Gift Horse

Below is an old story, The Gift Horse, which was submitted to Voiceworks earlier this year. I was unsure what to do with it so decided to share it here. All 3000 words of it. No edits have been made since its rejection. 

The horse had brilliant teeth. It pranced obnoxiously about the stables, knowing it would get away with it and its tail flowed side to side, fluid as a wave.

It was, it had been said, the most impeccable horse to grace the local circuit. Obviously, horses with bigger profiles, bigger stories, and more money had been shown off around the regional and state circuits but, at the conveyor belts of certain independent grocers, it was this horse the cashiers discussed with the customers.

The horse knew. It was lavished with attention and had worked out exactly how to arch its neck and flick its mane to make it blow in the breeze, to curve perfectly in the wind, to dazzle and stun the bystanders.

‘Hell,’ its owner said, ‘it barely even races anymore.’

It was true. It raced in smaller events against lesser horses but, officially, it was designed to be stimulus for the other horses.

‘Follow me,’ the horse would proclaim with every swish of its mane, ‘Follow me and you’ll succeed.’

The other horses, god bless, did try their absolute best to keep up, their legs pounding hard against the grass, beating desperately at the turf, trying to propel, propel, propel. Once, one of the other horses bent its own shoe in its fury. The nail came loose, bending in the middle, working its way out of the poor things foot. The animal finished the race.

Its owner – another local breeder who was also entranced by the horse – had grown up believing in fairytales about tortoises and hares. Horses are too clever, though, to be believing in such nonsense. No one has ever seen a tortoise defeat a hare in a running race. The horses knew there were no tortoises here.

 

It wasn’t until the second summer of the brilliant toothed horse’s reign that the local circuit chatter began to spread. It made the community newspaper, printed on the fourth page in one edition and on the third-from-last page in another. The first piece was general interest, a small block of paragraphs without a picture. The second was in the sports section, the first page anyone would see if they opened the newspaper from the back.

‘Good coverage,’ its owner said to a group of friends gathered around the newly framed cutouts in the decadent pool room in the shed behind the house. The owner poured everyone a drink from a needlessly large bottle suspended from the ceiling and admired the clippings for so long an entire game of billiards escaped him.

‘Worth every penny of grooming,’ the room agreed.

The first offer to buy the horse arrived from a man with whom the town was unfamiliar. He walked up to the property with a swagger and cigarette and he leaned on the fence as he looked out over the paddocks. The owner met him down at the fence cautiously and impolitely.

‘You’ve got yourself a mighty fine horse,’ the man said, eyeing it in the distance. It pranced because it knew it was being observed as part of a, so far, dollarless pitch. The man’s cigarette was lodged between his teeth as he spoke. ‘Mighty dangerous divots, too.’

‘The horses know where the divots are,’ the owner said. The truth was that the other horses had dug the divots to try and catch out the horse.

It had spent the post-season and the pre-season torturing the other horses with its obnoxious exuberance. They had come together in secret, as the horse danced about in the fields and collaborated on a plan to dig the divots. They would, they agreed, replace what had been a decidedly cold shoulder with physical injury. They knew the horse knew it was better than them, better loved, better fed, better held between races despite an observable and financially unsustainable lack of medallions.

They also knew the horse needed to be able to walk. All horses do. They are, by and large as a species, terrified of the inevitable stationery industry. Of course, the brilliant-toothed horse relished the attention. There was no such thing as bad press but, even when the news was negative, the clippings still made the pool room.

The owner shooed the hands-free smoker away quickly. The man walked with that same swagger back to a station wagon too large to fit into any conventional parking space and parked too far to have been anything but a statement.

‘Full of himself,’ the owner later said to a young journalist who was excited and intimidated to be covering the horse story. ‘Not what the horse needs.’

‘It needs a level head,’ the journalist suggested. ‘Someone that can understand it. Someone who can relate.’

‘Yes,’ the owner said, completely misunderstanding everything about character and horses.

 

The racing season began anew, the second season for the brilliant horse. Other owners, other trainers, other ranchers had started investing and breeding and training to compete specifically with that horse. They had started letting their own horses know to lose some races and to win others.

Spreadsheets were drawn in quiet meetings between trainers and investors. The local circuit began to swell with greed and frustration. The horse occupied front covers again, quickly, and everyone ate up the stories. The owner began to place bets against it.

The horses found the new, sustainable printing processes delicious. It reminded them of grass and they ate it freely and gladly. Some of the owners began buying many copies of the horse-featuring editions of the community newspaper and would bring them to shows, stuffed in the bottom of the trailers beneath the hay and the blankets.

