Lisa Maguire Fiction

City of Horses

The girl and her mother stood on the gravel walk, staring at the chalet. Its gabled roof, porch balusters, and stickwork did not belong in North Salem. The girl wore glasses. She was small for her age. Her mother began striding up and down, not wanting to waste much more time looking for the proprietor of a riding school they had seen from the road.

“Who told us about this place?” her mother asked again, although they had been lured by the sign on the gate: Tannenhauser Stables. They lived down the road and drove past it multiple times a day.

“What do you want?” An old man appeared at the screen door. His round head and puffy, tired eyes gave him the look of a Chinese sage. He had a German accent.

“We are interested in riding lessons,” said the mother.

He squinted at them through the screen. “We?” He had an animal wariness.

The woman pushed the girl forward. It was a regular gesture.

“I don’t take them this young.”

“She really wants to ride,” said her mother.

“Ah, so? Well, she can want, doesn’t mean she gets.” But he did come out of the house. The girl caught sight of the kitchen from the door as it banged shut behind him. There was a formica table with a single chair pushed against it, many flies, and the smell of old grease.

He looked at the girl. “You like horses?” It was a question normally posed to a much younger child. Was he mocking her? She nodded in answer, but she did not look into his face. She was still young enough to have a horror of the ugliness of adults, and for this reason preferred the company of animals, but she was too old for it to be acceptable to look away.

And he was hard to look at: His skin was colorless, and some of his teeth were missing. His round head did not have much hair on it, except for some grey bristle around his ears. He wasn’t dressed like a riding instructor, but like that variety of old person who no longer bothered to ensure that his clothes matched, or were appropriate to the season. He wore a polo shirt, the collar too floppy and pointy to be of a recent vintage, and plaid cotton Bermuda shorts that did not camouflage one crooked and withered leg. It was half the width of the other, the skin white and hairless, and twisted to one side below the knee. He wore scuffed paddock boots that stopped just past the ankle, and these were topped with thick hiking socks. For now, nothing else about him registered beyond his ugliness. Except that he stood between her and the object of her desire.

Her mother was growing more impatient. “So, how much for lessons?”

“I don’t take them this young,” he said again.

“But I’m not a beginner,” the girl protested.

As she said this, she looked into the man’s face and saw his eyes were hostile and appraising. He then looked blandly at her mother. “Leave her here. I will put her on a horse, and we’ll see what we’ve got.”

To the girl’s relief, the mother went to sit in the car. The old man told her to wait in the ring. He limped to the stable, and returned leading a fat, sour-looking pony. She mounted. The pony was elderly and his head sinister. When she pushed him forward, she could not feel his mouth on the rein. It was lurking somewhere far behind the bit, only to emerge at odd intervals to pull like a freight train.

“Trot him,” he said.

She trotted him in a circle in one direction, and then the other. She nagged the pony into a misshapen figure-eight, and then pushed him into a canter, repeating the figure. She watched the man’s face gradually folding in on itself, as though he were smelling something rank. Then he told her to stop.

“Where did you learn to ride like this?”

“At camp,” she said.

“Camp,” he repeated. He let the word hang there for a while.

“You are terrible,” he said. “You are a terrible rider. You sit like this—“ he held his hands like paws of a begging puppy, his ample posterior stuck behind him; but it was his face that was the worst: his mouth set in a self-satisfied curl, eyes squinting. The girl felt her own face grow hot.

“Wery bad. I don’t know what I can fix, but we start here—” He came up to the horse, brutally shoved her leg aside and removed the stirrup leathers from the saddle. Then he went around to the other side of the horse and did the same. He took the reins from her, knotted them casually, and put them out of reach up the horse’s neck. “You don’t need these. Put your hands on your head.” He stepped back and surveyed her, legs dangling, no reins. He turned away and flicked the back of his finger at her. “Now. Again.”

She tried again, sliding around in the saddle, trying not to lose her balance to the pony’s bumpy trot. At times she thought she saw the old man smile; it was not a pleasant smile, and it was always when the pony stumbled or stopped short, making her grab for the saddle to stay on.

After a few minutes of this he told her he’d seen enough. “You ride like a sack of onions. You come after school, ja? Tell your mother twenty-five dollars. Cash only. God, but your riding is terrible. I should be paid just to watch you. Get off my horse now.”

