The pillow is digging into his neck and every frail tendon is impinged. An eyelash is in his eye again. The carer has placed him upright in the bed, so he is facing the window looking at a blue sea covered in sun drops. Water dislodges the eyelash and wets his face. As he lies against the pillows immobilised, a shape mentions itself out of the corner of his eye. In time, he sees an old brown horse has wandered up to his window. It must have come from the beach and into the garden. He hasn’t seen this horse before. As he tries to figure out who owns him and where he comes from, the horse meets his eyes.
Feck-arse. A horse is looking straight at him with whinny eyes and his nose is breathing onto the window.
‘You want me to go on a journey with you?’ Joe enquires, knowing at once he does not need a voice. ‘An invite to get out of here? You bet I’ll go with you.’
He exults in pulling over the bolt in a rusty gate and turning a familiar right. They begin to walk down a road with great trees and long-haired owls and stone walls tangled in green ivy. The silence makes itself heard. There are no tubes or pumps; nothing to rattle the peace. His breath remembers what to do. It rises and leaves his mouth in a slow whistle. He pushes back his shoulders and stretches into the day.
‘My name is Joe McBride. Do you know me?’ he asks the horse. He tells him, or is it her, that the carer give him Buckfast Tonic most mornings for breakfast. A wash, a turn every which way, to relieve the pressure on his skin. The clanking machines do the rest. His body is withered like a dry piece of wood tossed up on the shore. Most days he sits upright and watches it dispassionately so he can register its decay. When he was still reasonable, he thought of the disease as a tide that turned and started to advance. It spilled into the years, eating what solid ground he had. I might die he thought at each loss. Instead, he was left to bury the past with a spoon and no strength in his wrists to dig, so the past is now a tide relentlessly pushing its way into his days.
He tells the horse that Nietzsche’s ghost showed up in his bedroom once. The great philosopher stared at him in the bed with all the contraptions and apparatuses and said you’re better off without a body. ‘I, myself, dined on a morsel of its hurt for breakfast, lunch and dinner for many years,’ is what he said. Joe had heartily agreed and replied that many years was far too long. Nietzsche’s Nag, that’s what he decides to call the horse who now walks down the road with him. Or is it the sea farer, the Púca coming with the tide?
Summer burns into the stones under their feet. Then, as the lane narrows and darkens under the giant ash trees, the Púca looks around for his companion to say something, but Joe’s ears are cocked and listening to the birds thrill the late afternoon with their song. The man pats his thighs and occasionally swings his hips from left to right in a skittish dance. He runs his finger through the fine sweat on the horses’ back. The air is full of seeds and the horse lifts his head to toss the fluff from his nostrils. He flicks flies off his tail. Blue bottles land on his head – now his rump.
‘Where does this road take us?’ Joe enquires, looking about for markers or a signpost.
The Púca raises his head and whinnies into the deadness of the summer afternoon. Then he nods to his companion. Twice. It is outrageous what you can do with a nod. The first passes on his pictures and in an instance, Joe knows the disappointment that hurtled the horse from racer to failure at the turn of his foot in the ditch. You’ve the right to fail, he reminds him.
The Púca passes on his sorrow with the second nod and Joe will come to know that too.
They come upon a field where a giddy foal throws its legs in the air and they both stand and watch. The Púca shows him his own first step, timid and hiding behind his mother’s shadow. Timid and shaky on his tiny brown feet; he wobbled around the field and hid behind her shadow again. He shows Joe the ritual. As night broke, the big horse rested her head on his young neck and they blew air together.
Now, the youthful moment is gone and the horse crumples into the past. He is dragging a hearse with its loss and its losers as he wavers and shakes down the road. He turns a corner and all the people he ever carried are standing there applauding him because he carried so many of them. They call him the loser. His skin is a map of broken lines. Broken promises seep through him like the wet of a damp day.The charred remains of his past are what he sees when he looks behind.
Silly. Joe could forget nothing, too. Now, when memory should be kind and give up its hold on his three score and ten, he has no loss, but the accumulation of exacting detail, of piercing voice and sharp focus. As he watches the young foal prance about the field, his past, with its feet kicking in a drunken reel, pushes up the London years. At the Portabella bookshops or in Bloomsbury Park, he did not know these were to be his glory years.
The Púca interrupts and his big ears push into the man’s back in that friendly way of his.
Who cares? There were good years, he tells the horse. London and the magic of hot summers; days as warm as this day. Portland stone turned milky white in the heat. The Underground alive and as busy as his own mind then. Climbing from those long escalators into blue days. He stops short. That was before. Before he met Mel and had his great love affair. Before his life swerved in an altogether different direction. Before the gap.
The horse is walking down what has become a dirt track. Green grass and brown mud push through the concrete. He is pulling a cart behind him or is it a hearse? Joe catches up and stands to the side looking at the horse who is carrying Joe’s great failure down the road. His dead child is in the hearse with spit dribbling out of her mouth and spilling down her chin. Her dribble is spilling all over the cart and the dead child is like the ocean foaming at the mouth. The heat is rising in the horse and the horse is heating up and ready to charge. But the Púca is too old to charge.
It is evening in late summer and the moon is a wedge of lemon. The path is clod filled and soft under their feet. The horse stumbles for a moment at the ditch before someone puts an invisible halter around his neck to pull him further down the road. Today of all days, it digs into his neck and tears his mahogany coat. His nose rests on the man’s shoulder for a moment. His chest is on fire and now he is tired old horse who has a big wet tear in his eye. He lies down on the grass and lowers his load. A drop of blood spills from his mouth.
‘My life is an abomination. And the worst – the worst is to know it.’
‘I agree. Life is an abomination. And there is no God,’ Joe says with emphasis, back lecturing his students in Goldsmith. ‘So, I’m not sure what will happen us both now. But that drop of blood is a capsule of who you are.’
And the horse is back at the beginning, when he was a crimson drop in an ocean of fluid. Before he bailed out, he had bulged through the skin of an older horse that waited her turn. And now he waits in turn again – bulging with his burdens, as he waits for his body to yield and his heart to stop and the essence in that drop of blood to leave.
Joe hears the whisper of ash leaves on this late summer evening. A leaf perhaps? Yes. After he dies, he will return as a leaf. He will never take human form again, thank you very much. When he is a leaf, power will course through his veins and he will unfold from a bud. Birds or insects will use him as an air base. Flecks and flicks and touches.
They have reached their destination. The path ends. Ahead are sandy dunes and the white frill of the sea. Joe can’t walk anymore. He’d rather sit down and lean against the granite rock. He doesn’t whine. He will never whine but he can’t face into another winter. He can’t avoid its chill. In his life, always, there is a sense of menace. A gnawing sadness. An overwhelming need to escape his fate. His liberty seems quite beyond his reach.
‘They say we have the right to die,’ he tells his companion from his position on the side of the road. The horse considers this statement and nods his head.
Permission? Finally, he is to be released from the coffin that is his body. Pain. Fear. Dread. None of them come to him now. He is surprised at the ease. He closes his eyes and in awhile, he surges, thrusts and gathers his great spirit from the corpse by the wall. He becomes nothing and everything. The boundary of who he is blurs. My. My. He is much bigger than he supposed.
East Cork writer and Galway based Elizabeth Power has an MA (Hons) in Writing. She writes fiction and is a performance poet. She has won or been placed in international and national competitions including the Swift Satire, Dromineer International Literary Flash Fiction, and Maria Edgeworth Competitions. Her website can be found here.