There will be no burial, except, perhaps, in memory. What can be done with so much flesh and bone? Consider the tractor repossessed, the single good shovel, the ground dry and packed to stone.
The gut rumbles, begins its bloating. We stand, look toward the small shack where our mother knows or does not know. We remove the saddle and blanket, the bridle and bit, smooth the mane. We leave the horse to crows and foxes, knowing what we do of the world's justice.
By the next day, the moist breeze comes sweet with rot, settles in with us at breakfast, stays through lunch and dinner. We clear our plates, lick our bowls clean. We sleep with our windows open, the death of the mare a dream we cannot wake from.
When our father returns three days later, sick on corn whiskey, we watch him once again rope the mare's hind legs, see him turn away long enough to vomit yellow bile. He puts the Ford in first gear, meaning to drag her to the bone pile, but the hocks pop and separate. He takes her in pieces - hind legs, forelegs, head - until all that is left is the body, swollen and grim. But now there is nothing to tie on to. He circles once, twice, kicks the belly hard.
"Move away from the window," our mother says. Some things are better not seen. But we stay. We are rooting for the mare. Obstinate. Impossible.
"Deadlock," Lee says. "Dogfall."
Our father disappears into the barn, comes out lugging kerosene. He douses what remains, soaks it good, stands back as the flames jump high and clean then recede to a deeper burn. He looks toward the window, lights another cigarette, moves to the trough, splashes his face, the back of his neck.
"Best not be standing there when he comes in," our mother says. "Dinner's about on."
Lee looks at me, tips his head toward the door. "Let's go," he says. He means a walk, a long loop around the fields, maybe a turn into town for a soda. Away from our father, the greasy smoke.
But how can I leave our mother alone with what comes next? I tell Lee to go ahead, and he does, because he can. We sit at the table, my mother and I, hands in our laps, waiting. She keeps her eyes closed, as though in prayer. Through the window behind her, I watch the sky darken, the fire's slow licking.
That night, I will rise to a new moon, leave Lee sleeping on the floor, make my way to the smoldering mound, feel the ground warm beneath my bare feet. I will imagine for the first time a wild ride away, the mare young and alive beneath me. But when I awake, stiff and shivering, to the rough nudge of my father's boot, the dream is forgotten, the fire dead.
I will turn from the charred cage of ribs to my chores, see in the distance the black scavengers at the bone pile, know they have already taken the eyes, preened the teeth for tongue. And this is what I will not forget: their raucous delight at such plenty, how they feed and feed, skull and femur fallen into strange symmetry-a stick horse running, honed and glistening, somehow new. Like the bones of an old song remembered. Like this story, whittled back to its beginnings, and at its heart the emptiness, the loss, that might tell you the whole of who I am.
Who I am: Buddy Hope, once that child, now this man. The drunkard's son. Young brother of Lee. Nothing more or less until that summer of 1958, when Irene walked into my life, planted desire deep in my marrow, vines even now twining so that I rise each morning rooted in memory, unfolding to sun or snow but always to the absence of her.
I abide in the whisper of wind through an old mare's bones. I exist in this place Irene made for me, surrounded by those she meant to love and shelter. I try each day to be more of the man she dreamed I might be. I dream, and still she is here with me, making me new again, giving me this story to tell, and the voice to tell it. Every word is her name.
Reprinted from Finding Caruso by Kim Barnes by permission of The Putnam Publishing Group (a Marian Wood Book), a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2003, Kim Barnes. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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