Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 2, 2012

Nico

First place: Children

by Nicole Knauer

She circled the cave, the whites of her eyes flashing. Rain pounded outside in the dark, and the horse knelt down on her knees. Resting her huge head on the sandy floor, she heaved and pushed until the small foot of a coal-black foal appeared. It was followed by a sloping head and straggly ears. After what seemed like forever, his long body and soft, broomstick tail emerged from his mother, and he lay next to her dazed, batting his long eyelashes and sucking in long, even breaths.

His mother's broad tongue wiped his body clean and ruffled his fluffy fur. With nudges of encouragement, she willed him to rise. He tried to control his long legs but each time ended up on the sand. After several attempts, he shakily stood up and was soon walking to his mother. He found her warm milk and drank it until his tummy was full. Tucking his knees under him, the foal slept.

When the sun lit up the sky the next morning, the foal trailed his mother out of the warm cave. Suddenly, he was engulfed by many horses, their large nostrils sniffing his body and welcoming him into their herd. Many mares, old ones with graying coats and swayed backs, young ones with fire in their eyes and gleaming tails, greeted him. One horse was big and muscular, splotched white and brown, with massive hooves. Approaching the shivering foal, he and stared down at the youngster. Its big brown eyes looked into small black ones as he silently judged the foal. Slowly, the stallion looked away and paced to the front of the herd. The foal felt welcomed.

As days passed, the foal grew on the ranges and was strengthened by making his way over the rough terrain. He began to drink less milk and eat more grass. His mane grew full and wavy; his tail, long and trailing. He filled out until he was larger than his mother. No longer did the stallion seem so massive; the black horse was its equal — equal size, strength, and capability.

As the black horse grew in power, he became a threat to the stallion. His mother knew, as did the rest of the herd, that it would soon be time for the black horse to leave the herd and form his own band. That doomed day came.

One morning, the colt was drinking from an icy stream when a strong blow thunked against his ribs. Swirling around, he saw the brown and white stallion in a frenzy. Twirling on his haunches, the stallion bit and kicked, landing bruises on the black horse. Lunging and drawing back, prancing around his opponent, the black horse nipped at the stallion's hide and flicked his hooves against him. They became a black, brown, and white fury. Teeth sank into flesh; blood spattered the ground. Though strong, the black horse was no match for his enemy. After many bruises, the black horse gave up. To avoid being killed, he surrendered, galloping into the waning sunlight. Silhouetted against the dying sun, he felt his heart clench as he watched the stallion drive his band down the canyon and out of sight, his mother with the rest of the herd.

When his wounds had healed and new skin grown over the old, the black horse searched for his own group of mares. Wandering the land, the horse saw his chance. A young stallion, even more inexperienced than he, was leading a small group of horses. Galloping at him, the black horse smashed into the grey stallion, and the fight was soon over. His opponent vanquished, the black horse marched away his new herd.

As the black horse triumphed in many battles, his herd grew. Spotted appaloosas, shining palominos, ghostly white, and creamy brown horses filled his group, and all was well.

Gathering his courage, the black stallion decided to fight the brown and white stallion and win his mother back. Dodging rocks and galloping through canyons, the black horse spotted the brown and white one. Perking his ears forward, he approached his enemy. Rearing and kicking out, the black stallion began fighting the brown fury. Rising to the challenge, they circled each other in a sort of dance. Sand stung their eyes. Blinded, the horses wounded each other. When the dust had cleared, one was left standing. The other collapsed, covered in sand and blood. The black horse stepped forward to claim his new herd.

After that, life was peaceful. The black horse wanted no more than to rest and spend time with his band. Too soon, however, a new enemy approached. This one he could not defeat. This new enemy was powerful, never before seen. This new enemy was human.

"Drive them down the canyon. Make sure no one strays. I want every single one of them in the holding pens at the end of the round-up. Silly mustangs. They won't be taking grazing land from the cattle no more; I'll make sure of it." The pilot muttered, "I'll make sure of it." He swooped his plane down over the herd, watching them panic and gallop away. He was one of many pilots dedicated to rounding up mustangs to free more grazing land for cows. Engines roared below, cars were driving up to the horses, willing them faster and faster. Mercilessly, they never slowed, just drove on as more horses fell behind.

Pain vibrated through the black's body. His nostrils flared. Sweat coated his hide and rolled down his heaving flanks. The wild, proud stallion dared not stop. He galloped many miles between the canyon walls, the roar of the airplanes and cars constantly daring him to go faster and faster until his legs were a black blur.

When the horse felt near collapse, he was driven into a round pen and the gate shut behind him with a clang. He stood there, his sides heaving and his head drooping between his legs. Meekly, he raised his head and neighed softly. His voice was met with silence. His mother was gone, lost in the dirt, her shining coat now plastered in grit.

