It’s late November when the vet puts away her stethoscope. It’s possible he’ll make it to spring, she says, if you can keep weight on him. She rubs the red hair dotted with gray around his eyes and continues, It’s tough for a horse his age. Right now he’s borderline, so watch him close. No need to start grieving, but if he gets ribbier, call me.
We’re running in snow, our backs to the barn. Because he’s young, he’s eager to fly. I lower the reins on his robust neck, permission to open up. His shoulders and haunches drop and he digs in, low to the ground and urgent. There’s water in my eyes and I can’t tell if I’m wind-whipped or crying.
As the vet’s van kicks up dust, I finish brushing and clip his blanket in place. He’s dancing a little, shifting his weight leg to leg; his joints are cold and he knows instinctively he needs to move. Once inside the gate, I pull off his halter and he turns to chase the geese who are pecking at frozen manure. The ground is hard, unforgiving, and I try to dismiss my fear of icy patches that could take him out.
We slow to a walk, the snow silencing his footsteps so that the doe crouched in the bush on the side of the trail doesn’t hear us. We’re already too close — arm’s length — when we notice her and she, us. She is wide-eyed with terror. If she bolts, all three of us could be in trouble. Winter exhales, turns his head to her, and lifts his nose as if to say, You’re okay. The doe’s stillness etches itself in my memory.
My neighbor, JoJo, and her five-year old, Ella, come for a Christmas Day visit, and Ella begs, When can I have a horse of my own? I recognize Ella’s pleading as mine; JoJo’s money-worries and sadness are my mother’s. Ella turns to me. Why can’t I ride Winter anymore? JoJo intervenes and tells her, He’s too old to carry your strong body. Ella flexes her arms to show off the muscles under the sleeves of her parka before resting her head on Winter’s shoulder. She wants to know if I’ll ever get another horse, one she can ride. Oh no, I say in apology. I’m a one-horse woman.
This is the same snowfall that covers my mother’s grave thirty miles away. I stop Winter at the top of the trail and look up to catch flakes on my tongue. I imagine the flakes drifting into my mouth come from the same cloud as the ones frosting her tombstone.
It’s mid-March, just before the symphony of spring peepers announces the thawing of the pond, just before our local goldfinches trade their dull feathers for sun-yellow. JoJo calls from her kitchen to tell me that from her view of the paddock, it looks like Winter is down. The dogs are standing vigil. Fuck, I say. Not now. I throw on my boots and run, cold air ripping into the back of my throat. Winter! I yell. Come here, my boy! A doe and her yearling stand wide-eyed in the corner of the field. The dogs’ heads are high, and there’s Winter lying in a heap, his blue blanket twisted strangely around his middle. His red hair pops, vibrant against the soft, gray ground, but he’s as still as can be. Winter? I say. Come on, my boy. Come on.
We loop back to the barn in untouched snow. For a second, I think I feel her handing me his lead rope. My mother, who had never ridden in her life, saw the young, emaciated horse in a field bracing himself against the January wind. She offered to take him off the owner’s hands and brought him to me with enough cash to pay for a year’s worth of grain, hay, and shoes. Handing me the rope, she suggested I call him Winter, a reminder of what he’d endured.
The barn in sight, I think of how I used to find her standing in the snow in Winter’s field, shifting her weight bad leg to bad leg. I think of her last gift to me, a salt lick for his stall.
When I reach for his face, I can feel vapor streaming from his nostrils in steady, reliable breaths. I gasp and he lifts his face, ears forward, eyes soft and dreamy. He stretches his front end out while his hind legs grip the dirt under him, and in one thunderous motion, he stands and shakes his blanket into place. Under a cloudless sky, Winter lowers his nose to the ground, relishing the possibility of new grass.
Born and raised in New York, Karen Zlotnick lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and their slobbery Newfoundland dog. Her work has been featured in Barren Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Typishly, among others.