The Night Horses

I have already put a post on about the inspiration for this story and it comes from The Smuggler’s Song by Rudyard Kipling. 

I think that this is a great poem, full of vivid images for a child’s imagination!  In fact for anyone’s imagination!  My story will be about the little girl who hears the Gentlemen go riding by – here is a bit of the opening for you!  And of course the poem itself. 

***

THE NIGHT HORSES

The thundering sound of horses careering through the dark night woke me up last night and I itched to open the curtains and peek out.  My father’s stern warning paused my hand from pulling them back.  “I’ll beat you black and blue if I hear of you telling about horses in the night.”  Not an idle threat with my father.  My mother just pleaded ignorance.  “What the eye don’t see…” was one of her favourite expressions.  My curiosity was going to get me into serious trouble one of these days, or so I kept being told.  How was I supposed to resist?  I tucked my hands under my body and lay  on them to prevent myself from reaching for the curtain. I made a funny fish shaped lump under my sheets with my hips sticking up in the air, as I stared at the dark ceiling.

The team passed by without slowing down, disappearing out of the village at break-neck speed.  Our house was on the edge of the village and backed onto the street.  The sound had gone from left to right shaking the book shelf, bed-frame and wardrobe in that order.  I had only heard them leaving the village tonight.  There were never any voices – it was like the horses were bewitched.  They drove themselves as hard as if their rider was whipping them into a frenzy.  My wild imagination had them ridden by a phantom-rider wearing a flying cape of black velvet and a black tricorne hat.  His features were hidden by the hat and his cape trailed out behind him, blending in with the horses’ tails.  It was always impossible for me to sleep after the horses had been.  I lay on top of my twitching hands wondering where they were going and where they had come from. 

None of the horses in our village ever rose above a trot – most were used for pulling ploughs and toiling in the fields.  Our own beast had dragged a plough for most of her days…she would never have been part of such an exciting night time excursion.  Hooves and hair cloaked in clay earth, speckled coat flecked with mud, a happy nuzzling sound when you tickled her ears.  Not a character for a daring escapade from marauding pirates or sea monsters as I imagined.

I would have a look in the morning and see if I could find them.  I lay there pondering until Mother called me for breakfast.

“Did you sleep well dear?” she asked with an icy edge as always, daring me to talk about the night time noises.  My parents were testing me, and so to avoid a beating I merely said “Fine thank you Ma.”  Father glared suspiciously over his tea cup at me in grudging approval.  “Good,” he muttered under his breath.  Mother was a spiky person – all long and thin with claw like finger nails.  Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun which only emphasised her angular face and scrawny neck.  Her shoulder blades stuck out from the shapeless dress she always wore.  Pa was round where she was thin but there was nothing soft about him – he was hard as granite and I likened him to a rock face.  There was a rumour that he liked to challenge people to punch him to see if he flinched.  He never had.

No more was said about anything.  My memories of the night were making me sit on my hands at the breakfast table now.  We sat in mutual silence while we ate breakfast.  

“May I go out and play now?”  I asked after clearing my breakfast things.  My eagerness must have shown, so Mother made me do chores around the house until noon at which point the house shone like a jewel.  Everything had been polished to perfection and surely there was nothing else to be done?  I kept quiet as quiet as a mouse though just in case another job would be found and waited to be allowed outside.    “Rain’s started,” Mother said and her relief was obvious – she didn’t have to think of other ways to thwart my plans.  My heart sank – outside was definitely not going to be allowed today.  Rain would have washed any trace of the mysterious horses away.  I sat by the window and watched the water droplets trickle down the window pane.  The time crawled by until supper and bed time.  I was twitching with anticipation at the thought of the night horses coming again and lay awake all night waiting for them to come.  Of course they didn’t show up – there was no telling when they would be there.

After two nights of interrupted sleep I walked in my sleep the following day.  The rain had eased and we needed to get things.  We were all suffering from cabin fever – too much time together was never a good idea.  I trudged silently along behind Mother as we went to the village and I was so befuddled with sleep that it took the whole of the walk for me to realise that we were even outside.  When I didn’t immediately run off and play Mother’s expression looked grimly satisfied.  I was too tired to cause mischief – she could let her attention wander away from keeping me on the straight and narrow to start thinking about everyday things like food and complaining about me with the neighbours.  While she gossiped and shopped I paid no attention and sat on the stone wall that ran along the fields’ edge in a daze.

