I just loved to ride… and I loved nothing besides.
I didn’t think of anything but horses.
Meticulously I sketched naturalistic horses with long slender legs and thick manes.
That Friday, I drew horses straight onto my school desk. “Ida,” said my teacher, “if you keep on destroying your desk, we’ll ask your parents to pay for it. You don’t listen.”
I drew on my binder instead, and in the textbooks. In books, horses always had names, but I didn’t name my own horses. Wild horses living in nature and who would have let me ride them only because of our special mutual understanding. The other girls they’d have thrown off and flung into the mud, rich girls with baby blue fleece jackets and horses which they named and owned.
I put my cheek against the cool wood of my desk and dreamt the same dreams I dreamt at night before sleep. Swiftly, I rode over an endless meadow. Rain was in the air. The clouds broke, thunder split the sky, lightning caught a tree and the tree caught fire. Below me the flank of the horse was warm and the sky black. I rode bareback, like an extension of my own body. As if I wasn’t there at all. Someone behind me made a sound. I woke up and heard the boys laughing.
“Look,” someone whispered, “she fell asleep on her desk and you can see…”
“Hey, Ida,” one shouted, “don’t you know people can see your underpants when you lean forward like that!”
There was something special in the air at the end of a school day, trembling moist freedom, especially on a Friday. Yes, I was happy running out of the classroom. I unlocked my bicycle, still a child’s bike, and the drizzle wet my cheeks. My life was rich, because I had one great love.
“Those things just make girls asocial and strange,” my dad said, “when they put their emotional attachments on horses instead of on humans. Horses aren’t pets, you know, they’re investments, people trade and sell them. And I certainly won’t be buying you any horse, so I don’t see why you need to learn how to ride. You’ve already been doing it for years, and it’s hardly going anywhere.”
I stared at him with pure hatred in my eyes, and when he noticed, the corners of his mouth started twitching with mirth.
“Well, little Ida,” he said, “that’s the way of the world, I’m afraid, and since there’s nothing to do about it, maybe you ought to get a cheaper hobby. Orienteering, perhaps?”
But I absolutely did not want to orienteer with the girls who crowded in the thickets of the woods in squeaky windbreakers, eating sour green apples with their crooked teeth, struggling with some lame terrain map. I wanted to be with the horses. The closer I came to the stables, the more my breast filled with a sensation of peace and joy; the wheels of my bike crunched against gravel, and the birch trees lining the road still had their leaves. Nothing but lone farms out by the stables, perhaps a tractor driving on the field and the adults living here were generally quiet, if they saw me they only waved, and I waved back.
A hobby, they said. A hobby wasn’t what I had.
The riding school rested on a hill, willow trees dipping their branches into the earth, beech trees swaying in the wind, and only a few employee’s cars parked outside; an adult woman crossed the ground in a norwegian sweater and muddy rubber boots. It had paid off to bike there quickly; nobody else my own age was there yet. They were waiting to go home, eat something, get picked up and delivered to the riding shool by their parents; only I went there straight after school. The stable had thirty horses, and twenty ponys, and indoors the air was heavy with their warm animal smell. And the stable cat, who came up to me and rubbed himself against my legs, and I squatted down and petted his little head, as smooth and hard as a pebble.
“Hello, Ida,” said a riding instructor, who’d caught sight of me. “Here again?” Little Ida is what people called me when I first started riding, because back then I was little, but now I was grown and nobody called me little Ida anymore.
I just turned up, and they didn’t shoo me away. It was as if adults, as soon as they saw me, immediately repressed the knowledge that I was there.
“Yes,” I said. It was hard to think of what to say when people adressed me. “Here I am again.”
I used to think the horses looked a bit like prisoners, where they stood in their boxes, especially when they stuck their heads out to see who was there. While the little children rode, I did everything I could in the stable. I cleaned out the boxes. I groomed backs and withers. I carefully brushed great foreheads and around eyes, I cleaned hooves, untangled manes with my fingers, I wiped great nostrils clean.
After the little children had finished their lessons came the ones my own age whose voices made me shiver. I myself became quiet like a shadow. What envy I felt when I saw them riding, and then leaving the stables and heading out for the countryside; to where I couldn’t follow them, because I didn’t have a horse.
I was as good as them or better, and I never cried when I got thrown off the horse; I wiped the dirt or blood off my face and I got back in the saddle. I didn’t cry. Some bawled like babies. They were scared of the horses. Scared of getting hurt. Not me. One time my mouth bled. I swallowed the blood so no one would see. Along with the blood I swallowed something hard and sharp. A splinter of my front tooth. I got back in the saddle.
