Fading Star

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I’d gotten the call about seven that morning. Fortunately, I was up and mostly dressed so that all I had to do was pull on my barn jeans and my muck boots and jump in the truck. The barn was about a minute drive and I made it in way less than that. I spotted Laurie, who helps me out at the barn, standing in the pasture beside Doc, my thirty-year-old gelding. I could tell at a distance that he wasn’t feeling so good. I slipped into the tack room and grabbed a syringe of Banamine from the fridge and then headed out the back door and over the fence to where they stood.

“How’s he doing?” I asked though I knew the answer.

“Not too good, Al,” Laurie said. “He won’t move.”

“Hey Buddy, what’s up?” I murmured to him as I slipped my hand along the taught tendons of his neck, and felt the muscles clenched in pain. Moving back toward his rump, I placed my ear against the side of his belly. Nothing. Not a sound, not a gurgle. Everything in his gut was stopped cold and the muscles were rock hard. Not a good sign, but I’d seen worse. I went back around to his head, stroking his soft coat, and reached for his mouth. I pulled back his lips, something he normally fought, but not today. I pressed a finger against his gum. It turned white as a sun-bleached bone under the pressure of my finger. And stayed that way even when I let go. He was badly dehydrated. That was worse.

“I’m gonna give him a shot. You got your phone with you? Can you call Dr. Brandt?”

“Yeah, I got it.” Laurie moved off and starting dialing the phone. I heard her talking in a low voice. I wiped Doc’s neck with an alcohol pad, pulled the cap off the syringe, tapped it, and plunged it into the muscle on the side of his neck. He didn’t flinch. I leaned my forehead against his fur, closed my eyes, and draped one arm over his neck, willing him to get better.

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“You don’t know how to ride a horse,” my ten-year-old sister admonished me as I started to climb over the fence. I ignored her and picked my way over the rusty barbed wire strung along the top.

“You gonna get your dang head kicked in.”

I looked back at her and grinned. I wasn’t going to miss this chance. It was a sunny, warm and breezy June day in the south, one of those blue-sky days that makes you think anything is possible. A bunch of scraggly carrots dangled from the back pocket of my shorts.

We had just moved out of a trailer park in Charlotte, where we lived while Dad was finishing college on the GI Bill and now we were living in a real neighborhood, in a house with a concrete driveway and a living room. Leslie and I even had our own bedrooms, even though we still slept together every night. But best of all, a few days after we’d moved in, Leslie and I discovered a fenced-in field that bordered the woods around our development. In it were two horses.

I hopped down from the fence, my heart pounding, and walked towards the two, going slow so that they didn’t run off like the last time we’d been there. The grass was tall and the occasional thorn bush raked at my bare legs as I approached the two animals, one dark red, almost black, and the other a light brown, grazing peacefully. Remembering the carrots, I pulled one out and held it in front of me. I had worshiped horses from the time I could talk but had never actually seen one up close in real life. I’d had no idea how big they would be and I was terrified. Still, I had to touch one.

Both horses raised their heads to look at me and one snorted loudly, but they didn’t move away. The carrot had their attention. I glanced back at Les. Her eyes were like saucers and mine were too I would imagine. Taking a deep breath, I walked slowly over to them. The dark one reached out and snapped the carrot in two, munching it loudly. I’d never been that close to a horse, but I had read every book our school library had about horses. The brown one reached out for the rest of the carrot and I remembered reading that you fed horses with a flat hand to protect your fingers. I quickly adjusted and felt my heart race at the touch of his velvety soft lips as he gently lipped the carrot from my palm. If I’d ever loved horses before, it did not compare with the depth of feeling that washed over me in that moment. I reached out a hand and touched the one closest to me. His skin twitched as if I was a fly. I’d read about that too. I petted him a little harder so that he would know it was me. He nuzzled towards me, looking for another carrot, which I happily obliged. I looked back at my sister, triumphant.

“Al, can I come out there?” Leslie could see they weren’t too scary.

“Yeah, come on,” I called back, grinning from ear to ear.

We stood there petting them, in awe, until the carrots ran out and they moved off to graze.

“I don’t know what you were so scared of,” Leslie said, as we walked back to the fence. But she had a big grin on her face to match mine.

“I’m gonna ride one next time.”

Leslie snorted, “yeah, right.”

