The Horse Memorial
It is late afternoon when we set out for the Horse Memorial. He says it will take us less than an hour to get there, but I am dubious. I am a slow walker after all.
Today is Sunday, and the third day into my trip to the South. Far from the cities. their hectic life and their grey skies, I have cocooned in this village, craving for a taste of rustic life and the idyllic sceneries of rural England.
I have not been disappointed: the streets we walked on the way home were free from onlookers and traffic jams, the air's only smell was the stench of animals' farms and the natural landscape stirred memories from home back to life.
I once again became a child, picking ripe berries off the bramble on the side of the road.
'Are these poisonous?' I asked him, my brain inured to the danger represented by treacherously misleading plants posing as food.
'No, not these ones.'
Fearfully, I bit on them, battling with the unnerving feeling awakened by stories of deaths by asphyxiation which inevitably flooded my mind as I chewed on the not-so-sweet fruit. It was with relief that I realised I was not going to die, when I woke up with no symptoms the next day, ready for our next excursion into nature.
The garden he took me to visit on the Saturday was gorgeous. If I had any interest in flowers I would have been dazzled by the central square with its colourful assortment of lilies, roses, daisies, tulips and more. Yet, I was there for the trees: their shade, their sheltering canopies and their ever-green foliage. I certainly didn't expect to be captivated by the pond. Still water stared at me from below the wooden bridge where I was standing, unperturbed, until its surface suddenly broke into a thousand cracks as a leaf landed on it. It should have been blue, yet it was the deepest emerald green I had ever seen, and it enchanted me. My eyes followed the arched branches, admiring the leaves trembling under the wind, until the dulcet notes of a harp reached my ears.
It was a felicitous coincidence that a local band happened to be performing music at the back of the garden. Like moth to a flame he ran there, forgetting the original reason why we came, and I followed. It had been ages since I had last heard a concert being performed in real life or seen the strings of violins and the skins of drums send air vibrations to my ears.
For the first time in a while, I lied on soft grass, looking at the blue ceiling above my head and let the gentle breeze caress me.
Those who listened to the performance stood not far from me, yet we were worlds apart as battles unfolded under the direction of sharp horns and bustling market towns from old times brightly emerged from the woodwind section. Forgetful of my travel companion, I indulged in the visions, spectating a proud swan cleaning its feathers before taking off toward the sky, as I listened to the oboe solo. Once I opened my eyes again, I found him dozing a few feet away from me, most likely absorbed in the blissful tunes. I pondered whether I should roll towards him or not, then chose to stay and watch from the distance. His relaxed face is not a sight I get to see very often.
Music is a language which speaks to everyone, regardless of their mother tongue. It is an invisible force plucking my heart's chords and making them vibrate to the rhythm of its instruments. One of the mythical muses; sweet and sensual, yet terrible when she strikes, inspiring both pleasure and love, tragedy and joy. I am fascinated by her power and I feel fortunate when he picks up his ocarinas to take along on the short impromptu journey we are about to go to. It is befitting of the bucolic setting, to bring wind instruments with us. I glance at the flute in my bag, then take my trusted antivenom with me, instead.
Preventive measures: I know there is no miasma in this region, that it is not like in the North Pines, where noxious fumes abound and the fog is so thick that a single breath can sentence a human to an horrific death. Yet, I have become accustomed to always carrying a dose with me whenever I venture into the wilderness. Trees are beautifully deceptive creatures, to be revered and to be wary of.
The path we take is an asphalt-less road edging the woods. The last building we see is a way house with freshly washed clothes hanging from tight ropes. From there, it is open nature. We plod on small rocks and I kick the pebbles. My sight is stolen by the sunlight caressing the horizon; then I rush ahead, trying not to fall behind. I am aware that I am slowing him down on his usual evening stroll and that he does not like it. He watches me, waiting for me to catch up, but he says nothing, and we continue.
We aren't alone on this road, to my surprise. Other pilgrims trod these walks and I briefly salute the woman leading a small child in the direction opposite to ours. The father follows behind them with a loyal dog and he beckons my friend, who doesn't reply. He comments on the birds instead, pointing out their species to me even though I fail to spot them amongst the thick vegetation.
The herbs grow tall on the edges, forming walls that temporarily shield the outside world from our sight. The road then opens to a vast area covered in crops' remains. This is where he turns, without a word, then raises his hand and points at something into the distance.
'That's where we are headed.'
I follow his finger and barely make out a white spot in between all the green and the leaves. It doesn't seem likely we will make it by the estimated time, I notice.
We continue our journey, and it is not long before he steps to the side again. I look up and see him walk past a road sign, completely ignoring the warning on it.
I stop, uncertain whether it is safe to take another step in that direction. We should not be trespassing into woods' territory, my instinct tells me, yet the forest looks so inviting, trees stretching to the sky like columns. Despite, and perhaps because of, the thrills running down my spine, I would love to trudge over dead leaves and rotting branches.
