Guest writer, Nod Ghosh, is a graduate of the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch. Short stories and poems appear in various New Zealand and international publications. Nod is an associate editor for Flash Frontier. Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com
“Many of my stories start off as dreams. They get tangled in the sheets, crawl out and leap onto the notepad on the bedside. Later, I liberate the partially tethered tales, and turn them into words.”
i only ever saw horse cry once.
it was a long time ago, when grandmother was still alive, though mama had been swallowed by a landfall the winter before. i was still a girl. a girl with chores and responsibilities. a girl on the brink of becoming a woman.
dunno how or why we knew horse. we just did. he was strong, with eyes like pieces of sky. he was like a big brother to bess and me. he looked out for us, brought us gifts when he could: a bit of meat from the injun market, ribbons to tie our hair. horse never knew i loved him that way though. he’d look at me like i was a kid sister or a favourite puppy. i followed him places whenever i could, hoping he’d notice i was something more than a child.
back then, folk had holes in their walls you could see through. wall-holes that let in light, but not the wind, the terrible biting wind that could tear the hair off a man’s head. you could open the wall-holes like doors. they called them wind-doors. kept bad spirits out too.
bess didn’t see horse cry that day. but i did, and things were never the same after that.
it was around the time blood started coming from me, though i hadn’t done nothing to make it. grandmother had to tear up one of her chemises to make bandages to stop the red running down my legs.
− never mind, penelope, she said. i have a good crop of taters coming. can get me a new one. just you be good and sure to boil them rags before next month.
bess saw the stains on my frock and was frightened, but grandmother told my little sister it would happen to her one day too, and it was just part of being a woman.
back in them days, folk made food come from out of the land. that was before the patent-men took it all away. grandmother had taters, carrits, apple-squash and grain. i’d help her with the planting and sometimes horse helped with the digging. he’d take his shirt off, and i’d follow behind, watching the sinews in his back form ridges as he worked.
on the morning of the day i saw horse cry, benjo wells was shouting at anyone with ears.
− the blue-folks got this machine on pengell’s beach. it knows if somethin’s other-worldish. they payin good credit for that stuff. good credit, he shouted, like it was the best thing to happen in years. i was wary of the blue-folk, though i’d never seen them do no one any harm. they came and went through our quarters all the time. aloof, all-knowing.
but that day, when benjo shouted, my ears twitched. i was interested. if the blue-folk were doing something other-worldish, i wanted to be there. horse loved the other-worldish.
− don’t go, penelope, grandmother said.
− i’m right here, i told her. i’m not going nowhere.
but when grandmother sat to do the mending, i snuck out through the hole in the wall. i made sure bess never followed. i figured if i could see horse, he’d see me with my new ribbons, and maybe, just maybe …
i took my old piece of flat-screen. horse had once said it might have been other-worldish.
there were tens of people at pengell’s. tens and tens and tens of ’em. the salty air made me want to run, so i did. the blue-folks’ machine was humming. it was tall as two men and green as the ocean with lights that shone like bits of sun. i don’t know how they got it to pengell’s. it was bigger than our shack.
a girl blue-folkster handed wooly reid back his khanda sword. it sure was ancient, but it didn’t look other-worldish. she pointed to the dial on the machine and shook her head.
− but that’s got to be other-worldish, wooly said. he was fretting coz he needed credit. his little un was dying. there was talk of a medicine-man who could fix her. but it cost credit. mega-tens of credit. i traced my finger round the pearly shape on my flat-screen. grandmother said she’d seen that shape before when she was a girl. it was like a fruit with a bite taken out of it, topped with a leaf. but i think she was confused. i hoped my flat-screen was other-worldish. if it was, i’d share my credit with wooly.
a white-skinned man i didn’t know put an old gaming box into the machine. i could tell it wasn’t going to be other-worldish. it was just old, from the days of electrix. the man was as disappointed as wooly when the dial flicked to the left.
− but how do you know it’s not other-worldish? the whiteman scraped his foot in the sandy earth. how does the machine work? he squared his shoulders, looking from one blue-folkster to the other.
− isotopes, they said. it always shut us up when they said clever things, things we didn’t understand.
i stayed most of the afternoon. the machine hummed. my stomach twisted with hunger, but i wouldn’t leave. time after time the dial flicked to the left. people walked away. dissatisfied. disappointed.
i thought about going back to the shack. grandmother might discover i was missing, and there’d be trouble. but i changed my mind when a familiar shape appeared in the distance.
the sun made him look like a sail on a boat, but i knew it was horse. something in my belly turned to molten wax.
he was riding man. together they jigged up and down, man trotting in that dignified way of his.
man was horse’s horse. he loved that creature. horse figured his horse had to be named man, coz he was called horse. man shook his mane and it shimmered in the wind like a crown of blue-black feathers. you’d often see the two of them. horse drinking at the inn, man waiting in the stables. man grazing on the synthetic paddock, with horse by his side smoking a beedi. horse rubbing man down. man nuzzling his head on horse’s shoulder.
man trudged through the sand. clop. clop. clop. i wasn’t the only one who was staring. a shiver went through the crowd. two growed-up girls near the blue-folks’ machine ran their fingers through their feather-bright hair, eyes wide with man-fever. horse never even saw me. he dismounted and kissed them both on the lips. i bit the inside of my cheek. the hurt kicked through me like an angry mule.
hoppity sherlock had carried his orange treasure from the uplands on his sled. it was the size of a chimney. he shook his fist at the girl blue-folkster when she told him it was a twentieth century washing machine drum.
