Nicholas patted the star on Molly’s forehead, rubbed his cheek against her face, and said, “You’re looking serious tonight, Molly. Is it time to foal?”
Molly pushed her forehead against his chest and moved her head vigorously up and down.
“Yes, yes,” he said, and when she had finished using his chest as a scratching board he patted her gently on the neck and left her stall.
In the aisle of the foaling shed he sat down on the hard-packed dirt. At 23 he still looked like a teenager. His hairless face remained pale in spite of his outdoor work and he carried into his 20’s an appearance more suited to the innocence of a young boy. His arms and chest and legs, however, were heavily muscled from strenuous work. His back resting against the wooden half door of Molly’s stall, he brought his legs to his chest and rested his chin on his knees. Outside, a storm was brewing. A long line of black clouds was crossing the Shawangunk Mountains and moving east across the Hudson Valley, and from where Nicholas was sitting he watched their progress as they moved slowly toward him trailing darkness behind them.
A gust of wind blew through the shed scattering straw and dust, and Nicholas covered his eyes with his forearm. Above him, Molly lowered her head over the stall door and rubbed her nose against the back of his neck. He reached up and scratched her cheek, and she bit him on the collar, playfully but hard enough to hurt. He slapped her sharply on the nose and Molly jumped back into the stall, whinnying indignantly.
From the other end of the aisle, where the shed made a right angle turn to form a short L-shaped structure, which accommodated one extra stall and a breeding area, Nicholas heard Hawk scream. Hawk was the Blue R breeding farm’s stud. All the mares in this shed were pregnant with his foals.
“You hear that, Molly?” he said. “Hawk’s calling you. He’s concerned.”
Behind him Molly was standing motionless, staring with an otherworldly look at the wooden planks of her stall.
Hawk was the only horse on the farm Nicholas didn’t like. He found the stud’s temperament maddening. It was not just that the horse was dangerous (which he was: given the chance, he would attack any man near him), it was the arrogance, the disdain with which Hawk treated all living things that so angered Nicholas. Hawk, being the most valuable horse on the farm, had been treated specially for so long that he had come to believe he was special. He acted as though he were the center of the universe, and he demanded that his handlers treat him as such. Nicholas wanted to beat Hawk senseless, to pound him until his knees buckled and that look of disdain was replaced by pleading—like a dog fearing a kick from his master.
“Hey Molly?” he said. “Molly?” Then he laughed at himself because he half expected her to answer, to at least whinny or stamp her foot in the straw.
Back in Brooklyn, Nicholas had frightened his family by not speaking until he was almost three years old, and all through his youth—and, for that matter, into his present adulthood—he had a hard time speaking to others, But here on the farm, working the nightwatch alone from six at night to six in the morning, he felt at ease and found he liked talking to horses. At first he was embarrassed and felt as if he were acting a little crazy, but he soon learned that everyone talks to horses, perhaps not as much as he did at times, especially late at night when a kind of fear sometimes took hold of him, but everyone on the farm talked to horses to one degree or another. Even old Albie, the farm manager, cursed them, calling them “nickel bastards”; and Doc Gill talked to horses as he worked on them. Gill was the only vet Nicholas knew who could calm a horse enough with his talking to slip a worming hose into its stomach without a fuss. He lived just down the road and was considered by many the best veterinarian in the state, some said the country. If he could talk to horses, so could Nicholas. Besides, Nicholas half believed they understood what he said, especially Molly.
When he first came to the Blue R, he was 21 and didn’t know anything about horses. That was two years ago; now he felt like an old hand. There wasn’t a horse on the farm he was afraid of, including Hawk, and because of that he had earned the respect of Albie and the dozen farmhands who had come and gone since he was hired. The Blue R underpaid all its workers, so most of them only stuck around long enough to save up traveling money. But Albie and Nicholas stayed on: Albie, because he was too old to find a decent job anywhere else, and Nicholas, because he had nowhere else to go. He had lived in Brooklyn all his life until he walked out of the city, with only 20 dollars in his wallet and no idea where he was going. He wound up a couple of days later at the Blue R.
