The Horses of Marly
by Marie Chapman
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
It was early afternoon. After I examined the prints, I stared for a long moment out the window at the horses. The window was one of your kind in France, with two glass sides opening in, shutters opening out. A cast-iron railing reached to my hips.
I observed first the horse on the right, then the other. It was very warm and I took off my shirt. I’ve always wondered at our fascination with horses. These didn’t even have royal or military riders. They were wild, on their own, except for the grooms.
I read Baudelaire’s piece regularly with students, I even got my wife to read it, yet I can’t put my finger on what he meant by bringing together horses and modern life. I know Baudelaire’s hero of modern life, the painter, must imbibe and represent urbanity — women, the boulevards, cabarets. Still, the horse seems an odd choice. Like one of those intelligence questions where you choose the figure that doesn’t fit it. I’d choose the horse.
I probably observed them for about twenty minutes, and then I sat on the edge of the bed to call my friends. The telephone was a mess to use — you had to go through hotel reception, and of course they didn’t know what they were doing. The woman insisted that my friends were not guests at the hotel. It took a while to sort out, and I became agitated.
Finally, I was able to leave a message on their home machine. I then removed my shoes and lay down on the bed, on top of the bedspread. I didn’t even pull it off the pillow. I slept for a few hours before being awoken by the sound of the phone.
Well, that’s not exactly true. I mean, I realized when I woke up that the phone was ringing, but that’s not what woke me. I distinctly heard someone whisper in my ear, “When you wake, you’ll have cake,” in English, with a British accent.
It wasn’t part of any dream, and I wondered later if someone from the hotel had come to fix the doorknob. Maybe he had to open the door to do so. Maybe he was they, and one of them had said this thing to the other.
It’s true that when I got up I found the knob was repaired. Perhaps in my half-awakened state I misunderstood what the repairman said, which must have been in French in any event. I don’t know why I’d rendered it into English and with a British accent. Later I understood — well, “understood” is probably not the right word — what the words meant. I’m not sure “meant” is the right word, either.
Things went well enough for a few days after that. The convention was bearable, my friends attentive, and it’s true I only spent about nine hours a day in the room, mostly devoted to sleep.
Then there was the fourth day, last Friday. We had gone to the Normandy shore and we got back rather late, after dark. It must have been around eleven. The day had been full of sun and meals on a terrace overlooking the water, and we were tired with that fatigue that comes from spending time by the water.
I was sitting in the front passenger’s seat and dozing on and off. I woke up a few times thinking it was raining. But, when I looked out the window, I saw that it wasn’t raining. Anyway, there was no traffic, since most people were in the process of leaving Paris for the weekend.
I was asleep when the car stopped near the horses. My friends’ son — he was at that age when kids begin to read, six or seven — jumped out of the back seat to open my door, and the noise of his door slamming woke me. It had stopped raining, I thought. I was in a daze but I knew enough to lean over for my bag once I got out.
I suppose my head was level with the top of my door when the boy slammed it. You know how stupid kids are, always showing off their strength. The corner edge of the door hit me there, here. It seems silly, but it was quite a blow. The edge of the door was sharp and probably rusted, although no one has spoken to me about tetanus.
It took me a moment to forget the rain that had never fallen, and straighten myself up a bit. The right side of my head, the part level with my right eye, felt intensely painful. I touched my hair and there was blood. The child kept crying that he hadn’t done it on purpose.
My friends led me into the hotel, and there was confusion at the desk. Finally, we went upstairs. Someone from the hotel brought an old bottle of hydrogen peroxide and some cotton balls and bandages. My friends must have stayed a bit, but I’m not sure about the timing. I know I mentioned my sleeping pills, which were on the nightstand, and they helped me take one. I must have slept after that.
I don’t know why my friends subsequently abandoned me. It felt in many ways worse than my wife’s abandonment of me, I guess because that was involuntary. I mourned my friends over the next few days. Or maybe I mourned myself, since it was as if they had buried me and then gone home. I know that sounds melodramatic.
