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Old War Horse

Kaye Linden

The sign says, “Old War Horse.”  Even his mouth reveals a torn past with black teeth stains, their edges worn like whittled, splintered toothpicks, pale gums receding and two front teeth missing.  I reach out to touch his ear, the one hanging down, not the perky ear, and he snorts an alarming snort, shakes his head with movement wild and circular, twitches his good ear, saliva spraying from his mouth, dribble trickling from his nose. Flies buzz around the half closed brown eyes, foggy with cataracts. He flicks his tail but the flies lift off and zoom back in. With a guttural grunt the old horse backs up two steps, lowers his mighty head and nudges my hand. His mane lies askew, mangled with tiny thorns.  I want to grab the hair, twist my hand around one clump as if about to pull a weed, extract the thorns one at a time, wash the dry and brittle strands (spikey like winter grass,) sud them up and down with baby shampoo, massage in silky conditioner, and watch the old mane gleam glorious again in sunlight.  Perhaps an orchid or two might soften the massive head, one at the ear, another clipped to the forehead with a lady’s sparkling dragonfly hairpin.  I run my hands across the piebald skin and feel the raised brutal edge of a tortuous scar, maybe ten inches long, pink and still raw-looking but healed many years ago.  I imagine a swordsman on another horse, a warrior horse, cantering downhill, across a bloody battle field of slain comrades, slicing at this great horse and rider with one, maybe two, focused strikes—the fallen rider rolling down and away, down and away, old war horse panting in pain.  And I wonder where the war horse fought his battles?

Old war horse—feet yellowed and sinuous, split and broken, unshoed.  Perhaps your feet expected a softer life of walking in moist soil, carrying light ladies sitting sideways to a neighbor’s high tea.  You won the prize of country life, out to pasture now, gratefully not destined for glue, but green fields and sweet carrots from small children’s smooth hands and mothers who tell their children to “offer a cube of sugar to the old horse who used to ride into battle,” and whose story now has an end but its beginning has faded into mist.