Nonfiction

Distant Bond

SARAH ROCHEFORD

The human-animal bond is a two way street. It knows neither distance nor time, and can be the one simple thing that gets you through the day. When an animal is involved, one can count on having someone there in the morning to wake you up, whether you want to or not. They are your personal alarm clock at all hours of the night, your security blanket when things don't go as planned or your best friend that will listen no matter how crazy you sound. When you have a bad day so do they, but it usually doesn't last long with the wag of a tail or a soft purr.

He's not a traditional pet, but if he could live in the house he probably would. As of now, he is the only common connection I have with my grandfather. Now that I think about it, he has had more of an impact on him than I, but only because I haven't been around very much these last 23 years.

In his younger years my grandfather raised, showed and bred Tennessee walking horses. Many have come and gone, but none would compare to the offspring of the great Midnight Sun, the great great-grandsire of the horse I have now. It wasn't until I had been looking through my grandfather's things that I had spotted the registration papers. Interested in some of the names listed on that simple sheet of paper, I came across a website. Mingled in the story was a picture of him, and it was then I realized I had something special.

The grandson of Midnight Sun was a chestnut stallion by the name of Sun Glo's Magic Man, more commonly known as Jungleman to those who knew him best. In the spring of 1984 he had sired a chestnut foal, which happened to be the year before I was born. I was first introduced to him at the age of three months, the very first summer my parents and I would spend in Tennessee. Sun Glo's Little Joe was the spitting image of his father, and just as smart. This quality alone was the first reason my grandfather decided to keep him, although he had more than a few offers over the years to sell him for a pretty penny. It was this attraction to him at an early age that taught me to be patient. He taught me to be patient. I don't think my grandfather ever expected me to take such an interest in horses like he had, and it brought us closer despite the distance.

Neither of my parents are really horse people, so I'm certain I inherited my horse sense from my grandfather. As the years passed I spent every summer I could in Tennessee, mostly because of Joe. I was never allowed to ride him by myself, not like he would run off anyway, it was just the way he was. I loved watching my grandfather ride him because it was like his feet never touched the road when he racked full out. I wasn't the best rider in the beginning and he knew it, so he would follow my grandfather around like his shadow, taking ever so careful a step as to ensure that I was still on his back. Joe was the first animal I had bonded with when I was little, and we've been like two peas in a pod ever since.

As I got older, my grandfather had sold all but two of his stallions, and slowly moved away from breeding and showing. In addition to Joe, his other stallion was a jet black walking horse by the name of Fury's Black Magic. This name suited him well, as I could often feel the fury burning in his gaze. The story I was told went something like this.

Left in a field and abused by a female trainer, he was fearful around people, most of all women. I had taken an interest in him one summer about six years ago, and until then my grandfather was the only one that could handle him. That summer I spent every day in the field slowly working with him. I was never interested in getting him to do anything substantial; all I wanted was for him not to charge at me whenever I went to the barn. One evening I went out to the pasture to put him up. He was grazing peacefully in the corner so I stood in the very middle just watching him. I whistled for him, and at first he didn't budge. I waited, nervously standing there when all of a sudden he turned at a gallop towards me, but I stood my ground. He was 10 feet with no sign of stopping, his ears pinned back. I don't know what compelled me to say his name but at that moment he stopped, sliding to a halt in front of me. I stood there motionless as he gently put his head at my chest.

To this day I still don't know how I managed to befriend such a tortured soul. After many years with my grandfather he had calmed down some, but was still rather untamable if you ask me. Maybe he needed me, someone to trust and show an interest in. I became that someone who could understand him although he could not speak. It was then, that one particular moment in time when I realized I wanted to work with animals. My mom always tells people I have a mysterious connection with them, although I seem to understand horses more than any other species. I just laugh at the thought but go with it.

A couple years went by after that summer, and it seemed like more years passed each time I came down to visit. The one thing that stayed the same was Joe. His crazy confident yet unsure personality brought me closer to him. At this time I had taken two years of riding lessons that would hopefully help me feel more confident with my riding. I was determined to ride him, maybe get him to trust me enough to where it could just be him and me someday. After taking a fall at the age of nine, I had still been unsure about riding. At the end of the day he would always be a stallion with a tendency of showing his spirited side every now and again. But that was what I loved most about him.

