Written by George Newtown

Original Publish Date February 2014

Day 1: Saturday, 24 March

At 7:45 AM, just as I’m serving up the last two wedges of sweet potato pie—five -year-old David will eat that when nothing else appeals—, the phone rings.


Grandma Priscilla’s voice crackles, “George, there’s a baby horse over here.” She had looked up from her email and had seen a dark board on the far side of the pond. Then the board raised its head.geo&baby

I come awake. Neither of the broodmares should be ready to foal. I put my slice of pie back in the fridge and call to David that his breakfast is ready. Then I blow my nose again, shove the sodden handkerchief into my back pocket, slip on my boots, and walk the quarter mile through the pines to Priscilla’s.

Mares would rather go off by themselves to foal, but sometimes they need help. The mama can rupture herself trying to push out a breach foal quickly before the wolves smell the blood. Twenty-some years ago Molly wouldn’t have made it into the world if we hadn’t dragged my dad away from the NCAA playoffs to reposition her turned-back leg. Years later Molly twisted her gut and took a ten-month fetus with her when she died. Birthing is a dangerous business.

This emergency is new for us, though. Normal foaling can happen a month on either side of a 345-day gestation. Until now the pregnancy was uneventful, but Norma Rae grew round earlier than her pasture mate, Holly Golightly, due at the same time. This morning, on the 305th day, this baby hasn’t quite been “born” but has exited in a late term abortion.

Still trailing the afterbirth, Norma Rae grazes a short distance away from the dark splotch in the grass. When my grain bucket attracts the others, I drop it, scoop up the tiny filly, and carry her the two hundred yards to Grandma Priscilla’s weathered barn. On the way the afterbirth slips out of the mare as she plods behind us.

OK, the foal is safe from trampling hooves, but now what? I climb the hill to look for our veterinarian, Bobby Hewlett, whose wife runs the neighboring Holly Hill boarding stable. He’s out on call. Jerry, the Hewlett’s hired man, brings a wheelbarrow and rolls the filly to our barn while I lead her mother.

Bobby drives up in half an hour. The foal’s lungs are clear. There’s an opening from the bladder, though, that permits urine to drain through the umbilical gap. “Patent urachus,” Bobby calls it. To seal it we must swab the area with silver nitrate sticks. Could that explain why Norma’s belly ballooned out? Polyhydramnios—too much fluid around the fetus—was what made the doctors afraid for little David. We were lucky. He came out—after back flips in the Olympic pool his mother provided—with nothing worse than the cord looped around his neck.

The remaining parts of the filly seem to be working. Only the reverse-turned tips of her ears signal that she left the womb too soon. Bobby milks out the colostrum and feeds it to her through a naso-gastric tube. As we do for any new foal, we spray iodine onto the navel and give a Fleet enema to loosen the impacted meconium. Prognosis: wait and see.

Barbara drives off to Bossier City to buy silver nitrate sticks and a large plastic calf-nursing bottle. We’ll have to milk the mare and bottle-feed the baby, who can’t stand and nurse on her own. I know I will take on much of the mothering, even if I’d rather coddle my sinuses or jot on legal pads or lounge with a beer in my hand. Barbara and I have reversed roles for my sabbatical leave this spring: while I reflect on growing up male in America, she takes over our interactions with the world. She drives into Shreveport each morning, once I’ve cajoled our son to eat more and our daughter to eat less. Then, until she can ferry the children home after school, she reads at my office. Or buys bananas and half and half. Thank God we haven’t ditched all the gender roles. Rolling out pie crusts and washing dirty socks, sure, but please don’t make me shop. She’s also signed on for evening teaching gigs with Kaplan, where she prompts prospective doctors and lawyers to think like MCAT and LSAT test designers.

When our daughter Elizabeth, a high school sophomore on her spring break, relieves me, I go to the house for toasted cheese—Elizabeth has already dispatched my piece of pie—and I fill my pockets with fresh hankies. Then she and I spread hay in a corner of a stall and lay the foal on the bedding.

