FEBRUARY 2008 – NO. 21
Luck with Horses
The second story selection from our sixth Guest Fiction Editor, Natalie Danford
Martin and Alison walked along a hall, the carpet wide '70s stripes of orange, pink, and red, the walls black, the lighting overhead dim. The air smelled of cigarette smoke and spilled beer. They'd left the horse truck all the way back in the car park. As they reached the top of an enclosed overpass, Alison paused at a window to look at the glass towers on the other side of the water and at the riverbank below, jammed with people jogging or walking, plugged into iPods, deaf to the sound of cars roaring along Kingsway. Martin watched as Alison backed away from the glass and tried to rub a dog's paw print off her jeans, now visible in the daylight. Her hair looked damp and smelled of pears; her fringe touched her eyelashes. There was dirt in the creases of her fingers.
They descended more ramps, following signs to the casino. The air grew staler, the light dimmer. He hoped the bouncer would let Alison enter. She always looked like a tramp. He wished she could hide where they'd come from — a small town on the edge of a swamp — the way he'd covered the switchblade strapped to his calf with long socks and jeans.
These places would be first to go when the end of the world came. Casinos were full of money, and that was what people would think they needed. It was a vulnerable building, despite the thickness of its cement walls and the way people felt insulated from everything while inside. It was close to the highway, across the river from the central business district and surrounded by multi-level car parks that would make it indefensible. It was important to find his mother and take her away from here.
They passed enormous silver coins affixed to the wall on their left. They weren't mirrors exactly, but they threw back warped reflections. Martin looked stick-thin. For a second he saw himself nude: the tallow-colored flesh beneath his clothes; the zipper marks of a white scar on his shoulder, the knots of broken ribs, the long white groove on his calf, all from a riding accident. Then he kneeled, pressing the knife hard against his ankle. The knife anchored him to the present moment, stopping his mind from drifting backwards to the accident. When he glanced again at the mirror he saw how he really looked, his black cords and brown sweater. The metal distorted his face, smoothing his acne and accentuating his large beak of a nose and glasses.
The accident had happened years earlier. The memory of falling remained inside him always. He thought of it as a kernel of weakness, born of a moment of terror. A few years earlier a horse he'd been riding at Pakenham racetrack had bolted. The wind roared in his ears; his hands slipped on the sweaty leather. Now he always lived knowing that he hadn't been able to stop the horse, despite all his yanking on the reins. Nor had he been able to interrupt what followed: the horse running straight towards the curve of the white rail, trying to leap but too addle-brained to rise high enough, clipping the rail with its forelegs, somersaulting and flinging Martin to the ground, shattering its cannon bone. A bullet through the white star on the horse's forehead; and Martin, more fortunate, suffering concussion, broken ribs, punctured lung, screwed-up shoulder, his leg bone a handful of fragments miraculously plated together. Ever since, he'd been too scared to ride.
He shook his head. He couldn't let the kernel of weakness fill him. Instead, he had to find the guts to go through with his plan.
How did they fool the bouncer? Martin didn't know, but here they stood inside the casino, aisles of slot machines singing fake happy electronic tunes. The walls were insulated with thick rough plaster. The carpet had changed, and was a royal blue decorated with golden horseshoes.
Once Alison had made it into the casino, she acted like she was on vacation. She was sixteen, but she seemed so young. In the dim light her eyes looked too big, her lips too full. Her nickname had been abo, the other kids yelling out to her in the schoolyard. No one knew if she really had aboriginal blood, or what it would mean if she did.
Now she stopped and stuffed a coin into a slot machine, pulled the handle and won two dollars. Then she tried to give her winnings to Martin, who let the coins fall through his hands. Dirty money, he thought. She pushed the coins into the pockets of her hoody, jangling them between her fingers as she walked. It seemed impossible for her to keep her hands off things. He watched as she ran her fingers over slot machines and railings. He didn't want her carrying any diseases into the mountains. Of course, she didn't know about the mountains yet.
A lot of predictions about the apocalypse talked about wars in the Middle East. Now the Americans had sent another aircraft carrier to tool around in the Gulf. It could happen so easily, not the way the religious loonies imagined, but in a completely mundane way. He saw it in his mind's eye: a map of the world, red pins marking where the Americans bombed Iran. A red blot spreading like blood where Iran bombed Israel. The mushroom cloud that was Israel's nuking of Tehran. After that, he wasn't sure how it would happen. Rioting, spreading out from the Middle East. Unseated governments in Africa and Asia, then nukes and weapons in the hands of terrorists; attacks and counter attacks. It had already begun in a creeping way. The world could spin out of control as surely as mud in a gateway could hold fast to a rubber boot and suck it down.
He strained his eyes looking through the darkness for his mother's shape among the slot machines, or for her sitting on a stool at a blackjack table. He looked for her wide hips spreading over a stool, her dark dry wavy hair. It was easy to imagine the expression on her face: the concentrated look in her eyes, the way she leaned forward, her lips slightly apart, one hand twitching in her lap, the other holding a fan of cards.
At the top of a flight of stairs a huge screen covered one wall, showing horse races. There was no sound. The horses were large as life: glossy, their manes short, their heads held high as they cantered towards the starting gates. The jockeys stood up in their stirrups in white jodhpurs, black boots and synthetic colors. Martin and Alison leaned against the handrail and watched as horses were stuffed into the starting gates. Men pulled at bridles, pushed rumps and slammed gates behind rear ends. Most of the horses had to be dragged forcefully into the gates. Alison stood beside Martin, chewing her hair.
"I know that horse," she said, pointing. "It's a filly. She won at Sandown a few weeks ago." She rode Martin's father's horses in training, and was going to get her apprentice jockey's license as soon as she could.
He was so full of nerves that his jaw had locked up and he couldn't speak. The horse she was talking about was a flaming chestnut color, with a crooked white blaze. The camera moved and then skittered back, so that he caught the white of the filly's eye rolled back as the door was shut behind her rump.
The horse had never lived any way but this, he thought. She didn't know if she wanted to run or not; she was forced to gallop, bred to surge forward when the gates opened. She'd always run guided by white rails, the way forward a narrow opening, a tunnel with horse's legs and shoulders on either side. There was only one way to gallop around a racetrack, and it was with a whip at the flank, with the press and sweat of other horses, with the starter's opening of the gates and the photo finish. He felt sorry for the horse, for her narrow life and her ignorance. His sympathy almost brought him to tears as the gates opened. The camera kept coming back to the filly's face. She was the favorite. He saw her eye, large and chestnut-colored, her white bridle, her nostrils flaring as she galloped, as she overtook the middle of the pack and the track became a clear strip of grass before her. Martin imagined what it would feel like to ride her; how her muscles would move underneath him. The speed would take his breath away. The thought made him feel weak and sick.
He shut his eyes. Maybe it was because of the kernel, the fact that he was supposed to ride but couldn't anymore that he wanted the world to end. He longed for it. When the world ended all of the stupid racetracks they were meant to gallop around would be smashed to pieces.
"My filly won." Alison smiled, gathering up her hair in her hands, and then letting it flop down onto her shoulders again. He liked her eyes. They were so large as to be like the eyes of a horse, and her eyelashes were long and dark.
"We're not going to find her," Martin said. "This place is a maze."
"Come on," she said. She held out her hand.
He'd never touched her before. Touching her hand, which was chapped and dry, gave him a rush. She walked down the stairs. He followed.
The screen illuminated everything. At the bottom of the stairs men stood around with plastic cups of beer and betting tickets, and he could see the lines on their faces, their fingers around their beers. They were too old and soft to survive, he thought. Wrecked by beer and gambling.
And his mother stood with her back to them at the snack bar cashier. He saw her narrow waist and broad hips. His throat felt closed over. She turned around and walked in their direction without noticing him, carrying a sandwich in a triangular plastic container in one hand, and a can of coke and a straw in the other. Her features looked softer than he remembered. Her jaw and nose didn't look as craggy, and her eyes looked deep set, almost bottomless. He would never know what she was looking for in these places; what she hoped to see in her hand of cards. She wanted to win, of course. But she must also want to lose, he thought, for whether she won or lost she seemed exhilarated.
She wore the uniform of women who worked in the casino: a skirt that hugged her hips and a matching jacket, underneath which she wore a navy shirt with little golden horseshoes all over it. Half way towards him she stopped and stared.
The plan — the map of the Snowy Mountains, the trails marked with red lines; the truck full of restless horses and cans of beans — flashed before his eyes. How would he convince her to come with him? How could he say, "You are in danger. Let me save you."
