This short story was published by Our Stories Literary Journal in 2010. It was selected as the winner of the journal’s Emerging Writer Award for that year, and seems appropriate in light of the events we have witnessed in the last week. Many challenges still face us as a people, and on days like these last few, they seem unbeatable. Sometimes, we have to look back where we were to see how far we’ve come. This piece is not one that can be read lightly or without consideration, but again, it seems timely. Perspective is a powerful thing.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Byshe Shelley 1817
The mid-day heat held everything on the farm in its iron grip. Even the air felt as if a giant hand held it in place. The sun’s glare reflected back from the cracked windshield of a rusty Wyllis jeep that had carried US troops from Normandy to Berlin. Now it carried dust and fertilizer. It sat in the hot sand where the driveway curved around the house and emptied into the backyard.
Waves of heat shimmered up toward the cloudless sky from the tin roofs of the house and barn. Faded yellow curtains hung limply in windows left open in hopes of catching a breeze. A single fan creaked and shuddered in the window beside the back porch.
The house and the paddock had both been painted white once, and many years ago the shutters on the house had probably been green, but decades of summer days and years of windblown dust had worn everything to a flat, dingy gray. The paddock fence drooped in the sun’s glare. Most of the paint had chipped off, and the rails were warped and split. Several sections of the top rail were worn smooth from generations of mens’ and boys’ backsides resting on them.
No grass grew in the paddock or anywhere else in the back yard of the house; the dirt was packed too hard from years of foot traffic. But, several live oaks were scattered about, and they formed a boundary between the yard and the fields that stretched out in every direction.
Just as they had been doing for hundreds of years, the oaks offered their invitation to anyone who had the time to sit and rest in their shade. They gave shelter from the sun to animals while they napped and children while they played. The oak trees’ whispered lullabies had sung five generations of children to sleep on hot summer nights when curtains flapped in the breeze through the open windows of the house. The oaks had hidden the terrified first kisses and timid embraces of those same children when they became teenagers, and countless declarations of enduring love had been carved into their trunks.
They had seen the house built. The first automobile on the farm had been parked under their branches. They had seen babies born and watched them die old men and women. Five generations of husbands and fathers had stood under one or another of the oaks and deemed himself master of all he saw.
But the oaks did not whisper this day. No wind blew to give them a voice. The only movement came from the paddock, where a dozen sharecroppers watched a majestic black horse that had just arrived on the farm. The beast pranced around the paddock, daring anyone to enter his new domain. His size and power defied even the heat. Everything on the farm watched the massive animal.
Several dogs were dug in beneath a 1938 Studebaker that had last been driven during FDR’s last year in office. It sat behind a dusty tractor, underneath a shed roof attached to the side of the barn. A rooster that had been holding court from the top of the car sat transfixed by the great black horse.
The animal stood twenty hands high and weighed at least fourteen hundred pounds. His tail moved like a bristly pendulum, chasing away the horseflies that buzzed all around him. He snorted and pawed the ground, hating the attention and telling all who could hear that no man could tame him.
Several of the sharecroppers had been sitting on the fence, but he had bitten them or knocked them down, and no one dared get too close.
“Y’all cain’t show dat horse you scairt,” the youngest of the sharecroppers told the group, strutting up to the fence.
The young man was six feet tall, and he was thick-chested with a narrow waist and long legs. His pants were too short, so that his ankles showed above the tops of his
boots. His skin was the color of coffee with not quite enough cream in it, and his hands were big and callused from a young lifetime of hard labor on the farm.
“Now y’all watch me, and I’ll ride dat horse,” he said. “You jus’ gots to show hit who’s boss.”
“You’ll ride dat horse to your grave,” said a wizened old man, waggling his two remaining teeth with his tongue. He shifted the wad of snuff in his mouth from one cheek to the other, and used the back of his crooked, bony hand to wipe away the juice that ran down his unshaven chin. Then he wiped his hand on the back of his canvas britches and spat a stream of mahogany tobacco juice into the dust.
“Dat horse won’t break nary a sweat throwin’ you off, boy,” he said and folded his arms across his bony chest as if the conversation were over.
“He sho nuff won’t know you was there,” said another of the men, slapping his knee and cackling loudly. All of the other men nodded their heads and murmured their agreement.
“I will too ride him,” the young man boasted. “Come on over here, horse,” he yelled across the fence.
“Das’ a bad animal. I b’lieve I’d sweet-talk him, if’n I was you,” said the young man’s father. “You get broke up and cain’t crop dat ‘bacca, yo mama hurt you lot
wors’n what dat horse will, boy.”
“I’ll ride dat horse to the field when it come time to crop bacca. You jus’ watch,” the young man crowed as he strutted up and down in front of the fence.
“Come on horse,” the young man yelled. “Come on and show me what you’s made of!”
He climbed on the top rail of the fence and waved his arms. The horse stopped and looked at him, and his look seemed to ask if maybe the young man was crazy. The animal decided to find out, and moved towards the foolish looking man.
When the horse reached the fence, the young man sprang up like a ballerina and landed squarely on its back. Each hand gripped a handful of the horse’s mane. The horse stood perfectly still for almost two full seconds before he became a raging fiend.