Nicholas associated everything bad in his life with Brooklyn. It was in Brooklyn that his younger sister had disappeared one day while shopping with him and his mother in a five-and-dime store. One moment she was there, and then she was gone. Fifteen years later Nicholas still sometimes replayed the incident. He had left her alone in the toy aisle to go after his mother, and when he returned she was gone. She turned up several weeks later, floating in the East River, her hands and feet hacked off. A few years later his mother died of cancer. It was diagnosed in April, and she was dead in June. He lived with his father until he graduated from high school; then his father left, and he had never seen him since. For the next two years he lived alone—until he decided one day to walk past his bus stop and to keep walking, first over the Kosciusko Bridge, then hitchhiking, taking rides without direction, going wherever his ride was going.
He still considered it his wisest decision—if it could be called a decision, spontaneous as it was. He had come to love horses, and he liked working at the Blue R, especially as the foaling man. When he first saw the farm, it stirred something in him: something seemed to loosen up and then expand at the sight of acres of green pasture filled with horses. He had found the Blue R by asking around Wallkill for a job, and once given directions he walked the six miles from town. Molly was the first horse to notice him as he walked down the hill at the entrance to the farm. There was a bird lighted on her shoulder, chirping, and two or three more on the ground around her head, eating grain in the grass where she was grazing, and she picked up her head at the sight of him and whinnied and then trotted along the fence line alongside him till he walked past. Nicholas stopped and looked at her for a second before continuing down the hill to a place where he saw a white truck parked in bright sunlight outside the darkened entrance to the main barn. As he approached, a commotion broke out. He heard the voices of men yelling to each other, and three men came running out of the darkness like frightened children, scattering as they hit the sunlight. Then Hawk came prancing out after them, screaming.
Nicholas was impressed, almost awed, by the stud’s beauty. He was a big, muscular horse, and black from head to foot, so black his coat seemed to soak up the sunlight. Nicholas watched enthralled as Hawk screamed and reared, pummeling the air with his forelegs. At first he felt a kind of exhilaration in watching the stallion; but when Hawk saw him and looked at him as if he were deciding whether or not to kill the puny mortal who stood before him, he felt something click inside him. He walked calmly to the horse; and Hawk, to the amazement of the farmhands watching from a distance, took several steps backward, apparently stunned by a man coming toward him instead of running away. Nicholas took the stud by the lead shank dangling from his halter and waited until one of the farmhands came and led Hawk away.
That was how he got the job at the Blue R. He started mucking out stalls, and then loading hay, and finally he got to handle horses. Now he was the foaling man. It was his job to come in every night, water first Hawk and then each of the 24 mares pregnant with his foals, examine all the mares, and assist any mare that foaled. This last part of his job was what Nicholas most enjoyed.
Since mares are private about foaling, he had to play a careful game of hide-and-seek. He would keep himself well out of sight until the irreversible process began and then quietly enter the stall and assist with the foaling. Basically his job was easy, and for the most part superfluous. The mares did not need him to help pull the foal out of the womb, as he did, nor did they need him to cut the umbilical cord and drag the foal around to the mother’s head, so she could see it and lick the slime from its nose and mouth. The important part of Nicholas’ job was that he be there if something went wrong, and there were many things that could go wrong. A mare, for instance, might reject her foal and try to kill it, or an umbilical cord might fail to clot properly, which could cause a foal to bleed to death in a matter of minutes. In such cases Nicholas would call Doc Gill. So far they had not lost a single foal.
Nicholas was proud of this record, and he liked watching the new foals as they struggled to get to their feet in a new world of shapes and colors and sounds. But in all the foals, within a few hours after birth, Nicholas saw hints of their sire’s demeanor. Something of the pride and insensitivity of Hawk showed itself through a glimmer in the foal’s eyes, or in a stance that it assumed instinctively. Nicholas didn’t like it. His contempt for Hawk was pervasive, and it had two sources, aside from the horse’s fractious manners and his general meanness.
