by Liana Vajitoru Andreasen
Heavy clouds bubbled over the city, the sun hovering behind them. Zak pushed the insides of his pockets with his fists, feeling coins and paper clips. He cursed the cold. Fall was morphing into winter, making him old. The same cats of every morning hid from view in the stink of garbage; the same tufts of dry grass sprouted among train tracks. Past those train tracks, the short, dirty buildings ended and dry trees bent around the edges of a crooked ravine. There, nobody had bothered to extend the city because, perhaps, it wasn’t worth it. A crippled nature maintained some semblance of domain down the brown slope, among plastic bags and discarded tires.
This morning, something made him look twice in that direction—an intrigue he hadn’t felt in years. Somewhere in the forsaken tree line where civilization dissipated there was movement. A man under a tree—and something else. He stopped. He was never late to work, yet he could not turn around. He finally grasped the contours of a horse lying under a rusty tree at the edge of the concrete.
The horse looked dead. The insinuation of disaster pulled him forward with urgency. He ran along the tracks, his shoes clumsy on the uneven ground. He threw a glance at the rust-ridden train car that had been on the tracks for as long he’d lived in the neighborhood. The iron breathed darkness.
He reached the ravine. Like sculptures, the man and his horse surrendered to his scrutiny. The stomach of the animal tightened in pain and its big nostrils quivered. It was enough to understand he could not intrude. In the interminable minute he spent trying to gesture, or to avert his eyes, he was all too aware that the man and his dying horse did not welcome him. He left.
He had never been good at witnessing pain. It had certainly backfired with April.
When he made it to work, he let the oblivion of a computer screen envelop him and convinced himself the morning’s unusual encounter had faded away. Yet he could not anticipate how obsessively he had doomed himself to go back to the tree in the space of a week, like an impotent king going to see the oracle one more time, one more time.
The sun had not set when he left the building after work. Somehow, he knew he was expecting something vital as his steps took him ambiguously past the abandoned train car. They were still there by the tree, the horse trying to lift its head off the ground. The man was eating something from wrapping paper, bent as if to conceal his actual height. His thin, square jaw moved in a strange cadence, like a horse chewing grass.
The man raised his eyes. A flicker of a smile twisted his lips, as if he were watching a fly make its way into a web. The horse saw the stranger and its eye bulged with whiteness. Pain hung in the heavy air.
“Easy girl,” said the owner, crouching to touch the long, dirty white neck. The horse released a troubled breath, laying its head on prickly grass. It looked at the stranger with remote peace, as if now it knew, now it recognized.
Zak shivered: inside him, a brotherhood of bone and muscle felt the pain for a split second. He breathed in the musty air of sickness, almost too quickly. He wanted to ask, “What’s wrong with the horse,” but instead he said, looking down into the slope at a pile of broken shopping carts:
“You live here?”
He could not yet grasp how misplaced this powerful, beautiful animal was, removed from the memory of wild air. It was waiting for death surrounded by geometry and cement. Beauty and death—did he not know that combination already? Before the word April could take shape, his thoughts sunk in haziness.
“You don’t know me?” said the owner, looking askance. “You must have seen me around.”
“Riding?” he asked, feeling stupid.
“You work near here, right?” the owner said. The horse whinnied and choked.
Zak stared at the animal, trying hard to bind with the world in front of him.
“What do you do—for a living?” he asked the owner.
“I’m a judge. Name is Ivy.”
“Ivy. First name or last?”
The judge said nothing. The air thickened.
“I’m sorry, Judge Ivy.” He meant, for the horse. “Well I’m—”
“I know who you are.”
“I should get going,” he said. “You think he’ll live till morning?” His chin pointed to the horse.
“He’s a she. And yes, I hope she makes it another day.”
Zak nodded absently and turned away. The wind blew leaves up to his face. The horse blinked with the risen dust as she watched him walk away.
That night he dreamed that the horse was screaming like a siren or an engine or a train breaking from its speed. In the morning, Laurie made him take an umbrella, and she shrugged when he said he was leaving early to catch up with some work. He had long suspected that his wife preferred to spend her day alone anyway. Not that she would ever leave the apartment—afraid that the TV and the computer would disappear while she was gone.
In the valley of plastic bags, the horse was still under the tree. Judge Ivy was not. It started to rain, so he dislodged the umbrella from his elbow and opened it. As he approached, the struggle of the legs let him know she was fighting for dignity but could not stand up.
The rain pounded on the umbrella, yet it wasn’t until his eyes focused on what was falling from the sky that he started paying attention. Among water drops that dug pools in the dirt, there were things that moved when they hit the ground. Earthworms. They fell on his umbrella, on his shoes, on the horse. “Does this ever happen?” he wanted to say, and right then a voice near him said exactly that, “Does this ever happen?”