His hind legs flew out and up and then slammed back down again. He screamed his rage at being challenged by the man. His head flew violently back and forth. After just the second kick of the horse’s powerful hind legs, the young man tumbled through the air, watching the oak trees and the barn and the house flip end over end. When he hit the ground, the young man gasped like he would never breathe again.
When he opened his eyes the horse towered above him, rearing up in triumph, about to crush his chest with huge front hooves, but the animal spun suddenly when one of the sharecroppers hit him in the rump with a tobacco stick. The horse leaped after the fleeing sharecropper, furious at having been stung so easily by a man. While the horse was chasing the culprit the young man’s father and uncle dragged him clear of the enraged animal’s reach. The horse pranced around the paddock, throwing out his chest and flinging his head from side to side, dancing a victory jig.
A short, thick sharecropper walked from the front of the barn to the paddock gate as the young man dusted himself off. He had dusky skin, and he wore a dirty red Brooklyn Dodgers cap. “Now you go and do lak yo daddy tole you, boy. You go be sweet to dat horse. You take dis here sugar cube, and you coax dat horse to your way, if’n you man enough.”
“I’m man enough, awlright,” the young man sulked. “But I ain’t going back in wit’ dat damn horse.”
“Watch yo mouth, boy, and git out de way. Now you watch how a man do it.” The bald sharecropper climbed the fence slowly and sat on the top rail, holding the sugar cube out with both hands.
“Come on here, boy. Come on blackie,” the man cooed softly. “Come git dis sugar. Come git somethin’ sweet, now. Come on, blackie boy. Calm down. Das right.”
The horse pawed the ground and snorted and bobbed his head up and down. He trotted from the center of the paddock to the other side and back again, his eyes never leaving the man on the fence. Finally, the horse lowered his head and slowly moved toward the proffered sugar cube.
“Dere you go. Eat dat good sugar, blackie. You a good horse. See?”
As the horse took the sugar from his hand, the man slowly reached out with his other hand to stroke the horse’s nose. But the horse wouldn’t be tamed even that much. In a fit of disgust and anger he nipped the man’s hand and pushed him off the fence, then whinnied his triumph over yet another man. The beast seemed to be laughing at the weakness of the men who had tried to break him. In fact, when the sound of laughter drifted across the yard, each of the sharecroppers thought just for a moment that the horse was laughing at them.
Then they realized that the laughter was coming from the screened in back porch of the house. It was the Man. He had been watching and listening since he’d finished his dinner, and he was laughing along with the horse at their puny efforts to tame the great beast.
The Man completely filled the doorframe as he pushed his way past the porch’s screened door. It slapped shut behind him, and he paused on the top step for a moment to consider his domain. The cigarette burning between his fingers looked like a tiny twig in his huge hand. His other hand worked a toothpick in and out of his mouth like a tailor’s hand working a needle and thread in and out of a piece of fine cloth.
Sweat glistened on his balding head as he stood on the steps, and his sleeves were stained dark beneath his arms. Thick, black chest hair spilled out of his unbuttoned shirt. His skin was hard and burnished a deep reddish brown. He took a final drag from his cigarette and blew the smoke out of both nostrils before flicking the butt out into the yard and descending the steps. The Man moved across the yard with the speed and grace of a lynx and the pent up power of a bull.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “Can’t you bastards do anything without my help? Why the hell are you worrying my horse, anyway? Can’t y’all even ride a damn horse?”
“Yes suh, Boss, but cain’t nobody ride dis here horse. He a demon,” said the bald headed sharecropper, holding his injured hand out for the Man to see.
“Somebody oughta shoot dat horse, if’n you aks me,” the subdued young man muttered.
“You ought to watch your mouth and leave my damn horse alone if you can’t handle him,” the Man said as he approached the group of men. They all stepped back to make room for him when he reached the paddock. He put his hand on the weathered fence rail and planted his feet.
“Get your black ass over here, mule!” His voice rolled across the paddock like thunder and carried out over the fields.
“Don’t make me wait all day. I’ll drag your ass over here if I have to! Come on, dammit!”
“He a mean one, now, Boss. You best be careful wit him. You’se a big man, but he throw you, sho nuff,” the wizened old sharecropper said, wiping sweat from his white hair with a filthy handkerchief. “He a mean one, awlright.”
“Go to hell,” the Man muttered. “He’s my damn horse in my damn barn eating my damn food, and I’ll ride him whenever the hell I feel like it.
“Now come here, you black bastard,” he bellowed.
The horse pranced and whickered nervously, sizing up this new threat to his dominance. His tail flipped back and forth.
“Don’t you go in dat fence, Boss. You let dat horse alone,” the old man said again, as the Man threw his thick leg over the fence.
“Damn that horse,” he said to the old sharecropper. Then to the horse, “Well, by God, I’ll come to you.”
Man and beast locked eyes for a moment, then the Man strode forward with a concentrated purpose. Dust swirled up each time his foot struck the ground. His fists were clenched, and his eyes bored through the heat and the dust into the horse’s eyes.
