Swimming on a February morning

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And now for this week’s how-do-you-solve-a-problem-get-a-bigger-one portion of the program, we thought the problem was the broken board in the new floor or the broken septic line to the barn or perhaps the simple lack of productivity from all involved.

Those aren’t problems.

“It’s in the pool…It’s still breathing…I can’t do this by myself…Get over here.”

That was my wife’s four-sentences-in-one-breath plea Tuesday morning.

I chew the last bite of toast, slug the last drop of coffee and scurry for the door. My Subaru fishtails down the driveway as I buckle my seatbelt behind my back, turning right through our stone pillars, then left through the neighbor’s stone pillars, down the gravel drive and to the side of the main house. Things seem calm, almost tranquil on the farm where Alphabet Soup was raised.

Annie stops the calm.

“It’s in the pool. It’s in the pool. It’s in the pool.”

Our neighbor had called about a missing horse earlier in the morning. I scanned the fence lines, the road, the horizon, didn’t see a stray Appaloosa and went back to work. Annie wouldn’t have it. She noticed the behavior of the mares across the street, one in the closest corner, racing back and forth, head over the fence and the rest at the far corner, they’re never in the far corner. We turned out Blue, he didn’t like it, horses sense danger, they abhor disruption. We brought Blue back to the barn. Annie raced out the drive, looking for the horse as I shook my head at a heightened sense of drama. And now, alas, she had found the horse, her heightened sense of drama – perhaps – saving the day.

She points to a slice in the pool cover. I look at it and think, ‘could have been there, could have just been made, could be something, could be nothing.’ She knows it’s something, as she points to a mound, like a hastily made bed with the pillow at the foot or a bump on a log, at the end of the pool.

“It’s in there,” Annie says.

“In there?” I say, buying time.

“Yes, it’s in there. I heard it breathing,” Annie says. “I called the owner. I called the vet. I called 911.”

I toss my phone in the grass, knowing this will only get worse.

Annie asks me something about which vet to call, I barely hear her.

“Call them all. Call them all.”

The cover stretches taut across the pool, the clips secured like rivets stamped by a machine. Prying off the first one, then another, I stick my head under the pool cover. Floating horse manure drifts toward me, a good sign or a bad sign, depending on which way you look at it. My hair grazes the water as I turn my head upside down and look beneath the pool cover and above the green, murky water. My eyes meet her eyes.

“She’s in there all right,” I say, between expletives. “She looks OK, just standing there.”

Thinking about fire trucks bellowing up the driveway, winches and cradles lowering, and vets storming in with needles and every other form of panic, I take a deep breath.

“There’s the diving board, so this is the deep end. She’s in the shallow end. That’s good.”

Walking along the pool, quietly, gently, we talk to her – mindless babble, the lilting cadence perhaps calming her but definitely calming us.

People appear, talking loudly, moving crisply as the horse reacts, rustling under the tarp. Quick actions aren’t needed.

“Be quiet,” we implore. “Sssshhhhssshhhssshhhhhsssshh.”

We unclip the corner bracket from the shallow end, then another one along the short end and then another on the long end, the first one frees up the pressure as each buckle elicits movement, impending panic from the horse. Annie and I work as a team, ignoring observations and orders, trying to stay calm.

I talk to the horse, Annie talks to her, as we locate the steps in the corner of the pool.

“Dad says they’ll walk up the steps,” I say, again and again, repeating a mantra, a lesson, a story he told me about rescuing a horse from a neighbor’s pool a decade ago. I can hear his voice, “He walked right up the steps.”

“Hand me the halter and shank.”

“Don’t go in there, Sean,” Annie says, handing me a leather halter and a rope shank.

Annie and I continue to quell the desire to rip off the pool cover, the desire theirs, not ours, knowing daylight, freedom won’t help the nerves of the horse.

“She won’t hurt you,” the owner says.

I hope she’s right.

We’ve freed the cover from the short end of the pool, about two feet of air, I step down onto the first concrete step, my Adidas Samba filling with water like a bucket in a well. It’s an unseasonably warm February morning but the water chills my foot on first plummet. I take another step, then another and another, the steps are slippery, greasy. I walk like I’m testing ice on a pond as a kid. With every step, the horse looks at me.

“She won’t hurt you, she’s sweet,” her owner says. “I promise you, she won’t hurt you.”

I hope she’s right.

The water rises to mid thigh as I lower onto the bottom of the pool and take tepid steps toward the mare, she hasn’t taken her eyes off me, which gives me confidence, or at least, less dread, as I walk past her left flank. I slowly get to her shoulder, she starts to move and I talk to her, again, endless babble, like I’m trying to get Miles to fall asleep as a baby. I slide the halter over her nose, slide the leather strap over her head and buckle it in one try. She’s amenable, kind.

“Now, pull the cover back. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly. ”

Annie pulls her side gently, the mare raises her head and shifts her legs, the shank goes taut, I let it slide through my hands, the water sloshes into my pockets.

“Dad says she’ll walk up the steps…Dad says she’ll walk up the steps…Dad says…”

I hope Dad’s right.

With each unhinged clip and each tug of the tarp, the mare skitters but she listens. The water has reached the bottom edges of her blanket, but that’s about all. I talk to her. With enough daylight to turn around I ask her to shift, she takes an uneasy step, then another, she’s been in the pool all night, I’ve been in the pool two, three minutes, I’m cold already, we turn slowly, voices provide a chorus, we take another sloshing step, then another to the base of the steps. I step up and my foot slides off the step quicker than a fried egg off a buttered skillet. I think to myself, ‘I better get out of this pool first.’ I take one, two, three steps over the lip of the pool, look back at her and ask her to follow me, hoping Dad knows what he’s talking about.

“Come on, baby.”

She takes one lurching step, her foot and ankle stubbing off the first step, rising and scrambling she takes another, then another and like a blitzing linebacker through the line of scrimmage, she’s out. Like that. Boom. She’s out.

She takes a deep, measured breath and stands at the edge of the pool as we take inventory. A scrape above her right eye, some lines across her wet, cold ankles, but no blood, no visible wounds or damage.

She steps gingerly around the edge of the pool, down a slope, into the grass. We walk slowly back to the barn. She grazes.