S trong feet stepped into the boy’s dream, came nearer down the hall, and he sat up, but the sounds went past, outside.
Quick, to the window.
Down the dark quiet street came four horses, two by two, with police on top. Streetlights shone on the animals’ rumps, the riders’ yellow vests. Clop clop. Harness glinted, tails waved, manes lifted and subsided. The horses too wore reflective yellow, in bands round their ankles. No heavy traffic here, though, not like the last time he’d seen them, at rush-hour, walking calmly single-file between a moving bus and a line of parked cars.
Hesitation. Bad. His bruises still hurt.
I have to know where you are, she’d said, you can’t just wander alone. You don’t know this big city. And stay out of the Park! Who knows what’s hiding there?
Also, they’d taken his keys.
He found clothes. As he felt in the “secret” pocket of her rain jacket, from the other bedroom came sounds he disliked. Good, they’d sleep soon. He left the building via the rusty fire escape off the third-floor hall. At the bottom he must swallow, then jump down to damp earth — better than taking the dim stairs to the basement door.
He hurried then. Clop clop, and the horses headed west past shabby low-rises like his, past the corner store with posters stuck on its outer wall. One said Resist! What? Then past the school, the one he went to, with a map of all Canada on the classroom wall. Vancouver, a dot. The town where he’d lived before, not even that. On the bewildering drive to the city, she’d kept saying Look at the map, see where you’re going! He didn’t. Hadn’t asked, ever, to make this move. Back there, the cops only had motorcycles.
The boy kept half a block between himself and the clop-clop, scuttling from hedge to street-tree to shrub. Where did they live? He’d seen them often, on busy West End streets or near the big beach. Sometimes the police halted them, so people could ask questions or even pat those enormous heads. He saw the cops’ holsters close up, and the animals’ big nostrils, and their strange eyes, bluish-brown. Soon the horses moved on. Their steady gait — lots of videos showed that, how the animals just kept on coming, calm amidst furious crowds. Did riots happen here?
As the quartet neared the big street he stayed even further back, waiting while the traffic light changed and changed again. On the restaurant at the corner, someone had half-scraped off a Resist! poster. Near this intersection, he did know his way. Homeless men slept in store entrances, their hidden faces probably familiar to him from the network of local alleys, of bins behind cafes and groceries. Once he’d taken home a cold burger, untouched in its box. They’d found it. Bad.
When green shone a third time he sauntered across, then hastened after the lifting hooves. Along these blocks, richer landscaping fronted condos recently built. To hide and move and hide: easy. Ahead waited greater darkness, though moonlight came and went as the clouds moved.
By day he’d wandered this terrain south of Lost Lagoon, grasping at its geography. Some lampposts in the Park and at its edges displayed a map, for tourists, so he’d learned some main routes. In the middle of the map’s big green stood a tiny surprising coyote. He hadn’t known they could live in cities. Mum said You never see what’s right under your nose, but that wasn’t true. On his own he’d spotted a real raccoon snoozing in a tree, and a dead bird with a huge long beak, and sleeping bags inside bushes alongside piled bottles and cans.
Once he’d even circled the Lagoon, peering up at the forest north of it, but hadn’t ever entered the Park after sunset. In the small town, he with other kids spent hours nightly in the local park, only vacating when the teenagers took over — but no map was needed. You could see right across. Now he followed the horses into the dark.
Near-silence, but for the stepping animals. One lifted its tail. Plop plop, and that warm smell mixed with the night’s leafy earthiness.
He’d thought they might turn south, past the tennis courts to the Bay. No. A right turn. Where to? At first following the horses, the boy then dared to move sideways into the damp understory of salal, laurel, giant rhodo — and ahead, to crouch and peek as the nodding heads approached. Even when a rare midnight car drove past, the animals didn’t change pace. The videos showed that too, horses proceeding while police trainers waved flags and noisemakers in their faces, fired blanks, came unseen from behind to beat garbage-can lids. Calm.
Next they turned west. On one side of that road, he knew, lay open lawn, on the other just patchy shrubs, quite low. All the way, streetlights. Now what? Could he scrabble downhill, unseen, unheard, to the underpass, and so move roughly northwest? His insides heaved. No, not that tunnel in the dark — nor by day. It curved, so the exit wasn’t visible from the entrance. I’m not a little boy any more. I’m not! They’d laughed till they cried, though later Mum said Sorry, and then they smoked. Also, the meadow beyond the underpass gave no cover.
He slowed, guessing. Turned away from the horses, south and then west in a long watchful arc through open and wooded areas. Breathed leaves, a trace of skunk, someone’s cigarette. Uphill then, on to the high bank overlooking the ocean. Here he squatted under a shore-pine distorted by wind and weather, smelled algae, watched the incoming tide’s long frills of white collapse on the beach. Soaked runners, cold sock-less feet — he didn’t care, looked north. I was right. Only a hundred metres away the quartet walked towards a concrete ramp that sloped to the sand. Touching it, the lead animals snorted, and the riders spoke gently, stroking.
When hooves met beach the four horses trotted south, almost as far as the point, almost gone from view — then back again, under the boy’s high perch, to and fro, to and fro. The animals’ muscles created light-patterns on their coats while the waves gleamed under the moon, fell into silver marbled froth, and made their hssshing sound.
When the riders headed straight at the water, the boy gasped. He couldn’t swim. Nodding, the horses waded in. They stepped freely, splashed, came back to shore, reversed and went forward again into the waves, whinnying. They’re happy! The riders got them to turn tightly, splashing through the shallows, as if in an enclosure rather than the Pacific Ocean. Turn, turn — and out of the water they came, dripping, tossing their manes, to shoulder sideways, back and forth, steady pairs dancing while the sand bounced up by their hooves.
Then they stopped.
Within a minute, the horses walked two by two up the ramp and disappeared eastward into treed darkness, trotting. Where?
Clop clop, clop clop, fading. At last the boy felt cold.
Once he slipped on wet leaves, falling, and without the horses ahead in the darkness he got muddled.
Emerging from the Park, he found the street wasn’t his but took it anyway, for traffic lights winked ahead. Resist! was stapled to four street-trees. At the corner he checked a tourist map. I’m just two blocks over. By day he’d go in again, figure out the lay of the land. As the signal changed, he noticed at the map’s left side a legend that matched images to numbers dotting the Park’s green expanse. Seven: a tiny horse. Police Stables.
At home, somehow the key’s noise woke them. Bad. His wet dirty clothes enraged his mother. The man never needed a reason, but used that one too.
In bed at last, he did think a bit about how one day he’d shove them off, shove as if they were an enormous ball, six feet in diameter, rolling about a training ring to impede his progress. As horses do when skilled in crowd control, he’d shoulder them. Lean up against them, step sideways, step and step and another patient leaning step, till like him right now they’d have no choice. Steady he’d be, calm.
Mostly he imagined stables. He’d stand close, look up. Touch? Feed? Once he’d seen a girl hold out an apple. Big teeth showed as the hairy lips lifted back, and the horse bit the fruit. The boy raised his hand, held his palm flat.
Cynthia Flood’s fifth collection of short stories, What Can You Do, will appear from Biblioasis in 2017. Her most recent book, Red Girl Rat Boy (Biblioasis 2013) was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor award. Cynthia lives in Vancouver.