MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
IT WAS AROUND about the time Mama died that I started noticing the horses. Not real horses, obviously. But the statues of horses. Strong and proud figures that dotted the streets of Lahn Dan and stared stiffly ahead like they hadn’t seen you looking. And on their backs, important men. Whenever the storytellers start talking about the horses, they always tell you that they carried important men. Lord this or King that. Into battle usually. Into war. If the Gases hadn’t killed the horses off, then the wars would have done in the end.
The day Mama died, the sky was slightly more violet than normal, the clouds fatter and blacker. The coughing had got worse—hack, hack, hack, it had been—and her color more yellowy sick. I had helped her walk to the hospital at Lahn Dan Bridge and she had lain there all groans and hack-hack-hacks. They put her in a wheeling chair and whizzed her up to a room filled with other groaners and moaners and agey old hack-hack-hackers. At least the candles and lamps in the room meant that you couldn’t see her properly. Couldn’t see how sick she was getting, I mean. The nurses all shook their heads and made sad eyes, and one of them felt the need to put their arm around me. I knew then I’d be going home alone.
At one point Mama pulled herself up and, through the gloom, tried her best to look me in the eye, the coughing temporarily catching its own breath. Her straggly red hair tipped forward as she leant in closer and grabbed my hand in her own bony fingers. A gentle tug, an almost invisible whisper on her lips. I pushed my ear towards her.
“… iiiiddde…,” she whistled through her teeth.
“… iiiiiiDDDDDE.” Frustrated, she yanked harder on my arm.
“Sorry, Mama. I don’t know what you’re saying. Try saying it—”
“Arrrttssiiiiddde.” Her hand dropped mine and her finger pointed itself at me. Slowly. Deliberately.
“What? Oh.” The trip flicked somewhere in my brain. “Outside? What do you mean?”
Before she could reply, her whole body flopped back onto the bed as the hack-hack-hacks started a fresh attack and Mama’s dying body fought to keep itself still.
She lived for two more hours and never said another word.
* * *
Initially, I thought that she was trying to protect me. Wanting me to go outside the hospital so that I wouldn’t see her die. Sparing me the pain of her slip into the hands of the God Man.
It took some time for me to fully understand.
Walking home, I went a different route. I should have just kept along the bankment wall and scooted westwards, but for some reason I took the bridge over the Tems. Don’t know why. Too many tears in my eyes. Not wanting to be home alone, I suppose. I found myself wishing for something I hadn’t wished for in a long, long time—that I had a father. A father to go home to. But there was no one.
It used to be a river—the Tems—so they say. One of the biggest rivers in the world. Gushing and whooshing along. Not that I’d ever seen a river, but that’s what the storytellers say they did, gush and whoosh along. It started in the hills a hundred miles away and slid its way to the sea, cutting Lahn Dan in half on the way. Boats would go up and down, this way and that way, taking stuff back and forth. But all it is now is mud. A horrible, dangerous twisty line of mud. People fall in and never get out again. Robbers knock people on their heads and throw them in. That sort of thing. If you want to get rid of something, throw it in the Tems, that’s what everybody says.
I walked and walked until I was well and totally truly lost among crumply old buildings that I’d never seen before. Men and women pushing handcarts and rubbing their tiredy backs stared at me like I was a dancer in a roomful of lazybones. But still I walked and walked. I walked and walked and walked.
Until I came across it.
When I talked to the Professor about it a few days later, he told me that the part of Lahn Dan I found myself in was called Ole Bone Circus and before the Gases, people would go there to chatter to each other and barter with each other to make as much money as possible. Now it sits as quiet as a dead mouse and nobody pays it much notice. All you can hear is the wind tunneling down the different roads and the flap of people’s cloaks as they hurry on past.
But in the middle …
In the middle is one of the statues I was talking about. A man—a prince, the Professor says—on the back of his horse, waving his hat as if to say “Hello and welcome.” And the horse. Oh, the horse. If ever I see anything as handsome and as beautiful in my life again, I should shudder in amazishment. His neck all muscly and smooth like a rolled-up carpet from the Gallery Market. His legs as sharp as Mrs. Ludovic’s knittering needles. His tail, slippery and silky. It was as if the prince himself were riding a king—a magnificent, majestic animal king.
Suddenly my legs stopped walking and my eyes stopped crying, and for the first time since Mama had died earlier that afternoon, I was thinking about something else. I stood there for who knows how long and just stared at the creature made of bronze. People went past and the day went past and all I did was wander around the statue and stare at it with my sore, red eyes. I don’t know what it was, but something held me fixed. Its beauty and elegance. Its strength.
It reminded me of that bashed-up wooden toy Mama bought for me a longish time ago. One dull afternoon, thinking it was my birthday, she’d spent her last few pennies on it. The bashed-up wooden toy I’d lost forever.
As the sky eased itself into a darkness, I shook myself together. It wasn’t too far off the Bat Shriek curfew and I was a long way from home. I raced back through the streets and over West Minister Bridge with just a few moments to spare before the sirens wailed over the city. Brushing past the moths in Dew Bee Lee Gardens, I grasped on to the ropes of the Lahn Dan High, pulling myself up and clambering across the spiderwebby mesh into our pod. My pod. It was only me now. I lit a candle and popped one of the dinner pills into my mouth before climbing into my sleep bag.
I didn’t draw the curtains. I couldn’t bear to see the shadows of moths tonight. I needed to see the stars.
Copyright © 2016 by Zillah Bethell