Jeremy took up the gun and I smiled gamely. “Don’t think you’ll hit the mark,” I said.
He furrowed his brow, set the butt against his shoulder, and took aim. Nearby water spilled from the mouth of the fountain’s heavyset gargoyle. I narrowed my eyes, steadied my breath, and waited.
The shot rang out, loud and true. Fifty feet from where we stood, the bottom left corner of the target crumbled. Its heart remained intact. Hay burst heavenward and dust somersaulted through the air.
“Well damn,” Jeremy muttered. He handed the shot gun back to me.
I raised the gun and fired. The dead center of the target disappeared instantaneously: a perfect bull’s eye.
Together we sat on the lip of the fountain’s pool. I tucked the gun against my arm like a shepherd’s staff. Jeremy slipped the flask from his pocket, drank deeply and passed it off to me. The whiskey tasted of gunpowder.
About us the ruins of a castle buckled and curled. Its U-shaped corridors gave way to an untamed courtyard, in which we sat. Cracks veined the masonry. The windows blinked blindly down, the majority of their panes already stolen by quiet hands or broken by the hands of time.
Jeremy caught me staring at the decay. “Admiring my handiwork?”
I returned the flask. “You’re taking credit for Father Time’s hard work, are you?”
He laughed, his apple cheeks gleaming in the evening light. “I’ve got to take credit for something in my life, you know.”
The setting sun cast a gold strip along the roof’s ridge. I said nothing, but I was thinking of when Jeremy had been a little boy, his hair wispy. It was the summer after his mother had disappeared and we were walking along the river – the same one that flowed half a kilometer from the castle. He had run ahead of me, laughing at my cane with all the innocence of childhood. Then I heard splashing, and I saw water running through his white-blonde hair, and suddenly I was swimming too. My gimp leg kicking and my voice hollering. In that eternal moment, the feeling that I would do everything for this boy. My sister’s son.
Jeremy took a final sip of whisky and we began our stroll back home. We threaded through the former garden, its roses thorny and tenacious; under the distended portcullis; across the defunct cobblestone paveway.
Suddenly Jeremy turned to face his castle. Its beige face rose four stories high and it glowered back with the empty eyes of the narrow windows. He seemed to search for something along the surface and, finding it, he seized the gun from my hands and fired. A pane shattered on the third floor.
Pleased with his work, he returned the gun. “There,” he announced. “I have done that.”
I slipped into the world through the narrow lips of a prayer. When finally my limbs grew plump and my blood flushed through my veins, it was already too late; but that is that. I swam in the crystal lake and felt clean.
My uncle taught me the art of dressage and my childhood reverberated with the snap of bone on clay. The soil in the back acre cracked, splintered, regrouped, swirled. I sat high on the horse’s back, knees tight against the flank and shoulders thrown back. Together, we danced.
On my tenth birthday the mayor gifted me a horse. He had once been the proud leader of the dressage troupe, his cabinet littered with trophies. But the day his daughter’s body was found face down in the river, he lost all appetite for beauty. I inherited the dead child’s horse and joined the mayor’s former troupe.
We performed at holidays, at cultural events, at competitions, at private gatherings, and above all, at parades. On my saddle I floated, twirled, paused, reversed, accelerated – all in the space of three seconds. My horse and I sank and spun on a sea of lightness. Above me the applause lifted like the morning fog.
When my horse grew too old to dance, I knew I too had grown too old for something, and I pondered what. I took my horse up the mountain to think, alone. My father had drawn me a map of the foothills, how to arrive at the campsite without car or boat. My horse and I climbed gently, slowly, both knowing the coarse trails would weary his fine hooves. Both knowing this trip would define us; the lips speaking, speaking and myself emerging from them reborn.
We arrived above the snowline of Magalia and picked a path to the small lake. Its waters gleamed pure as memory, the sky pulled back from the land in a silver arc. For the first five hours, we were alone. I reduced myself to my simple humanity and glided through the waters. My horse grazed in the shade of the glen. I flopped onto my back and above me stretched the sultry sky.
A sudden splash interrupted my dreams. Turning I saw a man, his forearms flashing with each stroke as he swam along the opposite shore. He seemed not to heed me and I, in turn, ignored him.
That evening I built a campfire behind the boulders set several yards from the lake. I grilled trout and slices of salami. My horse stood calmly at the edge of the fire’s licking reach, his tail flicking the shadows. After dinner I secured his line to the trunk of a tree, allowing for several yards of slack, and took my pan to collect water from the lake. Its surface unrolled darkly between the forest on either shore, save for one orange streak laid like a ladder on its surface: the reflection of the man’s fire. He had built his fire on the beach, at the place where I knew the sand wore deep. Momentarily I paused to watch his flame heave and sigh over the waves.
That night I dreamed of the lips, their mute prayer tumbling forward in time with the tapping of dressage. I saw my horse prancing on the top of a bald mountain, his mane furious with motion, his rider leading him deeper and deeper in a complex and powerful sequence. But in my dream my feet were planted like trees and my arms, reaching for him, transformed into flowering branches. Without my touch my horse danced on, on, on with the strange rider.
In the morning, the man had disappeared. So too had my horse.
I walked two days to arrive home, and was not surprised to hear that the mayor’s body had been found, not far from the still-warm flesh of my horse, crumpled at the base of Eagle’s Peak from whence they had fallen.
Today I am old. I live with the white noise of many memories. At night when all is silence except the shrr shrr of the trees, then I return to that narrow place of my birth, where the lips speak to me in the sharp clapping language of my horse’s hooves, dancing still.
As read at Flash Fiction Forum, May 2016
ck.kramer - all rights reserved