It was early 2005 when the bank bought my grandparents' house to build the new highway. I don't know what was harder for my grandfather, being forced to move or the death of my grandmother in October of that same year. At least my aunt was still living with him, so he wasn't completely alone. Not long after moving though he was faced with the decision of putting Fury down at the age of 32. Now he was left with Joe.

I think it turned out better than it could have, or so I thought. They went from having two acres to almost nine, and the house was a gorgeous log cabin on top of a hill. My grandfather had set to building himself another barn, as I could never see him not doing anything other than working with his hands. Despite not using any building plans, like most of his projects, it turned out rather good. The summer he finished it was the same summer I had been down there, so it turned into our project. Something we could work on together.

It was a cold night in Las Vegas on January 8, 2006 when my mom received a call from my aunt. They had decided to light the fireplace for some extra warmth before going to bed. Up until then they had no problems with it. Things were quiet when the fire alarm upstairs had gone off. By the time they realized that the fireplace had caught the roof on fire, the entire upstairs had been engulfed in smoke. My aunt had time to grab her phone and get out, only to see that half the house was already gone. The time it took the fire department to get there was not soon enough, as the house had completely crumbled due to the logs. All they could do was watch it burn, hoping the surrounding woods and barn wouldn't go with it. They hadn't even finished unpacking their things in those few months living there, but at least my grandmother wasn't around, as she was wheelchair bound and probably wouldn't have made it out in time.

After sorting through the rubble to salvage anything under the twisted support beam, only a few things had survived. The new foundation had been poured for another attempt at living in my aunt's dream log house, and things seemed okay for the time being. My other aunt had allowed them to live with her until the new house was built (minus a fireplace) and Joe was kept in the calving barn on the property. Twice a day my grandfather would go out to the barn to feed, after all, there was not much else for him to do. Every now and then he would go to town and visit with friends and family. On Sundays he would go to church, something he didn't do until my grandmother died. Finally, almost a year later the house was finished. I still say that it's upside down and backwards because the first crew had to be fired, but eventually it was livable.

This is where I came in. I knew from the time I was little that I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I was prepared to go through the eight years of school to get there. I had always planned on applying to the University of Tennessee so I could be closer to them, but little did I know that five and a half years later I would finally be graduating college. My grandfather knew a veterinarian that would hire me if I ever moved to Tennessee, so at least I had one thing going for me. Next job was deciding what to do in the mean time. After much thought I applied to Lincoln Memorial University, hoping I could get into the veterinary technician program with my pitiful GPA.

It wasn't long before I received the acceptance letter, one in which my mom was both excited and worried about how she was going to pay for it, seeing as though my sister was also entering college in the upcoming fall. I'm kind of glad I hadn't looked to see what the tuition costs would be before I made the plans to move…oh well, too late now. I figured at least I could still be going to school to learn what I loved, even if it wasn't for a doctorate degree. Most of all I would be around my grandfather and Joe, especially since they were both getting older.

My final semester in Las Vegas had come and gone, along with my truck and belongings in late November. On December 23 I made the final move to Tennessee. I moved in with my aunt and grandfather, who were both excited that I would be living with them. At least this way I could keep an eye on my grandfather while my aunt was at work.

After the long drive home, the first thing I did was run to the barn. I don't think I made it halfway there before Joe started nickering for me, and I could hear him dancing around in his stall. It had been a little over a year since the last time I had been around him. He remembered the sound of my voice, which sounds similar to my mother's. On one occasion that she came to visit before the house was finished, Joe had thought she was me, nickering and running out from my aunt's calving barn to greet me, or so he thought.

I'm not sure what compelled me to do so, but from the time I moved here until the death of my grandfather at the end of March, I made it a point to be able to care for Joe without him. I remember a story my grandfather had told me once about Joe not eating for two weeks when he was in the hospital. I was worried he would do the same thing, and for a week after it seemed as though he might. Every day I had gone out to the barn to feed for my grandfather was a stepping stone for the transition of him not being here. He now depends on me more than anyone else, and has become rather protective of me.

Waking up in the morning to feed Joe was the one thing my grandfather had to look forward to everyday. It gave him a reason to get up in the morning and do something. I had notice the week before he died that he was too tired to walk down to the barn, but never really thought anything of it. I still think Joe was the one who kept him going after my grandmother died, as well as everything else that had happen over those four years. It was because of Joe that we had something in common, and something he was proud of.