She jumped off, and he looked at her expectantly. “Na? Go take him to the stable and clean the tack. I don’t want to see any of your sweat marks.”

The girl looked at him, uncomprehending. “I am paying for lessons.”

“You pay for nothing! Your mother pays for lessons. And learning begins with cleaning. When I was your age I was not allowed near a horse. I cleaned.”

The girl led the pony to the stable and untacked him. The barn was quiet. There was a dozen horses, but no sign of any other human life- no riders, no grooms.

“Twenty five dollars,” she reported, sliding into the passenger seat of the car.

“What took you so long?” asked her mother. “You smell like manure.”

“Sorry,” said the girl, sliding deeper into her seat and staring straight ahead.
“Those cute little skating outfits,” her mother sighed, as she pulled a twenty and a five from her purse.

“I want to do this,” said the girl.

“You’ll have to come here on your bike, you know,” said her mother. “He was rude,” she added. “Tell him he doesn’t need to be rude.”

The girl went to the screen door and tapped on the frame. The old man came to the door again, holding a long, bone-handled fork. She could smell frying sausages.

“What do you want?”

She offered the money, which he took from her with one hand while pushing the door shut with the other. “Cash only,” he reminded, as it closed.

Why did she come back the next day, and the next? There were many things she already knew and the knowledge of some of those things had been acquired unpleasantly. This would be no different. It was obvious he had been trained in some sort of severe, old-world style that consisted of insults and drudgery, or so he liked to pretend; she knew that many adults enjoyed doing what had been done to them. There might be other stables, other instructors, but they were beyond the distance she could reach on her bicycle. She did not want to give up her chance to do this. She would have to find a way not to displease him.

The next lesson, the old man hobbled from the stable leading a different horse, a chestnut that was a little younger, with an expression not as sour. He told her to drop her irons but keep the reins, and trot around in a circle again.

The old man winced as she rode. The horse’s ears pinned back, like a cat’s, and then his head see-sawed in a way that suggested menace. The old man told her to stop. “You annoy him. Shall I tell you all the ways you annoy him? No balance, no consistent seat. You bang him in the chops… Get off my horse. I must fix him now.” The old man took the bridle, cocked his head and flicked a finger. “Off.”

The girl dismounted. The man vaulted into the saddle with a surprising agility for his age and girth. He neatly crossed the irons over the saddle and picked up the reins. He looked preposterous sitting there, a tubby old man in Bermuda shorts, with a twisted leg, but when he picked up the reins, the horse stepped forward, ears attentive. He looked down at the saddle, as if listening for something, and the horse moved off docilely. They picked up a trot, and all at once the gait was springing and elastic. The horse dropped his nose and relaxed deeper into the trot, haunches swinging. The animal’s neck crested like a swan.

She had never seen anything so beautiful. Something began to fall down inside her.

 

 

Anyone found on the roads would be shot. Those were the orders of our Gauleiter Koch. In January we learned that Koch himself had fled, leaving us to the Volkssturm of old men and little boys. Our Landmeister, Doktor Ehlert, had been permitted to leave in October, transporting most of the main stock to the west, but it was rumored that the train had been captured by the Red Army, and the horses shot and eaten. There were perhaps two hundred horses remaining on the main property; hundreds more on outlying estates and private farms.

I knew Klaus as groom on one of the Vorwerke, and later on the main property. We were not cavalrymen like the others, but boys from the countryside who had come to work at the estate at a young age and then stayed on, enjoying the life. Klaus was good with horses. By this time, he was looking after the stallions with me and living in the castle. He was a quiet man, and limped from a leg withered by polio. Perhaps that was how he had avoided conscription. But why he remained there I did not know – he had been able-bodied enough to school the youngsters under saddle – since all the other young saddle-masters and grooms were long gone from Trakehnen by this time; there were no men left under sixty.

I did not speak to Klaus on the days leading up to our departure; he had cared for many of the horses that ended up on the transport captured by the Soviets, and was more taciturn than usual. His particular favorite, the monarch of the main estate, was the sire Fetysz ox. Klaus himself had loaded him on that train.

We kept to our regular routine to avoid panicking the animals and ourselves. Each morning, I would swing open the barn doors into the frigid air, and the brood mares and colts loped out to their pastures. Trakehnen had no fences; horses were allowed to wander freely while we followed and herded them. The stable complex was itself a small village, and we were virtually self sufficient, but that last winter of Trakehnen, wedged between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht, we could receive no outside supplies, and the mares were no longer in good weight. On our last morning, I told Klaus that we were on the move, and that it was time to decide. Klaus fetched his rifle and headed with me to the main barn.

We went down the rows of loose boxes. Navicular. Splints. Rattles. Stifle. Old age. Old age. Old age…

Klaus agreed they’d never survive the trip. We looked at the oldest stallions, Samsara and Damaskus, whistling softly in their sleep. Bloodlines that went back to Frederick the Great. They wouldn’t be shat out by some Russkie.

Klaus knew how to drop a horse, which is why I asked him. We led them one by one behind a stand of birch trees. The ground was frozen, so we could not dig graves; we shot them into the irrigation ditch.

Those remaining at Trakehnen that morning hitched up the farm drays, the two-wheeled traps, and the decorative coaches once used for demonstrations of six-in-hands, now harnessed to one, with other animals tethered behind. The old saddle-master, Weihrauch, once a Rittmeister in the 9th Uhlans Imperial cavalry, was the leader of our caravan.

Klaus and I were each given two wagons and two dozen horses each, and were placed in the front of the line behind Weihrauch, who was old and bent, but still sat on a horse as straight a poker. As we set out along the wide avenue that drew us away from Trakehnen, Klaus turned back many times to look at the castle. He had come to us as an apprentice, a boy of thirteen or fourteen.

 

 

It continued like this; the girl would come for her lesson, and ride until he grew disgusted and ordered her off the horse, setting her to work in the stable cleaning stalls. Some days she would mount up, swinging her leg into the saddle only to hear: “You are too fat. And look at your boots. Why do you get on your horse looking like that? Get off now. Go to the stable.” There she would sweep, haul, rake, muck.

She would bicycle home covered in sweat and grime. Her mother would remark that riding gets a person dirtier than one would think. The girl was past the age to believe in the omniscience of adults and to think that her mother knew that she was paying to clean stalls, but she said nothing to anyone. She felt guilty; she knew that she was complicit in some kind of wrongdoing which each day was growing in proportion to the length of time it had been kept a secret, that it would be revealed, and that the old man would get in trouble, but so would she—trouble of another, worse, sort. There would be all the probing into why she was cleaning stalls, and many questions to which she had no answers.

But in the silence of the stable, as she raked straw and scrubbed floors, her mind ceased its chatter. She began to observe things—water buckets lined up against the wall, each handle turned exactly to the same forty-five degree angle; the aged grout around the tiles of the wash stall scrubbed white; the bridles hanging on their pegs, each throat latch wrapped exactly two times around the cheek piece and buckled into place. She began to observe horses, coming to understand the meaning in rotating ears, the shifting of weight from one haunch to another, or nibbling on the wood frame of the loose box door. She was not always alone in the stable; the old man worked alongside her in silence, carrying and cleaning, spreading straw, caressing the heads of his animals and examining them closely, repeating the same gestures over and over again.

Eventually the old man gave her a promotion of sorts. He let her groom the sour, old lesson horses she was allowed to ride. There were other horses—tall, fine-boned, the color of chocolate—that the old man let no one touch. “People in this country, they know only how to keep pets. I learned to build wiolins.” He took his favorites back and forth from their loose boxes to the paddocks, swathed in sheets, their legs in bandages. She would see him lead one out to the pasture and just stand there, holding the lead rope, watching the animal crop grass. She had heard gardeners talked to their plants; she wondered if perhaps he was having one-sided conversations. If the weather was good, he would sit down in the grass, his twisted leg stretched out in front of him, one hand on the lead rope, chin in the other. He was often in this posture when she arrived for her lesson, and was usually irritated, jolted as he was from his reverie.