Perfectly formed but tiny—maybe fifty pounds. She ought to be twice that. You can see her sire, though, in the long slope of the shoulder that signals the Thoroughbreds the German Oldenburg breeders let into their registry a couple generations back. There’s a small star and two dribs below it like a sloppy paint job—and another splotch on the left forefoot. Otherwise no white markings. There’s no accounting genetics—both parents have socks on all four feet. The milk chocolate baby hair, though, was easier to predict. She should darken into a bay like her mother—brownish fur set off by black mane, tail, and legs—our favorite “serviceable” color. Once, when a vet cocked an eyebrow after worming the eighth bay horse in our shed row, Barbara said, “We breed for color.” He grinned appreciatively at the joke, knowing the passion some folks have for pintos and palominos. Lately we’ve bred to a few gray stallions, but vow never again. People snap up the gray babies, but they’re just too hard to keep clean. Bays are easier. Already the color of dirt.

Norma Rae tolerates my awkward attempts to milk her. I spend the morning constructing a barrier out of two-by-fours so she won’t step on the foal. Two hours in, the filly wakes and sucks greedily from the big red nipple on the nursing bottle.

Bobby Hewlett returns to run an IGG test. The immunities are high, a good sign. She drinks at two-hour intervals through the afternoon. Otherwise she sleeps.

It’s nippy after dark. We cover the filly with horse blankets. I return to the house periodically for handkerchiefs and for hot water to warm the rapidly cooling milk. Since the baby drinks only a few ounces, I freeze most of the ample production in zip seal bags.

Day 2: Sunday, 25 March

We phone our regrets to our choir director at St. Mark’s. Barbara takes a quick trip to Home Depot to buy heat lamps and we set up a primitive incubator. The foal alternately sleeps and eats. We adjust the blankets and wait.

Elizabeth makes a chart on the tack room white board—columns for time of day, amount the baby eats, whether we milk the mare, doctor the navel, feed hay or grain, fill the water bucket, clean the stall. When I compliment her, she makes sure I know she does it because she wants to, and not—like cleaning her room—just because a parent thinks it’s a good idea.

As always, Barbara’s the practical one, unwilling to let us name the filly until we know she’ll make it. But I have to call her something. The names of Norma Rae’s fillies should start with N. How about No Name Woman, like in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior? That lets me name her without really naming her. If she lives I’d really like to call her Vera Marie after my mother, even though a name starting with V wouldn’t follow the Oldenburg breed conventions.

My mother was born dead. On the outskirts of Chicago in mid-December 1918, when the sheets froze as fast as you could pin them to the line, her mother, married only seven months, dropped the half-empty laundry basket as the fluid gushed down her leg. For hours the neighboring sisterhood hovered. A crone wrapped the tiny stillborn fetus in newspaper and placed it in the claw-footed tub. Finally the hemorrhaging stopped. Only late in the afternoon did the old woman pass the bathroom again and hear the newspaper rustling. Vera Marie had willed herself into life. That must be why moral categories seem so transparent to her. There’s alive and there’s dead, and you can’t afford to get them confused.

The story of a blue baby could cover up a shotgun scandal, of course, but not this time: within Mom, generations of sober Germans crossed tightly with dour Scotsmen. Besides, a typical preemie birth defect, a wry neck, meant years of “corrective gym.” It didn’t keep her out of the Marines in the Just War, though.

I must be getting tired. I hope not sentimental. Actually, it’s hard to get mushy about a Lutheran-Marine mother. It’s clear, though, that my nursing assignment is circling back onto my sabbatical study—that I’m trying to make sense of the things that shape a life.

Day 3: Monday, 26 March

At midnight No Name refuses her milk, and again at 2:00 and at 4:00. At 5:30 I can’t stand it. I call Bobby Hewlett, who thinks it may be dummy foal syndrome. If so, he predicts no more than a 50% chance of recovery.

