The air is hot and sticky, thick with summer heat and the smell of decay. My skin feels waterlogged and my limbs like sandbags. We stand in the fading light of the Colorado sunset, a shotgun loaded in his hand, looking out over the barren pasture.
Before us is a horse, his daughter’s. It lies heaving in a pool of blood and pus, shattered ankle startling white as it protrudes from dove gray dapples. The leg doesn’t look like a leg, it oozes some sort of putty blended from muscle and infection, and next to me I can hear Carl breathing heavily through his nose as if gritting his teeth will reverse the damage. Across the field, the rest of the herd grazes by the fence, some watching us the way humans watch car accidents. Shock, awe, and some measure of gratitude—gratitude that it isn’t your car twisted around a tree, not your leg going rancid in the hot sun.
Horses—a strangely fragile animal, I always thought, the sort of animal where an ankle injury can liquify an entire limb, but I’ve never under- stood this romantic notion of majestic horses roaming the West. I’m looking at a majestic horse, and he’s shaking his head to get the flies away from his soupy leg. Somehow reality never measures up to the pictures people paint. I wonder where artists get these visions of herds galloping across the plains, when the plains are on fire and the horses are unable to take a single step.
Carl sighs heavily, rubbing the back of his neck. I look at the horse and try to see what Carl sees. I try to see a three-year-old girl straddling its broad back in a tiny saddle. I try to see an awkward and gangly middle-schooler navigating the barrels too fast to avoid knocking over the cloverleaf pattern. I try to see the senior picture on the fridge, airbrushed past recognition, the horse appearing plastic, so different than the pathetic animal blinking up at us through eyes clouded by painkillers. The thing about capturing those fleeting moments in vivid color, in perfect clarity, is that they only illuminate how far from the truth they are. The grass is not greener on this side of the fence.
Gently, I reach over to Carl and take the gun from his loose fingers. He doesn’t protest.
I raise the gun to my shoulder and aim between the eyes. The horse stares. Our eyes meet for the half second before my finger presses the trigger. I try to imagine an understanding pass between us, an understanding of life and death and that the way we come in and the way we go out is not always fair, but I squint my eyes shut. I sobbed when I flushed my first goldfish my junior year of college; I know myself well enough to know that I need to not see that bullet leave the gun as though in slow motion, to see it enter the horse’s head through the thick forelock. I know enough to know that the less I see things as they are, the better.
The gunshot cracks across the sky like a thunderclap. The goats in the pen behind us bleat in protest, kicking their heels at the chain-link. The horses at the outer edge of the pasture canter away, tails streaming out behind them in an image of the idyllic West.
Before us is a horse, his daughter’s. It lies motionless in the sludgy blood and dirt, a clean hole just to the left of its right eye, just off center, just in the middle of a gray dapple on its marbled body. Blood wells around the wound, and the horse’s eyes are rolled upwards. This, I think, is how the West was won: lofty ideals, crushed dreams, harsh reality, and plenty of ammuni- tion. The orange glow of the setting sun seeps down the pasture and turns everything sepia, like old photographs, images too old to be taken seriously.
I hand the shotgun to Carl and walk to the tractor, calculating if the horse will fit in its shovel or if I’ll have to saw off a leg, the head, both. Behind me, Carl still sees the girl trotting around the pasture for the first time, braids bouncing, bare feet, no helmet. I know because I’ve seen the picture too, on the mantle in the formal living room, a room in which we have never pretended to live. It sits beside her high school diploma, her senior portrait, a finger painting from preschool. In a folder in the cabinet where I keep magazine clippings with do-it-yourself instructions is a clipping from the newspaper that reported when she died.
I am rummaging around in the workshop looking for a saw to hack up a horse, something I’ve never done before and for which I am undoubtedly unqualified. I hear Carl’s heavy footsteps going up the stairs to the porch, the door creaking open and slamming shut, rattling in its frame. The noise makes my teeth hurt. I rub my jaw and try to focus on the task at hand, but all I can think about is Carl standing in front of the filing cabinet reminisc- ing, dwelling on things like he always does. I wonder if I can just leave the horse in the pasture and trust the dark animals of the mountains to reclaim it, if I should focus my efforts on catching the herd and putting them in the barn—another activity usually left to Carl. I imagine a shadowy and angular feline padding through the spreading pool of leg, leaving bloody paw prints behind as he drags away a limb of the horse, streaking the pasture with pus and gore. Perhaps it would be better left to me.
And yet, as my fingers curl around the handle of a rusty saw that looks maybe the right size, I can’t really tell. I think that there is perhaps some poetic justice in letting nature take its course. The horse may have lived an unnatural life, but don’t we all, and in the end, it’s some wild beast or another that inevitably brings us down.