At first she thought the fine horses were boarders, but no one ever came to ride them. Once she asked the old man if they were used for lessons and he said that they were special horses, imported from Germany, and not for little girls with hands like sandbags. She liked to look at them, so spotless and regal, while she mucked stalls and then cleaned the floor, sluicing the aisle with buckets of water; each one of them in his idleness so much his own master.

 

 

Our caravan reached the main road, heading in the direction of Konigsberg, at mid-day. The road was thronged with people: families on foot, carrying suitcases, baskets, and burlap sacks. Some with pushcarts filled with bags of food. The road was impassable, and all of us were reduced to walking at the pace of the oldest and most infirm among us. Klaus was irritated by the crowd and tried to get those on foot to walk in the field alongside the road so that his wagons and horses could pass, but he only heard begging to let this or that old, sick, or pregnant one ride on one of his carts. Weihrauch told us to do what we could, but most of our wagons were crammed full with our own provisions. A brazen few asked to ride the unharnessed horses walking alongside the wagons; Klaus told them that the horses were not his, but the property of the East Prussian Reichs Ministry of Agriculture, and that he was under orders to evacuate them as quickly as possible. No rides.

Our progress was hampered by the retreating Wehrmacht, who monopolized the roads with their jeeps, wagons, and trucks. They surrounded us and told us to give up the horses. The men just laughed at the Reichs Ministry of Agriculture. As we argued with them, a young Hauptmann came forward to intercede. His father had served in the same regiment of Uhlans as Weihrauch before the Great War.

We’ll just take a few, he said. Line them up for a selection. Klaus and I looked at each other.

We did as we were told. The soldiers went up and down the line, feeling their legs, pretending they knew something about horses. In the end, they took seventy-three of our animals, leaving us with the unbroken colts and pregnant mares.

 

He would put the horse on a lunge line, and make her canter around in a circle, hands on her head, blindfolded. He had her trot around with no stirrups, alternating touching the horse’s ears and tail. When he did allow her to have the stirrups, he tied her legs to the leathers with baling twine. “This is how I learned. My Rittmeister taught us so.” When she fell off, he would scold her and send her to the barn. He had an imperfect command of English, but an inexhaustible vocabulary for criticism and insult. Her riding was atrocious, hideous, disgraceful, appalling.

She soiled her clothes with the barn work and he sneered at the manure stains. “When I learned to ride, our boots had to be clean. No matter what work we were doing just before, those boots had to be clean. We had to clean them good, even just to exercise the young horses in the yard.”

This was the most he had ever said to her; she then became emboldened to ask him questions when he worked alongside her in the stable. Sometimes he grunted, other days he stopped to tell her about his Rittmeister. When his Rittmeister made them do calisthenics on horseback–bending down and touching their toes—and he could tell if, in their exertions, they were not breathing in time with their animals. Everyone knew horses could sense fear, but his Rittmeister also believed horses could read the tension in your neck and the smell of your sweat. She liked to hear these anecdotes, even though they were intended to draw unfavorable comparisons between her and the Rittmeister’s students, illustrating the ways in which she would never have measured up.

One day he appeared at her side with a yellowed snapshot, white lines running across the image where the photograph had been bent, or perhaps folded into a wallet or a pocket. She saw three young men in long, narrow coats and military caps, like policemen hats. None of them were smiling, but they looked happy. They had just dismounted and standing next to their horses in the snow. The horses were in the center of the frame. She could not find the old man’s face among those of the young men.

“Who are they?” she asked.

“The Jahrlingen,” he said. “The young horses.”

“No, I mean those guys.”

“The men of the Vorwerke,” he said, which did not explain anything.

“Were those your horses?”

“They belonged to the Gestüt.” Was that a person or a thing, she wondered.

“We did everything together. We schooled the young horses, always a band of us, and when we rode out, off the property, on the public roads, we were riding in a straight line.” He paused and caressed the snapshot with his thumb.

“Where was this riding school?” she finally asked.

“Not a riding school. The City of Horses.”

A city of horses. Was he mocking her? She looked up at him. As their eyes met, for a fleeting instant she was there too. She knew then that it was real—a primordial animal kingdom, a serene, pre-human place.

“Is it in Germany?”

“It’s no place now. Finish your work. Look at the floor! You talk too much and always not cleaning enough.”

 

 

They will overtake us, Klaus said again and again.

