By Kerry McNamara
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin
The crisp cool morning welcomed me like a familiar friend. The warmth of summer was fading quickly as September began its first day. The low moon still shone brightly as it prepared to sink beneath the horizon and the dark land remained quiet and still. I looked across the fields to the far back paddock to see if I could make out his silhouette. I knew he would be anxious to come in for his morning feed. Nation was a three year old off-the-track thoroughbred.
I rescued Nation a year ago from a barn six miles down the road from the Fort Erie racetrack, located just over the Peace Bridge, separating Buffalo, New York, and Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. Carl, his owner, was a tall, heavy man who made deals with the track to take the unsuccessful racers for a minimal price. Some he would get for free if they were badly injured; he would save them the bullet. Carl would bring these failures to his barn to be resold to local hobby barns in the area for a profit. I had heard this was a cheap place to get horses but never imagined it would be this horrible; I thought these places only existed in fiction.
I remember walking through his barn to a large arena in the back where too many horses stood huddled together. They stood in a thick wet mixture of straw, mud, horse shit and hay. Nation stood on the right side of the pack. He had his ears pinned back and was lunging at the other horses fighting for his territory. Any horse who overstepped an invisible boundary would be subjected to his angry bared teeth. If that didn’t work he would spin around and kick out his back feet at them. Only a few of the geldings dared to tempt him; the mares knew better and stayed away.
Nation was deemed an unsuccessful racer, losing five of his first six races. He had been at Carl’s barn for almost two weeks but simply refused to get along with the other horses. He had a thick black coat and a small white blaze on his forehead, with a broad, strong neck and a bulky black mane. He was not particularly tall, standing only about 15.3 hands high, and the outline of ribs revealed a lean, high protein diet of a fast runner. Racehorses were often overfed grain and kept in a small space to get them hot and hyper, ready to race. Grazing on hay and grass created bulk and weight and evoked a leisurely, lackadaisical mentality, a negative trait from a racehorse owner’s point of view. Noticing my interest in him, Carl told me not to worry because if I really wanted him, I should come back in a week and he would be better behaved.
“They sure are big but we’re smarter than them. You just got to show them who’s the boss,” he said drawing a short whip from his dirty boot. “They all eventually give in.”
I took Nation home with me that day.
Nation quickly proved to be an intelligent and talented horse who had clearly been mistreated by humans. He showed this through his initial defiance and his uneasiness with being touched. He was smart, though, and quickly learned that he was in a safe place and that no one would hurt him here. He learned new commands easily and was a natural jumper, although he tended to revert back to his racing days on a jumping course. I would have to sit up high off of his back and let him race around for about 20 minutes before he would settle. He needed to burn off his endless energy; only then would he calm down and focus on his work. I decided to keep him outside during the summer nights, instead of in a stall like the others. He seemed to do better with his own space and enjoyed having the freedom to run and move as he pleased. He was a “lone horse,” as they say, and I loved him.
As I walked from the warm house to the front door of the barn, on that cool September morning, I heard the stirrings of the cats. They were barely visible in the darkness but scurried quickly as I disrupted their warm sweet beds by dragging the heavy hay bales down onto the cart. The sound of high pitched whinnies joined the morning orchestra as I slid open the feed door and began my daily ritual. I decided to ride outside in the back ring, trying to enjoy the nice weather while it lasted. I knew the winter was approaching and my belly would soon expand with the growing baby inside; my riding time was limited.
Nation was an obedient horse, working hard to follow my commands.
Walking back to the garage I felt a strange dizziness, disconnecting me from the space. It passed quickly so I ignored it and prepared to battle off my tall leather boots. The hard Italian leather that used to cut into the back of my knee had finally, after years, softened, and the boot had become a perfect mold of my feet and legs. They looked great on but were always a struggle to get off. After a few moments of foot shaking, pulling and quiet cursing, I won the battle and walked through the side garage into the house, tired and hungry.
