When our baby daughter was born, it was a bittersweet affair. My mother had died just months beforehand. We knew she had been ill for a while. We’d made the trip up north a couple of times; my mother held her hand to my wife’s belly and felt our daughter kick. Her eyes lit up. She told us she couldn’t wait until she was born. But cancer doesn’t answer to prayers. Tilly was seven months pregnant when my mother died.
Just before the birth, we had a call from my Uncle to say a fairly good sum was to be deposited into an account in my name. It was more than I’d expected, and with a baby on the way, it was going to make such a difference.
Sarah was born a healthy baby girl. We were shocked to find out she was meant to be one of twins but early in the pregnancy she had absorbed her sister. We were told this was common and that it shouldn’t have any detrimental effects. They did say that she could have a teratoma (twin tumour), however they would do routine scans to check.
We set up the spare room for her; with state of the art baby alarms so if she rolled over in the night we’d know. We also got a night-vision camera so we could keep an eye on her from our phones.
A few months after she was born, we had begun to get into a routine and Tilly did a good job looking after her when I went to work. I returned one Friday afternoon to a large crate that Tilly had brought into the living room. I checked the return address and immediately recognised it as my Great Uncle’s.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I’ve not opened it. I have to feed Sarah,” she said, leaving the room.
I went to the garage to get a crowbar. Returning, I looked at the wooden box and for the life of me, had no idea what it contained.
I cranked the metal rod into the corner, the side came away with a satisfying crack and as it fell to the floor I saw the contents. I stood confused as I peered at the pristine rocking horse that sat within.
Tilly returned, holding Sarah and asked, “I heard the bang, so what is it?”
“It’s a rocking horse,” I said confused.
I pulled off the top of the crate with my hands and revealed it to my wife.
“Wow, that looks expensive. You say it’s from your uncle?”
I spent a few moments admiring it before seeing a small note attached to the saddle.
“What does it say?” Tilly asked as I removed it.
“‘Dear Greg, I apologise for not sending this over earlier. It’s been a stressful time for all involved, but your mother wanted you to have this. Treat it with the love she did.'”
“It certainly looks well made.”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it.”
Later that evening, when Sarah was down to sleep, we carried it upstairs.
“Christ, is this made of solid wood or something,” Tilly grumbled, struggling with its weight as we negotiated the stairs.
“Just a couple more feet,” I encouraged.
We stopped on the landing.
“Where are we going to put it?” she asked.
“I don’t know. We can put it in Sarah’s room?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head, “She’s too small for that.”
“We can just put it under the window, it’s probably what mum wanted.”
“Maybe later, let’s put it in the box room.”
“Fine,” I said, as we dragged it through the hallway and shoved it into the far corner of the room.
Tilly went to feed Sarah and I admired the rocking horse from afar. Something triggered in the back of my mind, nothing more than a vague image of me holding a plastic gun, telling my dad off for not knowing Tonto wasn’t a horse.
Trying to raise a child in the middle of the city was an ordeal we didn’t predict. As the clubs and bars let out, so did the lungs of the patrons. The early hours of the morning were peppered with the shouts and songs of drunk people, young and old, and on many occasion Sarah woke crying.
The baby monitor would buzz in unison with our phones, as the app announced our new baby girl was having problems sleeping.
“I’ll go,” I croaked one night.
Tilly muttered her thanks, rolled over and went straight back to sleep. I entered the hallway and the wooden horse caught my eye. Gently, it rocked back and forth. I walked into the room, my heart thumping hard in my chest. I reached out with my hand. Sarah’s wailing rang out again. I turned and hurried into her room. She was lying on her back, crying. I picked her up.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
She continued to scream.
Looking out the window, I saw a small group of drunk people sway in and out of traffic, singing some song I don’t think any of them knew the lyrics to. I watched until they went out of sight, their drunken chorus lost to the night. I wound up the mobile above Sarah’s bed and gently rocked her as the lullaby gradually sent her to sleep.
Carefully, I placed her back into her crib. I stayed for a moment, to check she was asleep and when I was sure, I left.
In the hallway, I looked at the rocking horse, it sat motionless, lit ever so delicately by the ambient light. I went back to bed.
“I knew I would see you at some point. I wish it was under better circumstances, but it is very nice to meet Sarah all the same,” my Great Uncle Jack said, then cooed at the bundle in Tilly’s arms.
He slouched in his seat, the years weighing him down.
“Come a little closer,” he beckoned me with his hand.
