Authors: Jane Smiley
ELL, THE MARE DIED
ACK WAS A MONTH OLD TO THE
day, Daddy was in Oklahoma getting ready to bring the horses back, with Uncle Luke to help him. Mom and I got up Saturday morning to feed the horses.
It wasn’t a bad morning—a little chilly, but dry. The first thing we said when we went out the front door was, “Is it too cold for him?” We had left the mare and the foal out for the night. We had done it twice before, because he was getting a little too big for the stall. We decided that it wasn’t too cold—he was a big boy and still furry with his foal coat. But as soon as we looked toward the mares’ corral, Mom said, “Uh-oh.” Normally, they would have been at the gate, waiting for their hay. I said, “Maybe it’s all right. Maybe there’s enough grass so that she isn’t that hungry.”
But it wasn’t all right. As soon as we got to the top of the hill and looked down, we could see the dark shape of the mare, lying stretched out on her side in the grass, and the foal standing above her, by her rump, poking at her with his nose. While we were running down the hill, she flopped her tail and lifted her head, then tried to lift her front end, but her head fell back into the grass. Jack gave a loud, high whinny, and that was when I started to cry, but we had to keep running anyway.
Mom did some things to try and figure out what was wrong with her—like kneeling down and listening to her belly sounds—but all I did was sit by her head and start to pet her. Even though it was cold, her neck was crusty with dried sweat. Another bad thing was that the hair around the top of her head was worn off, meaning that she would have been rolling around in pain for a long time. But she liked the petting. I stroked her face and ears, and she gave a few grunts and sighs. Mom said, “I think she colicked in the night. Rolling around with the pain might have given her an intestinal twist. Oh, dear. She has no gut sounds at all.” Horses always make gut sounds because their digestion is always working.
“She seemed fine when I gave them the hay last night.” I always did that around six.
“Oh, there’s no telling,” said Mom. “What a business.” Then she said, “Hey, darlin’, does your tummy hurt?”
I kept petting Pearl’s head and her neck, and she closed her eyes. In the meantime, the foal came over to me and began to nose my shoulder. I felt his breath on my cheek and twisted
around to pet him, too, but he moved away and went back to pushing on the mare and whinnying to her.
“I’m sure he’s terribly hungry,” said Mom.
“Are you going to call the vet?”
Daddy hated it if we had to call the vet, even though sometimes we did. He maintained that he knew almost as much as most vets, and when they came and said, “Well, Mark, I don’t really know what to tell you,” you still had to pay them anyway.
Mom was stroking Pearl on the belly, long, kind strokes that the mare seemed to like. At any rate, her eyes were still closed. She said, “Abby, sweetheart, I don’t know what the vet could do. Look how swollen her belly is. That means the gases have already built up and the poisons have started to break down her insides. There’s nothing he could do that would save her. Honey, I hate to have to tell you this, but she’s going to die, and what we have to do is just keep her company. Do you understand that?”
I said, “Yeah. Yes, I do.”
She nodded. After a moment, she said, “Okay.”
So, we knelt by the mare for a few minutes, Mom stroking her belly and me stroking her head, and she seemed to quiet down and relax. I played with her mane a bit, too. Horses like you to scratch them lightly at the base of their manes, because that’s a spot they can’t reach themselves. But we couldn’t do anything with Jack. He was restless. He kept pushing at her and pawing the ground. Once in a while, he would take a few strands of grass between his lips, but then he would toss his head and spit them out. All the time he was making noise—
little whinnies and nickers and grunts. He went around her a few times.
At one point, he stood behind her tail, reaching across her back leg, trying to nurse from her. He knew where the spot was, but since she was lying down, he couldn’t make it work. I was just on the verge of saying to Mom, “Maybe I should—” but I didn’t know what I should do, when the mare lifted her head and her shoulders. Mom and I backed away—there was no telling what she would do—and she heaved herself up, shoulders first. She rolled up on her breast and got her front legs under her and then made herself stand up. She gave a huge grunt, almost a groan. When she was up, she spread her legs to each side and kind of staggered in place. Mom was behind me, and she put her hands on my shoulders as if I were going to go and help the mare and she was going to stop me.
