The woman reached into the sink filled with gray, soapy water and pulled out a white ceramic plate. In the free basin, she turned on the faucet and rinsed the plate and put it in the rack on the counter to dry. While she washed and rinsed the other dishes, she would look out the window at the hills that rolled out into the blue and cloudless horizon like a bumpy and golden carpet.
The woman rinsed her hands after she had washed all the dishes and saw her husband and the vet and a brown-speckled pointer walking up the hill toward the house from the paddock below.
The vet carried a leather doctor’s bag and her husband’s hands were planted in his pockets.
At the top of the hill, the two men shook hands and the vet stepped into a pickup. A trail of brown dust kicked up into the air and followed the truck as it drove off down the driveway.
The woman sat down at the kitchen table when her husband and dog walked in. He went to the sink and turned on the faucet.
“What did the vet say?” the woman asked, reaching for the dog.
He ran his hands under the stream of water.
“That she’s in a great deal of pain probably,” the man said.
The woman ran her hand down the dog’s sleek and soft and spotted spine.
“The vet said he could put her down.”
The woman scratched the dog behind one of its ears.
“The call and the shot and the removal and whatever else they do. That’s expensive.” The woman said, looking at her husband’s back. His gray t-shirt was damp between the shoulders and at the armpits.
He rinsed his hands and took a towel.
“I’m sure we can make some arrangement,” he said, toweling his hands dry.
The woman looked down at the dog.
The man slung the damp towel over his shoulder and walked to the table and sat down. He locked his hands and placed them on the wooden table. The man and woman did not look at each other. A soft and hot breeze blew outside and pushed over the wooden house and made it creak.
“An injection is too cold,” the woman said.
The man said nothing.
“She’s like our child,” the woman said, turning to look at her husband and still petting the dog. His eyes were on the kitchen table looking at a pile of bills and bank statements. “And I don’t want some vet putting her down with a shot and then having her hauled off and then turned into dog food.”
“I know. But what should we do?”
The man moved his eyes from the table and looked at his wife and then at the dog.
“We’ll use your revolver,” the woman said, looking at her husband’s dirty white sneakers.
The man moved his eyes back down to the table.
“I can’t do it,” the man said.
“I will,” the woman said.
From the bedroom’s closet shelf, the woman took a shoe box. The tinny sound of a few shells rolling around was quiet pinball. She remembered too that the man had only fired it once since they had been married. A coyote would come at nights and harass the mare. And one night the man stayed out with the horse to watch for the coyote. When it came trotting in lean legged and low-shouldered, the man shot it and killed it and set the thing on fire.
She took the shoe box to the bed and sat down and opened the box.
Inside was a wooden-handled matte gray Colt .45 and six cartridges and a red rag with oil stains. The woman held the revolver and took two shells from the box.
The man swept the kitchen’s green linoleum floor. Dust floated up into a ray of yellow sunlight that streamed through the window. The dust was a bright and nebulous river that had no headwaters and emptied nowhere and its banks were formed by the dark of the kitchen.
With the revolver pointed muzzle down, the woman walked down the hallway to the kitchen. She could hear her husband humming.
At the kitchen’s entrance, she watched her husband bustle about, humming and sweeping up piles of dirt and hair. She saw that the dampness of his t-shirt had spread to the front. The shirt clung to his round belly. She smiled and puffed a soft breath from her nose.
The man picked up a pile of dust in the pan and saw his wife.
“I’m going out.”
“Okay,” the man said, taking the dust pan to the trash.
She opened the kitchen door and left the house.
The dog woke up when the door squeaked shut, and the man told the dog to stay, and the dog rested its muzzle on its crossed paws and closed its eyes.
“I can’t do it,” the man said.
“I will,” the woman said.
The sun had swung over its peak and was now moving closer to the west. The sky had become a darker blue and the trees cut long shadows in the high grass. It was still hot, and the heat was white and fuzzy in the distance. The woman could feel it tickle her armpits and crawl up her thighs under her jeans.
The path down the hill to the barn cut through knee-high golden grass in a straight line. It was hard-baked and cracked.
Down the hill, she looked into the white-fenced paddock where there was a tar-brown slat-board shed and a wooden and metal mesh A-frame chicken coop. A black plastic 50-gallon drum with a square cut into its side as a trough; it sat at the shed’s entrance. Four hens and a rooster pecked and hunted in the few small clumps of dry and yellow grass that made islands in the dirt sea. And, under an oak tree in the corner of the paddock, the mare lay, its legs tucked under its body.
The woman unlatched the gate, swung it open, and walked across the paddock to the oak. Loose clouds of flies swarmed and buzzed around the horse. She moved the pistol from her right hand to her left and wiped her palm on her jeans.
The horse’s soot-gray coat was patchy, and when the woman stood next to the horse, she could see its ribcage.
The woman knelt down beside the horse and ran her hand over it and could feel its body heave with every breath it took.
She brushed away two large flies that were crawling around one of the horse’s eyes, which had become blue-gray clouds.
The woman took the horse by the halter and pulled the horse to its feet and led it to the middle of the paddock away from the tree. With her right arm, the woman scooped the mare around its neck and nuzzled the horse. She ran her face over the horse’s dusty neck up and down. Then she pulled the revolver from behind her back and took a bullet from her pocket and opened the block. She placed a cartridge in the block and closed it and twisted the cylinder to put the shell in firing position.
At a window in the living room on the other side of the house, the man looked out at the belts and patches of eucalyptus trees that strung across and dotted the golden hills. In the hot breeze, the trees’ branches swept back and forth.
The woman was washing her hands at the kitchen sink when the man walked in. The dog was under the kitchen table. The man pulled a chair from the table and sat down. The pistol lay there among the envelopes and statements, and he looked at it and the spent shell.
The woman turned off the faucet, walked to the kitchen table and dried her hands with the towel her husband had left on the table.
“Well,” the man said.
“She just fell right over,” the woman said, sitting down. She placed the unused cartridge on the table.
The man reached across the table to take his wife’s damp and cool and soft hands.
“What should we do now?” The man asked.
The woman took her hands away from the man and put them on her lap. She thought for a second as she looked at the sleeping dog under the table.
“Burn it,” the woman said.
And so the man and woman went down to the paddock when the sun was setting with a canister of gasoline and the garden hose. The breeze had cooled and pushed through the eucalyptus trees outside the paddock, and they could hear the long and thin and green branches swish-swish.
The man took a sledgehammer and the woman a maul, and they set about tearing down the shed to use for wood to make a large fire. The thuds and whacks and whams unsettled the hens and rooster in the coop, and they went cluck-cluck.
They took the slats and slid them under the body until it was elevated from the dirt a few inches. Then they piled the slats on top and around and under the body until they knew it would burn.
The woman stepped a few paces back from the stack, and the man poured the gasoline and flicked a match. The stack boomed and turned bright orange, and the man went back with his wife.
It was getting darker. The man stood beside the woman, and they watched the orange embers drift up high in the cool breeze.
Illustration by Paul Hostetler