by Renee Carter Hall
The birth was not going well. He watched on the black-and-white closed-circuit monitor as the dapple gray mare, Carolina Moon, strained and panted through what should have been the shortest and final stage of labor. Nothing was happening, and that wasn't good.
He scrubbed his face with his hands, feeling two days' worth of stubble. He'd hoped that having a new life to look after, a knobby-kneed foal to run around the pasture, would somehow begin to heal him. But so far, everything was just a reminder of why Katie should have been there. She would have known exactly what to do, now, when he didn't.
For one brief, bitter moment he wished he could just turn the monitor off and walk away from all of it, out of the house and down the long driveway and then... wherever. Anywhere he could forget, but that place didn't exist.
And he could never leave Carolina, of course. She had been Katie's horse, the only part of her he had left now. He'd joked sometimes that she loved the mare more than him, and she'd grin back at him and say something like "Of course I do. She smells better, for one thing."
He realized his hands were clenched. He'd grown so used to the anger that it was simply there now, essential and unnoticed, like the breath held tight in his chest.
If he waited any longer, he could lose both Carolina and the foal, and he didn't think he could stand that, not now. He was headed for the phone to call the vet when he caught movement on the monitor from the corner of his eye. A dark, wet shape was emerging as Carolina pushed. He grabbed the battery-powered lantern and raced to the stable, his breath steaming in the April night.
Halfway there, he heard the mare scream.
He had never heard a horse make a sound like that, not even ones that were panicked or in pain. It was a long, shrill, desperate cry, and his skin prickled as he pushed the stall door open.
The straw beneath the mare was soaked with blood. Too much blood. His first impulse was to run back for the phone--damn it, he should have brought it out with him--but the mare's breaths were shallow, spaced further and further apart, and as he knelt over her, stroking her neck, he knew there wouldn't be enough time for the vet to get there, much less do anything. "Oh, God, I'm sorry," he said, not sure whether he was apologizing to Carolina or Katie or himself. "I'm sorry." He said it over and over, and then she wasn't breathing, and then she was still.
He sat there for a long moment, the emptiness of it pulling him in, draining him. He might have cried, but he had cried so much before that it seemed there was nothing left in him for tears. At last he turned to the foal, expecting it to be dead, too.
It wasn't. It was struggling its way clear of the birth sac, its dark coat wet and tousled. It was male, a little colt. He reached for one of the old towels he'd left there the day before, then stopped and looked closer at the foal. Its coat was not merely dark but black, and it looked oddly glossy in spots, more than he would have expected for it just being wet. As the foal tried to stand, he moved the lantern a little closer. "What the hell...?"
It had scales, he saw now, ebony patches shining here and there among the horsehair. The hooves were wrong as well, oddly cloven and pointed. The head was the right shape, but its eyes were almost red, and its mouth--
He swore and backed up fast. The damned thing had fangs curving out from its upper lip.
The foal got to its feet, far steadier than a newborn should have been. Its eyes focused on him, and for a moment he knew nothing but that strange gaze and his own blood roaring in his ears.
It was when the forked tongue slipped from the foal's mouth that he turned and ran.
Back in the house, hands shaking, he cupped cold water at the kitchen sink and splashed his face once, twice, three times. When that didn't work, he took a knife from the drawer and pressed his thumb against the point. He drew in a sharp breath as it nicked the skin, but he did not wake up.
"Okay," he said, his voice sounding far away. "Fine."
They kept the rifle over the mantel. It was kind of a joke, really, the kind Katie would make about them living out here in the wilderness, needing a gun to keep varmints off the farm, when the farmhouse had central air and he could see the Lowells' house from the kitchen window. He took the rifle down and tried to remember where they'd put the bullets. He finally found them in the kitchen junk drawer, shoved in the back behind the stray rubber bands, a box of toothpicks, and several sizes of batteries.
Whatever it was, he told himself, it would probably be dead by the time he got back out there. It was probably already dead. Things like that happened sometimes, throwbacks or weird mutations. Maybe there'd been something off with Carolina's feed--hormones or some chemical crap they were pumping into everything these days.
He went to the monitor. Carolina's bright shape was still there, taking up most of the image. The foal was there, too, still alive, standing over her. It was nosing at her body, and beneath his revulsion he felt a certain vague pity; no doubt it was trying to suckle. It bent its head to her belly and--
No. No, he hadn't seen that. He stared at the screen.
