A Skull Dreams It Is a Horse

A skull on a stick dreams it is still a horse.

Parade ground, a misfiring cannon. An explosion: a horse turned inside out. A horse’s body mingled with a coal miner come to watch the parade.

People separated them as best they could. The miner’s name was Sumner. He had no sweetheart. He was young. They sent him home to his mother in Chipping Campden.

The old thoroughbred’s name was Grey Shanks. The cavalry unit had an unofficial wake for her; some of them slipped out after dark. They drank all night at The Queen Victoria, raising glasses to the horse and to the portrait of Lloyd George, and they drank between the pub and the barracks, walking and singing in the snow, under pale stars. Grey Shanks. Grey Shanks. She’s a jolly good fellow.

Someone put the horse’s skull on a stick. A man called Rainbird kept her in his hayloft.

A long splinter of bone is lodged between the skull’s back teeth. The two bones become one bone. Part of the cavalry horse, and part of Sumner.

Now the long skull dreams.

A skull on a stick dreams it is still a horse, and dreams it is a coal miner.

A horse looks out of the skull’s left eye. Sumner looks out of the right.

In the left world she’s burned, an exploded horse, a warhorse that never went to war, set free from the cannon she’s been pulling on parade, fire climbing up her side over the cavalry brand, all the way up to her right eye, pieces of her and the miner called Sumner and red confetti everywhere. On the other side, she is a workhorse chained to a machine underground, and Sumner pushes alongside her. His face is black. He wears a light on his head. These are Sumner’s memories, but they exist in her skull together, one bone. Now she is a coal miner, and he is a horse.

When they are underground, the horse wants to know why there is no grass.

The miner tries to explain to the horse: In the world underground, there is no grass and no sky.

The horse thinks it isn’t much of a place. But it’s what Sumner knows. We die in France, he tells her, and we die digging coal.

The horse remembers being alive, and being dead. She remembers being Sumner, the coal miner, six years underground with the machines.

He says: machines are the future. She doesn’t understand what “future” means. He tells her about howitzers and the Vickers machine gun, of weapons that can tear open a field and spill its guts like a wolf tearing out a horse’s belly, how these new guns can mow down a line of cavalry. Won’t be needing warhorses, he says. He says: drills and modern coal extraction. He says: won’t be needing pit ponies to pull the carts up. Nor even boys. It’ll be all machines.

Sumner is a strange animal.

Out of her right eye. Out of her left. She dreams for both of them, of two different worlds.

In one, there is fire, and a black sun over a white field. In the other, all the light comes from electric bulbs. She walks in circles, turning a machine.

Sumner thinks: my name. It’s on these coveralls. He likes to say the same thing, do the same thing, again and again. Sometimes he says his name to himself, and the number that is stitched under his name on his coveralls.

Rainbird keeps the long skull in the hayloft and carries it down at Christmas.

The rest of the time, the horse dreams for herself and for the coal miner in her right eye, and Sumner dreams for both of them, too.

The burned horse looks out of her left eye. She canters down green lanes in the countryside, those tunnels of oaks and alders, Sumner’s heels flopping by her shoulders. He isn’t much of a rider.

They trot together where the cobbles ring under her shoes like teeth in a metal cup. She wants to give him the smell of sweat. The taste of a ripe pear. But Sumner likes places that remember pain.

Through London to the place of long-ago executions. To Smithfield, choked with traffic now. Through factories and docks and auction yards and tanneries, where blood covers the horse’s pasterns. Through mills, butcheries, smelters, steelworks.

This place is ugly, Sumner says happily.

The horse wonders if Sumner is perhaps not an animal after all, but a machine.

Sumner says his own name. He says, 2467.

His brother was gassed in France.

He says: Slow down, why don’t you?

He rides like a sack of flour.

The smell of smoke makes the burned horse think of a starter pistol. The smell of blood twitches in her hide and makes her itch. She wants to buck and bite. The coal miner is a lion on her back. But she was broken to stand through anything. So she canters to these places that remember human lives, her gait human pain, her gait the shock of the axe. The trace pain leaves is longer-lived than joy.

Afterward, she takes him to the parade ground where the cannon exploded. Most days it’s a park. Sumner likes to see the children feed the birds. He likes the old couples with their little dogs. He doesn’t know that even here it’s the pain of the place, making him feel alive.

There’s a gathering at the parade ground, a party after a wedding. The bride takes off her shoes and runs across the grass. Pink napkins wilt in the rain.

No one sees the two of them, the coal miner’s ghost on the grey ghost horse.

What the horse loves is Christmas, when Rainbird takes her down from the hayloft. Everyone will be happy. People will sing about her: Hup, Hup, Hoddening Horse. The ghosts of her knees will jig up and down as if she’s galloping in a ghost meadow, and her dry ghost teeth clap together, and the long hard maw bone grins.

Sumner whistles through their teeth.

Every day of the year but one, they keep the skull up in Rainbird’s hayloft.

The horse longs for that one day, her special day; they bring her down from the hayloft. They put a hoop of holly round her neck, which to them is just a stick; it makes her think of the flowers they put on racehorses at Brighton By The Sea.

The horse tells Sumner how she was a racehorse at Brighton, before the cavalry brand, when she was a filly.