He arrives to dose her with Dexamethasone (a steroid), Banamine (a painkiller), and DMSO (an agent to carry the medicines into the tissues and, with luck, reduce swelling on the brain). Within half an hour she drinks six ounces. Elizabeth and I stagger to the kitchen to celebrate with scrambled eggs, toast, tapioca pudding, coffee, and a hug.

Our joy is short-lived. The foal moans and refuses to eat for the next twelve hours. We cajole with no effect.

At 6:00 PM the vet returns. The lungs still seem to be working, but the breathing is labored. Can it be septicemia? He palpates her distended abdomen and finds a hard mass. When he attempts to pump in milk through the tube, she writhes. If the problem is necrotic tissue in the gut, it will be a death knell. He injects a powerful antibiotic along with more Banamine and promises to check back later.

By 8:30 PM I’m ready to ask him to put her down. At 9:00, when Barbara returns from teaching her LSAT course, she agrees the foal shouldn’t have to suffer. But when Bobby comes at 9:30, the filly actually struggles to stand. With help she navigates a square around the stall. Her mother gurgles to her. She can’t find the teat but drinks six ounces from the bottle. Is this the Banamine talking? New diagnosis: gastric ulcer? We give a syringe of cimetidine (800 mgs, four times the human dose). I’m to repeat at midnight and then three times a day.

I take the chilly night shifts to avoid triggering Elizabeth’s asthma. When I come back from the kitchen with the milk bottle in its hot water bath, the filly greets me with a pleased nicker. At 11:00 PM she tries to raise herself up. I lift her, and for a few moments she wobbles again on splayed legs. Once back down, she drinks two more ounces.

Day 4: Tuesday, 27 March

At 2:00 AM No Name resumes her two-hour feeding schedule. Norma Rae gazes into the middle distance while I strip the milk from her teats.

At 4:30 AM the filly takes eight ounces.

By 5:00 PM, she shows symptoms of colic—stretching her legs, groaning, throwing her head back, trying to roll. She quiets after a taut hour. Norma drinks and drips water on my legal pad. Can I even read these notes? motherlove

Day 5: Wednesday, 28 March

From midnight to 3:15 AM No Name sleeps as if comatose. But she eats again (6 oz) at 3:15 and (also 6 oz) at 4:45. She stands up—with assistance—only once in the night and doesn’t travel at all. She hovers between the worlds. Even with a cushion of shavings and hay she’s developing bedsores from the leaking urine that pools under the pressure points. I massage Bag Balm into her irritated skin. A preemie needs two or three moms. Elizabeth and I both qualify, I think. Norma Rae continues to produce milk like a Holstein. There’s no room in the freezer, and Daniel the Rottweiler—even bottomless Daniel!—is sated.

Now and again the mare stretches a foreleg or stomps. Can she be entering the foal heat already?

8:00 AM: Bobby Hewlett installs an IV line. While I sit on a stool beside the filly—she sleeps under the heat lamps, the IV tube strapped to her neck with a webbing of white adhesive—I think about making these babies. As far as our mares know, the daddy of their foals is a veterinarian in a baseball cap. After FedEx delivers the insulated blue box, he draws the chilled liquid from the central plastic cylinder into a syringe. He wraps the mare’s tail and washes her external organs. Then, with his arm in a clean sleeve, he separates the lips of the vulva, eases his hand in, and threads the end of a two foot pipette through the vagina and the cervix, deep into the uterus. He inserts the syringe into the visible end and presses the plunger.

Once he removes the rigid tube, we breathe again, happy the mare has not wrenched his arm out of its socket or shattered his kneecap. We unwind the tail wrap, and the hoping begins. Those containers mark an investment in stud fees of $1000 to $2500 a pop, not to mention collection and shipping, but, mostly, they provide a burst of hope. Can we hope for No Name? Will she come out of it like David? But he was healthy. Four times the size of the 2 lb crack babies, he was the favorite of the NICU nurses. This foal is clearly compromised.

