The mare’s breath had stopped rattling in the stall behind her. Nash lay slumped on the other side of the aisle. And all Macy could see was that damned ugly baby.
That baby, with its pimples and purple blotchy face and slightly coned head. That baby whose mother thrust it toward Macy every time she and Nash ran into her and her doting husband, usually at the Uphill Grind on Saturday mornings, as if it were a perfectly natural thing to want to hold someone else’s child. As if that was what the baby would have wanted. As if Macy was even fit for such a thing.
“Go on,” Nash would say. “He’s not going to bite.” Then he’d chuckle and shake his head, as if Macy herself were an unruly child acting out in public.
Usually she would hem and haw long enough so that Nash would hold it. But every once in a while, the baby’s mother would be extra persistent and lunge at Macy. “Here,” she would say. “It’s easy. Easy does it.”
Macy would barely get her arms out before the mother dropped the baby into them, and then she’d hold it stiffly – far out from her body, the way one would a pot of boiling water – before making an excuse as to why she and Nash had to get going.
“I’m dropping him the next time she does that,” Macy told Nash once.
“It’s not the baby’s fault that the parents passed on the worst of both of them,” Nash said. “No need to go dropping him for that. If only he would’ve gotten her nose and his chin instead of the other way around.” He slung an arm around Macy’s shoulder and started in on how they should spend their day, but Macy didn’t hear him. The words, Passed on the worst of them, rang too loudly in her ears.
Macy didn’t often give much thought to the ugly baby, save for those occasional Saturday run-ins. But here he was, his face floating in front of her, superimposed over everything: the dying mare, the folded body of her husband, the blood, the deafening quiet. And the ugly baby shook his head scornfully and clucked his teeth (this newborn had teeth) as if to say, “Look at what you’ve done. Look at the mess you’ve gone and made.”
Macy thought of the bed, still unmade. Days-old glasses of Coke sitting on the kitchen table. The Pyrex pan last used to cook burritos soaking in the sink. Nash’s watch placed neatly inside his Brewers cap on the dresser, just like always.
She hobbled slowly up the steps, dragging one leg up and then the other as if the signal from her brain to limbs was working at half-speed, like a newborn foal figuring out the mechanics of its body for the first time.
She missed the screen door handle on first reach, fumbling for the keys in her pocket with the other hand and then dropping them. How many times had she gone through this same routine? For how many years? It was an action she performed mindlessly before. But she was having to think her way through each step now, through each twitch of every muscle, coercing them to move so she wouldn’t collapse. Her hands shook. She used one to try and steady the other.
Macy knew she had to go in eventually. But she didn’t have to do it right this minute.
She dropped the keys back in her pocket and headed back down the front steps. She followed a cobblestone walkway around the back of the house through the struggling vegetable garden, and out the back gate where the bricks beneath her feet gave way to fine gravel. Light drizzle lacquered strands of hair against her face. She could smell the mix of fresh sawdust and manure, which always hung heavy and sweet in the spring air. Tall grass, long overdue for mowing, licked her feet and ankles as she neared the barn. Its big old door slid aside with ease.
Gounda nickered at her, soft and low. It was his customary welcome whenever he heard her footsteps on the cement walkway. Most of the other horses only “talked” around feeding time, but not Gounda. At horse shows, people walked up and down the barn aisles throughout the day and night—but Gounda could pick out her footfall from all the others, his greeting unfailing, every time.
Macy could see Gounda straining to catch a glimpse of her at the corner of his stall. He nickered again. The other horses’ noses were buried in their feed. Muzzles banged inside buckets, and buckets banged against walls. Macy loved that sound: horses being well cared for. Fed. Happy. She didn’t quite know who had taken over chores at the barn, just that someone had, and for that she offered a silent thanks. There had been so many doctors to talk to, so many arrangements to make.
The mare’s stall stood empty. Someone had stripped the used bedding and replaced it with fresh, sweet-smelling shavings. The barn had been cleaned – it smelled faintly of bleach – and straightened. Pitchforks and brooms hung on their proper hooks. Nothing seemed amiss.
Too-small, grimy windows distorted the lighting into hazy waves of gray, so that the stains common to any barn floor blended together—neatsfoot oil, glycerine soap, thrush ointment. But because she knew what to look for, and where, Macy could still see the faint splatter of red on the stall across from where she stood. She could still follow a spotted trail winding down the walkway.
