Hair on my Jeans
I slid the stall door ajar just enough to slip inside if I turned sideways.
I stepped inside gingerly, dreading what I was about to see. He was holding his right foreleg so that it didn’t support any weight, and he kept nuzzling it, only the front edge of his hoof resting in the hay that he hadn’t touched in days. His breathing was heavy, nostrils flaring each time he exhaled, as if it were taking a lot of effort. The flames that always danced in his eyes had been extinguished, as if the window I always looked into to see his soul had steamed up. But he nickered at me softly, and he could still somehow manage that trademark “I’m-such-an-adorable-little-ham-you-should-come-here-and-baby-me” look of his that I loved.
I got the call Tuesday night. It was from my aunt Melany, who kept Wally at her barn in the valley. He had been lame for five days, and he wasn’t eating. Wally had had laminitis on and off for the past few years; a condition that often affects ponies in the spring. When new grass starts growing, they get excited and gorge themselves. They don’t know when to stop eating, and they gain a lot of weight over a short amount of time, so much that their feet can no longer support them. Once they’ve had it, it tends to happen more and more frequently. That much I knew. So when Melany told me he was lame again, I didn’t think much of it.
“We think his coffin bone’s broken.”
She went on to explain exactly where the coffin bone was located, what treatment options were, how she’d been coddling him, trying to get him to eat, but I had zoned out. Wally had just been given a death sentence.
Wally was my eight-year-old Newfoundland Pony gelding. I’d owned him for the past six years. He was only 12.3hh, but I loved him that much more for it. For someone who falls as often as I do, it’s good when the ground is nearby. He was stubborn, frisky, lazy, pushy, and in general didn’t listen, but that just made it so much more special when he decided to be kind and gentle. He was the only horse I ever truly felt like I could handle anything on, not because he was an obedient, bombproof push-button, but because I knew him: how he’d react, how to get him to react to me, and how to stay on when he spazzed, spooked, bucked, bolted, stopped suddenly, or rubbed me in a tree. I got Wally when he was two, and I was eight, he was my first pony. Just about all either of us knew about riding, we’d learned from each other.
“Hey, Bud,” I greeted him solemnly, and crossed to where he stood at the back of the stall. I stroked him, starting at his strong, arched neck, moving to his shoulders, over the slope of his back, his round belly, his hindquarters, ending at his coarse, jet black, tangled tail, and I’d start again. I wanted to always remember the feel of him. I caressed his face, his muzzle, honey-colored, soft as peach fuzz, with long, black whiskers poking out in every direction. I moved his forelock to the side and scratched his forehead. He didn’t lean his face into me like he usually did; he just stood there, not reacting at all.
“Wally’s gettin’ put down.”
I looked around. It was my little cousin Adrian, against whom I’d held a grudge just about since he’d spoken his first word. That seems a bit excessive if you think about it, but just about everything he’s ever said or done renews my dislike.
“Buzz off,” I told him flatly.
“Wally’s gettin’ put down,” he repeated. The look in his eyes said it all: “I’m annoying you on purpose, and you can’t do anything about it.”
“I’m aware,” I glared at him “Buzz off.”
“You can’t make me.”
“No,” I stated, “but I can go get your mother, and she can.”
He clattered away. I looked out over the door of Wally’s stall, and saw that the clattering was coming from Adrian’s brightly colored kiddie rollerblades, zooming over the ridges in the concrete of the barn aisle. As Adrian rolled away, he yelled “Wally’s all better.”
“Sorry, Bud,” I muttered to Wally. I knew Adrian wasn’t really going to leave us alone just because I asked him to, though, and sure enough, I heard clattering again within two minutes.
“Wally’s all better.”
That kid was like a scratched CD. I didn’t even answer him; I just stormed off to find Melany.
When we were finally alone, I walked across the aisle to my locker to retrieve my grooming kit. I had to body check it to make it open, and Wally looked at me quizzically at the noise. I couldn’t bring myself to laugh, so I just stepped back into the stall, and set the kit down in the hay. Once, Wally would’ve picked it up in his teeth and emptied it onto the floor of the stall. It’d always driven me nuts, but I wished he’d do it now. I started brushing him, but really I just wanted something to do. He was, for once, clean, having been in his stall for five days. I missed brushing the hair and mud and dust out of his coat, and inevitably applying it to myself. I was already missing everything about him, even the things that drove me crazy.
I couldn’t get Adrian’s words out of my mind. “Wally’s gettin’ put down” I had expected. That was the way Adrian was. If he hadn’t said something along those lines, I would’ve been surprised. “Wally’s all better” was what had gotten to me. I realized now that it was because of all the things Adrian had ever said to me, I think it was the only one I ever really wanted to be true.
I had started out brushing him. I hadn’t noticed when the tears started, but now I couldn’t see straight. I gave up and sat down next to Wally, bringing my knees up to my chest. Wally looked at me. He kept nuzzling the top of my head, but every time my blubbering became too noisy, he’d give me flat ears, like he was trying to say something to me. “Yes, it’s sad and all, but I’m the one dying, not you. Pull yourself together.” Or maybe he was just reminding me that he was Wally, and not some angelic little sweetheart. I stood up and hugged him and started whispering to him.
“I love you. I’m sorry.” I kissed him on the nose. “I think you love me to too, and if you do, thank you, and if you don’t that’s ok too. I’m sorry for calling you stupid, and all the bad things I’ve ever said about you. You’re not stupid, you’re gorgeous, and funny, and sweet, and I love you. I’m sorry for riding you even though, really, I’ve outgrown you. It’s ok that you didn’t like cantering. I’m sorry for all the times I booted you to make you go. You were probably lame or something and I was just too stupid too notice.”
