Sprawled out beneath my favorite tree, I stare at the oak branches outstretched above me. Lichen, nature’s lace curtains, cast intricately sewn shadows across me, blocking out the harsh rays of the sun. This place, in the shade of the oldest, most unruly tree on the property—“the watchman of the lake,” as I’d pretended when I was younger—has been my sanctuary since I can remember.
For years I’ve been retreating to this very spot, where the grass grows a little thicker from where I lie up on a slight hill down to the water’s edge, protected by the oak’s expansive shade. So much has changed since I was young—me, my family; even the small country town of Saratoga Falls seems to have found a quicker pace—but here, underneath this tree, it feels as if the past still lingers, coming in and drifting out on the breeze when I least expect it. This place is a mingling of my past, present, and future.
The oak was my climbing tree when my golden hair was in pigtails, but now my pigtails have given way to a single, thick braid that feels lumpy beneath my back as I lie at its base. My little-girl hands have become calloused from seemingly endless days of horse grooming and stacking firewood. My cowboy hat’s bigger, sun bleached and weathered from years of abuse, and my boots are well worn from mucking out stalls and mending fences. This is my napping and hide-away-from-the-world spot. It’s where Mama and Papa are both buried and it personifies distant memories of first loves and wistful dreams.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about those things—of Reilly and the day we crossed the line from friends to something more, the promises we made to each other only to break them, the distance, his distance, and the fact that the day I fell in love with him, he chose to leave. All the regrets that followed still linger, too.
Shasta, my old gray mare, snorts as she grazes beside me, a sound that stirs me back to the present. I hear the muffled sound of her hooves as she takes a lazy step between mouthfuls of the patchy green that grows around us.
Telling myself I deserve a few more moments of respite, I close my eyes and fall back into a sleepy daze, listening . . .
. . . red-winged blackbirds chirp as they fly from the fence line into the surrounding scrub oaks that sprawl out behind me . . .
. . . insect wings flitter between drifts of dry breeze . . .
. . . lizards scurry in the crisp, fallen oak leaves that litter the ground . . .
This place, where life is simple and calm and known, is where I want to be. With a deep inhale, I let the fragrance of summertime—of red clay earth and sunbaked hillsides—wrap me in a blanket of sunshine and comfort me until the familiar tempos of nature fade. I exhale, and as I revel in a tension-easing stretch, I feel another familiar sensation as my knuckles brush against Papa’s gravestone, damning and ever-present behind me. A knot forms in my stomach. I don’t have to look at the gravestone to know what it says: Robert Miller, Loving Father and Husband, Beloved Horse Whisperer. May he rest in the valley of horses.
Eventually, the undertones of country living dissolve and I’m left with the sound of rubber scraping across glass, and the warm breeze brings with it a chill that rakes over my skin . . .
The road is dark and wet, and the headlights are all that illuminate the bend ahead. The air in the truck is stale and pregnant with a dozen emotions that suffocate me as I try to wade through them. I look at Papa, but his gaze is narrowed, angry. I disappointed him. I ruined everything.
We see it all too late—the gnarled branch that blocks the road. In fast-forward, Papa slams on the brakes. Screeching rubber echoes in my ears as we swerve toward the mountainside, away from the cliff. Then the truck is rolling, the world is crushing in around me, and my head smacks against the window and then the dash. The sound of groaning metal against the asphalt grates in my ears, and I can hear Papa yelling something. His warm finger brushes against my skin, but I can’t concentrate as my arms flail and my head bangs against the roof of the truck.
We crash. We lurch. We stop. Branchy fingers reach through the broken window and I glance over to see Papa. He’s bleeding.
Distant, incessant honking wakes me, and I jolt upright. My heart’s sprinting, my mind spinning, and as I bring my palm to my forehead, I peer around, anchoring myself to here, to now. To the lake and the oak tree. To daylight.
More honking startles me, and I climb to my feet. “Jesus, Nick,” I grumble. The day is no longer bright and comforting, and the dream leaves a heaviness hovering over my heart. I let out a slow, even breath, trying to dispel the unwanted memories creeping in.
“Alright,” I say, squinting at Shasta. Her ears angle toward me as I stand and brush the debris off my backside, but she continues tearing what little nutrients she can from the ground like she’s even the slightest bit starved. “Time to get back to work, oinky.” I stretch, readjust my hat, and reach for her reins draped around the saddle horn.
Shasta’s white- and gray-speckled head pops up at my sudden movement. She cranes her neck in my direction, grass hanging from the corners of her mouth.
“Nice.” I smile and pull the errant weeds from the creases of her mouth and let them float down to the dirt. “Let’s go get you some supper. I wouldn’t want you to starve or anything.”
Giving Shasta a quick pat on the neck, I step up into the stirrup and climb into the saddle. The leather creaks and groans under my weight, and it’s warm from baking in the sunshine. Then, nudging her forward, we leave our shady oasis and head down the hillside, to the ranch.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish