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August 2019
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The Farrier’s Tale

The Farrier., originally uploaded by janet_farthing.

Winter and marriage have something in common: they’re both a state of mind. James Taylor once crooned, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” While it’s true that some folks enjoy the swift passage of the seasonal chill winter brings, others simply bear up to its frigid inconveniences and gloominess with gritted teeth and a grimly determined countenance. Still others try to thaw a few layers off the top frost with a healthy measure of humor and hibernation. I suppose that I (a seasoned veteran of multiple Nova Scotia and New England winters) fall somewhere in the latter category.

This is my fifth consecutive winter in Vermont, my eighth on this leg of Northeast living. My husband, who grew up on the far north shore of Lake Superior, shrugs off childhood memories of 40 below arctic temperatures, where the lake winds could easily bring frostbite to any exposed areas of flesh. He’s outside as I write, blowing snow in the midst of a damp, sunless, gray skied, cheerless day without complaint. My son is grabbing gobs of snow from the dense white piles and pounding them into patties, before summarily ejecting them from his plastic dump truck.

You could say we’re winter people.

In the midst of deep winter I always mourn the passing of the old Vermont farrier who once upon a time meandered down our dirt road in his ancient Dodge pick-up to shoe my Arab mare. B.F. was born and raised in Windham County, as were his mother and father before him. His father was a blacksmith too; a man skilled in the highly difficult job of forging the gargantuan shoes worn by draft horses. B.F. worked for years driving an oil truck, a job he admittedly hated, but from which he retired early so he could return to his real loves: blacksmithing and sugaring.

If I could, I’d give myself a good swift kick in the rear for idiotically failing (repeatedly) to bring out the tape recorder each time B.F. showed up. His gifted style of storytelling, coupled with a broad Vermont accent and quiet wisdom was powerful and magical. Suffice it to say, a former journalist should have known better. I’ve interviewed literally hundreds of people, most of whom liked to talk about themselves even when they professed shyness. But storytellers of B.F.’s class are born, not made. I knew it the first time he took a full 20-minute break between each hoof, pausing each time to wipe the copious amounts of sweat that had formed on his brow. I knew it when it took him three hours (most farriers take one) to shoe one horse for half the price of taciturn farriers half his age. I knew it from the way he’d hitch up the jeans on his husky short body and painstakingly pick up the old extracted nails littered on the ground with a small magnet fused onto the end of his hammer. Knew from the short silences and honking nose blowing that another great gem was coming.

“Did you know old [so and so] down to West-min-is-ter* West?” He asked one day as he smoothly clinched my Arab’s shoe.

“No, ‘fraid not,” I say (or something of the like).

“No? Well, he was down the road that-a-way a few miles, close to where mother and farther and I used to live. Had a couple of old Quarter Horses. Used to do his shoes for ‘im now and then.”

“Nice guy?”

“Honest enough. But right frugal. One day he says to me; ‘can you spare an hour to put on a set of shoes?’ And I says ‘sure enough.’ So I goes down to the farm and he’s got both of them horses hitched up, so I set to work. I finish the one and start on t’other, but he says, ‘No, just this one, we’ll worry ‘bout t’other later.’ I weren’t about to argue with him, so I pack up my tools and head out.”

Long pause. Brow mopping. Jean hitching. Nose blowing. And then:

“Nice day today. See where my ears is burnt? I done that sugaring. One day it was just too dern hot. It gave me the agonies for years, but then one day my grandson he left some Chapstick up to the house, and I stuck it in my pocket. Forgot about it. But when my ears got to itching bad, I rubbed some o’ that on good and they never have bothered me since.”

“That so?” I ask, squirming to hear the rest of the story about the old farmer. But I’m too polite to goad him with a reminder.

He files a hoof. Bangs a shoe and fits it to my horse. Shakes his head and bangs the shoe some more. Puts it down on his truck bed. Pulls out an old red bandana and begins wiping his face.

“Well, as I were sayin’, I packed up and gone about my business. But about two days later I get another call from that old timer. ‘You got an hour? I need a horse shod.’”

“I says, ‘I just been down your way to shoe t’other one. Why didn’t you want ‘im then?’”

Then, winking at me: “I gave him a bit of a hard time about it, see.”

“’He weren’t ready,’ he says to me. And that’s all he says. So I don’t ask no questions, I just go down the farm with some extra shoes made up, which is easy enough ‘cause them two horses had about the same size o’ feet.”

B.F. takes a long pull of coffee from his thermos and smiles.

“You used to have this little mare down to Sweet Tree Farm. That right?”

“Yeah, about a year ago. So this Quarter Horse…?”

“Used to do a lot of work down at Sweet Tree. Been working more since I retired, mind. Otherwise I’d keel over and die. Working’s the only thing keeps me going.”

“You don’t say.”

“So down to the farm I seen the one horse hitched up, but not th’other I done the day before. I figure he’s up to the barn. So I set about getting the shoes out and ready to shape. Just then the old guy comes to where I’m at on his tractor. ‘No, no,’ he says. ‘this here’s just a reset.’ So I says, ‘A reset? How can I reset shoes I ain’t even put on yet?’ He tells me to come round yonder to the back of the barn. So I do. And what do you think he’s got back there? That t’other horse, the one I shod the day before, dead as a buck on the ground. He’s got ‘im laid out there on his side. I guess I must’ve hesitated some ‘cause he says to me, he says, ‘What’re you standing there for? Them shoes are perfectly good. You just put im on Sat’day. Git ’em off a him and put ‘im on t’other one.”

“My God, what did you do?” I ask, appalled.

But B.F.’s twenty-minute-per-shoe break is up. He’s busy trimming, shaping, nailing and clinching. It’ll be a good twenty minutes or more before I’ll hear the end of this yummy yarn. If I want the punchline, I’ll have to wait. Patiently. Nobody interferes with the rhythm of a master storyteller; not even the storyteller’s paying client.

“He was a frugal son of a bitch, that one, like I said. But he had a point. Them shoes were good.”

But nowhere near as good as B.F.’s stories. They were treasures, and I miss them.

(*Local Vermonters pronounce the name of the town where I live “West-min-is-ter.” Flatlanders like myself pronounce it “Westminster,” which is how it’s spelled.)

© All rights reserved by Mary Alden-Allard. Content may not be reprinted except by express written permission of the author.

**Photo courtesy of Janet Farthing under the Creative Commons License.