Wally was standing utterly still, his ears pointing in my direction. Luckily, it was a cool, gray day, and he didn’t even need to swish his tail at the flies.
“Remember that day Gunner knocked me down in the pasture when I was leading you, and I got stepped on? That was the sweetest you’d ever been, you were so gentle, so sorry. That was the only time I ever completely felt like you could understand me. I hope you can understand me now. Remember our first 4-H show? We won two first place ribbons, our first ribbons ever, and a complete stranger came up to Grammy and asked if you were for sale. She told him she couldn’t sell you, because her other grandkids needed their turn with you when I got too big. They should’ve. This shouldn’t be happening, you’re so young. You should’ve belonged to my kids, you should’ve had years."
I whispered everything I could think of. It sounded cheesy even to me as I said it, but I had to say it. I had started whispering because this was only for Wally’s ears, but now I had to because there was a lump in my throat so big; it felt like it would burst.
“I should’ve spent more time with you. I’m sorry I’m only telling you all this because I’m losing you, but I’ve always thought it, I promise. I love you.”
I stopped when I heard footsteps, the shuffling, smacking noise of flip-flops not being lifted all the way off the ground. I didn’t feel like being seen, but they stopped outside the stall, so I didn’t really have a choice but to show my tear streaked face. My Grammy was looking in sadly at Wally and me.
“Can I come in, Honey?”
I couldn’t speak, I just nodded. She entered and hugged me. It was a nice hug. I hate when people hug you and mash your face into them, like they’re trying to suffocate you. But Grammy’s hug was comforting.
“I’m sorry,” she said gently, “sometimes these things just happen. You think you’re going to have something for ages, and then it’s gone.” I couldn’t do anything but sniffle and gasp and feel pathetic. We broke apart.
“Hi, Wally,” She stroked his neck. Wally pricked his ears and snorted, but made no move toward her. Normally he would’ve done a thorough examination of her for carrots.
Grammy had given me Wally as a birthday present the year I turned eight. She bred sheep, and he’d shared a pasture with them for the first year I’d had him, before we moved him to Melany’s to be with other horses. Grammy wasn’t a rider or a horse nut, but Wally was her baby. I knew I wasn’t the only person in that stall who’d miss him, and that was comforting, knowing that she actually cared, that she wasn’t just trying to shut me up.
Do you wanna come in? Or you can stay with him if you want?” Grammy put her arm around me.
“I’ll come in, I guess.” I didn’t want to leave him alone, but I also didn’t want to stay. I didn’t have it in me to make a simple decision anymore, and she had already turned to go, so I followed.
Lunch passed, for me, in a blur of funny looks from various cousins, which made me try harder to hold myself together, and “I’m sorrys” which made me lose it again. You’d think it would be the other way around, but everything about that day was upside down and backwards. When we’d finished eating (or in my case, stuffing my face because I wanted something to take my mind off Wally), Warren, Melany’s boyfriend, stood up to leave.
“So, am I diggin’ a hole, er what?”
I hadn’t expected sympathy from him; actually, he often didn’t even acknowledge my presence. Warren was gruff, insensitive, and sarcastic. But it still shocked me a little that he’d say that. People often joked about things like that, because I was horse crazy, and to a lot of people that made me regular crazy. We’d be eating hamburgers, and my dad would say how great they were, and how Wally was next. My Grampy would lament about how, since we couldn’t make him stop chewing through fence posts, we’d have to get rid of Wally. I always defended Wally, or gave the person teasing me dirty looks. But now I had no idea what to do. I felt like I should be mad, but I wasn’t because I knew he was serious, and I knew there was nothing I could do. I just glared at him, feeling utterly empty, useless, and defeated.
My mom went back out to the barn with me so I could say goodbye one last time. I kind of wanted to be alone, but I also didn’t want to cry, and she was the only reason I kept my composure. There was an open window in Wally’s stall that looked out into a small pasture. Melany called it the “fat camp,” because there was more mud than grass, and it was usually home to the horses who were on the chubby side. Wally, naturally, had spent much of his time there. Now it was empty, however, but for Warren in his bulldozer. Wally was looking out curiously at the racket. He was unknowingly watching the digging of his own grave.
I took scissors from my grooming kit, and my mom held him still while I cut a chunk of mane from just behind his ears. I have buried my face in Wally’s mane and told him my secrets, hopes, dreams, worries, and fears. If he understood English, he probably would’ve known as much about my life as my parents. I wanted to be able to do that even when Wally himself was gone. And that smell! I can’t do it justice with words, kind of a dusty, yet sweet aroma; his mane is my favourite smell in the world.
I took off his halter. I figured it would make him more comfortable, but in a way it felt like setting him free. I bent to kiss him on the nose, and he flattened his ears, making the tell-tale clicking noise with his teeth.
“I really wanna be nice to you,” I struggled to keep my voice even, “but it’s hard when you’re biting my face.” That was Wally. The last time I’d ever see him, and that was what he did. I wasn’t mad though. I don’t think anything could’ve made me mad at him just then. He was just being his usual bratty self that I had come to love.
On the third or fourth attempt, Wally let me kiss him. I felt his whiskers tickle my check, and his warm, sweet smelling breath on my face one last time before he pulled away.
“Bye, Bud,” I said simply.
As I was getting in the car, I heard him whinny. Two shrill, screaming whinnies, like he was in pain, or excited, or frantic. I’ll never know why. I wanted so badly to run back to him, to wrap my arms around his neck and sob that I was never letting go, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I can still hear those whinnies in my head.
After dinner, as I was changing into pyjamas, I noticed that my clothes were covered in silky chocolate wisps—I buried my face in my arms—they never would be again. All that was left of my best friend was some hair on my jeans.