That particular day I stayed until the night fell, and actually it happened that all adults were sitting inside the big farmhouse, where the windows were lit up, drinking coffee and eating biscuits and petting the cat and gossiping in their slow country voices. A class returned, horses filled the empty boxes, girl’s voices chattered, and sooner or later a rush of motors and cars would come bringing back both girls and voices in the night, to houses which I imagined full of those little porcelain figures, with plastic landline phones constantly ringing with someone’s desire to speak to them.
This was the night a girl got badly injured. I followed commotion to the manege, and saw the girl lying on the gravel with a face white like a mask.
Even the proprietress of the riding school, rarely to be seen, was there; she had long white hair and had always scared me, because she really looked like a witch. Everyone feared her, because she had a short fuse and could berate students until they started crying in front of their entire class, and none of the other teachers dared to stop her. They said she grieved bitterly, because her man had died in a hunting accident, and that now she patrolled the countryside with his gun. She was, like all adults, busy explaining things to other adults, to the ambulance personnel and to the parents, when they came in their cars to pick up their children, and by the way everyone said everything would be fine you could tell something terrible had happened.
I was happy that attention was directed elsewhere, and in the stable it was actually completely quiet, besides the sighing and snorting of horses, and me alone with them and in peace, when I noticed someone had left the door in the back open.
A wide door made out of concrete, moulded into the wall. You might have guessed it was a fire door, but it couldn’t be an emergency exit, because no one had seen behind it, and behind the house was nothing but a big hill, like the kind where they buried bronze age chieftains.
Even I had never really thought about what might be behind the door, that’s how inconspicious it was, so closed and innaccessible.
But now it was open, just a crack, and I went through the crack. Then I groped in the dark until my hands found an old fashioned light switch; a click lit a row of naked bulbs hanging from the walls, casting a pale yellow light like they hadn’t been changed in decades.
It smelled like the crypt where they baptized my cousin, soil and cold and untouched things, but a different smell came through, warm like feces and with the iron quality of blood, a blood smell I hadn’t yet at the time gotten to know.
I’d expected a storage room or something like it, but the concrete floor turned into trodden soil in front of me. I went down the tunnel. Could this be a grave?
The animal smell grew stronger and stronger. Not just the smell of animal, but the smell of a filthy animal. I sniffed. It wasn’t a horse, not quite; I knew the smell of horses well, but something about this one wasn’t right; it was as if it had changed shape with another smell which I did not like at all.
I came to a rotting old wooden door and opened it without hesitation, and the smell that hit me almost made retch and fall back.
At first I thought there was a dead horse lying in the dark, a stillborn foal, a youth.
Then I thought I saw a dead child, with long slim limbs, thrown out without clothes like garbage.
My eyes were confused; I thought it was a doll, a doll in real size.
It wasn’t possible to understand what I saw.
But it wasn’t dead, it was alive, because its limbs were moving.
Human arms with human hands as well as hooves.
And some kind of head, covered in thick horse’s hair, a tangled mane.
Then two round shiny eyes in the dark looking at me, a long face.
And I looked into them and we saw each other.
“Who are you?” said the thing living down there. “Please don’t leave.”
I’d never heard a human speaking in that way.
“My name is Ida,” I said. “Who are you?”
“I’m one that hasn’t been baptized,” said the living thing.
I noticed a little TV was on in a corner of the room, with the sound turned very low; it cast cold light over the dirty hay. I looked from the TV to the one I was speaking to. And I saw it was neither human nor horse, but something inbetween.
The lower body was essentially that of a horse, but thinner, and only in patches covered with a very thin fur, the neck long and sturdy and with long thick hair. And at the top of this long, sturdy neck, a head, a face… like that of a human, with large teeth, nostrils flaring when she breathed. But there was no doubt about the eyes: they were warm and filled with a horse’s endless sensitivity.
“What are you doing down here?” I said and crouched down next to her.
“I don’t know a lot of other places,” she said. It was like she had to think between each word, and actually she furrowed her brow in confusion while she spoke. “Or where I would be if I wasn’t here.”
“Have you been here for a long time?” I asked. “Did someone lock you up?”
“For a long time,” she whispered. “Yes, I think a long time has passed.”
Now I saw that her front legs didn’t end in hooves, like a horse’s, but in human hands with very thick nails and palms as thick and rough as the soles of feet. The back legs, on the other hand, did end in hooves, and both of them were overgrown, without shoes. And under the sparse fur I saw the ribs and the lungs rising and falling under the skin.
“You’re not scared of me, Ida,” she said.
“They said people would be scared. If they saw me.”
I thought about it. “They probably would,” I said. “Are you in pain?”
“There’s something wrong with your hooves.”
“Pain. Yes. I’m… in pain.”
“They don’t let you trot?”
“Trot… sometimes I trot in here. But it hurts.”
“It’s because your hooves are overgrown.”
She was silent. Tears as big as bilberries formed in her eyes and rolled down her downy cheeks.
“I’m born from a terrible sin,” she said. “People aren’t supposed to see me.”
What terrible sin? I decided not to ask.
“Don’t be sad,” I said, “I’ll help you.”
“I can file down your hooves, so it doesn’t hurt when you walk. And then we can…”
“Trot?” she said.
“Ride?” I said.
“Ride is… when the human sits on the horse,” she said, almost like a question. “I’ve seen it over there.” She meant the TV. “But doesn’t it hurt?”
“No,” I said, “it’s wonderful.”
“I mean for the horse.”
“I don’t know. Horses can’t speak. But I don’t think so. I wouldn’t do it if it did.”
She sniffed with her big nostrils, and her eyes widened.
“What is it?”
“You have to hide,” she said.
Quickly I crawled across the muddy floor and rolled into a ball between a few bales of hay rotting in a corner. I hugged my knees tight and did my best to breathe slowly, hearing boots treading the ground.
“Back already?” the horse girl said.
“I forgot to lock up,” a human voice answered. I peered over the hay bale to see what was going on and saw a middle aged woman with long white hair hanging down her back. It was the proprietress of the riding school! She stroked the horse girl’s mane. “I had to come down to make sure nothing had happened to you. Imagine if someone had come here to hurt you!”
She spoke the way you speak to a child.
“No one comes,” the horse girl said.
“No, and they won’t, either,” the proprietress said. “No one knows you’re here, and they won’t ever know. So don’t worry. It’s just your poor old mummy being fussy. Now be a good girl for me, and eat plenty, okay?”
“Yes, mum,” said the horse girl, but her mum must have been mad, because everything down there had rotted and neither horse nor human nor inbetween would have wanted to eat it.
The proprietress left. I crawled out of my hiding space and my clothes were caked with sour mud.
“You’d better run away from here before she locks you in,” the horse girl whispered. The truth in her words hit me immediately and I moved like a rat in the darkness, quick and quiet and desperate.
They hadn’t closed up yet, but it was quiet in the yard; almost everyone had gone home, and in the dark office I found the key and hid it in my pocket. But when I came to my bike, a chubby riding teacher was standing there with her hands on her hips, watching it thoughtfully.
“Oh,” she said, when she saw me. “There you are, uh…” then she was silent for a while; she probably tried to remember my name, but failed. “We’re closed, you know.”
“I know, I know,” I said, “I’m very sorry.”
“The horses need their rest too, you see.”
“I understand,” I said. “I didn’t mean to stay for so long.”
“Fair enough,” she said and laughed. “Wow, you must have worked hard! You look like you’ve scrubbed out the stables with your very own clothes.”
I laughed along, then jumped on my bike and rode away with my heart beating hard.
My parents were watching an english crime show when I came in, and my mum frowned.
“You stink,” she said.
“Yes,” dad said, “it’s like a whole little cowshed’s come in.”
“Mum, dad, can you make a copy of my bike key?”
Then they turned their heads and actually looked at me. I must have been filthy.
“I mean, what if I lose my key! I actually love biking!” I said passionately, as if I already blamed them and as if I was ready to start bitching and fighting.
“Well, I guess it’s good for you to be interested in something besides those fucking horses,” dad said.
“Johan, you don’t have to curse in front of the child,” mum said.
“No, sure, of course,” said dad.
“I’ll put the key here,” I said, and left the key to the basement on the coffee table, next to his feet. He snorted, but actually did make me a copy, and just two days later I was back at the riding school and the original was back in its place.
I felt like a god, everything was with me.
Nothing could go wrong now that I had a purpose.
The next time I came down she raised her neck and pointed her ears like she was preparing to flee. She sniffed the air, and breathed out quickly.
“It’s just me,” I said, “My name is Ida.”
“Ida.” She nodded. Her eyes were big and shiny in the darkness, and in the background the TV was on, silently, sending a cold flickering light over the filthy hay. “You came back.”
“Yes, and look here,” I said.
That time I brought a proper flashlight, a packet of oat cakes, tiny green apples from my garden, and a magazine about horses.
I also brought a file, desinfectants, and eye drops.
We watched TV together and I took her hoof carefully into my lap and started filing it down while she ate oatcakes. Sometimes she looked at me, but usually just at the TV. That day they were showing a rerun of Xena, Warrior Princess. The horse girl told me, she measured time by what was on TV. Reception wasn’t the greatest in the basement, sometimes gray lines filled the screen, and if you turned the sound on there was static noise like a different reality wanted to break through. “After the Xena rerun there’s Survivor,” my friend explained, while she passively watched the screen and ate oatcake after oatcake. “And after Survivor, the other one visits me, and then you’ll have to leave. But of course she doesn’t turn up every day.” Then I felt her disquiet. “You don’t think she’ll notice that you filed down my hooves?”
