We need not wait for God
The animals do judge
- Madeleine L’Engle
Once upon a time there were two worlds. There was the world of a quiet bedroom, love and sleep. And there was the world of the smoke and the flies on dead eyes, a foreman fucking a prostitute in a dirty bunkhouse.
Once upon a time there were two worlds. There was the world of open sea, fair winds, waves and joyful movement. And there was the world of stillness, thirst, the endless screams of drowning horses.
The two worlds were married. The marriage was not a happy one.
On deck men slump under the sun.
The sun pushes down and crushes, beams unbroken by a breeze. The sails hang limp like the men on the filthy deck, hanging heads and hands listlessly tossing dice, chewing their cracked lips and betting on nothing. No purpose in it. Ships get purpose from movement. Ships get life from purpose.
Now both are gone.
In the beginning there might have been hope, there might have been optimistic prayers offered to the still sky and only a slight tightening of rations. Then voices falling silent, prayers muttered as though they’re shameful things. Everything begins to pull toward the center; the extraneous is sacrificed when it can no longer be supported.
The deck shakes, the men look up, and the horses begin to scream.
Across miles and centuries a woman is screaming in the street.
Her screams are alien things in a humid afternoon. They cause Sebastian to awaken, to swipe at his face with sticky fingers. In Buenaventura’s summer afternoons the air is like an old towel soaked in sweat, smelling of mildew and garbage. Sometimes there’s blood on the concrete, steaming. Has Sebastian been dreaming of blood? Behind his closed eyes everything is red. He presses his naked body against Jaime’s; sweat is glue and they stick. He sinks back into the folds of the afternoon. The unbalanced ceiling fan thumps the rhythm of the slow, lazy fucking that they’re too tired and too hot to do.
Nights are for working. Days are for this. He’s dreaming again, plastered along Jaime’s broad back.
Horses aren’t foolish creatures. They can see their deaths coming. One of them – black and glossy in spite of the weeks of low rations – rears up, and her hoof barely misses the forehead of the man reaching for her bridle. Another man falls to his knees, lifts a copper medal in trembling fingers – beseeching the Saint, God, the Blessed Virgin and the horse all at once.
None of them listen. The mare hurls back her head and screams, her white eyes rolling. The still sea bears them up like a dead hand. The men would say this is the worst part, but for the fact that none of them have ever been here before, and none of them have ever spoken to anyone who was. Some ships return from the state of Becalmed but to speak of such things is to invite them in.
Many of the men have already turned away. Water must be saved and for this other things must be sacrificed. But it’s easier to do such things when one does not have to watch them done.
In the receding tide of his sleep, Sebastian dreams the sun beating down on the coca plants, the smell of the burning forest mixing with the smell of damp soil, stinging his eyes and nose and making both run.
They did not always burn the trees – Sebastian is fairly sure of this. But his dreams are myopic, tightly focused on this one detail. He would like to dream of other things – of the foreman’s boy who had been his first fumbling, salty kiss, of bathing in well-water that tasted of hard minerals and cold. He wakes up into the evening, Jaime stirring beside him. The coca fields were long-ago-and-far-away, south in the mountains, and now he lives by the sea. The burning wood, the smoke – these things are like bright threads that run across time’s thick and fibrous cord, but Buenaventura is not the plantation.
He has to go to work. There are kilos to move. He turns, pushes Jaime gently aside, and rises, Jaime’s sleep-heavy fingers trailing over his lower back as he gets to his feet. As he looks for a semi-clean shirt in the rumpled piles of their clothing, he thinks about the smoke, the coca, and he wonders about many things.
On the street, Jaime moves like a dancer. He turns elegantly in Sebastian’s path and presses a tamale into Sebastian’s hand – fiercely spiced, but Sebastian barely tastes it. His mind is on his work, picking at it like a troublesome knot. People surge around him in waves of colored cloth, faces precariously lit in the flicker of neon. They pass tin-roofed shops, goods displayed through sheets of plastic: tiny LED-flickering cell phones, racks of bootleg blu-ray with compressed jpeg covers, knock-off clothes with distressed hems, mounds of food. The street mercado – now all the streets are mercados, and this market touches all markets.
Even his market. And this is a problem. Because the rich norteamericanos are still buying perica – la cocaina, but there are fewer of the rich norteamericanos these days. Meth is domestically produced and cheap, and there’s something from Russia called cocodrilo. It rots the flesh off your bones, but it’s cheaper than perica or even the jagged white nuggets of basuco, so they say that it makes you feel disgusting but you shoot your veins full of it anyway. Addicts. Such is the way of things. But tonight one deal has already fallen through, and things are hard for a middle man caught in the middle. No one is willing to organize a push north and across the border for all that cash in slippery norteamericano fingers.
Women stand in doorways, hips swaying. They are beautiful in the way that shadows and neon make everyone beautiful. Sebastian pulls Jaime against him with fingers greasy from the tamale, frames his face with his hands and kisses him until Jaime laughs against his mouth. The women laugh too, cat-call. No one else notices them.
In his dream, Sebastian is small and running up to the bunkhouse with a toad in his hand, its eyes huge and gold and lovely. He runs with it held out in his hands like he means to make a gift of it, but when he bursts through the door of the women’s dormitory, his mother is bent over her bed with her skirt hiked up and the foreman jerking his hips against her. The foreman is breathing in panting snorts like one of the old horses ridden hard. Sebastian can’t see his mother’s face.
He must have seen it before. But this is the first memory of it. The first fire, the first spill of blood in the dirt, the first crash of the charred fragments of a tree down through still-living branches while the horses rear and scream.
Sebastian drops the toad onto the floor.
When he has the foreman’s boy up against the cinderblock, tongue slipping into his smoky mouth and hands making their crawling spider-way up under his shirt, it’s years later, and he won’t think that one thing has anything at all to do with the other. But in his dream they come one after the other, and there are things that are hard to miss, even when one tries.
There was no school on the plantation, but Sebastian paid close attention to everything. He learned about use. He learned about using.
“I’m sorry, my friend. It cannot be done.”
Sebastian wants to throw the glass in his hand, watch the tequila run down the wall. He feels Jaime’s arm on his elbow, restraining.
“Paolo, I have three sellers breathing down my neck, looking to move product. There’s no one who can take this stuff north?”
Paolo is an Italian ex-pat, mountainous and solid, and in the cantina’s dimness he looks even more so. His dark brows lower – he may be attempting apology but the effect is unsettling, as if he might drop his head and charge. “I can’t move what I can’t sell, and I can’t sell what no one will buy. It’s difficult everywhere. You know this.”
“In difficult times we should help one another.” Jaime’s fingers roll his cigarette between them. “Favors for favors. We’ve always done it that way.”
“Times change. The world is smaller now.” Paolo shrugs, lifts a hand to summon the man behind the bar. “I can buy you a drink. More… not today. Try me again next week.”
“Next week,” Jaime murmurs when Paolo is gone. “Do we have until next week? We have to eat.”
Sebastian is quiet, staring at the shifting lights. He is not worried about whether or not they will eat next week. Breathing seems like a more pressing issue.
No one ever explained it to Sebastian, but at ten years of age he could draw his own conclusions. A deal gone bad. The guerillas offended somehow. Or another drug lord, perhaps a rival, sending a message.
He heard the voices first, low and tense. Then he heard the buzz of flies, and then he smelled it. He was small; he could wriggle between the legs of the adults circled in the burned clearing and see.
A row of horses’ heads on stakes, their decapitated bodies in a heap behind. The horses’ eyes were open and staring at him, reproachful. Flies were landing on their glazed surfaces, crawling, taking off again in little clouds. Like smoke, he thought at the time. Like living smoke that ate where it descended.
His first big dead things. He had never seen a dead man.
The first horse is at the edge of the deck now, faltering. She hasn’t had a full ration of water in days. She hangs her head, panting as the sun presses a heavy hand down on her back. The air cracks. The men huddled against the rail think of lightning. Crossing themselves and crucifix-kissing, they watch as the first mate, a giant of a man with arms like tree branches, cracks the whip against the horse’s flank.
The horse rears. A horrible shriek rises from her great throat. And she leaps out over the water in a graceful arc. Silence descends as she goes, her final scream echoing in the air, falling as she falls.
Here is another thing that Sebastian learned on the plantation: decisions are not made all at once. It’s a process. So that last night, his legs dangling off the back of the truck as it bumped down the unpaved road, the lights of the gate receding in the distance, he did not wonder at his own choice. It had taken him a long time to make it. And it had been made for a long time.
Years later, a mule told him that everyone was murdered and it burned to the ground and the forest swallowed up the ashes and bones. He never bothered to verify the story. Perhaps it was better to leave all possibilities open. Perhaps Sebastian has never been very good at looking back.
“Word is that you’re leaving town.”
