White Horses

  • 08 Aug - 14 Aug, 2020
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

The blue, stained-glass windows dimmed the moon, making an eerie cross-pattern on the floor. From nods to winks, the faithful came to pay their respects, obeying the call, among lavish saints painted on emblazoned glass, a stint less attempt at glorifying the Lord. My mother responded in kind to their cares, grieves and guile but I found no burning faith among the enkindled crowd or the votive candles. The dark casket that held my father reflected a solitary light that seemed to dangle in mockery.

I knew that he was going to die. I already knew it when I walked through the hygienic corridors of the hospital. I could smell it; the death. No amount of good deeds or prayer-induced ravaged knees, bent on church aisles, would change the fact that death haunted those halls far and near. Phantom smells lingered; a mixture of medications, disinfectants, alcohol, iodine, perfume, blood and food.

I saw him there in gaunt gardens, alone, eaten away by cancer and in deep pain. I experienced his likeness each and every day for many years until he moved me not at all; but the heart, like those walls, retains the tale, telling tears of time, like a picture, most likely a spell ...

The new Surgical and Pregnancy wing of the hospital opened today, and while I was in Julian's room, spoon-feeding him, like his mother once did. He had already left a good part of this world and could scarcely speak but his sense of humour was still sharp.

"I'll have a drink, straight up, very cold, and stirred to perfection,” he said.

We could hear the festivities taking place as we both struggled to find comforting words for one another. He had neither appetite nor taste for even his favourite things and it was difficult for him to keep a bowl of chicken broth down without vomiting.

I tried to make this night a positive night because I knew that it was the last time I would ever see Julian alive again. There was a certain smell in his room that was never present before. It was the same smell that rose from my father's body right before he died. A wintergreen and strange licorice smell, against layers of dry, dying epidermis.

I spoke to him about Jenny while I was bathing him in the bed. Jenny was Julian's life partner and true soul mate. We all met back in college while boarding at Fordham University. I was looking for my room when I walked in on Julian and Jenny. They were sitting together, laughing out lively and having their favourite chocolate-mint flavoured brownies. I remember how sweetly he talked to Jenny, and how he looked at her, with so much love, care and tenderness.

Now, I'm really frightened. Frightened to talk to him about Jenny, knowing the same fate awaits Julian. But Julian loves to be reminded of Jenny and the great times we all shared together.

"I felt so alive beneath the warmth of her sweet hugs. Her beautiful eyes made me think about anything but death," he says. "I don't mean to make you cry. Do you remember the time you wore those gaudy, silver, glittered shoes to Tavern on the Green?" he asks.

I remembered. It was the day we found out that Jenny had cancer and was on the last stage. A waltz was playing in the background and Julian and I held each other, listening to violins while slow dancing, and happily saying good-bye to the blue afternoon.

I have a secret: before Jenny died I went to church, got down on my knees and prayed a chaplet to Saint Michael, The Archangel, begging him to spare Jenny’s life. It was then that I saw this angelic figure floating down over me, shimmering in the light. It was a familiar figure. I had seen it before, in my youth, when it was time to say good-bye to my father. There was a faint breeze, a cool innerness that wedged itself into my very soul and I realised that tomorrow is a gift and the people we love are everywhere, even the ones who have passed on. You can touch them, call upon them, they are not lost.

I lay on Julian's bed now, recalling the amazing afternoon of angelic light falling among prayers, burned candles and incense.

He's in pain again. This time was more intense than ever before. He manages to ask me if I have written any new poetry lately. I don't have the courage to tell him that I can't put the words together. That my heart is very heavy with sadness.

He always thought of me as being such a tough human being. "Nothing ever gets to you," he would tell me.

It was a facade I was trying to uphold for his sake, for his inner strength. I tell him I've become bored with writing poetry, it's just not enough of a challenge anymore. I take out his favourite book of verse, by Rudyard Kipling, open to page 143, and start to read “White Horses”. He loved this one particular passage and, through the gasps of sheer pain, he recites it with me ...

Trust ye the curdled hollows-

Trust ye the neighing wind-

Trust ye the moaning groundswell-

Our herds are close behind!

To bray your foeman's armies-To chill and snap his sword-

Trust ye the wild White Horses, The Horses of the Lord!

Saying “I love you” has never come easy for me but, I took a deep breath as he took his last and, I did it.

Walking home, I couldn't help but fall in love with the full moon over the evening sky. A deep orange, washed with the blue, and I was reminded just how fragile it all can be. How much relationships mean and how connected we all really are.

That night the winds rose up and ranged, blowing dead leaves into my bedroom through an open window. One leaf touched my hand and I thought ... life's tending, and it's ending once again.