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Authors: Michael Cadnum

The Horses of the Night

BOOK: The Horses of the Night
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The Horses of the Night

A Novel

Michael Cadnum

In memory of Jose Martinez, Jr.,

1983–1991

If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein

Part One

1

There was the cry again, nearly beyond hearing, somewhere outside.

Sometimes I am afraid that what I am hearing is not real, that it is something from my memory, something I have all but forgotten.

Nona put a finger to her lips, smiled, cocked her head. She was ready to leave for the airport, and had stopped by simply to leave me some of the pictures her patients had drawn. The carry-on bag was under her arm.

But she waited, listening. She looked at me, questioningly. “What is that?”

I experienced a feeling like relief. “You mean, you hear it, too?” I said.

She laughed, but then was quiet. “Something's trapped.”

We both listened. Our eyes met. There had been a sound for hours, a plaintive, commanding announcement of trouble, a noise that came from somewhere high above, somewhere in the wind. “I wasn't sure it was real,” I said.

“An animal's in trouble.”

I had been afraid to listen to it. Some part of me must have identified this frightened melody as the call of an animal, but my experience with my family—and my own fears regarding the possibilities of the mind's deceit—made me struggle to ignore the sound.

She was already late for her flight to New Orleans, yet another medical conference. She hurried through the house, and I followed her. The afternoon sun was bright, the wet grass lush, the scent of earth everywhere.

She was far ahead of me. She tossed aside her overnight bag, and ran to the source of the sound, the giant ginkgo tree in the back garden.

She kicked off her shoes. She gazed upward, into the tree. And I knew what she was going to do. I knew it, the way I knew her laugh, her voice on the phone, her handwriting on a postcard. I took a breath to cry out, to stop her.

The tree had been planted before the house was built, and the house predated the 1906 earthquake that had devastated so much of San Francisco. My grandfather and my father had both lived here, and the garden was what one horticulturist had called “handsomely mature.”

The large old tree was beside the greenhouse, and I had been forestalling too long what would have to be done. The big tree was marred by caverns where broad branches had fallen in recent winters, and although the early spring greenery flushed the tree with new life, much of it was bare and would never show leaf again. I knew enough about growing things to understand that what was slowly wearing down the magnificent tree was not disease, not insects, or drought. The tree was dying, and I did not have the heart to cut it down.

Don't do that, I called to her, silently.

Don't think of it.

Nona was climbing the grand, age-weakened tree, and it was not an easy climb. At one point she had to pause and disentangle herself from her jacket. She let the jacket drop, a scrap that resembled the outstretched arms of a woman until it collapsed on the lawn.

The cat was white, far up in the branches of the old tree, and it was frightened. It called down to Nona, the source of its rescue. It knew that Nona was working her way up to help, but the cat was frightened of Nona, too, frightened of everything and yet insistent—it demanded help.

It will be all right, I reassured myself. Nona is that sort of person. I had seen her resuscitate a man at the airport, a bell captain who had collapsed and lay flailing and gasping. She had tossed aside this bag, and a jacket like this one, and saved his life.

High, I thought. Too high.

A branch creaked. Nona was lithe, but the big tree was not really a living thing anymore. Some process in it remembered life, and struggled to resemble it, but she was risking too much to be up there in its branches.

I had never seen this cat before, but, like my late father, I believed that the unseen things need our help, and I had, from time to time, put out a plate of smoked salmon or braised perch when I had seen a hungry-looking cat stalking birds under the ornamental plums.

Too high.

Nona, slight, graceful, was able to reach the cat, and the cat shrank back along a gray-scaled branch. Nona held forth her hand, supplicating, encouraging, her voice soft, as soft as I have heard it with children in pain.

This is your fault, I told myself: You should have cut down this tree years ago.

She touched the cat, and the cat cringed and clutched at her simultaneously. It scrambled, fought for balance. And failed.

The cat did not fall at once. It hooked the gray bark of the tree with one paw, and kicked there, like a creature that has been mortally hurt.

Nona cried out and reached out to seize the cat, the branch swaying.

The falling cat was a blur, twisting.

It was like something I had dreamed would happen. I knew exactly what had to be done. I stepped across the lawn, looked up into the sun, and caught the cat, easily, with a certain grace, and before its claws could dig into me, I had the cat on the grass.

It was not a young cat. It was a tom, with a bite or two taken out of its shoulders from the wars of mating. It allowed itself an instant of amazement, or simple recognition of where it was. Then it was across the grass, into the gnarls and knobs of the pruned roses, up the brick wall.

Nona called my name.

I had a big chain saw in one of the sheds, a great, red, glazed-with-oil-and-dust monster one of the gardeners had used in years past. I knew how to work the saw, and I knew how to cut down a tree, how to predict its fall, how to ease the weight down with ropes and a certain eye for how a tree is balanced.

This was all my fault.

I told myself that it would be all right. Nona is one of those people who know how to survive. And not merely survive. Nona seemed to belong here on earth.

She would be all right, I knew.

She won't fall.

But even as I tried to reassure myself, I knew.

She clung to a branch, but the dead thing sagged, the bark ripping, something deep in the pith of the tree giving way. She looked down; I was amazed at the look she gave me.

She was not afraid—she trusted me. I wanted to cry out that I was helpless.

She let go.

For a moment nothing made any sense. The breath was knocked out of my body.

I caught her, held her in my arms. There was a moment in which nothing else mattered. I had Nona in my arms, my own strength taking her in.