From behind the tree, or from the tree itself Judge Ivy stepped forward. He looked at the sky with gray, narrow eyes as he kneeled by his horse.
“I’ve heard of frogs,” the judge said, “but never earthworms.”
“Fish, too. But I thought it was a myth.”
“Myth or no myth,” said Ivy, “it can do nothing for my horse.”
“A sign?” Zak averted his eyes from the agony that looked at him from the ground. “Can worms be a sign?”
“Look,” Ivy said, “read your fortune in worms if you want, but can you lower your voice? Don’t you see she’s dying?”
The worms stopped falling. The body of the animal was convulsing. She kicked the air with tremulous legs and stiffened for a few seconds as if wondering if it was a good time to end it. Then she relaxed, her breathing quickening. The air carried the warm smell of horse. Perhaps it was indeed a sign—the horse, the worms, the judge. Some form of judgment day. Wouldn’t April have wanted it that way? A single image of her surfaced: not a frail April, broken by anger, but a glorious April on horseback, eons ago.
“Yeah, it’s a sign.” Ivy’s voice was filled with spite. “The sky is spitting on us.”
“It’s the end of the—” Zak stopped, for the horse was still watching him. “Listen, you want the number of a vet I know?”
“Two vets have seen her already. I just didn’t want her put to sleep. I give her shots for pain. I wanted her to be on some real grass when she—”
“I’m sorry. I have to go,” Zak said.
The earthworms looked like purple, twisted sticks. He stepped on a few, and the feeling stayed in his stomach for a while.
On the third morning, Zak did not go to the tree. There was no obligation. Yet guilt had been lodged in his chest for so many years that it took little for it to surface. When his coworkers sang happy birthday to a perky woman, his lips moved, but he did not make sounds. Later, he retreated to the window.
Around noon, he saw a bird fall from the sky, wings flapping in the currents. No one in the office believed him. He made everyone gather, but he could not find the bird. In the end they retreated, leaving Zak like a prophet with no prophecies.
He went to the tree at the end of the day. Judge Ivy stood up when he saw him coming—not to greet him, but to block his way. His face was ugly.
“I’m sorry I didn’t stop by this morning,” Zak said.
Ivy did not speak. His prematurely wrinkled eyes were red and harsh—he had been crying. Zak took a step back, feeling irrevocably helpless, just as he’d felt that fated day at the hospital, in another life.
“Is she dead?” he whispered—an echo from the past.
The bones pushed the dead-looking skin of the horse’s back.
“Maybe it would be better—”
“Don’t tell me what would be better. Matter of fact, I never asked you to come here.”
Zak could do nothing but walk away. He could hear Ivy breathing angrily behind him.
That night, he had a dream of mountains with clouds on them, and he was walking on a dirt road. Clouds parted, as quickly as only dreams allow, and he waited for some great knowledge to shake him awake. The largest, most magnificent rock appeared before him, and he felt crushed by mere contemplation. He fumbled to take his phone out, for a picture.
“Can’t take pictures of that!”
He woke up. Laurie by his side looked like a dark, empty shell.
He did not go to the valley the fourth day. He could not understand why the judge, and that horse on the brink of death, were forcing him to watch himself—the bereaved and the accused— through the mirror of time. He craved a way back, a tunnel through the years to an innocence he wasn’t sure he’d ever had before the guilt had settled in.
On his way home after work, a girl joined him in the thickening evening. She couldn’t have been older than twelve. She walked at his pace, pulling at her dirty old jacket. The girl sure was ugly. Her hair flew about, barely held down by a hat of some kind. She grinned. In one hand, she held a small tree branch.
“What are you doing?” he said.
She had a lot to say:
“I’m scared to go alone, and I have to go to school, and Mom isn’t home yet. We’re having parent day and my dad is coming but he said to meet him at the school, so I have to walk by myself between the buildings and it’s getting dark. Can you please walk with me to school? There’s these boys who pick on me and they’re waiting for me somewhere for sure. Please? My dad doesn’t live with us and today he couldn’t pick me up. But in three days he’s getting me out of here,” she announced proudly.
He had never thought there could be a school around there.
“It’s that way,” she pointed. “Do you work in this building? What do you do, sell stuff or what?”
“Maybe my soul.” He laughed, knowing how awkward he sounded. “But you shouldn’t trust strangers like me. I mean, not me personally but—”
She shrugged and took him by the hand, all the while still holding on to her little branch.
“I’ve seen you other times. My mom’s seen you. She says you’re cute.”
“My dad flies planes,” she continued without a blink, and Zak looked up at the troubled sky. “He’s taken me flying and he taught me to skydive. My dad knows a lot of people.” She pulled him forward down a curving street among desolate yards and their junk.
