The sound passed almost unheard, swept up in the mid-morning air as though the wind itself had compassionately intervened. Briefly, Frank wondered if he’d imagined it, but he knew that was just his mind edging away. There was no doubt on the matter. None. The horse’s forehoof had hit the pony girl’s shinbone. He’d seen it. But he’d also heard it: a popping sound, almost like a finger in bubble wrap.
Now the horse was exhaling gustily, lip curled downward, its tail swishing back and forth. Frank knew a thing or two about horses but hadn’t thought to find one capable of such frivolous malice. The animal’s ears had barely twitched as the pony girl collapsed on the ground next to the apple she’d been proffering. That meant something, surely. Scratching his head, Frank figured one of two possibilities. Either the horse was alone among its species in disliking the fruit, in which case why had nobody thought to inform the girl? Or it had weighed the two indulgences and decided that breaking her shinbone was the way to go, in which case what sort of animal was this?
The wound was a fracture. A clean one, far as Frank could tell. That was the good news. But the girl would spend the rest of the year with her leg in a cast, no way round it. Already she was being driven away, her face a streak-eyed grimace behind the glass.
That left the horse. Unmoved in every sense, it continued to survey the scene from the paddock.
Spying the old man’s approach, it defecated, snorted, and cocked its head to one side, as if to say, You here for some of the same?
Mindful of the pony girl’s mistake, Frank stayed a few paces back and mumbled under his breath.
The equestrian school had a resident horse whisperer. Thumbs in jeans, she observed Frank and surmised that he was trying to pacify the animal. But in this she was mistaken. Frank always mumbled, a habit that had grown on him since he came back from the war and tried, against the odds, to reintegrate.
The whisperer sidled up alongside.
“Three hundred,” Frank said.
“For the horse.”
She whistled admiringly. “Good one, Frank.” Then she saw he wasn’t fooling. “Jeez, you got a death wish or something? If this horse didn’t have a reputation, it does now.”
“Might matter some,” she replied. “If you’d care to know why.”
She knew he didn’t. She knew it was the end of the conversation, as far as he was concerned. Of course, there was always the record book, which would back up her misgivings and others’ besides. Broken fences, upended buckets, and trampled Winter blankets were how it began. Mere hijinks, at that point. Then came the pasture bullying, a step up the scale. As a behavioral trait, it was known to be difficult. But it was known, for all that. Vicious acts of unprovoked violence, on the other hand, were something else entirely. One trainer swore blind that the horse showed no signs of pain or distress but looked pleased at other creatures’ predicaments. Another arranged for it to have an MRI scan, supposing the problem was neurological. In the fullness of time, these barnyard theories broke against the hard rock of the horse’s character, which, at the end of the day, was all it appeared to be.
The incapacitation of the pony girl had given the whisperer a few conclusions of her own as to its future. But now the old man had come along and, ever a believer in extra last chances, she was inclined to take the three hundred dollars. It was an easy decision to make. She needed the money and if Frank supposed that the horse was just in a bad mood, he’d get a quick education to the contrary.
As things transpired, however, no education took place, for in Frank’s presence the horse became almost placid, grazing and cantering like any normal animal. Even so, the old man wasn’t fooled. With subtle cunning, it had quickly measured his temperament as owner, as it had that of his predecessors. Having got that far, it was smart enough to follow up with good decisions and, if they were to get along, Frank had to show that he was capable of the same. Like pistol duellers, they could proceed with the fight or they could delope.
That they had chosen the second did not make them kinder to strangers.
On the contrary, Frank now took the horse’s attack upon the pony girl as an auspice of sorts. He wondered whether it might be encouraged to perform guard duties, replacing the dog he’d shot after it went blind. In this, he was mistaken. The horse’s inborn hostility could no more be relied upon than it could be discounted. However, Frank did notice that traveling salesmen were less inclined to stop by, as were realtors and Mormon missionaries. Not bad for $300.
