Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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Nate’s father had a saying, one of his many farmer’s sayings: “If you have death on the farm, just keep it out of the house.” Like most of these wisdoms, something was left out that I could never quite define. The truth was that while the horses might die in their pastures, death was not kept out of the house — it entered, and whispered inside the little rooms, and hid in the closets at night, and brushed against my face in dreams and in my waking moments. Sometimes, it floated into the edges of my vision as I worked in the kitchen, or as I watched the spring’s newborn foals, or as I led the stallion himself out to the show ring on scorching days when such visions floated like waves of heat from the hoof-packed ground. Death was in our house, and because our weaknesses were so much alike that they meshed, one on one, like a huge invisible net, there was nothing we could do to ward off his evil eye.
Evil eye. Demon eye.
I needed to see the stallion’s body once I knew that he was dead. Nate had found him down by the creek while I was away. When he greeted me at the door with the news, its inevitability was suddenly obvious to me, like a desert sun emerging from behind weeks of secret knowing.
The weekend rain made walking through the pasture grass a sodden pilgrimage. Bad Man lay on his right side by the creek bank, tucked in a cool green bed of catnip and touch-me-nots, his left eye staring opaque and still across the distant fields. He seemed diminished now, a mere deflated sack, his gleaming black spots on white gaudy and pretentious. Had they shamed him in life? Had we assumed he knew nothing of himself, was incapable of subjective assessment?
“We’ll have to drag him out to the road with the tractor,” Nate said. “The rendering works can’t drive in here — they’ll sink right down in.” He waited, looking at me. “You don’t mind if I get it done now, do you?”
“No, of course not,” I said. Nate turned away, heading back to the barn for the tractor, and I sat in the grass by Bad Man. His ear was cold and stiff and his eye would not be closed. I was afraid to push against the lid. Flies droned lustfully around his mouth and anus. He’d almost gotten well, sun and fresh air working their magic. Then I’d gone and left him for a while and a summer rain turned things damp and cold, maybe sapped his strength for the last time, maybe gave him a case of the flu, maybe. . . .
It didn’t matter now; it never would. We sat together for a long time before the thrum-thrum of the tractor brought Nate into view, and someone with him, standing on the drawbar — the veterinarian, it turned out. He was a bit after the fact, but dedicated.
Nate and Doc dismounted from the tractor a few yards from Bad Man and me. Nate had a thick coil of rope. The two men were smiling and chatting. I placed my hand on Bad Man’s bloated stomach as they walked up to us.
“Didn’t you give him his medicine Saturday morning?” I asked Doc.
“What difference does it make now?” Nate snapped.
Doc pointed to Bad Man’s swollen belly. “See? Must have perforated. Probably did that a while ago and it was just a matter of time.”
“Did you give it to him or not?” I asked again, but Nate was looping a noose around Bad Man’s legs, now heavy as cut logs.
“I could do a post at the rendering works for you,” Doc offered.
“What’s the point?” Nate said, without looking up.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to find out exactly what happened,” Doc said. “It was completely atypical, whatever it was — no obvious symptoms, no pinpoint complaint, no reason to cash out.” He smiled. “No reason to the eye, anyway.”
Nate grunted at his work. “Maybe there’s no reason at all, then.”
“All the more reason I should take a look,” Doc said. “Give me some education for the next time.”
“Wouldn’t a day’s lack of antibiotics have done him in?” I asked. Nate glared at me, dropping Bad Man’s legs. For a moment, I imagined that it was breath trembling through the stallion’s body, and I stared back at him, thinking that I alone would see the secret rise and fall.
“I don’t think antibiotics ever did anything but make him a bit more comfortable,” Doc said. “Maybe they took the fever off him some and gave —”
“Then do you think he suffered?”
Doc inspected the weeds tucked up undisturbed around Bad Man. “It doesn’t look that way, does it?” he said with a grand sweep and a grin. “I’d say unofficially that whatever it was just caught up with him and he died in his —”
“But wouldn’t medicine on Saturday have helped him through the cold weather?”
Doc put his hands on his hips. “No,” he said kindly.
“Because it just wouldn’t,” he said. “It looks as though this was plain and simple what the good Lord wanted.”
“No!” I shouted. Nate, his face red, began tying the rope to the tractor drawbar.
“Well,” Doc said, “call it whatever you like.” He smiled again, easily. The tractor thrummed. Bad Man stretched out, elastic as bread, his lips opening, his tongue falling out against the ground. Tansy and mint and wild carrot exploded their raw, dark odors as he passed over them, a trail of gentle pink blood winding across their mangled leaves. There was a moment when the tractor nearly bogged down, Bad Man holding Nate back, weighing him down, pulling him see-saw in the thick rut, until Nate’s expert driving got him out and up the little hillock, away from the creek trees and on toward the road, Bad Man a thing of the past now, dragging along behind through the grass.
“What will they do with him at the rendering works?” I asked Doc as we followed the tractor’s path.
“Oh, I should think they’ll make good use of his hide,” Doc answered.
“Horsehide? What for?”
Doc gestured. “Well, they’ll make gloves with it — horsehide makes excellent gloves.”
Doc laughed. “No, no, no,” he said, “they’ll tan it and make it all the same. No color. No spots.”
“Oh.” Nate was now at the roadside, unleashing Bad Man’s legs. Already two cars had pulled up and the people were staring out at the stallion’s unusual, flashy body.
“I don’t see why the rendering truck couldn’t have gone back in there,” I mumbled as Doc and I caught up with Nate.
“You saw the mud. We can’t have a mess of tracks in the pasture,” Nate answered, although I hadn’t needed his answer to know the reasons. The reasons were logical, as always. Now they were looking at Bad Man, and at me, and his death was obvious to all of them. The body drew onlookers all that afternoon, mostly old men in coveralls who stood over him for long moments, work hats in hand, staring, staring. By the time the rendering works came I was relieved to be rid of him, to get out from under the burden of his existence. The truck’s winch gave off a high unoiled squeal, like a wail of angry demons screaming for Bad Man’s dissolving flesh. Long after the truck left, I could hear that terrible wail. It seemed at times to be emanating from the depths of my own body, my own throat; from my own forbidden, corrupting hunger for those things that were, and were, and were again, and every time drew out my love, and every time died of their own free will in the pungent tang of lost and unrelenting time.
Susan M. Watkins