Angry wind burned my cheeks and stung my eyes as the Harley engine’s raucous song filled my ears. I hid my face behind the back of the driver, trying to protect it from the air we viciously cut through in our headlong tumble down the country road.
I was accustomed to travel by horseback, to feeling my warm horse beneath me, anticipating my requests and changing pace or direction before I even shifted my weight or squeezed a finger to ask her. Together we explored the woods and rivers of the surrounding countryside. We travelled so silently, and in such harmony, that we were often able to observe deer and other wildlife up close.
So this other mode of transport was utterly foreign to me. And whilst I admit that the danger and speed of it gave my younger self a thrill, I think even then I knew this wasn’t really who I was.
He turned halfway around and yelled something to me.
“Pardon?” I yelled awkwardly, straining to be heard.
“How much time do you have?” It was so much easier for him to trumpet his big voice over the engine’s grinding chorus.
“I’m in no hurry,” came my naive reply.
Off we plunged, down winding roads and around sharp turns. Trees, pastures and farmhouses contorted into Dali-esque shapes as we whizzed by, too fast for me to surmise or even wonder at our intended destination.
We slowed, and the world we passed took on more definite shapes as we turned onto a gravel lane cutting down the center of two empty pastures. Rounding a curve, a centuries old stone farmhouse gracefully came into focus. Daringly, I lifted myself up a bit to speak into my companion’s ear.
“Who lives here?”
“Someone I want you to meet.”
That someone was Anne Nicodemus Carpenter, horsewoman, poet, dog trainer, and since that day one of my closest friends.
The house had big rooms and windows, unusual for such an old home. Anne sat in the living room, surrounded by paintings of children and animals. Horses, dogs, cats and chickens gazed out at me from silver frames scattered across every surface, frozen in posterity.
Her lively eyes sparkled as she took me in. “Do you write?” she wanted to know first.
“Do you ride?” was her next query, which she clarified with a pointed gaze in my companion’s direction while chuckling at her own double entendre, “I can see that you ride, but do you ride horses?”
Satisfied that I was a bona fide word and animal person, she dismissed my friend and took me outside to meet her familiars. We continued our conversation from that day to this, sometimes with long pauses in between, but always great energy to resume.
Perhaps once or twice in a lifetime, you meet someone you can really relate to. Someone who understands why you do the things you do, because they do them, too. Anne was one of those for me.
When I met her, she was in her 90’s and I was in my 30’s, and yet the 60 year age difference never hindered us. Anne was living alone on her beautiful old farm with her horses, chickens, guinea hens, dogs, and cats. I was wishing I lived alone on my farm with my animal companions.
She spent her days spiritedly observing the life teeming around her and reporting her astute findings in cleverly rendered verbal portraits. I spent my days getting lost on horseback, and my evenings recounting the infinitesimal drama of barn life for my dogs, whom I had banned from the barnyard after one too many chickens were lost.
Anne and I used to spend hours together, discussing minute details of animal behavior, positing ideas on how to help them, sharing notes on our interactions with all forms of life. She showed just as much interest in and compassion for the raccoons who stole birdseed from the bird feeder strategically placed by her window as for the powerful, pedigreed stallion in her pasture.
She used to get so excited every time she learned about a new insect! Her eyes would light up and she’d laugh in delight as she told me little known facts about potato bugs. The last time I saw her, which was just last week, she spent nearly an hour regaling me on stick bugs, ancient and clever creatures that shed light on Earth’s mysteries.
“I think that’s why we live,” Anne confided once, “It’s our job to learn. Once we stop learning, there’s nothing more for us.”
Anne was the only person I have ever known who truly understood my certitude that it is perfectly reasonable to give over one’s attic as a winter home for squirrels or rodents, and that to live fully and completely with a pack of dogs, herd of horses or a flock of chickens is more fulfilling and engrossing than any other lifestyle.
She never questioned my frequent practice of going days on end without leaving my farm or speaking to another human. To her, this was not an unhealthy or lonely life, but one replete with intellectual stimulation, excitement, and emotional fulfillment.
She never questioned the wisdom or expense of trying to build a brace for a turkey with a deformed leg; she simply offered ideas from her own vast experience. She never second guessed that I would know whether to keep trying to help my foundered mare and when to let her go. She appreciated that because I was living as one with the animals, I understood and respected their wishes.
I remember visiting her one day after she lost a hen to a red-tailed hawk. She poured her grief into a poem filled with elegance and reverence for the drama and glory of life. Oh, how I loved to sit on her sofa with her and read her latest poems! Her handwriting was atrocious, and arthritis didn’t help, but Anne had a rare command of words and I was intensely affected by her work.
Anne’s home, aptly dubbed Halcyon Farm, became a refuge to me when life’s challenges knocked me flat. She listened as avidly as I spilled my heart about my failures with human love as she did when I plied her with anecdotes on my successes with animal love (and no, that was not another double entendre).
I can never list the things I learned from her. I can never express the satisfaction found in such a true and profound friendship.
I love her deeply, respect her fully, and miss her mightily. That motorcycle ride was one of the most important journeys of my life.
Last night, Anne crossed over. She still lived at home with her horses, cats, and hens, and was surrounded by her children, grandchildren, friends and admirers. She remained cognizant until the last.
I know she hasn’t gone far. I feel her in the wind. I hear her in the birdsong. She lives on in her poems and in every ant, butterfly, and stick bug that captured her imagination.
“They are not dead, who live in the hearts they leave behind.” – Tuscarora
The horses are brought in early in the summer,
Too many green heads when the sun is up.
I move from one dream
To the front steps of another.
The flute that played me awake in tears
Is still crying in the wild cherry,
And some mouse must shudder too loud to live.
Two great blue herons come in sight,
Strung out against the setting moon,
A cliche of a Chinese painting,
Their legs stretched long behind.
They cry hoarsely as they reach the river,
A sound I never knew was theirs.
The unknown artist had been up early,
Not swirling in the vapors of an opium dream
Where a star can cradle impossibly
In the bosom of the crescent moon.
A scuffle in the multiflora. The shriek stops all our blood.
A rooster’s crow is cut in two.
The shock waves gradually fade out.
The air is loud with relief and night business is winding up.
The worst has happened, and it was none of us.
The rooster starts again. Another answers.
Together, they will bring in the sun.
A bat flashes by my head and slips behind the shutter
In a blink of time, two more, there is squeaking
As they hang up for the day like clothes in a closet.
Now there is some light at the edge of the world.
The picture of mares and foals in the meadow
Is developing– so far just black and white silhouettes–
The Welsh filly sees me and calls out in a toy horse’s voice.
Heads lift up from the grass and turn towards the big mare,
She and the young prince move off slowly,
The others follow in close order.
By the time they reach the barnyard
Day is there ahead of them.
Night has gone to fragments of a half-remembered dream.
—by Anne Nicodemus Carpenter from Ma’s Ram and Other Poems
After writing this, I went outside to seek comfort in the arms of a large mare and found a new cat in my barn. Young and lithe, she happens to be long-haired and all black, a cat I know Anne would have found especially beautiful. Remembering that Anne once remarked that, should she be reincarnated, she wouldn’t mind life in my barn where she could enjoy the animals without figuring out how to pay for them, I named the new cat Halcyon, Hally for short. While I don’t think Hally is Anne, I rather think they both might admire the symmetry of it.