A few months after he started working at the Blue R, he had his shoulder broken by Hawk. It wasn’t the injury that galled him so much as the way it happened. Hawk was standing peacefully in his stall, looking calmly out the barred window at the top of the back wall, when Nicholas entered with the hose and started to refill his water bucket. Hawk backed away from the window—still calmly, peacefully, as if he were paying Nicholas no attention—and when he was within striking distance, he threw a series of kicks with his hind legs. The first one came so close to striking a killing blow that he felt a hoof graze his right ear. Another blow caught him in the shoulder before he could get out of the stall.
Still, he could have forgiven him that. But he couldn’t forget or forgive what had happened with May Pride’s colt. May Pride was a good-sized mare, but she had foaled a runt. The little colt, aside from looking funny (he had floppy ears and a tail that almost touched the ground), had some problems with his back left pastern—a kind of swelling that sometimes appears in young horses and usually goes away as they put on size and weight. So the colt walked with a funny gait. Nicholas had tied him up in the breeding shed one afternoon while he drove the truck to the back pasture to pick up a tool he had forgotten there. When he returned he found the runt dead and Hawk wandering peacefully through the stable. Apparently Hawk had gotten out of his paddock—as was not uncommon—and found the runt tied up in the breeding shed. What bothered Nicholas most was that the runt, because of the way he was tied with his head in the corner, could not have seen what was happening. For Nicholas, this made everything worse. He imagined the runt waiting for the next kick, never knowing where or when it was coming, and it never failed to make him angry.
Nicholas was thinking about Hawk and the runt, thinking that just once he would like to tie Hawk in a corner and make him grovel, make him fearful of what he could not see but knew was behind him, when he heard a grumbling noise. He stood and looked into Molly’s stall. She hadn’t moved at all and was still staring intently at the wall. Nicholas guessed it was just her stomach he had heard, and he reached in and patted her gently on the shoulder. He was about to say something to her when, from the other end of the shed, Hawk screamed, and his scream was echoed immediately by a flash of lightening and a low rumble of thunder.
“Is it water you want, Hawk?” Nicholas shouted. In the distance he could hear Hawk whinny, as if in response. “All right,” he said quietly, “I’m coming.” He picked up his denim jacket from the ground, put it on, and took his flashlight out from between the bars of Molly’s stall.
Outside, as the natural darkness of the night swallowed the darkness of the storm, the rain began to fall. Nicholas buttoned his denim jacket and began the walk to the opposite end of the shed. The thin beam of the flashlight danced in front of him as he followed the shed aisle, and each of the mares along the way stared at him through the bars of their stalls, waiting for their water.
The spigot and hose were located directly across from Hawk’s stall. Nicholas paid no attention to the stud standing ominously and angrily alongside his water bucket; he stared, instead, through the window in Hawk’s stall, at the driving rain falling across the dark fields. A flash of lightning broke the darkness, and in a split second of white-blue light the lifeless fields were lit up, revealing clusters of horses standing asleep in the wind and rain. As he watched, Hawk pawed at the ground, making a low, gutteral, growling noise.
Nicholas turned and looked at the stud. “Tonight, Hawk,” he said softly, “you’ll have to wait for your water.” After unwinding the long coils of hose, he walked past Hawk’s stall and began his nightly rounds with Lady Be Fast, a mare in her early months of pregnancy.
Hawk merely looked confused as Nicholas walked by without stopping to fill his bucket, but when he heard the sound of a mare’s bucket being filled, he started kicking at the walls and screaming. Inside Lady Be Fast’s stall, Nicholas could not keep himself from smiling. Good, he thought. Suffer a little, you bastard, Wait for your water.
It took a long time for Hawk to calm down. The stud stopped kicking and screaming just as a long sizzling flash of lightning struck close by, shaking the rafters of the shed. Nicholas closed a stall door behind him and hesitated for a moment in the shed aisle. When he heard nothing more than Hawk’s angry pawing and the rain, he continued with his watering, assuming the lightning struck nothing.