I tentatively point at the signal: what I want to know is if he thinks we should be heading that way, what I ask is if it really is ok to venture further into the woods. For a moment he pauses, then heads back onto the main road.
'Are we not taking the woods' route?' I ask with disappointment.
'I thought you didn't feel comfortable to?'
'Oh, I am totally fine with it…'
I shouldn't be, I should step back, but this is South of England and the only smell my nose perceives is the mouldy scent of mushrooms which must be growing somewhere nearby. I look around but can't see any and quickly give up searching for them. I do not wish to be left behind in here.
The time we spend wandering through the deeper forest is brief and I hardly have any chance to gaze at the rays cutting through the tress like blades of sunlight.
'In Spring the ground is covered in bluebells,' he says, somewhat implying that he regrets I cannot witness the sight.
'I think I prefer the ground like it is now: brown, covered in dead leaves which make creaky sounds.'
He doesn't reply to that and we jump onto the main track again. We do not speak much, usually. It is through silence what we communicate, messages are exchanged through pauses rather than notes, and I often feel lost in miscommunications.
The path turns around a corner and we are out in the sunlight again as trees become shorter and rarer, replaced by shrubs, many of which carry berries. I am tempted to pick them, but too afraid to risk poisoning.
We take right and I stare at the ground as I drag my feet a bit; I am feeling tired and a little bit dizzy. It must be the unusually clean air I am breathing in. Unexpectedly, the white tower which had seemed so distant appears before me as I raise my eyes to look at the sky.
Stunned, I halt my pace. 'Oh, we have arrived,' I comment.
There are a few thorns on the way up the small hill on which the mausoleum was built and I jump over them, scurrying behind my friend with renewed energy.
The Memorial is bigger than I had imagined. It contains a single crypt inside, with no other decoration than an inscribed wall and two stone benches. There is an abandoned case on one side, with visible colourful pencils inside. My friend sits on the opposite side while I lie on the ground with my legs crossed.
The crypt has one mighty gothic-style window with no glass which serves as entrance. I look out and gaze upon endless wheat fields stretching to cover the flatland below us as far as the eye can reach. They alternate in colours from green, to canary yellow to burnt gold. It is an Elysian view, especially enticing when accompanied by the sound of an ocarina. It is when looking at the tomb's shadows from atop this hill that I realise this is not a journey to a place, but a journey through time. The tune is my Acheron and I let it lull me into a trance. Some notes are sharp and painful, flashes from a distant past. Others are mellow like the wine made from grapes grown in my grandfather's vineyard, before it burnt. Others yet, run after each other like fast pulses, remembrance of the perilous tracks I had to cross too many times.
'Hic iacet Augustissimus, most beloved companion to Sir Raphael XXX Esquire, who with him leaped into the steepest ditches in pursuit of prey, who ran faster than lightning to deliver vital messages and proudly neighed as loud as a thousand war horns instilling forever-lasting fear into the enemies of the Empire.'
I turn around, glaring at my friend as he recites the words carved on the wall.
'You know, there is a real horse buried underneath,' he states.
'Yes, that is what the epitaph is saying.'
'A real horse,' he stresses.
'It must have been a very much loved horse to get such a fancy tomb.' When I receive no reply, I add, 'Did people really use to ride on them?'
'Oh. I have heard that they were treated as companions. The most virtuous among them used to sit at the Senate to discuss motions.'
'Surely, that's a legend.'
'But there was that Emperor…'
'Yes, yes, I have heard too. Anyway, you know the reason why I took you to this important historical checkpoint.'
'Yeah. It is weird to think that only one or two generations ago there were all these amazing creatures which are now extinct. I guess it would have been cool to live at the time when one could fly on a winged horse like Pegasus.'
'I don't think that winged horses were that common.'
'Still, better than what we have now.'
Silence fell again and I awkwardly looked outside, eyes searching for something beyond the horizon. 'Play another song?' I suggested.
'I don't know…what can you play?'
He picks a tune, perhaps expecting me to recognise it, since he expresses disbelief at the fact that I do not. So, he changes to another one and one more, but all sound unfamiliar to me.
'I don't really mind whether I know it or not, I just like to hear you play music while I write,' I state and then sit back in silence, occasionally glancing at him as he switches between different songs. My pencil scratches the paper and marks appear on it; words, sometimes disconnected as the symphony goes through abrupt changes. It is not my hands that I see when I write, but the utopic past I never experienced. Tales from old take life only for me, and I am their chronicler.
My heart flutters, placid emotions alternating with tempestuous outbursts of energy. The blue sky, the wheat fields, the occasional fences and sparse trees; the more I look at it the more enamoured with it I become. One might say I am a romantic, letting my feelings pour onto papers like an open fountain. Trying to capture the legacy left behind by those who came before me in a few well-chosen words. I cannot help but notice the pristine look of these lands, unsullied by the waves of miasma and free from the deathly fog which rampage in the North. It really is like a picture of a lost past, immaculate and without any stains.
Nothing like my broken home.
