Snowflake and Swallow
by Brenda McBride of Enumclaw, WA
One of the most appealing aspects of barns is that they are full of mysteries. There are hidden corners with rusting tools hanging on the walls. Sometimes, you can find a harness from days gone by, salty from the sweat of horses and dusty, still hanging on a hook in a tack room. We have a goat milking stand in the back of the barn that is festooned with cobwebs. You never know when you might need something like that. Mice make nests in the hay and dance in your fingers when you pull off a flake. Kittens are born under floor boards and barn cats prowl silently around the dark edges. At night, the barn creaks and groans. Animals dream their dreams and lives are lived and dramas played out, unknown by us.
Our old barn houses many animals. Pigeons, mice, bats, cats and horses make their home there. But the heart of the barn is an old white Arabian mare named Snowflake. She will live out the rest of her life here. She is almost 33, but I suspect she has many years left to her. She belonged to us once, years ago, when our daughter, Meg, was 14 and a dainty white horse with blue ribbons in her mane and tail, filled her dreams, day and night. When Meg grew up and started pondering the possibilities of her life, she passed Snowflake on to another girl with horse dreams. Alas, that girl grew up too, and Snowflake is back with us once again.
Snowflake is the friendly greeter on the farm. I don’t think she has ever met a creature, two or four legged, that she hasn’t liked. If she were a human, she would be an ambassador of good will to some difficult nation. If she were a dog, she would be a golden retriever. If she were a cat, she would be – well, she would NEVER be a cat!
The magical thing about Snowflake is that every animal around here loves her too. She gets along with all of the horses that board here and barn cats sleep in her manger. Many times, when I go into her stall to feed her in the morning, I will find a flock of sparrows gathered around her feet. She moves delicately among them.
Above her stall, is a swallow’s nest. It is woven with the soft, white hair that Snowflake sheds in the spring. Every April, this swallow returns to her nest. (At least I like to think it is always the same bird.) When I open the barn doors in the mornings, she hurtles out past my head. She and her mate are busy, right away, touching up the nest, then sitting on the eggs and raising their young ones. At night, when I close up the barn, I like to look at her, tucked into her nest. She quietly looks down at me.
It is then that I imagine Snowflake and Swallow communicating to each other, bird to horse, somewhat like the animals in Charlotte’s Web. Swallow would certainly speak “horse” because she is a traveling bird and has a knack for languages. Maybe, in this midnight barn, when all is quiet except for the mice creeping about, stealing grain, and the barn cats sneaking around, stealing mice, maybe Swallow tells Snowflake about the sights she has seen in her travels. She would tell how she has crossed great mountains and flown along the coast of an endless ocean. She would tell Snowflake about the warm land where she spends the winter under the cool eaves of a stone church, where flowers bloom always and there are insects, galore, to eat. I think that Swallow might feel sorry for a horse that stays in one place, year after year.
But Snowflake would see life differently. She would tell Swallow that she feels safe in familiar places. The longer she stays in one place, the better. She understands the land then. She knows where warm pockets of air linger in a pasture glistening with frost. She knows how to squeeze through a garden gate and eat fresh corn and she sees the Big Dipper spin around in the sky over the barn on warm summer nights. Snowflake would tell about the apples that fall to the ground when the weather gets cold and how pink blossoms blow across her back when the spring peepers sing in the pasture. Other animals may come and go from the barn, but Snowflake remains. She is there in April when Swallow arrives and catches tufts of white hair from the blackberry bushes, to soften her nest, and she is standing there when Swallow departs in September to her winter home.
They are two such different animals. One is free and unencumbered by anything save her own instincts, the other, a beast of burden, dependant on humans for everything, yet seemingly content and attached to the people who provide her with kindness.
Do animals communicate? I think so. Probably not like this, but I think it is possible that Snowflake and Swallow might recognize each other. Does Snowflake anticipate Swallow’s arrival in the spring? Does the horse scent of Snowflake tell Swallow that she is home at last? I wonder if they are friends.
Now it is deep winter. It is dark when I get up in the morning and dark before the table is set for supper. Swallow’s nest is empty and I wonder where she is, exactly. Snowflake is sporting a warm, new blanket and gets an extra ration of grain to ward off the cold. The longest day of the year is almost upon us and Christmas is chugging around the corner, a sparkling beacon in the dark.
There is an old fable that says, on the stroke of midnight, on Christmas Eve, all of the animals in the barn kneel in the straw and speak in human voices. I am a mature woman now and I know what’s what. But every Christmas Eve, when I turn out the back porch light before I go to bed, I look for a minute at the darkened barn and I wonder.