A horse’s life isn’t all that’s hanging in the balance in this short story. A marriage faces tests, as well.
The horse will be dead before the night is over. He stumbles again, nearly crumpling under his own weight, as Sarah leads him back and forth, pacing through the front yard. She jerks Dakota’s lead rope hard to keep his head up. His eyes are half-shut, his back lathered with sweat. Sarah scratches the chigger bites along her panty line, wonders how much longer she can keep Dakota walking. Her stomach feels raw, as though the horse’s pain is conducting down the lead rope through her palm. The porch light comes on and her husband, Bud, exits the house and makes his way toward her.
Bud takes the halter from Sarah’s hand. “It’s after four,” he says. “Go in and try to sleep.” He’s being awfully considerate, she thinks. Hell, he’s only this nice to the waitresses at the Sirloin Stockade Restaurant. But he still hasn’t apologized to her. Bud left the gate unlatched last night when he fed the horse, allowing for an easy escape. Dakota nuzzled off the lid to the plastic trashcan next to the shed and gorged himself on pounds of the rich molasses sweet feed kept inside. Horses cannot vomit, and an excess of food could be fatal.
Sarah imagines the horse’s small stomach swollen tight with grain, like an aired-up basketball, his guts impacted. If he is allowed to collapse and roll violently his intestines might twist together. Sarah thinks of guts braided and blackening, Dakota’s eyes rolled back to the red. She doesn’t want her children, ages eight and ten, to see.
“Kids in bed?” Sarah asks.
“Pretending to be,” Bud says.
“Don’t let them out here,” Sarah tells him. She shields her children from the chaos of animal death, wouldn’t allow them to view the opossum that drowned in the water tank last summer or the stray cat dying in the shed. Sarah grew up in a trailer park overrun by roaming animals—feral cats ill and malformed from incest, the many interchangeable dogs her mother always placed kibble outside for. But the horses were always the worst. Her stepfather kept a collection of shabby horses that all came down with the same fatal disease: “Strangles.” They collapsed one by one, the lymph nodes under their necks swollen and dripping pus.
Sarah runs her hand over Dakota’s thick hindquarters as Bud walks him. He has been a different horse for her—clean, healthy, and rideable. Bud bought Dakota cheap and young off a friend, presented him to Sarah as a surprise during their first year of marriage. She was wary of the horse in the beginning, told Bud she didn’t want to hoard a bunch of useless animals. Yet she couldn’t resist his wide back gleaming like new copper and rode him, first in shaky circles in a round pen Bud constructed, then constantly, everywhere.
Sarah looks down at Dakota’s legs, darkened with sweat, tough and sinewy. She remembers the way her own thighs looked when she rode, tan and supple, muscles molded to the saddle. Occasionally, she will still trailer Dakota to the lake for a trail ride on Sundays, but she doesn’t ride anymore, not really, not like she did. Bud calls Dakota a lawn ornament, complains about the cost of his feed. She briefly wonders if he left the gate open on purpose.
Sarah decides to give Dakota another injection of Banamine while Bud walks him. She’s grateful to have half a bottle of the painkiller left over from the horse’s mild bout with colic several months ago. She walks into the living room, going limp as the air-conditioning rushes over her. She lifts her T-shirt to cool off and feels a surge of disgust when she glimpses dimpled fat and loose skin. No wonder Bud doesn’t want her anymore. He hasn’t touched her in six months, at least, and his whole body seems to contract when she slips her arm around his waist to hold him at night. Sarah knows she hasn’t aged well, though she’s only thirty-six. She never lost the pregnancy weight, despite diet pills and hours of robotic exercise at the tanning salon. Her skin is thin and spotted from baking in the sun as a teenager, slathered in baby oil. She’s cut and dyed her hair so often in pursuit of a flattering change that it’s been reduced to a staticky blonde fringe around her ears. Her nose, never delicate, seems to have recently elongated into a curved beak.
Bud used to call her Lady Godiva when she rode Dakota with her long hair down. He isn’t an educated man, but knows things most construction contractors don’t, bits of history and myth he uses to tease and charm people. He jokes with perky cashiers, asks the elderly farmers who drink coffee in the Git and Gallup about their lives. Sarah had always been irritated by his flirtatiousness, but now such attention to strangers is almost unbearable.
“You should be more outgoing,” Bud had said to Sarah last Sunday, as they left the coffee and donut gathering at church. Bud had glad-handed half the congregation while Sarah picked flakes of icing off her maple bar. She has been reserved her whole life, but until recently, pretty enough to compensate for it.
