24 June, 2021
I wake up suspecting my horse is dead.
I stand at my kitchen window and drink a glass of water looking out over the front yard. Everything is bland in weak early morning light. Patches of snow still dominate. It’s April. It’s a consistent miserable.
I know I need to put my boots on and head out the back door and check on Sayre. I need to feed the remaining pony. I need to check his water. I need to wake the kids for school. I need to eat a banana.
But just for now, I stand in the window and close my eyes to the emerging mud of the yard.
And then, I’ve waited too long, because now I can hear the thudding and knocking and dragging of my middle boy, Teddy, as he steers his 14-year-old body along the upstairs hallway and down the stairs. My boy-turned-man. My scruffy-around-the-edges son.
“Did she live?” he asks instead of saying good morning. He comes right up behind me and rests his head on my back (he has to bend like a willow branch) and breathes me in. I can feel him expand, deflate.
“I haven’t been out there yet.”
“What time did you come in last night?”
“Not sure? It was definitely after one in the morning.”
He moves off me and heads to the fridge. My back is cold now where he’d landed momentarily. He finds the milk and pours an enormous amount into an old mayonnaise jar.
I don’t want to know if Sayre is dead or alive.
A higher-pitched patter erupts overhead, and soon Boy #3 appears: Charlie. He comes into the kitchen mid-sentence and doesn’t pause for any kind of reaction from his silent audience of two.
“…but I told him he needed to put the arrows on the sides and not in the middle of the paper because then there’s no way for any of the space cadets to possibly overcome the entrancement spell. Mom? Will you make pancakes?”
“Dude, quit,” Teddy hisses at his younger brother.
“What?” Charlie is all wide eyes and forgetting. Teddy makes his jaw hard at him, and understanding blooms on Charlie’s forehead, and he turns to me and is now about to cry. “Mom? Is Sayre? Is she?”
“Sweeties, I haven’t checked on her yet. I’m working up to it.”
“Want me to go?” Teddy asks.
“No, I need to do it.” A third set of footsteps comes down the stairs at a more sedate pace. Jared, my oldest. The most responsible person in the house, I sometimes think. He arrives in the kitchen and doesn’t say a word. His silence is always a peaceful one. He gazes at me over the rim of his coffee cup. I smile at him, and he nods, kindly, quietly.
“And you all need to get ready for school.” I pull my boots over my flannel PJ pants. “No pancakes this morning, just do cereal. Charlie, I’ll sign your reading log if you dig it out of your backpack and pick off anything gross sticking to it.” I slide my arms into my jacket, dig out my wool hat from my coat pocket, and start opening the back door, bracing myself for the rush of cold air.
“Wait, Mom?” says Teddy behind me, and I pause.
I wince at the chill. Jumbo, the orange cat, slips out behind me and together we creep over frozen ruts and crystalized patches of snow.
Roosevelt is waiting for me. Roosevelt is not a clue. That pony could be standing knee deep in wasted bodies of various species and still be focused wholeheartedly on reminding the standing human that breakfast is essential and late. I throw him a flake of hay. He is happy.
I listen for thumps of impatience from the closed barn door. I listen for a whinny. I listen for breath—hers, my own.
The yard is quiet and then a bird whistles from the woods. The first call of spring that I’ve heard.
I slide open the barn door, and there she is. My horse is a mound of flesh gone still on the stall floor, shavings flung over the body and banked around her like she’d been digging herself in. There is no need to check her eyes, her pulse, her gums—her death is evident.
“Oh, Sayre,” I say when my breath gusts out.
I’d had her for fifteen years, and she was the first step I’d made for myself after having my boys. Well, after having two of my boys. And then I got pregnant when I’d thought I was done, and she accepted her partial temporary retirement with grace. When I was back, differently proportioned from a difficult pregnancy and recovery, she was gentle. The plan had been to grow old together.
The plan had changed.
I slide my arms into my jacket, dig out my wool hat from my coat pocket, and start opening the back door, bracing myself for the rush of cold air.