Between 8:00 and 10:00 AM the filly drinks twice (8 oz and 4 oz) but otherwise doesn’t move. Bobby returns with a half-empty tube of expensive Gastrogard that he’s reclaimed from a race trainer who owes him a favor. It should reduce inflammation from an ulcer if there is one.

11:00 AM: The IV drips erratically. Three hours in, and we’re only finishing the first bottle of sugar water. But even a little revives her. She drinks six ounces of milk and looks alert, although she still hasn’t the energy to stand. Meanwhile, my nose produces yellow rubber cement.

With Elizabeth it was supposed to be one of those California-natural births, but we bypassed the Zen and lollipops while Barbara skittered between planets and the nurse refused to call the OB doc. When he finally showed up at 8 AM, he stuck his fingers in and felt the baby’s mouth. Face first, upside down. Through the night the skull had ground against Barbara’s spine. We lifted her out of her own fetal curl, supported under her armpits, and shook the baby down.       The doctor took one look at our daughter’s club feet and pressed her into my bare chest. He knew we’d better bond now and forever. Elizabeth grabbed fistfuls of hair like a monkey. After a dozen surgeries, Elizabeth would be able to march at halftime with a French horn. Now, except for flat feet and skinny calves, she’s a normal teen—infuriating and hard to imagine living without.

12:00 noon: The filly starts to lick her lips. Elizabeth says, “That means she’ll wake up to nurse soon.” Yes, two minutes later she stirs, eats six ounces, and falls back to sleep. She has no inclination to stand. After five days she still hasn’t defecated. Should we worry?

When Barbara was pregnant with Elizabeth, Nancy Whiskey, the grand dam of this filly, broke my arm. I’d say it was a “well-aimed” kick, except she’d aimed for my head. I’d saddled her for the first time and chased her around the corral. When I checked the girth she leapt up and kicked sideways—a move worthy of Bruce Lee, though I couldn’t appreciate it at the time. My left wrist, the arm I raised in front of my face, twisted into a “Z”—one little bone sheared like a bolt, the other torqued sideways.

As Nancy Whiskey lashed out at me seventeen years ago, I swear I thought, “No!  I want to meet our child!” At least I’m sure I said that to Barbara as we raced to the clinic in the car.

4:40 PM: the second bag of sucrose has finally dripped in.

A year after Elizabeth’s foot surgeries I took a job as a dean in Wisconsin. I left every morning before she woke up, returned home after she was in bed. Three times that winter she went to the Wausau ER with pneumonia. It turned out her asthma trigger was cold air, so she couldn’t leave the house from October to May. Or Barbara either.

Snow blowers arrived in Menard’s in August. The horses had bloody knees all winter from falling on the ice. I couldn’t stomach deaning anyway. In the middle of our third February in the northland, when the Louisiana dean called to offer me a return to teaching, she put down the phone for a full two minutes, then returned to gasp, “I’m so sorry to leave you on hold, but you have to understand, it’s SNOWING!” I rolled my eyes heavenward past the five-foot drifts obscuring my office window and breathed, Thank you, Jesus.

Barbara and Elizabeth stayed on for a year in the foursquare brick farmhouse to make coffee and fresh bread so that prospective buyers would smell home—and would overlook the oddly-placed African violet that obscured the burn spot from our rogue toaster. I sent poems to remind Elizabeth she had a daddy, and her mother read them aloud as if they’d come from Shel Silverstein. The truth is, I wrote them for Barbara. She didn’t deserve a frozen exile with a sick kindergartner.

5:30 PM: with help No Name stands and walks a few steps. The umbilicus keeps draining no matter how much iodine or silver nitrate we gouge into the opening.

The wind is bone-shattering. My skin’s turned to leather. I stay out in a thin canvas jacket open over a ripped down vest. I’ve stopped noticing whether it’s dark or light. As I stagger between milking, bottle-feeding, and scribbling, I measure the world inaccurately and slam into doorposts. I doze in my chair while the foal takes shallow breaths under the blankets. Whenever I fish out a handkerchief the jagged edges of my cuticles catch the lip of the pocket. Over time the tapioca rolling from my nostrils has turned from green to amber to yellow and now to pearl. Every body fluid—blood, semen, sweat, urine, or snot—demands its share of attention.

