© AJ Brown
First appeared in Bewildering Stories
I was barely five years old the first time I saw them. It is my first real memory, one I actually recall, not that was told to me. They were the wild horses, and it was here, in this field where I now stand, that they all died.
If not for my old black and white mutt, Hailey, I may have never seen them. Hailey had run off through the woods after a rabbit I suppose. I gave chase and at one point thought I would never find him again. I called out and listened for his bark, following and praying I was going in the right direction. When I came out of the woods I saw Hailey. He continued to bark and bounced around from side to side as if he had cornered the rabbit.
I came to a quick stop when I saw what Hailey was barking at earlier.
To my knowledge, I had never seen a horse before that day, so when I came out of the trees and saw them I was awestruck. My heart leapt and I gazed upon the most beautiful creatures I had ever laid eyes on. Their hooves clopped on the hard dirt of the field. Their muscles rippled, manes trailed behind them, dirt kicked up into the air with each gallop they took. They looked to be playing a game of chase or follow the leader.
I was breathless.
There were so many different colors. Gray, white, spotted, brown, tan. They were God's greatest creations as far as I was concerned; and they still are to this day.
They ran along that field on that early fall morning as if the world around them didn't exist. There actions showed no fear. Why should there have been any? They had no idea of what was to come.
Then, suddenly, they stopped. It was almost shocking the way they went from galloping to standing still. Out of nowhere came a single horse, taller than the others and as black as the darkest night. Its main appeared to be purple, though I am certain it was a trick of the sun. He walked with effortless grace.
The other horses–what must have been hundreds of them–bowed down to the black one. He walked by them in an almost royal manner.
Then he stopped . . . in front of me.
Hailey stopped barking. I don't remember how long it had been since Hailey had last barked—at that point I stood enthralled by the horse in front of me.
It knelt down on its front legs and bowed its head, just as the other horses had done when the black stallion appeared. Even at five years old I knew that what was happening was very special and I felt what I later learned to be a sense of honor.
I stepped forward, reached out and touched the stallion's nose. I ran my hand up between his eyes and into his purple mane. After several seconds of petting him I leaned in close to his ear.
“Prince,” I whispered.
The stallion nodded and stood. He let out a loud whinny and rose onto his hind legs. He dropped his front legs back to the ground and nodded at me again. He had accepted the name I had given him. I knew this and smiled.
Prince turned and walked his slow, elegant gait back the way he had come. As he passed the other horses they rose and then galloped about again. Soon Prince disappeared into the slew of wild horses and kicked up dirt.
On the ground at my feet laid a long strand of purple hair. It had fallen from Prince's mane as I petted him. My eyes lit up. I plucked it from the dirt and ran home. I took the hair and placed it in the most trusted and sacred place I knew of: My Bible.
Every morning there after I went to the hundred-year-old oak tree near our house. It sat just apart from the woods and I could easily see over the smaller trees from my lofty position. My father had built a ladder up the side of the tree so he could keep watch for deer or bear or even wolves come fall and winter time. The wolves were notorious for trying to get to our hen house in the back during the colder months when all the other food was either hibernating or gone south. I would sit in the cradle of a thick branch and watch them run.
I don't know if Father knew that I would run up to the old oak and then scurry up the ladder to my favorite spot in the tree. If he did he never let on. I would look over the smaller trees across the way and there they would be, the wild horses, just on the other side.
I would watch them run just after the sun had risen, while the dew still made a wet bed over the grass and the new day's temperature bit at my skin. Ahh, the temperature–that was they key to seeing the wild horses. If it were too hot they would not come out to the field to play. Instead, they would stay by the water down at the river. I found that out a little later when Mother took me to wash clothes. It was a hot August day and the horses were everywhere.
I didn't like summer much. The trips to the river were few and far between so I would not see my beloved wild horses. But hen the first touches of fall rose into the air and Mother Nature had taken her palette of paint and began to change the way the world looked I became elated. The bright greens of the trees and grass and bushes would turn orange and yellow and red and brown. Leaves would fall and layer the ground with their remains. And I thought it to be the most beautiful time of year.
And then came winter . . .
Winters were even more beautiful as Mother Nature again painted. The oranges and reds gave way to layers and layers of white cotton that had fallen from the cold sky. Oh, how the horses would run and kick up brilliant tufts or snow that would fall back to the ground in a haze of white dust. It was the most wonderful thing my green eyes have ever seen.
