by Christine Hemp
My husband unclipped the halter tie, and I backed Buddy out of the horse trailer into the damp, cold, December night. We heard a high-pitched whinny from inside the horse hospital. When the vet opened the giant door, the light from the cavernous room made us all blink. Buddy perked up his ears.
Just hours before, I’d been out riding with a friend. Buddy, my little gray Arabian who moves like a Mazda Miata (and has a personality to match), nosed too close to my friend’s horse’s tail. One swift kick and a happy pre-Christmas trail ride had turned into a grave emergency. I called my husband, asking him to bring the trailer, while my friend and I assessed the two gashes on Buddy’s bloody foreleg. “We’d better get a vet to look at that one,” she said, pointing to Buddy’s shaky knee, and within the hour my husband had arrived with the trailer and we were headed toward help.
The young veterinarian opened the door wider, and invited me to walk my horse to the open space where she could inspect his leg. Buddy was completely obliging, but he wanted to face the horse in the nearby stall, a handsome, chestnut gelding with a beautiful white blaze on his face. Closer inspection revealed a ghoulish, three-foot zipper of fresh stitches S-curving along the horse’s flank. He stood still, eyes wide, as if in shock.
“What happened to him?” I asked as the vet kneeled to examine my horse’s small wounds.
“It’s already been all over the news….” she paused, as if searching for words. “He was struck by a semi-truck on Route 3.” The huge room fell silent except for the hum of the antiseptic lights and the breathing of the two horses.
“But Cash is the lucky one. His three pasture mates were killed.” She daubed Buddy’s knee with gauze soaked in betadine, the iodine color mixing with the red-pink already staining his white leg.
Every horse owner is haunted by such images. Just the thought of horses running blind along a highway is enough to give any of us nightmares. I’ve caught my share of loose horses (a couple of them my own) and usually it turns out okay. But this was the worst I’ve heard. Not only that, we later learned that vandals had cut the pasture fence. Apparently Cash had been calling out for his friends all evening. Until Buddy arrived.
“Well, I don’t like the looks of this,” the vet said as her slender, expert fingers separated the flaps of skin on the knee wound. A rush of heat and adrenalin coursed through my limbs and I felt slightly dizzy.
“What do you mean?” I said, one hand on Buddy’s lead rope, the other reaching for my husband’s arm.
“Well, with a wound like this –” she pointed first to the long laceration above the knee. “It’s not a big deal, even though it looks worse. We can stitch this up. But here—.” She squeezed around the small gash on the knee, “the blow may have punctured the joint sac. If that’s the case….it’s …” she cleared her throat, “potentially very serious.” She lifted her finger to show us the fluid that had come out of the wound. “See? If this is synovial fluid, it should be more viscous. It might already be infected. If so, it’s a tricky business.”
“You mean it couldn’t heal?” My voice became thin like a piece of straw. “Are you saying we’d have to put him down?” A cold chill came over my body and I began to shake.
“Well, it’s just so hard for these to heal if it’s inside the joint,” she said. “But we don’t know yet. And we have to make sure there are no bone shards in there as well.”
My husband put his arm around me and the room seemed to swim. Suddenly the chestnut horse’s nightmare and my own were tethered together. Cash had lost his friends and I now was, in an instant, contemplating the possibility of losing mine.
Buddy, who is usually quite inquisitive and busy (he puts his nose into pockets and even fetches my hat), calmly lifted his foreleg. All the while, Cash watched us intently, always keeping Buddy in his sights.
“Cash sure has quieted down since Buddy got here,” the vet said as she took x-ray pictures of Buddy’s knee. I smoothed my hand along Buddy’s neck. I remembered how Buddy had helped me to quiet down five years ago when I staggered through an illness.
“Well. No bones shattered!” The doc looked over at us and smiled. “So now the best thing is to pump him with antibiotics and get a head start on anything that might be happening in there.”
The evening unfolded in a blur while she gave Buddy a sedative, applied a tourniquet, and injected antibiotics into the whole knee area as well as into the joint itself. “We’ll know more tomorrow when I get the white blood cell count in Buddy’s knee,” she said. “And we can also insert some dye when we take another x-ray to see if the sac has been compromised. We’ll watch for swelling, too. But he’ll have to stay here at least one night.”
