Tuesday 7 June 2022

The Stone Horse - Short Story by Louise Cole

 


The Stone Horse

Short Story by Louise Cole

Idessa was the youngest of nine children. The only girl. A luminous pearl whose quality outshone the garish gemstones that were her brothers. Her mother doted on her. On warm spring days, the pair would spend hours in the gardens surrounding their estate picking flowers, interlacing the delicate blooms into multi-hued crowns to decorate their brows. The gardens pulsed with life and were where Idessa felt most alive. The seasons reeled and she transitioned from child to woman. But as Idessa flourished, her mother languished. Each morning she brought flowers from the garden to her mother’s bedside. They would weave the blossoms into crowns, as they once had done, until death stilled her mother’s fingers.    

Idessa had been a boon to her mother. Now she was an asset to her father. She was beautiful, talented, and good-natured. In a word, marriageable. She came from a noble family with wealth and properties but only a minor title. She was their chance at social advancement. After her mother’s death, her father promptly betrothed her to an impoverished duke and the two were married within a fortnight. The duke, however, had no interest in married life. Directly after the ceremony, he departed to lead an army in a faraway war. He was hailed a hero but never returned. The estate she inherited from him consisted of a manor house surrounded by lush, well-tended gardens, replete with exotic specimens he had brought back from his travels. The manor house remained his, every corner containing vestiges of its former occupant, but the gardens became her refuge.

 On her fortieth birthday, she had come to her orange grove to smell the fragrant blossoms and enjoy the cooling air of evening. She gazed out at the setting sun and was reminded of her mother. It struck her that she was again standing witness to death, at the foot of a celestial deathbed. This day had experienced a life cycle not unlike that of humans. It had breached in its sunrise, thrived in its noon and was now feeble in its twilight. She watched with a mixture of heartache and horror as the sun slid lower on the horizon and the day languidly descended into its grave.  

She picked up a rough, grey stone from the ground and examined it in the fading light. The stone was slightly larger than her palm and ended in sharp edges on two of its sides with a large groove down its center. She ran her index finger along the groove, imagining the centuries that had sculpted it. Wordlessly, she lifted the stone to the sky and placed it at the westernmost edge of the garden—a tombstone for the day that had passed out of existence on the fortieth anniversary of her birth.    

Within a decade, she had used all the stones on her estate in these nightly memorials and had ordered stones be brought in from the surrounding countryside. Within two decades of stacking stones night after night, she had constructed a wall that enveloped the gardens on all sides. It was now her sixtieth birthday, and on this evening, she had chosen a polished rose quartz. The sunset withered into pastel pinks and violets that bled together on the polished surface. As the darkness choked out the final rays of light, she placed the quartz stone upon the wall.

That’s when she heard it: A high-pitched sound she didn’t recognize, followed by the shifting of earth. It was similar to a horse’s whinny yet somehow different, as though the horse were deep within a cavern where the ancient walls resonated in a faint echo. She turned and there, next to the orange grove, she saw the statue of a horse. An unfamiliar statue.

             Trembling with curiosity and fear, she took a tentative step toward it. Then another. She wasn’t sure how long the journey took but somehow her feet carried her to where the statue stood.  The horse was not especially large, about twelve hands heigh, more like a pony than a horse. Its features were distinguishable in the moonlight. The pupilless eyes were a gentle, sloping almond-shape set forward and low on the head. The body was slim with occasional ripples in the stone hinting at muscles beneath the surface. The legs were graceful and slender, terminating in hooves the shape of teardrops. She cautiously placed one hand on the horse’s back and felt the cool, smooth stone. Withdrawing her hand, she took a step backward, admiring the craftsmanship and pondering how she had never noticed the statute before.

 “Do not be afraid.” Its voice jutted into the silence like a mountain rising from a desolate plain. Idessa’s mind, which had been filled with questions like a cloud of gnats only seconds earlier, fell mute. The horse continued, “My kind is called the Wiċġstan. We live as and among stone. Though we avoid the mortal races, we have heard of your practice of honouring the passing of each day and observed you to see if it were true. Though we are not mortal, we too worship the goddess Time. She is the great shaper of the natural world and moulds us as she wills.”

            As the statue spoke, Idessa’s mind began to cautiously whisper thoughts again, afraid reality might fracture and buckle under their weight like thin ice. “Time has many tools at her disposal,” the horse continued, staring at her with its blank eyes, “One of them is her sand. She did not craft it. It was made by those who crafted the world and placed it in her care. Time then formed both the mortal and immortal races, some to walk the earth for a season and others to endure until the world’s end. The sand is the number of days granted to this world. Each day a grain of sand disappears when the day has sighed its last. You have perceived this, though a mortal.”    

            The fear that had held a tight grip over her mind suddenly let go. She remembered that day, years ago, when she had realized the sunset was not merely a beautiful sight but a cosmic parting. Each day since then, she had stood by the diurnal deathbed as a comforter and mourner, as she had stood by the deathbed of her mother. She couldn’t explain how she knew each day was perishing, she just did and felt it deeply. But until this moment, she had always understood these losses as individual losses, like the death of a single ant within a teeming colony. It was lamentable but did not affect the continuation of life itself. Her grief now, however, was all the greater for knowing that each stone she had placed was counting down to the end of all life.   

            “I have come to reward you. Few mortals see beyond the physical realm as you have done and discern the deeper truths, so on behalf of my kind I wish to give you this.” The horse bent its neck to the ground and retrieved a small satchel with its teeth and then extended it to her. Idessa carefully took the satchel and ran her fingers along the outside of it. It smelled of warm, damp earth and had a soft, fine text that gave way under the pressure of her fingers. “You will find one grain of sand within. Each grain is unique as is the day it corresponds to. This grain of sand corresponds to tomorrow, to the last day of your life.” Idessa’s mind had been clouded first by fear and then sorrow, but now shock reawakened her, breaking her silence, “Tomorrow?” “It is as Time has willed,” the horse stated in a measured tone, “But if you remove the grain of sand from this satchel, it will not disappear, and sunset will not come until the sand is returned. In this way, Time will allow you to lengthen your final day.”

            Up until this moment, her eyes had been fixed on the unblinking eyes of the stone horse but now they darted to the satchel in her hands. Her heart trembled at the realization that she held such power. When she looked up again, the horse was gone, and she was standing in the garden alone in the moonlight.

The next morning, Idessa removed the grain of sand and examined it in the palm of her hand. It sparkled with a beige and rosy hue in the sunlight. A seemingly insignificant speck. She tilted her palm vertically and let it fall to the floor. Then she picked up the little satchel. She could see, in the daylight, that it was made of a silvery moss. She walked to the brook bordering the southern edge of the estate and tossed the satchel into its waters. Upon returning, she was delighted to find that the maid had swept her room and discarded the dust in the roadway. Her co-conspirator, the sun, beamed brightly through the window.

  


 

Louise Cole holds an MFA in Creative Writing in Literary Translation and a PhD in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from University of Arkansas. She lives in Springdale, AR. When she’s not writing fiction, she loves translating fiction and poetry from both Spanish and Latin with a cat in her lap and a cup of Irish breakfast tea nearby.                            

                               

 

 

 

 

 

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