Before My Skin Was Broken

The lost become ghosts

The dog was going to bite me. How many times did Richard say, ‘Make friends with the dog. Make friends.’ I was skeptical of the whole arrangement, and the fact that I was given a gun—a thing I was deathly afraid of—a gun with a silencer, no less, just proved my point. Every night for a week or so we were to sneak over to the paddock and stable where the Lipizzaners were kept and feed cooked chicken to the watchdog, gaining his trust, so on the night we took them he would not bark. If he did, I was to shoot him, while Richard and company got the horses and led them out, each rustler assigned to take two horses at a time—we weren’t sure exactly how many there were now—placing bandannas over the great beasts’ eyes, encouraging them forward with soft, loverlike murmurs, and steering them out to the waiting trailer. Two other men would load up a pickup truck with bedding and feed.

It all seemed preposterous to me. And then somewhere along the line a gun was introduced. A gun! We never started with the idea of a gun. We just started with an idea. And now here I was standing in the kitchen with a gun and a silencer in my hand. I affected a stance in front of the curtainless window when Richard handed it to me that night, the foreignness in my hand glimmering in the dark reflection, but the desired effect was not translatable and my sarcasm eluded Richard. Could we pull it off? Could I? My gaze locked on the mirror-like window: passing chimera shapes shifted and phased in and out. Enesa slowly appeared like an apparition there, ‘I am not brave,’ her wavering form warbled, the sound coming to me from a great distance away. ‘I am not brave . . .’ Her voice summoned me back in time; I stood once again in the middle of the smoldering Marić’s house as if at the gates of hell—the smell, the poison taste in the mouth—the flies—and I knew I could do what was necessary. I could. The lost become ghosts who egg you on. And the air was thick with ghosts and weeds, and my mind was full of rocks and my heart was filled with rubble. I would press the pistol against the hound’s head, if need be, and pull the trigger.

* * *

So, we started the first night just approaching the stables. The dog stood up on our approach; he was secured to a lean-to shed with an overhanging roof as his shelter; when he started growling, we threw the food on the ground and retreated. Turning round, we could see him at the limit of his chain eating the chicken. I decided on the spot to call him “Ernie.” Would his owners notice this extracurricular repast on his breath? We did this for several nights, each time getting closer, until I could stand next to Ernie while the others went in and out of the stables to accustom him as well as the stallions and mares to our presence, the dark house reassuringly far off in the distance. The night of the actual seizure, so painstakingly plotted, we took too long, and Ernie began to growl; I fed him almost everything I had. The horses were coming out two by two, but too slowly. Ernie grew increasingly restless. “C’mon, boy. Good boy. Good Ernie,” I whispered. A rivulet of sweat from under my arm trickled down my side, and Ernie sensed my fear. I plopped down the remaining cache of food, but the horses were skittish and we were not keeping to schedule; every extra minute of delay put us and them in greater jeopardy. “That’s a boy. Yes, such a good boy. Good boy!” The food was gone. Ernie began to bark.

“Shut him up,” Richard hissed at me over his shoulder as he steered past with two mares. “Stop him.”

Ernie barked louder and louder, unsettling the horses, growling, lunging at me, and I retreated beyond the range of his chain. In the end, despite my earlier bravura, I could not kill the agitated Ernie. Panicking, I turned back at him. He leapt up at me and I whacked him on the head as hard as I could with my pistol butt in a cruel and stupid attempt to render him unconscious and thus silent. Of course, this did not silence him; it only injured him and caused him to commence an unearthly howling and yodeling that would wake the dead. After a minute, lights came on in the farmhouse and you could hear doors slamming and the caretakers streamed out to see what the hell was going on. Most of the horses had already gone ahead, there were just four more: three held by one of the girls; the other, the prized stallion, Tulipan Sava, who was not cooperating, shaking his head, dancing in place then rearing up, finally biting at his handler.

Richard ran back and sent the other two on, ordering them to get going, to get the hell out, and grabbed Tulipan and the other’s leads and my gun, motioning me over to the pickup truck where Eben, who had drawn the straw as driver, sat waiting to take off. Richard told me to put the tailgate down and pull out the ramp; he tossed me the leads of the three other horses, and he took Tuli around and around in circles and finally got him up on the back of the truck, but there was no time left and he jumped in, pulling me in while he tried the control the agitated stallion. “Let’s go!” he yelled out at Eben, and the truck slowly started with me holding the reins of the three mares trotting uneasily along behind, a reverse Apollo with his chariot riding backwards into the night. A man appeared on out of the darkness and started to run toward the truck.