“Wait, Mom?” says Teddy behind me, and I pause. “Skiing today? After school? With Nick’s family? I know it’s not a good time to ask, but I . . .”
My middle boy—the most athletic of the three. And his passion was the wild kind of sport. Skateboarding, extreme trampolining, and now, skiing. Luckily, he had friends whose families were willing to include him in their after-school trips to mountains, because none of the rest of us skied and at 45, I was not taking it up.
“Sure, yeah, you can do that. Let me know how much it will be, okay?”
Their father, Ned, and I were adequately friendly. We broke up when he fell in love with my opposite. But the fissures had appeared long before that and by the time he’d admitted to cheating, I was so far removed from the marriage already that mainly I’d felt relief he’d created a perfect excuse for departure. I think that hurt his feelings. We’ve been apart for six years and besides the occasional logistic bump, we’re doing pretty well at the co-parenting gig.
Teddy turns back to his cereal, happy, I could tell, and Charlie launches into a story about aliens and foreign lands that Jared seems to listen to, and I slip out the door to discover whether or not my horse is dead.
Jumbo, the orange tabby, walks me down the path toward the barnyard, where Roosevelt the pony is looking disgruntled at the fact there is no food in front of him. Oh, Roosevelt. You have no idea how much your life might be about to change. I toss him a flake of hay and am bending under the fence when I hear two things: the first bird call of the new season and a thump on the walls of the barn.
She’s standing, even. I slide open the barn door and there she is, no longer a wild creature of sweat and harsh breath, but an exhausted mare who would do well with fresh water and a bran mash. “Oh, Sayre,” I say to her. Her ears prick forward in welcome, and she nudges my hands. Because, food.
And I deliver. Warm bran mash fed to her slowly, in steps, so we don’t have a repeat of yesterday’s colic. Roosevelt too gets a bran mash treat, even though he has the stomach of a . . . horse. And the three of us, four with Jumbo’s silent, slightly judgey presence, watch the day get brighter and even a degree or two warmer before I head back up to the house to deliver the news: my horse had lived through the night.
When your horse dies, not only are you very, very sad, but also there are 2,000 pounds of flesh to contend with, arrange for.
I leave her in the barn and close the door again, so Roosevelt doesn’t have to be confronted with something beyond his understanding. I feel for my phone in my coat pocket. I call Sam Ashley down the road, who has a backhoe and whose wife had offered up his services when I’d run into her at the grocery a year ago. “You know,” she’d told me, waving a pack of Pepperidge Farm rye bread toward me. “My Sam has that digger and he’s happy to do any work that needs to be done up your place.”
I was going to call in the offer. I needed a hole.
“Yup, too bad, sorry ’bout your horse,” says Sam over the phone. “I’ll be up ’round ten, alright? The horse—is it in the barn or in the field?”
“Barn. Is that bad?”
“No, no, we’ll get it done,” he answered.
I hang up and follow Jumbo back up the yard to the house. I open the slider and ease off my boots. A cacophony of kid erupts from the upstairs, the basement where the laundry is occasionally accomplished, the kitchen—sounds of a normal morning because my boys are used to being normal.
“Boys!” I call, and regret it. Let them leave the house and head to school without this in their minds.
But they tumble down the stairs, up from the basement, out from the depths of the refrigerator. “I’m so sorry, but Sayre didn’t make it.”
And they looked at me, three lovely, young, oval faces framed by dark, tightly curled hair. Suffering and slain. Gutted and grieved. My poor loves.
It’s almost hard, when you’re expecting tragedy, to greet the day ahead in all its normalcy. After feeding the horses, Jumbo and I walk back to the house, and I open the slider and shake off my boots.
I can hear Teddy singing in his room. It’s a sound I haven’t heard for a while. Charlie is talking, always talking, and I hope he’s looking for socks at the same time. Jared has his back to me and his head in the fridge. This is not an unusual sight.