But I did. After several visits with whatever treats I could steal from Mom’s kitchen, the horses would both come to the fence to meet me. One day, I climbed up to the top of the fence and when Brownie, which is what I had started calling the brown one, got close enough, I threw a leg over him and slid onto his back. His head came up, startled, and I figured he was going to take off, but it was worth it just to feel his prickly hide beneath my bare legs.  Instead of taking off though, he just walked away from the fence, as I clutched his bristly long mane in a death grip. I just sat there on his back, on top of the world, not breathing, in heaven.

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“Dr. Brandt’s on his way.” Laurie tucked the phone back in the pocket of her jacket. “You want to get Doc to the barn?” It was going to involve a lot of pushing and pulling.

“Yeah, but let’s give the Banamine a chance to kick in. Go get a halter and a rope.”

Ten minutes later, Dr. Brandt, one of the best large animal veterinarians I have known, pulled into the barnyard and walked to where we’d led Doc, who stood, quivering now, his head down. He checked Doc’s heart rate and gum line. Dr. Brandt’s face was sunburned and wrinkled, but kindly. Like most people who worked only with animals, he didn’t talk a lot. But he kept a hand on Doc, stroking his fur and petting him gently.

“How long?” he asked, as he pulled a cow glove over his right hand and up to his shoulder like a debutante’s opera glove. He moved behind Doc and pulled his tail aside.

“I found him a little before seven,” Laurie said, ” then I called Al,” nodding at me. “He was okay last night though when I left,” she added.

Dr. Brandt finished the exam and looked grimly at the results. He stripped off the filthy glove and dropped it to the floor beside the slimy mess he’d just pulled out and examined. He turned and opened a case and took out the portable ultrasound, a piece of equipment I’d never seen before. He set it up and began to gently probe Doc’s belly, watching the screen. He motioned me over.

“See this?” he said, pointing to an incomprehensible mass of white on the left of the screen. “That should be here,” pointing to the right side, “and that space is not supposed to be there.” He looked up at me.  “It’s bad.”

“Can’t you do the surgery?” Colic, a disorder that causes the large bowel and intestines to twist into knots, can be deadly in big animals, but usually, meds relieved it. I knew there was surgery for it in extreme cases and Dr. Brandt had the facility and the knowledge to do it. Doc had never been all that prone to colic and I’d never given it much thought, figuring it could always be fixed.

Dr. Brandt looked me in the eyes. “Not on a thirty-year-old horse.”

It slowly dawned on me what he meant and I felt my insides go liquid. Part of me still said no, he’ll be okay, just give him another shot, do the fucking surgery, but the other part of me knew what was going to happen. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

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Doc had been with me for twenty years since he was ten and I was 36. I hated to say I owned him because he kind of owned me. He and my son were born the same year, 1985, which is how I could keep up with his age. Doc came from royalty, a grandson of Impressive, a Grand Champion Quarter Horse, and the sire of a long line of Grand Champions, known for their perfect confirmation and the ability to sire more champions. Doc was a beauty too. He had a lot of Arabian in his lineage, making his head fine-boned and his eyes closer together than usual. He was a deep sorrel, a reddish-brown with a reddish tan mane and tail. He had a star and a snippet down the center of his nose and one white stocking on his left hind leg. He simply took my breath away when I saw him for the first time.

I was living in South Carolina at the time, on a farm with my now ex-husband. Although he had seemed a decent sort of guy when we were first married, I soon learned that he could be vicious. His tantrums and rants began to escalate after we moved to the farm and shortly thereafter I moved into the spare bedroom, trying to put some distance between us. Don’t get me wrong, he had his good moments, and at times those lasted for days or weeks during which he could be gracious, generous, and loving. I tried to make those good periods last longer by just working harder, spending less, getting thinner, acting sexier, but after a few years, I gave up and just tried to stay below the radar. He never actually hit me, although I did get shoved into a couple of walls and I guess you can call it rape even if you’re married. But his real power was his tendency to destroy things I loved, like an antique table that I found in splinters and one of my mom’s paintings that had been punched through with his fist. He liked to remind me that he was in control of everything including money, family, friends, and even the food I ate. But at the farm, a one hundred and fifty-acre piece of prime upstate farmland, I was happy. I told myself living with his anger was worth waking up every morning in such a beautiful place. I survived on the dream of eventually having a horse of my own.

It was during one of his better moods that he agreed to let me buy Doc. I had managed to scrimp and save just enough money to buy a horse and a saddle. We built a barn and fenced in a couple of pastures. He even bought a horse of his own, a big, goofy but sweet quarter horse named Rusty that he never rode, which was fine because I loved them both.  I thought I could put up with anything as long as I had my farm and Doc and Rusty. It worked for a while.