As I entered the kitchen, the strangeness returned and progressed into nausea. It was too pronounced to ignore this time, so I sat down at the table, trying to will it away. I have far too much to do today for this, I thought. Maybe I should eat something. I stood up to get myself an English muffin with some peanut butter, a staple in my pregnancy diet and a great remedy for queasiness, but was stopped by a piercing pain that took hold of my abdomen. It was so sharp that it demanded me to fold over in desperate attention. I took several deep breaths to try to relieve the pressure; and it momentarily subsided. I slowly straightened, careful not to reinvigorate the pain. What the hell? I thought, rubbing my assailed stomach, worry about the life inside. What was happening?
Rising from deep within, a new wave took hold of my insides, and I was taken down again, this time to my knees. The extreme pain lashed at me like a heavy whip, and I was paralyzed by the attack. Desperately I called out for my husband, but he was downstairs trying to fix the forever flooding basement, too far away to hear my quiet plea. Like a wounded animal, I slowly gathered myself back to my feet, using the side of the counter for support. But before I could fully stand, the sharpness returned and a fresh assault began. I buckled to my knees again, engulfed in severe pain as a reckless gush of bright red released from my insides and poured out from my legs, soaking my breeches.
“Mike!” I screamed desperately. “Help me!”
My husband ran up the stairs to find me on the ground lying in a blood bath. The alarm in his voice was evident as his calm words belied his eyes. He kept saying my name, demanding I look at him, to stay awake and focused. His figure quickly disappeared.
I awoke to the noise of beeping and talking and an oxygen mask on my face. A woman was busily attending to tubes, checking my vitals and responding to a radio. I realized where I was, and, even worse, I realized what had happened. “I lost the baby” I softly announced. The quiet confession made it a reality, and the tears of regret and sorrow stung my eyes; my baby was gone.
“Don’t worry about that right now,” said the woman gently rubbing my shoulder. “The important thing is that you remain calm. We will be at the hospital shortly.”
When I arrived at the General Hospital, my mother was in the ER with Mike. She worked as a social worker in the psychiatric unit and Mike had called her on the way. She wore a look of panic as she took my hand. Her desperate words of consolation did little to comfort me, because all I really wanted was to be alone. Mike sensed this and said nothing.
My mother tends to be a little histrionic in times of crisis but settled in for the long haul well. She always had been a great support and would do anything for anyone, and did. Our kitchen often became a place of counsel for neighbors, friends, and relatives, anyone who needed to talk. She was a great cook too—I think that, for her, food and advice went together. I could tell now by her expression that she was worried. I must have looked a bloody mess and still held the smell of the barn.
Later that evening Dr. Chan, the on-call obstetrician, performed a dilation and curettage (D&C) operation. I was told this was to remove any remaining tissue in the uterus and to help prevent infection. I was given a mild sedative and wheeled into the operating room. The ER room nurse explained the process: it was very simple, she assured me, I wouldn’t feel a thing. The younger nurse patted my shoulder in silent consolation but refused to look me in the eye. She must have known there was nothing simple about any of this.
When I returned home from the hospital, I found myself unable to leave to my bed, not due to any particular physical reasons, for apart from a ghost white complexion, I was medically sound. I was confined to my bed because I could not bear to join the world again. I was so engulfed in sadness the only thing I could do was cry and then hope to fall back asleep.
I have never experienced true depression before; it was not really a part of my personality or my upbringing. I was the youngest in my family with two older brothers, so that alone toughened me up. Also, I was raised in an Irish Catholic household and attended Catholic school my whole life so if that didn’t make me hard, I don’t know what did. Crying and saying “I love you” were not a part of my childhood. You felt secure, were smart, and suffered in silence. We were privileged, my father said, and had more than most, so we should never complain and be thankful for what we had.
My mother, made of heathen Scottish blood, often broke these rules, revealing a more emotional side. She had difficulty containing her natural feistiness, and as I grew older I recognized her attempt to tame it; I was glad to see that I was not alone in this quest. I, too, often found myself driven to impulsivity and natural dramatics. I, too, had to work hard to try to control it.
At this time in my life, however, I needed crying and “I love you” more than anything and I was thankful for Mike’s quiet, unwavering support. This depressed, sad wife was new to him, for he had only ever known the take-charge, we-can-do-anything girl. We had met when I was 24, and we married in seven months, convinced we were soul mates thankful we had found each other. We were the perfect complement of opposites: I sped him up and he slowed me down. This made for a balanced and sometimes tumultuous relationship. Now, however, there was no fight to be had, no soul to be found. Every day Mike would come in and ask if I wanted anything, tell me kids had come for riding lessons, try to entice me to go see Nation. Every day he was met with no response. There simply was nothing to say.