− them’s not even real words, hoppity said. you just sayin that coz you won’t give me no credit. ain’t ever gonna give nuthin to a man like me.
− no, that’s not true, the girl blue-folkster said.
− put it in then, he insisted. so they heaved the rusty cylinder into the vault of the machine. the dial flicked to the left again. nothing. even the breath coming off him seemed angry as hoppity tied the drum thing back to the sled. his pig began pulling with a grunt.
three girls pecked around horse like birds looking for scraps. the girls had rhinestones on their foreheads and gowns without a single hole or patch all the way to their feet.
horse was so handsome in the leather jerkin. guess none of them girls knew my grandmother had made the jerkin for him, that i’d helped cut the pieces with my knife. guess they didn’t care.
horse handed the blue-folkster his piece. you could tell he was wary by the way he hung his head. horse’s weapon had the look of being other-worldish. i’d never seen nothing like it anywhere else. no one had. it could shoot darts, bullets and even flames without stopping. it never ran out of energy or ammo. horse couldn’t say how it worked. it just did. he said he’d found the gun, but i knew that was a lie. horse used to get things from the albino at the injun market, before the albino got taken away.
everyone went quiet. the machine whirred and clicked. it clicked some more. the girl blue-folkster pressed a button and the dial quivered.
then it swung to the right. red lights flashed. a roar went through the crowd.
people jostled and shoved. man whinnied. he was tethered to the parking-barrier with the other beasts and travel-contraptions. the rhinestone girls pushed through to the front, near horse. one of them fainted by his feet. i think she was faking it, coz she came round so quickly, once horse cradled her head in his arms. i forced my way to the front. everyone else was pushing and shoving, but i was small enough to squeeze through between the gaps. when I was close enough to touch him, horse saw me.
− penelope, was all he said.
then it was like i wasn’t there. a medicine-woman led the fallen rhinestone girl away. i slipped a little closer. horse talked to the blue-folk about credit. tens of it, mega-tens. a girl blue-folkster unloaded the weapon from the machine, and went to hand it to her companion. horse put his hand on her shoulder.
− i want to hold onto the weapon for a bit, he said. i’ve had it for many summers. just want to own it for a bit longer.
the blue-folk looked at each other. one of them offered horse more credit.
− no, it’s not that. what you’ve offered is fair, he said, i just want to handle my gun a bit longer, is all, to remember what it feels like to own it. then you can take it. what he said made me wonder why he was giving it to them at all. he loved that gun. horse always managed to find ways of getting credit when the rest of us were starving. i didn’t think he needed the creds. maybe he only wanted to know if his weapon was other-worldish, and that was that.
the blue-folk looked at one another. i couldn’t hear all they were saying, some of it was in their own language. but i could read their faces. i could tell they weren’t pleased. one of them said one thing, another said something else. the word trust was mentioned.
i was shoved away by the crowds. the rhinestone girls were pushing right up near horse again. they tugged at his jerkin. man neighed in the distance. someone growled an order. the blue-folkster handed horse the weapon.
− just for a while, she said.
he bowed. she bowed back.
horse trudged away, pointing his weapon upwards, careful not to hurt anyone. people kept a respectful distance as he walked to man. all except benjo wells, who thrust himself at my friend’s feet like horse was a god. a granite lump formed in my throat. horse stooped, urged benjo to stand up, the gun pointing wildly in all directions.
the girl blue-folkster tracked along, keeping within an arm’s length of horse. i pushed, desperate to follow, but got swallowed by the throng. i could barely see a thing. eventually i charged sideways, away from the hordes, then backed up and ran towards the animals. i got there ahead of the crowd.
horse untethered man and climbed onto his back. the animal cantered along pengell’s beach, i ran as fast as i could, to see what he’d do. the girl blue-folkster jumped onto her travel-contraption and floated through the air a few paces behind horse and man. blue gasjets hissed, as she pushed her device toward horse. she stuck close to them, as if bound by a string. she wasn’t going to let that other-worldish weapon out of her sight.
that’s when i understood how they’d tricked us. they made us think we wanted to give them our other-worldish things. they made us think the credits were important. it’s not that they wanted the other-worldish things for themselves. they just didn’t want us to have them. that’s why they were being so careful, in case the rest of us ordinary brown-folk had things from the other-world, and decided not to turn them in.
