The Horses of Sanlùcar

by Richard Farrell

Edith told her husband she was leaving him and moving back to America. He was standing in the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist, shaving cream lathering his cheeks. His back muscles twitched when she said it, but otherwise he didn’t react. There’d been no argument, no clear reason for her declaration.

“I need to go away,” she said. “From you, from here, from these women. I don’t fit in here.”

Granger finished shaving and wiped his chin clean with a towel. A small patch of blood blossomed on his neck. Edith started to point at the spot, but he daubed the blood with a piece of tissue. He dropped the towel and stood naked before her.

“You get in these moods,” he said. “It will pass.”

What she felt at that moment was sharper than hatred, more dense than anger, a decade’s long marbling of her heart.

“Get ready,” he said. “We have people coming over. And for Christ’s sake, cheer up. It’s a beautiful day.”

He smiled his even-keeled smile, straightened his back, and checked himself again in the mirror. On paper, he still met all the criteria. Tall. Handsome to a fault. An officer and a gentleman. She hadn’t realized when she married him that he came pre-packaged. Not quite Duty, Honor, Country, but more than she could’ve expected. She’d been a graduate student when they met. She’d wanted to teach art history. Granger—so different than all her bohemian friends, with their do-gooder causes and pot-addled attempts at transcendence—wore uniforms and stood up for what he believed in. This was right after the towers fell. She’d lost a friend that day, and Edith needed to find something certain in a mad world. His Midwestern values, ramrod principles, and regulation haircuts were, for a time, irresistible and exotic.

But their marriage lacked something vital, a bone without marrow. She waited for things to change, but they hadn’t.

He patted her on the shoulder, kissed her head and left the room, his naked ass oddly grinning at her as he went.

He was right about one thing. It was a beautiful day.

 

They were going to Sanlùcar for the races. For two weekends every August, the horses ran along the beach, where bare-chested Spanish boys in white shorts chased after the animals in the surf as they raced across the finish line with sand-covered hocks and saddles limed with salt. They’d gone the year before, in happier times, with the other officers and wives from the American base, but now Edith was imagining her clothes neatly folded inside suitcases. And she’d been pricing plane tickets—Madrid to Los Angeles.

Edith showered, dressed, reluctantly yielded to another day where her husband made the plans and she carried them out. She hated her own passivity. She hated her inability to do more than talk about leaving. “Threats,” he called them, blaming hormones, PMS, the occasional migraine that stampeded her skull without warning. Of course he was right, that they were just threats, until she did something. But he was dead wrong about the cause. He was the cause. That no matter what he said or did, no matter how hard he pretended that things were fine between them, that sooner or later she’d do it.

They were going to the races with the new dentist and his young wife. The couple had recently arrived at the American base, where Granger worked as an engineering officer. Despite her objections, Granger had invited them. He always brought in reinforcements when they were having trouble. The doorbell rang. She took a deep breath, forced a smile, and reached for the handle.

The dentist’s wife had porcelain skin, cantankerous green eyes, a perpetual, straight-toothed smile. A fucking Noxzema girl, Edith thought upon opening the door, though she hugged the woman and kissed both of her cheeks, which were cool and smelled of vanilla.

The dentist was a tall, thin man, not unattractive, just less attractive than his wife. He stood awkwardly in the doorway, a basset-hound face on an otherwise well-built Navy man. He appeared afraid to cross their cheap tile floor.

“Come in, come in,” Edith said. She’d meant to sound friendly, but her voice betrayed an irritation.

Always charming, Granger opened a bottle of wine and filled four glasses. Then the dentist’s wife cheerily announced she was thirteen weeks along and asked for club soda with a lime.

“Your first?” Edith said.

The young woman smiled, nodded, and then reached for husband’s hand, almost like she could sense Edith’s darkness and was afraid.

