Painful recollections come back to haunt a man in this compelling short story by David Strickletone.
Michael sat in front of the laptop, his muse, it seemed, once again offline. It wasn’t unusual for him to spend hours gazing off into space as his mind drifted. Recently, though, he found he couldn’t even daydream, and had little to show for the hours spent “staring into the abyss.”
The constant flickering of the cursor on the blank document was at times punctuated by the drooping of his eyelids. The ticking of the clock became melancholic and haunting, filling his semi-conscious mind with a feeling of dread and hopelessness. As always when this happened, Michael dragged himself back into reality and sprung to his feet, promising himself coffee.
The kitchen was cluttered, but its one saving grace was the magnificent view of fields flanked by rolling hills, on which horses could at times been seen galloping against the backdrop of an ever-changing sky.
Michael had some of his most inspired visions from this vantage point. Most of the time it served as a place for his mind to switch off, and as he made himself a coffee, he would find ideas popping into his head.
Today, however, there was no view to speak of, only a thick fog which allowed about ten feet of visibility before it was swallowed up by a stubborn soup of mist. All he could make out was his much-neglected garden which usually stretched out for 30 yards.
Michael reached for the coffee jar when suddenly he heard a sound from outside. He listened for a few more seconds and then dismissed it as his imagination playing tricks on him. If only, he thought to himself. Michael heard it again, the same rustling sound. Moving towards the window, he listened out and heard it once more. This time, the sound more closely resembled horse’s hooves. Was it possible one could have somehow made its way into the garden?
Grabbing a torch from a drawer, Michael found himself ignoring all his instincts as he decided to investigate.
Me and my ridiculous imagination, he thought to himself as he checked the torch. I should be writing this shit down, not pandering to my paranoia.
He opened the patio doors and found himself, almost at once, enveloped by the thick mist. The horse sounded closer than ever now, and Michael became convinced it really was in his garden.
He was startled by a new sound, a voice.
‘Hello?’ He said. He heard the voice again, a little clearer this time. Michael called out a second time and the voice came once more. It seemed as if its owner was standing just yards from him. He could pick out the odd word now. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make out what you’re saying,’ he said, squinting into the mist as if it would help sharpen his hearing. ‘Where are you?’ He concentrated, and the voice came to him again.
‘I said, can you help with my horse, mister?’
Even before she strode from out of the mist, Michael knew the voice belonged to a girl. She was a child of perhaps nine or ten years old; dressed in a shabby cardigan and dress while pensive eyes looked out from a grimy little face framed by greasy shoulder length hair. Despite the urgency and pleading in her voice, he glimpsed what could have been shyness in those eyes when they met his. ‘Can you, mister? Can you please?’ The little girl looked as if she was making a great effort just to keep her eyes from dropping to the ground, as if through embarrassment or even shame. Michael couldn’t help sharing the feeling, though he couldn’t think why.
The horse’s hooves continued to pound the ground.
‘W…what do you want me to do?’ he asked, feeling a mixture of exasperation and confusion.
‘Grab the horse,’ said the girl.
Michael gawped at her, feeling stupid and helpless, but at the same time knowing he was honor bound for some reason he didn’t want to pursue.
‘He won’t bite or kick. He’s a good un, mister. I swear.’
‘Look, I’ve no experience with horses. They can be very dangerous animals. I think it would be wiser to ring the RSPCA,’ he said.
‘Please don’t, mister. The horse belongs to ma Da’ and he’ll kill us if he knows she got away again.’
‘Alright, of course,’ Michael found himself saying as if he were trying to sweep something under the carpet, to keep something at bay.
Reluctantly he shone his torch through the mist in the general direction of the horse’s whinnying and clopping. ‘What’s its name?’
‘Sugar,’ said the girl, sounding a little surer of herself. ‘Me da’ let me call her that because she likes sugar cubes s’much. He says if I name him, I’m to take care of him.’
‘I thought you said the horse belonged to your Dad?’ Michael said, nervously inching toward the ominous sound of heavy hooves.