Sebastian whirls. He knows the man, though he’s momentarily lost for the name – Argentinean, a small-time dealer who keeps his ear close to the ground. All details more important than a name in a tight place. But this place is not tight. They’re standing in a wide square, the street mercado already beginning to unfurl itself like flowers at dusk. If there is safety, it might be here.
“Perhaps. Why do you care?”
He doesn’t need to ask. The street trades in information, an invisible market as real and as powerful as any global high finance.
“Another word… some people are less than thrilled with this. People to whom you owe money.”
Sebastian feels his stomach sink down into the cracked pavement. There are always debts. But some of them are old, and where will he get money to pay them if narcotrafico is no longer profitable?
His lips twist. “Thank you for your concern.”
The man slides closer. Sebastian moves instinctively backward. “Go quickly, if you want to go. Someone will come for you soon, you and that pretty boy of yours. If you go sooner… And I can forget I saw you at all.”
Sebastian turns and pushes his way through the crowd. He should have seen this coming. The man’s proposal of amnesia is probably a lie, but there’s nothing to be done about that. If information is one trade, favors are another. One must diversify.
Things happen out on the still water that seem, later, like memories of a dream. There’s a series of cracks, the sound of splintering wood, and a herd of horses breaks loose from their stalls and rushes across the deck. The first mate stands and watches mutely. There is the thunder of those hooves, and in the final moments of their lives – whether those moments come in a few days or decades – everyone there will hear that thunder again.
The air, like the sea, is still and hot, and now it is reeking with the smell of dung and rotting hay and death. Men clutch their talismans, their rosaries and their crucifixes, but they do so with less conviction, as though these last resorts of hope have lost their potency and cannot now be trusted. The horses are drowning.
They are not doing it quietly.
Dios te salve, María. Whispered on a breath of air, halted in place and looping in a refrain. Dios te salve.
They go at dawn.
It will be hot traveling on the bus with its utter lack of air conditioning and then on the train north to the coast. But in the heat Sebastian figures they’re less likely to be followed. Jaime is casting glances like dice as he packs clothes into a duffel bag and hunts through the chaos of their apartment for their last usable credit cards.
Do you trust me?
Forever and always.
The bus terminal is less than a mile away. They are walking hand in hand like children in a fairytale, leaving no scatter of breadcrumbs to mark their passage. If they are lucky, they’ll simply vanish into the woods of the world and be gone.
They are less than twenty yards from the bus terminal when the earth begins to shake.
At first Sebastian wonders if it might be only a hallucination born of his own fear. But Jaime grips his hand more tightly, looks around with eyes gone wide. In the buildings around them, hybrids of adobe and corrugated tin and aluminum, he feels a wave of shifting bodies and indrawn breath, people rising out of sleep in confusion. Buenaventura stirring in a dream.
The ground jerks.
Jaime stumbles; their hands slip apart. Sebastian sees things in a succession of still images, lit in the gold shimmer of the early morning. Jaime in midair as though he’s dancing, only the terror on his lovely face an indication otherwise. A flowerpot frozen at the moment of shattering against the pavement, the withered twig of the pot’s occupant suspended in a cloud of ruin. A shower of broken glass, a hundred thousand tiny mirrors. Then sun.
There is a woman screaming in the street. Her voice is many voices, an uneven and fractured chorus, and Sebastian realizes, still trying to claw his way up from the darkness in his head, that it’s many women. Many screams. His eyelids come painfully unstuck; he turns onto his back, lifts a hand to his face, and his fingers come away smeared with blood.
He drags his knees under him, levers himself off the broken ground. He looks up and sees the pale globe of the sun, high through billowing plumes of smoke.
Sebastian lurches forward. One arm swings loose at his side. Flames are licking the darkness. The running shapes twist into cavorting demons. The smoke stings his eyes; that must be why tears are running down his cheeks.
His hands settle on a figure hunched in the rubble. He knows the angle of these shoulder blades – they heave under his hands and Jaime turns, reaching for him, crying out something that extends itself past words.
Buenaventura is burning.
Buenaventura. Good fortune. A city named in a flush of hysterical hope. The naming of things is a very important matter. Adam named the animals before he slaughtered them.
In times of crisis the most fundamental instinct is to move. Movement is life, is purpose. Stillness and death are co-morbid. Sebastian and Jaime move without knowing why, without knowing where – leaning against each other, they stumble away from the collapsed bus terminal. Driven by instinct, they are heading away from the sea, winding up through the broken streets. Until they notice more shapes moving around them, letting out frightened cries. When they hear it, it comes to them like the terrified murmur of the city itself – not one voice but thousands, carried up on heated winds.