He smiled. She was one of those kids who loved to make up stories. One day maybe she’d get caught lying in a big way, like he had. He tried to nod as she talked.
When they passed a huge abandoned building, he cringed: this ugly liar could be setting him up. She could be the daughter of someone, walking him right into an ambush. He had nothing except a few credit cards and keys. The girl kept talking, squeezing his hand. The building had no windows left intact, and the color of the brick had disappeared behind layers of black.
From the corner of his eye, he saw something darting behind the building, away from an empty parking lot and into the yard of a dilapidated house: it was a dark horse. The girl seemed to notice, and she pulled his sleeve and pointed:
“That’s my father’s house!”
He looked again, but where she was pointing he saw nothing but the house with no windows and with paint peeling off, shingles hanging.
“Christ.” He frowned. “Where did you say your father was taking you in three days?”
The girl’s attention had shifted. She showed him a small building surrounded by a wire fence, and said that was the school. He let go of her hand.
“Wait,” she said, all serious. “Here, take this.”
She handed him a crumpled drawing, from her pocket: a scrawny, deformed horse surrounded by crosses. He blinked. His throat was dry.
“You don’t like to draw flowers and princesses?”
He watched her skip away.
On the fifth day, he left his apartment early, in a cold wind. He’d given Judge Ivy enough time to stop crying. He felt he knew him now, like an old friend.
As he crossed the tracks, he could tell that something was very wrong: the fallen horse was thrashing around noiselessly, with foam at its mouth. A wave of shame swept over him.
There were two men with the horse, and the one he didn’t know was wearing rubber gloves dripping with blood.
“What on earth—” he started, as the horse settled into a deep sleep, dreaming of meadows. There was blood on the gray hair, and blood on the leaves around.
“My friend is a surgeon,” Ivy said. “He’s given her a heavy sedative.”
“A judge must have a ton of friends,” said Zak. He laughed crookedly.
“I’m Pete,” the man said, his voice unfriendly.
“So Pete, what do a judge and a surgeon have in common?”
The three men looked at the sleeping horse.
“I suppose you both are fond of verdicts.” He grinned.
“Right.” Pete touched the sleeping neck of the horse.
The air was full of ambiguous waiting.
“So tell me, Judge Ivy, what do you judge?” Zak said.
“You mean where?” Ivy corrected.
“Hey, we should go for a beer tonight,” Pete said.
“No, tonight I have to be out of town,” said Ivy. Say, would one of you mind checking on her early tomorrow? I know it’s a Saturday.”
“I can do that, sure,” Zak said. “But nobody’s complaining about her being here?”
Ivy just looked at him.
“They don’t bother him,” said Pete. “Listen, Ivy.” He changed his tone. “I feel bad for this horse. Tell me what else I can do.”
Zak watched the two. There was such familiarity in their gestures that he wanted to drill inside their souls to find the exact source of their friendship, as if it offended him. Perhaps it was something strong like that he’d been looking for at the tree.
“At least she’s not in pain now,” he said.
“I gave her something stronger,” said the surgeon. His face became remote. “I have horses, actually, up in the farmland. I know how it feels. Ivy, you should come ride there sometime. It’ll do you good.”
Zak’s thoughts became cloudy.
“How can you know how it feels?” he said, surprised at his own anger. “If you have a hundred horses, do you know what it’s like to be this horse, now? You’ve taken even feeling away from this animal! And you, Judge, is suffering part of your expertise?”
“Who’s this guy again?” Pete said to Ivy.
“Yes, exactly what I said,” Zak shouted.
The other two looked at him without understanding.
“Did this horse ask you to pump her full of sedatives so you can watch her die?”
Oddly, he remembered having the exact same thought long ago, by April’s hospital bed, with surgeons putting gloves on and taking them off. He had never found the answer to that old outrage. If only he could have undone her pain just as easily as he’d caused it.
No judge could give him what he had not been able to give himself all this time.
“Not even the guy up there knows what pain is.” He pointed at the sky. “I guess all you judges have that in common.”
He turned on his heels and left.
The next day, he fought with his memories for a long time, and that went on even over lunch with Laurie. He did not want to go, but the thought that the mare was alone nagged at him until he gave in. With a mumbled explanation to his wife, he left her in front of the TV and walked out of the apartment.
The mare was awake. He looked around, suddenly timid. She was not in much pain—or else she had grown accustomed to her terrors. Leaves were rotting on the ground, making a bed for the dying mare. Her body was diminished. She had probably long forgotten how to be hungry. And yet he saw something there, a strength that he could not understand. Powerless and forgotten, this horse seemed grateful for the breaths it could still take. She watched the comings and goings around her, weighing them, judging them in a way that people did not know how to judge. This horse, he thought.
