A short story
by Sandra Jensen
Hard in my mouth. Tearing. Taste of blood metal. I smell salt, my own spit-froth. I’m sweating. She’ll fall off if I don’t stop. I feel her knees through the leather, high up on the skirts. Terrified, she is, pulling hard. I’m bleeding now. I don’t care. I want this. This now. Scrub flying like storm water beneath my hooves, rocks disappearing into sand the faster I go. My hooves do not touch them or the nopal. We are on the edge of the canyon my mother fell into. I watched her fall, legs and eyes and mane and tail a knot of flashing grey and then there was nothing. And then there was a sound. It leapt from canyon wall to canyon wall, and I looked up. A billowing dust cloud swallowed the herd, my father leading. That’s when I learned to run.
I’m breathing hot air, fire down my throat. I forget she’s there until the shift of her weight on my back. Both hands on the swell, her fingers caught in the reins. If I dipped my head she’d fly off into the ravine, like my mother. She’d not make much of a noise. She’s just a slip of a woman. She thought she could ride me.
The man said, Do you want gentle? Or do you want Formula One? I know I looked like nothing, my head in a bucket of mush, my bones sticking out, my coat a mess of dun and dull. I felt her eyes. They lit up like a fire-stick. I stopped munching. Oh, so she thinks she can ride me? We’ll see about that. I lifted my head from the bucket. She’s bone thin. Hair like mine. She looked at me and did not look away. My heart stopped. She’s mine, I thought. I stood still while she clambered up. I don’t usually do that. I could hardly feel her. Light as a chickadee, lighter than the saddle. She didn’t like it. She wanted English. We only do Western here, he said. But I can’t feel him, she said. You’ll feel him. The man pointed the way. Two hours, he shouted, dragging his boy to the cookhouse.
I did my job. I followed the trail, I’d know it in my sleep. I turned at the juniper. An eagle hovered above, a mote in the sun’s unblinking eye. Now I smell the ranch. I smell my corner in the corral. Then I smell the woman’s fear. It smells the same as the girl’s. It smells of moonflowers and light. I want to stop but I can’t, it’s too late. I want to turn around. I want to take her to the girl’s vultured body. I want the woman to do what’s undone but my legs won’t stop. My hooves pick out the flat without my help, they know every fetlock-crushing hole. I want to mess up. I tell my legs to slow but they don’t listen, they are on gallop-home but it’s all wrong now. Blood and sweat and spit and froth and her sorrel-gold hair in my eyes, she’s holding my neck, breathing short hot breaths into my ears. Her eyes are closed, she knows I’ll see for her, she knows I won’t let her fall.
The ranch is a brown speck rising out of the dust, sprawling across the mesa like vomit. I smell smoke, sour corn, boiled beans and piss. Horse sweat, man sweat. Wet hay, stink water. I smell the boy’s tears, twice wrung. He’s dried out. He’s a straw boy standing guard over his mama, waiting for his sister to leave his nightmare nights and come out to play. She will not play anymore. I can’t do that for him. But I can do the other, that I will and I know this now. I have the woman to help me.
The grandmother stands in the shadow of the honey mesquite, one hand on her big hip the other shading her broken face. She turns to open the corral gate. My legs canter down to a trot, hooves pattering like slow rain. The woman bounces off-beat and then finds my rhythm. She lets go of my neck, fingers knotting into my mane. Her knees drop, grip the saddle fender. The left rein falls, I’m going to trip but she gathers it up. The gate is wide. The old one fusses with her braid, grey hair uncoiling like a snake on hot coals. The boy’s behind the corral, sitting on his mother’s grave. He watches us with his windowless eyes and then ducks away. El Negro is waiting for me. They don’t take him out, not after he threw his rider. The man had to give his money back. He waved the limping gringo off, watched the camaro melt over the rise, and then he said, ¡Chinga tu madre, cabrón! and spat into the dust. The man beat El Negro with his stick and the stick splintered into his hand. There was blood and he carried on beating until the old one pulled him off.
El Negro’s in the corral and going to fight for it. I don’t care, not this time. I’m not going in. I swerve in front of the gate, hind legs following forelegs too late and I stumble, right myself, twist past the piss-hut and the old woman shouts, ¡Vuelve aquí! but I don’t.
My woman’s right heel flails across my ribs, the other still stirrup hooked. She’s too far forward, her fingers catching in the brow band. Her hand folds back my ear for a moment and she says, Sorry. I want to stop and weep when I hear but I keep moving before the man sees us. He’ll bring the rope and the whip. We pass the cookhouse. Burning tortillas. The man will whip his boy. Where is he? I don’t look for fear. The man’s fast and so is El Negro, but not as fast as me. El Negro wasn’t with us at the border crossing. He doesn’t know the smell of a ghost girl’s blood, bullet-dried.
The woman finds the other stirrup, she’s in now. I dip my head to check the reins. She gives a little, the way I like it. She’s got me good, knees and heels and hands and backside. I knew she would. She’s all bone and sinew, curved into the saddle like a whisper. My tongue is thick. The corners of my mouth hurt. Ribs bruise where she dug me. I hear the man shout but I don’t turn to look. I’m going fast now, faster than before. I head for the canyon. They think I only know one way but I’ve been where no man can go. I’ve met the Chupacabra, the goat sucker. He tried his evil. I’ve drunk at the Rio’s edge. I’ve heard the woman who sings for the dead.
The wind is up, it’s going to storm. I’m breathing hard, my heart thumping, hers a hummingbird pitpitpit. My hooves have forgotten the ground or it has forgotten them. Rocks have grown up under the sedge. Something catches in my left hind hoof, pressing into the frog. Pain knifes up my shank, I kick back, try to shake it out but it’s lodged in deep. I’m still cantering but it’s lopsided. She puts a hand on my neck, strokes me down. It’s too soon to stop. They’ll find us. I tuck my ears backward and forward. I hear nothing but the thickening storm and the birds huddling in the pines ahead. It’s okay, she says, stop. My eyes blur with pain and I slow and then falter just before we reach the forest. I want to get us inside where it’s dark, but I obey and stop. I hang my head. Close my eyes. I’m done. Heaving. My sweat has wicked into the air and all I feel is hot. Water is a long way off. Storm water tastes like tin. It’ll have to do. Night will fall and with it the moon.
I can’t think further than the taste of my bloodied mouth. I drop to one knee and then the other. Hey, she says, but I’m on my knees and it hurts so I blow through my nose. If I roll, her leg will crush. I blow again, louder this time and she says, Okay, okay. She’s off, slipping like a newborn, thumping softly on the ground. I roll and she rolls with me, her head resting on my belly. We stay there awhile. Her head lifts as I breathe, her hair tickling my underside. I want to stay but we can’t. I shift but she doesn’t. Her body is limp, pressing down on me like my mother’s breath. I don’t want to move her but I must. I shift again and she cries out. I turn my head. We have to get into the forest, I say, but she just reaches out one hand, fingers curling downward and then uncurling when I don’t draw back. You can touch me, I say, and she does, her fingers on my nose. You’re dry, she says, You’re bleeding. I nuzzle her wrist. She smells of sundried wheat. She looks up at the blackening sky. We’d better get under cover. I blink and tell her that’s what I said but she’s already standing.
The skies unfold their arms and one drop falls on my loins. Then nothing. But I know this rain, it comes on as thick as fire on cheatgrass in a drought. I get up. I can’t put any weight on my hoof. She takes my reins and knots them over the swell and walks into the forest. She turns, sees me limp. Keep going, I say, you’ll get wet, and she already is because it’s bucketing as I said it would. The clouds gather like black mustang, clustering and tumbling and the forest is no darker than the savannah but the pines are thick and keep the rain off even though we are already soaked through.
I lick my nose but the bit chafes so I stop. She comes close, presses her forehead against my shoulder. Where have you taken me? she asks. She doesn’t wait for my answer. She’s around back, lifting my leg like she’s done it all her life, my shank resting on her thigh. There boy, she says, but I don’t like to be called that so I nip her gently, just her hair falling down her back. It tastes of burnt corn. She’s got her thumb in, trying to dig the stone out but it’s stuck hard so she uses a stick. It hurts and I pull away, I don’t mean to. My leg slips from her hands and she yells. I pull up quickly, I’ve stepped on her. She’s hunched up, rocking forward and backwards and now I can’t put my hoof down at all, the stick is lodged in there with the mud along with the stone. The storm comes down hard. It’s so loud I fear it’s going to sever the forest roof and then there is a crack louder than the storm and now I’m sure we’re finished, the trees themselves are falling on us. I hobble sideways shielding her body with mine and then there is a flash of light and nothing else, even when it stops. The forest is burned onto my eyes, trees standing hard like men. They don’t get the girl, not this time. I let them shoot and then it’s all white and I’m blind, falling, falling, my legs kicking, my tail catching on stick arms poking out the canyon wall.
The Nahual is already on me so I must be dead. I feel his hot breath searching my face. He’ll eat my eyes and then my heart. I jerk away, the side of my head hits something hard. It hurts. Does it still hurt when you’re dead? Is the girl still hurting? Does she bleed dead blood? I don’t want to think about that so I don’t. Where is she? I’ll take her away, I’ll find her mother and we’ll ride into the heavens. My thoughts are mud thick and then I hear a voice humming. I knew she’d sing tonight. She’s unbuckling the cheekpiece. Her finger is in my mouth, tugging at the bit. She tastes like the living and I open my eyes. It’s not her. It’s my woman. I blink hard. She’s not supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to be here. I caught the bullet. I can feel it in my heart and then she gently pulls out the bit and I swallow. I try to raise my head and she says, Easy now. The rain has slowed to a rat’s patter and I listen to it awhile.
