The Black Horse
by Myra King
The playing cards are scattered across the pavement in the Mall, some showing their numbers, others backs of contrasting pictures. Two packs, thinks the woman.
One card, the Joker, grins up at her and she wonders if the cards are a sign to stop her from going. The woman treads on the Joker’s face with a stab of heel and swirl of toe. Her shoe loses traction and she leaves a fractal footprint that obliterates the picture and ends in a point. It’s aimed in the same direction to where she is travelling tomorrow. Alone. Some places no one else can visit.
A magpie swoops then swipes at a card and discovers it’s not to eat. It ascends clapped-beaked to a sheltered cove among the eaves of one of the many shops. The smells of quick snacks and fresh specials drift in the air. Dresses on outside racks flap seasonal price-cuts and clang their hangers, silver on chrome, as if trying to escape. Some of the cards are shuffled upright by the same breeze.
The woman wonders how the cards have come to be here. She knows the Mall is frequented at night by the homeless, the lost – only the Muzak deters the hip-youth from being added to that list.
She closes her eyes, sees two old men squatting by the light of the street lamp, fags drooping Clint Eastwood-like from slitted mouths. Her mind provides their voices, the throated gruffness of the over drinker. The picture runs fast forward in stereotype, right down to the thin cracked belts holding up their trousers.
Cursing, one man stands and flings the cards in the air. They spread in a random pattern, descend to the ground, and hold the slow-mo dance of the woman’s imagination.
She can’t stop her hand from drawing the image in the air.
The cards lie where they have fallen.
As she pauses, people flow past her, staring, and suddenly she feels as directionless as a changing wind. And when the overhead speakers sing: A horse with no name, her mind whirs up an image of her mother and father and a childhood so small, the only horse in it was an imaginary one. Her horse with no name.
Later, the tram carries her to a house saddened by age and neglect, propped against similar houses in a crooked street in Melbourne. She shares the rent with a teenage girl, Katrina.
The woman draws her thin coat—only her makeup she wears in layers—around equally thin shoulders. Her body is fine, her features chiselled Asian but with the round-eyed look of her European mother. A white leather bag slung around her neck holds the few items she bought at the Mall. But still it is heavy.
When she enters the house, the cold, lined by the voice of her housemate, Katrina, greets her.
‘So, big trip tomorrow, mate. Long time since you’ve been back. You never talk about it. It’s gotta be a big deal.’ Katrina flicks ash from her cigarette towards the tray but misses. She rubs at it with the sleeve of her denim jacket, smearing it to an almost indiscernible smudge on the coffee table. Then she tilts forward, leans her elbow on her knee for a prop and takes a deep drag.
The woman shakes her head. She sees Katrina’s face, soft as youth, eyes closed, lips a hard line. Hair catching the light of the failing evening, the shadows dampening its golden highlights.
Then Katrina stubs out her cigarette and continues, the words hissing through her teeth in a stream of smoke: ‘What was it like growing up in such a little town? Does everyone really know all your business? Wasn’t it safe? Is that why you always carry your bag with you everywhere you go?’
The woman shrugs, turns her back on the questions, goes over to the heater and looks for the wood basket. She sees it, empty as usual, near the back door.
When she returns, with the basket full, Katrina has left the room. The woman can hear her talking on her mobile, her voice trailing away as she walks down the hall.
‘Yeah,’ Katrina’s saying, ‘come over this weekend. I’ve got the place all to myself. Yeah, should be a blast.’
She hears laughter then nothing more as the door to Katrina’s bedroom closes.
The woman knows her parents will not be greeting her as she steps down off the train. And the rest of the town? They won’t even remember who she is. It’s been thirty-five years since she walked the main street or visited her old home. She was eight when she left for good…bad…the latter word jabs her hard with memories she believed had long ago lost their point.
The woman has written home every month since she was eleven. She doesn’t watch the calendar but times her letter writing with her period, which is as regular as night. Except once when she was fifteen and the bleeding didn’t come.
The last letter is waiting on the mantel. But she knows it word for word without re-reading it.
Dear Mama and Papa,
I am coming home this Saturday. I am sorry it has been so long since I visited. But you know how hard it is for me to travel. I am bringing you a present.
Love as always from me.
The woman knows she will not send the letter, that it should have been posted days ago if it were to arrive before she did.
She doesn’t have to pack; everything she needs is in her bag. It’s the sturdy one of her early childhood years, a white leather bag with a black horse tattooed on one side, sketched by her when she was just learning to draw and paint. She could do much better now but finds the familiarity comforting.