“Sayre’s fine,” I call. Jared pops his head and turns to me with a look of surprise and sheer relief. He even, actually, claps his hands together as though he’s on stage in a musical.
“And guzzling breakfast.”
He comes and hugs me. He is shorter than his middle brother, and his chin just barely grazed my shoulder.
Charlie enters the room in a rushing blur and barrels into us, tipping us enough that we all have to reach our arms out to catch ourselves on whatever’s handy. Jared laughs, not his usual response to friendly assault from his younger brother, and I laugh, and Teddy comes bounding down the stairs and for a moment we are all in the kitchen and hugging hard enough that I need to pee but there’s no way I’m going to break the moment.
“Right,” I say when we’ve recovered. “Are you all ready for school? Jared, you good to drive everyone in? I need to get some work done this morning. Everybody brush their teeth?”
It takes only a few minutes for the house to empty of boy. They are here, and then they are driving away, remnants of Charlie’s chatter lingering behind the car as it rolls away, carrying my kids.
The house—whenever I’m alone in it, which is rare, the stillness is what I notice the most.
I could go into the office where I manage a nonprofit, but I’d already let them know I’d be out today. I thought I’d be dealing with 2,000 pounds of horse flesh. The day ahead is a gift, an empty stretch of highway, and I’m the only one choosing songs.
Back up in my bedroom I slip under the covers, telling myself just an hour or so to sleep, to feel a little more human, and then I’ll get something done. I need to sort through the boys’ summer clothes to see what needs replacing—a thankless task that I tend to put off until well into the warm season. But this year, with this free day, I could actually practice some efficiency.
Or maybe, I think, as Jumbo lands besides me and manages to claim half the bed for his own, I’ll eat ice cream for lunch and spend the afternoon ordering seeds from the seed catalogue that came in yesterday’s mail.
But first, sleep.
“Sorry, Mom,” mumbles Charlie into my side. I squeeze hard and then pull away.
“Thank you, men. Are you all about ready for school? Jared, you driving everyone today?”
They look at me with damp faces, and I can see their minds working—is she really sending us to school? Are we going to be kicked out of the day? Yes. This day is going to be hard, and I need one fewer thing to think about—three fewer things.
I see an invisible registration pass through each face and then Jared says, “Of course. Ten minutes until we go, guys.” Darling, responsible first-born boy.
They scatter to finish getting ready. Except Teddy. He waits a moment and then puts his hand on top of my head. Then he rushes to brush his teeth.
The boys manage to organize themselves, Charlie whining about the front seat as they roll out the door toward Jared’s green Honda. And then they’re gone, and the yard is empty.
I pour another cup of coffee. If it were a normal day, I’d shower and head to work. But I’d already called the office yesterday evening when it looked as though I’d need another day to deal with a sick, or dead, horse. I’m a manager at a local nonprofit. I’m infinitely replaceable.
The coffee tastes too sweet, though I hadn’t put any sugar in it. I head upstairs for a shower. I get dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. I feel. . . swept out to tide. Parallel to the life I was supposed to be experiencing today.
When I get out of the shower, I can hear the backhoe approach. I head outside. Sam Ashley’s wife has come along, hanging off the edge of the backhoe like a cranky, aged Valkyrie, just as fierce but without the range of motion. She climbs down carefully and holds out a covered pie plate.
“Chicken pie,” she states. “For you and your boys.”
“Oh,” I say. I wasn’t sure of the protocol. Is one supposed to pop the chicken pie in the oven to share it with the bringers after the digging deed had been accomplished? Can I safely store it in the freezer without offending anyone? “Thanks so much, I’ll just bring it to the kitchen for now.”
“Put it in the freezer, and when you need it, heat oven to 350 and cook until it bubbles along the edges. It’s hearty, good for your kids.” I’m grateful for the instructions. I notice her husband has a toolbox wedged beside the backhoe seat. “Now,” she asks. “Where do you want the grave?”
“I was thinking over along the edge of the field,” I say, and the three of us walk away from the idling machine, and I point out beyond the snowy flat to where the forest just begins. It’s well away from the barn, away from anywhere I usually walk.
