Here's the short story. All of it. I couldn't bring myself to split it up, so you can read it in parts or move on to your next blog and I'll totally understand.
It was an accident, she thought. No. It was less than that. Random. Don’t stars collide everyday? No great master plan. Just by chance.
She had been completely, utterly lost. She had gone exploring the back roads that surrounded this new town. It was a very old town, but it was new to her. How odd to find herself well past fifty, barely able to get to a Krogers without losing her way. Where she lived before, she had been since birth, and she knew the shortcuts to everywhere and back. Here, in this strange river town, roads struck out willy-nilly like broken bicycle spokes: no north, south, east, west. On a whim they took off in big circles, or worse.
I should have bought a map. According to the sun she was now driving north, and, she guessed, a little west. And then the road changed its mind and just like that she was heading southeast. It was late afternoon and she began to cry.
The road turned rudely, with no warning. Caught her right as she was wiping the blurring tears from her left eye with her left shoulder, all hunched over. She had to yank the wheel to the right. She hit a horse.
Now, that’s not something anyone puts in their ‘to do’ list. What was I supposed to do today? Oh, yes. Take part in a little vehicular equinocide. Only the horse wasn’t dead. Heather didn’t even know what she had hit at first. She leaned back. That was a wildly successful move as it stopped the horn from honking. Her head hurt, oh and her knees. Well, for the love of God she hadn’t fastened her seatbelt. She always fastened her seatbelt. She glanced in her rearview mirror. Her forehead was bleeding.
Her brain told her that she was seeing something beyond the rearview mirror, off to her right. Clearly her brain was playing a not so funny joke. She had left her horses back home. She had sold the young ones, placed the old retirees with generous people who thought they understood. She missed her horses with every breath. She missed them the way you’d miss a dead best friend. The way you’d miss church. She focused her eyes through the cracked, kaleidoscoped windshield. Apparently her brain wasn’t lying.
She had hit a horse.
Heather stumbled out of the car. This everyday act caused her knees to demonstrate their dissent: they crumpled. That hurt. Behind the hissing of the engine and the creaking of various cooling metal parts, Heather heard her own pulse in her ears and the sonorous nasal blowing of horse breath. She got up.
Oh no. Oh my dear Lord. No.
It was a little chestnut. Fifteen hands, maybe. No more than fifteen-two. He looks like a thoroughbred. Can’t be. Not out here. The only horses Heather had seen in the counties surrounding her new town were Saddlebreds, Quarter Horses, Walkers, a few Arabians. Not that she’d been looking on purpose.
“Whoa, bud,” she said, low and soft. Damn. The horse was standing in the grass next to the road. A huge vee-shaped flap of skin and meat hung from the chestnut’s shoulder. The whole animal was shivering, and he was blowing like he’d run a race. But his eye was kind; he looked right at her. He had fine, tiny ears, laced with distended veins. Hot blood.
Heather took a few steps closer, steadying her undependable knees by leaning on the car. The scent of the horse hit her like a whip. In that smell was her son’s old pony, young still, with ten year old Charlie waving and smiling at her. Holding his little trophy over his head. We won, Mom! We won! In that smell was a deeply bedded stall, sweet oat straw, and a mare’s quiet whunkering to her half-born foal. Heather, magnified by a down parka, huddled there in the corner. Keep pushing, Scarlet. You’re almost done now. Good girl. In that smell were the last three jumps at the Olympic Trials. A young Heather gunning her brave Rupert toward a huge oxer, down over the drop, and then galloping hell bent for leather to the final jump, a simple post and rail, collecting him now, up over the last, and then draped around his lathered neck, hugging him from above. Good man, Rupe! We did it!
She touched the chestnut’s wet neck. It was a bad sweat. Cold. He was going into shock. “Easy, hey, we’ve got to stop that bleeding, bud.” Heather ran her hand down the horse’s forelock, down his face, gently grabbed his lip and checked the color of his gums. He didn’t take his eye from hers. His gums were pale. His upper lip was tattooed on its inner surface. This was a thoroughbred. A racehorse. Well, now both of them were in shock.