i ran towards horse.
the rhinestone girls ran along the sand, a hopeless distance behind. as if they could catch up, wobbling on flax and silk slippers, ankles turning on stones and sand.
when horse turned around, he was so far in the distance, both he and the blue-woman were almost invisible. he headed back towards us. some people had been starting to wander away by then. i guess they thought the spectacle was over, that horse wouldn’t be back. they guessed he’d changed his mind.
but his looping return caused everyone to stop.
there were ragged old women with silver hair, little kids, no taller than my waist. old men in vintage neoprene suits casting bets on what would happen next. we surged toward the waterfront. a few of the blue-folk stayed with the machine, guarding it.
horse urged man to go faster. the girl blue-folkster lagged behind on her flying machine, thrusting flames clearly visible as they got closer. horse turned to look behind him. the blue-folkster’s flying machine hissed, but she couldn’t keep up. horse pointed his weapon into the air and fired off a sheet of flame. one of the blue-folk shouted something in his own tongue. i don’t know what he said, but i knew it wasn’t good.
horse made a plume of fire, up up up into the air. he was almost back to the tethering post. hoppity sherlock’s pig squawked. someone had stood on its trotter. when i looked back, horse was riding man in a big circle. round and round on the beach, until he made a ring of fire in the air. the girl blue-folkster hung close by. she looked as if she might swoop upon him at any moment.
the crowd was delighted by the action, laughing and cheering, like they couldn’t sense how sinister the situation was. how dangerous.
− will you look at that? benjo wells cried, as horse directed man into the ocean. flames danced to the sky. it was like the show was coming to an end. like horse knew this was his last chance to play with something so special, so magical, something he now knew to be other-worldish. man waded deeper into the ocean at horse’s command. another roar went through the crowd, and then he turned back towards the shoreline.
not everyone was happy. a cluster of blue-folk hissed and made strange noises in their own language. a pair mounted a mechanical cart, a magical chariot propelled by flames. there was a hiss and a roar as it lifted into the air. they headed towards horse and man.
then it happened. some shouting. a response. then someone fired a weapon.
man was alarmed by the sound of the shot. the creature had kept his cool whilst his master was shooting flames. it was something he was familiar with, as if he sensed the weapon was in safe hands. but this time, he bucked and reared. the animal almost threw horse off his back. the crowd stopped pushing forward.
it was like everyone was holding their breath.
man reared up again.
the blue-folk in the chariot surged ahead toward the pair. another shot. horse let off another cascade of fire. man whinnied and bucked again. then something terrible happened.
even now, in my old age, i don’t know how it came to be. flames leapt into the air. there was a crashing and crunching as the chariot reared and twisted. one of the blue-folk jumped out and fell into the sea. he grappled with horse for the weapon. he didn’t have to fight very hard. the smell of burning flesh wafted in with the sea breeze. horse sat very still, waves lapping his legs.
when i reached him, most of the crowd had fled. the blue-folk were walking back towards the machine, people shouting and spitting in their wake. the girl blue-folkster had horse’s weapon. she walked past me without looking at my face. she headed towards other blue-folksters who were disassembling the green machine, folding it into smaller parts.
i turned back to horse. he was half in, half out of the water. a collection of shiny baubles lay in the sand around my friend. the credit. tens of it. i was surprised the likes of hoppity sherlock, or even wooly reid hadn’t tried to gather up the pieces of wealth strewn on the ground. i suppose they realised it was best to leave the man and his horse alone, to show horse and man some respect.
i approached. i was shy and didn’t know what to say. horse was stroking man’s head. man was still in death. the tide was coming in. water lapped higher over the animal’s legs. i knelt beside them, uncertain what to do.
horse was crying. big tears ran down his cheeks like beads. i put my arm around him. i loved being so close to him, even though his face was locked in grief, and he didn’t even notice i was there.
that was when i saw man move.
he twisted his head slightly, as if trying to lay it on horse’s thigh. the animal’s cheek was charred and distorted. there was a hole where part of his head should have been. i could see his teeth through it. horse’s tears fell on the creature, a stinging balm soaking into his exposed flesh.
that was years ago. i’ve never seen a tear leave horse’s eye since then. it’s like all the sadness a man could harbour left him when that terrible thing happened. he never cried again, not even when the fever got bess and she died.
horse enters the shack. there’s a boar over his shoulder. his matted hair, lined with silver streaks splays over the animals flank. the boys take the carcass from their father, set to work, cutting, skinning. their sister sings as she stirs the pot. little bess looks like my mama, but her voice is like her mother’s. she reminds me so much of my sister, it hurts. she stops crooning, looks at me.
− thanks for fetching the water, aunt penelope.
and then she finishes her song.
First published takahe 87