Sometimes I longed to go out to the field and watch them and possibly pet Prince again, but I knew my parents would not have it. So, I kept my vigils in the old tree, and I watched the wild horses run and I watched Prince strut about as the king of his subjects. He always looked up toward where I sat. It might have been my imagination but it appeared as if he was nodding at me before he would turn and walk off.
The wild horses were amazing to watch. They would run, never seeming to tire, never seeming to want to stop, and never seeming to want to leave. They looked as if they were happy to be there. Some people tell me that animals have no joy or sadness. I completely disagree. I've seen dogs look sad. I've also seen them look joyous at the sight of their owners. And those wild horses were the same as dogs–they had feelings and what I saw when I was a child was joy; a type of happiness I have never seen in a person. A type I wish I could've experienced at some point in my life. Maybe I did feel a measure of it that first time I touched Prince's nose. But that was such a brief moment.
For three years I watched those horses. Mother saw me once in the tree during that period. She raised a fuss until I showed her the horses. She smiled and consented. Mother never saw the black stallion. On occasion she would walk out there with me, and even though it wasn't very lady like, especially with a dress on, she would climb up that tree. I believe Mother got the same enjoyment from watching the horses as I did.
When I was eight years old it happened. As I think about it now, my eighth year of life was a bad year. Father had died just three months earlier and it had taken its toll on Mother and me.
It was a winter morning just after the New Year. Snow covered the ground and more fell from the sky. It had been my favorite time of year with the snow and the horses.
I carefully climbed up to my little perch in the old oak. With it being icy and snowy out I couldn't be too careful. One slip and I would tumble down, surely busting my noggin. Mother walked out with me and stood at the base of the tree.
The sun was rising and trying to peek through the clouds when I saw the first of the wild horses appear over the hill in the field. My heart skipped a beat and my body tingled with excitement. After the first horse appeared, the others followed, kicking up the snow all around them. As the sun rose higher more of them appeared.
When the first rays of the sun ripped through the clouds overhead it began. The snow ceased and the clouds parted. From the sky came flames, like large balls. They fell to the earth unbelievably fast, striking the ground with thunderous explosions that rocked my world and threatened to shake me from the tree branch. Steam appeared in large craters where the balls of flames had crashed down, melting the snow and sending chunks of dirt and rock into the air.
I cried out and slid from my seat. I fell to the ground and landed in the snow awkwardly. My right leg ankle popped when I landed. I screamed. Even with pain racing from ankle to hip I hobbled through the shin deep snow. Mother called after me as she followed. Her voice sounded scared. Hailey ran in front of us, barking loudly.
I ran through the small thicket of trees and stopped at the edge of the field. The flames–some which were the size of small houses–came crashing down onto the wild horses.
They galloped about, their normal line broken. I could hear the terror of their whinnies and neighs. I could see the fear in their large brown eyes. I could feel their fear as it raced through me like the very flames from the sky.
I watched in horror as the fire crashed down, engulfing the horses in red, yellow, and orange, burning them as they ran, fleeing, trying to escape the inferno. Some of them exploded; others seemed to melt on the spot. Still, others disintegrated into ashes. I watched as their long flowing manes and tails singed from the fire, catching afire, making the horses look as if they were made of whipping flames. Their skin fell away and they bled. A red mist filled the air. I watched as dying horse after dying horse after dying horse collapsed to the ground, their bodies engulfed in flames. The smell of burning flesh hung in the air. It was a stench that I would smell for days.
I screamed and wailed, crying with streaming tears and a snotty nose. I felt as if I was on fire along with the horses. As it turned out I very well could have been. The flames had grown dangerously close to where we were. The heat had burned my skin to a light pink color that I felt for most of a week after.
My mother grabbed me up and yelled for Hailey to come along. She started back the way we came with me screaming in her arms.
Somehow I got myself turned around in her arms. I peered over her shoulder and back at the burning field. Through tears that blurred my vision I saw him, Prince. He walked in that noble manner. He seemed oblivious to the flames that roared all around him; oblivious to the chaos; to the other horses' deaths. Prince stopped in the center of the field. He looked around, turning his head from side to side as if he were surveying the site and counting the dead.
Flames licked at his purple mane. His tail erupted into a dancing strand of fire. His soft black hair began burned away, exposing the flesh beneath it. Even as Mother carried me away I could see his firm muscles cooking and sliding off of him.
I screamed louder. Louder. Louder.
Prince knelt down like he did that first day when he let me pet his silky mane. He turned his head to my screaming voice. There were tears in his eyes, as there were in my own. He seemed to nod at me just as he always did. Then, Prince lowered his head and the blaze swallowed him.