It surprised Macy that she could look at the stains. And not only look, but examine them so closely: That was where Nash must have been standing when he surprised the mare. (Or perhaps she had surprised him.) That was where he landed after the mare had thrown him with the strength of her head and neck against a wooden support, solid as steel. That was where he slumped over on the ground, a tiny stream of impossibly red blood coming from his ear.
Macy looked for another stain, this one across the aisle from Nash, where she had crawled after catching one of the mare’s flailing hooves in her stomach; where she had sat, waiting, every breath a knife, cramps rolling through her abdomen like waves. Compared to the bright trickle that ran from her husband, the blood that had spread beneath Macy was wine-dark.
She had known what she was risking that night. She had known that going to the barn to help the writhing mare, her own unborn foal sitting up inside of her like an obedient dog, could be the undoing of the tiny bundle of expanding cells within Macy’s own belly. The fertility specialist had warned her: strict bed rest for two weeks, no riding, no strenuous activity. Yet, she had gone anyway. She had gone willingly. And by the time Macy had come to, the mare lay on her side, stone still, while Macy’s mistake pooled wet and dark between her legs and onto the cement where she sat.
And then there was the imagined baby – hanging in the air and staring down at her. Tisk-tisking her. That goddamned ugly baby
Macy marked each stain with her eyes, matter-of-factly. A detective without a case, examining the evidence only to assure herself that something had happened there, but not what or why – questions she couldn’t bring herself to ask. Not yet. They skirted around her thoughts, animals stalking a perimeter.
Nash never did wake up. Doctors had disconnected tubes and wires, and she sat with him until they couldn’t wait any longer. She wasn’t going to be the first to leave. Not then. She had been leaving him in the tiniest of ways, over and again, since they had first met. Not because she wanted to, but because she had known, even if he hadn’t, that he deserved better. And so, this one time – maybe the only time she ever had – Macy was going to stick.
Eventually, they wheeled him from the room, a sheet pulled over his face. Macy held his hand, then his fingers, and finally just the tip of one, until the motion of the rolling bed separated her skin from his. She had asked them not to do that with the sheet. She asked them to pull it up to Nash’s chin if necessary, but not over his head. She explained how her husband would have hated having a sheet over his face like that, thinking of how, when he dressed, Nash would bunch the bottom of the shirt as close to the collar as possible the way women gather their pantyhose in a bunch at the toe before unfolding them up the leg. Nash would pull a shirt on and let it hang around his neck before struggling his arms through their respective sleeves, never lingering with his head inside while the arms poked through like so many other people did. And even though she knew it couldn’t matter to him then, it made Macy feel better when the attendants stopped to peel the gauzy fabric down to his shoulders.
After that she went about the business of gathering his things. Most of his stuff had been placed together in a small cupboard. Nash’s jeans, henley, and red fleece were in a plastic bag, though Macy didn’t know why anyone had saved them for her. They were unusable now, in awkward, scissored pieces and crusty with blood. She had wanted to pull the shirt to her face, to smell him, make him real for just a moment longer. But not there. Not then.
Someone had folded his socks, rolled one inside the other with sharp, neat corners. She unfolded them, balled each one separately, and stuck a sock into each shoe, just as Nash liked to do. That habit of his had always driven her crazy. She chalked it up to laziness, or a laundry-folding aversion. He claimed it helped his shoes hold their form. She thought of them, then – rows of shoes stacked in cubbies at the back of Nash’s closet that his feet would never slip into again. That thought, the stupid shoes, almost crushed her.
Almost. What actually did was stepping through the hospital’s sliding doors. Macy sucked in the fresh, bright air and choked on it. She felt her legs give way, like the bones in them had disintegrated right then and there. Because, she realized, Nash remained inside. Because he wouldn’t ever step through that front entrance designed only for the living. Because she would have to drive away from this place without him. Because she no longer had a reason to come back.
In the end, she didn’t drive away from there. She couldn’t. And so, her sister, Regan, did. And when Macy told Regan that she couldn’t go home, Regan took Macy back to the hotel where they had been staying, across from the hospital, and tucked her into bed, still fully clothed. Macy couldn’t bear the thought of climbing into the bed she had shared with Nash for nine years, alone for evermore, yet she couldn’t stop herself from imagining how she would have to do just that. Soon.
Macy willed the crying to start. She wanted to sob the body-raking moans that a good widow should. She thought that maybe that was the thing to help the hurt ebb even a little, the salve to apply to the gaping wound her life had become. But she couldn’t eke out a single drop. Instead, she lay in bed, tracing the neat beige lines of the hotel wallpaper with her eyes. Up and down, and down and up.