The birthday candle wouldn’t stop singing.
It started innocently enough, with a giant plastic pink stake driven down into a huge pan of brownies. The flame touched the wick and everyone sitting at the campfire table under the stars murmured as the stake opened into a flower with each petal lit by its own tiny candle. And that’s when the candle started singing, not words but tinny notes emerging from a tiny imaginary accordion ringing through the clear mountain sky.
We were late to the table because as we pulled into the ranch we’d seen my friend who’d made the brownies, and driven that pink plastic stake into them, leading her limping horse across the driveway. The birthday girl and I stopped to help her wrap the horse’s hoof, which had been punctured by a nail, and then waited as she led him to a stall. She ran back to the truck, we stopped by the ranch house to pull the brownies from the oven, and made our way to the river.
And we were all here now, telling stories and laughing and wondering when the candle would stop singing that birthday song.
Not then, at least.
I threw it in the bed of my truck when we drove home so we wouldn’t have to listen to what had already become a mildly annoying repetitive drone. The next morning as I walked past the truck to feed the horses, the song was still going strong and I thought to myself, Amazing. Whatever keeps that thing going, I hope I have some of it.
Later that day I checked in with my friend to see how her horse was doing, and he was still limping around but she didn’t sound too worried. The vet was coming the next day to check him out and maybe put him on antibiotics, and in the meantime he was happy just eating grass and hanging out.
Over the next few days, every time I drove somewhere, or even played with the dogs in the driveway, I’d hear that candle still singing from the back of my truck. The song seemed to be getting a little fainter, and maybe a little slower too, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw the candle away. I had to honor and respect its fight.
Because I knew.
The space between the tinny notes got longer and longer as the week passed and the fading melody nudged me to check in with my friend again. She told me that her horse wasn’t doing any better; the hoof had become infected, he might need surgery, and she was probably canceling a trip to California so she could stay with him. I said a silent prayer that his recovery would be quick, with an image painted in my mind from just a couple of weeks ago, when we’d ridden up the steep draw behind my house.
We’d stopped to let the horses rest, and he’d pushed his muzzle gently against my mare’s neck, holding it there in an embrace. I was surprised, because I’d never seen him do that kind of thing. I was more surprised that my mare was allowing it.
But he got even closer, with his whole face up against her, and she leaned into him. I took a photograph of the moment, because it was like he was telling her something.
Yesterday I got a phone call as I was walking past my truck, barely able to still hear the music coming from the candle in the back. I ran upstairs to find better reception and the voice on the other end told me that early that morning, before sunrise, my friend had brought her horse out to eat some pasture grass. And she was so happy, because his fever had broken and he was finally putting weight on his hoof. All seemed right with the world and it looked like maybe the surgery planned for later that day could be called off.
And she knew he was better when he dropped to the ground to roll, because he wanted to move around and play.
He never got back up.
I got off the phone and felt my friend’s heart breaking. This was her heart horse, the one that some of us get once in a lifetime.
If we’re lucky.
I dropped the phone on the couch with my eyes glistening and went downstairs to put my hands on my mares and tell them that he was gone. I walked past my truck, which felt far away and different somehow, and was heading into the barn when I stopped just past the heavy wooden door.
I stopped because of what I heard.
And because I knew.
Every time I’d hear that candle singing, I’d think of my friend’s horse. And as the melody started to slow down and fade…
Happy Birthday to you, Happy… Birthday… to…
Just yesterday, I stared at the ball on my truck’s tow-hitch, listening to the waning music, and thought When his heart stops, this candle stops.
And now, here in the doorway of the barn, I could hear nothing.
My back was to my truck and I slowly turned around and made my way to the tailgate, which I lowered with both hands. I squinted into the darkest corner of the bed and there was the candle, still open in all its pink plastic glory.
The candle knew, too.
We leave very little space for the mystery these days. For what can’t be explained.
But that’s where the beauty of life is, in the mystery.
Where the mystery used to live is now a house full of small screens and text messages and perpetual information cycles. We want to, or rather think we’re entitled to, exploit everything about everything, right now, at the swipe of a fingertip. We believe everything worth knowing is explainable.
But when everything is explainable, there is no room for the mystery.
So the mystery has had to move out, to the fringes of town, to the dark spaces between the trees.
But she is there waiting for you, if you’re like me: tired of the lie and ready to embrace the beauty found in what can’t be explained.
She is there, with that candle and horse.