Invisible Horses

Ben used to hear the horses outside his bedroom window. They snorted with surprise and delight, and the earth would shake as they tore across the field. He didn’t see them much in daytime, but at night he heard their strange language of frothy laughs and hoof clicks. He didn’t know much about animals, but the horses seemed happy here. They were rescued horses; who knew what horrors they had endured? No longer whipped at a circus, choked in a mine, or stuck in a filthy basement. Now a field in the Lucerne Valley – surrounded by forests, rivers, mountains, and glaciers – was their home.

But a beautiful location attracts attention. The owner made the mistake of mentioning to a real estate agent at a Christmas cocktail party that she was thinking of selling. The agent had “motivated” buyers on his books already, and the listing attracted many more. The bidding war was won by an Australian couple who wanted the land but not the horses. So the horses disappeared with the previous owners – but to where was unclear. Thankfully Ben, the tenant, could stay in his cabin.

The field outside Ben’s window was soon leased to a farmer. It was ploughed and planted – initially with clover, next year with alfalfa, and then there would be spuds. Ben got used to the silent field outside.

“Did you hear that?” he said to his girlfriend, visiting from the City.

“What’s that, love?” she whispered, moving her head slightly towards him.

“I heard the sound of running.”

“Well go join ‘em, Road Runner, I’m staying in bed.” Then she added a sleepy, “Neep-neep.”

“No, not a person,” said Ben. “A horse. I heard a horse running.”

“I thought the horses had gone, love.” He loved how she always continued conversations, however tired she was. She was especially sweet when half-asleep.

“They have,” he said. “That’s why it’s strange. There aren’t any horses there.”

Ben pushed himself out of bed and went to the window. The moon was almost full. The tight rows of the field shone silver, like a mountain Zen garden. But there was nothing to contemplate but invisible horses.

Another night, Ben heard the horses again. This time their hoof clicks were more pronounced, and echoed along the road. “Can you hear them?” he said to his girlfriend. She liked getting out of the City, and was visiting again.

“Go ride ‘em cowboy,” she said in a manner so drawn out, it became a lament.

Ben threw on his dressing gown and ran outside. He was right! A dozen horses were ambling along the road. They gathered around his neighbour’s magnolia tree, tearing off petals. Some fell like big shining teeth. Ben recognized these horses – they were the wild ones from Lilly, which grazed freely on reserve land. But he had never seen them in the Meadows before – only causing mayhem on reserve roads. He watched them wander, and sometimes canter, up the road, moonlight gleaming off their glossy backs, seeming unexpected lone waves. The next day he heard that they were rounded up, and finally put in paddocks.

Once while cooking, a little drunk, Ben left a bunch of beet tops on a fencepost. He forgot that the horses were no longer there. But in the morning the tops were gone. He wondered if the neighbour’s cow had somehow gotten to them. Would she now produce red milk?

Another day there were muddy hoof prints around the field, but it had rained plenty, so their shapes were hard to define. Large patches of clover had been grazed. Ben wondered if this was by migrating deer.

As well as hoof clicks, there were other sounds. There were long blows, like greetings; vibrating snorts, as if sensing danger; a sort of snickering, like sharing a joke; a loud whinny to attract attention; a squeal of surprise; or a scream of aggression. It must be the wind carrying these sounds, thought Ben, from stables way up the road.

The neighbour’s dogs were always barking. One night they howled, and after that only whimpered and cowered. Had they been scared by a bear?

Ben spoke of these strange occurrences to an Old Cowboy he knew. The Cowboy said that he would come over one night, make a fire, cook some rice and beans with bacon, sip whisky, and watch. “There is more to horses than you’ll ever know,” he said. “Tell me when your girlfriend’s visiting. We can show her something special. Mind you, I’m not sayin’ you don’t already.”

When Ben’s girlfriend next came, they joined the Cowboy around the campfire. He was making lots of food. “Why so much?” asked Ben.

“You’ll see,” he said evasively.

Ben wondered if they would be feeding the invisible horses. When four pickups arrived, he realized they were feeding cowboys. They ate and drank and sang all night. The campfire talk was pretty rich, and Ben’s girlfriend said she was going to bed. What a waste of time this has all been, thought Ben, and followed her in.

“You’ll miss the show,” said the Old Cowboy, slurred and smiling.

“Well, why don’t you wake us up for it?” said his girlfriend.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

There was a dark tapping on the window, blended with light thundering. Ben and his girlfriend went outside.

“Look,” said the Cowboy, pointing to the sky.

Subtle shapes slipped across the heavens. Within these moving patches, the stars shone more brightly, as if cut out of the sky. Ben saw that there were many of these patches, and as they drew together, their thundering became intense, and neighs and whinnies echoed through darkness bejewelled. Brilliant stars glittered at the front of each surging patch. Ben gazed in wonder at these leaping constellations.

“Those horses hadn’t finished their healing yet,” said the Cowboy. “Their souls were stuck here; they couldn’t leave. We stroked them with the Old Songs and sent them on their way.”

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2 Responses to “Invisible Horses”

  1. Quite beautiful. I look forward to discussing some time the difference between “which” and “that” (“which grazed on reserve land”.) and the usage in the U.S. and U.K. respectively.

  2. hi Babar
    I really love this story ,especially the ending . There used to be a great cowboy singer (i cant remember his name right now)who had a hit western song Ghost Riders in the sky ,I can probably sing this for you . My mother did a painting of it which was really powerful ,she left off the cowboys(because she didnt like to paint people only horses) but had all these magnificent horses thundering through the sky ,I have no idea what happenened to that painting ,a lot of times if my mother wasnt happy with her work she would paint over it.So Ghost Riders may be hiding under another artwork. I will always remember it ,I am sure my mother is now one of those ghost riders probably on our albino spooky still doing that moonlight ride in her white sleeping dress!
    Miss you darling ,

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