There was recognition between them. She took his presence for what it was, and her eyes told him that she wanted to be in the world, alive. Overwhelmed with her shameless beauty, he reached down and touched the white face, feeling the obstinate bones to which life still clung. He caressed the long ear, surrendering the warmth of his hand to the strong veins, tired but strong enough to imbue the earth underneath with pulsating life.
For reasons he could not possibly think of, he saw the mare pull her weight off the ground, struggling to lift her front legs. Her hoofs dug into the slippery leaves, nose pointing up, snorting and gulping the air. Dumbfounded, he stepped back and let her struggle. How could his help be more powerful than her will to live? She was standing, looking at him with questioning eyes from the sudden heights of her being.
It was over as soon as it had started. Her legs trembled, remembering their weakness, and she kneeled down without hurry. She let her body rest on her side again, still watching him.
Ivy was approaching.
“What did you do to her?” His voice was as rough as his words.
“You mean what she just did?”
“I saw you. Just be gone already!”
“But maybe she can still be—” he tried, but Ivy’s eyes were nothing but hate. He retreated.
The seventh day was the last. He walked to the tree under a feeble morning sun. All he knew was he’d left something unresolved. There was a thing in him, an entity that he had to bring out of the dark. A dog ran from his path, growling. Maybe it belonged to someone.
The horse was there, and the two men. Everything was in place for his arrival, but something terrible was in the air. The men watched him with colorless eyes.
Then he knew what had driven him there that morning, and why everyone waited. Long ago, he had seen April draw her last breath. Now he recognized the mystery of life on the verge of leaving a body. A mute, choking emptiness filled him.
And yet he did not expect the horse’s legs to be missing.
“What have you done?” he whispered, staring at the small leaves that floated in puddles of blood.
Ivy’s shapeless eyes were moist with tears. Pete looked at the ground.
“Don’t worry,” Ivy said. “It was absolutely painless. She was completely under, the whole time. Pete is good with that.”
“You made him do that? And you?” He turned to the surgeon. “You listened to this lunatic? You’re out of your minds.” His words were empty and grating.
He knew it was coming, something from deep within. Suddenly, he saw himself from above, mutilated, with stumps where his legs had been. It was his own body he had come to watch, whose life was slowly dripping away. He knew why: it had been his body that had strayed from April, doomed her to unbearable pain, crushed her with the weight of the universe. Even now, he could not tell why he’d had more power over her in his betrayal than in his love, or why someone’s body could have that power over another’s mind. She’d called him filth and she’d wanted to chop his body to pieces.
He had not wanted to know exactly what April had taken, or if it had all been just an accident of pills and liquor.
He felt a sudden urge to dig a thousand rusty nails into his own arms and legs, to see his blood drip onto the crumpled leaves, to let his body drown in the pain he could never feel.
A small electric saw lay among the leaves. Judge Ivy was sobbing, caressing the fallen body.
“It’s all because of you, Zak!” he shouted suddenly, lifting unrecognizable eyes at him. “Why couldn’t you just leave us alone?”
Zak shivered. He could feel the miracle approaching. The morning grew still.
Grunting madly, Ivy bent with sudden resolve—his final, wild judgment. He lifted the body of the horse above his head and threw it into the valley below. It rolled, already dead. It rolled and rolled away from the buildings, away from the men who did not understand. Just another useless, painful miracle of the city.
They stood there, looking at each other.
“How—” Pete started. His voice was lost in the valley below.
Punish the body to set the mind free. Yes, Zak thought, perhaps true freedom is the one privilege of those with nothing to lose. Somewhere in the distance, a horse had perished. Had her death granted him freedom from pain, and was that a fair trade?
The sky looked as if it wanted to snow, and the air smelled like snow. Zak took a step back, and finally lifted his eyes to look at Ivy.
“You, too, will be your own judge,” Zak muttered.
For a long time—weeks, perhaps—he did not visit the place. It was Ivy who found him one day and asked him to walk together. There was something back at the tree, he said, that he wanted to show him.
The ravine was still there, like a cavity, but at the bottom somebody had inexplicably built a white dome. Defiant, it stood against the brown grass of the snowless winter, among dirt and rocks and garbage. An old nun came out of the dome—an unassuming figure in black. The sting of what Zak had denied himself since April’s death, even through years of married life, finally reached him. Looking down, he felt compelled to utter one question, although the answer stared at him silently from the valley of the dead horse, the same answer that pumped blood into his veins. He wanted to hear himself say it—it was as simple as that:
“Is it possible to live… without joy?”
The two men lingered awhile in silence. Below, the modest collector of souls busied herself by the dome in the cold, lonely morning. Their presence meant nothing to her, eager as she was to wash clean the bottom of the bottomless city.