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The Old Horse

belgian horse

November’s chill winds scored the valley. The last of the October glowing leaves were knocked to the ground, and the finally stalks of summer corn were cut and set up as silage for the long starving season.

Men were thinking of meat now. The coming gun season for deer loomed as heavily as the November frosts, and those who still kept swine were preparing their scalding tubs and sharpening their hide scrapers.  The Angus steers that hadn’t been sold were similarly being prepared for the freezer.

The nights now drew in early and heavy winter dark, and Old Farmer Wilson seemed to know the score. Yes, he had a barrow or two in the back to take care of before the coming great deer hunt, when his meat gambrels would be hanging with musky venison to be skinned.

But his concerns were now in the nearer pasture, whose only inmate was Dan, the stolid old Belgian horse that he had inherited from a long-deceased great uncle. The great uncle was one of last of the horse-drawn men, the kind who cursed the roaring of the internal combustion engines on his fields and cropland and still held onto the old heavy horses. He held onto them as stubbornly as a barnacle, and when he passed, he left 200 acres to Farmer Wilson and a good horse to work it.

Wilson never much used the horse to work the land. He kept the great beast as a sort of novelty, a relic from an ancient time, and he fed him the finest horse grain and pellets and let him pull a wagon at small town parades.  He loved to groom out Dan’s flaxen mane and fetlocks and smooth out his golden hide with a currycomb, and he would pull that little Conestoga facsimile through the little towns of the valley and look so elegant while doing so.

But the years took their toll on the man and the horse. Dan’s condition had worsened over the long summer. He would eat all day on good green forage, but he would still get a little more gaunt each day.

The old horse’s teeth were wearing out, and Wilson knew that the kind thing to do would be relieve the old gelding of his suffering.

But he couldn’t be made to do it all through that summer and even in the waning days of September. The gentle old horse still touched a man who could off a pig with a single shot to the head.  The horse wanted to be good. He wanted to feel a man’s hand upon his neck and shoulders.  There was dignity in this old beast, and no man who ever knew such an animal could deny it.

And the horse reminded Wilson of the old men on the land that he knew so well. Their farms were now mostly left to go fallow then turn to brushy filth before growing up in the gray twig forest that now covered much of the countryside. Horses and men worked the land, as did many women and children.  But their farms were now forest, and their horses and mules were lost to the ages.

But Wilson knew the time was near. In another era, they just would have shot the old horse with a deer rifle, but Wilson believed that such a beast deserved a proper death.

He made an appointment for the vet to come the Friday before Thanksgiving. The big horse would fall out of his mortal coil, and the weekend would be for the pig killing.

The vet came that eerily sunny Friday morning. The sun cast that yellow pall of waning light that comes in November and December, and the trees stood naked as gray skeleton against the azure, cloudless sky.

Wilson whistled for Dan to come for his morning feeding, which had had brought in double helpings– and added half dozen golden delicious apples.

The great horse nibbled and nuzzled at his repast, and Wilson stroked his mane and neck, offering up the tender loving words  of “Good boy” and “What a fine horse you are.”

And the vet came with his big syringes, all filled with the elixirs of gentle death, and then approached the man and horse.

The vet asked, “Are you ready?”

“I guess so,” was the solemn reply, which came only through the deepest of man sobs.

And so the vet came and injected the big horse with the thick needles, and the great animal dropped down to the muddy ground.

And a Farmer Wilson wept and sobbed as he never done before. Here was a man who offed pigs and chickens without thinking twice, but something was very different here.

For in that felling of the great horse, the last tangible piece of those old rheumy memories was extinguished upon the muddy ground.

And a truly noble and sagacious beast was no longer among the living, and anyone with half a soul would weep at such a thing passing.

The crows called in soft wind. A blue jay screeched from the hickory trees beyond hte pasture. A pileated woodpecker chattered madly in the sky.

And the last of the turkey vultures coursed the sky, casting their bills into the breeze to catch the scent of the dead.

The dead horse’s flesh probably grazed their olfactory systems a bit, but they carried on the sky, looking for morsels of meat that weren’t guarded by two men.

That night, Wilson ate a dinner of store-bought sausage.  He didn’t cook it as thoroughly as he normally did, and the blood gushed a bit from the center, oozing out into the plate in a scarlet trickle.

Normally, he would think of nothing of his mistake, but this time, he sat and stared hard at the blood.  Blood would be coming in the morning, when began his annual pig killing, and the blood would run harder and darker than it ever would on his plate.

He considered his odd position as a man who cared for his animals and then killed them, He gave them good food and lots of good care, but the end was the same. The animals died. Their flesh fed him and his friends and family who would take the meat.

It was that problem that he always buried, but this time he had to consider it more.  It was not enough to make him a vegan, but it was enough to take him aback. He had to consider his monstrous self once again, and that consideration is never comfortable.

Some tears eased their way down his cheeks, and he pushed the plate aside for. He sipped his evening coffee and stepped out into the dark sky. The stars were twinkling against the black sheet of night, and he stared up into their infinity.  He breathed in the cold air.

A great horned owl’s hooting rose from the forest in the far end of the property, but then it fell silent.

And the land was all silent all around in the darkness of a November night.  The frosts had killed off all the crickets and katydids of the year, and their stridulations no longer rose in the blackness.

It was just the blackness and the silence and the infinity, and the simple fact that all beings are alone, after all, when the end finally comes.

Be they men or old work horses or katydids or barrow swine, their existence comes to an end, and yet life goes on.

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