“Tell her you’ve done it yourself, that you’ve been scraping them against the floor.”
She snorted, but just as quickly looked cheerful again. “Do you know, after Survivor they send some really exciting shows. Programs where people die. And you can watch them have sex and stuff like that. Sometimes. I like the one with the vampire guy.”
“It’s a pity I can’t stay that late.”
Yes, it was a pity. But I came back as often as I could – almost every day. The only difficult thing was not to get noticed coming or going. But on the other hand, there was nothing I did better than not getting noticed. I hadn’t talked as much in all my life as I did with her, told her things about the world, the wide open meadows and forests, and we fantasized about riding there together; my best fantasies yet.
She said, “Ida, what do you do when you’re not here?”
“I’m usually here,” I said. “When I’m at home I lie in my bed and read. Sometimes I look at different web pages on dad’s computer.”
“On the internet?” she asked. I guess she’d never used a computer.
“Yes, but just in the evenings. Dad says it’s too expensive otherwise.” While I pretended to do my homework, I learned things about horses instead. If I knew enough maybe they’d let me work at the stable one day, or as a vet. If I could make myself essential – surprise them one day, with the depth of my knowledge – they’d say, “Oh, Ida, how could we make it without you! Stay as long as you want!”
There were even pages where you could write with other girls who liked horses. But I never dared to register there. Because what if they…
“And in the daytime?”
“I’m in school during the day,” I said, and tried to sound neutral, but it was pointless to try to hide any feelings from her. She knew what I was feeling even if I never said it.
“You don’t like it.”
“No,” I said bitterly. I didn’t want to think about school in that moment. Gastric acid rose in my throat, visions of endless desks, endless empty hours filled with hate.
(And in the night. In the night I rode or ran naked through dark forests in my dreams. The branches of birch trees whipped my thighs, dew and fog wet my face.)
“I thought maybe you had a boyfriend or something?” she said, with a note of hopeful interest. She seemed a lot more keen on that kind of stuff than I was, but then she was a bit older than me, too, that was obvious.
“No,” I said.
“I don’t need a boyfriend.”
“Oh,” she said scraping against the floor. “You don’t want one? But it looks so fun on TV.”
“Yes, but it’s not like that in reality.” Guys were so nasty, I avoided them, especially the older ones, because there was no limit to their sadism. One time a group of boys stood in my way when I was leaving the sports hall. They’d found a condom in the bushes and showed it to me, and then they turned it inside out and rubbed it against my sports bag. I don’t know why I didn’t run away, I was so blank, and afterwards scared to death that my parents would se traces of sperm on my gym bag after I put it into the wash, that they’d angrily confront me – what kind of filth have you been up to?
Sometimes I saw girls in my class with boyfriends, how they put on a show for them. Would I ever be one of them? It seemed unlikely. There was a boy once who was nice to me, we played together in the grove on the schoolyard, where we pretended to fight invisible monsters. But nobody played anymore, and he’d changed classes and disappeared in the crowd. “Guys are mean in real life,” I said. “Only stupid girls run after them.”
The horse girl pondered this but didn’t answer. After a few minutes she said, “I still think I would have liked to have one, if I could.” Then she looked at me in a way that made my heart hurt, and I felt stupid and selfish, who had access to all the things human beings can do, but still couldn’t.
My eyes burned when I thought about it. It was terrible that someone as lovely and kind as her would be stuck down here in the dark, while those who roamed the surface were so awful.
What did they even do? Talked loudly, ate with grinding jaws, watched TV, tackled each other in football, injured each other.
I lay in my bed staring at the plastic stars glowing on the ceiling, waiting to hear my parents leaving through the front door.
Images appeared before my inner eye in sudden clarity because the dreams were not far away. I didn’t want to sleep before I’d achieved my goal, so I pulled a book from the pile next to the bed and tried to concentrate on it. The book was about a blond girl who rode in a stable somewhere – it must have been America, since the girls were named things like Ashley and the guys were named things like Clive. Even though Ashley was the best rider and had a very special connection to horses, she didn’t have her own horse, only the mean rich girls did, who neglected their horses and left her to take care of them in an emergency and then they were ungrateful too. But by the end of the book things would work out for her… I knew that. I’d read a lot of books that were basically the same and they all ended in basically the same way.
