Heaven on the Hill

My fiancé gets lost in a herd of horses that stand as tall as him at the shoulder, scratching behind the ears of those who aren’t too busy eating a freshly spread bale of hay. You and I are leaning against the electric fence, watching him. That fence was never turned on when we visited; I think you were afraid to hurt the animals. I ask you how many horses you have.

You take a drag on your cigarette before waving indifferently in the horses’ direction.

“Not as many as I once had. I came home from overseas and there were nearly thirty at one point. Guess they couldn’t stop fucking.”

I spit out a laugh and look outwards towards Ty. He’s smiling and I think of how innocently he’s scratching the ears of your self-proclaimed “horny bastards.”

Frank, your Jack Russell mix, sits impatiently at your heels waiting for the cigarette butt to fall from your hands so that they’re freed up to hold him. But just as I lean over to give him a pat, he takes off at full speed towards the hill behind your home, barking the entire way. Curious, my eyes follow the white and brown blur to his target: the poor donkey, whose history is as mysterious as the bullet hole in his ear.

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“He really hates that donkey, huh?” I ask. Frank nips at the heels of the beast, unperturbed by the sheer size difference between him and his opponent.

Another drag. “Nobody likes that fuckin’ donkey.” Silly me, I remember. How could I forget that Frank can do no wrong?

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It’s less than a minute before the other dogs join in with Frank’s miniature assault. Several Newfies, one elderly Maltese, and Frank all barking and nipping until the donkey struts away, unharmed yet agitated. The sight is a true menagerie. All it takes is one whistle, and the whole herd of pooches is at your feet, ready to receive affection from whichever hand isn’t holding the cigarette.

This day could very well be the last time I see you on this farm, but I’m not entirely certain. The memories of my time spent visiting you bleed together because every time is nearly always the same: Ty and I get out of the car, the dogs assault us with kisses and absolutely wreck my jeans with their slobbery jowls. Ty helps you with some task you find mundane but usually requires more than one man, even though you acted like you’d be fine on your own. I half-heartedly offer to help even though you know I’m better off teasing the guinea hens and peacocks. We play with the dogs and joke about stealing Frank for ourselves.

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Every visit started the same; every visit ended the same. We’d start with the task and spend the rest of the evening milling about the property, where you’d visit with each animal and talk about your “dickhead neighbor,” until we’d settle just outside the barn, listening to your monotone musings about the world. Your quick wit would echo through the stories you shared, leaving us in both tears of laughter and quiet awe. Those stories seemed so far from those forty or so acres of what, I can only assume, are a carbon copy of the heaven you’re in now.

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We had talked about getting married up there on the farm. You were excited about it. You had some ideas about where we could hold the ceremony, including the field where that she-devil cow lived.

“Scoop some shit piles out of the way and you’ll be good,” you offered up. I laughed but kept my nervous eye on the cow as she stared me up and down. You noticed the fear.

“I’ll make sure the cow is on another field the day of. No one upstages her and lives to tell the tale.”

My wedding took place at an old factory just a few months after your funeral. Without those wild acres to access for a momentary escape from the crowd, I became overwhelmed. I tried to sneak outside and grab a cigarette. Someone offered me a Marlboro red. Your absence was noted.

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I saw your partner in a gas station some months afterward. I asked him about the horses.

Sold most of them, he said. I felt you turn over a thousand times in your urn. The love you gave for years to those animals just up and left, much like you.

You loved those animals like nobody else would. Although you’d do anything for your horses, I recall your absolute refusal to put down that limp-riddled duck and the peacock that was missing a leg, both hobbling among the rest of the birds, as nervous as they probably should be. Then there was Dr. Butters, the miniature horse who was constantly trying to make nookie with the Clydesdales; a feat in its own right, regardless of his success rate. You’d even complain about the wild fox that “fucked up that turkey real bad,” but did you ever once consider putting the birds behind a fence? You’d act like it was too much work to do so, but in reality, we all knew you had a soft spot for free range. Most farmers would allow the fox to meet its maker, but I had never seen a gun in your home.

No animal was unhappy there. The birds, the dogs, the horses - all living a life of carefree whimsy we should all envy.

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I’m not sure if building a mini sanctuary was your original intention when you first purchased that farm. When it came right down to it, I don’t think there was much I actually knew about you. From the very beginning, you were just a manifest of stories I heard around the dining room table.

Uncle Doug, the one who worked in NYC and the first call when the towers went down.

The one who, from month to month, could be in a different country in the Middle East.

The one who only came around during Christmas; sometimes with a kimono wrapped in fancy paper, other times with straight cash - I assume because it had been years since you saw us, and you weren’t sure what size we were or what we liked anymore.

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For the longest time and even now, years after your death, you were a mystery. I only knew what you liked and disliked from the one-liners you’d serve up in your stories, but never from the  hard conversations you refused to have with us. Instead, you would let the farm talk for you. Your empathy lived in the creatures who roamed the hills; your sentiment meandered through the trees by way of sunsets. You seemed to keep your emotions at arm’s length and padded by a healthy barrier of wit, but you paved an obvious path to your heart through the winding road that led to your farm.

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I’d be hard-pressed to find the ways we were truly alike. You loved to travel - who doesn’t - and you kept an open mind - a huge feat in Central Pennsylvania. But even if we were in no way similar, I think what brought us together later in life was not just your collection of stories ranging far and wide, spanning continents and cultures. It was how, at the end of the day, you didn’t seek an escapist adventure. All you wanted was to come home to the farm; that heaven on the hill.

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