Then we both were on the ground, in the damp grass.

Unable to move.

And then we were laughing. We laughed, tears in our eyes.

Yes, I reassured her, I was fine. “And you were amazing!” I said. She held me, laughing, calling herself the Flying Wonder, the Flying Nona.

But then I took her hand. Her forefinger was bleeding, the nail torn. “You're hurt,” I said in a low voice.

It hurt me inside, caused me real pain, to see her injured even slightly. She insisted that she was perfectly all right, but I led her into the house and found a pair of delicate scissors and carefully trimmed away the ragged nail. I dabbed antiseptic onto the finger, and, working tenderly, applied a Band-Aid. All the while she watched my work with affection and amusement.

“Do you think I'll live?” she said when I was done.

I was about to say that I thought she had a pretty good chance, when she stopped me with a kiss.

Nona called and made a reservation for a later plane and we went upstairs, through my work room, into my bedroom, and fell together. We made love, a slow, carnal waltz, grateful, knowing that it did not have to be like this. We did not have to be so happy together.

“You knew,” I said much later, in a murmur. “You did it on purpose.”

“Did what?”

“You let go so I could catch you.”

“I knew you would. You have good hands.”

I considered this with some doubt, actually holding my fingers up before my eyes. “It was dangerous.”

She snuggled back against me, a way of saying that she trusted me.

After awhile she asked, “When will you know about the prize?”

I didn't like to even think about the prize. “The announcement won't be for weeks.”

“But you said there's usually a leak.”

“There are ways of finding out. Blake might know. DeVere knows, but he never talks to me.”

I felt her breathing, and knew that in moments she would be another sort of woman, dressing quickly, hurrying down the stairs.

Maybe some day, I thought, it will always be like this. Maybe some day I will be able to keep her here.

As she took a quick look at herself in a mirror, I slipped a little paper frog into her handbag. It was a frog I had made using an Exacto knife, and I was careful to find a secure place for it, folded up in her wallet.

A secret. A little secret—a surprise.

Nona has a way of kissing me when it is time to say good-bye, once on each eyelid, once on each eyebrow, and then once on my forehead, slowly, lingering, telling me how badly she wants to stay with me.

She let her lips linger there on my forehead. This is where my third eye would be the seat of intuition, of insight. We both could feel ourselves wanting to delay her departure. I stepped back from her so I could look at her. I almost said the words:
Please don't go
.

We kissed. If we could only stay like this, I knew, nothing bad could ever happen.

When I was alone, I paced my house. The contractor was coming the next day, and plastic dust covers were folded in the hall waiting, but the house was as yet as I liked it, plants, books, sturdy antique furniture.

But I was shaken. It could happen easily. So easily, so quickly. The woman I loved could be lost. In an instant.

I studied the drawings she had left with me. The peculiar fluttering made me blink my eyes. It had been bothering me more and more lately, and some times I thought I was hearing someone whispering.

When I blinked and shook my head it stopped. It was nothing.

I loved their work. The children's crayoned animals were big eyed, with the matter-of-fact ungainliness that looks neither animal nor human. Children can draw like this. Adults cannot.

Nona told me that the children liked the little drawings I added to their own, and looked forward to getting their pictures back, and so I drew on one landscape of what looked like giraffes—or sheep with very ambitious necks—an eagle. And on a village of houses of peaked roofs—where do children learn to draw this traditional, pointed-house shape?—I drew a mailman, inexplicably skyborne. And on the drawing done by Stuart, the child whose work I most enjoyed, I sketched a telephone repairman, high above Stuart's herd of what had to be colts and mares.

Until I stopped myself. I drew an eagle because Nona was in flight by now, and I drew a mailman and a telephone repairman because that was how Nona and I lived. She was often absent, and what I usually knew of her came by mail, by telephone, from far away. Even when she was in San Francisco she was either at the hospital or stopping for a change of clothes and a nap at her apartment in the Sunset. In a way, Nona did not live anywhere. She had an answering machine, and a career.

And I was late for an art exhibit, another high-profile opening on a Sutter Street gallery. I was due to play my accustomed role—the man who had everything he wanted.

2

“You don't stand a chance, you know.”

I turned and met the eyes of the woman beside me. I had that near-thrill of knowing someone well, and yet, at the same time, being surprised at her appearance.

The woman continued, “With your friend, the psychiatrist. Nona Lyle. I saw her on television. So much energy. And what you'd have to call a passion for her work. She'll never have time for you.”

The room was crowded. The artist stood against the wall, his art so much more colorful than he seemed to be that he looked miscast, a fugitive from his own career. I loved attending openings, and actually tried to look at the art on such an occasion, although it was the opportunity to celebrate that I enjoyed most, the chance to show that something new was still possible, that talent had a place. I knew most of the people here, good people, lively and full of curiosity.

I had not seen my ex-wife in nearly ten years. She had been described as “perfect for Stratton Fields” by every important society commentator. The daughter of a senator, Margaret herself had understood our marriage to be foreordained. It had lasted two months, not counting a long period during which she lived with an ambassador in London near Holland Park and I had designed a private school in Humboldt County, building much of it by hand when salmon season took away some of the men. Now she was married to a former national security adviser, a man of old money and Cold War politics.

She had tried playing at marriage, and I had walked through it as though involved in an amusing dress rehearsal. Our marriage was a style that did not last, although I had gathered from the occasional magazine article that her current life as a hostess to former presidents and the occasional royalty was nearly tolerable.

BOOK: The Horses of the Night
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