The years went by and, along the way, the regard that man and horse each had for each other deepened into an approximation of friendship, aided by the discovery of certain vices. The horse loved acorns, which were toxic; the man loved hard liquor, just as toxic. Silently, they made a pact: to stay away from these things unless or until such time as bodily ailments became too horrendous to endure. At that point, a few pulls and swallows would be fair enough.
The dust plume partially obscured the truck, but Frank already knew its occupant from the slouch of the suspension. Even the addition of strut braces and a torsion bar couldn’t hide the fact that she was morbidly obese.
It would take time for her to get out, so he went inside for his tobacco pouch.
“Frank, you still here? Frank! Oh, there you are. Listen, Frank, I’m sick. Don’t blame me, it’s either here or the oratory school.”
“Doris.” He grunted, sitting back on the porch chair. “You told me you weren’t using.”
Breathing heavily, the woman took a few steps forward, noticed the horse and pointed with her cane. “Is it true what they say about him?”
“Never you mind what they say. Answer the question.” It hadn’t been a question, but that was no matter.
“I’m not going to lie. I need a halfway house to come down off it, or –”
The horse nickered and began approaching. In its advanced years, this didn’t mean much. Most of the time.
Frank took out some acorns and tossed them his way, giving Doris a chance to catch her breath and negotiate the front steps.
“Carfentanil,” she gasped at the top.
He leaned forward and spat. “Took the quickest exit you could find, huh.”
“You’re my brother, Frank.”
This was a statement of fact, as undeniable as it was unwelcome.
“Help me out. If I can’t stay here, where can I stay?”
Frank considered. There were a number of answers he could give, but Doris would make a scene before he was rid of her.
“They use that for animals, don’t they?”
“Don’t start, Frank, it’s been a long drive.”
“Tell you what, give me a straight answer and I’ll let you stay over.”
That brought her up short. Taking out her smartphone, Doris found a webpage, tossed it on the table, then went inside without a word. Her wheezing didn’t improve much when she was seated, which probably meant she was done for the day. This left Frank alone with his cigarette. He took time over it, then reached over and picked up the phone.
It turned out to be sleeping sickness. The local veterinarians, a bunch of seedless raisins, wanted hazard pay on top of their usual fees and so diagnosed the problem too late. Still, Frank accepted that a large measure of responsibility lay on his shoulders. He’d ignored the symptoms too long, though several of these, in all fairness, looked mighty similar to how the animal had behaved when healthy.
He wasn’t one for putting things off.
Sidling up, Frank noted its reaction: one ear pricked forward, the other back. No other horse ever did this.
“How’s it going today, old thunder?”
One step at a time.
He gave its neck a gentle pat. “I hear that.”
Are we all set, then?
“If you say so.”
Ah hell, let’s get it over with.
Holding out a hand, he gave it the acorns and the drugs all together, then went to the flank and stroked the way the hair went. At least half of it was white now.
Gradually, he felt the heart slowing, the breath growing heavier, the legs beginning to wobble and buckle.
“That’s easy, now.”
Wiehiehie, this is some good smack, man!
“Figured you deserved a send-off. Whoa, whoa…there you go.”
The horse was lying prone now. In the distance, he could see Doris staring out an open window at them. Ignoring her, he kept his face toward the horizon until the rise-and-fall of its chest gradually ceased. Only then did he go back.
“Did that horse – ?”
“Yes,” he snarled. “Glad you noticed.”
Frank went into the basement, crowbarred open a casket of bourbon, and had a long libation. It was the start of a process that, as he saw it, would last only somewhat longer than what the horse had gone through. When the bottle reached halfway, he took out Doris’s phone and dialled Don’t Ask Phil, the traveling taxidermist.
Don’t Ask’s skills at taxidermy had begun as a side-line during the war, which provided one (unwelcome) explanation for the nickname. Like Frank, he’d experienced adjustment difficulties on his return, though for a while he’d made good money. Rumor had it that he’d lost his licence for the same reason his wife left him: disgusted by her hairless terrier, he’d uploaded its bark into her car’s software, amputated its head, and attached it to the grille. This provided another (welcome) explanation for the nickname.