“Yeah, no, you don’t want it there. It’s muddy isn’t it. I can see it from here. You want to be up higher where you don’t have to worry. What do you think Sam? Yeah, that’d be good. Closer. It’ll be fine there, you won’t have to worry.”
Oh. I can’t stand this. I didn’t feel any need to cry when I first discovered Sayre’s body, but now, thinking of the practicalities of a burying a dead body, I’m about to be enveloped.
“Okay, how about you and I bring that pie inside and Sam will get to work.” Without waiting for an answer, she starts toward the house, and I follow, carrying the pie plate, trying not to cry, trying not to think of my horse’s capable body reduced to dirt.
Also—what was this woman’s name? I can’t remember.
I’m dead asleep, but my ringing phone wakes me up because there’s always a chance it could be one of my kids.
“Freida?” cries a voice. Not one of my boys. Not a school nurse, too panicked.
“Frieda, listen there’s been an accident.”
“Listen, you need to meet us at Trident General.”
“Wait. Who is this?”
“Frieda, this is Sharon Mackenzie. Nick’s mom. Teddy was with us, skiing? Remember?”
“Oh,” I said. But why is she calling me? “Sorry, why are you calling?”
“Frieda, there’s been an accident. Teddy was in a skiing accident. You need to meet us Trident General. Can you do that? You need to come right now.”
“Oh god. Is Teddy okay?”
“No . . .” and here she falls into something unintelligible, as though she’s trying to say many, many words, and she’s underwater and there’s no common language to permeate the membrane.
And then I’m driving. There has been a call. Who called me? I don’t know. My brain, my whole being, is doing something strange. There is something wrong with one of my children. I’m driving to the hospital. I’m on the highway. I don’t remember backing out of my driveway. Do I have my wallet? I don’t remember taking my purse. I’m driving. Which exit is the . . . I’m off the exit. I’m at the hospital. The car has stopped, and I’m inside, I’m in a hallway, there are people, I’m in a room, I’m holding my boy and smelling his salty smell, tainted now with something underneath.
Why does he smell like this?
Why are there so many layers to him?
I can’t unwrap all of these layers to see his whole head, his whole self. I want to see his head. I want to smell his hair.
Someone has me by the arms, and I struggle against the tides pulling me away from my son.
He could be sleeping, his face could be swollen in sleep.
His face could be pale with sweat and sleep.
He doesn’t smell right. Teddy.
I’m in a hallway. My ex-husband is there. He’s sobbing, and his face is crumpled like an old map. He’s sobbing and his hands are clutching the front of my shirt as though we were still lovers. He’s sobbing and he’s saying something, choking something, and I can’t understand why he keeps asking me, “Why did you let him go?”
I’m in a room. There’s a couch. I’m sitting on the couch. There’s a box of tissues on the low table in front of the couch, and I don’t need any tissues. Ned is with me on the couch and he has a wad of tissues covering his face. A doctor sits across from us. I can tell she’s a doctor because of the white coat and the antiseptic smell of her hands as they reach for me. She’s holding my hands.
“Your son fell while skiing. There was a drop-off,” she says. “Blunt force trauma to the head. It was quick. Very, very quick. He went fast,” she finishes.
“He does everything fast,” I answer.
I’m looking out my kitchen window at the driveway where two pickup trucks have congregated and behind me, my neighbor is chatting and chatting and chatting, going on about animals they’ve had to bury and how it broke her and how it’s a gift to them to let them go and how someday maybe I’ll feel like getting another horse. “They’re so nice to look at out your window, aren’t they? Noble creatures.”
“Why are all these people here?” I manage to ask when she draws a breath.
“Oh,” she says. “Well, you know, it’s easier when the horse falls outside the barn. They might have to take down the stall door. You know, to make room. But my Sam knows what he’s doing. Oh, the animals we’ve had to bury. . .” and then she’s off again and I’m left thinking about Sayre surrounded with construction debris, how much she’d hate that, how scared those hammers and saws would make her.
