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The Foal

There. Can you see us? Two young men sat on the dry roots, beneath an ash tree. It is getting late, and the sky is full of stars – a cool evening in early May, maybe ten years ago now. I am from England, my friend is from Spain. The tree stands at the end of a sandy lane, and the fields in each direction are planted with potatoes, a landscape well appropriated for agriculture. To the west, beyond the fields is an old house, surrounded by trees, lit from within. Beyond that the orange embers of dusk subtly give way to blue, that subtly gives way to starry black. Leaves of wild garlic grow round the shaded side of the ash and the smell is quite pungent even on this dry night. Scattered amongst the grasses are dead branches, perfect for firewood, shaken free by the wind. Conversation is gentle, of things that concern young men wherever they come from, in whatever times. And we talk of the mysteries presented to us by the vast bowl of cosmos above us, and the life which riots and streams all around, in its countless forms. Because we are calm and still, even the animals are not afraid.

In the South sky - discernible through overhanging tree branches - is the kite-shaped Boötes, the ploughman driving his oxen westwards by the light of lamp Arcturus, towards the seated king Leo the lion, regally gazing beyond the horizon. Saturn is prominent.

My friend speaks of patterns in nature that repeat endlessly, on every tier of order, from the arrangement of molecules of water in a snowflake - each one unique in the history of snowflakes - to the distribution of dust throughout galaxies, giving birth to the star systems that alight and humbly take their place along vast spiral arms. These patterns, he explains, are known as fractals, and their observation may lend some insight into a nature that seems both complex and chaotic. I see him in that moment, a young man, looking out into the vastness of his world, contemplating in his leisure the wonders of our own time.

Earlier that evening, a horse on the farm had gone into labour. My Spanish friend, having only that day arrived in the North of England found himself part of a family’s spontaneous effort. Only that morning he had been navigating through the streets of London; here he was now helping us to bed a horse’s stable up with fresh straw.

A foal’s hind leg had appeared from what is known amongst country people as ‘the business end’ of the mare. But this was a big leg and the brave mare seemed to be struggling to see through the delivery. This great animal would lie down with a lean and a flop, filling the stable with her presence, reaching her head round again and again to where she was sore. And then struggling to stand back up again her feet would crash against the wooden walls of the stable with lethal force. Neither standing up nor lying down seemed to calm her and a woman - my father’s sister - and we two young men, tiny in comparison here, did our best to keep out of her way as she struggled about. When the mare was back on her feet, my aunt decided that we would have to intervene, and so a rope made into a noose was tied around the foal’s leg. The mare having being handled all her life by human beings, seemed to understand that these people were there to help her and allowed us to work around her. And the three of us pulled at this rope in timed heaves, with every bit of strength in our arms, but the as yet unborn foal seemed impossibly huge and heavy, and for a time it felt as though our efforts has not budged the animal one inch. The rope was soaked with the mare’s waters and just as our hands were beginning to slip, there was movement. It was sudden and the immediate slackening of the rope caused us to fall back on each other in an awkward heap. A head now, and another foot were visible. We immediately prepared ourselves again and now our pulling seemed more effective, every heave seemed to bring the foal a little closer to us, and once her shoulders were clear a final heave brought her clean out.

The foal landed with quite a thud on the ground, and this boy from Spain and I, being inexperienced, felt this might have hurt the foal. She was born with a great deal of fluid, some of it clear like water and the rest more organic, like a kind of bloody soup, spilling out onto the dry straw around her. But there was something perfectly miraculous about this moment: a new life had been born from these fluids, her body smooth, her features - her eyes, her ears, her mouth, her tongue - perfectly formed. The foal, in her first few seconds of consciousness, looked around her and blinked, and I was conscious of the sights, and sounds, and other senses that must have been flooding into her, making the first great impressions in her mind. Her ability to see, her ability to stand, her ability to take milk from her mother – all these she was born with, and realised within minutes of her birth. Hers after all is a design perfected throughout history, through countless generations. Entering the farmhouse from the chill of this May evening, we had noticed for the first time the blood on our arms and clothes. After cleaning up and getting changed, we had stood in the kitchen reflecting excitedly on the evening’s main event. We took a glass of red wine each to celebrate, which coated our throats and warmed our chests. And it was from here that the boy from Spain and I took off down the sandy lane, to get some peace underneath the ash tree.

I spot a dim light between the branches above our heads, just a little light, but as it could be observed passing slowly through a perfect arc across the night sky, this was no star or planet. I point it out: “satellite” and he saw it then, and we watch it for a couple of minutes as it makes slow progress in this part of its orbit around the Earth. He remembers the great city he has only just left – where right at that moment people were crammed onto the pavements or on subway trains, moving as one mass of human activity. We can almost feel their rumbling. But a world away, sat on these dry roots, surrounded by growing things, we are realising a freedom that is easily forgotten in the city and we laugh, glad for once not to be a part of it. I become conscious of ourselves as right at the beginning of our adult lives. I have never been the picture of humility, but I realised then that it was with humility and faithfulness that we were passing through the course of our lives. Right then a wind picked up and shook the branches and the leaves of the tree. We sat there in silence for a couple of minutes and there was something delicious about the chill of the evening and the stillness of that moment. And, without words, we picked ourselves up and set off back down the sandy lane for the farmhouse.

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