At the Barn: Of a Windswept Night

In the spirit in which some writers wrote in instalments for newspapers or magazines in nineteenth-century England, RSE presents the fictional, serial story of Mary Hinds and her horse Lilly, entitled “At the Barn.” The first instalment in this series appeared on 5 April 2019. [].


“Jane never did end up making it to the barn that day,” thought Mary, lying awake in the darkness in the wee hours thinking about her. The winds were bad again tonight, almost as bad as that day a few weeks ago when Jane seemed lost to the world. Mary had slept hardly at all, what with the crashes of branches, the creaking of the farmhouse, the rattle of the windows and her husband Tim’s snoring. How in the world he had managed to sleep through it all, she couldn’t understand. Branches from the maple trees, no doubt, laid scattered all over the yard and laneway. She had better get up early, she thought, if she was going to get to the barn on time. 

The trees stood as sentinels of beauty and permanence on both sides of the laneway, stately watching over the lane and farmhouse. Tonight, they had been themselves under assault. Mary couldn’t help feeling sometimes that they were watching over her and her family, too. She loved them, in part, because she knew their story. It had been Tim’s grandparents, Jeremey and Edith Hinds, who had had the foresight to settle here. They had cleared the land with horses, built a homestead, and even had the vision to plant the trees. What Tim’s grandparents had achieved and provided them with was always present to Mary. She felt grateful to them every time she drove up the laneway to the house. Although she had never told that to anyone.

Mary laid perfectly still beside her husband, as if trying to calm the wind by her own stillness, listening to the outside, while she stared into the absolute darkness of her bedroom. Although there would be damage, she knew that the trees would withstand the wind. They always had before. They were one thing she could count on. 

Thinking about that day when she had waited for Jane to show up at the barn, Mary remembered how she had felt so very helpless. It wasn’t like Jane not to send word or call. She remembered staring at the green barn door, lit harshly by the fluorescent lights, waiting for Jane to come through it. That day she missed Jane’s usual understated entry, gear in hand. She missed even her early morning silence. Jane usually brought her a coffee as a treat, maybe as a way of making up for her moodiness. That small ritual was missed too that day. Mary had come to count on these small commonplaces on Saturday mornings. It is funny, she thought, how you miss the small things when something big is taken away from you. 

On that Saturday, when it seemed clear that Jane wasn’t going to show, she had felt a little guilty remembering all the times when she had felt impatient with Jane’s early morning mood. Mary had even asked herself at times whether she really did need Jane after all. Now, however, she would have traded Jane’s presence, or even just a phone call, for almost anything. It was Jane’s absence on that day that had made things clear to Mary. There was now no longer any doubt in Mary’s mind about her needing Jane, however skilled she had thought she had become in handling Lilly all by herself. 

There were moments when Mary felt as though she could not have been understood, or loved, more than right there in the arena.

But if Mary was to be honest with herself, she had to confront the reality that there was more to it than that. Mary had deeply missed Jane that day, but it went well beyond wanting her help with Lilly. Jane had a way with horses, it was true. But she also had a way with people, even if she didn’t always realize it herself. And when you added the equine wisdom of Lilly into the picture, there were moments when Mary felt as though she could not have been understood, or loved, more than right there in the arena, the warmth of Lilly cantering underneath her slowly rising into her body and comforting her, while Jane silently sipped her coffee watching. The two of them seemed to make everything right. Mary thought that Jane might even know things about her that she didn’t want to admit to herself. It was as though there were unspoken truths that hung in the air of the arena. “It just takes time before you understand,” Mary had thought to herself, “everything just takes time.” 

Then there was last Saturday, and the way that Jane had treated her after she had almost come off Lilly made Mary realize even more what she meant to her. Mary hadn’t been thrown off of a horse since she had been about four years old, yet she was terrified of falling. She was still more terrified of not riding because of her fear. Mary had cantered Lilly around the arena a couple of times, and Lilly had seemed fine. But then, coming around the far end, Lilly moved sideways suddenly, as if trying to avoid something and Mary had to hold on and right herself all in one motion. Mary felt so afraid that all she could think of was having both feet on the ground. 

Mary looked at Jane, but Jane just stood there watching and said nothing. Mary was furious, not so much with Lilly, it wasn’t like Lilly to spook, but with herself for wanting to come off. She started to direct Lilly to where she usually dismounted. Jane knew what Mary was doing but remained silent. Mary was then even more furious with Jane for her silence. 

“Understanding why a horse spooks isn’t often an easy thing,” Jane told her later, when Mary had calmed herself a little. “Sometimes, it could be simply a shadow which the horse misinterprets as something solid and is afraid of tripping over.” 

“A horse doesn’t spook just for the sake of spooking,” she continued, “the spook isn’t what the horse is trying to do. It is a reaction to a perceived danger. Lilly was simply trying to keep herself, and you, safe.” 

Mary knew all this, but was comforted by Jane’s words anyway. She still, however, couldn’t understand why Jane hadn’t encouraged her to remain mounted. She felt disappointed in her.

Later on, as they were leaving the barn, Jane told Mary, “I knew you wouldn’t get off, you know.”

“Oh, really? I thought for sure you thought I would come off...”

“No, not at all. You just had to find your own reason to stay on.”

Mary had then looked at Jane in disbelief. Jane knew that Mary’s solution to things that were difficult was to always run away from them. Jane told her that she had felt sure that had she intervened and told Mary to stay on Lilly, Mary would have bolted. It wasn’t so much a question of the horse spooking, as it was a question of what Mary’s reaction would be. Jane knew that Mary had run away from many, many things in her life. The time had come for her to stay her ground. She had to learn that the solution to a problem is often found in moving closer to it, not in running away from it. It is a matter of remaining committed to something, however difficult that might seem in the moment. Fleeing is not often a solution. 

Having someone know which path to be waiting for you on when you finally decide to come down from the mountain is a wonderful thing.

Mary thought about Jane in the darkness. Having someone know you that well and care about you that much was a grand and wonderful thing. Having someone know which path to be waiting for you on when you finally decide to come down from the mountain is also a wonderful thing. 

Still lying in the darkness listening to the wind, Mary remembered the unsettled feeling the wind had given her that day at the barn when Jane hadn’t arrived. It was then that Mary first saw clearly just how much Jane had meant to her. But what was more was that Mary couldn’t help but have the feeling that the wild howling of the wind, on that day and even tonight, was bringing some kind of change. Lilly’s unease with the wind seemed to say the same. Mary worried that we often discover just how much someone means to us when we are on the cusp of losing them. The winds rattling through the barn that morning, and again last night, declared to her that things were changing. She felt the change inside of her, but she didn’t know how they were changing or why.


Douglas Allen - Red Scarf Equestrian Guest Blogger

Douglas Allen is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His historical studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. Douglas is also a writer who is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980’s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations

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