Actually it was a bit childish, and I’d outgrown childish dreams. Instead I now dreamed my reality. In my dream I was the one who rode… then caught sight of something so vile that I woke with a horrified start. I wasn’t supposed to sleep.
It was quiet on the ground floor.
Hard to imagine either of my parents checking to see if I was still home.
I biked the whole way to the stable and entered the way that only cats did.
“Ida!” she whispered when I entered the cavern. It always took me a while to get used to the smell. I think she saw the way I flinched, that it hurt her feelings, but she never brought it up. “How fun that you’re here so late!”
She let me climb onto her back, and we made a few slow rounds around the cavern.
I said, “Does it hurt when someone rides you?”
“No,” she said, “I wouldn’t say it hurts, but at the same time I can’t say why I would want it.”
“Should I get off?”
“I mean, I want it, but I don’t know why I want it.”
“They breed horses to want those things,” I said.
“What do you mean, breed?”
I blushed. “Well, when they make them mate with each other, they pick horses who do things you want them to do, you know, horses that are friendly or fast or…”
She slowed down, taking all of this in.
“Why do I exist?” she finally said. “Could somebody have… wanted this? But in that case, why…”
“I don’t know. But it’s lucky that you’re born with the legs of a horse and the face of a human, because if it had been the other way around, if you were a human-body with the head of a horse, then we couldn’t have talked to each other, or have ridden.”
The horse girl started to cry. “All you think about is different ways to use me.”
“That’s not true,” I said, horrified. “I just want to help you. I’d have tried to help you even if you’d had a human body with a horse’s head and forelegs. I thought this is what you wanted. We can do something else, if you want. Whatever you want.”
“How am I even supposed to know what I want, if the things I want are things I’ve been bred into wanting?” She turned her face away and stared at the wall. I just saw her sturdy neck and the long mane. “Most of all I’d like to fight vampires like Buffy does on TV.”
“Nobody really does that,” I said.
“Not here, anyway.”
“I think that’s what I would have wanted. So why do I want that? Do they breed humans to want things like that?”
“Nobody breeds humans,” I said and finally slid off her back, faster than I’d intended to, and landed with a thump on the filthy hay. “They just…”
“When they want to.”
“I guess so.”
“But why do they want to?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to.”
“So what do you want?”
“I want to… I want to learn enough about horses,” I said, embarrassed, “that if I’m here, helping, then maybe I can help them when they get injured or, you know… that I can help take care of the horses enough that I can stay here.”
“In big cities,” the horse girl suddenly said. “What happens there? Is it more like on TV? Do Backstreet Boys live there?”
“Uhhh,” I said. “I guess they must do?”
“And big stores with beautiful clothes. Like Destiny’s Child wear. And high schools.”
A sudden anger rose inside of me. She wasn’t like me at all. If anything she was more like the dumb girls in my class who wrote in each other’s diaries with worthless tiny golden locks. Giggled and looked out for boys and started doing their makeup age nine.
I ought to leave her to her destiny, because what she wanted she’d never get.
She must have noticed, because she flinched. “Ida?” she said anxiously. “You’re not leaving, are you? And if you’re leaving, you’ll come back, right?” Every time I left she said the same thing. She said, I hate to be alone, you’ll come back soon, right? And I thought she had a need for me, and I promised her I’d return, and always hurried back. But she didn’t need me at all. Or rather, I wasn’t the one she needed. Anyone would have served the same purpose as long as they didn’t leave her on her own.
I had tears in my eyes. “You’ll never have a boyfriend, whatever you do, wherever you go! Don’t you understand that?”
“Ida, what do you mean?”
But something animal had come into her facial expression, an uncomprehending fear and rage. She got up on her misshapen legs and backed into the wall and a sound came from her throat that no human being could make.
Suddenly I felt scared. I was alone down there with an animal larger than me, an animal that could kick or bite, an animal with big round eyes in the dark.
I stood up to leave and when I’d started to walk I broke into a run. I got on my bike, on my way home, and a lone late night car, with yellow headlights, failed to see me and got so close I had to brake, lost control over my bike, thrown sideways into the gravel, face first. I glimpsed a woman with white hair behind the wheel. The car drove another twenty yards or so and came to a stop. I heard adult voices:
“… hit something?”
“I’ll go outside and check,” said the white haired woman, and slammed the car door. The headlights made apparent the silhouette of a woman in riding boots. She was holding a gun!
I crawled into the ditch like a bug and made myself as small as possible, covered by ferns and undergrowth. Moisture sucked into my t-shirt. It smelled sour, like still waters. I heard her stomping around. An injured animal on the road must be put down with a shot. That must be what she was searching for. A gross beetle crawled over my shoulder. It crawled across my face. What if it tried to crawl into my mouth? Into my ears, my nose? I held my breath. The car door slammed. The engine started, the wheels began to roll, and the sound became more and more distant. I got out of the ditch and watched the car drive up the same hill I’d just biked down. Maybe they were heading to the riding school. But this late at night?
It must have been the proprietress!
Close call, I thought. The light on my bike had shattered during the fall. I biked through the thick velvet night, with just the moon leading my way, and now and then a lit window in the low dark farmhouses beyond the fields. Finally I returned to society and to the house my parents lived in. Blue light flickered from the living room window.
This must be the time when the exciting shows were on – the ones were they killed each other and had sex. Did she watch the same ones, down there in the dark, with her mouth half open in awe? And concentrating on shaping the same words, with lips that weren’t made for them. There you are. I was looking for you all over, babe. You’re the one that I want.
The side of my body was soaked through and covered in strands of grass. I’d better get out of my clothes quickly, I thought, but the thought was no help because my mum turned up in the living room doorway, backlit by the television. “Ida!” she said. “What happened?”
And my dad, who sat on the sofa behind her back, turned his head. “What’s she done now?” he said distractedly, before he got a proper look at me. “Oh, what the hell…”
“I had an accident on my bike,” I said.
“You can say that again,” mum said. “You’re bleeding!”
I looked down. Blood had run down my legs where I’d scraped them, and down my arms. Bits of gravel were still stuck in my skin. I couldn’t think of anything to say about it. It was one of those things that just were. Now I’d be expected to react to it. I could see it in their faces. There was a reaction you were supposed to have, but I did’t know what. I must have missed my chance already.
“What’s the matter with her?” my dad roared and got out of the couch. “There’s always some fucking shit going on! Don’t you know how to ride your bike?”
“Not the first time you’ve come home covered in blood.”
“And you’ve torn your shirt. What the fuck do you need to go biking at night for?”
“Why can’t you just stay home? Can’t you go to a friend?”
“Don’t you have any friends to go to? Doesn’t anybody want you?”
“Isn’t there anyone who can bring you along, so you don’t go biking through the woods at night, every night?”
“Isn’t there anyone to protect you, take you into their warmth?”
“Isn’t there anyone who wants to share their secrets with you?”
“Isn’t there anyone to whisper, whisper in your ear…”
“Isn’t there anyone to hold your hand and ask you to follow them over the meadow…”
“Isn’t there anyone to hold your hand, and ask you to come into their room?”
“Isn’t there anyone who presses your hand in their hand and looks you in the eyes and says that they want you, isn’t there anyone who wants to share their food with you, isn’t there anyone who wants you to be there?”
“And when you walk into the darkness, doesn’t anyone cry out for you?”
I was terribly tired. I lay down between sheets of comforting cotton and thought I’ll never return to the riding school its holes and hidden corners and the smell of horse piss and sour hay I’ll never feel again. And what remained was unknown to me because I slid into dreams entirely empty without the least trace of horse nor human and neither moon nor wind-swept woods.
Then I woke up naked in sheets sticky with blood because I’d menstruated during the night. It wasn’t like I didn’t know what had happened, but there wasn’t a chance I’d ever turn to my parents for help. My mum had a few pads in the bathroom cabinet, not many, and I stole one of them and put it down my underpants. I didn’t cry until I was sitting on the toilet. But it’s like with deaf babies that scream and don’t hear themselves screaming, sooner or later they stop, because what’s the point?
It was just another humiliating thing that had happened and I was used to things like that happening.
That day was one of those endless school days that just keeps going and going and I’d kept bleeding. What I hadn’t understood was that you need to change pads pretty often and the one I was wearing stank. I didn’t get that what I could smell, other people could smell, too. The last class of the day was sewing class. The smell of rotten blood spread in the classroom. It was unavoidable.
“Do you smell that?” said one of the girls.
“Yes – what is it? What is it that smells?”
I didn’t say anything, but that’s when I realized it was me. I was sewing a pillow case. Perhaps they’d forget what they’d noticed.
“It really does smell,” another girl broke out. “Ugh, can you feel it?”
“But what is it that smells?”
“Doesn’t it smell a bit like a stable?”
“It smells like horse!”
I turned towards the last girl speaking, saw her thrilled, cruel face, and without hesitating drove my scissors into her hand, which rested on a piece of floral fabric.
“Oh my God!”
I wasn’t so strong that I did more than just sting her. But she screamed like she was getting murdered, and when I looked into her face I thought, she likes it, she likes that she’s the victim and I’m the aggressor.
I dropped the scissors and left the classroom, ran across communal lawns and left the ugly brick buildings of the school behind me. Now I’d really fucked things up.
