A few weeks ago I was sitting in my sunny living room reading stories. In one story, "Three Days," by Samantha Hunt, Beatrice and her younger brother decide to ride their old farm horse, Humbletonian, to the new mall complex a mile down the highway. They are drunk and it is freezing. The story mentions this several times. Beatrice and Clem saddle the horse, Humbletonian, and clomp off down the road uneventfully: they listen to the click of Humbletonian's hooves and the rush of the horse's warm pulse. When they reach the Middleland Mall, they tie the horse to a corral for carts outside Wal-Mart, and then they go inside. But when they return, Humbletonian is gone. They search and search, and then a page later, behind Wal-Mart, they discover at least twenty bulldozers and a gigantic hole: It is tremendous, far larger than a football field, and it is filled with water.
As soon as I read the sentence about the hole of water, I knew the horse was going to drown. I set the story down, and said out loud, "Oh no, the horse is going to drown." My chest tightened and I felt dread, and then an anticipatory sadness, and then dread again, though I can see now that my anxiety had begun paragraphs before, probably in the first paragraph where the protagonist is walking in darkness down the highway and passes a bloated dead raccoon.
When I set the story down, the first thing I did was look at the back of my hand, with its blue veins and geography of lines that I had always liked. As I've grown older, the veins and tendons have become more pronounced, like mountain ridges on a topographical map. After I looked at my hand, I went into the bathroom and cleaned the sink, and then I cleaned the bathroom floor with a washcloth. After I cleaned the bathroom I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't want to clean anymore, and I didn't want to talk on the phone, and I didn't want to go outside. And even though I knew the horse was going to drown, I began to feel hopeful that, somehow, the story would veer in another direction; the brother and sister would save the horse or the horse would save itself.
I picked up the story again. Humbletonian has climbed down into the pit and is walking across the surface of the ice that has formed there. The storyteller speculates that one of the bulldozers broke a water pipe while digging. There is a lot of water here, a reservoir's worth of drinking water, or, Beatrice hopes not, frozen sewage. Humbletonian is walking across the ice, bending every now and again to lick the surface. Gross.
In the next paragraph, we read about the silver beauty of the horse and the gorgeous ice and dirt and the lovely darkness, thick like felt. And in the final sentence of that paragraph a jealous hole cracks open and swallows the back end of Humbletonian. She tries to clear the water, to get a hoof back up on solid ice, but each clop of her front hooves shatters what she's grabbed and pulls it under with her.
The reader, along with the sister and brother who are standing helplessly on the rim of the ice, watch the horse thrash in the cold water. And then the horse starts giving up. She falls still. Beatrice can see a lot of white in the horse's eye, as though it had been pried open. It blinks dry air once more, for the last time. Humbletonian's head goes under and all Beatrice can see are her forelegs above the barrier of the ice. Her legs kick, emptying what's inside them. It is a gruesome convulsion.
I sat on the couch. I could not even look at the back of my hand.
After this, I walked into the bathroom again but then I just stood there. I couldn't remember what I was going to do. I could see in my internal eye the horse thrashing through the ice and the water closing over its eyes, which had gone white. I could feel the constriction of sadness across my chest and in my mind. I played the scene again and again, thinking I would get used to the outcome, or eventually would be able to see the horse more objectively, as a metaphor or symbol. But each time I felt the pang of unfairness, and each time I felt the fear of the animal and the stupidity of the sister and brother. They were drunk. It was freezing. The sister had moved off the farm to a big city a year earlier, and it had been her idea to take the horse to the shopping complex, probably to prove a point.
I went on with my day, but after a few hours I began to question the use of reading the story. I questioned the use of fiction in general—what did we gain?
I also felt bad about the stories I had written in which characters die, even though they die for a good reason. I thought I did not want to write those kinds of stories anymore; instead, I would write stories about everyday occurrences, like people reading things and thinking things, and stories in which the people and the animals just go on living the way we do, many of us, for a long time.
A few more hours after reading the story I realized that I could stop some of my anxiety by telling myself the event did not happen. I could say, this story is not real, this did not happen, though of course I knew in another part of me that things like that do happen, that the story is in fact happening every day.
After I wrote the previous paragraph I thought it should be the end but then I thought, this isn't what I came to say either, is it?
My friend Kris has a horse with a beautiful white mane and coat with burgundy splotches, and he has amber eyes that glow in the darkness of the barn and remind her of barn owls. Once, when I was visiting her in Minnesota, she told me that animals do not suffer or feel pain the way humans do, and she accused me of over-identifying and even personifying animals. She said this because I had just told her a story about my brother's dog.
Two summers ago, my brother's nanny left his two-year-old Golden Retriever in the back of his SUV after a lake outing. She had unpacked the kids and bags of lake stuff, but she forgot about the dog. It was a hot day. When my brother found the dog dead he discovered that it had chewed off all the door handles.
Can you see it?