Chestnut Eyes

by Richard John Hawkins

 

I don’t remember which woke me first, the blinding sunlight or the colossal figure hovering over the sofa. Both made me feel tremendously uncomfortable. My grandfather’s presence always diminished my own, and from this angle, gazing up at two enormous, hair-filled nostrils, I felt especially small and vulnerable.
“You shouldn’t sleep past six. It’s time for breakfast.” His musty breath stole away my sleepiness.
I quickly folded the Pendleton blanket, wrapped the pillow between the thick folds, and replaced the cushions on the sofa where I would spend each night of our family’s summer vacation. After we arrived the night before, Grandma carefully embraced each of us, evaluating haircuts and growth spurts before directing the unloading of coolers, the placement of luggage, and the assignment of rooms. She directed me and my few belongings toward the sofa⸺as I was only twelve years old and least likely to put up a stink. That’s where Grandpa found me.
Somewhat disoriented and still startled by my encounter, I nervously approached the breakfast table. Greeting Grandpa always presented a considerable dilemma because he didn’t like people touching him. Usually a firm handshake followed by an awkward pat of some sort did the job, but hugs were unthinkable. I was relieved to see him already seated at the table with overalls and bald head, eating a raw onion sprinkled with salt. The situation required no greeting.
We both waited in silence for the family to come to breakfast. Over poached eggs, toast, and gnat-speckled butter, Grandpa asked my older siblings about each of their doings, laughing and commenting with selective charm. To me, however, he said nothing, directing his attention my way only when my elbows rested on the table.
From a very young age, I knew Grandpa didn’t like me. Stern glances accompanied by curt rebuffs provided evidence enough. I didn’t take it personally, however, and rather appreciated the fact that he didn’t like my cousins Annalise or Robert either. Simply put, he just didn’t like little kids. Each summer, my older siblings and cousins accompanied Grandpa to bail hay, fix fences, brand cattle, and drive tractors; but we “kids” stayed with Grandma, relegated to picking currents, collecting eggs, and watering ferns. It was demeaning. It was degrading. \We longed to labor, sweat, and commiserate with Grandpa,, to be covered in dirt and burrs, to be free from the housework and the gross injustice. Despite our sincere desires, Annalise, Robert, and I knew that on the farm, children ranked far below small, domesticated mammals in importance. Sniff, the half-breed sheepdog, carried more clout than the three of us combined.
I once asked Grandma why it was that Grandpa hated children.
“He doesn’t hate you. He’s just worried that you’ll get hurt in the farm equipment.”
Her answer satisfied me, but later that night Grandpa sat across from me in the living room, reading a magazine, never speaking a word to me. Then it occurred to me that, with no farm equipment in the living room, I posed no liability. I would just have to grow up before Grandpa would ever like me.
After breakfast, the family scattered. Some wore rubber boots and overalls, prepared to help Grandpa repair an irrigation ditch, and the rest went shopping in Pendleton and La Grande. They abandoned me with Grandma; I was miserable. While sweeping out the mudroom and cleaning the blinds, I stirred dust and dissatisfaction.
I longed to bail hay and showed my disgust with twelve-year-old indignation. Grandma, sensing my frustration, hurried me through my chores and told me to follow her out to the tack room. As we marched through the barn, hair and dust spiraled in the dim sunlight that crossed our path. With saddle, blanket, and bridle in hand, she introduced me to the farm’s newest arrival: Cricket.
“We just got her from your uncle Sherman. She’s a good horse, but she hasn’t been ridden much. Grandpa has been busy since we’re short one farmhand and my back’s been acting up. She’s temperamental, but I think you can handle her, although she hasn’t been around kids much,” Grandma said.
She saddled Cricket and led her out through the heavy boxcar doors into the corral. Backlit by the midday sun, Cricket towered over me with a presence more threatening than farm equipment. She intimidated me much more than Tory the Pony, whom I had grown accustomed to riding over the years. Tony met his end at the glue factory earlier that year; old age and bloated feet rendered him useless even as a riding horse for grandchildren. Approaching Cricket, I could see the reigns tighten as she backed away from me. Apparently our apprehension was mutual.