Someone’s telling wee porky pies, he says.

People carry her through town. That’s when she visits the places she likes, where joy leaves its salt. Once a year, in winter, she enters their houses dressed in green. Sumner goes too, though the place doesn’t speak to him like a stockyard or a factory.

People can see the burned horse then, as a horse’s skull with a stick for a neck and a blanket covering the wicker frame of her body. They can almost see the old skin covering her bones, dappled with light and shadows.

The Hoddening Horse’s jaw is wired up, and she can snap it, or people snap it for her, ringing the bells, enticing the women of the house to let themselves be covered by her blankets for good luck. She likes their brandy-rum breath and songs of “Poor auld ‘orse”. She likes the way they touch each other.

A man and a woman press together in a corner when everyone else is gathered at the punch bowl. A bunch of paste holly berries fall out of the woman’s hair, and her breasts rise up and down inside her dress. The horse leaves her skull, and goes into the woman’s body. She feels the woman’s excitement, and the woman’s sadness, the way her heart is, and the way of the man holding her as gently as a blade of grass. That night, the horse’s skull back in the hayloft, the woman dreams of fire.

Sumner retreats to the skull’s right eye, doesn’t come out for a long time.

Sumner never held a woman, never loved. He puts his ear on his father’s clotted chest in the hospital. The heart, so loud, so strong. His father is an ocean trapped and pounding from inside. His father is a line of charging hooves in Sumner’s ear.

How can I be dead, he wonders.

Rainbird stops coming to the hayloft. The horse feels it’s been a long time, but can’t be sure.

London bursts from its skin and spills out into the country. There is a shock of fire in the air. Everything that happens, happens again. The living hide in shelters underground whenever the sky roars.

Sumner and the horse trot down streets where fields once were. They ride through days of heavy air, through nights of moonlight, every lamp gone dark. A woman drinks a cup of tea in the morning on top of a hill of rubble, legs crossed, dusty patent heels, a scarf tied over her hair. A milk cart is turned into a barricade. There are no horses in London now. Only rats and pigeons, people and machines.

Didn’t I tell you, Sumner says. He rests his hand along the horse’s back.

Rats clamber in the rubble, scuttle in and out of the rubble pile that was Rainbird’s hayloft. Sumner and the horse take shelter in their separate windows. They watch the pigeons fall out of the sky.

In Chipping Campden there are shadows plastered to walls, big shadows and little shadows, black and delicate.

Sumner lingers for a long time by the shadows on the wall. Soot, like him.

The two ghosts lie with trash scattered around an empty lot. The trash blows away, crumbles away, is picked away by rats. Sun bleaches the long skull until the bones become as white as ashes in a kiln. The jawbone is long gone. Sumner and the horse wait together in the empty brainpan, in the vacant lot. Rain taps over them. Years strip paint off brick walls.

Sometimes the horse’s skin is still burning, on the parade ground again, with the misfiring cannon. Everything is black and blasted apart. She runs through the black sparks. Embers glow from her nostrils. She screams like a train. Her legs unfold in smoke. Her mane is a smear of fire, and she runs, an element, flying again past the bandstand and the walls and the bleeding mess of the field, past the racing sun, past light. She is faster than any horse alive.

She burns so hot she leaves their image in soot on a wall in Chipping Campden.

Sumner asks: why does it still hurt? Why does it hurt?

He takes the horse into the skull’s right eye, where his dream of machines pounds the starless underground. Where nothing changes and the clatter of steel rolls in waves like a constant, calm, dark sea.

When she looks out of the right eye into Sumner’s dream, they are no longer burning. She is an animal chained to a machine, a pump, an engine, the lungs of the world. She walks in a circle to power the machine, and Sumner walks beside her.

The track under her hooves has bitten deep into the pitch of the ground. It’s Sumner’s dream. A hundred years might pass away above them.

She pulls to the right, her good eye fixed now on the big iron lung, and the growling thing reminds her of the cannon on its side. She begins to dream within Sumner’s dream. Painted railings of a racetrack corroded by sea, how they came together at the bend far ahead, jockey’s trim weight perched over her neck, how it felt to run with other horses, the crack of the announcer’s yell, the boom of an organ, the audience flashing by with their hats in the air. She remembers the cavalry brand on her left shoulder, the old mark rubbed smooth by a collar from years pulling the cannon. Sumner rests his hand there sometimes as they walk. He is calm, he does his job. His hand leaves soot on her shoulder. His cool ear presses on her neck, to hear the pounding from inside. She listens to him humming in the dark.

She is not this machine. She had a name once, ore and smoke and cloudy skies.

In the empty lot, a sapling is growing up through her eye. When the bone splits, the shock of it will wake them, loud as a howitzer.

A parade, a plan gone wrong. A boy smeared with coal reaches to a horse on a parade ground, fire and shattered artillery around them. Confetti smolders in the air. The boy has taken off his hat. He holds his arms out. He wants things he has never known. A ripened pear, a stretch of grass. The color of a wheat field in the night.

Splinters open his cheek. He is still reaching.

The horse can see him through the smoke.

Grey Shanks, fire in her mane and tail. Grey Shanks alight.  

Copyright © 1999 – 2024 Juked