Then they find their purpose and it carries them higher.
On the day the earth shakes, the horses come out of the sea.
They come with the sea. They come of the sea. At first people think that it is the sea, surging up over walls and beaches, cars and shacks, tin and adobe and concrete – buoying up the rubble, carrying it like a gift. Some of the older ones have seen this before.
But no. They have never seen this.
The horses are running when they come, hooves softened by centuries in the salty water. They shake their dripping manes, seaweed clinging. Their flesh is gray, uneven, bloated in some places and gone in others; there is a gleam of exposed bone in the light of the fires. Their eyes are milky and staring and dead.
People are driven before them, clinging together, hands in hands, babies held against chests, professions of love, of hate, the final instincts of lethal fear. In the seconds before the hooves pull them down and crush them they try to understand.
At the crest of a hill Sebastian stops again, Jaime stops with him and they turn.
It’s a mourning process done at high speed and in the midst of utter confusion, because how can any sense be made of this? But there is sense. Sebastian feels it like the hidden shape in a picture puzzle as he watches the water surging into the city.
All at once Jaime is dragged away from him. There is the flash of a blade. Sebastian stares stupidly at it, at the wild-eyed man holding the machete to Jaime’s throat. Jaime is staring back at him, hands limp at his sides – his surprise and the resulting lack of a struggle may be what, for the moment, has saved him.
“Heard you were running.” The man presses the blade into Jaime’s throat and there’s a corresponding trickle of blood. Jaime does not cry out and Sebastian feels a strange flush of pride. “You can’t just run. Not with that kind of plata tangled up with your ankles.”
Sebastian holds out his hands. His gaze flicks from Jaime’s face, abnormally pale in the red light, to the shattered road that continues up the hill. He hears thunder behind him. “Please…”
“Yes, say please. Plead with me. Make it so much sweeter when I cut this little cacorro’s head off.”
His eyes meet Jaime’s again; there is nothing he can say because fear makes men crazy. And in the last minutes of both of their lives, with all their good fortune burning and drowning below them, he is not going to abase himself. He feels every muscle coiled, ready to spring.
He never does. A rearing horse, white-eyed, rotten hooves crashing into the side of the man’s head in a spray of blood and pinkish brain matter. The man doesn’t have time to scream. Jaime, as he drops to the ground, does not scream either.
But the horse does. And then there are more, surging around them, thundering, reeking. Sebastian has fallen to one knee. Jaime is motionless. The horse stands over him, nostrils flaring. Its eyes are white, but not without expression. Lost rage. Hatred. Sebastian has seen it before. At that flash of familiarity all the fear vanishes and he understands: it’s about using. It’s about being used. And cast aside when one is used up.
He reaches up in supplication, his head bowed. He is thinking of the flies on the eyes of the dead horses, how he had wished then that someone had closed their eyes while they were sticking their heads on the stakes, because it had seemed like such a final insult.
“Lo siento,” he whispers. “Perdoname. Por favor. Forgive us all.”
The horse stares at him for a long moment. White-eyed gaze, drowned in hate. More horses around them, more white eyes. Ring upon ring of them, staring, surging. Going still. Sebastian drops his arms.
And then, one by one, the horses go.
It doesn’t feel like forgiveness. It feels like blood for blood.
Buenaventura lies burned and drowned, and the parts of it that have not perished in water continue to do so in fire. There is still screaming but it sounds weary and thin. The last of the dead down in the city, a chorus of silent eyes arrayed in the hills. What now?
There has never been an answer.
Sebastian pulls Jaime into his arms. One shallow breath. Another. Sebastian tilts his head back and looks up. The sun is gone. There is a tear in the clouds. Through it – for only a moment, for the first time in many years – he can see the stars.
Sunny Moraine is a humanoid creature of average height, luminosity and inertial mass. They’re also a doctoral student in Sociology and a writer-like object who has published fiction in a variety of places, including Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld and Shimmer. They spend most of their days using fiction to distract from academics, except for the occasions on which the two collide. Their first novel Line and Orbit is available from Samhain Publishing. They say:
This piece actually began with the title and what it evoked: The screams of the becalmed ship’s horses as they were thrown overboard (which appears to be apocryphal, but isn’t it an amazing image?). From there I started thinking about nature itself, how the relationship between humans and the natural world so often comes down to the use of one by the other, to the point of devastation, and also how humans use each other in the same way. And what might it be like if the ghosts of nature struck back?
Illustration by Walter Crane is Neptuns Pferde (1893) and is in the public domain.