he became the marrying kind and married a bartender from Pocket’s Pub where he played pool on Thursday nights. If she thought about it she could usually work up a little hate, but mostly she was glad that they didn’t have kids because if they had taken after him they wouldn’t have much chin and would burn in the sun after only ten minutes.
Since then she had dated a few guys, but nothing ever clicked. One had been so afraid of her dog that he waited for her in the car while she finished getting ready. When she tried to get in, the doors were locked, as if dogs had opposable thumbs.
Ace was one of two farriers in the area. Dot talked to her horsy friends and they all said he was the best. The horses liked him and he was kind and gentle. The other guy got impatient, and her friend Tracy said that he had lamed up her little mare by trimming too deep one time. Ace had been coming to her place every few months for eight years now.
Blackie stood on three legs while Ace took up the fourth and clipped a moon-shaped rim off his hoof. He cleaned around the frog in the hoof and checked for cracks and other problems. Even from the deck she could see Ace’s mouth moving, no doubt telling Blackie some sort of rodeo story about roping calves or busting broncos and bringing home blue ribbons.
She left the shadows of the house and walked across the grass to him. Black hair hung over the collar of his western shirt and it looked as if he shaved at night instead of in the morning, a faint trace of stubble outlined his jaw. Ace was a cowboy, even here in the Midwest and even without the trappings of cowboy hat and spurs and chaps. He would probably be glad that she saw that in him. He was a sort of throwback born here in the wrong time and place just like her. But with him it was easy to see where he really belonged, with her it wasn’t as plain, more a feeling than a look.
Ace had Blackie’s front hoof up on the hoof stand as she approached. The first time she had ever seen a farrier work she had been amazed by this feat. The man got the horse to willingly set its hoof on a stand about eighteen inches off the ground and balance there while he used his rasp to finish the hoof. It always looked to her like a circus act.
Blackie was a wonderful, calm sort of horse that hardly even spooked when they flushed a ruffed grouse in the woods. She believed Ace liked to work on him first as sort of a lesson to the other two animals on how to behave. Not that he really had any problems with the others; they liked to play games, nuzzling him when he was working on the front hoofs and swinging their tails in his face when he was in back. But all three listened to him. Dot stood at Blackie’s head and rubbed his face and ears while Ace talked.
Ace talked all the time he was working. Mostly about races and rodeos and trail rides and sometimes he talked about his philosophy of horse care. “You have to treat a horse like a woman, gentle and kind. Bring her gifts now and again.” At this point he would slip a hard candy from his pocket, or a piece of apple or carrot and give the horse he was working with the little treat. “You have to keep a touch going all the time. Keep the connection and no one gets scared.”
Dot watched him as he gave this talk and he did keep a hand on the horse all the time, patting and brushing and feeling for imperfections. He had found a little infected sore on Blackie’s foreleg a few years back that she never would have found until it was too late and the horse had become visibly sick.
“You should touch the people and animals you love. That should be the way it works.”
He completed the fourth hoof, a perfect horse manicure, and lead Blackie in a circle checking his gait and making sure he hadn’t missed anything. Ace hardly glanced at her or said much beyond “Okay?” to make sure she was satisfied before leading the horse back to the pasture.
He finished her second gelding quickly, and then went back to the pasture to begin the games with Maggie. Maggie was a lively little mare, full of personality and beautiful to look at, but she had a wily streak that showed when she jumped at every crack in the leaves as they were walking though the woods and she would never be a horse that could be ridden along the edge of a road because every car scared her and risked that she would throw her rider and bolt for home.
Ace handled her as well as anyone, but today it took both him and Dot a while to walk her down in the pasture and attach the lead so she would follow Ace to the grooming spot where Dot’s lab was chewing on a little moon shaped slice of hoof trimming.
It was going to be one of those days with Maggie. Dot watched as Ace ran his hands all over the mare trying to get her settled down. Everywhere his hands went the dark hide rippled and twitched as if a fly had walked across her. She kept doing a little sideways dance step and Dot would pull her back. Again and again she moved away from Ace not quieting as she usually did for him.
Ace began to talk. “Maggie, Maggie girl. You know my wife’s name is Margaret? She won’t let me call her Maggie. I tried once and she wouldn’t talk to me for three days.”
This was news to Dot. Ace talked about rodeos and racing but not himself. The horse stood still and Ace ran his hands down her front legs checking for cuts and scrapes.
“So I call her Margaret. She’s planning on leaving me. She says that I don’t pay enough attention to her and that I don’t have any ambition. She says that I would rather spend my time with horses than people. There may be some truth to that.” He gave a wink in Dot’s direction.
He used his pick to clean out around the frog on the bottom of Maggie’s hoof as Dot contemplated his words. Truly, what kind of woman would fight with a man like this? She stood unmoving as he clipped a sliver off the front of the mare’s right hoof.
“Margaret and I fight all the time now. It was so different when we first got married. We would get the horses loaded up every weekend and go to shows or just drive up north to Chequamegon and ride the trails all day and camp by a lake. She loved me and I loved her.”
Dot and Maggie stood motionless, listening. Maggie didn’t seem to notice when he worked on her second front hoof. A red-tailed hawk flew over and keeed once to let the world know she was on the hunt, but neither horse nor woman moved.
