When Hope Dies

The hooves were frostbitten. The horse lay on its side. Two of the horse’s legs rested suspended, thick and brittle from the freezing, North Dakota winds that claimed its life. A frozen expression of forlornness and depression remained on the horse’s face. Forever cemented.

It is 5 a.m., December 25, 1924. The sun had begun to rise on this Christmas morning.

“Annabelle. Poor Annabelle,” Theodore Smalley said. This horse was what connected Annabelle Neill to her mother, who is in heaven.

All the neighbors agreed. The horse seemed to have an ethereal disposition. Annabelle claimed she could hear, smell and sense her mother’s presence in every fiber and hair of the Palomino. The Palomino was not a workhorse. She was the prettiest horse any of the neighbors had every laid eyes on.

The horse had become a source of hope in the sad, monotonous lives of the ranchers. Now, hope is dead. Nothing beautiful remained in the impossibly flat plains. What happens when hope dies?

Benjamin Cartwright simply stared at the horse. Cartwright was the practical one. He grew up on the farm. Ranching and farming were in his blood. There was no denying that. Cartwright had an underlying disdain for the poet-in-remission, Theodore Smalley. Who needs poetry? He had said as much to Smalley when he first moved to Bottineau, North Dakota.

He knew better than to breach a question like that again. Smalley used words he didn’t understand.

Smalley had come to Bottineau to “rediscover” his pen for poetry. He had hoped he would find inspiration amongst the farmers and ranchers who lived outside the sleepy town. What Smalley didn’t like to think about was the current depression in the stock markets didn’t leave much need or want for poets or poetry. His creative ideas were squelched and bankrupt along with what seemed to be a nation-wide depression.

Instead of renewal, he found frostbite and drudgery. Life in North Dakota is hard. The majority of time is spent indoors because it is simply too cold to do otherwise. Not quite what he was expecting, Smalley would remark to anyone who would lend an ear. Yet, he remained optimistic.

The minutes of gaping at the horse and the impossible task before them seemed like eons to Smalley.

“I suppose it is too heavy for us to lift?” he said. He started to roll up his sleeves, but was reminded why this was not a good idea when the sub-zero winds froze the blond hairs on his arm.

Cartwright did not answer. Of course it was too heavy. Anyone with any common sense would know that.

His wife was expecting their first. He worried for Sarah. Night and day he worried. After Rachel Neill died, he worried. The baby boy had survived, and he knew what a difficulty Joseph had loving the boy, taking care of Annabelle and running a farm. He sensed a small measure of hurt whenever he saw Joseph looking at Samuel. Samuel had taken Rachel’s life.

There was a doctor in Bottineau, but that was 50 miles away. In winter, snow prevented the doctor from leaving the town.

It was Christmas morning. Joseph had asked Benjamin and Theodore to move the horse before Annabelle could see.

Joseph must have forgotten to take in Polly, the Palomino, on Christmas Eve. Cartwright could only imagine the agony Joseph was feeling.

“Come on,” Cartwright said. “We’ll get two of my horses and a cart.”

He turned and walked away.

“But, but how will we lift Polly?” Smalley said.

Smalley was forced to follow Cartwright’s lead when no reply came.

When they returned with Cartwright’s two sturdiest horses and a low-lying wagon, it was snowing. It was a flour-in-a-sifter snow, but it could turn into a bag of flour unsifted very quickly.

Cartwright tied a thick, coarse rope around the nape of Polly’s neck and another around her midsection. The rope was tied to a yoke that rested on Lucky and Jude’s shoulders.

“What are we doing?” Smalley asked.

Cartwright’s annoyance deepened. He could be helping me, he thought, instead of standing idly.

“Lucky and Jude are going to pull Polly onto this wagon. Once we’ve got her on the bed, then they’ll pull the wagon.”

Smalley was puzzled.

“Couldn’t we tie the rope to her legs?” he asked.

“Her legs are frozen. They’ll break under force,” Cartwright said.

Life in North Dakota was so bare-boned, so ugly. The reality of the situation seemed to catch up with the poet. This wasn’t anything like Boston. His circle of poet-friends would be appalled with everyday life in North Dakota.

They spent their days sipping imported Earl Grey and eating scones and philosophizing, romanticizing and spouting off epithets. Hours were spent spouting off lines of iambic pentameter. No one in North Dakota knows what iambic pentameter is. His idea of going back to grassroots wasn’t going as he planned.

“Well, are you going to help?” Cartwright said.

Cartwright and Smalley, with a good deal of trouble and cracking of vertebrae, managed to get Polly onto the wagon bed. When they made it back to the Cartwright farm, Sarah was waiting with shovel in hand.

“What are you doing outside in this weather, Sarah?” Cartwright said. “The baby, think of the baby.”

Sarah looked down and the fresh grave she had dug. It is harder to unearth frozen ground. It had taken more energy than she would admit to Benjamin. She knew how much he worried.

“Polly needs a place to rest,” Sarah said. “Annabelle will find out, and she will need a place to come grieve and mourn.”

Cartwright and Smalley lowered Polly into her final resting place in the hard, arctic soil.

“Is there room in poetry for Polly?” Cartwright asked.

“What?” Smalley said. Smalley had never heard Benjamin mention poetry, much less in this tone.

“Do you suppose,” Cartwright said, “you can write poetry about Polly?”

A pregnant pause followed.

“I, I suppose, one could endeavor, to write some poetry,” Smalley said. The thought of writing about a dead horse had never occurred to him. He was looking for something cheery, abstract and flowery to write about. He had never thought of writing about death, sadness and dreariness. Where was the nobility in writing about death?

He couldn’t seem to find anything noteworthy to write about since coming to Bottineau.

Life, hope and death—or the death of hope.

Maybe poetry isn’t about cataloging the revolutionary ideals and abstract principles. Maybe poetry can also be about the hardships and the unfairness of life. Maybe poetry is about hope.

What happens when hope dies?

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