It was the fourth day on the road when we saw the planes. They appeared out of nowhere, small propeller planes, and from behind we heard cries and explosions. We in the front were lucky. We drove our horses and carts into the frozen riverbed and reached cover under a bridge. One of Klaus’s colts, Aktis, the last son of Fetusz ox, broke free and ran back to the road in terror. We saw him go down in a round of fire, squealing. Klaus had never broken Aktis of that foal’s habit of butting his head. He would lightly bump your chest, nosing for a treat in your pocket.

When the planes were gone, we came out from under the bridge. There were bodies strewn along the road. Klaus used up a lot of his ammunition that day, easing the dying animals out of life. He turned around so as not to see the hungry butcher the fresh horse meat there on the road.

I cursed the Russians, but Klaus said that all men were vile, because it wasn’t enough that they had to have wars to destroy each other, they had to kill God’s creatures as well.

We knew the planes would follow us, and that we would have to leave this road and to find a way to move faster. Weihrauch pointed out we were very close to the Frisches Haff and that the ice would make it passable. We went off-road for two days, tugging carts through open fields and fording rivers. Once we reached the bay, it was clear we were far from the only ones to have thought of this plan; we saw a procession of refugees, a stream of black ants, moving across the ice.

When we stopped to eat, I heard a commotion coming from Klaus’s wagons. I saw Klaus was brandishing a heavy stick in one hand and clutching a ragged child in the other. We’d seen many abandoned children along the way. We knew they were alone because they were not walking westward with everyone else; they roamed the roads and fields aimlessly. This one was a boy of about six, clenching something in his hand: a bit of horse grain.

Stop, I said. He let go of the boy. I gave the child a potato and told him to stay away from Klaus.

We started off across the Frisches Haff, and for the first day we were able to travel at a good pace. Early in the second day, some of the horses came to a halt and refused to go further. Trakehners are bred not just for their beauty and grace, but also temperament. They are steady and willing, and as trusting as children. Klaus said it was the ice, that they knew it was too thin.
We agreed that there was no going backward. Weihrauch said we would have to keep moving, the more people got on this ice, the less it would be able to bear all our weight. We had to move forward as fast as we could. No stopping.
We kept walking, even at night, struggling to orient ourselves with the shoreline in the darkness. I worried we would lose our bearings and walk too far out on the ice, and get carried out to sea.

Early the next morning, we heard screams and a great creaking under our feet. There was a fissuring that headed from the horizon line straight to us and inside it we could see the water of the freezing water of the Baltic Sea. Astride one of the wagons, Klaus cried Los! and pushed his animals into a gallop. I did the same, and herded my charges forward as the ice broke under them. Klaus’s second wagon, pulled by the brood mare, Khalida, was sucked into the water behind us. For a brief second I turned back to see Khalida’s fine head as she struggled to swim in her traces before the weight of the wagon pulled her under.

 

The day after the old man showed her the photograph he was in a foul temper. She found him in the ring, busy setting up a jumping course. “What are you looking at? Get on,” he barked. “Start riding your horse. Today we jump.” She saw the elderly sorrel mare tacked up and tethered outside the ring, scratching herself against a post. The girl had only jumped a few times, and nothing this tall. She wanted to say something, but she sensed an unfamiliar manic energy coming from the old man dragging poles and setting them in their brackets, then building untidy heaps of discarded lumber and leggy potted plants to create more obstacles.

As she rode around in a circle, warming up, she saw that the jumps were high, and packed close together. There was no way she and this ancient animal would clear them. “Go,” he said, waving his arm.

The girl started around the course. He sat on a mounting block, hunched over, fingers tented, watching.

They came to a pair of gates. “In and out,” said the old man. “Bounce out, one stride.” The mare stumbled, and when they came to the second gate, she missed her stride and crashed through it. In a sickening instant, the girl and the mare were falling through air. The mare’s shoulder pinned the girl for an instant before jumping to her feet. Wood had gone through the frames of her glasses, shattering the lenses. She lay on the ground, afraid to open her eyes.

“Get up! Catch your horse. You frightened her, you stupid little fool.”

She got to her knees, eyes still shut. Winded, she tried to breathe.

“Get up, you idiot!”