“You know Maggie, a lot of this is my fault, I have to take the blame for forgetting what I was taught; that a woman needs to be treated like a horse.” He glanced up at Dot who held her breath. “No disrespect Ma’am, just that kindness and gentleness and respecting feelings goes a long way with a woman, too. With anyone, I suppose. And I have been an ass. I loved her to pieces when we got married, but then I let that slip away. I took it for granted, truth be told, Maggie. And I can’t blame her because she told me and I didn’t listen. She said ‘Ace, I need some affection.’ I was a dumb ass back then and I thought she would get over it. I didn’t do anything but maybe work a little more to stay out of the house longer. Then she got pregnant. I have to tell you I was one proud papa when that little girl came into the world. Tiny as an eyelash and perfect. And my wife seemed so happy, we were all happy and I didn’t change anything about how I was but maybe worked a little more to build up some more money to give my girls the life I thought they deserved. But those good days didn’t last.”
He moved to the front of Maggie and set her left hoof up on the hoof stand. She balanced there on three legs while he took the rasp and finished the manicure by evening out all the sharp edges and smoothing any burrs he had left with the clippers.
“Money isn’t everything girl. My wife told me that she is leaving if I don’t change. ‘How do you want me to be?’ I asked. She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I don’t know, but I can’t stay like this.’ Darn it Maggie, what does that mean? If she wants me to change I will, but I don’t know what to change into.”
Dot, watching his face, saw tears pool in his eyes. He wiped across his face with his forearm as if it were the dust stirred up in the breeze causing them, then he moved to the hind hooves and hid from view in back of the horse’s dark flanks. Some women just didn’t know how good they have it, Dot thought. If only I had this kind of man he would be cherished and loved and taken care of.
Ace’s voice continued from behind Maggie. “So what is your advice girl? Should I let her go?” Dot pulled slightly on the lead rope so it looked as if the horse was nodding her head. “I don’t see how I can do that, I love her, and my daughter. And I have made mistakes; I need to make some changes. Be a better husband.” He stood up and wiped the sweat from his face with his shirtsleeve. “There you go Maggie girl, all prettied up and nowhere to go. Ms. Freemont, take her for a step around the yard so I can see how she looks.”
Dot looked at him big-eyed. She hadn’t been on a horse bareback since she was a kid. But Ace stood there ready to give her a lift up and what was she going to say? “I don’t want to.” There was no way she was going to disappoint him.
She stepped into his cupped hands and he boosted her to Maggie’s back as if she weighed nothing, and then he snapped the long training rope to the harness and watched as Dot rode in circles around him.
“She looks good. Good balance, tight configuration. You ever think of entering her in any shows? She would probably get you some ribbons.”
Dot giggled and was mortified that she did. “No, she’s too spooky; probably throw me in the dirt in front of a crowd.”
“Little training, some work in the round pen, I bet you could have her show-ready pretty quick.”
She saw herself riding into the ring at some show with him at her side on his sixteen-hand stallion. The crowd cheering at the beautiful picture the four of them made. “Maybe.”
He led them over to the fence and Dot slid down and held the lead while Ace opened the gate. The mare pranced right in and went to chew some of her morning rations. All three horses stood together looking at the humans. The humans looked back. Dot was about to say something stupid when one of the animals farted loudly and broke the mood. She laughed self-conscientiously as if her horse’s manners were her own.
“What do I owe you Ace? Same as usual?”
“That would be it.”
“Come on up to the house, I’ll get you a check.”
“Let me load this stuff into the truck, I knock on the door.”
She didn’t protest that he should come through the house. He never would. She had once looked into his truck and marveled that it looked brand new even though she knew he had been driving the same truck for years. He must be a pleasure to keep house for, she had thought at the time, and she thought it again.
She had the check written out when he rapped at the front door. As she walked toward him she saw a convoy of flies take off from the screen door where they gathered this time of year waiting to buzz in the house so they could fly against the windows trying to get out again.
She noticed Ace had tied a handkerchief around his hand. “What happened?”
“Nothing. Just a little scrape from the rasp.”
“Let me look at it. I’m a nurse you know.”
“Really, Ms. Freemont, it’s nothing, the only reason I wrapped it was so I wouldn’t get blood on anything.”
“Please Ace, just step in here and let me see. I’ll feel better if you let me see.”
He relented and held out his hand.
“You’re right, it’s a scrape, but let me get some antibacterial ointment for it. I’ll be right back.”
When she came back he held out his hand again and she rubbed a dab of cream on the fleshy part of his palm. “I’m sorry for your pain.”
“It really doesn’t hurt, looks worse than it is.”
“No, I mean about your wife. What you said outback.”
Ace looked in her eyes for a moment then looked away again. “It was just a story for the horse. I tell stories. They stand better when I do. The mares like love stories. Even the sad ones. If you had a stallion I would tell a fine bronc busting story.”
She saw the question mark of his eyebrows as he looked at her. As if she were a little more eccentric than he had guessed.
She dropped his hand and stepped back.
“Thank you ma’am. I’ll see you in six weeks?”
“Let me call you to set up an appointment. I need to look at my calendar.”
“Okay then, good day and thanks for the doctoring.”
The screen door slammed behind him as he left but a few flies got in to bounce against the windows.
Dot watched the truck back out of the driveway. Then she went out the back door and down the deck stairs to the shed where she kept her tack. She picked up the rope that Ace had used to lead Maggie. It had a little rust of blood near the snap end and she lifted it and touched her tongue to the spot, just once, just for a second.
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