The horse snorted and threw his head up and down and back and forth. He pawed the ground with his front feet. His tail no longer moved; his entire attention was focused on the man moving towards him.
The Man drew up even with the horse.
The animal stood his ground.
The Man whipped his hand out suddenly and grabbed a handful of the horse’s mane. In the same graceful movement he leapt off of the ground and onto the horse’s back. As he landed with the horse between his knees he planted his heels in the horse’s sides and grabbed a second handful of the animal’s coarse mane.
“Now buck, mule,” he yelled. “Buck, damn your soul!”
The horse was in violent motion almost instantly. He flung his hind legs up and out and threw his head toward the ground and then back at the sky. Every muscle in the horse’s body strained to throw the hated man from his back.
“Yowwwww! You ride him, Boss,” one sharecropper hollered.
“Break dat devil!”
“Ride ‘im hard, Boss!”
“Whoooo look at ‘im jump!”
“Dat man might jus ride dat horse!”
Then the horse bumped against the fence just as he threw his hind legs out and his head down. The Man had anticipated the buck, but not the contact with the fence. The bottom of his pant leg caught on the top rail, and he shifted his weight to that side as the horse’s rump moved upward.
When the horse’s hindquarters came down, the Man’s knee cracked into the fence, and the sudden pain made him release his grip. When the horse’s back hooves hit the ground, the Man cart wheeled into the air and landed on the fence. The sound of splintering wood told everyone who had won the first round.
“Damn you!” the Man bellowed as he crashed through the rails into the dirt. The impact was like a tree trunk hitting the ground after the final ax blow. Dust billowed up and swirled around everything.
“Oh lordy, dat horse done throwed the boss,” the young man breathed. His brow was furrowed, and his mouth hung open in disbelief. The other men were silent, busily staring at the ground.
The Man, though, would not accept defeat, especially in front of his hired help. He jumped up like a giant, enraged jack-in-the-box before all of his body parts had hit the ground.
“Damn your soul to hell!” he thundered. “You sorry two bit mule! I’ll ride you or I’ll kill you one, you son-of-a-bitch! Get over here.” The Man stepped across the broken pieces of fence back into the paddock.
The horse again stood his ground.
“Dat’s enough, Boss,” the white haired old sharecropper cautioned, leaning over the fence. “Either you gone kill dat horse, or dat horse gone kill you.”
The Man ignored the warning. His eyes gripped the horse, and the horse stood in uneasy challenge. He reared his head and waited for the Man to try to mount him again.
Without breaking his stride the Man reached out and tried to grab a handful of the horse’s mane again, but the horse was ready for him and moved quicker, whipping his head around and just nipping the Man’s quickly retracted hand. The majestic animal whinnied and snorted his defiance.
The Man was silent as he snatched back his bleeding hand and stepped backwards, aligning himself face to face with the beast. His fist, driven by a tree trunk-like arm, slammed into the side of the horse’s head. The animal stumbled sideways and sagged to its knees. Blood ran from one nostril. He shook his head back and forth, as if trying to turn the world right side up again.
“I tole you you’d kill dat horse,” the old sharecropper moaned around the wad of tobacco in his cheek. “You done gone and killed dat purty horse. I tole you to let him be.”
The young man who had been thrown stood preening. “I knowed he could be broked,” he crowed. “I jus’ needed a few mo’ seconds to get my grip right, and I’d a whipped him, too. Jus lak the boss done. I almos’ had ‘im. Dat horse got what was coming to ‘im.”
No one paid the young man any attention; they all watched three of the sharecroppers rush into the paddock and stand on either side of the fallen animal.
“You’se a hard man, Boss,” one of them said quietly, watching the horse throw its head back and forth in confusion. “But you is de boss, and you always gets yo way. I reckon he know dat now.”
One of the other two men in the paddock had pulled out his handkerchief and was trying to wipe away the blood that dripped from the horse’s nose, but the angry beast bit the man’s hand. The sound of breaking bone came almost simultaneously with the man’s scream.
“Damn dat devil,” the injured sharecropper yelled. “Dat animal ain’t nothin’ but a big black demon!” He ran out of the paddock and sat in the dirt moaning and cradling his damaged hand.
“Well don’t just stand there looking stupid; get him some damn help,” the Man barked. “Take him in the house and call the doctor. Get him fixed up. The rest of you get on back to work. I told y’all you weren’t man enough to ride my horse. Now get on back to work like I told you to.”
While he was talking, he used one hand to grab the horse’s mane and the other to slap the its side. “Get up, you damn mule,” he said roughly. “I feel like taking a ride.”
The horse got to his feet, and the Man led him over to the fence where the sharecroppers stared and shook their heads in awe.
“Now y’all watch how it’s done,” the Man said
He put one foot on the lower fence rail and threw his other leg across the horse’s back. The animal stood patiently while the Man settled himself and grabbed a handful of its mane. “Now you boys get on back to work like I told you,” he said again as he rode bare-back out of the paddock.
As the horse and its master passed through the tree line a breeze sprang up and relieved the searing heat.
High up in their branches, the oak trees laughed.