by Tracy Gold
I’m trying to lace up my boots, but I keep dropping the laces or missing the hooks. This should not be a problem, but my fingers keep shaking. I sink to the floor, lean back against the wall, and stare at my boots, their once-supple leather now cracking and crusted with dried mud.
“Katie?” says Mark as he walks into the hall. I told him he could sleep in this morning, finally, but he knows me too well. He looks like he’s been up a while.
I look out the window to where Montana and Buck are eating the first of the grass to push through the mud. It was a long winter.
Mark looks down at me and says, “I’ll feed.” He puts his hand on my back, but there’s the slightest edge in his voice.
He moves away from me, pulls on his shoes, ties his laces, and walks out the door. I want to get up, run after him, but I stay shrunken against the wall, boots on, untied.
I didn’t think I would be this crushed, for this long, when Dad died. I managed okay when he got his diagnosis. Stage four. Lung cancer. Within a year. He and I kept going until a month ago. And then we both stopped.
Dad and I always did the morning chores together, until he got too sick, and I haven’t been able to do them—not alone, not with Mark—since he died. Mark’s a city boy, but you would never know it from how he’s been waking up at the crack of dawn to take care of the horses. He keeps telling me he can stay if I need more time. But I know better. I heard him on the phone with his boss in New York yesterday, asking for just a few more days.
So I was going to get up and feed today. Prove that I can do it when Mark goes back to work, and we go back to long-distance, if he still wants me after seeing me like this. I’m scared that he’s just staying because he knows how much I need him.
But everything on this farm, in this house, in this hallway reminds me of Dad. There’s the screen door he fixed after Duke busted through it chasing a squirrel—”Ain’t pretty, but it’ll work.” My obnoxious Pony Club Nationals ribbons, which, despite protests from 17-year-old me, he insisted on framing alongside a picture of my horse, Parker. And there are his boots, which are still sitting in the closet, spotless. They’re staring at me, telling me to get up, that Dad raised me to be better than this.
My phone rings, and I could have been sitting against the wall for an hour, but judging by the time, it’s probably only been 15 minutes. It’s Mark. I know it’s stupid but my heart starts racing, the way it always does when he calls me from the barn. My mind goes straight to Parker, like it always does.
The worst Mark’s reported has been lost shoes and swollen fetlocks, but growing up, when it was Dad managing the barn, we lost a few horses. Dad normally had a smirk hiding under the surface, ready to spring out at any moment, but when he got those calls, his lips turned to stone.
I consider not taking the call. If there’s a situation, what the hell am I going to do about it? I can’t even lace up my boots. But I pick up.
“Katie.” Mark’s voice is shaky. Let it be any other animal but Parker.
“You okay?” I say.
“It’s Parker,” Mark says. “He—Katie, the wire fence.”
No, no, no—I’ve always hated that damn wire fence. I begged Dad to replace it for years, but he always said it was so overgrown that none of the horses would get to it. I’d planned on dealing with it this spring, but hadn’t had the energy yet.
“Katie,” Mark says, his voice breaking.
“Just tell me,” I say, and I don’t know where the words are coming from because there’s no air in my lungs.
“Katie, you, you might want to bring your gun.”
I shut my eyes and breathe in, deep. “Should I call the vet?”
“Just get down here,” says Mark. “Get down here fast.” I hope Mark’s wrong. I hope he’s overreacting. But though he’s new to horses, Mark’s always been level-headed.
I want my Dad. I want to be ten again, to rip the goddamn cigarettes from his mouth before the cancer took hold.
I’m shaking even more now, but I tie up my boots, first try.
The morning weighs down foggy when I reach the low ground near Parker’s field; the salt smell of earthworms forces its way into my nostrils. The field is too narrow up here for so many horses, so it’s always muddy, but out further, it drops down the hill to a stream and the brush that hides the wire fence. I can’t see Mark and Parker over the hill, but I hear a low, groaning noise. When I was 16, one of the boarders found her horse, Martin, at the bottom of this hill, unable to stand. We waited for the vet to come, that time, but he had to be put down. We figured he fell, but we never knew exactly what happened.
The other horses are up by the gate, nosing around the feed buckets for fallen grain. The bucket and scoop are outside the gate. Mark must have gone to check on Parker when he didn’t come in to eat. I walk out past the other horses, and the mud sucks at my boots. “Stop,” it says. I take another step. “Stop, stop, stop,” step, step, step. I want to just lie down in the mud, let the horses trample me, but my rifle is in my hand and I have to keep going.
“Mark!” I yell when I reach the crest of the hill—the trees are thick and I can’t make out where he is.
“Katie!” he calls back. His voice is hoarse. I hurry as much as I can down the hill, stepping high over the roots and rocks.