Standing in the middle of her Americana-themed living room she runs her hand across her breasts on the pretext of wiping away sweat and shudders slightly. She could still make love to him just as well as she ever did. Probably even better now. She’d started to suspect her frumpy clothes, lace curtains, and American flag wallpaper might have caused him to forget who she was, what she could do. The last time she tried, ducking beneath the purple quilt and tracing her tongue under the waistband of Bud’s boxers, he had laughed and pushed her back—the same quick, forceful way he pushes the outside dogs down when they jump on him. “What in the world are you doing, Sarah?” he asked, as she rolled away from him.
At least her house is clean and orderly, Sarah thinks, as she attempts to collect herself and fetch the medicine from the fridge. She mopped last night and the shining linoleum comforts her. She grew up in a rust-spotted trailer with buckled floors, and her home, a modest, nicely painted bungalow on five acres, fulfills her almost completely. She sweeps, polishes, and arranges as a form of recreation. She does the books at the Mill, a local establishment selling grain and veterinary supplies, to earn money for her African violets, lace pillows, and country-decorating magazines. Lately she’s been cooking elaborate dinners of herbed chicken or pork chops, keeping the children and house even more pristine than usual. She can’t seem to do a damn thing with her own appearance, but she can provide Bud with some domestic comforts, at least.
She draws up the medicine with one of the spare syringes she keeps in a junk drawer. Years ago, she asked the owner of the Mill to teach her how to give shots into an orange. She wanted to be able to give Dakota and Bud’s hunting dogs regular vaccinations herself, to save money on vet bills. Sarah’s parents never called veterinarians. They rarely even took her to the doctor. She has always been suspicious of medical professionals, feels uneducated in front of them. She pushes the bubbles of air out of the syringe and cool drops of Banamine scatter on the back of her hand.
The first thing Sarah sees when she opens the door again is Dakota flat on the ground, his sides heaving. Bud kneels beside him, stroking his neck. Sarah’s body begins to pulse in a single heartbeat.
“Goddamn it to hell!” she yells at Bud. She rarely curses out loud, and the words feel thick on her tongue. Dakota looks like a carcass already, she thinks. The pain seems to ripple from him.
“He just fell, honey,” Bud says, pressing his hand to his forehead. “I couldn’t do anything to stop him.”
Sarah imagines the huge animal folding in on himself like a tent collapsing, as he rocks from one side to the other and hits the Bermuda grass with a thump. She sits down beside the horse and presses her forehead to his belly. The warm dew soaks through the seat of her sweatpants. Sarah tastes the sweat and dust on Dakota’s coat. His labored breathing lifts her up and down. She remembers the way Dakota looked when Bud gave him to her. Slim and tall, still with gawky, bulbous knees, his sorrel coat metallic in the sun. The way he stood by the blue gate waiting for her, the brush of his whiskers and velvety lips as he ate an apple treat from her palm.
Sarah has always known better than to nestle herself near a horse’s legs, especially one made unpredictable by suffering. Dakota abruptly heaves his legs in the air, tossing Sarah back. She is too groggy to be frightened, and her reaction is slow. She feels Bud throw his arms around her shoulders and pull her away, just as Dakota’s flailing hoof nearly grazes her temple. The pressure of Bud’s hands firmly on her is such a relief she begins to cry, feels her hand smear dirt and gnats across her face when she rubs away the tears. She stands next to Bud and watches Dakota roll violently from side to side as if trying to crush a wildcat on his back.
“He’s trying to roll the pain off him,” Sarah says quietly.
“Will that help?” There are certain things Bud still does not know about horses.
“No. He’ll probably twist a gut soon. Not anything we can do.” Sarah slips her arm around Bud’s waist. She feels him tense slightly and then relax, though he does not return the gesture. He is certifiably disgusted by her, she thinks. He can’t even feign affection in the face of an emergency.
“I think it’s time for the vet,” he says. “I’ll go ahead and call Kate.” He detaches himself from her and Sarah grabs his arm, yanking him back.
“Hey, what’s the deal with you lately?” The words spill from her. She’d been too afraid to ask him before. Didn’t want to hear that he found her ugly, didn’t want to set things in motion. Maybe he wants a divorce, and she fears losing her house.
At least Bud doesn’t try to deny the change, He tells her he’s been preoccupied with work, contracting out for the new strip mall in Canton.
“Maybe we could go to Texas for a few days after this job’s over,” he says. Sarah envisions the two of them shopping in Dallas, eating ice cream cones. She’d go on a juice diet like before, buy some new clothes. The pasture would be empty of Dakota when they returned, mounds of horse manure disintegrating back into earth, the ill-fated plastic grain barrel hauled off to one of the town dumpsters. She could forgive Bud for this if he took her someplace, if he would only hold her in a hotel bed, sheets cool and smelling of chlorine.