I screamed until my throat was raw and then I screamed some more. Eventually, Mother got me home where I passed out from exhaustion and what I would later come to know as a broken heart.
Over a month passed before I went back outside. Three months further on before I climbed back into the tree and looked out passed the small woods and to the open expanse where the wild horses had played. The field was a charred black color. Like so many other times that year, I cried.
A year passed before I asked my mother to take me out to the field. At first she said “no.” I persisted in my request and she relented. This time I walked onto the field, Hailey beside me. I halfway expected more, but I am glad I didn't see what I had expected. There were no skeletal remains of any of the wild horses, only charred grass and ground.
But, there was something else.
In the spot where I was certain Prince had perished were several dozen flowers with prickly stems and yellow berries. The star shaped flower was white and purple. I didn't know what they were at the time but I've come to know them as a plant called Horse Nettles. For the first time in over a year I smiled.
It was here, in this field where I now stand, almost eighty-five years ago, that a freakish hailstorm (as the newspaper of the time called it) struck down the wild horses. It was a hailstorm all right, but they misspelled it. It was a HELL storm–because that is where it came from. It was in this field where the black stallion, the horse that stood a full two heads above all the other wild horses, died.
I still have nightmares about that day. When those nightmares befall my dreams I come back here, to this field. The ground is no longer charred and but there is also no grass. No wildlife roams through it. Not even the bees gathering nectar wander in its direction.
I, however, stand in the middle of the field whenever I visit. I close my eyes to hold back tears and I think back. Not to the day when I was eight and all my horrors realized. Instead, I think back to the day when I was five years old and I first saw the wild horses running.
I know this sounds odd but when I close my eyes I can almost hear the sounds of hooves clopping on the hard ground. I sense them–all the dead horses–around me as their ghosts' gallops through the field in death just as they did in life. I never saw Prince. Not once.
This morning, just before dawn, I arrived in the field. I had a rough night of sleep–none to say the least–and I felt depressed. To be honest I think this is the most depressed I have been since that day so long ago. I would have climbed into the old oak tree but there were a few problems with doing so. The tree has grown some in the past eight and a half decades and I am ninety-three years old now. My bones are a bit softer than they used to be. And the old ladder Father had attached to the tree has rotted away leaving only the spike-like nails that held each step in place. I walked out to the field instead, stopping where I always do, where Prince died.
I closed my eyes and listened. Cold tears formed, trying to escape from between clinched shut eyelids. In my right hand I held the long purple hair that had come from Prince's mane. It is the first time I have held it since his death. I raised my hand in the air, palm up. The hair sat unmoving. Then I heard what I hoped to hear, the sounds of hundreds of hooves pounding on the ground. My heart sped up. I swallowed hard and waited.
A cool wind raced through the field, blew trough my long, white hair and picked up the strand of hair from my hand, carrying it off. The sound of hooves ceased almost immediately.
Goosebumps prickled my skin when I heard the soft sound of hooves. They were different–walking not running After several moments, it too, ceased. I waited a little longer, listening but hearing nothing. Then I opened my eyes. There stood Prince in all of his majestic glory. He was just as large as I remembered. His mane and tail were that same midnight Purple. His muddy brown eyes glistened as the sun rose.
Prince knelt before me and I was a child again. Reaching up I touched his face and mane. After a few strokes Prince stood just as he had when I was five years of age. He turned, walked away, leaving me standing there. Tears flowed down my face as I watched Prince walk off and fade away.
I stood for a long time in silence. The sun had completely risen by then, its brilliant rays shining down on me. I looked around at the field. As far as my elderly eyes could see were the white and purple star shaped flowers with their yellow colored berries and prickly stems. Horse nettles–thousands of them.
As I turned and left the field I remembered that when I was eight I took my mother's hands and looked up at her. It was shortly after the deaths of my beautiful horses. Through sobs and tears I asked her one question:
“Mommy, where are the wild horses?”
I knew what death was–after all, my father had died not too long before. But, I didn't quite comprehend it. I needed to hear it from my mother. It was the only question I ever asked my mother that she never answered. I have the answer now.
Mother, the wild horses are still in the field, galloping happily. They had been awaiting my return. You see, the wild horses are still alive in my heart, in my soul, where they've always been. They just needed me to need them. That is why Prince left me one of his hairs on that first day–so he could always be with me. Now, they are free again. Free to gallop. Free to live. And, now, I can finally rest, my heart no longer broken but whole once again.