For half an hour they chatted about base housing, about Spanish security and the best tapas bars and the maddening wait for household goods to arrive from the States. It was part of the unwritten protocol—whenever a new officer arrived on base, Granger expected Edith to sound cheery and informative. And for as long as she could, she’d gone along, pretending to care about jobs and rank, making small talk about volunteering and charity work. Like a parson’s wife, she’d played the game, but her loneliness grew and she could no longer deny the fact she hated it all. She’d endured the same stories, these same hollowed-out women, these Navy wives. Every six months one batch of wives would ship out and a new batch would arrive. She’d sit through these same rote pleasantries for almost two fucking years now. Would this be the last time?

When they first came to Spain, Edith had hoped the assignment might revive their marriage. Three years in Europe seemed like the perfect life support system. She’d imagined a romantic, passionate life, something out of Hemmingway—bullfights and verandas and Flamenco music. But their exile was half over and their lives together had flat-lined into a persistent vegetative state from which Edith worried she might never emerge.

She pulled down an album and showed the dentist’s wife photographs—Madrid, Segovia, Salamanca—remembering her first impressions of Spain’s cities, followed by the parts she liked better, the quiet beauty of hillside white villages, the perfect skies, and the Plateresque facades of ancient cathedrals. Those first months in Spain were enchanting, but the photographs of those trips seemed unhinged now, as though those memories belonged to someone else.

“Where should we go first?” the dentist’s wife asked.

“Go everywhere,” Edith said. “Go everywhere and don’t stop. Keep going and going. You only notice how awful it is when you stop.”

Sometimes the truth just shot out of her. She caught Granger’s disapproving stare but ignored it. He was so straight-and-arrow. Never a button out of place. It made her feel crazy. How many times had she threatened to leave? She promised herself she was serious this time.

“I think Valencia first,” the dentist’s wife said, countering Edith’s darkness by smiling even more brightly. “I want to see the aquarium.”

You’ll fit right in, Edith thought but didn’t say.

It wasn’t, of course, Spain that was awful, but everything that came with being a Navy wife. It took a certain mindset. The tedious obligations, the simplistic hierarchy, one’s rank tied to one’s husband, one’s worth always derivative. None of the women she’d met had ambitions beyond their front door. She felt like a freak most days. She didn’t hate them, she just didn’t understand them. Coupled with Ganger’s ridiculous devotion to order and civility, all of it oppressed her like iron bars.

Granger smiled and squeezed her knee. “Shall we go?” he asked.

They finished their wine and Edith grabbed the keys.

~

In Sanlùcar cars jammed the roads and alleys. She parked well outside of the town and they walked, for twenty minutes beneath the blazing sun before they found a place. Edith was sweating. Granger went to the bar and brought back three beers and a Coke for the dentist’s wife. Standing at a chest-high counter, they drank from glasses that looked like votives and watched the festive Spaniards, pressed so close together.

Edith would miss the casual intimacy of Spain. She’d miss the late-night dinners, the café con leche and the spring ferias with women in gaudy dresses. She’d miss Granger too, though in a more diffuse way, in the way she missed high school, with a combination of relief and nostalgia.

After they finished the beers, Granger guided them to the beach, elbowing through the dense crowd for a better view. The dentist held his wife’s hand, but Edith stayed well to the left of Granger. The four of them squeezed into a spot near the front of the crowd. The first horses were assembling in the sand. Granger then took the dentist to place the first bets.

“It’s just beautiful,” the dentist’s wife said.

“Spain is like a dream,” Edith said. “At first, you can’t believe it’s real. Then you stop wanting to.”

At times, she hated the sound of her own voice.

Granger came up behind her. He grasped her hips.

“Let’s kiss and make up,” he said.

He exhausted her at times. Lately, all the time. How could she explain that to anyone? Was boredom a reason to end a marriage? Was exhaustion grounds for divorce? How could being a decent person not be enough? Other women seemed perfectly satisfied with far less. She glanced at the dentist’s wife, obliviously happy and in love.

The first heat assembled and the crowd pressed together. Playfully, Granger slid his hand up part way up Edith’s dress. His fingers carved a gritty but familiar swirl along her thigh.

