Fiction by Rhiannon Curley
Today is the day. My bones quiver with the nervous energy that’s been building all night. Even the flies buzzing about are not enough to distract me from my purpose this morning. For three long years, I’ve trained and sweated and pushed my muscles to the breaking point to make it into these stables. I’ve been presented with banners, decorated in blankets of roses and carnations and all manner of flora. The south wall in the barn at home is decked out in the rainbow colors of my rosettes. I’ve seen the winner’s circle more times than I can count. But the memories of previous victories do nothing to sate my nervous energy and fierce hunger for another round trip.
I gaze out at Churchill Downs and blow a short sigh out my nose. The sun has barely peeked its cap over the vast horizon, so the crisp morning air still has a bite to it, but none of us feel it. Our blood runs hot; each of us rears to break free from these wooden walls and run.
But we don’t get the chance.
Just then, the barn doors open, and the little men filter in, dragging their feet with sleep not yet shaken off. I spot Heinrick right away. He is always the first one in the barn, his abnormally large blue eyes like little pools of water that absorb everything. He stops in front of my door and tickles my nose before disappearing into the feed room. Soon the rattling of many cans makes its way to our ears, and we are all at full attention. I will not get a full ration today; we never do on Go Day.
I devour what little feed I am allowed to have and stand stock-still as Heinrick slips a soft rope up over my ears and leads me out of the stall. Down the aisle, the other little men are bringing out their own charges. Our already gleaming coats will be shined to blinding, hooves painted, and ears oiled. No spot will be left uncleaned.
And though the grooming is relaxing, it cannot calm my wild heart. The pounding is deafening, filling my delicate ears like the roars from the stands. It’s all I can do to stand for the small boy, limbs shaking as I wait for him to finish his routine.
Mama always said I was bad at waiting. “Patience, young one,” she’d say.
“I’m a racehorse. Patience hurts,” I would say.
She’d shake her mighty head and snort into my little nostrils—and say nothing.
We both knew that a hesitation costs. It hurts. I learned that the first time they put me through the start gate. I never held back again. And I won.
Heinrick replaces the softness of the rope halter with the cold steel I know so well. I clamp my teeth over the bit and roll it back and forth over my tongue a few times. I am ready.
They lead us out to the start gate half an hour later, prancing and kicking and fighting to run. The crowd is pure chaos—noise and movement and energy.
I love it.
I can’t help but give an extra coltish kick just before my head moves into the gate. The warmth of the crowd dissipates, replaced by cold metal pressing in from all sides. Suffocating. Death trap. My heart pounds. My muscles protest. Forward. Backward. A hard slam against the side.
And then it comes, the sharp slap on my rump that reminds me I have a passenger. One who can deliver pain. I cannot stop trembling, but I plant my feet. My breath comes heavily. Slowly, the roars and cheers fill my flattened ears once more. The announcer’s voice echoes over the enormous track. My eyes fill with the rider atop me and the track ahead. Gate 11. Right in the middle. I’ve had worse spots.
The gates slam open and all thoughts leave. My legs take over, pounding into the dust and yet remaining so light, it would seem impossible to any creatures that have not run a track themselves. My jockey pushes me to the right. A move that keeps me farther from the inside, but where I can still push ahead and take over halfway through. The pack hugs the rail to my left, but I focus my attention on the track. The dust and the dirt. I have run these rails a hundred times. My heart knows what to do.
We take it easy around the first bend and hang on to the pack. But then my rider digs his heels in. Faster. My legs immediately respond to the cue without a thought. But then the rest of me catches up. It’s too early. This isn’t endurance—it’s speed. And he’s pushing me too hard, too fast. I slow, resuming my previous pace, but it costs us. My legs are strained from the switch, and we’re too far to the outside. The next turn comes, and I prepare myself. As soon as we come out of it, I take off like a shot. My legs gather the ground and release it dozens of times per second. Blurs of color blaze by on my left as we pass them all, one by one by one.
