Never Gonna Be The Same
Had the old man nine years, but really twelve. Twelve years ago was when I started working with him almost exclusively. He was nine and I was thirteen and we became best buds in a hurry.

Big old fat pink horse, a strawberry roan, lazy from the start and determined to enjoy life. Kicked out of his lesson program for being such a brat to the other riders. He didn't shake me, because I had an affinity for strange creatures. My other pet that year was Mikey, a female kitten who was a vegetarian and stole tomatoes off the counter.

Stuff and I stuck together three years, then made it official. Then stuck together nine more years, through high school, through college, several moves, horse shows gone wrong, one horse show gone right, and a million little moments I would have let go on forever.

I finally graduated and moved three states away. "You'll follow me in just a little while, baby," I told him. "Just a few paychecks, and you'll follow me."

Only I just had one paycheck in hand when I got the call.

Horses have this thing they tell you, in their language, by working their jaws in a chewing motion. According to horse whisperers, and anyone who has ever groomed a happy horse, that motion means they are relaxed, they trust you, and they are putting you in charge.

I drove all night, turning off every part of my brain that I didn't need to operate the car. When I reached the barn, Stuff was down. Had been down since midnight and couldn't get up. His eyes were glazed and he looked like he didn't even know where he was. There was hay beside him, and he wasn't eating it. I didn't know if he knew I was there.

I sat down beside him and picked up his head, scratching the "W" on his forhead, rubbing his ears, telling him he was okay. The vet explained that there wasn't any way to treat him, that we could try to keep him alive and hope the liver would repair itself, but it was so far gone he doubted it would. And it would mean mean weeks or months of this suffering, if he survived. Stuff's eyes were moving back and forth like in REM sleep, but the lids wouldn't quite close over them. His heart was racing.

It's the kindest thing, really, the vet said.

I kept looking at Stuff till he finally, finally seemed to look back at me for a moment. Then this horse who couldn't eat, who for hours hadn't even been able to close his mouth all the way, slowly began to work his jaw, chewing, relaxing, accepting. Putting me in charge.

When the vet gave him the shot, Stuff galloped his legs three times, like he was getting a running start. Then he left.

Dave buried him at the foot of the paddock, right in the middle of the gorgeous view he liked to stand and stare at from the shed. I went out that night and cleaned his stall, buried his favorite blue brush and some peppermints with him, and lit a candle. On it I carved Ehwaz -- horse -- and Elhaz -- protection. Safe horse, wherever you are. Then couldn't help but add Wunjo and Sowulo. Nothing but love and well-wishes for that horse.

The candle burned all the way down to the holder and then lingered. In its final moments, it flared beautifully and brightly and inexplicably pink.

Then winked out.

Love you, old man.

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