The horses trampling on those newspapers felt less aggressive and more confident. They made fewer mistakes and forgave, in the spirit of competition, less mistakes.

This season, the horse competed less and showed off more.

It managed to find itself standing beside the podiums of the winners, catching the spray of wine bottles that the horses trampled. Its mane had only grown longer and now it hugged the bottom of its neck, perfectly slicing and tapering up to a point at the base of its skull.

It was infuriating to look it, that perfection of an animal. Watching it, so aware of its own attraction, was what drove the regional officers to the local circuit.

 

It was a time of growth for everybody. Talented, less attractive horses competed better, more valuably, in front of men with white, wide brimmed hats. Their pocketbooks were as thick as their bellies but they clearly knew their way around sports markets. It was the men above them that everyone wanted signing their cheques but the local circuit – and the town, generally – was not ready for those men.

That would take more time.

It was the horse that drew the attention of the regional board and they travelled down the mountains, away from the cities, and off the beaches towards the hinterland. The air here was cooler, fresher, cleaner than they were used to and money of them explained, in long car rides, that it was the air, surely, that gave life to this magnificent horse.

The small arenas of the local circuit became filled with people wanting to watch the horse. Its owner was given a marque and a special section of the spectator section all to himself. The barrier around it, wooden poles dug deep into the ground at stable but not sound angles, was painted as white as the horse’s perfect teeth.

It was the beginning of a long descent in debauchery from which previously regular people do not recover. This kind of descent takes a special kind of person, the right kind of level-headedness. Unfortunately, this is a rare possession.

Neither the horse nor the owner had this kind of level-headedness.

Horses, after all, are not famed for the level-headedness. They are famed, mostly, for the way that their heads arch enough to allow them to have eye sockets so they can see the racetracks. Humans, too, are known for having rounded heads and any good surveyor knows that anything circular cannot be level.

It was small town wisdom on the local circuit that it was impossible to predict a slope. ‘Level is best,’ they would always say, this town nestled against the mountains north of the city. At a precipice, it is hard to tell exactly how sloped it will become, exactly how far down it will go before coming back up. The town knew well that sometimes mountains look like they blend into each other.

 

The end of the second season of the horse was a catastrophe for almost everybody involved.

The horse was entered in one of the races, for the first time in months, and bookkeepers desperately scrambled to keep up with the demand. They had to keep making more and more books in which to record local bets – one of the gambling associations simply ran out of supply in the hinterland and almost single-handedly overworked the only local printing business. For the first time, money spent in the local circuit splashed outside of the local circuit.

It was, economically, a dream. The town’s treasurer oversaw the whole event and he had a fat, oily hand in every dollar spent on the day. If he could have found a way to charge the sun rates for the privilege of lighting the race, he would have.

Instead, he increased the excises on the businesses selling sunscreen and hats. The mayor, a quiet woman who presented an attractive front to a bizarre but not-yet-backwater town, stood beside him when required. The treasurer’s hands were most assuredly not in her back pocket and he would never be so stupid as to make that mistake.

She was a shrewd woman and knew how to best play the system of the men in white hats and grey suits. She sidled around about the owner of the horse for most of the day of the final race of the second season.

Local shops, meanwhile, were operating on skeleton crews of staff who did not care or teenagers who wanted to smoke on shift. The managers weren’t the type to enforce rules that no one would witness being broken. The town was not yet far enough ahead for security cameras but it was not far behind that work was, by default, lax. The footprints of corporations had been here, in the shape of familiar red logos and the whirr of endemic ice-cream freezers.

Everyone who cared was down at the racetrack, fighting off the beating sun in the most extravagant clothes they owned – or could find the day before. They were all trying to be just as beautiful as the horse. They should not have been. No one was.

 

Equally, no one was sure what to expect of the race. No one knew for sure what the conditions of victory were – how many laps, how long the race would go, how many horses had to be disqualified – but the owner had told the horse to take it slow.

‘Slow and steady,’ the owner said. ‘Please.’

The horse had whinnied and nodded and bared its teeth as wide as it could. The crowd was a sponge for its arrogance and the horse was a bigger, more absorbent sponge for the attention. More, it wanted. More and more and more.

It joined the other horses on the starting line. The animals were all checking themselves, blinkers removed, confidence in their training and their judgment uninhibited. Such were the tenets of the local circuit. Let the animals work, then believe.

The crowds were gathered as close to the boundary as possible when the woman in the jeans and flannel shirt stepped into the centre of the racetrack. The white lines, arbitrary lanes, curved around her in a long circle, looping endlessly. A local painter had been hired to mark the grass just for today. Normally, it was the work of the solitary groundsman the Treasurer had set aside for all the town’s groundwork.

