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The Headless Horse
October 28, 2013 (published)


Art by Tamara Rees
On nights when the moon bleeds mercury rivulets between the claws of barren trees and the wind carries hissed warnings from the grave, they say you can hear them – hoofbeats on the hillside. Locals don’t speak of it; they meet questions with oatmeal stares and asphalt eyes. But, the surrounding towns vibrate with the suppressed fragments of the story.

Visitors may sense the first shadows at the gas station. Did the clerk seem a little too interested in my weekend plans, the man asks himself. The foreboding grows as the tourist nears his destination. He stops to buy milk, and the grocer shakes his head. “You’ll stay inside at night up there, right?” He tilts his head to question, but the grocer slaps the change into his hand and flips the CLOSED sign on the door.

The wino on the corner lurches toward the visitor. “Hooves. Devil hooves. You stay away if you hear ‘em.”

He tries to ask the man in the suit edging past on the sidewalk, but the other man just mutters “Superstition. Nothing to worry about. Still, I wouldn’t go up there. Bad roads.”

The visitor smells hot, fermenting breath in his ear… “No head. Ain’t got no head.”

The suit shakes his head and scurries off.

As the tourist gets back into his car, he hears a child’s voice from the gathering darkness. “Hey, mister! Watch out for the devil horse.” Laughter follows his tires out of town.

The moon skulks between the bends in the road. A shadow skitters behind some trees. The car lurches, staggering like the wino to the shoulder of the road.

As he steps out of his car, fumbling for the hood release, he sees it. Atop the moon-bathed crest of the nearby hill, the horse rears, hooves pawing the mottled sky. At the apex of its neck, a bloody stump oozes black in the moonlight.

The man dives through the car’s open window. The thundering hooves pound closer, and he cringes in his seat. He feels only the chill of the vast shape dissolving as it passes through his car.

The car starts again, key jumping in his shaking hands. Wondering how he managed the roads, he turns into the drive of the farm-turned-country inn. Eyes glow from the bushes behind the gatepost. He blinks, and they vanish.

He stutters something about the horse to the woman at the desk. She shakes her head. “No riding ‘til morning.”

No, he says. There was a horse…on the road. He rubs his temples, not wanting to sound crazy, and mumbles something about its head looking funny.

Her lips purse and she shoves the key at him. “You’re in 217. The girl’ll take you over.”

Crossing the gravel drive toward a row of cabins, he notices that the girl lugging his suitcase darts her eyes back and forth across the shadows. He scurries after and pantingly asks why she’s in such a hurry.

“It’s out there,” she mumbles.

"The horse?" he asks, hoping for some confirmation of the vision beating against his brain.

She shakes her head, shoving open the cabin door. “The fox.”

The door slams shut. He surrenders to exhaustion and falls into bed, ignoring a scratching at the cabin walls and the distant thunder of hooves on the hills.

The morning sun scratches at his eyes and he opens the dresser drawers hoping to find a spare towel. An old newspaper clipping licks at his fingertips.

The article is yellowed and torn, but he manages to make out the gist of the story. A year ago, the county was hit by an outbreak of rabies – livestock, dogs, barn cats, and even a prized racehorse were affected. He shakes his head, stepping out into the misty fall day. He knows that whatever animal transmitted the disease in the last outbreak is long since dead, yet he finds himself looking behind bushes and under the cabin porch as he steps down the stairs.

“It only comes out at night.”

The visitor jumps. The gardener laughs and lops another branch off of the bare-limbed tree.

The visitor shakes his head, as if shaking off the atmosphere. “What only comes out at night?”

“That fox you’re looking under every rock and bush for. Ain’t gonna see it during the day. Devil-fox is too wily.”

“Devil-fox?” The tourist laughs. “Isn’t that a little dramatic? What has this poor fox done anyway? Steal a couple eggs?”

“Killed the boss’s best horse. Cursed, that thing is.”

“Horse? You don’t mean the horse in the newspaper article I saw in there?” The tourist jerks his thumb toward the cabin behind him.

The gardener nods, then ducks his head, leaning forward. “Sounds stupid, but they say it ain’t gone.”

“The fox isn’t gone?”

“Well that too. But,” his voice drops to a whisper. “They say it still runs the pasture some nights.” His blades sever another branch with a crunch. “Without its head.”

This last tidbit is too much for the tourist. “Why is the head gone?” His voice cracks.

Out of nowhere, the woman from the front desk appears. “You’ll miss breakfast,” she says, hustling him toward the main house. Behind him, the hedge trimmers clack away.

The visitor rubs his head as he is shoved across the driveway. Something about the rabid fox is troubling him. He turns to ask the woman, but she just says “Pancakes are good today” and vanishes down the hall.

Halfway through breakfast, it hits him. He turns to the waitress refilling his coffee. “Can you help me with something?”

“I’d be glad to.”

“There seems to be a local story that is confusing me. I saw a newspaper article about a rabies outbreak a year or so ago.”

The girl’s eyes dart away, but she nods.

“And since I got here, people have been talking about a fox.”

She nods again, barely a flick of her head.