I would often escape to the barn to avoid the inevitable nightly fight up at the house, slipping into Doc’s stall while he was sleeping. I would either sit in the sawdust in the corner or if it was cold, just lean up against him and feel his warmth. My farm was my haven and I stayed as long as I could.  But when the escapes to the barn started turning into running for my life, I finally ran for good, although I was forced to leave everything other than a hastily packed suitcase behind. Six months later, when I came back under court protection to get my horse, I discovered that my ex had turned all his fury and anger against me towards Doc. An untreated injury from a blow to the head had rendered him blind in his left eye. He had lost close to a hundred pounds. I got him out of there as fast as I could. But I could only take Doc. I never saw sweet Rusty again.

After the move to North Carolina, where I had to board him, Doc struggled to recover and for years I nursed him through a long string of ailments. When horses suffer extreme trauma, all their systems tend to break down, one after the other. First, he was attacked and bitten by an aggressive gelding he didn’t see come up on his left side and was left with a gaping eight-inch deep gash in his rump. I nearly lost him, but after three months of carefully cleaning and de-brading the wound twice a day, it began to grow back in and he eventually healed with surprisingly little effect. But then he developed a rash called “rain rot”, that caused him to lose all his hair. Rain rot has nothing to do with rain, but rather is a fungal infection brought on by a compromised immune system. It doesn’t sound like much but to see a horse-covered head to tale in scabs and sores is painful enough, not to mention the treatment. It took six months to get his coat to start to grow back in but once again, he came back from the dead. Next were multiple abscesses in his hooves, usually the final insult and often the one that causes a horse to be put down. The old saying is ‘no hooves, no horse’. But Doc rallied again and though it took another six months for his feet to heal, he made it through.

By the time Doc’s injuries were cleared up, I was twenty thousand dollars in debt on a credit card that I used to buy medical supplies and pay vet bills. And Doc was still two hundred pounds underweight. Yet, every day when I showed up at the barn, he would greet me with a soft whicker and lean his head against my chest so that I could rub his big fuzzy ears and kiss the star between his eyes. I could wrap my arms around his neck and stand there forever. When he felt good, we would go for long rides through the woods. He loved to run anytime he could and it always felt like flying.

One day, as were standing at the barn where I boarded him, after measuring him for a weight check and finding him down another twenty pounds, I promised that if he could just hold on, I would get him his own barn again with his own pasture and I would get him healthy again. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I swore to him I would find a way. It was probably a couple of months after that when I met Jeff and about six months later, I moved us to Michigan.

That was ten years ago that I moved Doc from North Carolina to Michigan and I kept my promise. We’d had a tough go of it for a few years but now he had a great barn, green pastures, a new buddy to run with and he was fat and shiny and strong again. I still rode him occasionally and he still liked to run, but we both agreed that he was mostly retired. He’d earned it.

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I stood at his head and Doc leaned his face against my chest, just as he’d always done when he wanted his ears scratched. Only now, his breath was coming hot and short from the pain. Tears poured down my face, leaving dark stains on the soft fur above his eyes. “How?” was all I could manage to say.

Dr. Brandt dropped a big hand on my shoulder. “I’ll give him a shot to relax him and then the shot to stop his heart. He’ll just go to sleep. No pain, I promise.” He paused to let that sink in. “Let’s get him out to the driveway.”

I knew why we had to move him again. Someone was going to have to pick him up with a forklift to carry him off to bury him. Or drag him with the tractor. The thought made me sick. I knew I couldn’t watch that.

In the driveway, I again stood at his head. Dr. Brandt prepared both syringes and looked at me. I nodded okay. After the first shot, his head dropped low and he swayed as unsteady as a punch-drunk sailor. I held his head, heavy and limp in my arms. I went to my knees so that I could whisper in his ear. I told him he was the best horse. I told him he was my good boy, my sweet boy. I told him I loved him. I told him all the things I had said to him a million times throughout the last twenty years. I told him over and over until Dr. Brandt gave him the second shot. His knees buckled and he slumped gently to the ground. I went with him, letting his big beautiful head with its fading star and snippet fall into my lap, pinning me there. I leaned down over his neck and pressed my face into his fur to breathe in the last warm scent of him.