One night that first month when Elizabeth was colicky I swung her in my 3:00 AM Indian dance—“Hey, yeh-yeh-yeh”—and nearly hit her head on the mantel. I thought I’d cracked her like an egg. The only thing that registered was that I could finally sleep. I flash on that long moment whenever I hear about battered babies.

The filly drinks every hour until 11:30 PM, when she becomes unwilling again.

Day 6: Thursday, 29 March

6:00 AM: The birds are loud in the mist. The blue of the horizon is so deep it almost hurts my eyes. I should try to see dawn more often. With legs spread impossibly among 120 degrees and her head thrown back onto her poll, the filly sleeps through NPR exposés on AIDS, cloning, and jazz. Ah, she licks her lips again.

7:45 AM: I keep mismanaging these feedings. Yesterday she ate every hour. From midnight on I stayed up, but she roused herself only at 3:00. I went in for a nap after the 6:00 AM feeding and just let Elizabeth sleep on. Now I discover poor No Name has already surfaced and crawled several feet. She’s too tired to nurse. This must be what women mean about not being good enough mothers. There’s no way to do it all right.

Learning to drive was Elizabeth’s only request for her birthday. She spent the last month navigating around our pines, but this afternoon she goes one-on-one on the highway with the instructor from First Class Driving School. She reports, “I got it up to seventy on the way home.”

Do not react. I think the instructor was in a hurry to jettison the final student of the day. Meanwhile, in the spaces around kindergarten recess David has taught himself to read.

Elizabeth, already eleven when David was born, became a readymade sitter for her baby brother. David adores her. They average their ages, spar, giggle, leave rubble. Neither one notices a peppermint wrapper fluttering to the carpet.

After I told Barbara that our children would show up in my sabbatical production—I want to write scholarship on autobiography and at the same time take snapshots of my brain as I do it—she said, “You can’t play favorites,” even though she knows I grin at David and bark at Elizabeth. The books we buy for our daughter’s birthday go uncracked, while I read for a living. Otherwise we’re too much alike. We both resent being nabbed when we snitch chocolate chips from the bag. On a trip to the house I locate the poems I wrote that winter when she and her mother were housebound. I read them to her again. I think she understands them better this time. Shhh, Elizabeth, don’t tell your brother, but I’ve never written poems to him. Of course I haven’t needed to, since I’ve been here all along. I’m sorry I missed your sixth birthday.

8:00 PM: the IV’s infiltrated and must come out. We rejoice to see a bowel movement from the filly at last. Mother and baby hear highway driving music—country tunes. Grandma Priscilla suggested Mozart as brain food, but KDAQ lapses into jazz and Elizabeth scans for a down-home beat.

11:30 PM: the girls have given me the gift of three hours sleep. Both Elizabeth’s feedings went perfectly—eight ounces each. Barbara had less success, and the mare wouldn’t stand still for milking. I coax in only two ounces, but I do calm everyone. Norma Rae even lies down once I invite Holly and the old pony Yum Yum into the neighboring stalls. Their placid body language reassures her that no sabertooths lurk in the dark.

The wind chill has moderated, although the temperature still doesn’t climb above forty. The foal snores. The sugar water keeps her alive. Her milk intake stays around sixty ounces a day—barely enough for maintenance. Bobby says we can pump fluids as necessary—even install a permanent IV. “She’s a fighter,” he says.

But she looks like a jumble of wire hangers under a thin brown towel.

Day 7: Friday, 30 March

8:40 AM: No Name is finally resting. Eight hours ago she hadn’t had a bowel movement since birth. Now the yellow slurry of scours, a nasty diarrhea, oozes out even in her sleep.