Heather’s head pounded. Why did the back of her head hurt so much when the cut was on the front? She remembered something about a past concussion - you ride a lot of horses, you fall off sometimes - the brain would get bruised from bouncing against the back of the skull. Whatever. She went to the rear door of the car and got her old afghan from the back seat. Her mother-in-law had crocheted the thing ages ago. Heather thought it was ugly until this very moment. Her knees were still numb, which she found curious, but they were wholly unreliable, so she steadied herself by gripping the fender and the roof of the car. She hoped the horse’s injury was numb, too.
“This might hurt, bud.” He was swaying a little bit. He had widened his stance, like a foal trying to stay upright. Heather wrapped the afghan over his withers, around the front of his chest. She brought one corner in front of his leg, the other corner behind, where a girth would go. She tied those corners to the top two, pushing the huge flap of meat closed. The horse trembled more violently. And bled.
I need more direct pressure. She took off her shirt, surprised by the amount of her own blood on it, and balled it up. She wedged it under the afghan, directly over the wound. The bleeding slowed. Heather smiled and stroked the horse’s neck. I need to get help.
She reached in through the passenger window and got her cell phone out of her purse, which rested, unopened, upside down on the floor. 911. Nothing. Heather looked at the phone. Her own hands were shaking. Duh, push the little green send button. Nothing. No bars. She turned the phone off and back on. No service.
Heather looked at the horse. He was swaying badly, fighting to stay on his feet, his eye still fixed on her face. It unnerved her, as much as anything in this whole slow-motion otherworldly scenario did. Horses normally looked off, seeing the unseen, or they looked inward, sheathing their disappointment in humans the way God would. But this horse never for a moment took his eye off her. Heather expected to see blame in that stare. Instead, she saw trust. Charity. A wave of nausea brought her back to her senses. I’ve got to get help.
On both sides of the road were woods. She couldn’t see around the sharp turn that had caused this mess. Ahead, she could only see as far as the next snaky bend and rise and it was just woods. The sun had dipped behind the trees when she wasn’t paying attention. Think! Had she passed a farm? A house? Where the hell was she?
The horse went down.
Back when Charlie was seven, his pony had gotten a foot stuck in the fence while Heather and Charlie were at church. They had come up the drive trying to understand the scene before them. Grampa, who never had anything to do with the horses was holding the pony’s head. Charlie’s dad, who loved the horses but never handled them, was being whipped around like a kite, as he tried to put pressure on the pony’s lacerated hind leg. Blood shooting a full ten feet from the severed artery. The pony trying to kick free of the pain and of Sam’s attempt at a tourniquet. The vet had arrived a minute behind Heather and Charlie. They got the pony into a stall right before he went down. The vet started two IV lines and bear-hugged the bags to get the fluids in faster. “A horse won’t go down until he’s given up,” said the good vet. “Going down means he’s ready to be something’s dinner. Ready for the wolves.” Heather remembered her profound relief and Charlie’s happy tears when, after the leg was bandaged and four liters of IV fluids had infused, the pony stood up and nuzzled Charlie’s pocket for a carrot. Their church clothes were ruined.
Only in the movies do horses whinny in the face of danger or pain. In real life, they whinny for their dinner, or in greeting, or to call to a friend. They are prey animals; when threatened it’s a better plan to be dead silent. No need to attract the predators.
The horse made a sickening thud when he went down. His legs just buckled. He landed like a foal, lying on his chest with his legs folded under him. His head up, still looking at her. Don’t you die on me, horse. Oh, God help me! She had stopped asking for help from God or any of His assistants years ago. He hadn’t had time to help when Charlie had needed it in some godforsaken village in Afghanistan. God had been too busy when Sam’s heart exploded, not a month after they buried their only son. She had begged Him to let her go on with her life. Widows went on all the time. Sonless mothers went on. But she had seen Charlie and Sam in every corner of their farm. In every horse’s expression. Anytime she heard a tire crunching up the driveway she knew it was them. God ignored her, so she left. She left the horses, the farm, the graves, the friends. She tried to leave the memories. She succeeded in leaving herself.