The mare stood there with her head down and her ears flopped, and the foal went to his accustomed spot and started to nurse. But it only lasted a minute. She couldn’t do it. She began to collapse, and the foal jumped out of the way. When she hit the ground, her eyes were already closed, and I think she died a minute or two later. By that time I was crying so hard I couldn’t see, and Mom was crying, too. We got down next to her and petted her and petted her. The foal kept whinnying.
After a little bit, Mom leaned over and listened to her chest, and then she sat up. “Honey, I’m going to get the foal’s halter.”
When she was gone, I sat back on my heels and looked at the mare. What had happened to her was invisible. Everything
about her looked nice—her furry ears, her hooves, her shiny coat, her long tail. I thought of Daddy saying, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” That certainly seemed to be true in this case. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve a couple of times. I couldn’t believe two things—how fast it all happened and how soundly we had slept all night when a hundred yards from the house, the mare was dying and the foal was—what? Terrified? Out of his mind? I didn’t know.
Mom came back with the halter and the lead rope. It took her a while to get the halter on Jack, because he was throwing his head and putting his nose down to touch the mare—he was very upset—but Mom was patient, and she talked to him in a low voice. She tried over and over, but when it didn’t work, she just kept talking and trying. When she finally had it on him, we had to lead him uphill away from the mare. He didn’t want to go. He would turn his head and whinny or stop and try to go back, but Mom wouldn’t let him. She didn’t exactly pull, but she didn’t let him go back, either.
My job was to walk alongside him, pushing him a little if he needed it, but otherwise just petting him and keeping him company. We had taught him to lead, so he went along well enough, but there was a terrible racket of whinnies and nickers, and I couldn’t believe how sad the sounds made me. I hated to leave the mare by herself down there, even though, as Daddy would have said, she was “happily departed.” We got Jack to the top of the hill, through the gate, and into the stall. Then Mom went into the house and brought out a big metal bowl and a half gallon of milk. I was standing outside the stall, leaning against the door, watching
him rocket around in there, if anything more panicky than he had been.
We hadn’t taken his halter off, so Mom set down the bowl and the milk outside the stall and went in and caught him, snapping the lead rope back on his halter. Then she brought him to the door and said, “Pour some milk in the bottom of the bowl. Not too much. And bring it in.” Jack stood next to her, but he kept nodding. I don’t think he knew what he was doing.
Mom held him while I brought the bowl to his lips. As soon as I touched the milk to his muzzle, he started smacking them together, but then he put his head up. Mom said, “He doesn’t realize that milk is for drinking—he thinks it’s for suckling. He’s a baby. He’ll learn, though. Just hold it still.” The bowl wasn’t heavy, and there wasn’t much milk in it, so I held it as steadily as I could. For the first while, every time Jack got a taste of the milk, he would root upward, but then he learned to drink it (he had already learned to drink water, of course), and pretty soon, he had taken all the milk. Mom said, “Pour out some more. We’ll give him a little. But he has to get used to cow’s milk, so we can’t give him all he wants just yet.”
In the end, he probably drank about half a quart. Then Mom brought him some nice grass hay, not so much for him to eat, though a month-old foal would have tried a little of his mom’s hay from time to time—but more for him to play with.
By the time we had fed the Georges and the other mare (who was plenty interested in what was going on), I was
exhausted. Mom was, too. All we had for breakfast was some Rice Krispies and an orange to split.
There was no calling Daddy—he was somewhere between Oklahoma and California with Uncle Luke and six horses, and unless something went wrong, he wouldn’t call us. Mom didn’t expect him until Sunday night. And she didn’t expect the truck from the rendering plant until Monday morning. “At least it’s pretty cold,” she said.
We went down the hill with a couple of old horse blankets and laid them over the body of the mare.
