It’s cool and quiet in the desert, at night. The white lines on the highway flash in your headlights, hypnotic. The only chance of breaking the spell might be a glimpse of something from the corner of your eye.
Of course you can’t take your eyes off the road. It may seem straight and featureless, but there are dips. Billboards. Joshua trees. Make a mistake out here, you could be in for a really bad night.
You need something to keep yourself awake, though. Only, you don’t want to think too hard about what you saw. That shooting star, flashing past your window.
Yeah, right. Maybe it was just someone on a motorcycle. Yeah, with a showgirl on the bitch seat, still in costume. Because it couldn’t possibly have been a huge silver horse, galloping along beside you, then leaving you behind, her tail a streak of fire in the night.
You check the speedometer. Maybe it was an alien spaceship. No horse alive could’ve left you in the dirt at the rate you’re moving. After all, that secret military research project is out there, somewhere beyond the reach of your headlights.
Out in the darkness. Unseen. Suddenly, the idea of a supersonic Percheron with a flaming tail opens your eyes, jolts you awake. You might even reach your intended destination, tonight.
Unless the adrenaline wears off before you run out of road. You are still on the road, aren’t you? Strange lights in the distance converge, become a tractor trailer rattling your windows as it passes, reopening the darkness which has closed behind you. Cramped fingers flex on the wheel. One hand reaches to turn the air vent toward your face.
You’re almost there. See? That flicker just ahead, the one that’s drawing your eyes off the road. You’ve caught up to Silver Bess. You can see us now, can’t you. My brothers and I, standing still as death on her back, the five of us ascending from her withers to her rump.
Or perhaps I am only imagining that my older brothers are standing behind me. It’s a trust, doing a family act. Especially in a circus. You have no one to rely on but each other, and that includes your animals. I don’t expect you to understand. You grew up in front of a television, detached from the magic, that other electric connection, which binds performer and audience.
Your only interest, out here in the desert, is getting from game to game. Darkened room to darkened room, never distracted by the blaze of lights, the echoes of music, or even the rattle of the machines gobbling down the tourists’ coins.
You should really work on your circadian rhythms. No wonder you flinch when a light hits your eyes. You’ve become a creature of darkness. Not so different from Bess and I. Forgive my curiosity, but I wonder what it is you do see, as we canter beside your muscle car, Bess snorting in approval of the silver horse on your grill.
Are the questions helping you stay awake? Or is your wondering mind allowing your speeding car to wander?
Is it so strange, that a Hungarian horseboy and his faithful French steed should be haunting this hedonistic highway? Are not the garish desert cities the last resorts of our ancient talents? Perhaps we’re nothing but a pair of lonesome spirits, she and I, spying on the living.
Papa threw knives at Mama with magical accuracy.
Ah, I have your attention.
Mama threw kisses back, and the crowds, such as they were, adored them. Then she would pull the wheel of fortune out, while Silver Bess the Wonder Horse walked regally into the ring. You don’t associate regal bearing with a big, heavy draft horse?
I’ll not hold you accountable on that, since this is probably the first time you’ve ever seen any kind of horse at all, that wasn’t on a screen. It doesn’t matter, anyway. To me, Silver Bess was the queen of our little circus. There she would stand, the spotlight glinting off the silver spangles on her bridle. Papa stood next to her, hands behind his back, as Bess counted off the numbers shouted at her by the audience. We have no need of signals, we Huns and our horses. If we all still rode horses, the world would be at peace. It is the machines that killed the world.
But I am no longer of the world, so what do I know? After playing to the crowd, Silver Bess would dance the Charleston. Then, my brothers and I would come into the ring. One by one we vaulted on and off her broad back while she cantered steadily around the ring.
Never did she falter. Never did she spook, not even when mean boys fired cap pistols, or pelted her with peanuts.
She was the Wonder Horse.
And Papa killed her. I still remember his best throwing knife, sticking out of her eye. Or was it Freder’s eye? Fearsome Freder the Master of Fire, was what he billed himself as. Papa called him Freder the Fool, for he was always trying to make machines for his act, instead of practicing any real skills. Dangerous, to be a fool who plays with fire.
Easy to blame fire for ruining a circus, but that’s nothing more than an excuse for the evils of the human mind. The mind that comes up with steam engines. Internal combustion engines. Flame throwers. The mind that believes it has complete control over the elements. Over the machines. If you think about it, most of the world’s woes can be traced to the Industrial Revolution.
Even you ignore the machines, trusting your skills with the cards. Your faith in manipulating the luck of drawing a bit of cardboard, over the house-rigged luck of the one-armed bandits.
You believe in the magic of your skills. The house can’t control the cards the way they can control the machines. Like you control your car, your machine. You are in control of your machine, are you not? Or has your mind slipped back to a happier time, when you stopped to watch the entertainers? When the pull of the game was not a stranglehold. Before the need for more ran like a drug through your veins.
Is it worth driving instead of sleeping, to find that perfect game?
Forgive me, I ramble. The memories are hard to hold, hard to sift what I remember from what really happened. I was the youngest, you see, when it happened, and the mind twists things about to protect the tender bits. The way a man on a frontline, when the shelling starts, curls into a ball to protect his guts and gonads.
We are so easily fooled into following a false memory. As easily as you begin following your own headlights, letting them lead you. One minute you are directing them where you want to go. The next, they are leading you astray.
I know how the knife got into Bess’s eye. Papa threw it, with magical accuracy, as she tried to outrun her flaming tail. Each time she thrashed it in pain, the fire ate at her flanks and haunches.
And her tail was on fire because of Freder the Fool’s latest contraption. Because he had not cared where he pointed it. He only wanted to see what it would do. What it did was spit flame at Silver Bess.
There was no saving her. Even as we boys ran for water, Papa tried, in vain, to catch her. I remember how he sobbed as he drew the knife, whispered to it, kissed the hilt, and let it fly.
She went straight down, her panicked screams cut off in mid-cry. Papa never missed, you know. My brothers doused the fire. I poured my own little bucket over her. I begged her to get up, but when she did, she was as you see her now.
I remember the knife sticking out of Freder’s eye. I may have put it there myself, small as I was, creeping into his caravan that night. I cannot be certain, for we, ourselves, packed our own caravan, not waiting for morning to leave.
We were some miles along from the camp, but distances are tricky out here, don’t you think? Perhaps I only imagine hearing the explosion of Freder’s caravan, seeing the smoke and flames rising to the sky.
If a knife was found in his remains, no mention was made of it in the newspapers. Papa read all the reports he could find, aloud. After a few days, he couldn’t find any more. No one was surprised by Freder’s end. It was fitting, don’t you think?
You can see us now. I can tell. Here, let me give you a hand up. Silver Bess can carry us both. After all, she is a Wonder Horse.
Ah, you mean your car. Well. I guess I wasn’t imagining smoke and flames rising behind us.
Are you awake now?
Karen Ovér is currently living and writing in New York City. Her latest works appear in the anthologies Bubble Off-Plumb, From a Cat’s View Volumes I and II, Unbreakable Ink Volumes I and II, and The Book of Carnacki. Visit her author pages at: