At the end of the narrow field the horse stood silhouetted against the grey evening sky. He appeared to be almost leaning against the fence; his thick winter coat covered with dun-coloured mud, his head hanging low, tendrils of breath escaping from his nostrils. There was no life in him at all.
Izzy watched him from the shadow of the houses. She too leaned against the wall behind her as she could barely stand. She had had to drag herself up here to the edge of the narrow field. Watching the horse brought her comfort, reminding her of how as a child she first rode him. Thrown up on his back by her Da, she stretched her short legs across his great girth and clung to his tangled mane; she screamed with delight when he rumbled forward, with fear when her Da whacked him and he cantered, and finally with joy when he stopped and she had not fallen off.
‘Good on you, Izzy,’ her Da said, and she swelled with pride. She was as good as the boys now-better, because even Danny had fallen off the first time.
The horse seemed to sense her presence close by and turning his head, his dull eyes gazed down to where she was standing. She was sure he could not see her-perhaps some sixth sense told him she was there, waiting in the shadows, longing to ride him again. She would, she thought, tonight, one more time, before it was too late.
Painfully she pulled herself along the edge of the fence, calling to him in a low voice.
Click, click she went with her tongue. At once, he pricked up his ears and, turning towards her, he crossed the muddy field, carefully placing his great hairy legs and neglected hooves between the stones and broken bricks. He seemed to take forever, but at last he stood facing her, his sides heaving, his matted tail swishing slowly. She reached out and fondled his pink nose.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve nothing for you, Horse,’ she whispered, her voice sounding strange in the silence. He lifted his head and whinnied as though in answer, then stood quietly as she ran her hands down his mane and across his rump. Under the thick coat she could feel his ribs with her fingers. He was painfully thin. There was almost nothing for him to eat in the field and no one brought him fodder.
The pain in her side grew more intense. Her heart trembled and fluttered under her breasts. The virus had done this to her, making her so weak that she trembled when she walked. Like the horse she was skin and bone. Like him she no longer ate regularly and there was no one to see that she did. Like him her teeth were rotting, her hair unkempt.
Before the drugs had taken her over she had ridden the horse every day: mitching from school to spend hours in the narrow field, feeling the wind in her hair, excited by the thunder of the hooves. She fell often then, but he never went on without her. Instead, he stopped and cropped a few blades of grass while she gathered herself together and then leapt up on him again. She had never known a saddle, or stirrups. Perhaps he hadn’t either. She didn’t know. He was always patient with her, the only one who was. She could not fail him now.
Looking into his eyes she recognised that he was dying.Hunger had been too much for him. He no longer had the strength to fight. She shared his acceptance of his fate. The fight had gone from her too. It had left when the doctors told her the results of the blood tests. She came off the drugs; she no longer carried needle marks in her arms, but it had been too late.
From the street below came voices. Boys, high on cider and coke and whatever else they could lay their hands on, shouted and whooped as they moved towards the narrow field in the darkness. The tip of the rising November moon shed a little light. They were looking for animals to goad and beat and torment. The horse stood still, listening, flattening his ears at the shrill sounds. At first they did not see him or the girl, as she hid herself in the shadows. Then their eyes adjusted to the darkness and they made out his shape and they heard his heavy, laboured breathing. Crossing to him, they slapped him on the rump to get him moving and ran alongside him, prodding him with sticks. He lumbered along, willing as always, submitting, unable to escape.
Izzy recognised the voice of one of the boysDanny’s-and she almost wept from frustration. Fuck you, she thought, don’t you know he’s mine? But he wasn’t really hers, didn’t really belong to anyone. He bore no mark and could never be claimed. She felt for him, however, and linked his pain with her own. There was no help for her but there still might be for him. There was one course of action left to her. It went against everything in her but she would still do it: she would call the guards. They would save him from the boys, but they would also have him taken to the pound, and from there, ownerless, he would be taken to the country, Kilkenny maybe, or Tipperary, and that would be the end of it. She pictured him grazing quietly in a green field, the sun shining. It was the least she could do for him, the very least, to repay him for the days spent on his back.
She slipped quietly back through the estate and stopped at a phone box. The dangling receiver mocked her. The graffiti scrawled across the Perspex shouted at her. The phone was dead. The shop on the comer was still open. The man behind the counter looked up enquiringly as she came in.
‘Please. Ring the guards.’
His eyebrows rose even higher.
‘A fight in the narrow field.’
‘Someone is injured?’
She burned with impatience.
‘Yes. Yes. Just ring, will you?’
He picked up the phone, fingered the number, spoke rapidly in a low voice, then turned back to her.
‘This better not be a fucking hoax, you hear me?’
She was gone, back to the darkness and the narrow field and the shouting.
The moon was higher now and it bathed the field in a surreal, silvery light. The horse lay collapsed into the mud and she could see the white star gleaming on his forehead. His flanks shuddered with effort as he struggled to get up but he no longer had the strength. The boys chased around him, no longer interested. They scattered at the sound of the squad car. It tore up the road and skidded to a halt at the edge of the deserted field. The horse was a great dark hump. For a moment Izzy thought he was dead. Then she saw him make one last desperate attempt to rise to his feet and fail again. She heard the guard talking into his mobile and knew he was calling the nearest vet. Watching and waiting until the vet came, she saw the three men walk across to the horse. One swift movement and it was all over. He would lie there until morning and then his carcass would be removed. The two cars sped away and everything was silent. Somehow she got herself through the fence and over to the horse. She touched his pink nose, his white star. She ran her hands under his lips and looked at his long yellow teeth. If he had had a name she never knew it. She leaned her bodyweight against him; he was cold and lifeless and still.
Painfully, slowly, she dragged herself up onto his body until she lay across him, his rough hair scratching the skin on her thighs. How good it felt, how familiar. A sob escaped as she turned herself around and lay along him, her head to his, her feet at his tail. She could smell the horseness of him and the manure and another smell, the smell of death. She recognised it as something she lived with on a daily basis.
It was the closest she could get now to riding him, the closest she would ever get. She let her legs slip down on either side of the hump that he now was, and lifted up her head.
‘Da,’ she cried out to the moon. ‘Horse.’
Tears mingled with the mud on her face.
She felt the wind in her hair and the galloping hooves beneath her. She was going so fast that the moon spun in crazy circles above her. Then her strength left her and she slid from him and lay beside him in the mud.
The moon steadied and shone down: cold, indifferent and blind.