The lines askew near the horse’s mouth bleed the colour into the edges. Crazed, but softened by the years.
The bag was a present from her father when he returned home from diplomatic work—for ever. Only no one knew that then.
She enters her bedroom, locks the door and looks up at the ceiling, sees her latest painting brushing across it like a Michelangelo. Babies on black, winged horses, fleeing across a blue-streaked sky. She’d touched up the last of it that morning, couldn’t stand to leave it in an unfinished state.
The woman moves the ladder away from the corner of the room where she’d last been working and props a canvas onto its lower rung. Fixing a clip to hold it tight, she fights the urge to start painting. If she does, she knows she won’t stop. And tomorrow is the only day she can go back home.
She slumps down on a chair, picks up her bag, feels the weight of its contents; they rumble to one side and then the other until she balances the bag flat on the floor.
Now the horse is facing her.
Her mind skips a beat as she remembers doing the drawing all those years ago. It had been hard going. Pen and ink. The nib bending, the black lines becoming scratches as she struggled to trace her pencilled sketch.
She hears the words she said to her father when she showed him.
‘Look, Papa. I did this horse. Look, he’s smiling.’
‘So he is. You know, darling, that’s a really good drawing.’ Her father had lifted her onto his lap. The woman remembers the bag covered her like a stiff rug.
‘You know where I got this?’ Her father held up the bag; it unfolded and now the horse was laughing.
She shook her head.
He told her the bag had come from one of the conferences he’d attended. The woman cannot remember which. It didn’t strike her as strange that he’d been happy she’d drawn on his gift. He’d encouraged her love of art since as far back as walking.
Her father had continued in a low voice, ‘I said to myself, Baby-girl would love this bag. She could draw a picture of a horse on it.’
He swung the bag with one hand and the horse was flying.
She recalls stretching back in his lap and giggling like she’d been tickled. ‘No, Papa. You didn’t say that. You didn’t know what I was going to draw.’
Her father laughed then knotted his brow in a mock frown. ‘So, Baby-girl,’ he said. ‘What are you going to call this horse, it should have a name, you know.’
‘It’s just a picture, Papa.’
‘Ah, but darling, all great pictures have a name. Remember when we went to the London Gallery? If you are going to be a famous artist you have to come up with good names for your paintings.’ He’d hugged her, then took her off his lap and hung the bag around her neck. ‘You sleep on it, okay? Tell me what you’ve decided in the morning.’
Then her mother had come in with milk for her and a glass of wine for her father, her eyes brighter than the sparklers on Guy Fawke’s Night.
Her mother kissed her on the top of her head. The woman can still feel the fingers sweeping back her hair, the soft touch of her mother’s lips.
‘Drink this, sweetie. And then off to bed. Big day tomorrow.’
Later that night, she listened to her parents’ bed banging on the wall. With life’s hindsight the woman knows that’s what lovers do. It is a hard thought to mind.
The woman settles in her chair, stares about her room, realises the dusk has crept up unseen.
Without the light, the colours of her painting are black and grey shadows, the lines thin as ice’s edge.
The last words her mother said all those years ago repeat without sound.
The woman wraps an old blanket about her shoulders, and nods.
Yes, Mama, big day tomorrow.
The song from the Mall keeps playing through her mind and images of herself astride her black horse ride across her dreams.
The next day arrives with a sun so bright it burns doubts to ash.
The woman stretches, gets up from the chair and runs a brush through her hair. She washes her face and replaces her make up, making sure her eyes carry the weight of it. She puts on her coat of the seventies, black suede, blue patterned edging and yellowed wool trim. She still has her pale blue flares but they have grown too large for her over the last few years.
The first part of her journey will be the worst. The railway station where something happened. Twenty-eight years will make no difference.
The woman catches the tram and stands with the bag slung from her neck. She is used to the stares.
When she arrives at the station it is as familiar as breathing. It was night the last time she was here. And late. Very late. She was fifteen, a runaway, alone, but not by herself. A sinew of teenagers was drawn to her fear, its allure strong as their lust.
Dear Papa and Mama,
I’m sorry for not writing for so long. I hope you won’t be too cross when I tell you I have decided to leave school. My art teacher, Mrs Clemens, said I should stay and go on to University to further my talent. But I don’t want to. I am still living at the same place. I tried to leave but something happened. You are not to worry. I am fine now. And I can write again every month. I can’t tell you about it. But the man at the hospital told me that I should write everything down. So that is what I have done. I am still painting.
