Better Than Fiction

Jet Is Not My Horse

by Jim Latham

She’s my mom’s all-time favorite horse. She’s almost twenty years old and she’s down on the ground, rolling, when I get back from town.

 

Right away, from the way she is moving, I see it’s bad.

 

I have absorbed enough veterinary medicine in thirty years of watching my parents practice to know that colic this bad in a horse this old almost always ends one way.

 

I grab a halter in one hand and dial Kitzel with the other. Kitzel is the only large-animal vet in this small Colorado town who isn’t either of my parents.

 

* * *

My parents are away in California. I’m house-sitting. Keeping the dog company and feeding the horses.

 

I get Jet up and try to walk her, because that’s what you do with a horse with colic. That’s all you can do before the vet gets there, but she won’t stay up.

 

After the tenth or hundredth time of Jet going back down, I leave her for a few minutes and try my parents on their cell phone.

 

No answer. I leave a message. I focus on medical detail. I focus on trying not to sound panicked.

 

* * *

Kitzel arrives. The look on her face tells me Jet is exactly as bad off as I thought she was. We get Jet up, again and again, and walk her, but she keeps going down, keeps trying to roll the pain away.

 

I call my parents.

 

No answer. I leave another message.

 

Jet is starting to bloat. Bloat means intestinal torsion — a piece of intestine has flipped over itself, cutting off the blood supply, killing the trapped section. It means our only options are surgery or euthanasia.

 

* * *

The bloat and the pain are overpowering the meds. We can’t keep her comfortable. We can’t even keep her up and walking.

 

I have absorbed enough veterinary medicine in thirty years of watching my parents practice to know colic this bad in a horse this old almost always ends one way.

 

The phone rings in California.

 

Nobody answers. I don’t bother with a message.

 

We keep trying to walk her.

 

I keep dialing.

 

* * *

There are two choices, and it is past time for choosing: put Jet down or trailer her to Kitzel’s hospital for a surgery with almost no chance of success.

 

I know what the correct medical decision is. I know colic this bad in a horse this old ends one way.

 

But I chicken out.

 

I chicken out because out of all the horses she has loved in a lifetime spent loving horses, Jet is my mom’s all-time favorite horse. I can’t tell her over the phone that Jet is dead and I made the call.

 

Not without allowing her a chance to consult with Kitzel.

 

I tell myself I’m giving Jet a last chance to live, that I’m giving my mom a chance to say goodbye. But the twist in my guts tells me I’m lying to myself.

 

I ask Kitzel to perform the surgery not because I don’t know what to do, but because I’m afraid of the responsibility.

 

My cowardice sentences Jet to hours of additional pain.

 

* * *

Head held low, Jet walks into the surgical bay on shaky legs.

 

Kitzel administers the anesthetic, and Jet goes down again. Her barrel-shaped body is propped on a table and shrouded in green drapes. Her long black tail is wrapped in white gauze and held out of the way.

 

After the prep, Kitzel makes the incision. Techs wearing goggles and face masks and green gowns cradle what seem like miles of Jet’s purple-blue intestines in their latex-sheathed hands while Kitzel searches for the loop of intestine twisted over itself. She finds and excises two necrotic loops and sews Jet back together.

 

* * *

I check the messages while putting away groceries. Mom and Dad have dropped everything in California and started the drive back. It takes about seventeen hours if you drive straight through. They’ll be here late morning.

 

They’re probably in the Sierras now. No reason to call. I go to bed.

 

* * *

Late morning. Jet is back in her paddock. The bloat and the pain are also back. The only things keeping her up are a whole lot of pain meds and Mom walking her.

 

A friend with a backhoe has dug a hole in the shady spot Mom picked under three ponderosa pines at the edge of the pasture where Jet liked to stand on hot days. The two of us walk her over to it.

 

Dad has a syringe full of purple euthanasia solution. Mom presses her forehead to Jet’s, strokes her neck with her free hand.

 

The needle goes in, and Jet goes down for the last time, involuntary sighs shuddering out of her lungs as her legs buckle.

 

* * *

Nothing in the world is as dead as a dead horse.

 

Dad and I run chains from the bucket on the backhoe to her hocks, and then the engine revs and her shaved, incised stomach sloshes as it follows her hind legs into the hole. Her head moves last, pivoting mechanically at the neck when her upper incisors catch on a root and pull her neoprene-thick lip away from her long, worn teeth.

 

The bucket presses against Jet’s body, fits it into the grave. Dirt clods rumble down. Before long, the dirt hides her from view.

 

Mom walks away, looking for solitude. Dad and I stand and watch the backhoe moving back and forth, working the dirt on top of Jet’s grave.

 

When it’s done, I pick up the empty halter, and we trudge uphill to the barn.

First published in Ginosko Literary Journal.

Jim Latham lives and writes in Oaxaca. His stories have appeared in 50-Word Stories, Rue Scribe, Spillwords, and elsewhere. His flash fiction collection, Noon in Florida, is available on Amazon.

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