My fingers are already burning, flashing white, begging me to go back into the house, out of this bitter, bone-jarring cold. It will be dead dark in half an hour.
The horses crowd to the barn, irritable and hungry, jostling for position and charging at one another. The wind drives nails through our skin. In their stalls, they pace and snort as though winter were a tiger, waiting for them in every dim corner.
The pump is frozen. With my back to the wind, I drizzle tepid water from the heated stock tank over the handle until it reluctantly moves. The tank outside the barn has to be filled by hand. How many trips with the red plastic bucket? Maybe only five tonight. I take great care to keep my gloves dry.
Empty bucket banging against my leg, I turn to make another trip. The field next door is dotted with black cows and there’s a child. I squint into the wind, trying to wrap my mind around what I’m seeing. There’s a child, pushing a pink bicycle across a frozen field, at this hour, and in this frigid miserable wind. I drop the bucket. A gust carries it skittering over the frozen mud to collide with the side of the barn.
He’s about ten years old, all mittens and hat, pushing a girl’s bike up the hill toward my barn, toward me. There’s a clear plastic bag dangling from one mitten. I walk toward the wire fence that separates my pasture from theirs, and wait. The minutes crawl by. I’m cold. I’m impatient. I want to finish feeding. I wait. It’s the least I can do.
Slowly and deliberately he stops near the fence, and works to put the kick-stand down, the bag in his hand swinging with his tedious effort. The kick-stand is stuck. He gently lays the bike down and approaches me, raising the bag up for me to see or to take. I have no earthly idea how to respond. “Hey, Sweetheart,” I say, serving up the warmest southern voice-candy I can manage under the circumstances. “Whatcha got there?” The boy raises the bag up a little more and says timidly, “It’s potatoes.” I’m sure he sees the look on my face. I’m trying so hard to understand all of this. “It’s potatoes. For the horses.”
My mind is as frozen as the water pump. I’m sure I’m staring at him with my mouth hanging open. His heroic journey across the field to do something good is rewarded by a stupid woman with her mouth hanging open, not understanding the plot or her place in it. He’s still holding out the clear plastic bag. There are three small potatoes in the bottom of it. Punctuating my confusion, I can actually read the word POTATOES printed on the plastic. A blast of wind whips my hair into my eyes. I take the bag. “Thank you, Sweetheart. That’s so nice of you.”
I’m ashamed of my mind. I search every corner of it for the right thing to say, for the right response. What the hell is this kid doing? Do people feed potatoes to horses? Is this some country thing that I’m unaware of? I’m f**ing freezing. Did his mother send him over here with these? Has this kid been feeding potatoes to my horses?! I can’t encourage that.
Here’s this kid, and I have no warmth to offer him. None. My experience has never included spontaneous easy kindness to children. So, I manufacture some the best I can. “Baby, thank you… that was so thoughtful of you, but these horses are on a special diet. They can’t eat potatoes.” And I slowly hand the bag back to him. I don’t know what else to do. I’m absolutely impoverished in this moment.
The mitten gently takes the bag. “Yes, Ma’am.” And he moves away, picks up the pink bicycle and begins pushing it into the wind, toward home.
I watch him for a moment, then turn, wooden from cold, back to the barn. I still have to feed. My heart goes the other way, walking with him.
As the horses chew, I peek through the barn door into the dark. He’s almost home, a dot moving across the pasture. I shake my head and turn out the light.
The horses would have known what to do.