“I’ll always love you,” he said.

His love had no flavor, like a piece of gum chewed too long. Love had become a nuisance, something she’d endured until she couldn’t take it anymore, and now she wanted to spit it out and start over. She felt nothing toward him, not hatred, not anger, just an overwhelming apathy.

Why hadn’t she left yet? She’d asked herself a thousand times. Never once, though, did she doubt the certainty of her intent.

The first horses trotted in the sand a hundred yards from where they stood. Magnificent, four-year-old thoroughbreds strutted, with eager eyes, white blazes across the snout, piebald hips, and fawn thighs.

Against the blue sky and the bluer ocean, the horses pranced and stopped, as if frozen and captured by an artist. The dentist’s wife smiled and did a little hop in the sand. Granger’s face glowed from the heat.

A levante blew in from the sea. In summer, sizzling African winds would howl across the Straits of Gibraltar before they turned up the Atlantic coast, raising yellow dust clouds over the vineyards and sunflower farms in Andalucía. Sometimes, she hoped the winds would lift her up and carry her over the ocean.

“Look over there,” the dentist’s wife said brightly.

The first horses had moved into the starting gate, and the crowd began to cheer. A moment later, a gun cracked, and the horses dashed ahead.

~

Granger’s horse won in the first race. He won again in the second, too. Race after race, he kept winning. By the end of the fifth, he had over four-thousand euro in his hand. While everyone else bet smaller, Granger kept throwing down hundreds and winning. Even Edith had to admire his luck.

“He’s incredible,” the dentist’s wife said to her. “Is he always this lucky?”

The dentist’s wife untied her braid, her curly red hair fluttering in the blazing wind, before re-twisting it and hooking against her head. A goddess, Edith thought. She envied the woman’s remarkable beauty.

“Is it always this hot?” she asked. They’d come from Bremerton, outside Seattle, where the sun was a gift.

“Just wait,” Edith said. “As the sun goes down, it gets even hotter.”

Edith smiled and pointed toward where the next heat of horses had assembled.

“You don’t have children?” the dentist’s wife asked.

Last fall, Edith had miscarried. The pregnancy was an accident, a careless miscalculation. For her, the loss of the baby had been a reprieve, a near miss. But for Granger, the failed pregnancy pried open a door. He began badgering her about a family. He bought books and suggested names. “I want to raise a bunch of kids with you,” he told her. The thought of having a child with him terrified her.

Sometimes she wondered if she was broken inside, incapable of love. The more he talked about kids, the more she hated being married to him.

In the sixth race, Granger bet two-hundred on a long shot and won again. He came back and fanned the money out like an actor in a movie. The dentist’s wife reached out for his arm. One of the Spaniards handed him a plastic cup of beer and slapped his shoulder. Everyone around them laughed and cheered. The dentist and his wife both seemed mesmerized by Granger.

Only two races remained, but Edith just wanted the day to end.

In the next race, Granger lost, but the dentist won this time. His wife kissed him deeply before he went to collect his winnings. When was the last time she’d kissed Granger like that? She couldn’t remember.

Granger grabbed her hand and slipped her a hundred for the final race.

“Put it on the six-horse,” he said, “If it wins, you stop all this nonsense.”

“What are you talking about?” the dentist’s wife asked.

“I’m serious,” Granger said, ignoring the other woman. “If your horse wins the race, you can’t talk anymore about leaving.”

It was entirely foolish, but Edith laughed and took his money. She hoped to lose, if only to underscore how broken things were.

The sky had turned a miraculous color, with thin bands of high clouds, purple and pumpkin hues that stretched across the vast horizon. In the distance, the lights of Cadíz, the most ancient city in Europe, twinkled on across the bay. Blue-purple waves sparkled and wind blew across her face.

She came back with a betting slip in her hand and held it up in front of him.

“The six-horse,” she said.

Granger pulled Edith close and she let herself fall into his arms. She loved and hated herself for playing along. She wanted to escape, but she stayed there a few seconds before twisting out of his arms.