Aimlessly, I walked down streets, past one-floor villas with trampolines in their gardens, and in the windows, little porcelain dogs, on the lawns, barbecues. I saw letterboxes, I saw cars. I saw number signs, I saw balloons tied to a mailbox, half deflated on the ground. Some child must have had a birthday party.
The only thing I knew was that I’d be punished. I didn’t know how, just that it would be severe. Was I really supposed to turn back home? I couldn’t go back to school. But where was I supposed to go?
I thought about the proprietress, with the gun.
Late at night I returned to the riding school.
I’d pictured horrible things. That the proprietress came there to kill her, that that’s why she had the gun. I couldn’t compare this anxiety to anything else I’d felt in my entire life. Did I really intend to leave her to her suffering? If you don’t know that somebody suffers, then you simply don’t know, and then it has nothing to do with you, you’re not doing anything wrong. But when you know, you know. Then you can’t pretend not to know, and that’s what it really means to lose your innocence.
Until you know guilt, you don’t even know that you used to be innocent.
“Ida!” said the horse girl when she saw me, and opened her eyes wide. Someone had been down there, obviously; the hay had been changed, and there was a bouquet of flowers in a water glass on the floor.
“I really hope you’re not mad at me,” I said, stressed. I’d succumbed to panic on the way there and biked like a mad person and now I was dripping with sweat. “I’m sorry about saying those mean things to you.”
“Yes, okay,” she said, hesitating. “I forgive you. I actually didn’t know if you would come back again.”
“Of course I came back,” I said.
“You sound different today.”
“Yes,” I said. I felt different too. I thought, a few days ago I was just a child, not knowing anything about freedom and responsibility. It was like my heart was gritting its teeth. “I came here just to see you,” I said. “I could take you out of here tonight, if you wanted me to.”
“What about the others?”
“There’s no one else here.”
“They’re not there at night? Mum said there were people there all the time.”
“Yes, but she lied,” I said.
“Okay,” the horse girl said and got up, slow and sleepy, until she was standing on all fours, with her odd human-like front feet pressed into the ground.
“I thought maybe I could help you out of here for good, somehow, if it’s what you want. I know maybe your life wouldn’t be as you imagine it. But maybe you could move across the countryside at night, eat grass and drink from creeks. See the moon and the stars, sleep all day! Spend the winters in abandoned barns. Uh, you can eat grass, right?”
She blinked slowly like awakening from a dream. “Yes. I can digest grass. But Ida, where will you go?”
Horses shouldn’t be alone. There ought to be a whole flock of horse girls like her who with their bizarre hands braided each other’s manes and gossiped with each other in their downtempo neighing voices. But there wasn’t.
“Please, let me come with you,” I said. “Because there’s no other place where I can be.”
“We can leave.” I didn’t often see her standing the way a horse is supposed to, because then she couldn’t make use of her hands.
I walked right by her and led her up to the stables.
Even before we came up we could feel how confused and upset they got and how they started snorting and scraping their hooves against the floor. Dear god, I thought, if you’re alive, don’t let them make a lot of noise. The strange, unreal smell made them nervous. The horse girl was nervous too. I put my hand on her withers and felt the muscles tense. Her eyes stared wildly around her. “There there,” I said, “don’t worry, it’ll all be good.”
Just the moonlight and the light from my plastic torch lit the space in front of us, full of great dark shapes moving, stinking of animal, worrying, smelling, sniffing, trying to understand what they were picking up on, neither like them nor like anything else. The stallions breathed heavily, stuck their big heads through the bars and stared at her, followed her with their eyes. Stupid animals, I thought, for the first time in my life, you don’t understand, why can’t you let her be? She tugged at me and I realized that she, despite her state, was stronger than me, much stronger. Take it easy, I whispered through grit teeth, and I did my best to calm my own self down so she wouldn’t sense my tension, think I was scared too, panic and bolt.
But as soon as we came into the moonlight, everything dropped. We stood all alone on the plateau, and had anyone looked in the direction of the riding school at that point, they would have seen us. But what would they have seen, how would they have interpreted it? A little girl with a strange little horse, a horse with a head the wrong shape but turned away too quickly for the viewer to understand anything about it. Just shapes in the dark, who silent and almost invisible disappear on the trail into the forest.
There were a lot of things she’d never seen before, and I thought she’d be more scared. But when I sat on her back and she walked slowly through the woods, nosing at shrubberies and the wounds in the trees where the sap ran down the trunk, she grew completely silent and said nothing for a long time. She must have felt the smell of things like wet cold moss, sweet dead animals rotting among the trees, shrooms pushing their way up through the ground. There were things I’d never know in the same way. All I knew was how it felt to be a human, to have a body with feet and hands, and to sit on somebody’s back.
