Horses

  • Published by The Litchfield Review, Winter 2008
  • We are all waiting. Our backsides hurt from sitting on cold-stoned terrace steps. We have eaten our reheated hamburgers and choripanes, and we are waiting. By fortune a tin roof covers our heads, otherwise the drizzle would have made us wet by now. In front of us the dust of the track becomes muddier and darker in color. From chestnut to manure brown; it heightens the contrast with the dull colorless sky. We witness the transformation. I just hope the horses don’t slip and fall while they are jumping.

    The air we breathe is a moist mixture of horse-droppings, spring water and broiled ground beef. And dirt. Wet dirt. My binoculars hang around my neck, as everybody else’s. It will only take us a second to bring them to our eyes when the time comes – a fleeting instant. The time it takes us to blink. As everybody else, I am ready. And waiting.

    And then suddenly they emerge, two of them, from a side stable. The mist restrains our visions, but we see them anyway. In spite of our readiness they catch us unaware and we have to fumble crazily to reach for our prismatics.

    They are trotting and, to our surprise, they are rider-less. They are bare and sweaty. We see men running after them with expensive leather saddles and brushes of different sizes dangling from their arms, but the stallions outdo them in no time. They are soon running free across the field.

    At first they seem identical – twin brothers – but then, with my binoculars in place, I see they are not as alike as they seemed. The horses march with their bodies erect, their heads tall and their ears straight; yet while one is black and long, the other is dark gray and much shorter.

    They march side by side, even though they have the entire racetrack to wander. It doesn’t take me long to realize that the black-purple one – the taller one – is following the other one, the lead-tinted stockier one. It repeats its movements – its distinctive shifts and gestures – as in a synchronized slightly off-timed choreography. One might have thought it to be the other way around: the short one trailing the tall one. But no. Once again our presumptions fail us. The dark one saunters a few feet behind, the necessary distance so as not to have to think about choosing its way, yet close enough so as not to feel lost, while the other rambles majestically wherever it pleases. When Gray snorts, Black snorts back. And so forth. Perhaps they’re talking, carrying out a conversation.

    Their round eyes are wide-open and alert. Their nostrils are dilated and flap in the damp breeze. Their breathing is heavy. Their hooves clap with fury against the undusted surface, leaving behind them a trail of shaken roan powder. They are oblivious to the consistent bothersome drizzle. They expertly evade the stools, Pullvermans and ditches placed along the way; the ones they were trained to jump. Watching them I recall suddenly the Bedouin legend where God decides one day to transform the hot south desert wind of the Sahara into a creature that can fly without wings, giving birth to the Arabian horse – and it all makes sense. For these proud deep-breathing studs are indeed flying. They are flying as no bird ever did. I (we) can’t take our eyes away from them. They are beautiful. We are entranced.

    The stallions gallop across the arena, letting their long manes swing from side to side, which are groomed and clean in spite of the rain. They seem to enjoy their weightless movements: without saddles, girths, riders or stirrups hanging from their ribcages. They circle around the ascending rows of stairway seats, showing off their toned figures and their freedom. When they pass near me, I smell the dung; the dirt; the sweat.

    Unexpectedly, Gray jumps over a three-tiered hurdle and continues as if nothing had happened: its nose points to the sky; its nostrils are wide and alive and its mouth is pursed in an arrogant sneer. In the meantime the other one – Blacky – imitates Gray, and after landing safely on the ground rambles in search of its companion, its neck and leg muscles standing out provocatively and its ears sharp: Gray’s sudden move must have startled it, as it had startled us. We – Blacky, the keepers, the trainers, the riders, the viewers – are dumbfounded and expectant: we all want to see what Gray does next.

    The keepers and the riders are on the side of the track. Their hands are under their chins, and their brows and lips are pressed together in a frown. The riders wear solid helmets, knee-high leather boots and tight milk-colored breeches; that’s how I tell them apart from the stablemen. They are visibly nervous.

    Gray jumps again, overcoming this time a board painted in red-and-white triangles and squares. As it lands it raises its graceful head and turns to the audience. Instinctively we start clapping. Satisfied, the Arab stallion resumes its trot without waiting for its brother, who is jumping after him.