I didn’t dream that night, which is unusual for me. I decided later that my so-called friends had given me more than one sleeping pill. I tried to count how many were left, but by that time . . . well, it didn’t seem to matter. Before I fell back to sleep I thought about replacing them with new friends, a new, childless, couple.
The first thing I noticed in the morning was that the window and shutters had been left open, perhaps to rub in the abandonment. It was cloudy and rather cool for that time of year. From the bed — I was on top of the bedspread again — I could see one of the horses, the left one. The boy groom tried to hold him back.
I struggled to sit up, and then heard it again, the voice: “When you wake, you’ll have cake.” And this time there was a response: “And all the pretty horses.” So now I knew that there were two workmen. It no longer seemed odd that they spoke in English, even with that accent. But how many times did they need to fix the doorknob?
Then I decided it was the maid — were there two of them? — trying to get in to clean the room. I managed to call to her that I would not leave the room that day and that she needn’t return. She didn’t seem happy with my request, but I’m not sure how I knew that. She and her co-worker went away.
I stayed in bed all day Saturday, sleeping on and off. I was sure the phone would ring, that my friends would come by and visit, even if they couldn’t reach me because the receptionist didn’t know how to transfer calls. You can see that I spent time inventing excuses for their bad behavior; but they could have come on up without dealing with the reception, right? They knew about the dining room and the stairs.
It occurred to me that they had perhaps come up but I hadn’t heard the knocking. And then it hit me — the doorknob. I wanted to check on it, but sitting up made me dizzy, and time was passing by so quickly that I never got around to it. Not that day, anyway. I know I was suffering from slight hallucinations, I’ll admit to that much.
At one point I woke and noticed the windows and shutters were closed. Later, they were open, and I saw that one of the prints, the more traditional one, was moved from its original spot to a place above the headboard. I could lie back and stare straight up, with my eyes rolled back a bit, and see it.
I didn’t dream that day. I didn’t eat either, but I went to the toilet once or twice and drank some of the juice I’d brought from the airport. At about dusk, I took a pill. Now there seemed to be lots of them in the bottle, so I was reassured about my friends. Maybe they had spent the day punishing the boy; I enjoyed that thought.
I figured they’d show up the next morning. We’d have two days more, before I’d leave on Tuesday. I recalled how kind they had been until that little bastard slammed me with the door. I don’t often use that kind of language, but my wife liked to say you can’t censor all the bad words and all the bad feelings. I thought that was a nice expression. She was a forgiving person.
The dreams started that night, and they were about the boy. He was the one spewing the garbage about cake. I had never liked him and, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I held it against my friends that they had had him. My wife and I were fine without children, and I thought they felt the same. It was a betrayal, you see.
It occurred to me that it might be good for the boy to die in a car accident or be stomped to death. Before going to bed, I checked on the horses to see if there was enough room under their rearing legs for the boy. There was.
In the first dream, I was in a wagon drawn by cement horses. It looked like the wagon in the Wizard of Oz, drawn by horses of a different color. I don’t know how I even remembered that, from the children’s film. But then the wagon was a carriage and it had windows, real glass ones. I marveled at this.
It was rainy. A yelping dog was following the wagon. Not difficult to interpret, I suppose. The grooms driving the carriage sang together, “The wheelbarrow broke, and my wife had a fall, down came wheelbarrow, little wife and all.” And then another song — someone was singing now, “The bees and the butterflies pickin’ at its eyes, the poor wee thing cried for her mammy.”
I developed a throbbing headache in the dream. Have you ever had a headache in a dream? I leaned against the carriage window and the door swung open. I fell out into a ditch. I knew the horses would trample me, but I woke first.
The other dreams were similar. I decided that in the morning I would banish all thought of violence against the boy from my mind. My wife had cared very much for him, so it was for her sake.
Copyright © 2015 by Marie Chapman