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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329.