Elizabeth has devised a “diapering” system to keep the excreta from fouling the bedding or scalding the filly’s rear end. We rapidly change out cloths and clean off the corrosive poop. In the wash rack I spray the dirty rags with the pressure nozzle, wring them out, and hang them over the stall door. Sometimes I barely get one rinsed before she dirties the next. Elizabeth and her mother use rubber gloves, but I can’t see covering my hands in clammy latex. I’ll be sorry when my fingers scream even louder, but it feels right. I never put on gloves to wipe human babies either.

I’ve stopped three times in the previous paragraph to perform the washcloth ritual. I take a brief break to renew the hot water bath for the milk. A small immersion heater might work better, but I like the change of scene as long as there’s a lull in the scours. This time there is, barely. But the intake of milk seems to be outstripping the watery feces. Since 9:00 last night the filly has taken sixty-four ounces, more than for all of yesterday. To thrive she needs 128 ounces a day. It’s the first time she’s been on schedule.

Both of Norma’s teats produce copiously. Sometimes I get four streams going at once by stripping the milk from the shyer right side while the two pin-hole openings in the left spray thin jets by themselves. This mare treats lactation as a calling.

I thought we’d imprinted foals before, but this time we’ve overlooked not an inch or an orifice. The normal itchiness of the equine startle reflexes—the salvation of this prey species since eohippus—shouldn’t get in the way of schooling No Name. If she lives.

10:00 AM: we give Pepto-Bismol to help the gut settle. At 10:45 we start adding electrolytes. Bobby Hewlett arrives after noon to re-connect the IV. It takes five needle sticks to find a vein. Through the afternoon her intake of milk tapers off.

5:00 PM: she refuses the bottle. Again at 6:30 and 7:30. I’m a bad mother again. I should have known the mare’s hormones would compromise the milk when she came into heat. At 9:40 PM we try a milk replacer. The filly takes it, but only for one feeding. At 11:45 I thaw frozen milk, but she doesn’t want that either. Only later will Bobby reassure me that the conjunction of scours and the foal heat is accidental. Any baby’s resistance falters after a week. The healthy ones just withstand the dehydration better.

Barbara cheers us up with brownies—black, buttery, bumpy with whole pecans.

Day 8: Saturday, 31 March

2:30 AM: I told Elizabeth I need her tonight, and now she’s cajoled the filly into taking three feedings of the thawed milk. She makes critters want to survive. In between her duties she plays with the filly’s forelock and explains the theory of the day: “My strategy is, I just don’t think about it. I think hopeful thoughts.”

She giggles: the foal breathed stale milk smell on her brownie, and the mare tried to eat my legal pad.

4:00 AM: The scours slow and I send Elizabeth to bed. She’s so tired she nearly backs the minivan into the barn. I’m glad we’re doing this together. If Bobby had said he could get our daughter to act like an adult, but it’d cost us $1,000, I’d have asked, “Where do I sign?”

5:30 AM: Last night I was ready to give up the filly for dead. This morning she wants to stand. One more reverse should do her in. It’s like climbing a mountain of gravel. I can hardly stay upright myself. My sinus infection has retreated, though, God knows why. Not for hygiene or good sense.

10:00 AM: the diarrhea returns. We recycle damp washcloths without even hanging them to dry.

By 11:00 her breathing has become an abdominal grunt and wheeze. Barbara knows it’s time: she recognizes the same Cheyne-Stokes breathing we heard at my father’s deathbed. It’s up to us to decide she’s had enough. She’d keep on by reflex. To breathe sums up the purpose of an organism. As Bobby drives up, she struggles to rise. She’s not ready to give up. She takes another eight ounces. But the vet agrees we have no other choice.

At 11:50 he injects the sodium pentobarbital into her IV. The gasping stops. It’s hard not to regret it. Not that “we’ve tried so hard,” but “she’s tried so hard.” I don’t feel up to digging a grave. Jerry will come over on his break.