I questioned everything, and the guilt that invaded my mind was overwhelming. How could I have been so selfish to ride horses while I was pregnant? Did I think I was invincible? How could my body be so weak that it couldn’t even carry a baby? How could my husband love me? Maybe this was punishment for past sins. Maybe this was my cross to bear…my retribution… his way out. These thoughts consumed me daily. They were irrational and easily spiraled out of control. I was convinced Mike should leave me, for who wants to be with a psychotic, depressed woman who can’t even give him children? He deserved better.
My mother visited daily. Some days I would permit her, and other days I would force Mike to make her leave. She had great intentions but her words usually made me angry. She, like countless others, quoted the miscarriage conciliatory mantra: Don’t worry, this too shall pass. It’s normal to feel this way. You will get pregnant again and have other babies. Her words infuriated me. I didn’t feel better, I was anything but normal, and I didn’t want other babies! I wanted this baby and he was dead and I had killed him.
One morning, a week later, Mike woke me up and demanded I get up and take a shower. I had to go see the doctor for a follow-up examination. Like a child, I silently rose from my bed and followed his orders. We sat for over two hours in the waiting room, which became a place of personal torment as I witnessed the small lives expanding big beautiful bellies. I was painfully jealous. I suffered in a silent torture chamber as I looked around at all the happy faces, mocking me for what I had lost. Finally, my name was called, and I quickly walked into the examination room.
Mike and I sat silently together, our patience being tested again. Finally, Dr. Chan arrived and greeted us with a friendly handshake and small hug.
“So,” he asked, “how have things been going? Any blood or spotting?”
‘A little after the first few days,” I said, “but nothing in the last four.”
“Okay, good. And how have you been feeling?”
I looked at Mike and then at him. “Okay,” I lied. The awkward silence filled the room.
“She is not all right,” Mike interjected. “She has been unable to get out of bed and seems not to care about anything.”
I flashed him a quick glance of resentment. How could he betray me like this? “I’m fine,” I said.
“Kerry, understand that your hormones have just completely crashed and you cannot help but feel that drop. You must give yourself a chance to even out and become balanced again.”
“I thought you said it was okay if I rode my horse,” I said sharply.
“Yes,” he replied. “It is okay for an experienced rider like yourself to ride until five or six months when you are larger and a fall could impact the baby. I told you, a woman can do any activity she did before she was pregnant. Why? Do you think riding caused the miscarriage?” he asked.
“I don’t know, maybe” I said.
“Look at me, Kerry. You had nothing to do with this miscarriage. There was something wrong with this baby. Nature has a way of expelling fetuses that won’t naturally survive. Riding had nothing to do with it. You had nothing to do with it.”
I wanted to believe this, to be relieved of this guilt, but I couldn’t.
“Your body is incredible and will repair quickly. You can try to get pregnant again next month, if you want. Also know that pregnancies are not at all connected so don’t think that just because this one didn’t go full term that that will have any impact on your next pregnancy, because it won’t. You are a healthy woman who will have lots of healthy children.”
I couldn’t imagine this future, but pretended to be hopeful. We thanked him and stood up to leave. “I will see you again soon,” he said smiling brightly, glancing at my stomach. He moved forward to give me a big, warm hug as I fought to hold back my tears.
The next day I heard the girls’ quiet knock on the side door, inquiring when their lessons would resume. Mike’s response was the same, indicating he didn’t know and that he was sorry. I wanted so desperately to join them again, but felt that I just couldn’t. It was not a choice.
“Is she going to be all right, Mr. Mike?” the small voice asked.
“I don’t know, sweetheart. I’m sorry.” The sadness in his voice was unmistakable. He didn’t even try to be hopeful anymore; he, too, was becoming lost.
It was getting colder outside as the seasons made its way towards winter. The horses gained energy with the coolness giving an extra spunk to their step. Mike had been working extra hard to make up for my absence. He had become a great horseman, and recognized the restlessness of the horses. Nation was growing wild with too many days off and needed attention. I had overheard the girls offer to ride him, but Mike had smartly refused knowing he could be difficult and knowing my silent possession of him. I missed him.