She opened her eyes and for a moment everything filmed over and she could not see. Then the dirt of the ring, the light, the railing, the sky, all started unfolding like a negative. She touched her eyes and felt broken glass. She pulled her fingers away from her eyes and saw blood. She closed her eyes again.

“Get your horse.”

She walked to the mare and remounted.

“Finish,” she heard.

She set the animal into a canter and made a circle and approached the jump. She tried to wipe her eyes with the heel of a hand while holding the reins in the other. She could feel something gummy in her eyes and it was hard to see. She cleared one fence but fell at the next one. The mare did not fall down this time, and scampered away to the rail, where all the lesson horses stopped to pull at the tall grass.

“Get on,” she heard.

“I can’t see.”

“Oh, stop whining.”

“I have to stop—”

“If you stop, don’t ever bother getting on one of my horses ever again.”

“I can’t—”

“They taught me to jump with my eyes closed. You get back on that horse now.”

She kept touching her eyes, trying to understand if she could see or if she just imagined she was seeing. She pulled the broken frames of her glasses off her face. She started walking out of the ring.

“Raus!” he screamed. “Don’t come back!”

She headed to the stables, where she was always ordered to go when she displeased him. She did not want him following her, so she looked for a place to hide and found an empty loose box and lay down in the straw, gasping for breath.

After a few minutes, she took a deep breath, wiped her fingers on her shirt tail, and touched her eyes. She must have closed them as she fell–the gumminess she felt was from blood that had run into her eyes from cuts into the skin around them. She started brushing the shards away from her eyes and realized that the lenses had not shattered, that what she felt was bits of wood, and that the cuts around her eyes were from the broken frames. She pressed her eyes into her shirt tail.

She knew he was right—she was a terrible rider. She could hear his favorites in their boxes, chewing quietly, all of them out of reach and herself so undeserving.

She wished she could burrow further into the straw, but she knew she had to leave. Sooner or later, someone would come looking for her. How could she get to her bicycle without crossing his path? She stole out of the stable, out the back door into the paddock, and then doubling back across the paddock to the road. She ran up the driveway, grabbed her bicycle and pedaled away. Once she got back to the safety of home, away from the shouting, the blood, and the manure, she cried.

 

 

I lost count of the days on the ice. I remember that we were visited one more time by the planes while on the Frisches Haff. We galloped to escape the planes and stay clear of the shattering ice. When it was all over, we had lost six horses to the sea, also Weihrauch. In the chaos, no one saw him go under. Klaus’s mare, Gitane, who had competed at Pardubice in 1936, managed to outrun the machine gunners and the breaking ice, but we saw that she could walk no further. Klaus was by this time out of bullets. There was nothing we could do but move on, leaving her behind on the ice.

We left the Frisches Haff the next day, trudging once again through fields and hedgerows. Klaus asked me our ultimate destination, and I said I didn’t know. By this time, we had no food left, or ammunition to shoot game, not that it would have helped; the countryside had been picked clean. There wasn’t a bird or even a rodent left anywhere. There wasn’t anything for the horses to eat, and nothing for them to forage, since the land was covered in deep snow. I remember how Klaus would trudge into a snow bank and start digging frantically, like a dog, looking for some old grass or hedges.

Without Weihrauch, the group started quarreling. Some said we should continue westward; Klaus and I wanted to go south. Some of the others thought we should try to find the retreating Wehrmacht since, it was believed, they might share food with us. With so many veterans in our group, they might take pity on us. Klaus thought they were fools. They will take the horses and leave you to starve on the roads, he said. When we were outvoted, Klaus and I decided to take our horses and go south on our own. They kept our wagons.
We walked and walked, leading the horses behind us. At night we slept in the open, wrapped in horse blankets. Klaus said he had dreams of riding across the East Prussian countryside, weightless, as if his mount were on wings, flying over the hedges, ditches, and stiles, and all around him, like a moving landscape, the vast herds of Trakehnen.