We fed Jack a little more of the milk. Otherwise, I stood outside his stall and watched him. He continued to be restless, and much of the time he just stared over the door of his stall, which he also kicked with his knees. I was sure he thought she would be coming up the hill any minute. When he was standing still, I approached him very quietly and started petting him on the neck, first little tickles and light brushings. He seemed to like that, so I made firmer and smoother strokes, down and down and down, and all the time saying, “It’s going to be all right, little guy. You’ll be all right.” I did it on one side of his neck and then on the other. He seemed to like it. I liked it. I didn’t really want to do anything else. Even though I had three horses to ride and my room to clean before the end of Saturday, I didn’t want to do anything but be with Jack.
When Daddy and Uncle Luke got home, with two geldings and four mares in Uncle Luke’s big rig, Daddy was not happy about the death of Pearl, but since he didn’t see it, he was more
mad than sad. He wasn’t mad at me or Mom—we had done our best—he was just mad, or mad again, at the man who had sold him a pregnant mare in the first place.
During the course of the month since Jack’s foaling, Daddy had come around to accepting the colt and agreeing that he was a pretty boy—a very pretty boy. He had also looked under the mare’s upper lip and found a tattoo, which meant that she was a registered Thoroughbred and had run in races. There was no telling what her real name was, but if we wanted to, we could use the tattoo number to trace her and find out who her sire and dam were and if she had won any money. That was fun to think about, and once Daddy even said, “So maybe we’ve got another Whirlaway here.” Normally, he never let himself think like this about a horse, because gambling was a sin and in lots of states a crime, and horse racing itself was as “crooked as your elbow” (though some of the tracks were very beautiful), but he would never deny that Thoroughbreds were a sight to see, whether they were running or jumping or just romping around in the corral, like Jack. But now the mare had died, and if the whole foal thing had been upsetting before, now it was a real pain in the neck.
And, of course, until the rendering truck came for Pearl, there was no place to put the new mares other than into stalls, which meant straw and cleaning and restlessness—after such a long ride, what they really needed was a chance to walk around and eat some grass. Daddy had planned to put the Georges and the mare and foal in for the night, divide up the new set into mares and geldings, and let them have the pastures until morning, but he didn’t want the new mares seeing
the dead mare. When I asked him why, he said it was “just not good. Bad way to introduce them to the place.” And so there was more work—the geldings outside and six horses in for the night, including Jack, who was still staring and whinnying, but not as badly. We had fed him the milk ten times by then and watched him closely. He seemed okay, but the vet would have to look at him, just to be sure he was all right with it, and all right in general, when he came out to give all the new horses a once-over.
Uncle Luke was not born again. He and Daddy had always gone to the same church, and then Daddy accepted Jesus into his life and went to a different church. Uncle Luke didn’t quite understand the difference between the churches or didn’t care about the difference. Daddy felt a call to witness to Uncle Luke, but most of the time he kept it to himself. Uncle Luke was older than Daddy by about four years (Uncle John came in between them; he had died as a boy when a mule kicked him in the head), but he was shorter than Daddy by about four inches. He was bowlegged and almost bald. He always wore a bandanna tied around his head and a Stetson on top of that. He had a big silver buckle he’d won roping in the rodeo. His boots had purple morning glories tooled into the leather, and he always wore them because he said that you didn’t want to die before you wore out your best pair of boots.
On Monday morning, after the truck came and took the mare away, and after we gave the foal some milk, and while we were waiting for the vet, Uncle Luke said to me, “Abby, let’s
see you ride a couple of these cayuses.” I knew I was going to have to ride all day, because it was a teacher conference day at school, and we had the day off.
I got on Jewel first (Jewel Number 1, since now we had Number 2, Number 3, Number 4, and Number 5, which we named Red Jewel, Blue Jewel, Star Jewel, and Roan Jewel). I showed off her gaits, her stops, her spins, and her figure eights. Uncle Luke leaned on the fence smoking a cigarette. Each time he finished one, he stubbed it out with the toe of his boot, picked it up, broke off the tip, ground the tip between his fingers to make sure it was cool and put the cigarette butt in his pocket. Then he lit up another one by striking a kitchen match against the fence. He blew on the tip of the match until it was cool and broke off the tip and put the two halves in his pocket, too. Finally, I pulled the Jewel up right next to him, and I said, “Uncle Luke, it looks to me like smoking is a full-time job for you. I don’t see why you just don’t quit.”