Polly poked the dead colt with the toe of her boot, lifting and twisting the neck. Shock, most likely. A weak heart in a working animal was rarely discovered until it dropped dead.
She knelt down in the wet grass. Scavengers had exposed two of the vertebrae and a solid, tooth-white hip on the left side. One eye had strained back around in its head as it died, revealing the white, so it looked frozen, mid-rear. The other had been pecked out. Recently, she thought – the socket was clean and pink, not fly-egged.
She lifted one of the hooves in her palm and turned it over.
No shoe. The colt hadn’t been ridden yet. Maybe not bridled. If they had tried to break him, she thought, with the long rope whip breaking the air over his tricky heart, he would probably have keeled over in the ring.
It had been a raw hour the night before when they heard the storm roll up off the glacial Idaho flat and strike its fists down on the side of their hill. Charles had woken up from a gambler’s dream with spit on his lips and cussed it onto the shaved wood floor, and got Polly down under the bed, where they lay listening to the spinning wind tear past, she biting her knuckles, himself itchy- skinned, thinking the damn horses. Knowing she loved them. Listening to the trees bend over low enough to snap off at the root.
For roughly thirty seconds he could hear the banks of the river begin to spray and hiss, water funnelling upwards into the air, and stopped thinking about the horses and started thinking about his own skin instead, and Polly’s skin, tucked under his arm, sticking clammy to his bedclothes. But the storm had moved past the house, taking the hay, the chickens, nothing he would consider unlucky in the face of things, having himself been missed by a hair. Outside the trees were ragged, the ranch scarred and abraded where the storm had dragged its knuckles across the turf.
Charlie’s own heart wasn’t what it used to be, Polly knew. He had a prolonged cough, which produced greenish mucus by the handful, and the tips of his fingers had been swollen for a year, nails gone pearly, the way she remembered her grandfather’s had been for months before he died. And she knew, by the way he had begun sleeping earlier and rising later, and had called in favours from their joint acquaintances when work needed doing on the house or the coop, that he knew too. At night he often sweat so much that the damp woke her up, so she would have gotten up early, and begun to fix his breakfast of pancakes and molasses an hour before he woke, if not for the storm coming down. After it passed neither of them had gone back to bed, but sat at the table, drinking coffee, waiting for it to get light out. Charlie tuning his fiddle as a way to make noise, playing the bow across the high, tight strings on the neck.
The colt was drenched. Polly wanted to dig a trench and roll it in. A dead animal always reminded her of home – she had left China in a drought, her father’s sheep dropping parched on the hills – but at home the sand turned dead skin to leather, their deaths didn’t stink the way she knew the colt would stink if she left it here.
She knelt a while longer, twisting her fingers in the sodden mane, thinking if there were any parts of the animal worth saving. If the skin wasn’t so broken and torn she might have taken it and made a new jacket, perhaps a pair of shoes: Charlie had shown her how years ago, with his ugly hunting knife with the curved tip. Still. She could take the mane and the tail. That was fishing line for the river, and a new brush for her.
Back at home, Charlie was still nursing the same coffee he had begun shortly before she left. Polly touched the back of her hand to the tin cup.
‘It’s cold,’ he said.
She nodded, tipped the bitter grounds in the grass outside the door.
‘You want another?’
‘How were they?’
She shrugged, sliding the pot onto the stove. Dropped two logs into the fire, stirred the glowing remains of the last with the poker.
‘Ok. One died.’
‘One of the old ones?’
She shook her head.
Charlie stood up, coughing into one fist, and placed a hand in the crook of her arm. She did not need comfort, but perhaps he did; she let him hold her like that anyway.
‘Better it went now. Better that than sold.’ he said.
‘I’m going to bury it.’
She took his hand from her arm and placed it on the silver bar that fronted the stove.
‘Pour your coffee when it’s ready, ok?’
She rode back up the hill with Charlie’s big spade over her knees and her sewing scissors bouncing in a skin pouch around her neck. The rain had a metallic taste to it– silvery, like sucking on her ring finger. The texture almost crispy. Snow coming. Drops and flakes so big they landed like bugs. She knelt in the grass beside the dead colt and straightened out the length of the tail after the bone, and rested it in the jaws of the scissors, and cut. She did this again and again until all that was left was a bob of bristles. Then sheered off the mane and folded it with the other hair in the pockets of her dress.
When she was done the horse looked deader than it had done, or barely like a horse. It reminded her of the silly stories she’d heard as a child. ‘How the Horse Got His Mane’ was one. ‘How the Camel Lost His Looks’, depending on the teller. In the desert the mane and the tail used to belong to the camel, now ugly and sad after he lent them to a young colt and never got them back. A colt that wanted to impress a girl.
Polly fingered the hairs in her pocket. She had never seen an American camel, and was not sure that they existed. She knew that there were deserts in the South, but knew equally that she would not see them before she died.
She began to dig.
The year Polly arrived in Warrens, three boarding houses went down with yellow fever. Charles helped dig the trench then, and heft the bodies in by their wrists and ankles. Warrens didn’t have a church, probably would never get one, and the dead shared three wooden markers between eighteen of them. Of course he’d dug trenches in the war. Dug them and sat in them. 1861, back to the dry- earth wall, sucking leather, a dying boy close to his right ear. In his ruddy brown uniform, he died like a shot fawn, hooves scrambling in the dirt. The leather in Charles’ mouth still and flat like a second tongue.
He didn’t like to think of Polly doing the digging now, but knew that he couldn’t. He found that he could barely remember to slide the pot off the stove like she said. His thoughts coming out in odd rhymes for themselves, so he thought, toffee, instead of coffee, thought dog when he meant log, dropping two more into the stove. The fire made him cough and he thought the word as off. Off, off. Looked up at Polly digging the trench; brown strip the size of a thumbnail on the hill.
He leaned an arm on the fence. She was always better at death than he thought. And he always afraid to share it with her. When the cougar she fed most mornings was trapped and shot, when her letters to San Francisco came back stamped ‘Deceased’. Both times he had tasted the leather, and she had filled her pockets with her fists. She had told him a story, fixed dinner. She had got on.
He watched her dig until he was wheezing, and she was able to stand in the trench and appear invisible up to her elbows. He watched her until the clouds rolled back, and his limbs began to seize, so that he felt propped up against the fence like a timber. He watched the spade handle rise and fall over the lip of the soil. He was aware of the taste of smoke.