‘It does: he bought Sugar. She belongs to him. He says when I’m old enough and have the money, I can have a horse of my own,’ she said. ‘Please mister, I need to get her back home now. It’s starting to get dark, and I don’t want my Da’ worrying about Sugar if he comes back, and she’s not in the field.’
Michael grunted and walked slowly towards the foreboding figure. He was suddenly eager to be rid of the intruders, and it was then the horse revealed itself to him. A huge, brown Shire, it towered above him, snorting plumes of breath from its nostrils.
‘Hello, girl,’ Michael said, and then with excitement jumping up in his voice; ‘God, she’s a beauty, and massive with it.’
‘Don’t spook her, Mister. Talk real gentle to her. It’s okay; you don’t have to be afraid anymore.’
Michael wondered who she was addressing before turning his attention to the frayed and hairy rope which hung from the horse’s neck. He tried planting a commanding foot forward, and the beast instinctively retreated a step or two.
‘Don’t worry, Sugar,’ said the girl in a voice which sounded now eerily calm, ‘the man’s not going to hurt yer. He’s really a good man; he knows what to do.’
Michael took another step forward, and again the beast moved back. He realized the animal was scared of him.
He didn’t want Sugar to disappear back into the mist. Michael knew beyond a shadow of a doubt if this happened he would lose the animal forever. He also knew, more than anything in his entire life, he wanted to bring this thing under control.
Michael leapt forward and seized hold of the rope. At first, he thought there was a chance it might slip from his grasp. He twisted his arms until the rope coiled around them in a secure fashion. Sugar then reared up on her hind legs, causing Michael’s planted heels to cut trenches in the earth as he was dragged towards the massive hooves which hung in the air for a frozen moment.
They came down, missing him by inches. Michael pulled the rope in further, but the horse whinnied and reared up again, this time hauling him up off his feet until he dangled in mid-air. The hooves came down again, and Michael fell, yet found his feet quickly in anticipation of Sugar rearing up again. He dug his feet in as once more the rope grew taught. The horse brought its enormous head up again, but this time, it could only pull him up on his tip toes. He felt the animal begin to tire, and when Sugar brought her head back down, Michael knew he had it under control.
He ran his hand along its mane and gently patted the animal’s muscular neck. ‘It’s alright now, girl. It’s okay, Sugar. it’s all over now.’ Michael said. He sensed the girl by his side and quickly gave the rope to her.
‘Thank you, Mister. Thanks a lot.’
‘I wasn’t sure what to do.’
‘You took care of business, though,’ said the girl with a knowing look in her eyes which somehow belied her years, ‘and you did the right thing.’
‘I must admit, I feel pretty damned proud of myself.’
‘I know you do, Michael,’ the girl said as she began to lead Sugar away into the mist.
He was stunned for a second, and wanted to ask how she knew his name. Instead, the girl disappeared with the horse into the fast receding mist.
Within seconds, the fog had gone, and Michael found himself alone in his weed-ridden garden. His muse, though, was back with a vengeance.
Now in front of his laptop, long buried memories returned to him in lurid detail. Childhood memories, memories of Nora, the gypsy girl who had joined his class one morning.
Michael had been ten; he had hated her on sight and soon found himself, a couple of weeks later, one dark, winter afternoon crouching in a bush waiting for Nora as she walked home along a riverbank. It led to the same gypsy site where Michael had once been taught a lesson in fear and humiliation by a gang of boys, who may as well have been Nora’s brothers. He had outrun them on his bike but was unable to evade their taunts and threats which stayed with him for a great while after.
He only realized the folly of his act when he leapt out from the cover, penknife in hand, and saw the fear in her eyes. He had brought the knife down, meaning to throw it away. Nora, of course, could not have known this, and though Michael instinctively reached for her flailing hand, he couldn’t stop her slipping from the muddy bank and into the misty darkness where the only sound she made was a splash like a brick thrown into the river.
Nora, the little gypsy girl who had disappeared as if she had never existed in the first place, had now returned to Michael, who finally had his story. His confession.