Thursday, September 1, 2011


Short Fiction Inspired by & A Review of Demeter Fragrance Library Fresh Hay

I didn’t go with him that night to get lucky.  I wasn’t interested in a hook-up, a one night stand, the potential of a new friend-with-benes.  That Elvis song, “One Night With You”? Never had any appeal to me.  I’d waited much longer than my friends, who had given into to the overload of teenage hormones or the ease and convenience of the college overnight while I was still in the library studying.

After that, the opportunities for getting skin to skin with a stranger declined exponentially. It wasn’t something I was looking for, and definitely wasn’t worth spending my nights getting sweaty in meat market bars. I went to school, I went to synagogue, I went home.  Lather, rinse, repeat, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. Several years out of college and through my first year of law school, I had good grades, lots of friends, and I’d never been kissed.  Not once.  Not ever.  The longer it went on, the worse it got.  How do you tell someone over dinner on a first date that if they expect the night to end on the doorstep in a warm embrace, it will be a new experience for at least one of us?  Take it from me: when you’re twenty-seven, it’s not a conversation that goes well.

 So how did I end up rolling around in a stall full of hay with a man I barely knew? It started with a childhood wish – to have my own horse.

It was stupid, I guess. As a little girl I’d lived in the city in a sixth floor walk-up.  I was raised among concrete and weeds with few friends and absolutely no pets, due to my mother’s alleged allergies. I wasn’t even allowed to have a fish.  Growing up surrounded by giant buildings, I always thought of a horse as the ultimate symbol of everything I didn’t have – a majestic beast to ride over the wide open spaces of the Wild West, where no one’s stereotypically neurotic Jewish mother demanded you keep every piece of clothing pristine, never roll around in the mud (“Germs!”) or run through the rain (“You’ll catch your death out there!”) or sleep outside (“Only homeless people sleep outdoors!”) or keep an pet at all, much less inside the house (“Filthy creatures!”) No, nice Jewish girls did not go on dates with boys their mothers didn't know, did not wear pants when a freshly pressed, modest-length skirt was available, and they did not spend their time with farm animals.

I lived at home when I went to CUNY so the ban of all things that flew, swam, or otherwise moved on four legs continued.  Then when I moved out on my own, I stayed in the city in an even smaller studio than the cramped apartment I’d grown up in where my landlord was even more anti-animal than my mother.  Of all the things denied me as a child and all the 'good' habits encouraged under my mother’s watchful eye to the point that I perpetuated them even after I left her house, the “no animal” mandate seemed the one that made the least sense objectively, and therefore was the one the universe continued conspiring with my mother to keep.

Which I think is how I ended up as an intern on an organic farm in Eastern Oregon after spending a year studying at the only law school in America with a specialty in animal law.  I might not be able to have a pet, but by God I was determined the rest of the world would be welcoming of all things scaled, feathered, and furry.  I committed to my first year of law school and first summer internship with a frenzied energy I was sure would sustain me, and subsequently petered out somewhere around the first July day the temperatures closed in on a hundred and even the air seemed like it was dying of thirst. 

I’d taken the internship on a working farm that was part commercial venture, part co-op, thinking of all the animals I’d be surrounded by and all the different aspects of working and living with animals I’d be able to absorb in three short months, which was one of the weakest parts of my animal law resume.   Too stubborn to quit and too embarrassed to admit  how at completely useless I was at manual labor, I tried and failed each day to be a help to the farm. Overcome by my own ineptitude at last, I sat in one of the clean stalls in the large barn that afternoon, hiding from the heat and the experienced farmhands who endured my feebled attempts with little grace while I cried.

I’d been up since four and it was late into the afternoon when I finally broke down. The string of long days of physically demanding work had worn me down to a pitiful nub. Twenty-seven years old, and I’d never yearned for my overbearing mother more.  I longed for her to swoop down on me, demand to know what on Earth I was doing in my filthy farm clothes, and then drag me back to Brooklyn. I was so absorbed in my Fiddler fairy godmother rescue fantasy, I didn’t hear Cooper until he burst out laughing.

Pulling my pride up around me, I yelled at him, which just made him laugh harder, until he was doubled over and wiping at his eyes.  I tried to get by him, determined to pack my things, sell my car, and be on the first flight back to New York and Brooklyn Law where I belonged, but he kept blocking my exit.  When he finally collected himself, he dragged me through the barn to where the horses were boarded. 

