The Horse Necromancer (Part 1)

 

Three horses. Photo: Cynthia del Río, Unsplash.

It’s a ghost horse, whispered Imabelle.

Ed grabbed his shotgun and leaned out of the window. The road was deserted. The galloping, however, went on.

            Somebody must be racing horses.

            At this time of night?

            There’s never a shortage of drunken show-offs.

It’s a ghost horse, his wife persisted.

            Damned wasters with nothing better to do, Ed grumbled.

He lay down again with the shotgun resting on his chest. He steadfastly refused to listen to the stories circulating in town. An Indian, Mr. Mojo Risin, had the gift of resurrecting horses. Naturally, this activity resulted in all sorts of apparitions. 

            Superstitious nonsense, Ed announced.

            Go to sleep, his wife advised him.

The galloping grew even louder. Ed opened the door, convinced he’d be able to hit the rider’s hat right off his head with a single shot. But there was no beast of any kind outside the house.  Confused, he flung himself onto the bed.  He should have been able to see the animal no matter how fast it was going. The galloping continued without a break.

I don’t believe in ghosts, he growled. He fell asleep cradling the shotgun.

Ed leaned his elbows on the bar and ordered a whisky. In the mirror hanging above the shelf full of bottles, he spied Mr. Mojo Risin. He was sitting at a table, alone. He had trouble imagining that this Indian, dedicated drinker as he was, could have special powers. People said he must be a healer as well. His fame, however, was owed mostly to his drinking style. He worked at Augusto Robles’ ranch as a stable hand. Every day, when his shift was done, he took the same seat in the bar and got drunk —for the sheer pleasure of it.  The Indian was a loner. He didn’t live in the town, but in a shack just beyond the gulch. Ed and Mr. Mojo Risin had crossed paths once or twice but neither had offered so much as a how d’you do.

Mr. Mojo Risin was renowned for being able to break wild horses. Everyone swore he could talk to them. Ed promised himself he’d never have need of the Indian’s services. He knew that the most effective way to control horses was with the whip and reins.

Hey, Pedro, Ed called to the bartender, all this talk about the Indian there, is it true? Because if you ask me, his only talent is emptying bottles.

Leave him alone, the bartender replied, placing a whisky in front of Ed. He’s my best customer.

As he savored his whisky, Ed decided to put a guard around his ranch. He’d get two farm hands to watch the road. 

            I’m going to catch them at it, damned riders.

As he left the bar, his eyes met those of the Indian. They were completely clear, like two watery marbles. They had no iris, in fact. 

            Have you brought the cake? asked Imabelle as soon as she saw Ed come into the kitchen.

            It was their daughter Clarita’s birthday.

            Of course, woman.

He placed it on the dining table and hung his hat on its peg.

I saw the Indian and so-called magician in the bar, he said. He can’t fly, transform himself into a coyote or resurrect horses. He’s just a drunk.

Imabelle told him to wash his hands.

Well, in town they’re convinced he has the power to work miracles, she commented as she laid the table. Poor Hilda couldn’t get pregnant in two years of marriage. Her husband took her back to her parents’ house complaining there was something wrong with her. Hilda had a consultation with Mr. Mojo Risin and finally her husband managed to get her pregnant.

Ed let out a snort of laughter.

            Ha! Our father Mr. Mojo Risin, just like the holy ghost.

Imabelle took the meatloaf out of the oven.

That galloping isn’t the spirit of any animal, Ed went on, just some idiots out racing, or a lone rider. I’m going to get to the bottom of this ridiculous galloping tonight. I’m putting two of my men on guard.

It’s your daughter’s birthday, Ed, Imabelle chided him. Put this fixation aside for another time. Dinner’s getting cold.

I won’t be long, Ed persisted. I’ve got the right to sleep in peace. I’m going to put a stop to it so that you can be witness to the fact that any talk of a phantom horse is just a fairy tale.

He left the house and stationed two men on the road with the order to stop anything that passed that way.

If you go to sleep on the job I’ll dock a day’s pay, Ed threatened. But if you capture it, the reward will be a mule each.

He was the kind of man who thought everything could be settled with beasts.