With only Molly and Hawk left to water, he stopped for a rest in front of Molly’s stall. She had a strange look about her. Her muscles were tensed, as if she were in pain.
“What’s the matter, Molly?” Nicholas said as he slid open the door to her stall. “Are you going to foal tonight?”
Molly stood quietly, staring intently at the planks of wood in front of her.
He patted her gently on the head, then walked around alongside her, stroking her neck and shoulders. “Is it time, Molly?” he asked. “You look terrible.” From the other end of the shed came a loud crash and the sound of metal crumpling. Molly picked up her ears. “Just Hawk kicking his water bucket. He wants me to know he’s waiting.” Nicholas spoke softly as he examined her. “He thinks I’m another one of his lackeys,” he said, and he walked in front of her. “I’m not mean, am I Molly?” he asked, scratching the insides of her ears. “No,” he answered. “I’m not mean.” He finished his examination; and, having found nothing wrong, he patted her once more on the neck. “Now that I’m ready.” he said as he closed the stall door, “I’ll go water the bastard.”
As he picked up the hose, the sound of thunder echoed across the farm, and Hawk, sensing him coming, began kicking at the wall; but by the time Nicholas reached the stall, he was standing stock still, his nose pressed to the crumpled rim of the water bucket, A white froth of sweat stood out against the sleek black of his coat.
“What’s the matter Hawk? Are you upset? Didn’t I bring you your water on time?” Nicholas asked. He pushed the door open just a crack and slipped into the stall.
Hawk remained motionless, his nose pressed against the battered rim of the pail. Nicholas cautiously closed the stall door behind him and pulled a length of hose slowly through the space between the metal bars. He gripped the gunlike nozzle in his left hand, leaving his right hand free, and moved carefully toward Hawk, until he stood directly alongside him.
Hawk stood there, silent and still, almost as if he were asleep, but Nicholas could see the tension in the long sheets of muscle running down his neck and shoulders and across his back to his legs. Carefully, with his right hand clenched in a fist, he pushed the hose down beneath the crumpled rim of the bucket. Still, Hawk’s eyes did not move.
For a moment Nicholas felt as though the whole barn were waiting for a sound to interrupt the silence, and though he felt strangely afraid of the noise the water would make as it escaped through the nozzle, he tensed himself and pushed down firmly on the handle. With the first sound of water rushing against the metal of the pail, Hawk jumped up on his back legs, screamed, and struck out at Nicholas with his forelegs.
Nicholas cursed and ducked quickly beneath Hawk’s flailing hooves. He tried, while staying away from the pumping forelegs, to grab the stud’s halter, but Hawk came down spinning on all fours and slammed him against the wall with the weight of his body.
The breath knocked out of him, Nicholas staggered for a moment and then lurched for the stall door, but Hawk, turning his body in a quick half-circle, barred the way by throwing a series of blows at the door with his rear legs. Nicholas, in jumping away from the blows, tripped and fell into the corner of the stall, where he cut his elbow on the ragged rim of the water bucket and hit his head against the metal bars of the stall before falling to the ground. Shaking his head, trying to regain his senses—the corners of his vision clouded with a soft green mosaic—he reached up and grabbed for the rim of the bucket, trying to pull himself to his feet before Hawk could come at him again, but the bucket only broke from its hook and fell to the ground.
On his back, in the straw, with the bucket alongside him, Nicholas looked up to see Hawk standing on his rear legs and moving toward him, shrieking and snorting. As he backed away from the stud, trying to prop himself up against the wall, he felt, in the straw beneath his hand, the cold metal nozzle of the hose. Picking it up quickly, he shot a stream of water into Hawk’s flaring nostrils. Hawk, choking, almost fell over backward as he jumped away from the water and into the opposite corner of the stall.