The six-horse would race beneath a rider dressed in white breeches and a yellow bib festooned with red diamonds. The jockey guided his horse into the gate, and Edith thought of Rome. A month before, they’d gone to Italy. They stayed near the Spanish Steps and sipped wine at the Piazza di Trevi. They toured the endless miles of the Vatican, spent hours staring at Michelangelo’s chapel, where Adam’s finger reached in vain toward God’s. It was less than passion, but much more than she’d expected. Had he let it alone, she might have kept playing along. “We can try again,” he told her. They were driving out into the Italian countryside, on a narrow road without signs. They’d been tasting wine all day. She was a little drunk but driving anyway. She said she didn’t want to have children. “How can you say that?” he asked. It was an accusation, a judgment, as if something were wrong with her for not embracing his version of things. I don’t want that life, she told him again. I don’t want that life with you, is what she meant to say. The Italian countryside, a postcard of trellised vines and verdant hills, stretched before her until color drained from the memory.

Gunshot reported upwind. The last race had begun. A pack of horses lurched ahead. Beautiful, sea-kissed snouts surged into a blazing sun. Breath huffed in and out. Granger grabbed her shoulders and squeezed. Thundering toward them, the horses’ hooves smacked the wet beach, spraying sand and water behind their charging legs. The crowd cheered.

Her horse, the six-horse, pulled toward the front.

Granger shouted. “Vaya, vaya!” and the dentist and his wife jumped up and down and the crowd roared and the horses sprinted forward. Edith was rooting against her own horse, silently urging it to slow down. Granger pressed her shoulders, almost shaking her.

Then a strange sound rose from the surf-line, a soft but prolonged moan that curled around her like a drum. A moment later, a deep groan erupted from the crowd. Water splashed. Where the horses should have been, sand and sea-foam twisted in the air.

“Wait,” Granger said, releasing his grip on her shoulders. “Oh, shit.”

A snapping, like wet twigs in a fire, burst from the pile of horses. Brittle sounds, horrible and unforgettable. She felt that sound—the horses’ shattering bones—in the roots of her teeth. Another moan, louder this time, went up through the crowd. One horse tumbled over into the water, its belly and legs twisting wildly. Tails like thrashing serpents whipped water and sand. Granger grabbed her hand but she pulled away. They were still falling, all the horses, into the water. But then one, two of them, pulled ahead. Two had escaped, the six-horse, she realized, and another. The pair of still-racing horses pulled out from the horrible scrum, galloping down the beach, without so much as a glance back at the carnage in their wake.

Edith turned, looking for an explanation. A rider sprang out of the water. His uniform was soaked, his helmet covered in sea foam. He ran, away at first, then pivoted and raced back toward his fallen horse. Another rider, rolling away from the ball of horses, collapsed to his knees.

How many had fallen? At least four, she thought, trying to remember the start. Soon, the whole crowd seemed to lurch forward.

One of the fallen horses thrashed on its side. Another stood and broke off—a wild, half cantor into the waves before its shattered leg gave way and the horse fell again. A third horse struggled to stand, but pitched sideways and collapsed. A wave broke across its body.

Suddenly, a policeman appeared. One moment he was not there and the next he was. In his drab green uniform, he scurried across the sand. People shouted, but Edith couldn’t make out the words. The cop spoke to one of the riders, who pleaded with his hands, pointing toward the fallen animals. It happened fast, in a choppy fashion, like an old-time movie. The policeman un-holstered a gun, pointed, squeezed off quick shots, never hesitating between shots. Flash. Kick. Bang. Four quick pops in a row, echoing along the beach. By the time he squeezed off the last round, Edith couldn’t breathe.

“Jesus,” Granger said. He tried to laugh. “They don’t mess around.”

The dentist’s wife smiled and then threw up all over herself. Her husband and Granger both bent to comfort her, but Edith couldn’t take her eyes away from the beach. Everything had slowed down. People were moving, checking on the fallen riders, running back and forth between the dead horses.