I kept asking myself why I didn’t leave as I watched him lead one horse, then another out of the stables.  Truthfully, I was taken with the horses, and by the way Cooper handled them without a word, using various clucking and shushing noises along with his hands to communicate with them.  The first was a solid black horse with a superior air, and I could tell by the way it snorted and shook its head every time it looked in my direction that it knew I’d never been this close to a horse in my life.  The second, though, was a tall and lean horse the color of dark honey with a long blonde mane.  Cooper saddled both horses as I stood uncertainly near the large open doors of the barn, shifting my weight uneasily from foot to foot in my uncomfortably new boots, trying to decide if I should stay or go.

“Here,” he said finally, drawing the word out in his wide mouth as he gestured for me to come over to the second horse.  I dithered, and he pursed his lips, gesturing again at me insistently.  I stumbled over to him. Cooper grabbed my hand in his and dragged it down the brown horse’s long forehead.  The horse snorted in a friendly way. Taking the cue I kept stroking, and it nudged me with its muzzle encouragingly.

“She likes you,” Cooper said just behind my ear. Any other time I would have been nervous to have a man standing that close, but I was so enamored with the horse I barely acknowledged him.

The horse was beautiful.  She was everything I'd ever wanted in an animal, but I knew immediately she wasn’t a pet.  She was a companion.  You could see it in her eyes, in her movement, in the way she encouraged things she liked and shook off things she didn’t.  Lost in my first genuine interaction with the kind of friend I’d longed for as a little girl, I was more surprised than the horse was when Cooper lifted all hundred and sixty pounds of me like I was a bag of potatoes off the ground and placed me in the saddle.  Throwing my leg over out of instinct more than anything kind of knowledge, I teetered in the seat. Cooper smiled at me and handed me the reins, then walked over and hopped onto the broad back of the black horse like it was as natural as breathing.

Giving his horse a gentle nudge, Cooper headed out of the barn and toward the open land beyond the small paddock nearby.  With only the tiniest bit of encouragement from me, my horse walked smoothly after them, carrying me along as I awkwardly bounced around on her back.  As we reached the edge of the residential portion of the property, Cooper and his horse stopped short and my horse cruised to a stop next to him, as if by silent command.

“You’re having a hard time,” Cooper said unexpectedly.  I turned to look at him, shielding my eyes from the sun which was still bright despite it being close to seven o’clock in the evening.  “But you got a lot of guts for trying this in the first place.  I like a girl with guts.”
I swallowed, too stunned to say anything.  Cooper hadn’t said more than “Morning, Ma’am” and “Evening, ma’am”  to me since I’d arrived.  I knew he’d been working at the farm for about eight years, hoping to save up the money to buy property of his own one day.  People on the farm said he was hard working and had a good head for numbers, so they suspected he’d get there eventually.  Beyond that, I didn’t know anything about him except that his neck had a perpetual sunburn and he didn’t seem to own anything that didn’t look like it had faded from about a hundred washes.  To say I was stunned that this man had taken it upon himself to drag me about five miles on a horse into the middle of East Oregon Nowhere and give me lecture on my character was an understatement.

My horse, apparently, agreed with him, snorting and nodding as he spoke. “You’re working too hard, and you’re not working smart. Every now and then, you need to take a break. I see the way you watch the horses and I figure you’ve probably never touched one, let alone ridden one. I thought, before you bolted back to the city, you should probably try it once.” He turned his head toward me, squinting as if he was waiting for confirmation.

It was presumptuous, arrogant, and condescending.  Unfortunately, it was also true.  I flapped my trap open and shut once or twice, trying to think of a retort.  Finally I gave up.  I’d already made up my mind to leave that night.  What was the point in arguing?

“What’s my horse’s name?” I asked instead.

“That,” he said gesturing in my direction, “is Sweet Pea. She’s a Tennessee Walking Horse. They make better pleasure horses than work horses, but she's a good girl and right now she’s about as much as you can manage.”

Never one to back down from a challenge, I frowned at the characterization, both of me and my horse, who I already felt protective of.  Cooper ignored me. “And this here is Lucky,” he said, patting his own horse, who shook his head in a haughty manner at his name. “He’s an Arabian and little too strong for you to handle.”

“Like you know what I can handle,” I muttered, then felt the color drain from my face as both Cooper and his horse shook with laughter in response.

“We’re gonna keep it pretty slow, but if you get scared, just pull on her reigns,” he said demonstrating. “You don’t have to pull hard. Sweet Pea’s a good listener; she’ll stop right away.”

“What are we doing?” I asked, wondering what I had let this stranger get me into.

“We’re gonna go for a ride,” he said simply.  Then he urged Lucky forward, and took off without so much as a glance back in my direction.  I sat uncertainly in my saddle as I watched his figure growing smaller in the distance. 