Sarah watches Dr. Kate Rains pull a frosty bottle of sedative from a cooler in the bed of her truck. Sarah’s hands tingle with jealousy, but she is captivated, as always, by the woman’s elegance. Although Kate is years older than Sarah, she is perpetually slim. She looks sleek and efficient even at five in the morning, dressed in weathered Levi’s and a tight-fitting black T-shirt. Instead of cropping her hair like most aging women, Kate wears it in a honey-colored ponytail that falls to the middle of her back.
Kate graduated with Bud’s high school class, married some man nobody had heard of and moved to New Mexico. She returned alone to Canton only a few years ago, a gaunt and sophisticated DVM. Divorce must have worked wonders for her, Sarah thinks. But if she and Bud divorced, she would probably gain fifty more pounds on snack cakes alone, would still look pale and naïve in themed sweaters. Sarah often sees Kate in the Food Mart buying Lean Cuisines and fruit cocktail, and she frequently comes into the Mill for medicine, dewormer, and grain. She always chats with Sarah in a soft, engaging way, asks her how Bud is, while Sarah stares at her lush hair and lean cheeks, the wide silver band on her middle finger. Last Christmas, Kate brought Sarah a paper plate of bland sugar cookies and an expensive-looking vanilla candle in a glass jar. Sarah had been flattered that such a woman would make a gesture to her. Burning the candle helped Sarah remember to eat less.
Sarah wishes she would have changed out of sweatpants, brushed her teeth, and dabbed some concealer around her eyes before Kate arrived. She feels reassured, though, when she remembers this is the first time Kate has made a house call out to their place. She knows Kate lives in a small, drab rental off of Third Street. Surely she has to be envious of Sarah’s spacious, freshly-cut yard and the new deck Bud just finished staining.
Bud keeps asking Kate if there’s anything he can do to help her, telling her repeatedly how much they appreciate her coming out at this hour of the night. He’s become talkative, nearly cheerful, with the vet’s arrival. Sarah notices that his thick, wavy hair looks freshly combed.
“Do you think that’s enough sedative to keep him down?” Sarah asks Kate. She needs to say something so Bud will look at her.
“Should be for now,” Kate says, her smile tight.
“Oh Sarah, you don’t even know,” Bud says. Rage splashes over her again like hot cooking oil. Kate stares at her.
“Why don’t you look at my horse?” Sarah tells Kate. She has never thought to order an educated person around like this before. She knows she is fraying, but she is nearly incapable of containing herself. She feels a sharp, stress-induced gas pain stab her lower side, only a prick of what the horse must be experiencing.
After an hour of rolling, Dakota has nearly drained himself. His mouth is foaming like a rabid dog’s. Kate moves briskly toward him and administers the sedative injection into his neck. Dakota’s labored breathing slows, and Sarah’s body sags with relief. She watches as Kate sits next to Dakota and runs her hands along his distended stomach, uses her stethoscope to listen to his gut sounds. Sarah feels instantly protective of the horse, and she finds herself bending down as well, mimicking Kate’s motions, baby-talking to Dakota as if to reclaim ownership of him.
“He’s in a bad way,” Kate tells them as she stands. “He may have been rolling long enough to twist a gut. I can’t tell for sure. We can keep him sedated, under observation. You can trailer him into Canton for surgery. Euthanasia is an option too, if you don’t want to wait.”
“What would you recommend, Doctor?” Bud asks. Sarah grips Dakota’s mane tightly as a lover’s hair. Bud can’t keep himself from his heavy flirting even when her horse is dying.
“Bud, just stop it, all right?” she snaps. She has never reprimanded her husband in front of anyone like this, has always disliked the brash women who criticize their spouses in public and smack their children in Wal-Mart. Kate stares down at her stethoscope.
“You hush right now,” Bud says. He motions Kate to follow him back over to the truck.
Sarah bends over Dakota’s side again, his sweat dampening her cheeks. He smells different now, like urine and old shoes rather than dust, hay, and wind. Maybe he is beginning to decay from the inside out, his intestines dying by yards. Sarah wants to sprawl next to the horse and thrash the shame off her back.