He adjusted his glasses and squinted.
“My how you’ve grown, how old are you now?”
He reached out, his rough fingers trailed down my cheek fondly.
“You know, you can visit us anytime you like, we’ve missed you. We’d like to see Sarah as she grows.”
He looked over to my Great Aunt Jess, who creaked back and forth in her rocking chair, blissfully in her own world, knitting what I assumed was something for Sarah.
“Sorry Uncle Jack, we live so far away, with all the travelling I do, I barely had time to visit mum before she died.”
“It’s okay, it’s just when you get old, you want to see more of your family. I am very happy to see you. Why don’t you sit down, you’re making the room look untidy.”
We sat on the couch opposite him. That distinctive smell of old wafted out of the fabric. A stale but familiar odour.
“So you want to know all about the rocking horse?”
“You loved that thing when you were a kid. You’d spend hours riding it, pretending to be a cowboy.”
Aunt Jess looked up from her knitting and said, “We’ve got to get those Indians Simon, that’s what you’d say.”
“Simon?” I said, and I remembered.
I’d pretend I was in the wild west, I had two six shooters in my pockets. I smiled at the memory.
“Your dad told you to pretend you were The Lone Ranger, with your horse Tonto. And even though you were only four, you’d correct him and say Tonto was the Lone Ranger’s friend, not the horse, and that your horse’s name was Simon.”
“Yeah, I remember that. Who was Simon?”
Jack’s gaze drifted, “Your mother’s twin brother.”
Slightly taken aback, I queried, “Mum never mentioned him?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t remember him at all.
“Back when they were born, this was a farm. Her Dad and I used to run the place. He did the fields and I tended the animals.”
His expression sobered as he began to recollect.
“What you probably don’t know is that cows scream. It’s a horrendous noise that can be heard for miles around, you never get used to it. I remember dreading those nights when the cows began to calve.
“For the cows to make milk, they need to produce offspring. And as soon as those little babies are born, we take them away.”
He saw the horrified look on Tilly’s face.
“The male calves, we sent them to slaughter the next day. As they couldn’t produce milk, they’d be sold as veal.
“The female ones we fed on their mother’s milk, but slowly transferred them over to a substitute. And those mothers, not knowing what happened to their newborns, they’d cry out in the night. They’d scream until they could only wheeze.
“Your mother couldn’t stand the sound of their pain. She’d be awake all night crying. Her brother would hear her sob, leave his room, get in bed with her, and hug her until she fell asleep. They became inseparable after that.”
“That’s horrible,” I blurted out without thinking.
“There is very little about farming animals that isn’t. They say there is more suffering in dairy than in meat, but tell that to a milk drinking vegetarian.
“Simon liked to play out in the fields, run down the tractor lines playing hide and seek, go fishing by the lake, or pick apples from the orchard. Your mother would humour him. But what she really liked was to spend time with the horses. She loved to groom them, she could do that all day. But her brother always found this boring, and it wouldn’t be long before he’d leave and she would cry again.
“Simon, caring beyond his years, put up with it. But one early spring day, bored, he pulled too hard on a thoroughbred tail and with one swift kick, he was taken from us. The doctor said he was gone before his head hit the hay.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, we all were. It was just so unexpected. He was buried over there,” he pointed out the window, “one of his favourite places.
“That’s where the orchard was, there are some apple trees left, as well as the tree he was buried next to. Your great granddad was a fine carpenter. He made an immaculate coffin for him out of one of Simon’s most favourite apple trees, the one he added the rope swing to, it made my heart ache.”
I got up and saw the overgrown trees that now marked the long since gone orchard and I wondered if he slept well.
“Your mother was different after that, it was as if part of her had died. They say that about twins don’t they, that they are connected. It was unfortunately only a couple of days away from the calving season. And when those cows started screaming, so did your mother.
“She went and slept in her mother and father’s bed, but they were no substitute for Simon. A couple of days into the season, they woke up and couldn’t find her. They roused me and we searched the house.
“It was still dark when we went outside and saw the light. It was only a dot in the distance, a small speck in the orchard. We ran, worried it was the start of a fire. But when we got there, we saw your mother sleeping soundly under her thick duvet, next to her brother’s grave. Her dying flashlight lay next to her. It was heartbreaking. When we woke her, it was as if she forgot he had died. The recognition showed in her eyes as they flicked between us and the grave.