I keep walking until I see Parker and Mark, shrouded in fog—and there’s blood, so much blood. The stream is red, the leaves shiny like they were bleeding themselves. Parker is standing in the stream, which is a trickle any other time of year but runs maybe a slow six inches in the spring. He’s struggling to stay standing, and his left hind leg is hanging at a strange angle, below the hock. As I get closer, I see that his cannon bone is cut almost in two, the skin and muscle and marrow red and pink and white. Blood gushes out in pulses. The wire is still wrapped around what’s left of his leg, and the whole fence shakes as he tries to put his leg down and reels away in pain. Bile rises up in my throat and I close my eyes and turn away, taking deep, slow breaths.
Where the stream cuts under the fence is the one section where there’s no trees or bushes to block it. Parker must have backed into it somehow.
“His leg, Katie, his leg,” says Mark, and I open my eyes. Mark is standing about ten feet away from Parker, out of the stream, out of the blood. He’s pale and shaking. I remember Dad, when we found Martin. He knelt down and put his hand on Martin’s neck, talked to him in a low, calm voice. He was so still, so serious.
Bring the gun, Katie, Mark had said. I’d hoped he’d just freaked. That it was just a bad cut. But he was right. We can’t wait for the vet. Parker’s going to die, whether the vet comes or not. It’s just a matter of how long he’ll be in agony before he dies.
I’ve shot deer before, but never a horse. Dad told me how, just in case, but I never imagined that I’d have to do it.
I look at Mark. He’s crying. I’m not.
I won’t watch Parker die like this. My Parker, who was there for every teenage heartbreak, countless long hot show days, bareback trail rides to the river, gallops in the snow.
I don’t know how I manage it, I’m shaking so badly, but I load my rifle without dropping the bullets in the mud.
As I move closer, Parker tries to walk towards me, like he always does when I come to his field. But he almost falls when he tries to put weight on his leg. I take a deep breath. If I’m nervous, I’ll have no chance of getting Parker to stand still.
I look over at Mark, who’s still shaking and crying, and I think about asking him to help me hold Parker still, but I don’t want to take the chance of hurting Mark if Parker moves at the last minute. I’ll just have to hope Parker will calm down.
“Hey,” I say, and step slowly towards Parker, into the stream. The water washes over and into my boots, ice cold as it soaks through my wool socks. “It’s okay,” I say. Parker’s ears flick towards me, and his great bay barrel slows its heaving.
I hold my rifle behind me so it won’t spook him, and reach out my hand. Damn it—why didn’t I bring a peppermint, or an apple? He nuzzles my hand anyways and groans. I reach up to his forelock, smooth it behind his ear, and rub his forehead. He’s almost done shedding his winter coat, but he hasn’t picked up his summer shine yet. His head drops, and he stops trying to shift his weight—I’ve spent so many hours over the years just smoothing his forelock and rubbing his face. He trusts me, and I have to use that trust to shoot him.
Like Dad taught me, I trace a line from his right eye to his left ear, and then the reverse. The place where they intersect—my target—is right at the top of his white stripe, his only marking.
Slowly, slowly, holding my breath, I raise my rifle and let him smell it. He snorts and tries to back away, like he knows what’s coming. He’s never smelled a gun before. I hold it steady, and he reaches out and lips the barrel, like there might be food in it. I almost smile—that’s so Parker, to bite everything he gets close to, even when he’s dying. He lets me raise the gun; I press the cold metal barrel onto his forehead. I feel like I’m holding the gun to my own head. I take a long, deep breath, hoping Parker will move, that I’ll wake up, that I’ve been dreaming.
But Parker stays still and I pull the trigger. My ears explode with the blast. I’ve met my mark. Parker crumples to the ground. I jump back, afraid he’ll fall on me. His head lands just out of the stream, on the rocky mud.
I have to be sure. I grit my teeth to control the pain echoing from the shot and kneel down to get closer to Parker’s eye, almost hoping he’ll move. I touch his eye, wet and wide-set and kind. He doesn’t react. He’s dead.
I reel backwards and almost fall, but Mark is there to catch me. He pulls me up, and I turn to face him and bury my face in his neck. He holds me up as I cry. My whole body shakes. The shot still echoes in my ears.
“He’s gone,” I say. I try not to think that I killed him. With my gun, and with the grief that kept me from replacing the wire with wood.
“You did what you had to,” says Mark, his voice trembling. He’s right.
“Stay with me?” I say.
Mark pulls me closer, and says, “Of course.”
We stay by Parker, leaning against each other, until the sun fights through the trees and burns the fog away.
I pull away from Mark, but reach for his hand. “There’s work to do,” I say. I squeeze Mark’s hand, then release it. I start up the hill, and Mark follows.
When we’re almost at the crest, we stop and look back to where Parker’s body is, though we can’t see it through the trees. And then we keep walking.