Jess’s passing left an enormous empty space in the pasture. Not only did Kit and Little Horse grieve in their way, now confused and leaderless, it was also hard on the mare next door.
For more than twenty years, Jess had been over-the-fence neighbors with the two Belgian draft horse mares in the adjacent field. These girls had known and supported one another through harsh, bone-crushing winters and through languid, leafy summers. They had shared flies. The understanding between Jess and the horses on the other side of the fence was deep and quiet, but as intimate as the taut surface of water and the image of the trees reflected there.
Ten years ago, the two retired Belgians had been nearly identical. Massive creatures, they had weighed well over 1800 pounds each. They dwarfed Jess and any other standard horse. But, they were gentle, wise old women, who let the screaming, wiggly children next door climb onto their great wide backs. So many secrets had passed between the three horses over the years, whispered breaths, fragrant with hay.
Gradually, one of these two giants had begun to disappear. Though she continued to graze, she grew gaunt and pitiable. Her sister never left her side, encouraging her day after day to take a few more steps, to eat another mouthful of grass.
I ached for the thin one. On more than one occasion, I called animal control. In this rural part of the state, everyone knows one another, and the control officer informed me that the owner “takes real good care of her animals”. I did everything I could do. Eventually, all I could do was love her.
But, horses have a way of keeping their quiet dignity even in the worst of circumstances, and they have a way of working things out.
One week to the day after Jess left this world, the emaciated Belgian mare lay down in the grass, and did not get up again. Steve trudged the mile or so across the field to the neighbor’s house to let them know that she was down.
I paced. I organized my closet, imagining that the clatter of clothes hangers would insulate me from the sounds that would surely come soon. Still reeling and numb from Jess’s death, I didn’t want to hear the inevitable report from the rifle. When it came, my heart ricocheted into my throat at the exact moment that the remaining mare screamed.
The lone horse spent the next two days searching desperately for her sister. She zig-zagged from one end of the vast pasture to the other, whinnying and calling, her huge body shaking the earth, imploring. This is the horse way.
As agonizing as it was to watch, I was relieved that the sad, thin old girl was finally free of the body that must have caused her incalculable pain. And, I couldn’t help but notice, again and again, that she had lasted only a handful of days after Jess’s death.
In some strange way, Jess’s death had helped the old, thin mare be able to leave this life. Perhaps, in her way, she was able to follow Jess and to find her. And, perhaps the surviving mare, searching the field next door, lifted her voice as much in triumph as in anguish.
Jess was teaching me again, softly, like a whisper in the night. The perfect choreography of heart songs reminding me that Jess had died, not at my hand, but by my side, loved and honored. My fear that I had betrayed her in some way was unfounded. Jess’s death was not tragic. It was as graceful as a candle flame disappearing.
Still, I grieve for her. My heart still calls for her.