“AS the night wind blows, the boughs move to and fro. The rustling, the magic rustling that brings on the dark dream. The dream of suffering and pain. Pain for the victim, pain for the inflicter of pain. A circle of pain, a circle of suffering. Woe to the ones who behold the pale horse.” – Margaret Lanterman
IT was a while before I could bring myself to clear away the stacks of cups and plates. I waited until two days after the funeral. When the last guest left the wake, I could only stare at used paper napkins on dirty dishes which some helpful soul had piled atop the kitchen table. There was no energy within me to even switch the lights on.
I had had time to process Abigail’s death, to come to terms with it. She was gone and not coming back. It was easy enough to think it or even to say it out loud to the still house. But acceptance of the fact was a simmering realisation taking some weeks to bring to a boil. During those lonely evenings, sleep came to me slowly and I took what I could with gratitude. At work I was a spectre; not saying much and not thinking much. Most of all, feeling nothing. In the end, I was forced into bereavement leave which only compounded my miserable introspection.
The hex was lifted by Michael, an old friend. He rang up one afternoon under some pretext, though I knew he was checking on me. My voice cracked down the line. How hard it was to say out loud that certain memories gathered like cobwebs in certain parts of the house, that perversely I wished to avoid disturbing them. For a month I had been reduced to living out my guilt in only three downstairs rooms. That phone call was the first time I had spoken aloud in a fortnight.
Three hours later and Michael stood in my front room clutching a bottle of Scotch, two pizzas and a chess set. He laid everything down on the coffee table and drew me in for a hug. Over his shoulder I caught sight of the blended whisky label; a white horse, and recalling the terrible thing which had happened, I shuddered.
“No wonder you’re cold,” said Michael, “switch the heating on.”
“You shouldn’t have,” I said, meaning the bundle he’d brought from the car.
“Nonsense, Edward,” he replied. “What did your mother say about gifts and mouths?”
“She would have said something about Greeks and gifts. Here, let me.” I reached for the pizza boxes, but Michael took them from me.
“No, you sit there. I’ll do it. Set up the board and take the first move.” I placed the chessmen in the starting positions as he clattered around the kitchen, looking for an oven tray. He returned with two glasses and poured out the whisky. As I turned the bottle so that the label faced away from us, he stroked his beard and thought of a gambit. It was just as we used to do as students, when Michael had more hair on his head and less on his face. Back when we roomed together and before Abigail and I had met.
It was Michael who had introduced us, spilling a round of drinks over her at a Deftones concert. I’d apologised for my tipsy friend and bought her a T-shirt from the merch stand. It was black with the album cover design printed on the front. Years later she still used it as a pyjama top. I kept it folded on the bed which I no longer slept in to remind me how she smelled.
With the help of the whisky, I was drifting away. My divided attention meant that Michael seized victory. With a flourish, he took my last knight and mated me. As the night stretched out, I lost more games in similar circumstances. With each loss, Michael winkled me from my shell. After we’d sunk half the bottle, my lips unclamped and I poured everything out in one deadpan monologue. There were no tears or sniffles. I just couldn’t summon them. These were replaced with a stammer and difficulty meeting my best friend’s eye. I needed another person. I found myself telling him of my dreams every night; the obsessive discovery and rediscovery of her body draped over the bedclothes. Her cold hands closed around a plastic pill bottle, the contents scattered across the dark carpeted floor like constellations on a starry night.
“I was so afraid that she’d been using again,” I finished, “… we’d fought so hard. But thank God, it was only sleeping pills.”
But I’d said too much. Michael kept quiet. His glance was hard to read. Was there a tint of suspicion in his gaze? He couldn’t have known. There was nothing I could say to steer the conversation or change the subject and so I stopped. The air between us thickened with our silence and the silence of Abigail. As we were both sat on the couch, her absence was seated across from us in her favourite armchair. Michael wiped a small tear from his eye and poured out two more drinks. We toasted to Abigail’s memory and knocked them back in one. My thinking grew clouded. I don’t remember what I might have said to him after that.
