Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Miracle at Easter 2012

Maria Grazie After the Loss of her Stillborn Colt

 (Venice, Italy) For Easter, I was in the Veneto countryside. There is a group of horses in the fields near the home where I stay -- six mares, one stallion and one filly. When I first met them in March, three of the horses came close to the wooden and barbed-wire fence so I could stroke them and chat with them, the most impressive being the stallion, who was quite a flirt. On the morning of Easter Sunday, they were far away in the distance, so I didn't realize one of the mares was pregnant.

Horses on Easter Sunday
After feasting on lamb and local wine on Easter evening, I returned to see the horses on the morning of La Pasquetta, Easter Monday, which is also a public holiday here in Italy, a day to visit with family and friends. This time I came prepared with a pocketful of sugar. I don't know much about horses except I like to ride them, and seem to have an affinity with them. I talk to them, and they respond with affection. (Apparently I also have natural sheep-herding skills, but that is another story.) But I don't know how to saddle horses, or groom horses, and I certainly don't know anything about the complications arising from the birth of a stillborn foal.

Unpaved gravel road
When I arrived on Easter Monday, about 9:00AM, I saw one of the mares lying on her side up on the hill where the hay was, the leg of a foal protruding from her vulva. First I thought I was about to witness a birth on Easter Monday! A miracle! Then I realized that the leg was limp and lifeless, and, instead, I was in the middle of a tragedy. The mare was struggling to push the dead foal out of her body, and she was suffering. The other horses ignored her, more concerned with munching on hay. I looked around for help, and slowly realized there was no one there but me. I was out in the middle of sprawling vineyards and rolling hills, on a one-lane local gravel road, completely alone except for the cocker spaniel who had joined me for a walk.

Now you are going to have to use your imaginations because at that point I was there without a camera. Even if I had one, I don't know if I would have taken photos because what happened next was so tragic, yet ultimately inspiring. All the photos you see were taken before and after the event.

Eventually, a car came down the road and stopped a short distance away. Two nicely-dressed women got out, and I approached them. I told them what was happening. They were as bewildered as I was. I remembered I had a friend who knew about horses. I called her, but her phone was closed. We decided that the women would drive to town and see if they could find someone to help while I stayed there with the horse, who, by that time I had named Maria Grazie, which means "Thank you, Mary," after the mother of Jesus Christ. After all, it was Easter and I had to be optimistic.

Hay Where Maria Grazie was on her side
There was a space in the fence, and I slipped through. I sloshed through the mud and horse droppings, up to the hay and where Maria Grazie lay suffering on her side. This seemed to inspire her, and somehow she managed to struggle onto her feet, the dead foal dangling from her vulva. She tried to push the baby out while standing up. She pushed and strained, but the foal didn't budge. I stroked her neck and and belly. I put my face against her neck. She was cold and trembling, and I started to worry that she was going to die if she didn't get the dead foal out of her body soon. I gave her some sugar, and she licked my hand. The sugar seemed to give her some energy.

A group of hikers came up the gravel road, and I called out to them for help. Two men slipped and slid up to the haystack. They grabbed the hoof of the baby, and managed to get another leg out of the vulva, along with a bit of the head. Now the foal had a face, its tongue lolling out of its mouth; it was most definitely dead. They told me to hold Maria Grazie's head because she seemed to respond to me while they pulled from the rear. I cooed and comforted her in English. "Brave Mama. Good girl. Strong girl. You can do it. Push, push, push." The men said (in Italian, of course), "We don't think she speaks English." I said, "Lei parla la lingua del cuore." "She speaks the language of the heart." 

Similar Tractor
A loud engine rumbled in the distance and a tractor appeared on the scene. "Finally," we said. "A professional!" A man dressed in overalls climbed out, the only one of us dressed for the occassion -- remember, it was Easter Monday, a day for family, friends and fun -- certainly no one expected to save the life of a mare that morning. The man had a rope, which he tied around the mare's head. One man held the rope, while the other two pulled from behind. Maria Grazie, exhausted, pushed with all her might. The dead foal did not budge another inch. Maria Grazie started slipping down the hill toward the wooden and barbed-wire fence with each push.

Fence repaired with rope where Maria Grazie collapsed

We started hollering that we needed a veternarian, a professional. Phone calls were made. Hikers and bikers out for an Easter Monday cruise stopped to watch the scene. A small crowd started to form. Confusion. The man with the tractor jumped back in the tractor and drove down the hill. More confusion. More men arrived and I got out of the way. Soon there were three men holding onto Maria Grazie's head while three other men pulled from behind. Maria Grazie slipped further and further down the hill until she arrived near the wooden, barbed-wire fence and collapsed onto her side. Now I was worried that she was going to cut up her back, in addition to the strain of pushing out the baby. I did my best to keep the barbed-wire from pressing into her hide.