When Sarah looks up, she sees Bud and Kate standing by the open door of Kate’s truck. Bud speaks quietly to Kate, his hand resting on her forearm. Sarah feels a wild rip of pain in her gut. She always tries to avoid imagining Bud with other women, but Kate would be an ideal option, an exotic single with a wounded look about her, the camaraderie from their youth already established. She thinks of the vanilla candle, wondering if Kate brought her the gift as a cover-up. Dakota tosses his head, shaking off the sedative. Sarah holds his muzzle and checks his gums. They are pale pink, splotched white. His gut must be kinked, she thinks, his stomach in tatters like a popped balloon. She cannot afford surgery of any kind. She and Bud can’t even afford name-brand groceries.
She walks to Bud and Kate, dizzy from rising too quickly. A barely rational corner of her mind recognizes that she has shucked off reason, slipped the ordered woman who does the books at the Mill and irons the bed skirts. The sky has lightened to gray. Frogs chirp from the pond and the bug zapper electrocutes the final moths of the night. Sarah steps onto the tire of the truck opposite Bud and Kate, swings herself into the bed and begins to rummage through Kate’s cooler, holding the bottles up to the interior light of the truck.
“What the hell are you doing?” Bud yells, his tone reminiscent of the night Sarah tried to seduce him back to her. Kate only stares, her thin face pinched and wary. Sarah tosses out bottles of medication, sending them rolling down the ribs of the plastic bed-liner. She grabs a vial of Beuthanasia, the euthanasia drug she recognizes from years of working at the Mill.
“His gut’s twisted,” Sarah says as she jumps out of the truck. “I’m sure. And I want to do it myself.”
“It may not be,” Kate tells her. “He may still pull out of it.”
Of course she would say that, the vet feels sorry for her, wants her horse to live. Kate probably left her husband, she thinks. A woman like that could leave if she felt like it and have her pick. She would never have to beg attention from anybody.
The bottle of euthanasia feels cool and damp as a river stone in Sarah’s hand. Watery pink light breaks over the horizon, and she sights the syringe full of Banamine in the grass. She squirts out the painkiller, pushes the needle through the rubber circle at the top of the bottle and draws up the injection.
She strokes Dakota’s head, traces the curve of his ear, and rubs a spot on his neck to numb his skin. She remembers watching her stepfather roll the dead Strangles horses into the front-end loader of a tractor.
The needle pops through Dakota’s thick skin and he tosses his head. The cold medication must be uncomfortable flowing through muscle. Sarah throws the emptied syringe aside, presses her hand to the horse’s chest and feels his breathing slow, until it ceases altogether. She lets out a low moan. Other than running over a raccoon, she has never caused death before. She never supposed she had the power to empty such a large thing of life. She rises and backs away from him. She is suddenly panicked that her daughter might see Dakota limp in the front yard, knows she should go inside the house and check on the kids. She sees Kate in the back of her truck, gathering up the medicine she had just wrecked. Bud arrives beside Sarah unexpectedly, pulling her to him. He crushes her face into his chest, grips her shoulders. A straitjacket hug, Sarah thinks, to keep her from being even more destructive. She used to have to hold the kids down like this when they threw fits as toddlers. She has ruined herself finally before him, Sarah knows, a fat woman in sweatpants yelling at her husband, killing her horse. At least Kate doesn’t seem to be the type to disclose what she’s witnessed tonight all over town. Divorced women never seem to gossip too much.
Sarah mumbles into Bud’s chest that she will have Joseph the Mennonite haul Dakota’s body to the creek with his tractor before afternoon, that she will write Kate a sizeable check out of her salary from the Mill. She begins to sweat from Bud’s tight hold on her and hears tires crunch over gravel, Kate pulling out of the driveway. Sarah feels lighter now that Kate has gone away. Bud begins to stroke her hair.
“Hush now,” he says. “It’s all right.”
This is heaven, she thinks. To be held. She struggles to think, like a child fighting off sleep. Is he really seeing her, she wonders, is he only doing this because he knows it’s the only way to calm her? She pushes herself up through his tight hold and tries to kiss him. He delivers a quick peck when her tongue slides past his lips, tries to fold her head back into his chest.
“It’s okay,” she tells Bud and he releases her. She turns to Dakota’s body, slumped in the yard, the yellow morning light draping over him.
She recalls a ride she took on Dakota when she and Bud were still newlyweds, after their first real fight. Bud was angry at her for spending a hundred dollars on new sheets and pillowcases. How hurt she was that he didn’t understand. She’d only wanted to make a nice home for him.
She had ridden Dakota fast and hard through tall winter grasses that day, sleet blurring her vision and beading his mane. She raced him out on the river floodplains, his legs lashing forward, her lean body arched over the saddle, both of them breathing the cold, smoky air deep into their bellies.