Grandma steadied her and encouraged me to mount Cricket. As I placed my foot into the stirrup, Cricket began to shift her weight before backing up again, reigns taut. Each avoidance further shook my confidence in het, and looking into her large, chestnut eye, I could see that Cricket lacked faith in me. I sensed that she despised runny noses, giggling, and moon boots. Cricket hated children too.
After several attempts at mounting the moving horse, Grandma and I succeeded with joint effort. Under Grandma’s advice, I headed towards the Robinson Place. Grandma, on the other hand, headed for the house. Just as Cricket turned towards the gate, she caught eye of the stable, turned, and bolted for the open boxcar door. Recognizing her act of defiance, I clung to her back, wrapped my arms around her thick neck, and wondered how much closer the manure floor had grown toward the top of the door frame. Cricket’s hoofbeats sounded my funeral march. As I contemplated a quick death, Grandma spotted the situation and began a gallop of her own, yelling inaudible last-minute emergency instructions. Grandpa heard the commotion while working on a tractor in the shop and began a hurried investigation. We all met in the dark stable as the horse came to a jarring stop. Grandma⸺relieved. Grandpa⸺perturbed. Cricket⸺indifferent. Me⸺mortified. Not only was I a child, but I was a child who couldn’t even ride a horse.
That night at the dinner table,
Grandpa asked me, “Why would Cricket trust you if you don’t trust her?”
I didn’t reply.
Later that week, and after much deliberation, I asked Grandma if I could ride Cricket again. My resilience surprised her. I preferred to think of it as persistence, an unwillingness to accept defeat and humiliation, not from a horse, and certainly not from Grandpa.
After another difficult mount, I directed Cricket towards the hills that gradually matured into the Blue Mountains. With destination in mind, we headed towards the windbreak, making sure that no turn exposed the open stable door. Behind the house stood two perfectly aligned rows of trees, and, passing through them, a dirt road led to the intersection of field, mountain, and Union Pacific railroad track.
Between the road and on either side of the orderly row lay a tetenal hot zone of juvenile adventure. A 1960 blue Chevy with rat-infested interior rested in knee-high thistle on the left. Two refrigerators, several tractors, and a screenless television littered the corridor’s right. I was proud of Cricket for coming this far without incident, and my seemingly innate horsemanship impressed me even more. As we approached the first refrigerator, Cricket froze. I kicked her several times, but she refused to move.
“Come on, Cricket. . . . Stubborn.”
More kicks and a slap on the rear still produced no results. I tried to direct her around the perimeter, approaching from a different angle, but again she refused. I began to think of other ways that we could access the hills, but no other roads came to mind. In frustration, dismounted and attempted to manually move the belligerent beast through the corridor, but my hundred-pound shadow couldn’t match her half-ton bulk. Exhausted, I cautiously rode her back to the stable, having made no headway.
At the dinner table, I recounted the episode to the family, making sure to note the marked improvement over my earlier attempt. After describing Cricket’s apprehension, I asked why she didn’t move. “She probably saw something she didn’t like,” my father suggested.
I shrugged.
“Treat her like you would a person. Let her trust you and respect you,” Grandpa added from across the table. He rolled bread crumbs between his rusty finger and the plastic tablecloth as he spoke, never looking up.
Each day, I found myself hurrying to sweep, straighten, gather, and pick so I could spend as much time with Cricket as possible. With Grandma’s consent, Cricket and I practiced riding in the corral for the remaining hours before dinner. She answered my erroneous reign gestures with correspondingly awkward movements. I gradually learned, adapted, applied. From the corral, we ventured into the front pasture, and from the pasture to the nearby Robinson Place. Soon, we explored the furthest corners of the sun-blanketed farm and the shadow-lit countryside. With each expedition, our problems grew fewer while our mutual respect grew stronger.