Buddy has never been good with stalls. Before I was lucky enough to have him as my own, he’d developed the habit of “weaving” whenever he felt trapped (especially in stalls), swaying back and forth like an autistic child. He seldom did it anymore, but I couldn’t possibly think of him alone in this strange place.
Cash offered a quiet nicker. His intelligent eyes took in every move we made. Cash! I thought. Cash would be here. Though the inside stalls were reserved for horses who needed intravenous medications, the vet agreed we could put Buddy next to Cash. As my husband and I left, they were breathing through the small windows between the walls, whispering things only horses know.
When I arrived the next morning, Buddy whinnied a hello, but not with desperation. He was calm and his eyes did not show any distress. Cash, too, seemed relaxed, as if they had both unburdened their stories during the night.
The vet had to delay our tests to tend to another emergency, so I set up my fold-out chair in Buddy’s stall and spent the day playing my wooden flute quietly to the two horses whose lives had intersected unexpectedly in the night. Then, to calm myself as much as the horses, I read them some poems from the 14th C. Sufi mystic, Hafiz:
We are at
The Nile’s end.
We are carrying particles
From every continent, creature and age.
It has been raining on the plains
Of our vision for millions of years
And our senses are so muddy compared to yours—dear God,
But I only hear these words from You
Where we are all trying to embrace
The Clear Sky-Ocean,
“Dear one, come.
My dear ones,
The trajectories of all of our lives, animals included, are a mystery to us. Who we meet. Why one moment we are riding on a trail or grazing in a peaceful pasture and the next moment we find ourselves in veterinary hospital stall.
As I read aloud the poems of a mystic who seemed to understand these things, the horses snoozed, and I was suddenly awash in peace. At least for that moment. I still didn’t know if Buddy’s knee was doomed. Nor did I know how Cash would survive – emotionally, though he was patched up physically. But there I was alone—at the Nile’s end—with two injured horses and it seemed as if all three of us were in the right place.
Every now and then Buddy would lean over the pages of Hafiz and push them with his nose. Then he’d pick up my flannel flute case and wave it in the air and drop it into my lap. Then he’d go sniff the little window between him and Cash, as if to tell him all was going to be okay.
And it was. Buddy and Cash spent another night together at the hospital, but the next day Buddy’s tests revealed that the joint sac had not been punctured at all, and that the lacerations would heal faster with the injected antibiotics. He wasn’t even lame, just proud of his magenta bandage.
As we were finishing Buddy’s final examination, Cash’s owner, a middle-aged man in a jean jacket, arrived to haul him away. I could do nothing more than squeeze his hand an extra beat longer after shaking it. His eyes held mine and he said, “Thank you.” He tipped his head toward Buddy. “Also, for your horse.” His two sons loaded up the handsome chestnut who was headed for an equine rehab center so he wouldn’t have to return to an empty pasture. (“Please, my dear ones, come…”) Neither Cash nor Buddy was alarmed at the parting, as if they had settled the business they had between them.
To have experienced this meeting and leave-taking was to perceive yet another bandwidth in this inexplicable world. Yes, there is the bandwidth of crisis, fact, and diagnosis – the news that pumps adrenaline into our veins and narrows our field of vision. And then there is the News of the Universe, where connections like invisible radar waves intersect and heal and move among all of us creatures who share this planet. This Universe exists simultaneously with semi-trucks barreling down a highway and metal horseshoes striking another horse’s knee.
When Buddy was loaded back into the trailer, we headed north across Hood Canal to our windblown home on the Straits, and I wondered if the whole purpose of the weekend was for Buddy to be there for Cash and Cash for Buddy.
As we rolled into town, Christmas lights flickered on the houses, and I knew I’d already received the only present I could have asked for. I’d also been fortunate to sit quietly by a manger in a stall with two creatures who know more about the other kind of News than I do. When Buddy pranced out of the trailer and into his meadow, the stars were glittering like broken glass.