In case we got lost I’d brought the atlas over Sweden that my mother used sometimes when she drove us far away to our summer cabin.I thought we could move along the side of the roads at night, steal food from the dumpsters outside the truck stops and gas stations that lined the big roads, and maybe we could go south, to Scania, and see the beechwood forests and the ocean, or go north, see the deep dark woods in summer, cross the border to Finland, and my hair would become long and tangled like that of a beast, I would become as tall as an adult woman and nobody would recognize me as a human. You noticed, during long night-time car journeys, that Sweden was nothing but little pools of electric light spread out on a big blanket of darkness and emptiness. Between these communities, these sparse human habitations, there was nothing; and this nothing took you into its mouth and swallowed you into the warm protection of the lonely.
We were at the edge of the woods and I whispered happily about all of this when I felt her grow stiff and all muscles froze, because of course she heard the voices of humans before I did. A terrible noise came from the stables. The breathing and neighing of horses. What did they sense that I did not?
“It’s my mum,” the horse girl said, “She always said, my little girl, I’ll always know where you are, if anything’s happened to you – such is a mother’s intuition.”
“Come on then, run,” I said, and in a cruel moment I wished I’d had spurs or a whip or anything really to drive into her flesh and get her to move. What’s wrong with a horse that doesn’t run away from danger?
“I can’t run,” she whispered, horrified.
“Come on, yes you can,” I said, because I heard the voices closing in and the blood rushing in my ears. “Please, please, just do it.” A shot rang out and now I actually panicked and kicked my heels as hard as I could into her sides. Shocked, she broke into a run, down the gravel hill, while I clung to her muscular neck and was thrown back and forth on her back.
I heard another shot, and at first I thought a stone had hit me on the leg, that we’d kicked up some pieces of gravel; I didn’t realize I’d been shot until another shot hit my friend in the shoulder and she whinnied and threw me off and the last thing I saw was how she galopped into the woods, before I cracked my skull open against the trunk of a birch tree.
I’m not one to say what happened after it all went black that night.
For several weeeks I floated in and out of pain and morphine highs at the hospital, dreaming long white dreams about sand dunes and dark waters and now and then people came to visit and talked by the side of my bed as if I wasn’t there, but there was no way for me to relate to what they said.
“… if she hadn’t…”
“… enough trying, we ought to…”
A sad figure looked at me; its body was that of a human, but its head was that of a horse, and it couldn’t say anything to me. The mist returned, the voices:
“… these women, you know what they…”
“… even if you explained, nobody would..:”
Now the proprietress of the riding school was sitting at my bedside. It was like I saw her in a dream. Like seeing a dead person who visits you to warn you. I don’t know why she appeared so clearly, when all the others were just obscure mumbling shadows.
“Little Ida,” she said. She sat stern and tall on the chair. The funny thing is, she was still in her riding clothes, even wearing the helmet, and her long white hair hung in a braid across her shoulder. She had a whip on her lap. “You might think I’m a vengeful person. That I’ve come here to threaten you.”
I couldn’t answer her, just lie in bed and stare. My body seemed to have become part machine, with all the tubes coming in and out of it.
The proprietress walked over to me and looked straight into my face. I saw her bloodshot eyes, the wrinkles around the mouth. She stroked my hair and her hand was cool and dry like paper. “There’s one thing you should know. There’s no need for me to threaten you. As soon as you try to explain to anyone what you’ve experienced, you’ll soon realize that what you’ve been through, no person will believe in. There are such experiences. Experiences that separate you from everyone else alive, because you can never share them.”
The next time I woke up there was an extravagant bouquet of flowers on the bedside table, dropping leaves and pollen onto the bedding. A card stuck out, and the card said:
GET WELL SOON IDA!
FROM ALL OF US AT THE RIDING SCHOOL.
Many years later when I travelled through Härjedalen with my research group to study bat migration patterns across northern Sweden, we came across a whole troop of riders on the road. We stood there in our windbreakers, wet with dew, and watched them trotting by, one after one; proud they looked down on us from the backs of the horses, girls in riding boots, with braids hanging down their backs.
What I felt then, I can’t explain. One of my colleagues muttered with a lowered voice, “Well well, you sure know what those women really do with their horses.”
“What?” I said, ice cold. “I actually haven’t got the faintest idea!”
and he looked away, embarrassed.
“Don’t take it so badly, Ida,” somebody said.
It was just because I used to ride.
Asleep in my single bed I gazed through the window and into the woods. I stuck my hand through the window, into the night. And under the palm of my hand I felt the manes of horses, horses riding free, free through the whole night, riding free through the country.
Text: Zola Gorgon
Image: From The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, Edward Topsell, 1607