Now you’re fifteen, Ed said to his daughter at the end of their meal. You’re old enough to have your own horse. To look after it. In a few days I’m going to a livestock fair at Jal and I’ll choose an animal for you. You’re my only heir. Someday this ranch will be yours and you’ll have to learn how to run it.

Clarita was an experienced rider, but she’d never owned her own horse —one that only she was allowed to ride.

            Thanks, Pop, she said and kissed him on the cheek.

Ed had fostered a love of horses in her. The excitement kept Clarita awake until dawn. Where other people counted sheep, she’d add up horses until falling asleep.

Ed couldn’t sleep either, he was too on edge. He was desperate to solve the mystery of the ghost horse but that night there was no sound of approaching hooves. So much silence filled him with desperation. He went to check on his men and found them asleep.   

Dealers from all over the region were milling around the hotel lobby. Ed had the means to make an offer for best animal on show. He’d been saving for three seasons and was loaded with enough capital to outbid anyone. He noticed Mr. Mojo Risin, cigarette in hand. He was there for his magical foresight. Augusto wouldn’t buy a horse without the Indian’s say so.

Ed, Augusto greeted him. You here on your own?

Yes, replied Ed. Saves money. Better to invest in livestock than in a travelling companion.

Ah, Ed, my man, I was forgetting your life is your horses. Augusto smiled at him. Let me get you dinner —can’t have you investing that capital in anything so trivial as food.

Ed was tempted to accept. But the possibility of sharing with the Indian disturbed him.

Thanks, Augusto, but I’m dead tired. Travelling really messes with my appetite. Getting too damn old.

He checked into a second-floor room with a balcony. He climbed the stairs with his stomach grumbling at him. He mused over the stupidity of his words. Messes with my appetite. Mr. Mojo Risin being there, that had put him out of sorts. How could Augusto allow an Indian to advise him? What did all of his years dedicated to horses add up to in that case? He waited two hours then went down to eat. The restaurant was empty, except for the Indian who was drinking at the farthest table. Ed didn’t hesitate. Of course, the shaman business annoyed him, but it didn’t scare him. He ate calmly. He ordered two chasers and went up to his room. The Indian stayed in the restaurant, drinking.

Ed was woken by the sound of galloping hooves. He looked out over the balcony and saw no horses on the road. He swore at himself for not having brought his shotgun with him. He dressed hurriedly and went out of the hotel. Pure black night engulfed him.

This animal may be blacker than jet, he said to himself, but even this darkness can’t make him invisible.

When he returned to his room the galloping started up again. At reception he asked for Augusto Roble’s room. He went up to the third floor and knocked on the door.

How can you sleep with this row, asked Ed.

What do you mean? Said Augusto.

The galloping, of course.

What? I haven’t heard a single noise.

Ed saw the Indian down below, stretched out on a mat.

D’you have a shotgun you can lend me?

What you want it for?

Do you have one or not?

Augusto handed Ed his weapon . The galloping had not stopped but Ed calmed down. He fell asleep with his fist tight around the shotgun resting on the bedside table.

Ed went to the Jal fair every year. Mr. Mojo Risin, in all probability, had attended too, but he’d never met the Indian there before. The main business was the buying and selling of animals. But a race was organised to discourage any chicanery on the part of speculators. Ed was convinced the nocturnal galloping must be explained by some clandestine race. The penalty, if they caught anyone doing this, was exclusion from any bidding.

The gamblers, though, were a law unto themselves, Ed thought. Could it be the Indian, playing a joke on me? He pushed the thought aside. What was Ed to the Indian. Is this galloping going to pursue me forever? He asked himself, is this what a love of horses leads to?

Ed wasn’t a betting man. He went to the races as an observer. There’s a great deal of science to keeping horses. Husbandry, breeding and gambling. This last has many branches. An animal might win a race because of a mathematical fluke. Or because of a premonition. Or just because. to deal with so many variables requires a lifetime of dedicated study. Ed’s vices lay in other directions. Yet, who could resist the thrill of a horse race.

The horse is the most beautiful animal in the world, declared Ed.