She embraced him. She smelled of smoke, of foundation and a floral perfume. He loved the feel of her muscular arms, even the rough texture of her uniform.
"I've missed you," she whispered.
He didn't want to react, but his skin prickled. "You missed me, but you ran away again?"
"Ran away," she said, drawing back. She looked hurt. "Is there something wrong with a lady living her own life, earning some money of her own?"
"You working here?"
"What does it look like?"
He nodded and looked down. The idea was to take her to the mountains to live for a few months in the high clean air. It was spring. The snow must be melting and there would be lots of grass for the horses.
His mother said, "You Martin's girlfriend?"
Alison shook her head. "My mother died," she said. "She was an alco. We should've done something about it."
"I'm sorry to hear that. I knew her, didn't I? Joanna. Is that why you came to find me?"
Alison had a confused look on her face, as if she'd hoped this argument would speak for itself. Why had he brought her?
Martin's mother fiddled with the plastic casing that enclosed the sandwich. "It's good to see you. I'm working a split shift today, so I need to eat my lunch and get back to it in an hour. Maybe you should visit another time?" Then she turned her head, looking in the direction of the blackjack tables.
Martin's pimples itched. Whether the world crumbled or not was nothing to his mother. He was nothing to her. All she cared about were chips and cards. She was so oblivious it frightened him.
Alison said, "Come back to the truck with us. We want to show you something. You can eat your sandwich on the way."
His mother glanced at her watch. Alison placed her hand on his mother's wrist, and his mother shifted her wrist gently to shake Alison's hand off, and gave Alison a sideways glance.
If Martin had the guts he'd bend down and slip the knife handle into his sleeve. He'd press his hand against his mother's back, so she could feel the hard plastic of the handle, would guess what it was. Even as he thought about it he wondered why he couldn't do it, why he was so weak.
"I guess I could. We'll have to be quick. Tell me, what is it you want to show me?"
"They really let you in here," his mother said. "You smell of horses." She smiled, and then she reached out and touched Martin's hair.
Martin bit his lip. "I brought you some money, but I left it in the truck. I bet you haven't been paid yet."
She nodded and smiled. "You're as smart as ever. You're right. They're slack bastards here when it comes to paying you."
She began to walk in the direction of the exit. Martin and Alison walked on either side of her.
He couldn't breathe yet. They had to get his mother into the truck and keep her there. Outside, light glittered on the river and reflected from the glass windows of office blocks. Alison's face looked pale; she hid her eyes behind her fringe. In the sunlight, his mother's face looked old and lined.
When they reached the truck they could hear one of the horses trying to dig his way through the floor. A brown muzzle sniffed them through the bars near the roof. Alison opened the door into the horses' part of the truck. There was a small compartment where he'd piled up supplies. It was separated from the horses by a partition.
"I have to go," his mother said. "Only had this job two weeks. Don't want to blow it. Could you give me that money? I hate doing this." She looked at her watch.
"Have you lost much?" he asked. He couldn't resist.
She shook her head and scuffed one of her cheap heels against the concrete.
Alison stood in the doorway to the supply compartment. "Why don't you come in here and look at these horses? Here you are, living in the city. You don't even get the chance to smell a horse."
His mother loved horses. There was no way Alison could have known that it was horses that had drawn his mother back to the swamp, over and over. Martin felt his blood thumping in his ears. His mother might see the supplies; might wonder why he was traveling with a truck full of horses.
"I gotta stay clean," his mother said.
"You'll stay clean," Alison said. She leaned down and held out her hand.
Martin stood as close to the truck as he could. He even put his hand on the blue door. Some peeling paint fell off.
His mother stepped up into the truck. She turned, stood next to Alison inside the compartment and looked over the partition at the nearest horse, a flighty gray colt Alison loved. They stood in shadow, their hands on the colt's flank, laughing at the horse's twitching skin. Martin hesitated only long enough to glimpse the creases around his mother's mouth as she smiled. He slammed the door shut, Alison and his mother still inside. The door was lighter than he expected. He kept his shoulder against the steel and managed to slide the bolt home.
"What the hell are you doing?" his mother screamed. "You shit! You kidnapping me?" She pushed against the door.
Martin got into the truck, turned the ignition and found his way out of the car park in a blur. Once he reached Kingsway he couldn't hear his mother. There was a hole in the truck's muffler, and the engine roared in his ears.
