By Cheryl Strayed
This falls into the category of "made me cry." (This also marks the second passage on this blog detailing a horse's death. Ugh.)
Tragic and beautiful.
"I whispered to Lady as I put her halter on, telling her how much I loved her as I led her out of her stall. Paul shut the gate behind us, trapping Roger inside so he couldn't follow. I led her across the icy snow, turning back to watch her walk one last time. She still moved with an unspeakable grace and power, striding with the long, grand high-stepping gait that always took my mother's breath away. I led her to a birch tree that Paul and I had chosen the previous afternoon and tied her to it by her lead rope. The tree was on the very edge of the pasture, beyond which the woods thickened in earnest, far enough away from the house that I hoped the coyotes would approach and take her body that night. I spoke to her and ran my hands over her chestnut coat, murmuring my love and sorrow, begging her forgiveness and understanding.
When I looked up, my brother was standing there with his rifle.
Paul took my arm and together we stumbled through the snow to stand behind Leif. We were only six feet away from Lady. Her warm breath was like a silk cloud. The frozen crust of the snow held us for a moment, then collapsed so we all sank up to our knees.
"Right between her eyes," I said to Leif, repeating yet again the words our grandfather had said to me. If we did that, he promised, we'd kill her in one clean shot.
Leif crouched, kneeling on one knee. Lady pranced and scraped her front hooves on the ice and then lowered her head and looked at us. I inhaled sharply and Leif fired the gun. The bullet hit Lady right between her eyes, in the middle of her white star, exactly where we hoped it would. She bolted so hard her leather halter snapped into pieces and fell away from her face, and then she stood unmoving, looking at us with a stunned expression.
"Shoot her again," I gasped, and immediately Leif did, firing three more bullets into her head in quick succession. She stumbled and jerked, but she didn't fall and she didn't run, though whew as no longer tied to the tree. Her eyes were wild upon us, shocked by what we'd done, her face a constellation of bloodless hole. In an instant I knew we'd done the wrong thing, not in killing her, but in thinking that we should be the ones to do it. I should have insisted Eddie do this one thing, or paid for the veterinarian to come out. I'd had the wrong idea of what it takes to kill an animal. There is no such thing as one clean shot.
"Shoot her! Shoot her!" I pleaded in a guttural wail I didn't know was mine.
"I'm out of bullets," Leif yelled.
"Lady!" I shrieked. Paul grabbed my shoulders to pull me toward him and I batted him away, panting and whimpering as if someone were beating me to death.
Lady took one wobbling step and then fell onto her front knees, her body tilting hideously forward as if she were a great ship slowly sinking into the sea. Her head swayed and she let out a deep moan. Blood gushed from her soft nostrils in sudden, great torrent, hitting the snow so hot it hissed. She coughed and coughed, tremendous buckets of blood coming each time, her back legs buckling in excruciating slow motion beneath her. She hovered there, struggling to stay grotesquely up, before she finally toppled over onto her side, where she kicked her legs and flailed and twisted her neck and fought to rise again.
"Lady!" I howled. "Lady!"
Leif grabbed me. "Look away!"he shouted, and together we turned away.
"LOOK AWAY!" he hollered to Paul, and Paul obeyed.
"Please come take her," Leif chanted, as tears streaked down his face. "Come take her. Come take her. Come take her."
When I turned, Lady had dropped her head to the ground at last, though her sides still heaved and her legs twitched. The three of us staggered closer, breaking through the snow's crust to sink miserably to our knees again. We watched as she breathed enormous slow breaths and then finally she sighed and her body went still.
Our mother's horse. Lady. Stonewall's Highland Nancy was dead.
Whether it had taken five minutes or an hour, I didn't know. My mittens and hat had fallen off, but I could not bring myself to retrieve them. My eyelashes had frozen into clumps. Strands of hair that had blown onto my tear- and snot-drenched face had frozen into icicles that clinked when I moved. I pushed them numbly away, unable even to register the cold. I knelt beside Lady's belly and ran my hands along her blood-speckled body one last time. She was still warm, just as my mother had been when I'd come into the room at the hospital and seen that she'd died without me. I looked at Leif and wondered if he was remembering the same thing. I crawled to her head and touched her cold ears, soft as velvet. I put my hands over the black bullet holes in her white star. The deep tunnels of blood that had burned through the snow around her were already beginning to freeze.
Paul and I watched as Leif took out his knife and cut bundles of reddish-blonde hair from Lady's mane and tail. He handed one to me.
"Mom can go to the other side now," he said, looking into my eyes as if it were only the two of us in the entire world. "That's what the Indians believe--that when a great warrior dies you've got to kill their horse so he can cross over to the other side of the river. It's a way of showing respect. Maybe Mom can ride away now."
I imagined our mother crossing a great river on Lady's strong back finally leaving us nearly three years after she died. I wanted it to be true. It was the thing I wished for when I had a wish to make. Not that my mother would ride back to me--though, of course, I wanted that--but that she and Lady would ride away together. That the worst thing I'd ever done had been a healing instead of a massacre."
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