Don’t Ask was ready to start immediately, but warned there was no way to hurry the tanner. Once that part was complete, the taxidermal procedure could be done in a week, easy. The tanner, though, worked to his own clock.
Frank readily accepted the terms. Let it take as long as it would take.
Doris had been told that the truck was part-payment: hers to Frank, then Frank’s to Don’t Ask. This seemed fair enough. The truck wasn’t worth much anyhow and her stash was back in the house, far as she could recall. But in this she was mistaken. The truth dawned on her after she’d turned all the chairs upside-down, bringing with it her nastier side.
Frank saw Doris coming at him from way off. It was no surprise. Her habits were cyclical and he rewarded his sister by recycling the usual method of dealing with them. Lashing her to the bed, he pumped 60mg of methadone into her system, then went back to the porch with the bourbon as company. All in all, it hadn’t been the best of days and now there was nothing left but contemplation, arguably the worst moment of the lot. Still, he could steer clear of certain things by focusing on the purely practical. Frank was childless, but Doris had an estranged son up in Alaska somewhere. To this nephew Frank had left all his property and belongings, such as they were. Doris hadn’t been told of this. Her time on this earth was drawing to a close and it was even odds whether she’d get to the finish line before he did. If she came through her current bout, though, she’d have a roof over her head for the time remaining.
Only the taxidermy was excluded in Frank’s will to the nephew. It would mean nothing to the young man, and the horse deserved better than a blank stare. Rubbing his forehead, Frank turned his thoughts to its corporeal afterlife.
The animal’s youthful temperament was now remembered by the wider community as quirkiness of spirit rather than raw-bloodedness, a form of sentimentality that deserved correction. Frank had told Don’t Ask to fix it in a pose and expression that would serve as a reminder. A month later, the delivery was complete.
“Her?” Doris exclaimed, staring up at it. “You sure? Why would she want it?” Now it was her turn to help Frank, whose legs had weakened.
“Probably won’t. But figure it might remind her of something. We all could use a little of that.”
“But still. Did Phil have to make it so…you know?”
“Man after my own heart.”
“He’s an artist, gotta hand it to him. What’s it called, that expression?”
Frank gestured upward. “His?”
“Technically, that’s the flehmen response. I call it the unrepentant look.”
“Sounds about right, what I’ve heard.”
Nobody who saw it disagreed, not even the pony girl (now a woman). As she’d read Frank’s obituary in the local paper, her mind recalled the encounter with the horse, backed away from it hurriedly, then reassured itself. There was no need to worry, for the creature was surely dead and gone by this point. But then had come a knock on the door, followed by the hustle-bustle of deliverymen and a curiously large package.
Now it was in her living room.
Years of therapy had equipped her with a suite of calming exercises, including prayer mantras and progressive muscle relaxation, all of which, she told herself, had led to this point. Counting her breaths, she’d skirted around and forced herself to focus on the particulars. The raised foreleg, she thought wryly, was a nice touch. But even the best efforts of the taxidermist couldn’t hide the fact that it was in its dotage. As she walked, she briefly pondered Frank’s intention. There was no note attached, so she pretty much had to decide for herself. Memento mori, then, or memento puellae, more aptly? Both applied. Perhaps Frank had been an unwitting Romanticist, savoring the raw energy of life even in its most errant manifestations. Well, she hadn’t known him.
Having finished her circumnavigation, she reached for her phone and called her husband. Was he done for the day? Fine. Now, if he wanted to drop by the supermarket, would he please fill a can of petrol as well? He would? Well, wasn’t he the gallant type!
That done, she eased herself into an armchair. The day wasn’t quite over, but she could treat it as such. The evening sunlight was beginning to fall through the windows, lovely as ever, and outside there were leaves scattered on the lawn. That was fortunate. They would provide a certain amount of protection.