She had felt the boys behind her even though their feet were sneakered and their tread was light.
And laughter came with young hands to shuffle her destiny. A card game. Joker the trump. Winner to have her first. Then the losers, ripping her apart, taking her in every way but out. Until familiar guilt overrode and so she welcomed the agony they inflicted, in the way a pregnant woman welcomes the pain of her first contraction.
In the half light of that deserted platform they uncovered nothing. She’d been hollow long before they had got to her.
The train skims the rails, the sound of steel on steel.
The woman draws pictures on the carriage window, blowing steamed breath first to create a base. Then she swipes them away before anyone can see them.
Each wheel rotation takes her away from where it happened to where it began. The beginning and the end of her life as she’d known it. She’s been living the past ever since. The layers of her life keep peeling back like a painting left in the elements.
When she read the newspaper article about her home town and the new planning development, the highway which was to cut a swathe through the only childhood she remembered, she knew she must go back. She needed to see her home one more time.
The woman dozes on the train, her bag still around her neck, her hands resting on its curve. The leather is ingrained with thirty-five years of living. People had tried to take it from her as she was growing up. ‘Give it to me,’ they’d say, ‘I’ll just give it a clean and bring it right back. There’s a good girl’. But they soon stopped trying.
When she was twelve, a man in a suit in a quiet room asked her why the bag was so important. He held a board and pen but he wasn’t an artist. She had no words to give him, none he would have accepted. She couldn’t tell him it was because the horse had no name. And it only had her. If it was lost who would know where it belonged?
The woman hears the song again in her mind’s ear, hums aloud, opens her eyes briefly, sees the other travellers looking at her and closes them again. Her black horse is kneeling and she climbs astride. He throws his head up and ascends. The clouds crowd around them; his mane tangles in her fingers and she feels the pulse of borrowed force beneath her carrying her on.
Her eighth birthday, the big day, had come, but not the one planned of duck feeding, gallery hunting, scribbled drawings and watercolour paintings with her Mama and Papa. For the woman, her eighth birthday came with whiteness and vomiting and never again home or parents. When she did wake, it was to a strange bed, stranger than the hospital one, and to brothers and sisters not her own. No one told her what had happened until two weeks after the event. Later, she hated gas fires.
Dear Mama and Papa,
Thank you for this writing paper and the envelopes with the little blue flowers on them. It is a good present for my eighth birthday but I wish you could have given them to me yourselves. I promise to keep writing letters to you. I am looking after the bag you gave me Papa. I keep all my toys in it. The other day foster-sister, Tessa, took it from me when I was sleeping and then I got mad and hit her. Foster Father smacked me really hard with his leather belt. I screamed at him that you would tell him off when you came back. He said you would never be coming back. But you are Papa, aren’t you? When you get back from Heaven will you bring me another present? Is Mama all right? Is Heaven like when you were a diplomat in Romania? Where it was hard to post a letter. I will wait until you have time to go to a Post Office. Then I will show the letter to Foster Father. I am trying to be brave but I don’t like it here.
Love from your Baby-girl.
The woman stirs when she hears that they have reached their destination. She leaves the train and notices she is the only one to do so. Her home town looks different, seems smaller even though it has spread out. There are trees where none were before and houses have grown up from fields that once had only cattle and sheep for residents. She walks the main street, sees ahead the loud signs of progress, of promised speed and easy access. Bulldozers and excavators sit like bloated dragons. Waiting. Her old footpath is waves of corrugated dryness. She stumbles but doesn’t look down, her focus is fixed like a sight on the white-brick house with the green fence at the end of the road.
Both her parents had died in their sleep. ‘There’s the mercy, child, don’t cry now, they wouldn’t have felt nothing.’
A faulty gas heater, the coroner said in his report. The woman found the truth in the Melbourne library archives, when she was twelve. Gone to heaven, was all she had been told about their passing.
And now she stands near the house of her lost dreams. In the garden there are flowers she can’t remember, sprouting colours unattainable even in her pallet of many. The willow tree that she planted with her father is gone. There is a new carport tacked to the side of the house like an afterthought. And gravel where a lawn once grew.
She lifts the bag from around her neck and carries it swinging to the front door. No one is there, the houses all around look as abandoned as death. She doesn’t feel alone. She recalls her Papa and her Mama and her seven-year-old self from a gallery of memories. Superimposed on reality, they walk hand in hand to the side of the house. Her father lifts a loose vent and points. Words as distant as seagull cries echo in her mind. ‘This is where we’ve hidden the spare key, Baby-girl. You may be locked out one day.’ And then: ‘Not on purpose, silly. Only by accident.’