“They talk about it like it’s the one that caused the outbreak. But I remember reading that animals carrying rabies in their saliva die within something like 10 days after they start showing signs. So how could this be the same fox?” He wants to ask how a horse could be running around without a head, but that seems insane in the light of day.

The waitress’s lips close over her teeth, and she drops her head. “I’m sorry, sir. I need to refill the other guests’ coffee. I don’t know anything about foxes.”

A few minutes later, she brings the bill. “You’ll want to look that over carefully, sir.”

He flips the receipt over in the folder. On the back there’s a scrawled note: “Ask the librarian.”

The front desk clerk gives him directions to the town library. The building is small, tucked against an alley, behind an overgrown park. The park doesn’t look that old, but it’s clear that there hasn’t been any landscaping maintenance in months. The only thing that looks recently touched is a square of white painted pavement. A dark stain lurks beneath the fresher paint. Something rustles in the bushes, and goosebumps crawl along his arms. The tourist ducks through the doorway of the ramshackle library.

A voice creaks like a rusty gate from the shadows. “Can I help you, sir?”

He blinks, trying to adjust to the dim light. Even as the room takes shape, he can barely make out the figure behind the desk. The woman seems almost to be spun from the cobwebs shrouding the corners of the room.

He stutters, trying to find solid ground. “I was wondering if you could direct me to some information on recent local history – newspaper archives or something?”

“Certainly. What incident interests you?” Her head tilts in a way that makes him suspect that she knows exactly what he is doing there.

He rubs his forehead again, letting out the sigh that has been building since his car first stalled on the road. “I’m not sure I know.” He sags against the desk. “Can I tell you something crazy?”

She doesn’t move or speak, but her outline seems to soften. He continues. “Ever since I got here, nothing makes sense. People seem scared of something. I keep hearing about a fox. I found an old newspaper article about a rabies outbreak last year. And…and I think I saw a horse with no head.” The last sentence rushes out in a whisper that tumbles over itself as it falls from his mouth.

“Mmmmm….” She shakes her head and turns away.

He pushes himself away from the desk, turning slowly on the scuffed marble floor. He sighs again as his hand reaches for the knob. He shakes his head. He knew mentioning the horse was a mistake. As the door cracks open, letting a line of dusty sunlight into the literary mausoleum, he hears the creaking voice again. “Didn’t you want your reference materials, sir?”

A pile of papers and a book thump onto the desktop. A cloud of dust chokes the wavering line of sun. The man looks down. A tabloid headline catches his eye. He shakes his head, staring at the librarian. “Are you kidding me? Zombies? Werewolves? Vampires? You’re making fun of me, right? Is this some quaint tourist-hazing joke? It isn’t funny. I came looking for information, not to be mocked.” He turns away.

“Don’t be so hasty, young man. Read the articles. You don’t know what could depend on your knowledge.”

He turns back. The stack of papers is still on the desk, but the librarian is nowhere in sight.

He flips through the stack. A wildlife census listing the population of foxes in the county is highlighted. The same news article he’d seen in his cabin is in the stack along with a more detailed column on the dead horse. The prized racehorse had been euthanized by a local veterinarian after several days of stumbling and eventually seizures. The next paragraph chills the man’s spine. The horse’s head had been cut off so that the public health laboratory could check the brain for rabies. But…and the chills now wrack his body…when the rendering truck came to collect the carcass, the headless body of the horse could not be found.

With trembling hands, he turns to the last article. The lurid tabloid cover is splashed with the sort of pictures that were obviously photoshopped – an alpaca with glowing eyes and fangs, a woman in zombie makeup. Even the title is obviously a fictional set-up designed to sell cheap papers and local scandal.

Despite himself he reads on. The improbable – impossible! – story draws him in. Somehow in the dim library with its vanishing guardian, stories of were-alpacas, zombies, and vampires seem more credible.

As he reads through the story, a bizarre theory begins to form in his mind. Could the zombie and rabies viruses somehow have combined in a host, forming a new disease? What if the creature from the article had bitten the fox? Would the zombie features of the disease have kept the fox ambulatory and attacking long after the rabies should have killed it? Could this explain the mystery of the horse’s body? How many other animals had succumbed?

Folding the last yellowed page, the man realizes that the scant light penetrating the smeared windows has taken on a different quality. The diffuse daylight is gone, and the outside darkness is punctuated by scattered rays from street lamps.

He looks around for the librarian, but sees no one. Stacking the papers on her desk, he heads outside. The sidewalks are deserted. As he approaches the park, he remembers the painted-over pavement, and the picture of the prone body in the tabloid article. Could that really be where the creature was created? He shakes his head. Too much time indoors on this vacation.

His feet defy his rational brain, and he enters the park. The wind whips through the trees and he can almost hear the bushes breathing. The pounding of blood in his ears sounds like hooves on turf. Every shadow holds a monster. Finally, he spins around, muscles tensed to dash for the car, only to find himself trapped.

A ring of animals, eyes glowing, surrounds him – skunks, raccoons, cats, dogs, and yes, a fox. On the path behind him, something clomps; trembling, he turns to see the massive black body of the headless horse. Then, out of the bushes, a creature emerges.

One scream – then all is silent.


 
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