Heather remembered that she had a bottle of water in the car. A liter. She had only taken a few swallows when she started out. It felt like it was a long time ago. She got the water. Her knees were no longer numb. Walking without supporting herself on the car was not an option. The fronts of both knees were split wide open, so crawling was completely out of the question. Heather sat on her butt and scooted backwards to the horse’s head, the water bottle jiggling in her lap. She unscrewed the cap, propped the horse’s head up and tipped the water into the corner of his mouth, where a bit would go if he were bridled. He swallowed, big horse swallows until the bottle was empty.
It was all she could do.
Heather was exhausted. Maybe she was ready for the wolves. The horse’s wound had started a fresh trickle. The makeshift bandage had shifted when he went down. I’ll lean against it. She scooted back until she could rest against the horse, one shoulder blade leaning on the wound. Her head hurt. The horse curled his neck around so that he could keep that eye on her. It looked like God watching her, soft. And then the horse’s eye closed. Or her eyes closed. But it was dark and she was distant and it was quiet and nothing hurt.
“Jay-sus Gawd in heaven! Hang on, lady, I’ll be right back. You useless sonofabitch bad luck bastard, now look what you’ve done. Jay-sus Gawd.”
Heather heard a truck door slam and tires spin and then the sound went away. She was thirsty and she hurt. The horse. She cracked one swollen eye open and looked directly into his. He was still curled around her; neither of them had moved a fraction. The morning light hurt her head. She drifted off.
“Lady, I gotta move you. Can I get you over to this blanket?”
Heather shaded her eyes. She couldn’t focus. She tried to speak. It didn’t work very well.
“I called an ambulance, but I gotta move you so I can shoot this goddam sonofabitch. Son of a bitch!”
“No.” She got that out.
“Lady, it wasn’t my fault he jumped the goddam fence again. Jay-sus, I’m sorry. Son of a bitch hasn’t been nothing but trouble. I got insurance. Where is that goddam ambulance? I gotta move you out of the way.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll wait til the ambulance gets here. But if that goddam sonofabitch tries to get up he’ll hurt you worse than you already are. No I gotta shoot him now.”
“No!” Heather struggled to make sense. She couldn’t move her legs at all, but she managed to get her eyes open. The horse looked from her with his eye soft, his ears pricked, to this man. His eye went wild, his ears flattened back. “You won’t shoot this horse.”
“The hell I won’t.”
Heather felt a big fight come up from deep in her belly. It came from where her son had kicked and somersaulted inside her before his birth. It came from the place that had grabbed her when she first met Sam. “If you shoot this horse, I’ll sue you for every penny you have. You know damn well if your horse is in a road, you’re liable. I can afford good lawyers. But. If you give me this horse, we’ll be even.” She could hear sirens in the distance.
“Lady you hit your head hard, I …”
Heather cut him off. “Be quiet.”
The ambulance, the sheriff, and other assorted wailing vehicles arrived. Heather said, “I want to talk to the sheriff.”
A sleepy-eyed, crisply uniformed man identified himself as the sheriff and kneeled beside her. She smelled coffee on his breath. “Can you take a statement? Can you get these witnesses to sign it?”
“Ma’am, let the paramedics tend you now. You can deal …”
“Please! For the love of God, please,” Heather interrupted.
“My credit card is in my purse. I want you to call the best horse vet you know. I want you to save this horse. I’ll assume complete financial responsibility. I want you to write down that I said if that man over there harms this horse I will sue him for everything a high-priced attorney can think up, and there should be plenty. But I’ll take this horse as payment in full. As a settlement or whatever and I won’t sue him. Have you got that?”
“Do you know a good vet?”
“Doc Eugene is as good as they come. Not fancy, now, like some, but he’s got common sense and a good heart, ma’am.”
Heather felt herself melting. Sweet warm relief. She touched the horse’s neck with the back of her hand. “It’s going to be all right, bud. Thank you. God, thank you.”
(C) Patience C. Renzulli, all rights reserved
hug your horses and your hounds (and thank you for reading)
2 hours ago