Friday

Jan. 25, 2013

Dead Horse

by Thomas Lux

At the fence line, I was about to call him in when,
at two-thirds profile, head low
and away from me, he fell first
to his right front knee
and then the left, and he was down,
dead before he hit the...
My father saw him drop, too,
and a neighbor, who walked over.
He was a good horse, old,
spavined, eating grass during the day
and his oats and hay
at night. He didn't mind, or try to boss, the cows
with which he shared these acres.
My father said: Happens. Our neighbor,
named Malcolm, walked back to his place
and was soon grinding toward us
with his tractor's new backhoe,
of which he was proud
but so far used only to dig two sump holes.
It was the knacker who'd haul away a cow.
A horse, a good horse, you buried
where he, or she, fell. Malcolm
cut a trench beside the horse
and we pushed him in.
I'd already said goodbye
before I tried to close his eyes.
Our neighbor returned the dirt
from where it came. In it: stones,
stones never seen before
by a human's, nor even a worm's, eye.
With the back of a shovel
we tamped the dirt down.
One dumb cow
stood by. It was a Friday.
For supper we ate hot dogs, with beans
on buttered white bread. Every Friday,
hot dogs and beans.

"Dead Horse" by Thomas Lux, from Child Made of Sand. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of W. Somerset Maugham (books by this author), born in Paris (1874). His father was in Paris as a lawyer for the British Embassy. When Maugham was eight years old, his mother died from tuberculosis. His father died of cancer two years later. The boy was sent back to England into the care of a cold and distant uncle, a vicar. Maugham was miserable at his school. He said later: "I wasn't even likeable as a boy. I was withdrawn and unhappy, and rejected most overtures of sympathy over my stuttering and shyness." Maugham became a doctor and practiced in the London slums. He was particularly moved by the women he encountered in the hospital, where he delivered babies; and he was shocked by his fellow doctors' callous approach to the poor. He wrote: "I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief; I saw the dark lines that despair drew on a face; I saw courage and steadfastness. I saw faith shine in the eyes of those who trusted in what I could only think was an illusion and I saw the gallantry that made a man greet the prognosis of death with an ironic joke because he was too proud to let those about him see the terror of his soul."

When he was 23, he published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, about a working-class 18-year-old named Liza who has an affair with a 40-year-old married man named Jim, a father of nine. Jim's wife beats up Liza, who is pregnant, and who miscarries, and dies. The novel was a big success, and Maugham made enough money to quit medicine and become a full-time writer. For many years, he made his living as a playwright, but eventually he became one of the most popular novelists in Britain. His novels include Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930), and The Razor's Edge (1944).

Somerset Maugham said, "To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life."

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