“We told her that she had to come with us, that she would get ill sleeping out there. All the while, we heard the mother cows crying out for their lost offspring. The tears ran down her face like waterfalls, the pain of the loss of her brother so apparent, and we couldn’t help her.
“When she had cried so much she fell backwards exhausted, my brother picked her up and took her back to the house.”
“That wasn’t the last time she did it. Her parents put a lock on her door, but that just ended with her jumping out of the window and spraining her ankle. That night, they found her back by the grave, her ankle black and blue. She must have hopped or crawled to get out there.
“It was the next day, when I left the milking shed and saw my brother pushing a wheelbarrow with Simon’s coffin in it.
“‘What are you doing,’ I asked. He said, ‘I can’t be doing this any longer.’
“‘What do you mean?'”
“‘Sarah cannot keep coming out here at night, it’s dangerous, who knows what might happen.'”
“‘What are you going to do?'”
“‘I’m going to put Simon in the furnace,’ he replied, his eyes were red from crying.”
“‘You can’t do that, what will your wife say?'”
“He stopped and let go of the wheel barrow. I winced as the coffin shifted in it.”
“Our father heard what was happening and came over.”
“We came up with a compromise. Later that day, we wrapped young Simon’s body up in his favourite blanket and put him in the furnace.
“Your mother was furious when she saw the grave had been desecrated, she barricaded herself in her room and didn’t come out for over a day. But when she did, she saw what her grandfather had made for her. That rocking horse of yours. He explained that she no longer had to go out to the grave to be close to him. That he would always be with her.
“She wasn’t better overnight, but when the cows screamed, she didn’t jump into bed with her parents and she didn’t run out into the night and sleep next to the empty grave. When her father checked on her, she’d be fast asleep on the wooden horse, gently rocking back and forth. He swore that she wasn’t moving it herself, as I am sure you understand.”
“I never knew she went through that,” I said, a tear trickled down my cheek that I promptly wiped away.
“It’s okay, son. I don’t think she remembered either. As she grew older, she relied on the rocking horse less and less, but did keep it in her room, until she was a teenager, when she asked for it to be moved out.
“When your grandad died, my brother and I sold off most of the farm. However, I made sure to find a little space for Simon’s rocking horse. He was in the room above us until your mother died and it was bequeathed to you.”
“Did it ever rock when it was here?” I asked.
“Well,” he said putting his hands on his knees, before heaving himself out of the chair.
He shuffled over to the mantlepiece. He stood there for a moment, contemplating what he was going to say next.
“When your mother found out your lady wife was pregnant, she pleaded with us to change her will so that the horse would go to you. I don’t know why. It stayed upstairs for a while after she died. To be honest, we had completely forgotten about it. But one day, we hear this racket. I made my way up the stairs, which is no easy feat at my age, to see that thing going hell for leather. I swear, it was like something possessed. And at that moment, Jess shouts up the stairs to tell me, you guys have had a healthy baby girl, and with that the horse stopped. I know I’m old, but I don’t need telling twice. So, we arranged for it to be sent to you. I guess someone wanted it for your little one.”
He sighed again, as if trying to work up courage.
“Your mother wanted you to have something else.”
He picked up a small wooden box from the mantlepiece and handed it over.
“It’s been hard losing your mother after caring for her so long. After my brother died, we were her only carers. Now, I’m not having a go, I promise. I know you couldn’t be here and so did she. She said she was so proud of you and hoped to stay around to see the baby. But things, sometimes they don’t work out.”
“What’s this?” I asked.
“I think you know what it is,” he said crouching down in front of his drinks cabinet. His knees clicked in unison. He poured himself a small whiskey and offered us one. Tilly and I shook our heads. He downed the drink in one.
“It’s your mother’s ashes. I think you know where they need to go.”
I stared at the rocking horse. It was obvious now that I knew it was there, a small brass latch on the seat. I opened it to reveal a hidden compartment. A duplicate of the box I held in my hand sat within. I placed mine next to it, uniting my mother with the brother she had lost so many years ago. I closed the latch and returned to bed.
Sarah cried in the early hours. Tilly slept as I crept out of bed. I heard creaks from the box room. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the rocking horse rock. I tended to Sarah, before returning to the box room. As quietly as I could, I dragged the wooden horse from the room and into Sarah’s.
I slept soundly for the rest of the night. In the morning I told Tilly what I had done, but she didn’t protest.
Sarah still cries at night. But before I can get there, I hear the creaking in her room. She gurgles for a while and then falls silent. My mother and her brother are helping to look after her now.