The day before my family left the farm, I planned to ride Cricket through the windbreak corridor, across the corrugated fields, to the hills that overlooked La Grande Valley, just as I had planned to do earlier. At breakfast, Grandpa” suggested that I take a shovel along and look for Indian and pioneer artifacts in the newly plowed Jenkins property, an odd request that inspired confused silence at the table. He led me out to the barn, selected a square-headed shovel, and turned on the belt grinder. Already mesmerized by the showering sparks, I froze when Grandpa handed me the shovel, telling me to finish the job myself,
‘Are you sure, Grandpa?” I asked from a safe distance.
“Of course I am. Are you?” he countered. “Flip this switch when you’re done. I’ll be working on the combine.”
That afternoon, I took my shovel and rode Cricket at a trot toward the littered windbreak, confident she would pass through the obstacle without hesitation. Beyond the open corridor, miles of field lay in wait, anticipating my exploration. The sun reached its height as we arrived at the Jenkins property, and as I squinted, my head began to ache. Riding this far had already caused me to break a sweat, and I had yet to begin the tedious act of scavenging. I tied Cricket to a fence post and began to dig, conversing with her all the while. Hour after hour, I dug, adamant that I would not return home empty handed.
“Thousands of rocks, but not a single arrowhead. A field full of rocks,” I grumbled.
By four o’clock, blistered and broiled, I contemplated accepting defeat. However, with one final toss of the square head, I struck gold as my shovel made a high-pitched clink. Scrambling to unearth my discovery, I knelt, and with the care of a trained archaeologist, I slowly unearthed a rust-eaten horseshoe. Initially disappointed, I cleaned the “artifact” rather carelessly by thumping it against the post multiple times. It wasn’t Indian, but I had certainly dug it up.
Eventually content with my find, I mounted Cricket, and together we cantered toward the hills, our original destination. Overlooking the valley, sixteen-year-old pride filled my twelve-year-old psyche. Not only had Cricket and I ridden to the foothills of the Blue Mountains, a feat that had seemed so impossible three weeks ago, but I had also accomplished something much greater. I had completed Grandpas task, perhaps a trivial, meaningless, and totally useless task, but a task accomplished nonetheless.
At the dinner table, I unveiled my find. “Tell your mother that it’s an ancient Chinese artifact, a good-luck symbol,” Grandpa said, “and tell her to hang it in the living room!” We all laughed, except Mom, who rolled her eyes. He then led me into his study, a strictly off-limits sanctum even to Grandma, and showed me a black-and-white photograph with foxed edges of a twelve-horse team pulling a pioneer plow. I then knew the source of my good-luck symbol. I placed my horseshoe on the nightstand before climbing into bed exhausted.
The next morning I awoke a few minutes before six o’clock and found Grandpa sitting at the table, awaiting the final breakfast of our family’s vacation.
After eating, Grandma directed the reloading of coolers, the replacement of luggage, and the straightening of rooms. I shirked my role in the assembly line and slipped into the concealed recesses of the barn. Cricket shuddered and her tail flipped as I extended my hand to touch the soft depression beneath her chewing jaw.
Suddenly a cumbersome weight fell on my shoulder. Cricket and I both jumped as I made out Grandpa’s massive figure, a silo at twilight.
“Will you miss her?” he asked.
“Yeah”
“You know, she’s not a kid’s horse. Cricket’s no Tony.”
“I like her better than Tony,” I replied.
Then in a moment of inexplicable inconsistency, Grandpa reached his arms around me, bringing me close to his overalls and onion breath.
“You didn’t give up. She respects that,” he whispered.
As we walked back to the car, Grandpa took my father aside where they talked in solemn tones, my name being the only word that I understood with any clarity. As the loading of the cars continued, my sisters jockeyed intensely for window seats. I used the bathroom one more time, finished watering the last of the ferns, and retrieved my horseshoe from Grandpa’s study. Beneath the pine-covered walkway, I gave Grandma a h*g and Grandpa a strangely comfortable handshake and pat on the back. As I pulled away from Grandpa’s clutch, he winked one large, chestnut eye at me, and I knew that next year I, too, would drive tractors and bail hay.