My green and white blanket flaps in the wind I create. A weight falls against my leg and is gone again. And then, my jockey is pulling me up. The noise returns. I look back at the finish line thirty feet behind me and at the empty racetrack stretched out in front. All I hear is my mother’s soft nicker, the feel of her nose nuzzled into my neck as she tucks me in after a day racing in the pasture.
I’m so lost, I almost don’t feel the warmth of blood run down my leg through the hammering of my heart. But I do. My jockey is on the ground, ripping the sleeve off of his jersey. The white fabric turns crimson as soon as he presses it to the hoofprint shape marring my hind leg. A man in a white robe sprints onto the track with a box swinging wildly. Swinging too much. I leap and canter several yards away, each step driving pain deeper into my leg.
“Easy, boy.” An outstretched hand whose scent I don’t recognize shoves itself in my face. I shy away. There are too many people.
Suddenly the noise that had pumped the blood through my veins earlier, now freezes it where it flows. The track looms like a monster. And I am the prey. I leap backwards, colliding, plowing through the mass of horses and riders. The leather bridle stings my face, but I don’t care. I can see Heinrick’s shining eyes waiting for me back in my stall. I can taste the oats and molasses, sweet on my tongue. Warmth and sweetness. Not this hard metal bit.
I thunder into the stables and all the way down the aisle into my own stall. But the door does not close. Heinrick is not there. The stables are empty. My sides heave with heavy breath, my leg throbs with pain. My mouth is dry and pasty. The water bucket in the corner is empty. I turn in the stall, hating the emptiness but afraid to leave.
The stable doors slam shut, and the air turns stale. I can’t breathe. The man in the white robe appears in the stall frame. This time, he holds something long and thin in his hand. His eyes are kind, but I do not approach. He does not have feed—he is not my friend. I am ready to knock him over to get out when little Heinrick walks in as well. His big eyes are wet and drippy.
Why are you sad, Heinrick? I drop my head and nose his chest. He does not answer. Just pats my nose and shushes me. Then everything becomes very hazy, and I can’t tell up from down or who is who. There is a distant movement around my rear end, but I cannot feel anything, and every muscle in my body seems to be frozen in place. All I want is to sleep.
Then, gradually, I can see again. And hear and smell and feel. My leg has a large white patch on it that smells of medicine. It’s too big, too sour. I reach to pull at it, but a small hand pulls on my halter. When did he put my rope halter back on? My ears twitch as they register the other horses in their stalls around me. Murmuring or snorting with displeasure. But if they are here and not out there, then—
“Come, boy. Come receive your roses.” Heinrick leads me from the stables with a gentle hand. They drape a heavy carpet of red over me and walk me into the circle. The winner’s circle. All the sights and sounds are the same as every other time; loud and crazy with “Congratulations!” and “Marvelous horse!”, but something feels different. Something is not right. I do not know if it is the heavy blanket on my back or the seemingly dull trophies or the tense way that the tall man who owns me talks, but the wrong seeps into my bones.
I pose for the flashing lights and endless talking, but soon my legs grow tired and someone hands me back to Heinrick. As we return to the stables, my head drooping with oncoming sleep, I suddenly realize what is wrong. My racing heart is not racing. There is no ferocious rushing of blood in my veins. I cannot taste the sweetness of victory. There is only weariness and the very real pain vibrating down my leg with each step.
And that’s when I know.
There will be no more victories for me. My racing blood is spent. My racing heart, at peace.
Rhiannon Curley is a seventeen-year old theater geek who masquerades as a student by day and writes by night. She writes across genres, but her favorite types of writing have been short stories and flash fiction. As a crazy teen with many passions, Rhiannon is also an avid member of both 4-H and FFA in her community and actively obsesses over pretty sheep pictures in her spare time. Rhiannon lives in Redmond, Oregon, in a large family that sings a lot.