My heels were kicking the wall in a rhythmic pattern as I watched the neatly ploughed fields disappearing into the forest.  The woods were out of bounds to children, but on occasion we dared each other to see how far each of us would venture in to them.  There was talk of witches and demons living in the forest – you could see strange lights flickering in the deepest parts of the forest on a dark night.  They were known to roam through the forest and capture stray children and do strange and unnatural things to them.  “Do you want to be turned into a three headed toad?  Or a toothless rat?  Well, that’s what happens to children who go into the woods.”  That’s what the grown ups told us and it was a beating offense to go into the woods.  Tommy’s cousin had gone into the woods and never come out again – they said the demons had got him.  Tommy swore on his life that there was a toothless rat living in their shed.  None of us had ever seen it though and Tommy’s stories were legendary.  He swore us all to secrecy and as none of us fancied a beating we didn’t say a word. 

I sat on the wall waiting for Ma and wondered if the others would be around later.  I needed to know if anyone else had heard anything the other night.  We had no plans to meet up.  It always just happened that when the boys had finished school and the girls their chores that we all gravitated to the same place.  The stone wall was a favourite spot; Tommy’s shed also; the oak tree on the village green was where we went to play games.  Most of the children from the village came to join us at one stage or another and while the grown ups were in their miserable groups of mothers, and drinking huddles of fathers, we played and talked and ran around carelessly.  Or that’s what the grown ups thought.  We knew about conversations overheard in our own homes from careless parents and we ran the snippets of information past each other to create wild stories and tales of mystery and wonder that rarely resembled the truth.  Someone else must have heard the horses the other night.  

 

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don’t you shout to come and look, nor use ’em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again – and they’ll be gone next day!
If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining’s wet and warm – don’t you ask no more!
If you meet King George’s men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you “pretty maid,” and chuck you ‘neath the chin,
Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been!
Knocks and footsteps round the house – whistles after dark –
You’ve no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty’s here, and Pincher’s here, and see how dumb they lie –
They don’t fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!
If you do as you’ve been told, ‘likely there’s a chance,
You’ll be given a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood –
A present from the Gentlemen, along o’ being good!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie –
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by.

Rudyard Kipling

re

The Virgin and the Dragon

This is an idea I’ve been playing with. The dragon is a man who had been turned into a lizard, and is clever enough to make a living while he is a lizard. He uses smoke and shadows to appear bigger than he is and he successfully scares the villagers so they don’t bother him. The girl is not afraid of confrontation with a dragon and doesn’t fall for his tricks. The lizard needs someone’s help to exact revenge on the warlock who turned him into a lizard.

Life couldn’t get much worse.  She was staked out in front of the dragon’s lair waiting to be burned to a crisp.  She sighed and puffed her hair out of her eyes.  The sun was rising over the mouth of the cave.  If the blooming dragon didn’t turn up soon she’d be roasted alive by a different fire source.  Her hair was red and her skin was white, rapidly turning pink.  Getting a tan wasn’t part of her life.  She squinted up at the hessian rope tying her to the stake.  Maybe the sun would burn through the rope and she would be free?  She puffed again, this time in exasperation.   What had she done to get to this point in life?

A small, unobtrusive lizard watched from a rock nearby.  His tongue flicked in and out and his eyes swivelled in his head.  He could feel the warmth seeping into his cold scales.  He would wait a while. 

A clever lizard

She’d never thought of herself as pretty.  Who could ever like red hair and freckles?  She’d been called names by the other children in the village since she was born.  Her mother always said that having red hair was a gift and everyone was jealous of it.  It didn’t feel like a gift when the other pretty blonde girls poured ink over her head.  The boys pulled her hair and pushed her over.  Her mother always gently washed her hair out and cleaned her clothes and said it was all part of growing up.  It had taught her self-reliance from an early age if nothing else. 

As she grew up her hair had darkened and her freckles had scattered prettily across her cheeks and boys stopped pushing her over and started arguing about who could carry her books home.  They seemed to become tongue-tied in her presence.  The girls of course, still hated her.  But now it was for completely different reasons.  Her self-reliance gave her an air of independence which seemed to fascinate and attract members of the opposite sex. 

She hadn’t cared a snit for any of the village idiots as she called them, but as soon as the tall, dark stranger had ridden into town she had fallen.  And fallen hard.  And now look at her…

The lizard felt his joints un-thawing finally.  He lifted one foot, then the other.  He flicked his tongue and swished his tail.  All seemed to be working.  He rolled his eyes.  The damsel was still staked out.  At least she was pretty.  And she wasn’t crying or tearing her hair out.  She obviously had courage.  Yes she might do.  He needed a brave young lady to help him with his plan.

