In the evening, the police questioned me about the horse and the boy. It was an accident. A boy drowning underneath a racehorse was unheard of. Almost funny if it weren’t for his sobbing mother leaning on a policeman’s shoulder.
‘Emily,’ I said. ‘Make sure you get home to your mother.’
‘I will,’ the girl said, and walked off. It was dark now and the sky was purple like a fresh bruise. It was just about spring and the evening was pretty. Birds still awake, twittering in the branches.
I waited there for a long time as hundreds of smartly dressed drunk people walked past on the far side of the road. They’d been at the races all day and were heading into town to enjoy the night. Some looked over. Barefoot women stopped in the street when they saw him, or the shape of him, under the sheet.
Earlier that day, it was cold and bright. There were bulbs sprouting on the tree branches. It was April and the cheering and screaming fell from up the hill. I’d been in work all day and I was tired. I sold bathroom fittings for a living. Pipes, u-bends, sinks, toilets, things like that. My ex-wife used to work in the shop with me before she moved away. We’d met in the shop and we worked together for a year before I took her out on a date, another five years before we married. We had a daughter and we were living our lives as if we’d always known each other. It had been some time since I’d seen either of them.
It was the girl who’d called to me. I ignored her at first; when I’m in that mood, no one matters to me except myself and I just wanted to get home and sit down in front of the TV. But she kept on shouting ‘Hey,’ so I thought I’d go down and have a look.
I turned off from the street and walked towards the canal. They were only young. Still in the grey colours of a school uniform. The girl didn’t look older than fifteen. The boy’s white untucked shirt was filthy and wet.
The girl’s hair was tied in a ponytail. The sun shone on her so that her hair became a lighter shade of brown. Her eyes were red with bloodshot. The boy looked straight through me. It didn’t seem like his brow could fold any thicker than it was.
‘What is it?’ I said. ‘What do you want?’ I looked at her then the boy, trying to distinguish whether he’d harmed her or not.
I waited for a moment for either of them to respond. The girl was preoccupied with something, but they just stared at me. I was a little unnerved by him. He was tall, maybe six-foot-something and could probably have overpowered me given the chance. I wasn’t young anymore and I wouldn’t have been very agile in my suit anyway.
‘The horse,’ the girl said.
The words didn’t register. The word itself – horse – didn’t make sense as though it had deconstructed into the basic Latin symbols for the animal.
‘It’s the horse,’ the girl said. ‘Check if it’s dead.’
‘What horse?’ I said.
The cold sun struck her thin arm pointing towards the canal. I looked to where she pointed. In the canal, on the far side, the large head of a horse poked out of the water. It glistened like ice and wasn’t struggling at all. It was snagged on some branches and roots. Its heavy body was under the water. The black eyes stared at something but I realised they weren’t seeing anything.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I said. ‘How’d that get in there?’
‘Help it,’ the girl said.
‘He can’t help it,’ the boy said.
‘It looks like it’s dead,’ I said.
‘Would you tell her that?’ the boy said. I was surprised to finally hear his voice. He sounded older than he looked. In a way, I was glad he spoke. The soft sloshing of water, the exact sound of how I would wash myself in the sink at home, washed over the horse’s unblinking face.
I turned to face the girl and said, ‘It’s dead. I’m sorry.’
‘But it was okay before,’ she said. She started crying, the noise she made like an ensnared rabbit, and as the boy comforted her, he looked at me as though I’d upset her. ‘It was okay before,’ she said. ‘It was splashing around in the water, trying to get out.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
The boy held the girl’s shoulders, his thin fingers gripped like the branches that had caught on the horse’s neck. He looked deep into her eyes as though he was going to say something, but he didn’t say anything. In the distance, the screaming and shouting had died down. He gently pushed her aside and she turned away and sat down with her back against the wall. She didn’t seem to care how dirty it was, the damp moss blanketed the bricks behind her.
‘Hey,’ the boy said. ‘You’re going to help me.’
‘With what?’ I said, but I guessed what he meant.
‘I’ll get a stick,’ he said. ‘Wait there.’
He turned and walked up the path. He had a long stride so that he made quite a lot of distance in a short space of time. In that time, I looked at the girl and then at the horse. The noise up the hill was gone and there was a moment of cold silence in the air. Bare branches rustled and shook their buds. Two birds swooped overhead. They looked at the horse in the canal then flew away. I looked at the girl again. She sniffed. Her knees were up to her chin and she held onto her legs so that she was shaped into a ball that could easily roll away.
I struggled to think of something to say to her. I said, ‘You look a lot like my daughter.’