That night I went to bed with no announcement and didn’t even notice Mike’s entry into the bed on the distant other side. It was windy and rainy outside, causing the storm windows to sing a rattling hymn against the pane.
I dreamt for the first time in a long time about Nation. I saw him standing far in the distance, his head up high, and his wild mane dancing in the vibrant wind. I ran out across the field to see him, but instead of greeting me with his usual friendly nudges, he violently lunged at me with his teeth. I jumped back in surprise. Again I stretched out my arm, extending my hand in friendship, but he reared up on his hind legs in defense. “Nation what’s wrong? It’s me,” I announced. Suddenly I saw it, a huge open gash in his chest. “Jesus!” I screamed. “Come here! Let me see you!” The blood poured freely from the gaping wound as he continued to defend himself against me, afraid I would harm him, aggravate the wound. “Nation, please stop. Let me help you.” I pleaded. He leapt forward and his front legs came down heavily on my chest, crushing my ribs. I gasped for air, feeling helpless under the pressure, desperate to be free.
I awoke in a pant fighting for breath, covered in a thick coat of sweat. I was paralyzed in fear, consumed by the horrifying vision. Instinctively, I jumped out of bed and ran down the hall, through the kitchen, and out the side door to the garage. I scrambled to put on my clunky work boots and dark navy barn coat, and raced out the door. I ran in a straight line directly to the back pasture. My wild, long, dark hair whipped fiercely in the wind as I grasped at my coat in protection against the rain.
“Nation!” I screamed. “Nation!” I frantically scanned the large area for his dark silhouette and finally saw him grazing quietly in the corner. His ears pricked forward ignited by the sound. He let out a small noise of acknowledgement and lightly trotted over to greet me. His nose jutted out slightly to greet my outstretched hand. “Oh Nation,” I cried, “I’ve missed you so much.” I wrapped my cold wet hand around his neck as he stood in attention, perfectly still, waiting in anticipation of action – should he wait or run away? He waited.
His large, damp neck felt warm against my face. It felt good to be outside again. Remembering the dream, I stood back to see his full frame and scanned his body for injury. There was no mark on him. His large, powerful body glistened brilliantly in the moonlight; he was no longer the skinny, skittish horse from the track. I stared deep into his dark eyes feeling the quiet power within them. They were calm. Free. There was no more pain in them, no defiance, no remembrance of cruelty – there was only this moment, this present peaceful moment.
The steady rain fell down on us as the darkness enveloped our forms. I raised my head high to embrace the clarity of the moon and feel the freshness of the rain on my face. I closed my eyes and allowed the calm to wash over me, cleanse me from my torment. The sorrow dripped off of me as if I were a tree after a storm and fell into the moist ground beneath my feet. The guilt sank deep into the earth and was dissolved. At that moment a feeling of great absolution washed over me. I realized that this was the world to which I belonged, a world of natural selection, of grace and healing. There was no blame here, no regret, no loss—there was only the simplicity of nature, the embracing of the moment.
The sound of distant whinnies broke the silence, as Nation’s legs danced to the rising sun. I walked towards the white wooden gate as he followed dutifully behind. It was feeding time soon. I clipped his halter to the end of the damp rope and we walked back to the barn together.
Kerry McNamara is a Canadian citizen who lives in Chesapeake, VA with her family. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Old Dominion University and teaches College Composition through the Dual Enrollment program at Grassfield High School and Tidewater Community College. Kerry spends lots of time writing and has taught creative writing workshops at the MUSE writing center and conducts workshops for Hampton Roads Writers. She is currently working on publishing her hybrid memoir/bio about her father’s life as a Catholic missionary in Guyana in the 1950s. Her work has been published in The Sun, Blue River Journal, and The Font, and she has two podcasts recorded on WHRO
The Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest is sponsored by The Plaid Horse and promotes fine, literary prose involving horses and the equestrian experience. This contest is open to writers of fiction and non-fiction, regardless of any previous publications, and awards three prizes. To learn more about the 2020 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.
Originally from the April 2020 Issue.