The woman keeps stroking my neck. It feels good and I want to sleep but I know the dead girl will visit so I don’t. She’ll ask me why I’ve not buried her bones and I don’t have an answer to that. I think of the man and his boy. Will they still be on our trail? We have to move on. The girl is not far and the air is beginning to taste like midnight.
I roll and she says, Where do you think you’re going? She doesn’t listen, this woman. I’m half up, the bridle hanging undone. She pulls it off and I stand. Something’s different. She’s lifted the saddle or maybe it did so by itself. I’ve seen such a thing. It took the rider with it, his head breaking open like an egg. Come over here, she says, stepping up on a fallen Chihuahua pine. It looks recently alive and I wonder if the lightning got it. I can’t get up unless you come here, she says. I’m coming, I say, and I do, carefully because of my hoof but I forget and put it down hard and pick it up quickly. It doesn’t hurt at all. I try again, and still it doesn’t hurt. She’s a healer woman. I knew that because of her eyes, shifting like the colour of a river when the clouds herd a twilight sun.
She puts both hands on my withers and swings up. I guess you know where we’re going, she says. I turn and look her in the eye which looks as black as everything else so I brush my nose against her knee. The rain has stopped, which is good. I take the shortcut by the big rock and something darker than the night slithers underneath. Probably a king snake so I don’t worry but keep on and out.
The sky wears her star-punctured cloak, slick with moonshine. It must be past eleven so I take up a slow trot, waiting to see if she can hold her seat. She can and I open to a canter. I can’t tell where I end and she begins except for the pulling at the base of my neck, her hands thick with my mane. We’re in the open now, anyone can see us if they’re here. I sniff up the air but the rain has wrung it clean. I’m worried about the man. I don’t care about him. It’s the boy. He’s too young to see his sister’s gun-spoiled body. He’s too young to leave his mother’s mound. He tried to grow yellow dog weed flowers by her head but they died before they took root. Sometimes I’d call out to him and he’d look up and wave, but he never came over.
I can hear the wash of the Rio now, it’s moving fast. We are close. I smell the girl. She smells of silt and petrified wood. Her bones will be sun bleached, easy to find. I look for the big sagebrush but instead I see a white truck. I cut sideways catching my woman off guard but she’s stuck to me like she was born on my back. It’s too late, they have seen us. The truck revs, blinks a bloodied eye, corners us into the brush and then stops when I don’t move except for dancing. Then I smell the sagebrush. It’s right here under my hooves and so are the girl’s bones, crushing easily and I rear up hard, my woman hanging on. Hey, a man yells and then another, ¡La Migra. Alto!
I won’t let them get her, not this time. I wanted the woman to bury her good but it’s too late for that. The best I can do is get them away from here, but they’ve got me trapped. The truck stares with three blinding eyes. One man climbs out and then another with a long gun. You American? the first shouts, but I don’t answer that and neither does the woman. Get down off that horse, says the one with the rifle. I step back and hear something crack like a gunshot against my hoof. It’s the girl’s skull, I know it before I rear and fall, dragging the sky with me. I see her long black hair trailing shooting stars behind, I hear her child-laugh as she spins cartwheels in the dust for her brother. I hear thunder, and think that’s strange the storm has long moved on over the Rio or I wouldn’t be seeing the moon. Jesus, Bo, a man says. And then I taste blood again. The woman must have put the bit back in but she wouldn’t do that. She’s right here saying, No! her small face pressed into mine but I don’t know what she’s referring to. Her face is damp. Salt-rain stinging my mouth. I must be wrong about the storm and then I hear La Llorona sing and I am glad. The girl can go now and so do I.
Copyright © 2011 by Sandra Jensen
Story image: © Ivan Mikhaylov | Dreamstime.com
In the spring of 2007, I hadn’t written for months. I was blocked. I picked up Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing and discovered he'd been writing at least a thousand words a day since childhood. I flung the book down, thinking, if he can do that, I can at least do a twenty-minute assignment I’d set for my online writer’s group. I wrote a freefall piece on the prompt "reigned in." Although the first words were inspired by a terrifying ride I’d taken in Mexico, what I’d written was totally new. I wrote again the next day, and the next, hurtling towards an end that "wrote itself" (and which made me weep). For the first time I had a sense of what a short story actually felt like to write. It had a shape, a life outside of my own; a taste in my mouth, almost. That story became "La Llorona." It was published a year later—my first print publication—in the international literary journal Versal.
Sandra Jensen was born in South Africa and currently lives in Ireland with her partner and her cat. Her work has been published in Word Riot, Sou'Wester, AGNI and others. She is a finalist in the 2010 Bridport Prize and has received honourable mentions in The Fiddlehead's 2011 Literary Contest and Glimmer Train Press's Family Matters, Very Short Fiction and Open Fiction competitions. Recently she won Red Room's Scandalously Short Story Contest. Her short story manuscript, A Sort of Walking Miracle, was shortlisted for The Scott Prize (Salt Publishing). In 2010 she was awarded a professional writer's grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to develop her novella, Tell Me in Tamil into a novel. This year, she won the J.G. Farrell Award for best novel-in-progress.