In the midst of all this confusion, one of the shot horses twitched. No one seemed to notice. At first, Edith thought she’d imagined it, but then its leg trembled again. She called out to Granger, who was too busy with the dentist’s wife, still retching onto her clothes.

Edith hesitated. Surely someone else would notice, but no one moved. Her legs teetered, as though the earth swayed beneath her feet. Once more she turned to Granger, but his back was to her. Then, without thought, as though possessed, she broke from the crowd.

She felt herself running before she realized that it was really happening. She sprinted across the beach, straight toward the fallen horse, pushing her way past throngs of people.

The wounded animal kept disappearing in the crowd. There were too many people now out on the race course. She only needed one thing—to get to that injured horse.

She shoved her way through the crowd before she spotted it again. The horse’s forelocks were coated with sand. Huge, empty eyes flashed. Dozens of people pressed against her. She could barely move, and the smell of gunpowder sickened her. Sea-foam had turned red. Blood pooled at her feet as the tide came up. She stepped around one of the shot horses. Nothing in her life had ever felt this awful, and yet she was fully alive, with a clear and simple purpose. She squeezed between more people. She was almost there. More than anything she wanted to put her hands on the injured animal, to do something. It wouldn’t live, she knew that. But she could be with it at the end. An elbow crashed into her side, and she fell. She crawled, before she had room to stand. The crowd thinned a little in front of her. She was close now, only a few feet from the dying horse.

She arrived, and squatted down, coming low at the animal to avoid frightening it. The horse’s snout flared, wet patches of sand stuck inside its nostrils. It was taking its final breaths, which warmed her fingers. The horse seemed to stretch out toward her hand, trying to make contact.

“It’s okay,” she said softly, inching forward and whispering to the stricken horse. “I’m here now.”

She reached toward it, but just as she was about to touch the dying animal, something yanked her back. Hands grasped her shoulders. She fell forward, hard, onto her knees.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

It was Granger, standing above her, arms on his hips. She tried to stand up, but he pushed her shoulders back down.

“Let go of me,” she said.

Granger pinched her shoulder and began to drag her by an arm.

“You’re nuts,” he said. “Get the hell out of this mess.”

“Let go of me,” she said again.

She twisted and kicked, but he refused to release her arm. She screamed at him, but he ignored her.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Have you completely lost your mind?”

He was dragging her through sand. He tugged on her elbow and it began to throb. Tears welled up in her eyes. Finally, with a terrible effort, she twisted free. They were eye to eye, like two boxers before a match. She hated him and yet she’d never been more attracted to him. He was furious and wickedly exposed. She thought he might hit her. She’d never seen him display such raw emotion. More than anything, she wanted him to keep going, to lash out. She wanted, just once, for him to fight. Fight for me. She’d nearly forgotten about the horse.

“Stop this,” he said, regaining his composure. He pointed toward the dentist’s wife. “She’s sick and we need to get out of here.”

A moment later, a final shot rang out. Edith didn’t look.

Granger took a deep breath and reached out his hand, but Edith had turned, this time away from her husband.

She started to run, slowly at first, up the beach and away from the horses. Away from Granger. Before she realized it, she was sprinting through wet sand. She’d never moved so fast. Her legs drove like pistons and she didn’t turn back. She ran along the surf line, her feet crashing through hoof prints, leaping over piles of sandy horseshit, all the way back up where the horses had started, past the crowds, the metal gate, past bars, parked cars, and boardwalk hotels. The sky had turned almost black and she ran toward it, toward stars on the horizon and the last bands of sunlight. She kept running until the air in her lungs burned, and then she ran even faster. Behind her, Granger’s voice shouted her name, but the sound diminished as she opened the distance between them. He kept shouting, but his voice grew fainter and fainter, until she could no longer hear it, and the only sound after that was her breathing, and the slaps of her feet in the sand, as everything behind her fell into purest silence.

 

Richard Farrell is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine and the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. He is currently writing a collection of short stories and a memoir on flying. He lives with his family in San Diego, CA.