My grandfather’s horses

farfarsgard 001My grandparents’ house sits on top of a hill. Like so many other Swedish houses it is painted red with white trim.

Just below the house, in a grassy field where wild strawberries and nettles grow in summer, is the stable. It is an old, sagging wooden building, also painted red. Looking down at the stable from the kitchen window I can almost see my grandfather walking down that slope like he used to: his broad back and rolling gait, his rough, strong hands swinging at his sides.

I remember those hands so well. My grandfather was a carpenter and several of his fingertips were missing, ground down just below the cuticles in an accident with an electric planer. Even now I have a hard time imagining how my grandfather, always such a quiet man, would have reacted to such pain.

My grandfather was a very good carpenter. He was also very good with horses. As a young man in the 1930s he drove a horse coach between the small villages in this part of northern Sweden, and through the years he almost always kept a horse of his own.

The horse I remember best is Prins, a Norwegian Fjord horse with a light blonde coat, spiky mane and a dark streak down his back. In the summers I spent a lot of my time with Prins, feeding him carrots from grandmother’s garden, cleaning out his stall or just standing by the fence, brushing the flies off his back and legs with a birch branch.

Prins was a good working horse. In the spring he would help with the plowing and harrowing, preparing grandfather’s small potato fields where we grew our annual supply of potatoes. And in the fall he would pull the cart loaded with potato crates to the underground storage cellar down the road.

Prins was also a very clever horse and would escape from his stall no matter how you tried to lock it. It was the same in the paddock: when he felt like it he would break down the wooden fence and go where the grass was presumably greener. Finally my grandfather installed an electric fence to stop him once and for all. Prins studied the thin wire for a few minutes before walking straight into it.

After the inevitable shock he settled down and kept his distance, seemingly resigned to his fate, but a few days later I watched as he lay down on his side next to the fence, legs kicking frantically, moving awkwardly along the ground. He was escaping once again, this time by scooting out under the wire.

One of my fondest Christmas memories is being pulled through the dark, bitterly cold Swedish December night over creaking snow and glistening ice in a sleigh drawn by Prins, bells jingling around his neck, torches flickering on the back of the sleigh and a warm sheepskin thrown over my knees.

Eventually, Prins’ fate was sealed by the cleverness that had helped him so many times in the past. One night he escaped yet again from his stall, but this time somebody had left the oat crate open. In the morning one of my cousins found Prins, lying on his side, sweating and breathing heavily, his belly swollen. When the vet arrived it was already too late – all he could do was end the pain. After that my grandfather didn’t get any more horses and the stable remained empty.

My grandfather has been dead for several years now. He died one spring, curled up like a baby in a hospital bed. The last time I saw him he was so thin I barely recognized him; there was no strength left in him and barely any life. I rested my cheek on his and felt the rough, gray stubble but I knew that even though I could feel him, he was not really there anymore, he was already somewhere else.

Three days later he was dead. My grandmother closed his eyes.

I didn’t feel his presence there in the hospital, but even now I sense him beside me as I walk down that slope from the red and white house to the stable, as I lift the padlock off the crooked door and enter.

Inside, it still smells of horses and hay but all that is left are a couple of leather halters, some jars of saddle soap and tins sticky with the tar used on the horses’ hooves. Here, in the doorway, is where the horses used to stand, waiting to be harnessed or groomed and right there, inside the creaking door, is a hole in the floor, its edges worn smooth: a narrow, oblong shape between two boards. The horses made this hole, wearing away at the wood with their iron-shod hooves over the years.

Looking at it now I remember being a small child, running barefoot over these warped wooden boards, bravely putting my toes into that very hole, half expecting mice or rats to start nibbling at me.

Lingering in the musty smells I test the hole with the toe of my boot now, and I think of all those horses through the years being led out here by my grandfather. I think of them standing here, impatiently scraping the same board in the same spot, slowly but surely carving out a small, and to most people indecipherable, inscription to remember them, my childhood and my grandfather by.

(This is a translation of a piece I wrote for the Swedish newspaper Norran.)

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