“The second best thing you can do for a horse with a broken leg is shoot it,” my father once said to me, and when I asked the unavoidable question, he answered, “shoot it in the right place.”
Behind the right ear. He believed a horse saw better out of its left eye, something he had learned about lobes, and if you slipped a little into the side on the right, they were less likely to know what was coming. That you had turned on them, even if it wasn’t like that. No one—or no thing—deserves that for a final thought.
I had a horse named Flurry when I was a girl and she broke her leg at the edge of the forest where I’d walk her. We never rode in the forest because of the rocks and the logs, while the strip of clearing between the woods and where our property began to look like a home was flat and smooth.
The forest was for walking. She crumpled without a sound. Like a penny dropped on a mattress. Or a prong ring. “That’ll do it,” my dad said, who was walking with us that day. He said it like he expected it. There were buckets in that clearing where my kid brother Matt dug and played at being archeologist because he thought he was a great scientist even though he was seven.
You couldn’t see the house from there. It still felt separate. My father handed me his rifle, which was looped over his shoulder with a strap. “I’m going to walk away now and leave you to it,” he said. “Remember what I told you. The right side. Say goodbye first. Always say goodbye.” He bent down, and he kissed me on top of the head, and said, “see you later,” which I guess is the same as goodbye.
I sat with the horse and scratched her ears. She didn’t seem to be in pain. She didn’t make a sound. You notice sound on a day like that, in the woods, or by a clearing. I could hear my dad’s boots breaking sticks against the ground, scattering pebbles, after he had walked away and I could no longer see him. She had pulled her leg from the hole. The bone was not sticking out. It looked like her normal leg. I touched it. There was no heat. The hair felt dry. Calm. “We all pull muscles,” I thought. I told her to get up. She didn’t. I pulled around her neck, to show her what I wanted. I knew I couldn’t lift her. I was trying to give her the right idea.
My dad would sit that way when he was older and I was on my own and he lived with me. He’d sit that way on the bed and I’d want him to get up. To be active. I’d sit that way in the shower, on the floor of the tub. Wondering if I sat there long enough, even if the drain wasn’t stoppered, if the water might accumulate, submerge my legs, my stomach, my sides, my breasts, my neck, my mouth, my nose, my scalp. “You’re doing this for you,” Matt said, “taking him in, he needs full-time care. You are still a young woman.”
Something’s gone wrong when people use that phrase. “Still a young woman.” “Still a young man” would be no different, I imagine. Just less germane for me. I wonder if I would have been different that day with Flurry if I had already lived the rest of my life and come back to find her on the ground, soundless, no bone sticking out, no heat in the leg. My dad liked to hum old Elvis songs and so did my husband, and sometimes we’d sing, my dad and me. “You sent a feeling to my spine/A feeling warm and smooth and fine/But all I could do was stand there paralyzed.” I hummed and I rubbed.
When my husband got sick after he had left me, he came back. “She can take care of you,” I said, but I didn’t mean it. I wanted to take care of him. “We are still technically married,” he said, but I knew he didn’t mean that either. I knew he was scared. I was more scared because he was going to be the one who got to go. Who would not have to deal with remaining and not having. “You are being a doormat,” my dad said, “but it is your life.” People think about a doormat as something that gets stained and dirtied and rained on. But you can always turn it over, is what I would think.