In the morning, I awoke from my makeshift couch bed, a woollen blanket about my shoulders. Michael was dozing in the armchair. As I set the kettle on Michael appeared behind me and set a pan upon the hob. With his back to me as he cracked some eggs he said:
“You need to leave the house. I’m not sure it’s healthy you staying here holed up by yourself.”
“Where would I go?”
“Anywhere.” he sighed. “I’m not saying that you should forget her, Ed. That’s an insult and it’s never going to happen. But the idea of you stagnating here by yourself, she wouldn’t have wanted that.”
The oil in the pan began to crackle and he clapped me on the back. I flinched
“Find a therapist, you’ve clearly got a lot you need to talk about.”
We ate the eggs and watched daytime TV. Despite the hangover, I felt better than I had in a long while. Michael left around lunchtime with the proviso that I could call him any time if I needed to and that he would prefer it if I did. As the car pulled out of the drive I waved him off. I turned to re-enter the house and noticed a neat set of hoofprints crossing the fresh snow on the lawn. They circled the house before disappearing off into the woods.
Later that day, I took the car into the village to restock my dwindling groceries. I thought on Michael’s advice. It would be good to take a break somewhere. At the supermarket, I felt eyes boring into my back. On the way back I drove with the radio turned up.
Throughout the rest of the day I took steps to wrest back control. I scrubbed the hovel which had once been the front room to a loud television accompaniment. As the sun set, the atmosphere filling the near vacant rooms was less stale. The house felt more like home again.
While cleaning, I found the remainder of the whisky. To reward myself for the day’s proactivity, I poured it all out into a pint glass and polished it off slowly. My face flushed, I focused my bleary eyes on the television screen; some late night movie marathon. One after the other, I devoured them. Suddenly, in the middle of an advert break, I looked beyond the screen to the window behind it. There peering through was a drawn white face, my blurred eyes couldn’t make out much more.
I sobered in an instant. Standing bolt upright, I ran to the door and thrust it ajar. The floodlight streamed across the garden. There was no-one to be seen. Only those hoofprints, tracking through the slush. My heart raced in my ears. I dreaded to think for how long that hideous face was pressed at my window. It looked almost like a… I couldn’t complete the thought.
Though palpitations gushed in my chest, the front yard was still. But a faint noise crept across from the bushes; a familiar wet gurgle. I slammed the door and sealed it with a secure latch. From behind the closed door I could still hear that awful bubbling sound. I drowned it with more whisky. Grief can play with the mind, it seemed.
Taking Michael’s advice, I drove south to the coast that I might spend a few days and calm down. Once I had had a quiet break, I reasoned, I could piece things back together. I piled some clothes and other assortments into the car boot – enough for a few days away from everything.
The sun shone through the windscreen into the car. It was a marvellous day. Crossing county borders, I found myself in Kent. I did not have any direction. Rather, I was keen to escape that house cast with the spectre of my wife’s death. Of course I carried a piece of it with me, how could I not? Her presence lingered on the passenger seat. Even though I tried desperately not to think of her, I conjured the memory of the way she’d adjust the radio dial and imitate the voices of the newsreaders. The way the sunbeams danced in her hair. That light had been snuffed.
Nightfall peered at the shoreline and I had to stop driving. Having no direction, I looped up and down the coast for the last hour or so of ebbing twilight. As I had approached Folkestone, I decided to pull up to a hotel and park nearby. My head was woolly and pale figures cavorted at the edges of my vision. I was losing it, and I knew it. Spontaneous ten-hour drives are not the actions of rational men. The insomnia itched at my eyes. How long had it been since I had slept the whole night through?
Here the rolling country met the Channel sea. In daylight, the road was packed with holidaymakers queuing for the ferry. Under cover of darkness the streets were empty but for my tiny car with sole weary passenger. Having parked behind the hostel, I made my way to the check in desk. The receptionist was less than impressed when confronted by a sallow sweaty figure. However, I paid for my room without incident. No sooner had I lain on the bed than I lapsed into dream.
That night I stumbled back into our bedroom. Behind a curtain of sleep, I again saw that terrible night. As a helpless voyeur, I watched the door open and my double creep in. Saw him approach the limp figure of Abigail on the bed. It was too much. In the nightmare I screamed and tried to rush at the bed, to change everything. Instead I found myself weighed down by a force pressing into my chest.
