“He Comes to Feed the Horses,” by Mary Terrier, appears in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
Like every magazine that publishes short stories, we get a few dozen stories about unhappy marriages or spouses handling end-of-life care in every submission period. Literature: n. see also domestic drama. As an editor, you’re looking for an author with style, and a caretaker who makes you care deeply about this story, in the vein of Alice Munro’s “A Bear Came Over the Mountain,” or Helen Garner’s The Spare Room.
Our interns were the first to cull this from our submission pile; we had no connection to Mary Terrier before. Within a few paragraphs, I think you’ll find yourself listening closely to the voice she’s found in this tough, nameless narrator. “By the time I was desperate enough to call hospice, you were already pretty far gone,” she says, addressing her late husband. Henry can hardly manage to get a straw into his mouth, and nurses have taken up residence in their house. She needs help, but she hates the help. The bathroom is too small to fit even the two of them, and each body that enters their home seems out-of-place.
Here are the first fierce lines that sold me on this piece:
If I died first, you’d be widower, which implies more of something. I’m nice, you’re nicer. Tall, taller. Sad, sadder. Widow, widower.
This deceptively simple wordplay reveals she is still wrestling with her new role. Though the emotions around a death run deep, the actions left to a surviving spouse are quite dull: sorting bills and papers, requesting extra weeks away from work. This is why fiction about this moment is so difficult to pull off; it’s a boring hand to deal most characters. But Terrier’s protagonist has grit. We watch her spear gummy peach candies with her fingers and eat them off, dig out an old bottle of liquor out of the bottom drawer.
We never see Henry’s last breath. Instead, midway through the story, we read gentle hints that he has passed:
I neglect your razors in the cabinet, the papers sliding off your desk. The sentimentality around these things is melting, though I feel a small, cold gratitude whenever something of yours gets in the way—There you are. There you are, I think.
This small, cold gratitude is the payoff here. From the opening paragraph, every body described—be it animal or human—is a little sweaty, with its hair out of place. Still she regards Henry’s space in the house, and his body, with tenderness—even as he begins to leave it.
The horses outside the window were unexpected neighbors. As in many poems, you might imagine the horses as metaphor for a lover. The “horses spent all day curling and uncurling their penises” in the first line foreshadow the way sex and intimacy have been stripped from the marriage as one partner is increasingly unable to care for himself. The protagonist is grieving for some sense of privacy, and intimacy, as caretakers enter their home. “I didn’t want to share your body with anyone. The doctor taking the purple mollusk of your dick from between your legs to put the catheter in.”
She studies other houses with their automatic sprinklers, beyond the “dry creek” that divides their lot from the rest of the subdivision. There is a Henry absent from these pages, one the reader will never get to know. At the end of the story, she remembers a man who is alive and virile: “you throwing the coiled hose over your shoulder, carrying the metallic smell of water. The horses waking up to drink.”
When the lot beside their home is subdivided, a trailer arrives to carry the horses away. Our protagonist imagines “your careful hand luring the horses into the trailer,” giving us a sense that Henry had a gentle touch before his illness. And the devastating final line: “Take the horses where they’re going and then come back.” She has run out of patience with him; she misses him fiercely. Terrier’s power lies in this fierce-heartedness, and this generosity of spirit.