He'd thought about it for ages — whether to take horses or not — because if he took them he'd have to ride. But the more he'd thought about it, the clearer it became. To be safe they needed horses. The mountains were vast. There were no roads, only trails. Without horses they wouldn't be able to get to the heart of them.
As he drove the kernel filled him. He kept imagining putting his foot in the stirrup, taking the reins in his hands and the horse ignoring him, plowing on through the brush. There would be no white rail to stop them. The horse might gallop forever.
By late afternoon he was hungry, lost and running out of gas. He was somewhere in the Dandenongs, low forest-covered hills on the outskirts of Melbourne. Maybe they were on the way to the Snowy Mountains; in his confusion the road signs made no sense. Now the road was a narrow strip of blacktop, climbing a hill covered in forest, the trees obscuring all but the road in front of him, the light fading. He would have to stop for a moment. He found a track to a picnic ground where he could get off the road.
The car park was surrounded on all sides by mountain ash, its bark hanging down in long gray strips. The cold air smelled of sassafras, eucalyptus oil and earth. There was a small grass clearing, barbecues and a trail leading up a slope between tall trees. Light fell in triangles between trunks and branches.
As soon as he got out he could hear his mother yelling.
He ignored her, trying to gather his thoughts. His mother and Alison were kicking at the door. The horses' eyes were visible through grates near the truck ceiling. Their nostrils flared in fear.
Then his mother and Alison stopped yelling and threw themselves against the door.
He walked to the edge of the clearing and thought about the map with its red lines and his plan. He couldn't hear another car on the road. There was no wind, and the forest was full of silence. His mother had left him for weeks lying injured in the hospital, the kernel growing inside him, a balloon of air, while she raised or folded at the blackjack table. The cards and how they fell and her plans were always at the forefront of her mind, and the thought of her son lying in hospital was an unpleasant hammering somewhere towards the rear. This thought made him shaky.
Only one thing might steady him, and at the same time keep Alison and his mother under control. He bent down and took out his knife. It was easy enough to open the blade; there was lever at the base of the handle.
He returned to the truck and unlatched the door before they broke it. The bolts were about to give way.
His mother stepped out. Her casino uniform was still clean, but one of the heels had come off her shoes, and she stood with one leg longer than the other.
She looked at the knife. She didn't appear frightened. He wanted her to feel something. The casino, he thought, had anesthetized her.
She said, "I don't care how old you are. When I get the chance I'm going to hit you so hard you won't ever forget it."
Alison glanced at the knife and then looked away. He felt sorry. She'd thought he was delivering the horses to a spelling property, and taking his mother to a treatment program for gamblers. Without saying anything she walked around to the rear of the truck and let down the ramp. She disappeared into the truck, and then reappeared leading a gray gelding. He was the quietest, oldest beast; a retired racehorse Martin had picked out for himself. Just to see the creature, with his large Roman nose and round hooves, made Martin feel sick.
From the trees came the sound of bellbirds. It was like high-pitched bells, on and on in the dusk.
His mother stood with her legs apart, and her eyes wide. "Doesn't matter how much I screwed with your head, there's no excuse for what you're doing."
She looked uncomfortable, standing unevenly on the grass, her skirt riding up, a long ladder in one of her pantyhose. Alison unloaded the second horse, the red filly he'd picked out for his mother. She tied the horse up to the truck.
"What are you doing?" Martin said.
"The horses need to get out. They've been locked up for hours." Alison answered.
Then she went back up the ramp and brought down the gray colt. The colt was restless. Alison tried to persuade him to eat grass, but he'd been imprisoned for too long, and he was spinning around, tossing his head and snorting, trying to strike her. He was the kind of horse who needed to gallop every day, otherwise he jumped out of his skin with nerves.
Martin's mother asked, "Have you lost your mind?"
"We're going to the mountains. Have something to drink from the supply compartment and we'll get back in the truck and keep going." He put the knife down on the bumper of the truck, hoping to reason with them.
"No way," his mother said. "Are you nuts?"
He shook his head. He had to control the situation, make them do what he wanted.
Alison brushed her fringe out of her eyes and glared at him. Then she turned away and scratched the gray colt's shoulder until he relaxed, his upper lip lengthening in pleasure.
His mother slid along the truck with her back to it. Martin knew she was making for the knife. He snatched it up, grasping the knife's black grooved handle in his palm, its blade shut.