    The two of them continue alternately sorting obstacles and receiving applause. Time passes. We are having a great time. We are thinking that we never had so much fun in the track. From afar we see one of the two riders remove his helmet and throw it on the ground before grabbing his hair with his hands, as if wanting to pull it out as well. The other rider is beside him and ignores him. He paces back and forth, two or three feet at a time, right and left. It occurs to me that he might make a hole out of the patch of soil. The keepers, meanwhile – four of them are in view –, are in shock. They remain fixed to their spots, frozen like statues.

    A short time later I glance back and catch them whispering, hush-hushing to one another, as in the broken telephone game I used to play when I was a girl. The cryptic message sails from one ear to the other, mingling the turbulent breaths of the men anchored at the white lines that enclose the racetrack. I wonder if the content of the secret is kept intact, or varies as the windy words are received by each listener.

    When they finish the keepers start to run, as the horses had done – albeit a bit more strikingly – a while before (only the men are fully-clothed). The riders remain behind. They are silent and looking ahead of them with resigned expressions. One of them is shaking his head from side to side. He doesn’t look happy.

    And all the while Gray and Blacky have been jumping and showing us their talent. As they sense the men approaching, however, they start to hurry. Gray races toward a wide water ditch at the far end of the track, an obstacle that until then we hadn’t seen or paid attention to. It has stopped raining. The clouds slowly give way to a pale exhausted sky, but none of us cares or notices.

    Gray marches with confidence, picking up speed; it has done this before; it seems to know what it is doing. Blacky follows close behind, with more caution, I feel. The gap between them widens, though it is still not noticeable. They have yet a considerable way to go.

    While we watch the horses run toward the water, we see a truck emerge from a shack on one side of the pit. It is faster than the stallions. To our amazement the vehicle transports a lump of cement on its fender. The truck stops a few feet past the ditch and lowers the ledger. After leaving the slab there, it turns and returns to the shack from where it had set out.

    We gasp. Gray is approaching. It sees the wall and tries to stop, but it is so near the ditch and has picked up so much speed by now that it is unable to. We see the riders rush across the field. Each one screams a different name. “Oscar!” says one. “Darío!” says the other, in a lower tone of voice. The one who shouted Oscar is crying and keeps repeating: “No lo hagas, Oscar. ¡No lo hagas, por Dios!” But Oscar does it anyway. It jumps and bumps into the gray wall. It falls. The other one, Blacky – or Darío – however you prefer to call it, has just enough time to stop and skirt around the ditch. The rider who had been shouting its name goes after it; he summons it to go to him. “¡Daríííío! Venga Darío, venga con papá…”

    Yet Darío does not pay attention. It is reared up and going wildly in circles. It snorts angrily. It can’t decide whether to go to the rescue of its ailing brother or dedicate itself instead to fleeing from its rider’s grasp.

    In the meantime the four keepers reach Oscar’s side in the company of a team of uniformed men bearing red-crossed boxes. A loudspeaker announces that the show has been cancelled and that our money will be returned to us at the box-office, yet none of us moves.

    By the time the loudspeaker falls silent, Darío has been caught. It took four men. We curse the speaker’s voice under our breaths for distracting us from the action. The catchers pat Darío’s mane and murmur sweet-nothings into its rigid ears. On the other side of the track, where Oscar is lying, men shake their heads, but not with the riders’ desperation of moments before; this time the gesture expresses dismay and hopelessness.

    We observe Darío being led to the stables. The others, meanwhile, await reinforcements to transport Oscar, whose ears are tense and pressed backwards and its eyes half-closed. It is howling with pain. We see someone press a thick needle into one of its front legs to calm and subdue it while another person rubs, massages and applies ointment to the damaged limb. Some people prefer not to witness this spectacle and remove their binoculars, but mine remain in place. Not for long, though: soon after a huge red van drives into the arena and between I don’t know how many men they haul the beast onto a gigantic iron stretcher. Its ears have fallen on top of its eyes and it hardly whimpers.

    By the time the ambulance leaves the track has been emptied. It is as it was before the race, only now there are no expectant faces.

    The shaken spectators slowly resume their conversations and start buying soft-drinks and garrapiñadas from the vendors squeezing among the crowded aisles. The contrast between the silence of minutes ago and the current shrieks and cracklings of laughter disturb me. I decide to leave. When I am in the car I realize I have left my binoculars in the racetrack. I do not return for them.