'We should head back,' he eventually says, interrupting my train of thoughts.
'Oh, yeah you are right.'
I get closer and, without thinking, I take the large ocarina from his hands. I used to have one, I recall, but I never knew how to play it. It was a treasured possession, an ocarina smaller than the one I took just now, and an exact replica of my mum's bigger one.
'Make sure you cover the holes properly.'
I struggle to put my fingers in the correct position, moving my hands around it a few times before he helps me out. Hesitantly, I make a sound. It probably comes out weak and unstable, my nervousness seeping through my breath. I don't like wind instruments: they bring my innermost emotions to surface.
'Are your fingers covering the holes?'
'Yes,' I reply while subconsciously securing the ocarina to my neck with its strap.
'No, they aren't.' He adjusts my hold. 'Try again.'
I try, eyes glued onto my fingers, avoiding his gaze. That is why I miss it; it is just a second, a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. I could have caught it, if I had been watching, if I had been fast enough, but I wasn't.
The echo of broken ceramic reverberates through the crypt and through time. It brings back flashes of repressed memories; for a moment I am four again and it is my ocarina lying on the ground shattered.
He picks up a piece, in silence.
The air has suddenly become denser and I feel it heavily weighing upon me. Though I know it is only my mind's illusion, I cannot help but feel under pressure.
'Where's the other piece?' He asks, reaching under the seat with his hand. 'It probably can be repaired…'
Somehow, I feel guilty, but say nothing, hoping it can indeed be fixed with glue. Sometimes, glue works even on glass shards.
We leave the hill and the sepulchre behind, walking under the falling sun as twilight approaches. He seems cheerful despite the small accident.
The way back is pretty much the same way from which we came, except we do not go deeper into the woods again. We stick to the main road, which has its fair share of trees and plants. Halfway through, I ask him to sing.
'Any song, folk songs.' I want to hear the traditions passed down this part of the world before I have to leave to go back to my routine life.
'What do you mean by folk songs?'
'Songs sung by the people, not church or commercial ones.'
He thinks for a second, then he acquiesces to my request. I am surprised he is indulging me, but I keep it to myself and contently listen in awe while we amble under intricate branches shielding us from the dying sun.
It is my first time hearing such songs, and I express this by quietly commenting in amazement until he stops. There is a glint in his eyes, I believe, as he lightly makes fun of me because I don't know his nursery rhymes.
I didn't grow up listening to nursery rhymes, I grew up listening to babies' cries and thunderstorms, I would like to say. 'I am not British,' instead is what I reply. 'I could sing you plenty in my language, but there is no point because you wouldn't understand.'
He sings some more, asking if I recognise any. I shake my head in denial, 'I told you, I don't know any of these because I am not British…I guess it's good practice for when I will have to sit my Citizenship Test.' For a moment my thoughts are directed towards the future, to the hopes I held when I moved to this country, and to the fear of having to return to the burnt field and cursed lands of my crucified hometown.
'How long till then?'
'Two years, it's been four already.'
Sometimes it doesn't feel that short, sometimes it feels like a lifetime since I came to the UK. Other times, instead, it feels just like it was yesterday when the skies were tinged red and the stench of sulphur burnt my lungs. When my grandma's beloved vines became death's tangles.
I glance at my friend and consider myself lucky, to be in the company of such a cool and outstanding person. He resumes singing even now that we are out of the forest, almost back to where we started. His voice climbs up the scales and I stare at him, wishing to etch this memory into my mind. Music is a tool which helps me recollect and forget at the same time.
I wonder if this is what they thought of, the bards of ancient times, when they wrote songs celebrating the gestures of great heroes and their loyal companion horses. If composing marches to accompany the superb animal's pompous trotting as they entered victorious into enemy's territories felt like their greatest achievement. If the memorial standing on this hill, serving as a memento of a past lost to us all, was meant as a message to go back and pick up that past, to reconquer what our ancestor's recklessness took away.
With these thoughts and doubts I turn around, scrying the horizon for an answer. There, in the distance, I believe to see it. Right where the sky has reached night already, a jet-black carriage carried by equally dark horses strides at full speed; a coffin lies horizontal behind the glassy window and, as I stare at it, the toothless charioteer turns to smile at me.
I immediately glance to the side, avoiding eye contact. When I look back the chariot is gone. My friend is unperturbed, serene as we listen to the crickets saluting the last of the daylight. There are no hideous eyes glaring at me from the advancing darkness, not in here, not in South England.
AN: The story takes place in a fictional world where horses and other common animal species have gone extinct due to a massive environmental disaster which culminated two generations before the current time. After said disaster happened, usually characterised by fires ravaging the lands as well as flooding and civil unrest, the plants awakened. Well, they had been attacked by humans and brought close to extinction so they felt the need to retaliate, and not in a good way. Hence, the narrator has been exposed to the viciousness of plants which prey on humans, usually present in the northern region of the hemisphere, whereas the southern region, which is where they are from, is now a burnt wasteland dominated by corrosive substances.