We park in a warm cloud of dust, Crystal calmly, warmly greets us. “Welcome back,” she smiles. The children have run off to see the animals, unfazed with manners and greetings when there are pigs and horses and a one eyed dog nuzzling them.
“You guys can feed them if you like, grab some grass,” and the children pull at lonesome, green strings stuck tight in the hard, dry dirt. They egg each other on in hopes of not going first as the tall, silent shadow stands before them, lips moving hopefully towards the grass in bashful hands as they dash them behind their backs.
“Just keep your hands flat,” Crystal tells them easily, “They are big, but very gentle.” Each horse here has been rescued from horrible lives.
“Ok…” Finley says, and pulls his shoulders up as high as he can, lips tight, summoning as much courage as he can when he starts to feel the hot breath shooting out of the horses soft nostrils. He keeps his stiff arm up, and the horse is a flurry of lips and when it’s gone, Finley explodes in a fit of giggles and awe that it happened, he had stood and kept his arm steady enough.
The other children step up, sometimes pulling away their hands protectively at the last minute, but eventually each feeds a horse with velvet, soft nuzzles, drenched in horse breath down their hands.
I see a fire in Finley’s eye, he is growing up. First born, he is cautious, but learning his abilities.
Poppy has always been afraid of animals, but here at the farm, it’s as if they are her friends, not a scary creature. She stomps around the dirt paths, offering grass tips she shakes to unstick from her round hands like confetti.
Maria loves animals, not as much as she used to, but she has a tender place for them. For many children who have experienced hurt or abandonment, animals are a safe place, they always offer love, steadfast presence. They can’t reject or abandon you, their desire to be with you never expires.
The children take turns riding horses, as Andrew and I watch. We ask Crystal about her recent engagement. They hold the thick, brown, leather reins carefully, and steer the horse gently. The horse listens to them as they direct, it is empowering and lulling in the same ride.
Poppy watches her brother ride, we never ask her, “Are you ok? Are you scared? Do you want to?” to avoid kicking in her fear of animals. When Finley jumps down into Andrew’s arms, we say, “You’re turn Poppy!” as she is caught up in the moment watching Finley’s exuberant face.
“Poppy turn!” she repeats proudly and marches over, her too big pants showing her diaper and she reaches up to the gentle horse with her little, soft arms.
Would she like it?
Would she be afraid once she touches the horse?
Once she sees how high she is?
Andrew keeps his arm on her the entire time she rides, a protective arm he has for all the children, the one that shapes their confidence, their self worth, always present. His face reflects back to her her breathless excitement. She is calling to us the whole way, “Minney!!! (Finley) Weee-AH!!! (Maria) “Yai-ya!!!!!!” (Elijah) on a loop. Are you seeing this!? Are you seeing me!? I’m on this thing! I’m riding this thing! Look at me! I’m still here! Minney!!!! Wee-AH!!!! Yai-ya!!!
Maria and I cheering and thumbs up each turn, she flips her head to see us, looks to daddy, looks to Crystal, her impossibly huge grin smothering her face.
Finley slips off to play with some of the animals, Elijah waits his turn.
It’s Elijah’s turn and he gets his little body on the horse, he rides silently through his grin. Horseback riding it healthy for him and his little body.
While Maria gets an extra long ride, I give the kids a snack I had brought wrapped up.
The last moment of peace before they start a stampede. First they find a tire, and stand it on it’s end while marveling at it. “I bet it’s for a huge truck, let’s roll it!”
They are a team, until it slips out of their hands, bumping too fast down the gravely hill.
Finley falls and bursts into tears as the tire rockets towards the horse pen. Elijah follows at a run valiantly, losing ground with each running step, Poppy unaware of what is happening, trots along thinking it’s still fun as Finley sobs. The tire hits the horse gate causing a loud and powerful reverberation that makes the horses widen their stances on all feet before they start to run, like birds in a group taking flight, the horses as a unit start crossing the ground together, their loud hooves creating a dull, fast rhythm as they run in fright. Elijah freezes, terrified, Finley stops crying as we watching them run, it is mesmerizing, tears making lines in the dust on his face.
The horses run in a circle, and slow to a stop, the tire on it’s side on the ground. Maria stoops and picks it up, carefully, kindly rolling it back up the hill, as the boys try to piece back together their emotions. The horses go back to grazing. The tire is returned. Andrew and I can’t help but laugh.
We hug Crystal goodbye, we are amazed by her work. She shares some amazing spots to visit and we listen closely. We wave a dusty goodbye to all the animals, the pigs and horses and evil little quails who peck, and kind dogs who watch us the whole time we drive away.
The kids smell fresh, and warm like dirt as they swap excited stories in the back of the car, our car bumping heavily on the dirt roads. We pass farmers atop horses, goats confident lost in tall grass.
We drive for a long time towards the coast and find a small open air place, filled with families, Fish Tacos. We order and feed our entire family for $10, which strikes back our conversation of moving here that gets replayed on a loop each visit.
Poppy is rarely grumpy, unless she is hungry. Then she doesn’t mask it. And her horse visit created a big hunger.
A man came over, gentle eyes framed in wrinkles, smiling. Andrew asks him in Spanish if this is his restaurant, he smiles humbly. “This is our first time here, it is wonderful, we love it.” The man takes in the compliment and reaches his hands out to take Andrew’s into his into his hands, and nods a deep thank you. A gentle gesture.
“Son su familia?”
“Que lindo,” he smiles at all the children, like a perfect, storybook grandfather with twinkling eyes.
A man in a cowboy hat and a guitar strapped tightly around his body and round belly starts singing, so Andrew raises his voice a bit to say, “We’ll definitely be coming back, this place is amazing.”
“We will be waiting for you,” he says and shakes his hand one more time, not in a rush, taking in each child’s face before waving goodbye.
The stout man with the guitar fills the open air with his loud voice, and it’s Finley’s favorite song, “Las Mananitas,” Finley clenches his body down and stares at me intently, “I think this is my perfect day.”
“I think you’re right,” I smile at him.
Since it’s technically, sort of a vacation, we stop for frozen yogurt. Although Andrew and I speak Spanish, we do not know the terms for all the toppings… “Los…um…los, like, they are, los ositos, con colores, los…” I revert to pointing, “No se come decir…”
But each child picks one topping and one scoop. They eat silently, savoring. I tell Andrew I wish that there was a place that sold a glass of wine next door. “Wouldn’t that be perfect on these cobblestone walkways?” I ask him.
We see a family two shops down, they are dressed in fine clothes, the mothers have futuristic strollers paired with high heels. Andrew is talking to a stylish man, he was opening that store today, and they were having a welcome party. They are serving food and wine. They invite us in, and hand me a glass of red wine. I give the woman a hug and she brings me to the food; chocolate covered strawberries, small quiches, plates of delicacies. She spreads her hand out to them. People are standing outside on the brick walkway, talking as if longtime friends. I stand too, holding my wine, watching my children finish their ice cream, the warm sun lingering just for us. Finley tossing his cup into the trash bin and comes over first. Two granddaughters spot him first and giggle. “Say hi to them,” I tell him. I tell the girls he goes to a Spanish school and speaks Spanish. One girl tries to hide her smile and rolls her eyes back into her head, then hides her face behind her hands and stammers, “HOLA!!”
“Hola,” Finley smiles back.
She uncovers her face, and says seriously, “Me llamo Valentina!”
“Me llamo Finley.”
The little girls run away, but not far, and inch back to him, although he is lost in his own world and doesn’t notice. Elijah joins next and the women welcome him into the store. He eyes the chocolate covered strawberries, “No…” I start to tell him, I don’t want them to waste their food on a non customer, we couldn’t purchase. “This is Mexico, we always give to children,” and they hand him one, rubbing his cheek, and erasing my fear. “Thank you,” I tell him. Poppy runs up next and they feed her to her heart’s fill as well. Valentina and Natalia are outside talking to an old woman who is selling toys on the side of the road, their grandfather, the father of the store owner is telling them that he will buy them whichever toy they want. Finley starts to touch the toys too, and the three children all pick out small, wooden bobble headed animals and lay on their stomachs to pay the toys together. They are speaking in Spanish, the first time I’ve heard Finley use his school Spanish in a natural setting. Andrew and I try to play it cool as we snap a photo with our phone. The older woman selling toys crouches low to show Poppy a flowered headband, her shoes are falling apart, I purchase the band, and don’t talk her down from $5.
When it’s time to go, we hug and kiss everyone goodbye, I feel sad. Finley waves to Valentine who is also 5, and she stomps her foot and turns around quickly with her arms folded. Finley doesn’t notice, but skips off to the car.
“I love them!” Maria tells us.
“I know, how perfect was that?”
On the way home, we put on Hillsong worship music and sing together as we edge along the coast and up the mountain. We climb higher and higher, the ocean growing more vast as the end of the day sun fills the edges, leaving the middle deep blue. It is swelling in side and splendor with each foot we climb, like we are looking off the edge of the world engulfed in the sea. I start to feel the Holy Spirit in my heart, and my heart beats faster. Andrew says he does too, “I haven’t felt this for a while, since…” he tries to remember. We sing together as we feel it filling us.
“Mom…” Maria says quietly from the back seat, “Do you see that?” We look out the window to the light spilling out in every direction towards our car as it follows us. “Mama, I feel the Holy Spirit,” she tells us.
“We do too, take a deep breath and let it fill you.”
We sing together as a family, and fractioned light doesn’t leave, but shines deeper, never leaving while we drive.
“Mama, it’s still there,” Finley would say at intervals.
I’m never sure why the spirit fills me at certain times, sometimes I guess, and think I know what’s coming, sometimes I’m right, more often I am surprised at the reason later.