Where the true things are

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NEWS - DAVID COOK

On the third day of the new year, Dusty, a bay Morgan geld­ing, col­lapsed in the morn­ing rain. His giant body was stuck — half­way in his sta­ble, half­way out.

The horse was 29 years old and had col­lapsed once or twice be­fore, but never like this. Nancy Miller coaxed and pulled and pushed. The fire de­part­ment came, then the vet, with an IV of flu­ids. But Dusty, pan­icked and wild-eyed, couldn’t get up. There was so much mud. His brown coat, which Nancy had stroked and brushed for 22 years, had turned nearly black, cov­ered and soaked in the un­for­giv­ing winter mud and grime.

“I got Dusty when I was 10,” Nancy said. “After 22 years, he had be­come my life.”

She was a girl when her grand­fa­ther, a car­pen­ter, drove her out to Chicka­mauga Bat­tle­field, where they were auc­tion­ing off sta­ble horses.

“Ev­ery horse-crazy lit­tle girl wants a horse,” she said. “And I was lucky to have this dream come true.”

They trail­ered him home and fenced off a few acres on fam­ily land in Soddy-Daisy, where her fam­ily has lived for some 55 years, back when Thrasher Pike used to be quiet. No Wal­mart or big ele­men­tary schools. No fast high­way. No sub­di­vi­sions.

It was per­fect for a girl and her horse.

For 22 years, Nancy had a rou­tine: she woke up, fed Dusty, cleaned his barn, checked the fence, opened the back gate to the field. After school — later, it was work — she’d run to change clothes and spend most of the evening with Dusty, who was al­ways wait­ing for her.

There were trail rides and rodeo camp. Neigh­bors dropped by with ap­ples or old bread. Sure, Nancy taught Dusty a few tricks: she could even com­mand him where and when to use the bath­room.

But Dusty was teach­ing Nancy.

“Hu­mans form a bond with horses,” she said. “They are al­ways there to lis­ten and are al­ways true.”

What hap­pens when the truest thing in your life col­lapses?

What does your heart lean on when its stur­di­est bond breaks?

On the third day of the new year, Dusty, the horse Nancy had loved for 22 years, died in the muddy ground.

On the fourth day, we buried him.

The Millers had called Andy Fazio, who owns Earth’s Har­mony Land­scap­ing, to bury Dusty.

He then called me. “Need your help,” he said. “Got to bury a horse.” “With shov­els?” I asked. Spend a few min­utes with the two of us and it will be quite clear who has the where­withal and skills and who doesn’t. (No, Cook, not with shov­els.) Fazio is one of the most gifted peo­ple I know. Same’s true for his brother, Robin. We’ve had our ad­ven­tures and mis­ad­ven­tures be­fore.

And he needed a hand.

The burial be­gan with 2x4s and sheets of ply­wood, which Fazio fash­ioned into a thick rec­tan­gu­lar base; he called it a stretcher. We track­hoed that out to the sta­ble near Dusty’s body. Fazio used the track­hoe to hoist up the horse, cre­at­ing space to thread a big chain un­der­neath, al­most like we were preparing the horse for he­li­copter air­lift.

The track­hoe lifted Dusty, via the chain, onto the stretcher; loos­en­ing the chain, we then track­hoed Dusty, via the stretcher, out of the sta­ble and into the Millers’ back pas­ture with its wide open fields, bor­dered by thick pine trees, near the garden, where they grew sum­mer okra and wa­ter­mel­ons.

In the dis­tance, the thwak-wack cough of nail guns in­ter­rupted our fu­neral si­lence; new sub­di­vi­sion houses were be­ing framed in. The Millers won­der if de­vel­op­ment some­where up­stream pol­luted the wa­ters that flow through their land. Dusty, who loved to drink out of the creek, col­lapsed last sum­mer. The Millers saw fish die. They say their spring, once cool and clear, turned brown.

The track-hoe dug out a large hole, deep and wide. (Yes, we met reg­u­la­tions on bury­ing live­stock on pri­vate prop­erty.) Re­vers­ing lo­gis­tics, we used the chain to lower Dusty gen­tly into his grave, his hal­ter still buck­led.

“Leave it on,” Nancy said. “He al­ways had it on.”

She placed a few slices of white bread, sweet feed and pep­per­mints in a Won­der Bread bag next to his head, then cov­ered his body softly with a blue tarp. She’d already snipped a piece of his tail and mane.

We sprin­kled in a bag of lime.

Then, the dirt.

A soft rain be­gan to fall. Soon, the grave was done, the top­soil mounded up in the field. Fazio wanted to tamp it down, smooth it out.

“It’s ok,” Nancy said, tears in her eyes. “All this rain will set­tle it down.”

Some­times, you will find an an­i­mal that can take you far be­yond your or­di­nary world. Be­yond head­lines, be­yond suf­fer­ing, be­yond the stress of daily life. The an­i­mal will lead you into pas­tures and fields where the true things are: grace, si­lence, deep love. You stand near the thick pine trees, near the garden. You hear the swish of the tail, the nuz­zle of a nose on your arm.

And your heart set­tles down.

And your life smooths out.

Un­til the day when that an­i­mal is gone.

“I have been lost these past few days,” Nancy said. “I get up and look out the win­dow ex­pect­ing to see him there but he’s not. The back­yard is silent.”

Out in the back pas­ture, near where the sum­mer wa­ter­mel­ons grow, the winter rain keeps fall­ing over Dusty’s grave, set­tling it down, smooth­ing it out.

David Cook writes a Sun­day col­umn and can be reached at [email protected]­free press.com or 423-757-6329.

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