The six men pushed and pulled with all their might, and, finally, the dead foal slid out up to its waist. The men drooped. The effort seemed to have taken all their strength. I yelled, "Harder! Don't give up!" At that moment, the tractor arrived again. The man in overalls climbed out; he seemed to have been given new instructions. He opened the fence. He drove the tractor in, put it in reverse and backed up. He jumped out. He tied one end of the rope to the legs of the dead foal, and the other end to the tractor itself. I gasped. He climbed back into the tractor. "Slowly! Slowly! Gently!" I yelled. He backed the tractor up very slowly, and the dead foal was wrenched out of Maria Grazie's womb. It was a full grown foal, completely formed, including a mane and tail, dead on the ground. "Is it masculine or feminine?" I asked. The answer came back: "Masculine."

Maria Grazie was exhausted, lying on her side, one leg extended at a dangerous angle, but with her head up. She slowly, sadly turned her head back over her shoulder, as if it were a great effort. She forced herself to look at her dead son lying on the ground. And then she turned her head to face forward again. I could feel her grief.

The man in overalls scooped the dead colt up in the mouth of the tractor. He backed up and drove the tractor out, hopped out of the tractor and closed the fence. He took the rope that was used to extract the colt, and tied it around the wooden fence where it had broken when Maria Grazie had collapsed. Somehow, Maria Grazie managed to struggle to her feet.

And then everybody left. Just like that. No one remained except for me and one man who had arrived in a white truck. He lit a cigarette. I asked for one, which he gave me. He told me he had taken a wrong turn and had ended up in the middle of the scene. We watched as Maria Grazie struggled to walk up the hill toward the hay. She made it half-way up, and then stopped, seemingly unable to take another step forward. The other horses ignored her.

The Stallion
"You'd think the other horses would comfort her," I said. "You'd think they would at least give her a kiss." At the moment I said that, the stallion ripped off a mouthful of hay. He walked down the hill and approached Maria Grazie, his little filly (the daughter of a different horse), following behind him. He put his mouth next to Maria Grazie's mouth, offering her the hay, but she rejected his gesture. The man said, "She's mad at him for putting her through this." The stallion and the filly went back up to the haystack and continued eating, leaving Maria Grazie all alone, halfway up the hill, unable to take another step.

"She can't stay there," said the man. Now I became alarmed again. "She can't stay there. She's got to get back to the top. I'm going back in." I slipped through the fence again, and sloshed over to Maria Grazie. I touched her. She was cold and trembling hard and seemed disoriented. "Marie Grazie. Marie Grazie. Listen to me. You have got to be strong. You have got to go to the top of the hill or you will collapse again." She didn't move. I took the sugar out of my pocket. I stood a distance away from her, up the hill. "Come here, Maria Grazie. Come and get the sugar." Marie Grazie looked at me, but didn't move, as if the distance was too great. I moved closer to her, but still too far away for her to reach the sugar. "Come on, Mama. Come on. You can do it." Maria Grazie gathered her energy. She took a couple of steps toward me, up the hill. She reached the sugar. She licked and licked my hand. I repeated the process until she was all the way up the hill. And then she started eating the hay.

Mary Grazie, on her feet, with the afterbirth
 The man called out that he was leaving, and I said good-bye. He got in his truck and drove away, waving as he left. I stayed for a little while longer until I was sure that Maria Grazie was able to stand on her own four feet. And then I went back to the villa and had breakfast.

I returned to the scene about an hour later to check on Maria Grazie, this time armed with a camera. She was still eating hay, slowly, resolutely; in fact, she seemed to be starving. I slipped through the fence and up the hill. She did not come close to me, she just stayed by the hay. The other horses wandered away from her, out into the grassy field, leaving her standing all alone. My shoes had been cleaned at the house, and I didn't want to get them filthy again, so I didn't go close to her; I stayed on the grass.

Mary Grazie, all alone, by the hay
The stallion came close to me. He, too, seemed sad. I said, "It was your son, wasn't it? It must hurt you, too, to have lost your son." I offered him some sugar, and he accepted. He nuzzled me, and I was moved. "I saw what you did before," I told him. "I saw you offer her some hay. You're a kind horse." And then I named him Giuseppe, after the father of Jesus Christ.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Maria Grazie was exhausted, lying on her side, one leg extended at a dangerous angle, but with her head up. She slowly, sadly turned her head back over her shoulder, as if it were a great effort. She forced herself to look at her dead son lying on the ground. And then she turned her head to face forward again. I could feel her grief.