I sat there like that for almost an hour. Before he left, Dr. Brandt knelt down beside me and put a hand on my head, as if I were a dog. I took it as an intensely intimate and comforting gesture, just as it was intended. He told me to call him when we were on the way. I had decided to have Doc cremated instead of burying him and Dr. Brandt’s hospital could do that for me. Now I had to get him there.

Jeff must have broken some sort of land speed record driving the seventy-five miles from Chicago. I felt like I had just hung up with him and there he was. He dropped to the gravel beside me and wrapped his big arms around me while I sobbed so hard I was blind and keening. As I caught my breath and starting to calm down, I realized he was crying too. We sat like that over Doc for a few more minutes.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

“I know. I can’t believe this happened. He was fine yesterday.” The words choked and knotted up in my chest, coming out as a gasp.

“What can I do? What do you need right now?”

I took a deep breath. “I need someone to come get him. I want to take him to Dr. Brandt’s to be cre…” I couldn’t finish and just shook my head.

“I’ll call Mike and see if he can bring his trailer.” Jeff was so gentle. “How are we going to get him on the trailer?”

“Mike’ll need to use the tractor. Or the skidster.” I blocked the image from my mind by sheer will so that I could finish speaking. “He’ll have to use the forks to pick him up.” As I said this, I put my hand on the star between Doc’s eyes. I felt my chest begin to contract and heave again as the thoughts broke through and I pictured his beautiful fine head dangling from the forks as he was rudely scooped up and dumped. I covered my face and tried to shake away the sobs that were building. “Jeff, I don’t think I can wa..watch…”

Jeff held me tight and assured me I wouldn’t have to see. He pulled away and got up, taking out his phone to call Mike, our landscaper.

A few minutes later, Mike pulled into the barn parking lot with his big flatbed trailer behind his truck. He jumped out and came over to me. At this point, I had gotten up and was walking the blood back down into my numb legs. Mike folded me into a huge bear hug and said he was sorry.

“Mike, you have to be really careful.” I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t just a carcass, it was Doc, but I didn’t have to.

“I know. I’ve done this before,” Mike said, “I’ll pick him up real gentle.”

Jeff walked up and shook Mike’s hand, thanking him for coming so fast. “Al, go in the barn, Honey. We’ll tell you when he’s ready to go.”

I bent down once more to lay a hand on Doc’s neck and then walked into the barn and grabbed a broom. I always swept the barn when I was waiting for something. I pushed the hay and dust and shavings into a pile and then realized that Laurie had cleaned up the mess from earlier. I looked for her and found her in the back paddock, crying softly.

“Was this something I did?” she asked me as I approached. “I ain’t no expert on horses but if I did something stupid, I’ll just…I just want to die.”

“Laurie, no, this just happens. Especially with older horses. It just happens. It’s not your fault.” The relief flooded her face but her tears came harder. We hugged each other tightly. I heard the skidster as it came into the yard. I pulled away and walked back to the front of the barn.

Some men are just born to operate machinery. They just flick the controls with the tips of their fingers or move their hands as if conducting an orchestra. At his beck, the massive arms and levers, extensions of the man himself, while capable of destroying buildings and ripping trees from the earth, perform operations as delicate as surgery or ballet. For some reason, it just comes naturally for them and is beautiful to watch. I stood, cloaked in the dark, hidden by the half-closed door, and watched. The flatbed trailer was pulled into the driveway. Mike was seated on the skidster, basically, an over-sized bobcat that can accommodate a variety of attachments from buckets to forks to a backhoe. He maneuvered the huge piece of equipment around and behind Doc and I saw that he was using the bucket instead of the forks. I was grateful. I watched as he lowered the bucket to place it flat on the ground behind Doc. He slowly, inch by inch pushed the bucket forward so that it slid underneath his body, carefully tipping it down incrementally to make sure it didn’t do damage. Jeff was in front of Doc and every time Mike pushed the bucket under Doc, Jeff would push him in, lifting his head gently and then tucking his legs in, one by one. Finally, Mike tipped the bucket back and lifted Doc, as gently as he would a newborn.

I turned away then, crouching down behind the door, and waited until I heard the skidster engine stop. I wiped my eyes for the thousandth time and walked out. Doc was lying on his side on the trailer. I sat down next to him and smoothed his mane out, combing it with my fingers as I had done a million times before. Only then did I unbuckle the green embroidered halter I had bought for him as a barn-warming present years ago, when we moved to Michigan and slipped it off his head. I gave him a kiss between his eyes and laid my hand over his star, once so bright and alive, and told him goodbye for the last time.

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