Holding the hose extended in front of him as if it were a weapon, Nicholas pulled himself weakly to his feet and stared across the stall at Hawk. “You’re not so tough, after all. Are you, you bastard?” he said, “You want your water? Here. . . .” He grabbed the bucket off the ground and flung it across the stall at Hawk. “There’s your goddamned water! Die of thirst!”
In the shed aisle he slammed the stall door closed and, bolting it securely, spoke to Hawk through the bars. “Keep it up, Hawk,” he said. “You’re going to get damn thirsty before the night is out.”
Hawk snorted and pawed at the ground, still wary of the hose Nicholas held in his hand.
“We’re going to come to an understanding,” Nicholas whispered to himself. He walked away from Hawk to an unoccupied stall, where he sat down on the hard-dirt floor and wrapped his handkerchief around the cut on his elbow. Outside, beyond the barn wall, he could hear the sound of the rain falling hard upon the already water-soaked grass, and as he listened he smiled, recalling Hawk jumping away from the water. Thinking about his small victory over Hawk, he closed his eyes and lay down in the dirt and the darkness. Within a few minutes, with only the sound of the rain and the occasional whinny of a mare in the background, he was sleeping.
He awoke slowly to the scattered chirping of solitary birds—though it was still dark, the rain had stopped falling and the barn was filled with the first sounds of morning. Lifting himself to his feet, he brushed the dirt from his shirt and pants, and walked, yawning and stretching, to Molly’s stall.
He found her down and already foaling. Her body gaunt and her skin sallow, she looked up at him weakly, with a look of resignation: a foal, like a diver in midair, its head tucked between its legs, was protruding halfway out of her swollen womb. The water sack was broken, and the foal’s coat was wet and full of slime. Nicholas watched, at first delighted, as the foal wiggled its head and, blinking a few times, opened its eyes, but when Molly’s body heaved in a violent contraction and the foal didn’t move any further out of the womb, he realized something was wrong.
Hurrying into the stall, he sat down in front of the foal, clasped his hands around its outstretched legs, and pulled. It didn’t budge. He changed positions: propping his feet against Molly’s buttocks, he pulled with his whole body instead of just his arms. Still, the foal didn’t move. It just picked up its head and looked at him, appearing for all the world to be merely curious. Christ, he thought, straining to pull the foal free, it doesn’t even know anything is wrong. It thinks it’s supposed to be like this, half warm and comfortable in its mother’s womb, half out in the world.
With all the strength gone from his arms, he ran to the phone and called Doc Gill; then returned to the stall. Molly’s eyes were milky and glazed, but she still followed Nicholas’ movements as he knelt in the straw at her head and spoke softly to her. “The vet’s on his way, Molly,” he said, rubbing her forehead.
Molly moved her head slightly in the straw and bared her teeth as if she were going to neigh, but made no sound at all. Nicholas continued talking softly to her and rubbing her forehead, trying to comfort her, until he heard the vet’s station wagon pull up in front of the shed.
Gill nodded summarily at Nicholas as he walked into the stall, and then stared solemnly for a moment at Molly and the foal. He was wearing a raincoat, inside out over a pair of striped pajamas, and carrying a large, black leather satchel.
“How long has she been like this?” he asked.
“Just a little while before I called you. Maybe 15 minutes,” Nicholas answered.
Without saying anything more, the vet walked around to the foal, put his bag down alongside its head, and, while the foal watched, took off both his raincoat and the top of his pajamas. From the black bag he pulled out a pair of disposable plastic gloves and slipped them over his hands, all the way up to his shoulders.
Carefully, he slid his hands down the foal’s chest and pushed his arm deep into Molly’s womb. The foal made a sound near enough to laughter to startle both Nicholas and the vet.
“Jesus,” Nicholas said smiling, “now it’s laughing. It doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Gill didn’t respond. Half kneeling and half lying in the straw, with his temple pushed flush against Molly’s rectum and his arms buried up to his shoulders, the doctor struggled to maneuver the foal into a deliverable position. He stayed that way—sweating, pushing, pulling, and shoving—for several minutes before extracting his arms and taking off the gloves with a look of digust.