“Go, go, go!” I yelled, but the three mares would not cooperate, forming a bumping, dragging, pulling mass of glowing white in the blackness, and we could only go so fast for fear of one of them stumbling, plus Tulipan shifting around in the back. Our pursuer was advancing, yelling over his shoulder to two other men who veered off into the woods behind him. He stopped and launched the hatchet he had been holding at the truck in an attempt to blow out the back tire, but his weapon fell short and speared the ground, like a branch broken during a storm, rudely sticking out of the earth. He charged toward it and wrenched it out and resumed his pursuit of us and our cargo. I didn’t think he could catch us, but with the horses struggling this way and that, straining so hard against their leads that I was bent over at a ninety-degree angle—leaning halfway out of the truck, my arms fully extended—we were too slow, and he was gaining on us.

“Brace, brace, brace. Hold on. Don’t let go,” I could hear Richard yelling from somewhere.

The man was now along side the truck. He threw himself onto the wheel and was able to hold on. I looked into his face. ‘The face of the devil,’ I thought. Richard could not get at him because if he let go of the bridle, Tulipan would have jumped out of the truck. Holding on to the side with one hand, our assailant tried to chop at the reins of the three mares with his hatchet and cut them loose, but he missed, and his weapon hit the top of the tailgate with a horrible din of metal upon metal. Over and over he did this as I screamed, furiously shaking my head, blinded by my hair stuck in my eyes. Spewing hatred at me, he took a big, wretched, wild hack with his hatchet, eerily similar to what I had done with my pistol to Ernie. I ducked, dropping down on my haunches, trying to avoid his blow; the truck swerved severely, and his blade landed on Tulipan’s flank. He whinnied and reared up almost throwing Richard out of the lurching vehicle, Eben frantically twisting the steering wheel to the right then to the left, trying to throw the demon off, but he was stuck to the fender like a tick. He raised his arm and took another desperate swing with his axe; this time it landed squarely across my forearm, splitting the skin open down to the bone. I screamed bloody murder and let go of the leads, just as Richard shot him in the face and he slid off out of sight. The three mares peeled away from the retreating truck, one to the left; one to the right. The middle mare stood still for a moment; realizing her freedom, she shook her head, bobbing it up and down, pranced in a pirouette, turned and headed back in the direction of the stables. I lost them: they retreated away into the darkness, further and further outward with each peal of an internal tolling bell, like the white ghosts they had become, getting smaller and smaller. I lost them. I lost myself. All ghosts now. All ghosts. My eyes locked on the starless sky; I began to shiver violently.

It always bothered me that I had lost the other one of my two bras. So I wore the lace one continually, and it had turned grey instead of white, unable to be cleaned properly. The padding over the hook and eyes in the back had worn and frayed so that they constantly dug into my back, but I was loath to take it off. No surrender of my amour, I liked to think. Your skin has an integrity not normally breached, but when it is, not with a small bruise or with the rubbing of hooks and eyes, but a wholesale breach, with a terrifying wound, the terror itself is the paralyzing thing. A fear apart from the pain that feeds upon itself. You don’t know how it will end, but you know you’re going beyond where you’ve ever been before.

I had fallen backwards into the hay bales; there was a rusty, metallic smell from the blood—mine and Tulipan Sava’s—mixing together with the chaff to form some kind of apocalyptic mortar. The truck rattled off into the night, picking up speed, and the white ghost creatures I had unwittingly released floated up to become clouds in the troubled sky. I thought I would be trampled by Tulipan’s hooves as he whinnied and stumbled about with each jerking, swerving change in direction, and it became a jumble of hooves and blood and neighing and clouds and the bumping of the truck over the uneven road that caused Tuli to tread against me even more, and those white figures peeling off into the night—those ghost horses flying up into the night—and the clouds and a bullet through a devil’s eye, and the blood and the pain and someone yelling at me and the stamping hooves and then it all went black.

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