 

It was years later, when the girl was riding on the A-rated circuit that took her to Europe in the summer and Florida every winter, that she heard the name of her old riding teacher. She was in a bar in Ocala one night during the horse trials, brooding over a refusal inside a combination—she knew the animal was green and had been brought along too fast, but he had lost his footing a few times. She’d taken a look at his feet afterwards in the collecting ring and saw that a stud was missing in the near fore. Just wait until she found Hernando tomorrow morning. She was going to tear him a new one. He was careless and sloppy, and had no business working with Grand Prix jumpers. Any horse deserved better. The prior year, when she’d found he had taken some saddle pads out of the wash and left them in a wet pile to mildew, she’d chased him across the show grounds with a dressage whip. People on the circuit had talked about nothing else the rest of the season. This year, she needed help, and had foolishly taken him back when he turned up at her trailers, penitent. Well, he was going to be sorry now.

A few others joined her at the bar, and eventually the group moved to a table to carry on drinking, and then someone said, hey, does anyone know whatever happened to that dressage coach from Westchester, Klaus Steininger? Remember him, the one they called Krazy Klaus?

The one who defected from the East German Olympic Team?

No, the fugitive Nazi war criminal. Everyone laughed.

You mean Tannenhauser Stables, she asked, in North Salem?

That’s the guy, they said.

Crippled from some terrible riding accident.

Heard he raised gorgeous Trakehners, although he never showed them.

Trained a lot of champion FEI riders back in the sixties, though no one knew what happened to him after that. Total madman.

Oh, I knew him, she told the table. I rode with Klaus. He tied my legs with baling twine.

You’re kidding!

Chortles from around the table. Krazy Klaus! All eyes at the table were on her, eager.

Yeah, he made me jump with no stirrups, hands on my head, with my eyes closed. He said that’s how they learned in the Kaiser’s cavalry. More laughs.
She looked around the table enjoying their attention, and, for the briefest moment saw his wary, wounded animal eyes, and felt the chill of her betrayal.

 

 

It was March, after weeks of walking, when we stopped at a farmhouse outside of Pinneburg. There was a man living there alone. He told us his wife and father had died of pneumonia during the winter, and that his grown sons were gone, one killed in the Eastern front two years before, the other not heard from in many weeks but believed to be somewhere in the Ardennes. He had once had a dairy farm, but with no one to help him tend the cows he had no animals left, and said we could put the horses in the barn and help ourselves to whatever of last season’s hay might still be there. Most of the hay was covered in mold, but Klaus found some that he pronounced edible, although as the starving animals ate their meager portions he watched each mouthful, anxious that there might be some mold lurking in the hay. The farmer invited us into the house. Klaus said he preferred to sleep in the barn, and it took some convincing for him to leave the horses and sleep in a human bed again.

The sun was high in the sky when Klaus prodded me awake. Together, we went downstairs to the kitchen where our host was frying sausages. The table was covered with more sausages, bread, and, most astonishing, vegetables in tins. Neither Klaus nor I had seen tinned food since the first year of the war; how could this yokel have got this? It was as improbable as a fresh pineapple, sitting there on the oilcloth. Where could it have come from? Klaus bolted from the kitchen door for the stable. He knew.

I ran after Klaus. He threw the barn door open and let out a yelp. The colts were gone. The farmer had followed us and was standing behind us in the doorway, wiping his mouth.

I have your share, he said. He held out a wad of useless Reichsmarks. He said the Pferdeschlechter had given him a good price that morning.

With a howl of rage, Klaus picked up a shovel and lunged at him. I put a hand on his arm, which made him lose his balance and send the shovel backward into my head. I fell back from the blow. I swear that was all I saw. I knew nothing until I opened my eyes and saw the barn rafters. Klaus was sitting against the wall, panting. When I stepped close, I could see that Klaus had continued hitting him with the shovel long after he was dead.

We sat in the barn for hours, while I decided what to do. Klaus would not look or talk to me. At nightfall, I said we should go. But Klaus did not wait for me. He stood up, tied up his remaining mares, and left the barn. He set out limping down the dark road in the direction of Pinneburg. He did not look back at me. I chose not to follow him.

He should not be hard to track. A man with a pronounced limp, alone, with a half dozen horses. Even in starvation the horses are unmistakable. A Trakehner has a finely modelled head, a deep chest, and a broad, sloping shoulder which creates its characteristic graceful stride. When they are moving, it looks as though they are floating on air.

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