Shutting the Barn Door
For Bill Barlow, who asked.
Three days ago, wolves ate one of my horses. I got the news in a typically Tropojan fashion: Someone saw the horse down, called Sadik, who owns the land where they’re pastured, who called Liridon, whose number he had, who called Jordi, who told me: the Telephone game, whisper down the alley. One assumes the message is perverted by the time you get it, supported by the fact that “bite” and “eat” are the same word in Albanian. I was annoyed by the bother – we’d been just about to sit down to a triumphant first-of-summer outdoor breakfast (with beautiful tablecloth) of cherry pancakes, made from our own cherries. But nonetheless we jumped in the car and drove off, pistons screaming. A lark, it seemed, since I was sure it would all be nothing. I was joking, even as we turned onto the small dirt road that leads to the meadow. But Jordi was in the passenger seat, the side where you can see the meadow, and as we pulled up, he turned to me, a face of potential horror. WHAT? I ask. “He’s just lying there,” says Jordi. Jump out of the car, tear open the gate, run through the meadow, and there he is. Duli. The little pony. Dead beyond retrieve. His belly ripped open, trails of guts, his shoulder eaten. His head is recognizable, but his teeth are bared. He is, in that moment of recognition, converted, from a live creature, to several hundred kilos of dead meat.
For the first 24 hours, it was just shock. Numbness. A problem to be solved. How do you get rid of a couple hundred kilos of dead horse? And what in god’s name do you do about the other two, who are untouched, seemingly unfazed, rolling and grazing as usual. They don’t go near the body. But the wolves will be back. And what do I DO?
It takes a few hours, to my shame, to realize that what I need is nothing compared to what the other two horses need. There are calls to be made. Someone who might know someone with a digger – we can’t drag the body away, the land is either wrong, or the fields are unmowed, and we can’t ruin the hay, dragging a dead horse through it. There’s nothing to do, but bury it where it is. And I have to find someone, as fast as possible, to build a shed for the Other Two, to shut them in at night, even though I know they’ll hate it. To paraphrase my father, after the 5th parakeet was eaten by the cats “It’s a bit expensive for wolf food.” But as exhausting as the horror is, we are actually debating what to do that night. We are tired. Maybe we should sleep in a bed? And then it hits me. The Other Two spent the night listening to their herd-mate be taken down, killed, and then – possibly worst of all . . . the time it must have taken to eat him. I am not a horse. I am not “herd” – but I am theirs, as they are mine, and my place is with them. I have to go. Wait out the night with them. By now I’m fairly drunk, very drunk. I don’t know how else to deal with it. But we get in the car and go. Jordi sets up a tent, makes a fire. I sober up by its light. We crawl into the tent and sleep. At least we are here.
By 5 am the next morning, Griva and Johnnie (the other two horses) are pawing the tent. Rubbing their noses on it. Stomping on the pegs. Sticking their noses in, to drag out anything – a bucket, a boot – that might have food. We have slept for a few hours. We’re rumpled. And I didn’t really do anything practical, the day before. Just sit with the Horror. So back home. Jump in the car and run away – to coffee. To cornflakes. The sun is up, the horses will be okay for now. Call the contact for a digger we have. Call my friend who builds things. Despite being in a haze of hangover and horror, things get done. We go to the meadow. We plan a shed. The digger comes. Buries the body. It’s awful. Duli’s carcase hanging awkwardly from the scoop of the digger. Falls off. Threads of his guts are scattered. Pick him up again, what’s left of him. Drop him in the hole that was created in 10 minutes, and turn him under. The digger eats the earth, and plows him under. He’s gone. Relief. And horror. The obscenity of death. The vacuity. And in my mind, it’s all turning into the obscenity of life.
We go home, to discover that one of our dogs is giving birth. We have too many dogs. Because I can’t pass a lost puppy without picking it up. The obscenity of life. The unwantedness. The suffering. When Duli died, we had 6 dogs, two of them puppies. Fati has 10 puppies. Now we have 16? The obscenity of life.
