Quiet descended on Hillcrest farm as the last client of the day drove through the wrought iron gates and disappeared into the bright summer evening. Yona retrieved Laima from the aisle they were sweeping.
“Ready?” She asked. Laima nodded, trying to pretend they hadn’t been counting down the hours to this moment since Yona had proposed it a week earlier. Yona lead them to her horse’s stall.
“Pip, Laima. Laima, Pip. Careful with her girth, she bites.”
Laima offered the dark mare the back of their hand for inspection, and gently stroked Pip’s cheek when she lowered her head to allow it.
Yona brought Galahad from the adjacent aisle and clipped him into the crossties next to Pip’s stall. They groomed and tacked in relative quiet; the birds and insects sang loudly and it was easy to let their melodies fill the barn.
They mounted in the ring. Yona let Galahad walk to warm up, and Laima let Pip follow on a loose rein. They dangled their feet out of the stirrups and breathed quietly, allowing their body to remember the balance of a horse and how to swing their hips in time with the walk.
“Ready?” Yona asked again. She stood by the gate with Galahad gazing toward the fields and wooded trails beyond. Laima nodded.
They walked for most of the trail, traversing the edge of the sweeping pastures and dipping into the cool shade of the woods. The dirt was hard and dusty even here, the world aching for rain. Yona did not speak unless it was to warn Laima of a low-hanging branch, or a foxhole on the trail, and Laima was grateful for the quiet. They buzzed with memory. The last time they’d ridden in the woods had been in Poland with Andrew following close behind and the threat of soldiers lurking over every hill.
Laima forced themself to be calm so Pip would not pick up on their lingering nerves. They focused on the hum of cicadas, the chatter of mockingbirds, and the peep of spring frogs who had overstayed their season.
Eventually, they broke from the green-gold forest and emerged on an old logging road. The grass indicated that nobody had used the route for its intended purpose in years, but the ground was flat and clear of major obstacles. Pip pricked her dark ears and rolled her bit in her mouth.
“Care for a bit of gallop?” Yona asked. “I’ll stay here and see how you go. Just follow the road until you hit trees, then turn around and come back. If you like, you can really let her go coming up the hill. She’ll prove she was once a racehorse.” Laima nodded. They gathered their reins and took a steadying breath, then urged Pip forward with light pressure to her sides.
Pip surged forward. Laima checked her back to a trot, then brought her down to a walk when the road dipped and carried them downhill, briefly out of Yona’s sight. Once on flat ground, Laima leaned into a two-point and let Pip skip into a canter.
Laima could feel Pip gathering her energy. She tested Laima’s resolve, rooting at the reins, tossing her head, waiting for Laima to release her. Laima stayed quiet, stayed balanced, kept their seat light but in contact with the saddle in case a deer or a bird startled Pip. They cantered through the wide turn and faced a steady, moderate incline with Yona at the end. Pip flicked her ears back, asking. Laima relaxed their grip on the reins, leaned forward, and replied yes.
Pip broke into a gallop, shifting into long, low strides as she thundered up the hill. Laima found their jockey’s crouch on instinct. They bent low over Pip's neck. The wind howled past their ears, drowning out everything but the beat of Pip’s hooves—a familiar and ancient rhythm that flooded Laima with visceral memories of saltwater and fog.
And there, surrounded by the sweet, heavy air that was beginning to cool as the sun sank closer to the trees, a spark of connection ignited when Pip’s hooves struck the earth.
Laima no longer rode alone. They were joined by men and women lost to time, who had lived and loved and died before records that could survive the wars and fires of a world that kept flipping on its head.
Laima perched on Pip’s back, their gaze fixed between her ears, and history stirred in the emerald shadows of the pines, recalling the first brave souls of the Eurasian steppe who had climbed aboard the coarse horses of prehistory and altered the path of all humanity. Crows peered down at Laima and Pip through the veil of branches and clucked to each other stories of winged Cossacks who had once charged into battle with lances drawn and feathers streaming behind them.
Laima did not know these people, but their blood knew the song of the gallop. Laima fell under the spell of Pip’s movement; the power and speed and strength, the warm smell of leather and horse sweat, the salt of Laima’s own exertion all wove together in a living portrait evoking the kind of home that pulled people from the edges of existence—a warm promise that lived in every heart, no matter how cold or mangled or lost.
These woods, with their painfully young trees—many barely Laima’s age—and the rolling hills dotted with estates that would never have to confront the sins enacted behind their sweeping gates were not home, but for the half-mile Laima mentally converted into six furlongs, they were almost able to reach across the sea and the ruin of Europe and touch down in dark, familiar earth.
Yona could see homesickness plain on Laima’s face when they slowed Pip to a walk. She knew that ache from her grandparents hands when they traced old borders on new maps. Laima tried to control their grin, desperate to keep hold of the lightness in their chest, unsure of why they felt like crying. Yona laughed.
“Don’t pull that stoic shit on me, Soulis. She’s fun, right?”