By Joanna Lucas, Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary
This is all you saw at first, or maybe this is all that your mind could take in at one time -- not a whole picture, but manageable bits and fragments. You saw a large, white shape lumped by the side of the road. You saw an angular jumble of legs, knees, knuckles, elbows, hooves and ribs. You saw a broken, emaciated body whose breathing was so shallow as to be virtually indistinguishable from the constant shivering that rippled through it with a flutter so faint that it seemed stirred by the rustle of a passing breeze, not by the internal labor of muscles struggling and wrestling to keep the body warm and alive.
You saw a pale maze of nicks and scrapes extending from the neck down to the back and sides, the record of the shearer's rush to take the last thing he could plunder from the dying alpaca -- her coat, her only remaining defense in the world -- before dumping her now "useless" body in a ditch outside the sanctuary gate and leaving her to freeze to death. You saw a bulging abscess on the right cheek and a deep indentation on the bridge of her nose from the lifelong grip of a tight harness that had only recently been removed.
And finally, reluctantly, as she opened her eyes and looked at you in silent supplication, blinking softly, shining her wounded gaze on you with a despair so intense it verged on sound, you saw, as you had to, the face of a desecrated young life. An interminable minute later, as she closed her eyes again with infinite fatigue, you saw simply a suffering soul. This suffering soul. Willow.
We bundled her in blankets, rushed her to the warmest barn, packed hot water bottles around her core, and started her on broad spectrum antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication. A few hours of constant care later, her breathing got stronger but her temperature was still below normal, and she was still listless, disoriented and unable to hold her head up, needing support just to remain in sternal position.
But, by nightfall, she took a turn for the better -- she drank a few sips of water, ate a few handfuls of alfalfa, and became more alert with each bite. It was impossible not to be elated seeing her regain enough strength to sit up, enough will to nourish herself, and enough hope to look around, if not with interest, at least with minimal involvement. But it was also impossible to forget that her condition was serious enough that she might not make it through the night.
Amazingly, she not only survived the night, she woke up hungry, thirsty and, despite the deep, lingering weakness, she eagerly accepted every treat and absorbed every bit of affection with the intense urgency of the starved, demanding more, nudging you gently if you stopped stroking her, extending her swan neck towards you and leaning her face against your cheek as if inviting a kiss, nuzzling your nose with the fuzz of her nose, making intense eye contact as if trying to read something important in your gaze -- or communicate it -- and, when all this activity left her exhausted, she merely leaned against you as if the nourishment of a loving touch was enough to sustain her. And by mid morning she seemed strong enough to withstand the trying trip to the vet where she was scheduled for tests, evaluation, diagnostic, treatment and, we dearly hoped, a cure.
The diagnosis was as swift as it was grave, and the prognosis was poor -- she had been starved for so long that her organs were probably irreversibly damaged and her chances of survival were slim to none. There was nothing they could do for her at the clinic that we couldn't (and hadn't already) done at home -- keeping her warm, boosting her system with lightly heated IV fluids and additional rounds of Baytril and Banamine -- so we bundled her in blankets, settled her in the back of the minivan, and took her home where she could at least rest quietly, away from the noise and stress of the bustling veterinary clinic. She was almost pert during the drive, sitting up, swiveling the radars of her ears to catch every sound, and peering at the darkening landscape that was unfolding outside the window, watching silently until all the fields and the roads and the sky disappeared into the early winter night and the only image left in the window was her own reflection.
Back at home, we nestled her in a bed of cushions, blankets and heating pads, and we took turns watching her for the rest of the night, holding her as she drifted in and out of sleep, making sure that she fell asleep in loving arms and woke up in the cradle of the same warm embrace. Throughout the night, she remained eager to commune, connect and communicate -- looking intently into your eyes, leaning trustingly against you, touching noses and drawing in the breeze of your breath as if inhaling not just air but some essential knowledge, some vital force that she found in her caregivers' love, and responding with the caress of her own dulcet breath.
And, heartbreakingly, as her lethargy deepened, she grew more, not less, curious and engaged, as if compelled to learn something important about the brightness of this new life where everything could still happen -- this life that was finally releasing its nectar just as she was dying -- as if wanting to be present for this love that was now, astonishingly, surrounding her in such improbable abundance, and to experience this absolute devotion that was there when she went to sleep and that, amazingly, was still there when she woke up.
In our two days and nights together, we heard Willow's voice only once. She had woken up from a short sleep and lifted her head to touch noses again and to breathe in the loving presence of friends, locking eyes and gazing with a new intensity as if to entrust you with something urgent. And then she let out the softest feather of a sigh, the sweetest whisper, the most mellifluous of her 86,400 breaths, a sound of such aching purity and purpose that it felt like grace. A sound that your mind could not, dared not, take in as one seamless note but had to break into manageable bits and fragments -- there was the knell of her last breath, there was the muffled crumple of her body collapsing into nothingness, there was the terrible soundlessness that followed, the shattering silence of a stilled life.
And then, long after her last whisper had stirred the air, you finally heard it. The soft whimper of all that is pure and broken, shackled, starved, crushed, buried alive under the wreckage of our reckless appetites, still breathing its labored breath under the collapsed building of our humanity, and still speaking of love, and still begging to be heard. Hear it. It's the only true voice you'll ever hear, the only true thing in your life, and the only guide out of the darkness of a humanity that savors the anguish of beings like Willow as a taste, a fashion, an amusement. Listen. It's your own voice.