This is how the 3rd day was – Jordi staggering from exhaustion. Nasty. Unkind. “I have had a very sheltered life. This is my first real crisis.” Me, more familiar with the horror, the obscenity, but no better armed to face it. Is this life? This crisis of overproduction and waste? Yes. It is. In my world, you can’t go near the root. You can only pick up the pieces, stay cheerful. Know that you’re on the side of life. Some days it’s charming, and easy. But the horror is real, and this day is an AWFUL day. Jordi is grim. Cold. I am moving through motions, doing on principle, not from love. There is no love. There are only motions. The mechanism of believing, without the belief. We debate taking turns to sleep with them. I can SEE that Jordi needs to sleep. But I am afraid. I may never have said that before. I am not afraid of the wolves. Even though we are sleeping there for the sake of scaring them off, on their return. I am afraid of the lovelessness. Of the horror. Life is what it is. I have spent a lifetime making impractical decisions, based on this one tenet – be always for life. Be kind. Be generous. When we took in the 5th and 6th puppy, I could say to him, with confidence: I know it seems insane, but there is always room for more. For more love. And it’s true, those puppies we took in – life is unimaginable now, without them, their own particular grace. Their love, their selves. But . . . 10 more? And this Duli – horror – death. There must be a better way? And even the horses won’t agree. We are fucking sleeping in the meadow to comfort them, but they won’t BE comforted. Johnnie bites me. Griva comes near, but won’t be caught. They are angry, they are hurt. We are all angry and hurt, and there is no way to comfort each other. Because we are facing the horror of life. In the end, we just go to sleep. Ana, the alpha dog of adoption, is with us. She comes in the tent, curls up in my arms, and then on my feet. Jordi crawls in after. He’s feeling better. “I’m back,” he tells me, but I am so far gone, lost, in the horror that I don’t even know how to answer him. We sleep. And we sleep. We sleep for hours, in that hot, cold, little tent, with the dog with us. I get up. Pee. Smoke 2 cigarettes, and watch the dawn coming. I crawl back into bed. The horses snuffle around us. I make a game of punching them in the nose, when their shadow is too close. They paw us.
I am so mad at Jordi. So angry, so hurt. He doesn’t understand what a battle it is, to stay on the side of life, to fight, to sleep in a meadow, to go to all ends, to pick up toads in a bucket, as Loretta did, to fight, to be for life. For any life, for all life. To be exhausted. To have passed the point of amusement. But to go on. And . . . Duli’s death. This must be part of it. But I can’t see it, at the moment. After the digger moved his body, after it left, after I untied the horses, where I’d put them, out of harm, or panic’s way – they rushed back. Griva and Johnnie, who’d ignored the corpse, mourned its removal. They passed and passed again, over the patch, smelling, looking.
We get up in the morning. The horses are awful. Bratty. Wanting food, but not wanting love. Jordi is better, I am worse. I am caught in the horror of responsibility. Is every decision I’ve ever made wrong? Is it my fault the horse is dead? My fault there are too many dogs. My fault my fault my fault.
We go home. I drink a coffee. I talk to Ashley, who brought me the horses in the first place. She is reassuring. It happens. And just after, comes a call: The workers, building the shed, have left the gate open. Griva and Johnnie have fled. They’re out, roaming away.
Gird my loins. I’m off to find them. I’m pretty sure they will be somewhere between the horror butcher discipline despair meadow and home, but that leaves a lot of Tropoja to search. But I go. Armed with a bucket, some corn, the bridle Griva wouldn’t take yesterday and two ropes. Jordi lets me go. I drive down to Dubrov, park the car and get out. Set off across the meadows. Within minutes, I meet two sheperds “Are you looking for your horses? The just went that way – across the road.” I give them formal and heartfelt thanks, and follow the direction they told me. I cross back against the road, and . . . there they are. And when they see me, they RUN to me. Griva lets me put the halter on. They eat some corn. “Go home?” I ask. And yes. This is the right thing to do.
We walk up the hill, along the road. Johnnie keeps pace with me, his head always over my shoulder. If I stop, he won’t go on. Griva welcomes her halter, and I can somehow feel the relief down the rope. We’re safe now. That weird two-legger. We trust her. Going home. And we walk home, the three of us.
Home isn’t practical, and it isn’t a long term solution. But it also isn’t death. It’s okay. For the night.
And tomorrow, we will figure out how to carry on for life. Or the next part.