A single hoof pinned me to the floor. Its owner was a pale horse with a lank mane the colour of ash. Despite its spindly legs and wasted frame, its weight was enough to hold me fast. The pale face I had seen at the window now leered down and champed at me. No matter how I struggled, the visitation forced me to watch the scene of Abigail’s last moments, re-enacted with the horrible detail of memory. I lay unable to change the outcome. The terror lasted until that final moment, when Abigail’s wet gasps became still and that raging beat in my chest was halted in hers.
I awoke in a cold ocean, panting. That same dream, every night since she died. Sunrise took in a sordid man lying in soaked sheets. Even though I was alert, there was still a dull pain in my chest from where the apparition had pressed its hoof. I changed from my bedclothes and splashed my face in the bathroom sink. No sooner had I done so then I saw the same white face of a horse reflected in the mirror, gloating over my shoulder. Its skin was thin and wax like, its teeth gleaming and black. Its eyes reflected the worst in me, everything I had tried to hide. I gasped and struck it reflexively. My bunched fists met empty space. The lingering night terror.
As if in a trance, I marched from the room and out the hotel door. I ranged through the town and up along the clifftop paths. Here, the strong sunlight was enough to banish the demons of the night gone before. Although it relaxed me somewhat and my cantering pulse became calm.
My suspicions were confirmed as I rounded a corner of the path to be confronted by a chalk image carved out of the hillside, the image of everything I had tried to flee. There in the distance was the relief of a galloping horse, its white figure standing out against the green grass. I fell to my knees and the images of last night replayed themselves.
This time I witnessed it from my perspective. No longer a voyeur, I was watching events unfold from I behind my eyes three months ago. As I had caused them three months ago. After climbing the stairs, I softly pushed our bedroom door open, to where Abigail slept on the bed. Snorting heavily (she was drunk; I had taken care of that), she lay deep in her slumber. I crossed the room and loosed the seal of the pill bottle stowed in my pocket. One by one, I filled her slack open mouth with little white tablets and rubbed her throat so that she swallowed them.
Then in my flashback I saw her awaken. Her eyes wide, she thrashed on the bed as I held her down and with all of my strength, forced her jaw shut. As she fought, her top slipped to reveal the tattoo between her shoulder blades; the figure of a prancing horse. Her flailing hand connected with the pill bottle which span across the room, sowing its contents over the bed and the floor. No matter how Abigail struggled, I kept both hands fastened to her mouth. Even as she vomited and inhaled I kept my grip.
Her muffled screams gave way to muted wet coughs and retches. I felt her convulse again, but held on. And then she stopped. It was over. I stood back and her lifeless arm flopped over the bed. After arranging the scene, I waited for an hour until I phoned for help. By then the body was cold. There was an inquest; verdict of suicide with no foul play suspected. But for my conscience, I had gotten away with it.
I came to. With slashed palms and a bloodied lip, I was curled in the dirt and the ferns. There was a hoarse screeching coming from close to me. As I further recovered, I realise that I the cries came from my own throat. They were interrupted by dry heaves. Bent double, I thrust my knees into the mud and retched. When the episode passed, I picked myself and looked around to see if I was alone.
No person marched along the hinterlands, instead the image of the white horse sprang to life and galloped towards me. As it bore down on my prostrate body, I begged for forgiveness. In answer, it opened its mouth wide and spluttered a wet choking noise. The day was peaceful, a gentle breeze sifted among the grass. The white terror was nearly on me now. Its monstrous hooves beat against the hillside, galloping louder than a jet engine.
At the last second of its charge, I panicked and sprinted away. Damp leaves lashed against my legs as I strayed from the pathway. I vaulted a wire fence which plucked my clothes. As I looked over my shoulder, I saw that the horse was closing the gap, felt its rank breath in my hair.
Then, at the last second, there was silence. We had reached the cliff edge at full tilt. The ground opened way and I stepped into a void with only the foaming ocean waves to meet me below.