A Faded Shadow

A faded, grey shadow of a girl stood in front of the desk.  He looked up from the racing pages with a start.  “Didn’t see you there.  Can I help?”  She didn’t speak, just continued staring through vacant eyes.  He couldn’t see any spark inside her.  The greyness was all consuming.  The fluorescent sign flickered bright pink and yellow across her face.  “Vacant”.  The sign was right about her.  Definitely nobody home.  He tried again.  “You want something?”  Her lips moved but no sound came out.  He didn’t know but it had been days since she had been allowed to use her voice.  Nobody had wanted to hear what she had to say.  Nobody had noticed her.  They had left her in the background.  The greyness had consumed her entire life.  She’d left and nobody had noticed. Nobody had asked her opinion about anything for years.  She didn’t know how to respond.  She mouthed the words.  Her throat constricted with the sudden movement.  She felt like she was going to be sick.  The words were stuck.  She needed to get them out.  This was the first step.  Wrong – she had left. That had been the first step.  She needed to find her voice now. 

“I need a room.”  It came out as a hoarse whisper.  It was barely audible across the desk. 

“What’s that?”

“A room.”  She swallowed.  Saliva was lubricating her throat.  She cleared it and swallowed.  “I need a room.  Please.”  She was determined that her new life would be full of pleasant manners and kindness now.  No more demands, name calling or swearing.  She was starting afresh.

A Writer’s Death

A slightly depressing one today…I’m not planning to do this at all but it’s interesting imagining the feelings and emotions.

She sat down to write.  Nothing new there.   It was a daily ritual.  She never knew what would come out of her pen these days.  But this, she knew exactly what to say.  Everything was clear.  She knew what to do.  Write the letter and leave it.  Walk to the river.  Find something heavy to weigh herself down just in case panic made her want to survive.  Walk into the river.  Drown.  Simple.  Everything resolved in one easy move.  No more voice.  No more headaches.  No more noise.  Just quiet death.  He would understand.  He always understood.  He looked at her with such compassion.  She wished she could feel better.  For him. 

***

Her coat was wrapped around her ankles and it clung to them like a persistent child.  She felt the cold penetrating her shoes, her stockings, her calves and up her legs.  It was like icy tentacles shooting through her veins.  Still she stepped deeper.  There was no turning back this time.  As she stepped in to the fast flowing muddy water her coat released its grip on her ankles and floated out like a balloon.  The stones in her pockets felt like lead weights dragging her body deeper into the river.  She was cold to her chest now and had to keep breathing steadily to stay fixed on her goal. Gravity stepped in and was pulling her down.  Her plan was working.  The tide felt strong but each muddy step felt like an iron anchor sinking into the mud bottom.  Each step grew harder as she tried to pick her feet up and take another step deeper.

The shock of water on her face made her falter.  It slapped some sense of reality back for one second and as she opened her mouth the water rushed in.  Her head was pulled backwards as the river pulled at her hair.  The cold ran through her insides too now.  It wouldn’t be long.

***

The armchair sagged under the weight of years.  It lay waiting.  The window opened over the lush garden while the door shut it out.  Blossoms nodded around the window behind the glass.  A light drizzle spattered on the window.  It was dark and cold inside.  The electric fire glowed fluorescent against the tiled fireplace.  It barely penetrated into the room.  The books shivered on their book case and were huddled together for warmth.  Paintings hung limply on the dark, damp walls. 

He’d taken to being in her rooms, waiting for news.  He knew she was gone but the cold comfort from her rooms comforted him.

***

He knew she was dead.  He’d known on the first day.  It was now the fifth day.  He waited.  For the telephone call, or the knock at the door.  Everyday he walked to the river tracing the steps he thought she had taken.

They had found her walking stick abandoned on the bank.  He roamed the canal path for another sign but there was none.  He knew he wouldn’t find anything.  She had planned this.  It hadn’t been a clumsy mistake when she’d come home soaked to the skin the other day.  She had tried then, but something had gone wrong.  This time she had been better prepared.  It had been definite.  She didn’t plan to return.  Her letter had told him as much.  He didn’t need to take the letter out – he had memorised it in the first few moments of reading it. 

***

It was three weeks before they found her.  She had been abused by the tide and by the elements.  The local boys had mistaken her for floating driftwood and thrown stones at her lifeless corpse.