Now I’m in the back of a car. It’s not my car. This car smells of hay and dogs and earth. I hear a subtle sob and realize—that’s my neighbor. Sam Ashley’s wife. What the hell is her name? She’s driving and crying. What am I doing in her car? The radio is off. I almost ask her to turn it on. But I’m not sure how long I’ll last here.
Because I keep doing that thing babies do. They fall asleep in one spot and wake in another, through no effort of their own. Just like a tesseract. Teddy loved that book, the one with the tesseract. He explained it to me again and again when he was younger and caught up in the potential science of the fantasy.
“Like this,” he’d say, those brown eyes all wide and wondering. “You hold a string, a bug wants to cross, you put your hands together, you make a wrinkle in the time and the bug, it’s on the other side!”
He’d vibrate with this joy. “A tesseract, Mom! Do you get it? Do you think they really exist?”
I was pretty good, sometimes, at being a mother. I leaned down and gave him a hug. “I know they exist,” I told him. “Moms know how to tesseract because that’s how they catch their kids when their kids fall out of trees!”
And he believed me.
“Teddy,” I whisper, in the back of Sam Ashley’s car. “Explain to me again about the tesseract. I don’t understand. The wrinkle—is it in time or space? How can it be both? I need to understand, my love.”
“Almost home, hon,” says Sam Ashley’s wife from the front. “Let’s just get you home.”
And then her name comes to me. Joanie. Her name is Joanie.
Joanie has no idea that home no longer exists. Yes, we’ll go to the house, and I’ll grieve, and I’ll take care of my remaining boys as well as I can. Maybe we’ll move to a new town, maybe we’ll take a trip to Europe, maybe I will remarry someone kind who can watch out for us. Maybe we’ll continue as we have been. But home has been excised from my experience of the world. Home and I are finished. There is no more home. And then, thinking about home, I cry.
Finally, everything is done. The trucks are gone, my neighbors and their backhoe are gone. It’s late afternoon. The whole day spent in service to this particular death.
I feed Roosevelt his dinner hay and a scoop of grain. “Hey, how’s your day been?” I ask as he eats. I rub his forehead, and he pauses his vacuum function to push up with his nose so my hand quits distracting him from the task at hand.
Roosevelt came from the pony rescue people as a companion for Sayre and now that there’s no Sayre . . . But that’s a plot twist for another day.
I can hear a car drive in around front and then their voices reach me, shouts and whoops and a deep belly lap, a man’s voice in a place I thought only boys lived.
I walk up toward the drive and round the corner to find them huddled just outside the door. They’re hesitating. Not a crowd that usually hesitates. “Hey guys,” I say, and they all turn toward me as one.
“We didn’t know if we should come in, or maybe come find you in the barn, or maybe you were somewhere else?” rambles Charlie, until Teddy pokes him in the arm and Charlie stops.
“Yeah,” I breathe. “I just fed Roo. I think I’m done out here.”
“Is Sayre? Is she . . .” asks Teddy.
“Over here.” I lead them a short way toward the disturbed earth. There’s no smooth surface. There’s no mound, either. Sam Ashley’s wife warned me that later in the summer I might need to fill in any depression that comes up. She didn’t have to say: from your horse’s decaying body.
“Oh,” says Jared.
“Hey, our neighbors brought over a chicken pie,” I tell them. “Any interest?”
“Chicken pie is good,” says Teddy.
“Chicken pie is very good,” I answer.
Jared and Charlie turn and head toward the house, and I’m about to go with them when I notice Teddy hasn’t moved yet. He stands, not looking at the grave but down the hill toward the barn where Roosevelt is munching his last meal of the day, completely unbothered by any change.
“I wish nothing ever changed,” Teddy says. I take him in my arms and squeeze, wishing I could squeeze all of the inevitable bad things of the future out of him, so they’d never happen. “I wish we could just stay the same as we always have.”
I squeeze harder.