And so it has been. By accident. But this is the first time she’s wanted to get in. The key is still there, buried beneath the dust of decades. The woman rubs the rust off, sees a glint of silver as she slides it into the lock. Her old home opens to her, looking as different as the town. For a moment she wonders if she has the right place. She walks on slow feet to the kitchen. The pantry door is ajar, the inside of it has not been repainted. She sees her growth, in pencilled degrees, a figure eight, drawn neatly, at the top. She recalls her Mama saying she was not eight yet. But nearly, Mama. I nearly am.
When she was nearly eighteen, before she left the care of the state, the woman saw the man in the quiet room once more.
He told her of survivor guilt, how sufferers feel guilty that they survived a terrible event. Or sometimes they feel they could have, in some way, prevented it from happening.
She had sat staring across the room, seeing her horse. She’d begun to trace his outline in the air. The man watched her, stopped talking. His words held no help. But the little blue pills he gave her did.
She waited until he’d written her prescription for life.
Dear Papa and Mama,
You will be pleased to know I have found a nice house to rent. It is a long way from where my foster parents live. They told me that they never want to see me again. I am glad about that. The man I told you about before, the one who said for me to write everything down, is only going to see me once a year now. He said I could have the injections. But you know I have always been scared of them. I take a little blue pill every morning after I have read the paper. That’s how I remember to take my pill and I still remember, Papa, you telling me how important it is to keep up with what is happening in the world that’s why I get the paper everyday. Mama, I still bake those biscuits you taught me to make and I remember to put in the spices, but not too much because you said that would spoil them (I tried it once and you were right, it does)
Love, from me.
Now the woman lies on the wooden floor of her old bedroom, closes her eyes and sucks her thumb. Later, her voice curls her up as she sings the lines from A Horse With No Name.
She remembers not being able to sleep that last night in this house. She had almost gone to her parents’ room, like she had done so many times before, to cuddle up in the comfort of their bed, to feel their warmth around her like a hug. But she’d felt silly that she hadn’t thought of a name yet, for her drawing. Her Papa had said, If you are going to be a famous artist, Baby-girl, you have to come up with good names for your paintings.
The woman thinks, as she has so many times before, I should have gone. I could have saved them. Could have yelled at them to wake up and get out. I was awake as they were dying.
Soon, she stretches away from the pain, walks out of the door and around to the front of the house.
She stands back and sees the proportions materialising, the shadowed depths of light and dark. Then she opens her bag and takes out the tins of paint she bought yesterday at the Mall. There are four of each but only two colours, black and white.
The woman takes out her brushes and begins to paint. She doesn’t stop until the light is too faded for her to see her strokes, then she returns to her room and sleeps.
The next day, on her way back to the city, she tries to scrape the paint from her hands. She finds the black is the hardest. But she has always known it would be.
Monday’s paper comes, translucent from the morning’s frost. She opens it out to let it dry in front of the wood fire. Katrina is still in bed and the traffic’s chorus is humming its carbon impact to the world.
The woman sees the headlines of the middle section: ‘Black horse painting a mystery.’
She folds out the page carefully, sees her black horse, looks down at her fingers with their nails of paint. She begins to read: On an entire front wall of one of the houses in Glenford, marked for demolition later today, an unknown artist has painted a black horse. The painting was reported by one of the council workers. The overseer says it is not being viewed as a protest to the highway going ahead. Work is continuing as scheduled.
Mrs Rathburn, curator of the local Art Gallery, told us: ‘This was definitely the work of a professional. The brush strokes are bold, the subject matter stark. There’s a vibrancy about it. But the style is not familiar to me so I have no idea who the work is by. And this name is no help. It may all just be a ploy by the artist to get some publicity.’
The woman brings the paper closer to focus, pulls tight her brows at the words that she’d painted like a caption beneath the horse’s flying hoofs: And my name is…
She reaches out to the horse with a finger touch as soft as the leather of her bag, her face relaxes in a whisper, that’s his name papa, and she smiles as she traces the name she has written.
The woman folds and refolds the newspaper into a neat square, picks up her bottle of little blue pills and opens the lid.
Myra King lives in Australia. She has written a number of prize winning short stories. Recently she won first prize in the UK Global Short Story Competition, was shortlisted in the EJ Brady and commended for the Rolf Boldrewood and Scarlet Stiletto Awards. She has a short story collection forthcoming with Ginninderra Press in June 2010. http://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/