"Give me that," his mother said. She grabbed his wrist and dug her fingernails into his veins and sinews, as if hoping to make him release the knife.
Her fingernails were long and sharp. He yelped. Worse, it was his weak arm, the one he couldn't raise above shoulder height. He held onto the knife anyway. The trigger for the blade was at the base of the handle, and with his free hand he tried to reach it. She was trying to fend him off with her spare arm, while digging into the wrist holding the knife. He twisted away from her, throwing his free arm outwards, striking her in the face.
She let go of his wrist and he reached the lever with his fingers. The knife sprang open, its blade dull gray in the evening light.
She backed off, raising her hand to her mouth.
Sweat trickled down his back. "I'm sorry." He stepped closer, wanting to peel her hand from her face, to see what he had done and to do something to make it better.
His mother seemed strangely calm. She shook her head.
"Show me," he said. "I'm sorry."
Alison stood near the truck, the gray colt beside her, his reins in her hands. Martin saw that she'd saddled the horse without his noticing. She shifted her head in the direction of the trail leading up the hill. His mother caught this gesture and nodded in answer. Alison threw a saddle onto the red filly's back and tightened the girth.
"Stop," Martin said. He came closer, reaching for the filly's bridle.
The filly wrinkled her muzzle and tossed her head in suspicion so that he couldn't grab her. He had only his weak arm free; the other hand was holding the knife.
His mother held the filly's reins in her fist. In one smooth motion she leaped aboard the horse like a cowboy.
Alison didn't look at him. She put her foot in the stirrup and swung her leg over the colt's back. Martin's mother turned her head away from him. He caught a glimpse of a streak of blood on her chin and her split lower lip anyway.
Martin stepped backwards, feeling as if he was about to cry. What had he been thinking? All the while he'd been trying to build a racetrack for them, pushing them into starting gates, just as he'd seen the filly with the crooked blaze and chestnut eye had been dragged to the start. Rightly, they had rebelled.
Without hesitating they bent forward over their horses' necks like jockeys. Now they were across the clearing and cantering up the hill, his mother in front, Alison behind. The gray colt's rump and tail disappeared into the brush.
"Stop," Martin said again.
But he knew they wouldn't. He left the old gray horse tied to the truck and ran after them, shivering and sick with what he had done.
It was no use. They'd pressed their horses into a gallop. Even from the trailhead he could not longer see them, only hear their hooves. Meanwhile the old gray horse pawed the ground and pulled at the untied end of his rope as if to free itself. Martin shoved the knife, its blade shut, into his pocket. He walked back across the clearing and thought of loading the old gray horse onto the truck, of following the road and trying to catch them. It seemed futile.
Instead he untied the horse from the truck, knowing that if he came to a fork in the trail the horse would know which way the others had gone. Martin tried to run, but it was hard to keep up with the horse.
In the end, his heart thrashing around in his chest, breathless, he knotted the rope around the horse's neck and convinced it to stand close to a tree stump, where he scrambled aboard. The horse jogged sideways as he took the rope in his hands. Then it jumped forwards and he jerked backwards, surprised and frightened, his stomach lurching, his hands weak.
Sweat dampened the old horse's neck. He could feel it against his knuckles. The horse's hair scratched him through his cords and its jutting backbone hurt him. The rope was rough in his hands. A branch at shoulder height caused him to duck at the last minute. He'd never been part of a horse; he couldn't ride like his mother.
The knife was digging into his thigh. He took it out of his pocket and threw it into a stand of mountain ash. It landed with a rustle. That's what he'd say when he saw them: that the knife was in the trees.
The birds grew quieter. He could smell peppermint, sassafras, crushed grass. Up above where the branches parted were a few white stars. He pressed the horse on with his heels, and the horse went faster and faster. He began to feel hopeful. It didn't matter that the rope slipped through his fingers, that the horse was going at a canter. He swallowed his fear.
After all, he could hear voices ahead. As the horse cantered on, as he steered it through the trees, or it steered itself, he felt that he could ride after all. This thought gave him pleasure. Perhaps he could go riding with Alison. One day she might trust him enough to let him take her by the hand.
He shook his head. No, she wouldn't trust him. His mother would want to hand him over to the police. They thought him crazy. They would never understand about the apocalypse until it happened — if it ever did. For now, all he could do was press on, feel the horse's warmth. He leaned forward and kissed its spiky salty mane.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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