When I was seven, my dad told me to whistle on my way in to the barn so I wouldn't startle our mare, Foxfire. Without exception, I should always announce my arrival with a whistle. I looked up at my dad after he gave me this instruction, took a deep breath and explained that I was really sorry but without my two front teeth, I was really having a hard time getting any sound to come out, so he sighed and agreed to let me sing my way in to the barn.
"However you do it, just make sure you give them plenty of warning, because Foxfire's liable to rear right up and hurt herself if you scare her by just appearing out of the blue," my dad warned me.
Foxfire was my dad's very favorite horse, and she was also a neurotic disaster of a mess who was sadly in need of some therapy for her frazzled nerves. I only forgot to announce my arrival once. That huge thoroughbred horse was on her hind hooves so fast, front hooves frantically waving in the air, teeth gnashing, tail flailing. When she was on all fours again, she began furiously whinnying and kicking her stall doors with abandon. I watched in horror and all I could think to do was hit the dirt. It was a terrifying sight. I never wanted to see it again.
So began the habit. Entering the barn had a whole ritual for me. A routine. I'd start singing "When the Saints Go Marching In" a full fifty yards before I rounded the corner onto the concrete slab of the barn floor. I'd clap my hands for good measure. My leather riding boots stamped to the beat, and I added a funky little dance, twirling and waving my arms. As I made my way past the large rock on the side of the meadow, my volume would increase. The show would come to a rising finale just as I came face to face with our three horses, their ears perked in keen interest. They were such a non-judgemental crew, really. The carrots and apples and sugar cubes I usually had stuffed in my pockets probably didn't hurt either.
Despite Foxfire's neuroses and my father's somewhat unhealthy attachment to her, the horses and our barn were a safe hide-out for me. I loved brushing them, braiding their tails, singing to them, riding bareback down the dirt road our barn was on, and pulling them in to my imagination. I loved the smell of the grain I fed them at dinnertime. I loved putting my cheek on the very softest velvet of their noses and feeling their breath. I even loved mucking out their stalls and reintroducing them to a nice clean straw-filled home. I'd pretend they were grateful.
I liked hauling in the hose that was coiled just outside the sliding door to top off their water buckets. I'd tell them stories and more stories. I'd spend time rearranging the horseshoes that were hanging on the stall door so they were perfectly face up for good luck.
There were four overhead lights in our barn, and each one was the home to a family of barn swallows. Their messy, plaster-like nests were precariously placed atop each metal light bulb cage. I loved watching the birds fly in and out of the barn looking for food for their babies. I was awed by how much work it was for the mother birds to raise their young. I looked forward to the babies' first flights just as much as I did my own achievements. I imagined the horses and the barn swallows talking to each other when there were no people around.
For a few nights each summer, the meadow would come alive with fireflies. I used to love to walk down to the barn on those nights and sit quietly with the horses, watching the glow of life outside. The peepers and the breath of the horses were the only sounds, but there was magic flying all around. When the last of the natural light had truly faded, the fireflies would disappear, and night would take hold. I'd test my courage by walking all the way back to the house without a flashlight.
The next morning, I'd announce my arrival all over again.