An experienced horse-man like you should be betting, Augusto sidled up with this advice.

A person can never know enough about horses, Ed retorted, even if he lives a lifetime in the saddle.

He didn’t believe his own words and he wished he’d never spoken them. However, he didn’t do anything to make amends. He allowed Augusto to win the argument. It made the Indian’s folk wisdom a necessity.

Perhaps one day we’ll know everything there is to know about horses, Ed said. It seemed to him that if rapture existed then this was it —a place where the soul of man and horse would co-exist as equals.

He heard the shout go up: Start placing your bets! Mr. Mojo Risin whispered his preference to Augusto. The favorite was the jet black. He was undefeated. The Indian, however, recommended the dappled grey at odds of seven to one. Standing on the chalk start line, a stable hand waved a dirty handkerchief and the beasts raced off. With them, hearts leapt, there were shouts, hats thrown aloft, great belly laughs and cries of “Ay, ay, ay” from the crowd. The dappled grey won by a length. The crowd was puzzled. How had such a magnificent animal lost against this dappled grey nag.

With all the excitement over, business began. Horses were offered, Ed found a fault. Or he’d invent something. So, the morning passed —a procession of horses rejected by Ed.

Sometimes it’s harder to choose a horse for your daughter than it is for yourself, Ed realised.

He remembered his first horse fondly. He’d been fourteen. It had been an important milestone in his life.

If a woman chooses a bad husband she’ll lead a miserable life, Ed mused. It’s the same with horses.

The last thing he wanted was for his daughter to be unhappy. One bad-tempered beast could put her off horses for life. At one in the afternoon Ed took a break to eat. He decided to return home.

I’m checking out, he told the receptionist. I’ve not seen a single animal good enough to tempt me.

A dealer, who happened to be signing in just then, heard him.

Excuse me, I couldn’t help hearing. You can’t go without seeing what I’ve got to offer. Stick around. I’m showing my animals at four.

Once he’d eaten, Ed went to his room to take a rest. He couldn’t go home without an animal. Clarita would demand her present. He remembered back to when, on her tenth birthday she’d refused to mount a pony.

Climb onto Nalgón, Ed told her.

No, she replied.

Why not?

My horse is a shorty.

Fran, he called to one of his men, bring over the old mare. Lift my girl onto her and make sure she’s secure in the saddle.

From that day on Clarita never again rode a pony.

At four o’clock trading began again. The animals on show didn’t really excite Ed.

That was until one particular mare made him start to his feet. All the horses on sale had names, all except the one that had caught his eye. She was a sorrel of supernatural beauty. Just from seeing her move, Ed knew she’d be the perfect companion for his daughter. Bidding was short and sweet. There was one other offer, but when Ed raised the stakes they bowed out. A stable hand mounted the mare. She was as soft as candy floss. The rider floated on her back. She trotted around the paddock like a cloud sailing in the sky.

Augusto and the Indian approached Ed.

Don’t buy that horse, Augusto urged him.

Why, Ed countered, just look at her.

Mr. Mojo Risin says it’s bad luck to buy a horse that’s got no name.

Don’t talk nonsense, Augusto.

It’s not nonsense, Ed.

I don’t hold with old wives’ tales.

Don’t buy that animal, said Augusto, grabbing onto Ed’s arm.

Ed shook Augusto off.

I’m going to pay for this beauty, he said and walked away.

Augusto ran to catch up with him.

Ed, think again.

Augusto, I don’t know why you let yourself be swayed by an Indian like this.

Don’t take that mare home, Ed.

Nothing is going to stop me taking this animal.

Ok then. Promise me one thing, Ed. Promise me you’ll baptize her. Give her a name before you set foot on your ranch. You promise me?

Translated by Hebe Powell and Nick Caistor

Editor's Note: The second and final part of "The Horse Necromancer" will be published in Latin American Literature Today No. 13 in February 2020.

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Ida Vitale in LALT
Number 12

In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Ida Vitale

Dossier: Julio Ramón Ribeyro

Interviews

Essays

Chronicles

Fiction

Brazilian Literature

Poetry

Indigenous Literature

On Translation

Previews

Nota Bene