Sweet Pea turned her head to eyeball me, and I could see the mixture of excitement to run and disappointment in me as a rider all over her pretty face. “All, right,” I said weakly, gripping the reigns tightly in both hands.  “It’s your show.” Sweet Pea needed no other encouragement, and took off after Lucky and Cooper at a slow gallop.

We spent the next two hours running in circles all over the hills and plains around the farm.  By the time we finally made it back to the barn, my back was aching and I thought I’d never walk right again, but I practically floated above my saddle.  Riding Sweet Pea was by far one of the most exhilarating experiences I’d ever had.  I’d felt completely connected to my environment – to Sweet Pea and the rhythm of our synchronized movements, to the earth underneath us, to the wind flying around us.  The world was brighter, the air smelled richer, and I felt free.  For the first time in my life, I’d been truly alive.

Cooper helped ease me down from the saddle and held me until my wobbly legs found purchase.  I tried to step away from him, but my muscles gave out beneath me, and Cooper grabbed me and held me up. “You’re like a new foal,” he chuckled.

I made my way back over to the empty stall where he’d found me and collapsed onto the large bales of fresh hay as I watched him water and rubdown the horses.  After he’d finished taking care of them and putting our bridles and saddles away, he came over and sat down next to me.

“Thanks,” I said with weary wonder, and he nodded with signature stoicism. Looking at him, I wondered if there was a picture of Cooper in the dictionary under the idiom “strong and silent type.” It was mostly dark in the barn, the only light from a single overhead lamp that threw long shadows in the center of the room but left the corners dark. 

The quiet stretched out around us.  I could sense Cooper getting ready to leave, but I didn’t want the magic of the evening to end.   It was as if every cell in my body still vibrated with the thrumming beat of the horses’ hooves, and that energy was the life force contained in all the atoms of the universe.  It made me feel bold and reckless, as wild and impetuous as the breeze blowing across the valley. 

In the eight years since that night, that’s the only explanation I’ve come up with for what happened next, which was entirely my doing.  I could blame it on the way the light highlighted the blond streaks in his hair or the way the shadows played across the planes of his face. I could blame it on the fact that I hadn’t eaten in fourteen hours and had spent the entire afternoon getting a terrible sunburn and possibly heat stroke.  I could blame it on the music of the night and the sweet smell of the hay clinging to the warm air around us. I could blame it on the fact that I could barely move I was so stiff from riding for the first time, and my legs were made of jelly and every part of me was simply too tired to leave the barn.  But the truth is, I’d had the best time of my life with a man I barely knew to speak to, and I didn’t want it to end.

So I kissed him. 
 . . . . . . 

“And that, my dear,” I said, as I pulled the last cookie sheet from the oven and placed it on the cast iron trivet on the kitchen table, “is how a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn ended up a part-time country lawyer and mother of three beautiful girls living on a farm in Eastern Oregon.”

June grabbed a cookie off the sheet before I could stop her, juggling it to keep from burning her fingers. “So that’s what Gramma Esther meant? We live here because daddy got you his horse?”

“Yes, Sweet Pea.” I said, trading her a cookie from the cooling rack for the hot one in her hand and kissing my six year-old daughter on the head as she shoved the entire thing in her mouth. “Because I got lucky.”

June scrunched her nose as she thought about it. “I shtill don’t get ith,” she said, crumbs falling out of her mouth.

“Don’t worry, Sweet Pea. Someday, you will,” I replied, laughing to myself as June grabbed another cookie and ran out of the kitchen.

Demeter Fresh Hay is succinctly described as follows:
The smell of fresh cut hay on a hot summer day; does it take you back there, too?
Pretty accurate. Sometimes it hits me and I think cedar or pencil shavings. Mostly though? Lots of big fat piles of hay.

 It reminds me of every rodeo and livestock show I ever went to growing up. I suspect if I layered it on with some cotton candy and animal musk and civet it would immediately bring back the sick sweet smell of those memories. It’s a smell that I have not encountered in a bottle, and that I’m sure would be instantly recognizable if otherwise utterly unwearable.

Fresh Hay itself, though, is really nice.  I think it would make a good base for layering attempts, though to me its a wearable scent in its own right.

See other pieces in the series here.


Undina said...

Wow... I really enjoy reading your stories. They are so real... Because of how great they are I will do my best to get to try all these scents.

Diana said...

Undina, that is so sweet. Particularly since you don't think the scents are super valuable given their short skin life. I appreciate the vote of confidence in my writing. :)