"Bonnie is dying, Rose."
Betty, the village veterinarian, stands at the foot of the lanai. We've just begun morning warmup exercises after sitting meditation.
"Can you come?"
"Of course. Let me just roll up my mat. I'll be right down."
Moments later I am striding with Betty to the barn. Her shoulders are square, her arms swing freely at her side. She is easy with this passing, despite the sadness in her face.
Bonnie is the matriarch of the village cows and has provided milk and calves to the community for years. Most residents of the village know each animal intimately, having grown up with them, raised them, or cared for them in chore rotation.
Bonnie is especially loved. Many's the villager with a tale about trudging into the hills filled with loss, anger or sorrow and being confronted--or more often nudged in a delicate place from behind--by old Bonnie.
I myself wept many hard tears into her neck during Marita's illness and after her death.
Bonnie always knows who needs nurturing.
We find her in the barn now, her head in Jacob's lap. Animals roam freely on the hills behind Ordinary, coming to the barn only for shelter. Weakened by illness, Bonnie must have sought comfort.
Jacob strokes her ears and snout tenderly. He is singing to her, ever so faintly. I can't make out his words.
Betty sits, fearlessly, between Bonnie's legs, and begins rubbing them with salve, pulling in long, slow, delicate strokes, ropey tendons standing out in the strong muscles of her arms.
For a moment I wonder if Bonnie might kick Betty in her distress, but somehow I understand that even in a dying spasm, she could not hurt one of us.
I sit near Jacob, grateful for the hours of yoga training that keep me flexible. With my right hand, I make the Reiki sign, Cho ku Rei. I close my eyes, inhale deeply, and wait for the heat to fill my hands.
When they tingle, I sense where on Bonnie's body to lay them. I start with her spine, near her head. Her breathing is labored, ragged. When my hands tingle again, I shift them further down her spine.
After a few minutes, the three of us sitting with her, Bonnie's breath comes easier. I feel singing in my body and hold it, letting Jacob's sounds fill me instead.
My hands tingle and I move them again. Bonnie sighs long, a deep cleansing breath. She shudders and I lift my hands, separating them now, one almost under her here, above the hip bone, the other on top, just below her lungs.
I feel the music again, my mouth opens unchecked with song, joining Jacob's. I don't know why this happens sometimes with Reiki, the urge to sing as strong as the urge to push in childbirth. I tone more than sing--Ah's turning to Oh's to Eees and back to Ahhs.
My hands tingle and I shift one more time, both hands on Bonnie's belly. Jacob holds her head gently between his hands.
I feel the Reiki heat, not just in my hands but in the air between us, around us. The music swells, welling, and though my eyes are closed, I feel Jacob and Betty smiling as I smile.
I am at peace, with three great friends, and I cannot tell where one of us stops and the other begins.
After a time, I hear singing again, outside the barn. News has spread. The villagers are singing for Bonnie. I open my eyes. The barn door is filled with people, keeping a respectful distance, and singing their love for this old friend.
Bonnie lifts her head, it seems she makes eye contact with each of us, looks to the door, lets out a low "Moooo," and drops her head.
Minutes after her last breath, we continue the Reiki, feeling her with us still. Tears run down my face.
A hush falls. Next I look their way, the villagers are inside with us, seated on the straw-strewn ground, on bales, anywhere they can find a perch. The entire village is meditating. Tears come again, and I close my eyes.
There is a moment in every Reiki session where my hands lift involuntarily and I take a long cleansing breath. The session is complete.
Today, Jacob, Betty, and I simultaneously lift our hands. Hearing their long exhale, I glance up.
We smile, fold our hands to our chest and bow.
Bonnie is gone.
We bow to her body, bow to her friends outside the door.
"I will stay," I tell Betty.
"And I," Jacob says.
Betty understands, gathers her veterinary bag and can of salve, and walks to the door. Some villagers huddle round her, hugging her.
Noah puts his arm round Betty's waist, and they walk out together. He will draw her a hot bath, bring her tea, and massage her limbs as tenderly as she massaged Bonnie's.
The remaining villagers remain silently erect, in sitting meditation.
We have work to do.
Jonathon, who has done this many times before, brings a block and tackle and lays it near Bonnie. Gently, he rigs a harness round her hind quarters so the tissues won't tear as she is hauled up.
She will be drained of blood, her skin and entrails removed, and her flesh portioned for the kitchen if found to be free of disease. Though she is old, Bonnie has led a comfortable, grass-fed life on the farm, and her meat will be welcome food for some.
No villager would knowingly harm an animal, for food or otherwise. Those who eat meat, wear leather, or use bone tools rotate through butchering as through any Village task, upon the death of an animal. Only those who choose not to exploit any part of our animal friends' bodies upon their death are excluded.
While I do not eat meat, I choose to wear and use leather and bone. I also fertilize with bone meal, blood, and other offal.
Though I experience discomfort, and no small conflict about our practice, I attend every butchering. It is my personal need to say prayers of gratitude for the lives of old friends and for the gifts of their bodies after they pass.
Not everyone feels as I do, nor would I expect them to. My way is not yours is an easy way to show acceptance when understanding is absent.
The butchering team is quiet and respectful. Bloodletting and skinning require time. We sit vigil while the crew does its work.
We breathe. We sing. We weep.
Here is where a human being recognizes the animal in us all, experiences lust, greed and hunger.
Here the foul and sweet odors of death and illness overpower some, and vomit and bile add to the mix. My eyes smart, with more than tears.
There is a property in the scent of large quantities of blood. You taste iron. Your mouth is dry with iron.
The sound of skin being peeled and scraped from the flesh grinds my teeth. I cannot close my ears to what I choose not to see.
When at last I open my eyes, what I see first is Jonathon's face, streaked with tears.
Jacob rises and goes to his father. Jonathon removes the leather butcher's apron, his hands covered in Bonnie's blood. Jacob hugs his father,long and fiercely.
"She loves you, too, Papa," he says. "There is nothing to forgive."
"She asks me to tell you that she freely gives of her body. She asks me to remind you of the story of her cousin, the antelope. Do you know a story of the antelope?"
Jonathon stares at his son a moment, nods, drops to a bale of hay, and sobs, his great shoulders bent over his body. At last, he takes a rough breath, and looks up, to Jacob.
"My great grandfather told me the story of the Antelope," he says. "He told it like this.
"Long ago, the First People were cold and hungry. They did not know how to feed and clothe themselves, for the great sheets of ice had come from the north and covered the earth."
Jonathon stops, takes a long, slow breath. "I haven't thought of this since I was a child," he says.
"Antelope came to the People and told them to take his flesh for food, his skin for clothing.
"Because of Antelope's sacrifice, the First People survived the long ice winter."1
"I wasn't sure," Jacob whispers, looking at his feet. "I was afraid to tell you what I felt."
Jonathon reaches for the boy, pulls him down on a bale next to him, hugs him to his great chest. "You did right, son. Always trust your knowing."
In that moment Jacob does what I have never seen him do before, not through the long months of his mother's illness, not after she died, nor any time since.
He leans his head into his father's blood-stained shirt and weeps. He weeps until the last sobs and shudders have cleansed his body and his heart of a grief so long held that perhaps he no longer knew the difference between the pain and himself.
My hands, hot with Reiki these long minutes, cool at last and I take another deep breath, letting go. Letting go.
1I first saw a version of this story in Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1999.