I listened to the awake sounds her breathing made until she fell asleep. It was late when I snuck out to the porch, and I could see the stars as they never show at home. I walked right past Great-grandpa without looking at him and sat on the second porch step. Settled on the stair, I heard his voice, slow utterances to soothe a spooked animal or child.
“Grass under my head, the hoof of the white horse beside me. When I was a boy, dry grass at my feet. A cool creek hidden. Grass in my hands at the horse’s muzzle, water on my lips. At home the brown smell of baking, and prairie wind in through the window. In the evenings, grass under my head.”
His voice opened mine. With my back to him I told him something secret. And I knew by the way his breathing quieted while I spoke that he was listening, and had heard.
“You never knew that, did you,” I said and stood up, slipped back in through the screen door quieter than hair slips from a head.
I followed Grandma out to the barn in the morning. We fed Old Bruce, the only horse she still kept. Old Bruce was an Appaloosa with long lashes. There were hollows above his eyes and he liked to lean his forehead against ours. I stood there, in the dusty air, my forehead against the wide bone of his face, and we breathed into each other’s noses. Great-grandpa had taught me to do that when I was small. “Let him learn your smell,” he’d said, and I’d stepped up onto the first rung of the fence to reach him. Old Bruce had smelled of chewed grass. I smelled of apples and bread. “He knows you now,” he’d said. After that I began to crawl onto Great-grandpa’s lap in the evenings to learn his smell, my white, freckled forehead against his dark one. Soon I grew too old for this. I became aware of what this sort of intimacy means between others. I stopped, though I didn’t want to, and settled for breathing into Old Bruce.
“Great-grandpa’s not sleeping,” I told Grandma. “I looked in on him last night.”
Old Bruce let out a deep huff, and Grandma thumped a Bible against her thigh. She’d taken to carrying it since Great-grandpa moved out to the porch. We let Old Bruce into the corral to stretch his legs, and headed back to the house. We didn’t know what to do. Great-grandpa was taking up all the space with his stillness. His resolution was inescapable; it spread into the house and yard as completely as grass spread over the prairie.