By mid afternoon Norma Rae’s udder begins to swell. I squeeze off a few streams to reduce the pressure. Around 3:30 Jerry digs into a grassy spot by our hay barn, near where David’s swing hangs under the drooping branches of the black gum tree. When I lift the floppy carcass in the stall, milk dribbles from her nose and mingles with the libation her mother and I streamed there onto the shavings an hour before.

The hole is just large enough to curl the brown bundle into a fetal sleep, head resting on bent knees, hocks angled to fit the space. It’s the position she should have enjoyed for six more weeks in the womb. But then we would know her as someone else—someone less attuned to us. You can’t wish a life to be different and expect the one who lives it to stay the same.

I bend over the shovel. The last sight to disappear under the clods is the reverse-turned tip of her left ear, the first and now final sign of her prematurity. I flash back to the tent on the hilltop of the Veteran’s Cemetery, where my mother smoothes the folded flag in her lap like it was my dad’s favorite shirt.

Under the gum tree, Barbara reads from the Book of Common Prayer. I pick out excerpts from my legal pads. Every year, when Elizabeth has begged us to take Yum Yum to St. Mark’s for the blessing of the animals, I’ve refused to let the old pony shuffle on the asphalt with the Huskies on leashes, guinea pigs in cages, tetras in tanks. St. Francis would say these creatures have no more responsibility than to be themselves, and certainly no worries about immortal souls. But our little service seems to sidestep sacrilege.

We go to Priscilla’s for tea. Then I return to shake out the blankets and stow them alongside the heat lamps, buckets, medicines, syringes, drenches, and bottles. I dismantle the two-by-four construction in the corner of the stall, pull out the nails, and stack the lumber. We all have our ways of coping. I organize. Like stored with like, structure squeezed out of chaos.

I can hardly see the paper to write. The cool sheets cling to my scrubbed body. But I would have traded the treasured sleep for another night of service to this creature on loan. I’ve never felt more alive. That’s why we have these babies. Barbara and I sometimes say it aloud. Now our daughter knows what we mean. For us an intense eight days. For the foal a perfect life—noticed, caressed, cared for from start to finish.  Who would ask for more?

Day 9: Sunday, 1 April

7:30 AM: Elizabeth tells me when she said “Goodnight” I blew through full cheeks like a baby. Apparently I said, “I’m awake, really,” but I have no memory of it.

I butter toast and as I drop in crumbs for David’s minnows—seven translucent inchlings we rescued from a runoff puddle below the pond—I think about the blessing of animals. Horses flap their tails rather like dogs, but only to chase flies. Otherwise what looks like affection derives from their bellies or herd instincts. It may be the luminous eye that makes us think they’re close kin to us—a shark or a skink couldn’t reflect our desires that deeply.

As I turn the arching white sink handle to the left to heat up water for the dishwasher, I float above and look down at myself filling the pail and submerging the big plastic bottle with its red nipple raised like an admonishing finger. The filly nickers. I bend her forelegs under her chest, prop my thigh against her ribs, tease the corner of her mouth with my right index finger. She mashes the nipple and takes noisy gulps. I count the swallows through my left hand.

Near the end I flapped at flies, but they still clung. They must have known—as scavengers do—that she would soon become carrion.

Day 10: Monday, 2 April

A morning of heavy lifting: cleaning stalls, digging postholes, tearing out broken boards where the big oak split apart in the late-season ice storm.

An afternoon with the kids: trips to the nursery, Marble Slab Creamery, the pet store for a muzzle so Daniel won’t eat any more of the Hewlett’s cats.

The children squabble: “I like that song.”

“No, I liked it first.”

Elizabeth wants flowers, so I plant four petunias. She wants a cross too, but if animals don’t sin, surely they don’t need someone to die for them. Around the grave we stake up a chain on white plastic pipe. It looks like a 2 ft by 4 ft miniature of the dressage arena where we test a horse’s obedience and grace. The petunias are annuals and I will uproot the chain when mowing around it becomes inconvenient, but for a time they should remind us to reflect on things that matter.

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