The foal drew its head up again, and he saw the sudden dark gash in the mare's light gray coat. The foal had something in its mouth, and as he watched, it tossed its head back a bit, mouth gaping.
Like a lizard swallowing--
The foal spread its long forelegs and bent its head down again, tearing off another mouthful of flesh.
His stomach clenched, and he tasted sour coffee in the back of his throat. He swallowed hard, gripped the rifle in damp palms, and went back out to the stable.
The foal did not look up when he entered. It kept tearing at the mare's flesh, a wet, thick sound followed by gulps as it swallowed.
He cocked the rifle. The foal turned at the sound and met his gaze again. It looked like it knew what he meant to do, but there was no fear in its eyes when he took aim and tightened his finger on the trigger.
In one swift strike, the foal lunged and sank its fangs into his arm, clamping down through his flannel shirt. Pain lanced through his arm, and he struggled to throw the creature off, trying to get at an angle where he could shoot it. At last the foal let go, scuttling back to the far corner of the stable, behind Carolina.
His arm burned all the way to the shoulder. How had the thing moved that fast? He'd been looking right at it, and he hadn't even seen--
Never mind it. It was off him, and the gun was still loaded. Panting, he leveled the barrel at the foal and pulled the trigger.
He took a few steps back, keeping an eye on the foal, and checked the rifle. The shell was still there, everything as it should be.
He tried again. Click.
The foal watched him, its gaze steady and deep.
The world spun and tilted around him, and he stumbled backwards out of the stable. It felt like his bones were on fire. Goddamn thing probably gave me an infection. He wasn't sure where the rifle was, but he didn't have it and didn't want to go back to look for it. Bacteria or venom or God knows what...
His chest felt tight by the time he got back to the house. He fumbled through the kitchen cabinet, knocking over bottles of Katie's vitamins he still hadn't thrown away, and managed to get the top off the aspirin. He swallowed two dry and was halfway to the phone when he passed out.
* * *
When he woke, he was still on the kitchen floor, and several minutes passed before he could remember what had happened. He picked himself up slowly, testing, but besides his back and knees being stiff, he felt fine.
It was dark outside. He squinted at the clock on the stove, not believing the numbers. Nine-thirteen. At night. He'd been out the whole day.
He gingerly pulled back his shirt sleeve. The twin punctures were deep and neat, and around them the skin was raw, as if he'd been burned. But the wounds didn't hurt, not even when he pressed them, though he still had feeling in the skin. He bandaged his arm anyway, tearing the gauze off with his teeth.
The monitor was still on, though the camera's battery should have been dead by now. The mare's white ribs curved out from what remained of her body. He could not see the foal, and he shivered at the thought of the thing getting out of the stable.
He turned on the back porch light and went out to the shed, searching through snow shovels and rakes before he found the axe. The weight of it felt good in his hands, solid and simple and real.
He rounded the house and stopped. Light was flickering from the front pasture.
Fire. He broke into a run. As he got closer, he saw that the grass itself wasn't burning; instead, a bonfire rose from the bales of hay he'd left there months before. He'd meant to take them in to the barn, but... well, it was another thing that hadn't happened since the accident.
A dark shape darted around the orange flames. He clutched the axe handle a little tighter.
It was no longer a foal. There was no question it was the same creature, but it was as large as a yearling now, grown strong on its mother's flesh, and it was... Well, there was nothing else he could call it. It was dancing in tightening circles around the fire, picking up its hooves, kicking its heels, churning the earth as it pounded out rhythms in double time, triple time, cadences he'd never heard before. Sparks rose where each hoof struck the ground, and for a moment, it looked as if the fire was coming not from the hay, but from within the earth itself.
The colt slowed, then stopped. Its coat was lathered with sweat, but it did not seem tired. It turned its head and held his gaze for a long moment.
Something in him could feel that rhythm continuing even though the hoofbeats had ceased. It was something ancient, something passed into legend, and even as he stood shaking, his own sweat chilling his skin, he fought the desire to go to the fireside himself, to dance before it as men might have in elder days when speech was gesture and reason only a dream.
The fire was dying down. The colt shook itself and lowered its head as if to graze on the embers.
He turned and walked slowly back to the house. When he got back into the kitchen, he was still holding the axe, and he looked down at it dully for a moment, trying to remember what it was for.