She looked up at me.
‘You’re about the same age.’
‘What’s her name?’ she asked.
‘My daughter? Mary.’
‘Nice to meet you, Emily. I’m John.’
‘I don’t know anyone called Mary.’
‘I didn’t think you’d know her,’ I said. ‘You probably go to a different school.’
It was cooler down by the canal than it was up on the road. I began to feel it under my shirt. The boy had been gone longer than I thought he’d be, but I didn’t want to leave the girl. Sunlight lit the wet skin of her cheeks.
‘You saw it die?’ I said.
‘How does a horse get in a canal anyway?’ she said.
‘It must be a racehorse,’ I said. ‘You know, you do look a lot like my daughter.’
‘What’s she like? Is she like me?’
‘I don’t see her anymore.’
‘She and her mother moved away a few years ago,’ I said. ‘I made a mistake.’
‘What did you do?’
‘You know, the only way to get that horse out is to drain the canal,’ I said. ‘They use stop planks to dam the water. Empty it out to get rid of all the debris that’s left. Then it all comes flooding back.’
‘How can we do that?’
‘It’s not a job we can do,’ I said. ‘It takes a lot of work, lowering in the planks and draining the water.’
‘Can you call someone?’
I looked up the canal. Just the narrow stretch of water and the walls on either side lined with green moss. When I turned back, the boy was heading towards us. He was carrying two large tree branches. His smile was annoying like he’d solved everything and wanted to be congratulated. He had a way of walking, swaying his shoulders with each step, chin elevated to make him seem taller, his chest puffed out.
‘Look what I found,’ he said. The girl ignored him. ‘We can pull it from the roots.’
‘And then what?’ I said. ‘Drag it out of the water? Do you have any idea how much a horse weighs?’
‘Here,’ he said, handing me one of the sticks.
‘He says he can drain the canal,’ the girl said to the boy.
‘I can’t do that,’ I said. ‘But that’s what will have to be done.’
The boy looked at me with an indifference that was hard to read. A shadow deepened around his nose and mouth, and the dark of thin greasy pubescent stubble above his lip quivered as he smiled. ‘Go on then,’ he said. ‘Drain it.’
‘I can’t, I don’t know how.’
The boy huffed.
I watched him reach the branch with both hands over to the horse, awkwardly poking at the branches but not doing much good. Emily watched from where she sat. I decided to give it a go too, so I reached the stick over the canal and I seemed to have a better grip of it than he did. My stick prodded the horse. It disgusted me when I felt little resistance from its thick muscular neck. It gave me the sensation that I was hurting it, that it might cry out in pain if I carried on, but it didn’t. I tried to release it from the branches and we both tried hacking them and untying them methodically with our sticks. I broke out in a sweat. I could then smell it. The musk. Not me, the horse. Like a dog. The yeasty smell emanating from its skin. Black eyes pleading with me to free it. I finally hooked my stick on one of the larger roots which had hooked onto the saddle under the water, and as I pulled, the horse immediately sank.
Emily shouted something and came over to the canal’s edge and all three of us watched the water. It seemed deep and black now. Like oil. I doubted we’d see the horse again, almost as though it had never been there. Soon, among Emily’s sobs, the horse appeared a little downstream. It bobbed a little closer to our side and stayed there.
The boy ran up the short distance to where the horse was. I watched him crouch down and reach for it. He moaned as he strained, trying to reach and the more he reached, the more distorted he became. He looked like Adam reaching out to God’s hand. The boy was so close now that his fingernails just about grazed the horse’s wet mane.
I didn’t speak to his mother afterwards, she didn’t know who I was or that I’d seen her son die. Emily was a good girl. By the time she was gone and the crowd from the races had dispersed, I headed home. The police said they might call me in for questioning the next day.
That night, I lay in bed thinking about my daughter and her mother. It was dark enough to feel blind like my eyes could only grasp small slivers of light through dirty water. I felt restless. The stink of salt and mud still lingered on my hands. I called her. Her voice sounded tired when she spoke.
‘Christ, John, it’s after midnight,’ she said. ‘Mary’s asleep.’
‘I just wanted to talk.’
‘I’m not drunk,’ I said. ‘I just felt like calling. I made a mistake.’
‘How are you?’ I said. ‘How’s Mary?’
She sighed heavily down the phone so that it crackled. ‘She doesn’t want to talk to you,’ she said.
‘I didn’t even try,’ I said.
‘You never did,’ she said.
‘I just wanted things to be better for her.’
© Michael Holloway
Cover image by Martin Woortman on Unsplash