But no one paid attention to the linework the moment the gun was fired.

The horses erupted from the gates. The first lap quickly became a test, each horse trying to see where they sat relative to their opponents. Mostly, they wanted to come second. But they are all speeding, as fast as they could to start the race. Fast enough to begin the frantic betting.

Bookkeepers circled the crowds. From above, the arena looked like a long wave that moved as fluidly as the horse did.

It sliced through the air like an Olympic swimmer through water, working hard, like the other horses. Harder, it thought. It was earning its place at the spearhead of the race, its hooves digging into the grass, shoes ripping at the dirt. Digging small holes.

Divots.

The other horses beat on and on too, keeping pace if not getting ahead. The gun had taken them by surprise. They had been trying to impress the crowd, trying to show that were also worth the attention. They had tried to compete with the impossible charm of the brilliant-toothed horse. They had failed, and they were losing.

 

It was on the second lap that the horse noticed how far ahead it was. It slowed a little, desiring but not needing the break. It needed to be seen. It needed the wind to carve and curl through its mane, for its tail to spring and bounce perfectly the way it had practiced in the divoted paddock. Then it noticed the new holes in the grass.

It stepped carefully, side to side, obviously showing off, even as the rest of the race began to catch up. The horse, its ego catching in the wind and holding it back like a parachute, was falling further and further from its lead. It had been raised to impress quickly and so it flourished in short races and short doses.

It also did not believe in the success of tortoises. By the third lap, the horse was barely ahead. The hooves beating against the grass had become increasingly desperate. The divots were growing, the white lines beaten into sod. The horse, like the others, fought harder and harder. But it was not accelerating.

The horse saw the encroaching divots and feared for its ankles despite its training. The crowd was silent, hands clutched around purses and phones and pocketbooks. It would not do to showlessly win a close race. So the horse changed its lane, breaking over the arbitrary white line into the space of another horse.

This the crowd interpreted as showing off and not desperation. They cheered. Enough to spur the horse on. Here, it would not need to swerve so much. Here, it could run straight, step longer over the damage. The horse behind it, the horse gritting its teeth and furious with an instinctual rage, flicked its own mane.

This horse caught the moment and felt the rush. The crowd watched as the competition came surprisingly alive, animals communicating wordlessly with speed, and this horse swapped into the empty, disfigured lane. But this horse had not been bullied by its peers. It had never confronted divots.

It collapsed instantly. Something invisibly but painfully wrong. It fell amongst ferocious hooves that struggled to stop in time and was, forever, still. The horse with the brilliant teeth and the glorious mane crossed the finish line first and in silence.

 

The crowd did nothing as trainers, owners, and vets rushed onto the track. A mass of horses, some fallen some standing, seethed and the crowd dissipated. Money was paid out quietly. The owner of the horse pocketed a large bundle of cash that he struggled to hide. The contract he signed had been one of many, this one written in the event of a disaster. He relinquished the brilliant horse and disappeared into the crowd, leaving the animal in the hands of the white-hat men.

The horse’s tail blew in the breeze.

 

The horse was never seen in the town again. Everyone assumed it was safe, was appreciated, was racing elsewhere somewhere far away from the hinterland. But the town flourished off the back of the owner’s poorly hidden money. He had nowhere to hide it. No one was unaware of its presence and it hung silently in the tense air.

Many of the other owners and trainers moved away and the local circuit fell in to disarray. The town’s groundskeeper refused to fix the track by himself and the Treasurer did not see fit to adjust the maintenance budget in line with the proceeds from the second race.

No one really wanted to. No one really wanted to profit off the disaster. But the money had been spent and the money continued to be circulated in the town. It was not a conscious benefit. The town grew, observably but not lavishly, even as the races moved forty minutes west. The Treasurer left the town with his wealth and moved into the city where he invested in non-renewable energy before quickly retiring on a dwindling trust.

The people thought of the two horses with reverence. They held onto fond memories of the brilliantly toothed horse on their bad days. A measure of beauty and self-belief that brought comfortable and enjoyable wealth. The other horse, the still horse, was memorialised as a statue in the centre of town, funded by the residents’ donations. Some larger than others.

They were all loathe to admit it, but their lives had been improved. They did not mean to profit off the tragedy but they were willing to accept the new lifestyle as a gift.

Thanks to Josh Nutting for reading it first, Grace McCarter for a strong edit, and Siobhan Daglish for letting me use her computer when I couldn’t sleep. Feel free to send corrections or feedback here.

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