A distant light burned in the black square of the kitchen window, and he thought of fire again before he remembered the Lowells' porch light, the one they kept on even during the day.
Was Frank asleep? He hoped not. He hoped the bastard hadn't slept since that night. It was what he deserved.
He stared at the house, the same familiar rage rising in him like bile. If it were possible to set a house on fire by sheer will, he would have expected to see flames licking at the shutters.
He hadn't been there when she'd died. He hadn't even known. He would have thought that loving a person more than a decade meant that you would know, somehow, when they needed you, know when something was wrong, just know. Wasn't that what people talked about?
But he hadn't felt a thing.
Neither had she; that was what they all tried to tell him. It had been quick, and he was supposed to think that was a blessing, that it was so much better she hadn't suffered, hadn't had the kind of death everyone feared, with hospital monitors and tubes and a slow march of pain. But at least then he might have had some warning, might have had some chance to prepare himself, to know that what he was saying was being said for the last time.
He couldn't remember what he had said to her last. He was afraid it was something about the electric bill. He had lain awake several nights, trying to remember, afraid to remember. He couldn't remember what she had said either. It was the last time he'd ever seen her alive, and he wanted to enclose that memory in crystal, keep it safe, and he couldn't even remember, and he hated that, hated himself for not paying more attention.
He hadn't seen Frank since the sentencing. Apparently drinking so much you could barely walk, getting behind the wheel anyway, and slamming into someone at seventy miles an hour on a rural road could be paid for with sixty days in jail and a smattering of community service hours afterward.
Saying it wasn't fair was obvious. Of course it wasn't. If it had been fair, he would have been resting a hand comfortingly on the arm of Frank's widow as she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, telling her that we don't know why these things happen, but there's a reason we just can't see, that things are meant to be this way.
He realized he was still holding the axe. He forced himself to release it, hands aching as he propped it against the wall and went to bed.
* * *
When he woke up, it was dark again--or dark still. He felt his stubble and decided it was the same night. The monitor in the kitchen was finally blank, and he turned it off.
He unwrapped the gauze around his arm. The puncture wounds were almost gone, just two purplish-black marks there, each about the size of a dime. The skin around them was less raw, but a set of odd welts had risen, curving slashes of raised flesh, as if he'd been burned with a brand. He touched them hesitantly, but they didn't hurt.
He went outside. The pasture was gray under a gray sky. In the stable, nothing was left of the mare but bones and twisted hide. Her skull stared back at him.
He felt the horse's presence before he turned and saw it. It was grown now, a stallion, a twisted mockery of fine equine form, hideous and mesmerizing. It stood as if waiting for him, tossing its head eagerly as he came near. It smelled of horse-sweat and moldy hay, of wet leaves and rotten meat, of something burned and something long dead.
It was beautiful.
He reached his hand out to stroke its neck. Steam rose when he touched its flesh, but he felt no pain.
He found the tack where Carolina's had been kept. At first the saddle and bridle looked like black leather, but the texture was strangely pebbled and thin, the hide of nothing he knew on earth. The bit looked like old bone.
The horse stood calmly while he saddled it and slipped the bridle on. The brand on its flank matched the raised flesh on his arm. He traced the marks with his fingers and felt himself smile. He didn't know what the symbols said, but he knew what they meant. This creature was part of him, as he was part of it. The selfsame darkness laid claim to them both.
The horse snorted and pawed at the ground. He knew what it wanted. He wanted it too.
He led the horse out of the stable. The sun would be rising soon, though all he could see of it now was a smudge of lighter gray at the horizon. When he mounted up, the stallion went forward, needing no command, and as dawn broke, they rode out of the pasture together, heading for the house just up the hill, the one where the light still burned.
(c) 2012 Renee Carter Hall ("Poetigress"). May not be reprinted, reposted, or redistributed without permission. This story first appeared in *Black Static, published by TTA Press.*
A grieving husband tries to find solace in tending his late wife's mare as she prepares to foal. But the mare -- and the man -- give birth to something monstrous...
A dark tale, rated mature for mild gore, that first appeared in the British horror magazine Black Static. And if you'd rather listen than read, you can find the audio version here as part of the podcast Tales to Terrify.
Somewhat inspired by the Ringwraiths' black steeds as portrayed in the Lord of the Rings films, and the first draft written with Coatl's The Eternal Glory of Terror playing on repeat in the background. >^_^<