Huddled in the dark, the three children shook at the sight of the black horse. It’s head, bashed in from madness, left a bloody smear along the splintered barn wall. It’s body was too still on the dusty floor. For Walter, the blond-haired boy of four, it was just a rigid, mountainous shadow. It frightened him to watch the beast, the devil and his illness finally take hold of the animal. The silence that followed that was unbearable, unclear. Walter felt that something was very wrong but his innocence would not allow him to understand the stillness of the mare. As his unease grew, consuming his little heart, he buried his head into his older sister’s arms for relief.
Janine was thirteen and understood just fine what happened to the horse. She comforted her little brother as best she could. She kissed his head and reassured him, regardless of her own terror. What else could she do to console him? He trembled, caused by an intensity unique to childhood.
The horse was an ancient thing, her mother’s pet that was once fed carrots and sugarcubes. She would giggle as the animal’s lips tickled her palm. Madness overtook it months prior and was now kept locked away like a shameful secret in the tumbledown barn. Its distant, tortured screams turned into nightmares for her and a burden for their father, who was too torn to put it down. It had been his wife’s horse.
George, a scrawny eighteen year old, stood up and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Having lost his boyish whimsy to the harsh labour on the farm and the incessant bullying of their brooding, incomprehensible father, George squashed any remorse for the animal and saw it only as a problem to be solved. He brushed hay from his overalls and snatched up the shotgun laying beside them because he was now a man with a man’s duty.
Janine looked up, “George! Don’t!”
He thought her truly disgusting for protecting Walter and abandoning him, something his mother had been akin to doing whenever his father fell into a rage. As the oldest child George was always the one to take it and take it as he should. To him Janine was just a princess failing to be a mother, laying on a dirty barn floor with hay stuck to her frock, unable to do what was needed.
“George, not in front of Walter,” his sister pleaded, clutching his arm.
“Don’t go George,” Walter sobbed.
Walter’s plea ripped open his chest. The distant memory of Walter’s infectious giggle drifted into the barn as George recalled hoisting him above his head, flying him around like an aeroplane, something his father had done to him long ago. With the memory came fear. He snapped back quickly. Fear was a useless pilot.
“Don’t go Geooorrge,” George mocked. “Somebody has to check it.” He leered down at Walter.
Lit dimly by the creaky sway of the hanging lantern, George ripped his arm from his sister’s grasp, clutched the shotgun and carefully stepped towards the shadowy beast. With his back to his siblings, each step enlarged the horse. From across the barn it seemed manageable, but now it was just a monstrous outline, its mane tangled and flea ridden. His grip on the gun tightened. He felt small. He felt like Walter.
What if it woke up? It was much, much, bigger than George. Bigger and with a broken mind. There was nothing a rational boy could do against the insane, no matter his plans, no matter his schemes. An arms length away from the back of the animal George took a deep breath, his eyes fixated on the gruesome sight. A halo of black blood was forming underneath the head. Specks from the hay and dirt drifted calmly into streams of the moonlight that seeped through slats in the wooden wall.
Walter’s whimpers grew louder. George’s chest tightened. Janine’s eyes widened. George shooed his instinct to back away, to get the hell out, and outstretched the gun to meet the horse’s ribs. The tip of the barrel made contact. Nothing. George let out a sigh. Feeling more confident, he crouched down low, cradling the gun. With a shaky hand he felt the horse’s mane, it’s forehead, its muzzle.
The horse’s head whipped around!
It hit George with alarming force and he tumbled backwards. The gun clanged onto the barnfloor. A shot rang out so loud, rattling George’s brain. In the commotion he watched in horror as the horse bucked, thrashing aimlessly about, destroying anything and everything in its uncontrollable frenzy. Hooves came crashing down upon George. He rolled out of the way before his face became hamburger meat. The lantern smashed, glass and darkness exploded. After eons of violence the horse crashed through the barn wall, bucking off into the night.
Through his faltering breath George stayed a moment on the ground, frozen. He stared in shock at the hole in the side of the barn, leading to the field lit by the full moon and that cursed, flailing demon. He looked around him. He was fine. How could he let this happen? He could not let the horse win. He was a man. He had to finish this.
Despite his shaking, he rose and scowled, disgusted with himself, “It wasn’t dead yet. I’ll go get it.”
He scrambled up more determined than ever. He loaded his gun and marched into the field. In his determination, his focus, his manliness, his blindness, he did not look behind him at his siblings. He did not notice that Walter was no longer sobbing and Janine was no longer comforting as they lay crumpled, limp and lifeless, riddled with shotgun shrapnel.