He spoke to Nicholas as he wiped Molly’s dirt from his forehead and hair. “In the back of my wagon, underneath the spare tire and some other junk, there’s a pipe cutter. Go get it.”
Nicholas didn’t understand. “A pipe cutter?”
Without answering Nicholas, the vet began pulling an assortment of instruments out of his bag and laying them neatly on an unrolled strip of cloth. Nicholas hesitated a moment longer and then left the stall.
Outside, the fields were filled with the first blue haze of morning light, and a thick mist covered the rain-soaked grass. He pulled open the back door of the station wagon and after some rummaging, found the pipe cutter and brought it back into the shed.
It took him a few moments, standing with his mouth hanging open in the doorway of the stall, to understand what he was looking at. The vet had made a long, circular incision around the width of the foal’s body, and, having pushed back several inches of loose skin, was pulling out its intestines and tossing them into a corner of the stall. The foal was cut neatly in half. The abdomen and torso remained attached only by the backbone.
Nicholas felt a slow calm settle over him, a peacefulness. He walked into the stall and dropped, half threw, the pipe cutter down at the vet’s feet.
Gill looked up at him as if he were suddenly aware of the presence of a stranger and pointed to a place, high on the foal’s back, where a section of spine was exposed. “Take the pipe cutter,” he said, “and snap it—right there.”
Nicholas picked up the tool and positioned it carefully over the spine. He cut the backbone easily in half, and the foal’s torso fell limply into the vet’s waiting arms. The head hung loosely from the neck, and the tongue spilled out of the mouth.
Gill threw the torso out into the shed aisle and quickly began suturing the flap of skin hanging over the exposed abdominal cavity; and after the cavity was sewn closed, he pushed the posterior half of the foal back inside the womb. With only a few seconds of maneuvering, he was able to pull it free. Nicholas watched as the vet held the mutilated carcass dangling in the air, the fur wet and black and spotted all over with scarlet and crimson blotches of blood.
“A colt,” Gill muttered under his breath as he tossed the half-foal out of the stall, where it landed, grotesquely, on top of the torso.
Nicholas knelt in the straw at Molly’s head and patted her neck gently, as if to comfort her, while the vet put on a new pair of gloves, and inserted his arms once again inside her to reexamine the womb. When he was finished he said nothing, but he took a syringe from his bag, filled it with a syrupy white fluid, and injected it into a vein in Molly’s neck.
Molly blinked a few times and then closed her eyes.
Nicholas looked up at the doctor. “Did you knock her out?” he asked.
The vet shook his head. “I put her to sleep.” he said. “She was too badly damaged. She would have been dead by morning.”
Nicholas tried to restrain himself, but his body began to shake and he felt tears in the corners of his eyes.
Gill turned away and, after taking off his gloves and wiping his hands clean on a rag, he unbuttoned his fly and urinated in a corner of the stall. Then he put on his pajama top and raincoat and began to walk away, but he stopped in the doorway. “There’s really nothing anyone could have done,” he said. “It was the shape of her womb. It hadn’t developed properly. . . . Tell Albie I’ll be around again in the evening.”
Nicholas wanted to say something, but he felt ashamed and knew he wouldn’t be able to speak without sobbing, so he nodded without looking up. When he heard the vet’s wagon drive away, he cried like a child, his forehead resting on the white star between Molly’s eyes, till the crying seemed to wear itself out and he was left exhausted and alone with the first rays of morning light spreading through the stall.
His knees felt weak and uncertain beneath him, but he stood and walked steadily down the length of the shed, and when he came to Hawk’s stall he picked up the hose and entered. With Hawk half asleep and paying him no attention, and with the frantic and nightmarish screaming of thousands of birds announcing the oncoming day, he took the bucket out of the stall and hammered the crumpled rim into a reasonable circle. Then, returning it to the stall and hanging it neatly in the corner, he filled it with water.