Syd told his mom she’s a serial killer when he realized their house was surrounded by horse graves.
“I’m not a killer, we don’t kill them,” she said. “We put them down.” She counted just the graves they could see from the porch—“we ran out of room here, ran out of room there, had to open up a new piece of land for those horses there, almost buried one horse atop another over there when those two died within weeks of each other and as soon as we started to dig, blood came up like oil.”
No grave markers—but sometimes, if anything, they’d place a stone on a fresh grave, though even that gets swallowed by grass once it grows back and over time what horse is buried where becomes boundaries mapped only in memory. Thirty years on a horse farm will do that.
There’s a distinction in the house in how they refer to the euthanasia of animals—between putting an animal down and putting an animal to sleep—even though the same methods apply: death induced hypodermically. Dogs and cats, they say, are put to sleep. Horses, however, are put down—if and when unfortunate conditions demand.
When smaller animals are injected with the dose that eases them into death, they slip into it like a dream. Put to sleep seems to have hope, as though the death is just anesthetic, a shadow passing through the body of the small beast. When a horse is put down, more often than not the horse receives the dose while standing and the horse slumps over and must be lowered down into the ground or carried to the grave by some machine or group of people. Putting a horse down is like being responsible for catching a falling tree.
So when they found their miniature horse Mya with a shattered leg, she seemed too small, too dog-sized, too un-horselike to be put down—but that’s what they called it once they got a good look at her and felt the bone shards floating up and down her little leg.
Rolex, a big horse, must’ve kicked her in the pasture. “Don’t be mad at Rolex,” Syd’s mom said—“just horses doing horse stuff.”
They could take the bad leg off, but what would her quality of life be? Everyone agreed the most humane thing to do was to put her down. His mom said she wanted her to go with dignity—not live out her remaining years three-legged and miserable. It was true but it’s hard to make a decision like that, particularly for an animal you’ve lived with for nearly two decades.
It was raining so all the horses were in the barn when they huddled around Mya––her goodbye-congregation. The big horses craned their necks out their stalls, braying like truck engines—trying to get a good view of whatever was happening.
“Should we walk her to where we’re gonna bury her?” someone asked. The idea of her limping to her grave seemed cruel.
“Let’s put her down here,” Syd said.
Jamie, a barn employee, knelt in the sawdust and cradled Mya’s small head like a newborn against her chest. Rudy, another employee, put his weight against Mya so she wouldn’t collapse in an unseemly way when they injected the dose that’d switch off her heart. The barn swallows left their nests above her stall.
Jamie fed Mya gingersnaps. “You can have all the gingersnaps you want, you’re goin’ to heaven now.”
Mya took to the injection quick. You think you can read the fear in the whites of a horse’s eyeballs right when you think you see them become conscious of the death substance in their veins.
It was a good death. No seizing. Her body sagged and Rudy lay her down gentle on the sawdust with her mane spread out wild and placed his palm on her heart to feel the last few beats.
Ritual was to drape a blue tarp over the corpse of a full-sized horse before they can bury them. It’s because of this that whenever Syd sees a blue tarp he thinks dead horses. And there have been blue skies with no clouds that remind him of blue tarps, too, which can give a nice day the sterile smell of euthanasia. A blue tarp, even folded, seemed too big and harsh for Mya, so his mom stole another horse’s blanket to wrap her in.
“I want her to be comfortable,” she said.
“Comfortable?” Rudy asked, laughing, however, he began to pull sawdust from her mane and folded her tail in neatly as if he were a newlywed packing up her wedding dress for safekeeping.
“You can handle my body when I die,” Syd told Rudy.
“I’ll run your pockets though,” he said. The two of them tucked Mya’s legs into her belly and tied the blanket around her with twine.
Someone asked if they should braid Mya’s mane so she could be buried pretty and Syd’s mom said no because her hair should go in the ground as wild as she kept it.
“Should we leave her here for now?” Rudy asked.
“I’d hate for any of the barn kids to find her this way,” Syd’s mom said.
“I don’t want to leave her in the rain until the hole is dug either,” Rudy said.
Rudy took her by the hind legs and Syd took her by the head and they lifted her onto the dolly that they use to push hay bales through the barn and rolled her into the rain and into the hayloft where she’d stay until the hole was ready.
The gravedigger called. He’d arrive in an hour because it takes an hour to drive the backhoe three miles to the barn.
Where to dig a grave has become increasingly harder as they run out of space. Before long they’ll have turned their house into a horse mausoleum. Syd thinks about archeologists in the distant future who might discover the barn under a lake or glacier with all its horse skeletons and hopes they’ll know that they were good people who loved their horses, who put their horses down because they loved them, not because they were some kind of horse sacrificing death-cult.
Afraid the ground would spit Mya back out anywhere else, they decided to bury her next to Orca in a small triangle of grass behind the barn. Made Syd think of something John Wayne Gacy said after cops found nearly thirty decomposed bodies shoved in his crawl space: “The only thing they can get me for is running a funeral parlor without a license.”
If there’s one thing Syd likes about horse funerals it’s that no one has to worry about squeezing into a suit they only wear for weddings or human funerals.
His mom said a few words about Mya: “She was born in a basement nineteen years ago. The family that had her before us used her as a glorified lawn ornament, like one of those plastic flamingos.”
Since it rained all day the earth was easy to open with the arm of the backhoe. Syd and Rudy jumped in the hole to move rocks out of the way to make sure Mya could rest comfortable at the bottom. The gravedigger lowered her into the wet ground with the backhoe’s bucket, refilled the hole, and pat the dirt down with the machine like a big steel hand putting the small horse to sleep.
Shane Cashman‘s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Catapult, Narrativel
He teaches creative writing at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. “Death of a Lawn Ornament” is an excerpt from his novel-in-progress.