The fire dimmed from the stallion's eyes; he gave up on life. Without a family or freedom, no longer did he have a reason to enjoy its beauty. His ribs began to protrude from his thin sides, and hollows deepened around his eyes. His mane hung in oily strands, and his coat was caked in mud. Dried blood streaked his body, and his hooves were cracked and overgrown. He wheezed when he tried to breathe and coughed when he moved. Often, the horse fell to his knees and struggled to swallow the small morsels provided. He surrendered to death.

One afternoon, a voice made the stallion open his eyes. The sound was rough, and pain racked his body where feet kicked his belly. Rough rope was tied around his neck, and a burly man pulled at it until the stallion staggered to his knees. He was dragged from the pen into a dark trailer. When the horse pulled back, the sharp sting of a whip hit his rump, and he jumped inside, trembling as the door shut, plunging him in darkness. He rocked back and forth as the trailer twisted and turned and fell every time the wheels bumped over a rock. Suddenly, the engines stilled. He relaxed for a second until the trailer door jerked open and sunlight burned his sensitive eyes, accustomed to darkness. The same burly man took hold of the rough rope tied around the horse's neck, pulled him down the ramp, and led him into a dreary gray building with a run-down sign over it — "PRISON."

The black stallion followed the man past many cells full of his worst enemy--humans. They stared at him with crooked grins. They wore matching orange suits, and their stares were hopelessly shallow. More often than not, they pulled away from his gaze, as though embarrassed that he should see them in such a desperate state. Through one cell, a gnarled hand reached out. It floated over the horse's head and down his neck. "Easy, boy, easy." Did he hear right? Was this kindness? Affection? The horse turned his large head and studied the man whose hand was so gentle. In the man's eyes, the horse saw his own reflection. An 'animal' who had given up on life and was desperate to have his family and freedom back. The man's eyes mirrored the horse's soul.

This gentle man was escorted out of his cell and grasped the horse's rope. He walked the black stallion to the stables. He caressed the great beast and using a soft brush, cleaned the caked dirt. Picking up the horse's overgrown hooves one by one, the man tended them, removing debris and sharp stones. He gently combed a brush through the horse's tangled hair and smoothed out all the knots.

Through all weather, the man loyally came to the waiting horse and each day grew more attached to the big animal. He smeared ointment on the hooves and gave the horse food so his bones would be less visible. Each day, the eyes of both man and horse grew stronger and less desperate as they again learned to live life.

There came a day when the man led the horse into a sandy arena. He took a heavy saddle from the top rail and approached the stallion. Arching his neck, the black horse sniffed the saddle. As the man placed the saddle onto his back and secured it with a tight cinch, the horse's eyes followed the man's every move. Then a cold metal bar was slid into his mouth and fastened around his head. What was the only human he trusted trying to do? No matter which way he turned, the horse could not rid himself of the pain in his mouth. He twisted in rage and bucked and reared, but still the bit stayed in his mouth. He smelled dead cow in the leather on his back and imagined what predator was near. The smell of leather filled his nostrils, and he tried to run away from the mountain lion he could see in his head. But no matter where he ran, the same fence surrounded him, cornering him with the carnivore. But he didn't hear the roar of a lion or feel jagged claws slicing his body; he heard murmurs of reassurance from the man and felt the gentle hand comfort him. After a while, the horse stopped and accepted the hands he trusted again, that praised him for his hard work. The horse learned to accept the strange things humans did to him.

As the man and horse grew stronger, their need for each other lessened. One afternoon, the horse was led away into a dark trailer and parted forever from his only friend. Once again the horse plunged into loneliness.

The black stallion was towed into a dimly lit arena known as an auction house. A sea of people surrounded him. A number was slapped onto his muscled rump, and he was led around the enclosure. People called out prices; when a woman with blue eyes and blonde hair called out a number, the bids stopped. He was sold.

The woman led him into yet another trailer, and they began the long journey from the Nevada range to the barn he would soon call home. She stopped often to check on him, every time calling him a strange word, "Nico." It became his name. After many hours on the road, the woman led the shaky horse from the van and into a barn that smelled of hay and saddle soap, horse sweat and old leather. The horse's roomy box stall contained fresh straw, clean water, and sweet hay.

His new owner taught him many commands and often rode him on the trails. He made new friends with three other horses, and they nuzzled each other over their stall doors. The woman fed him delicacies such as apples and carrots. Slowly, he let himself care for others, and they cared back for him. Horses, humans, enemies no more. Finally, Nico had found a home and a new family. The woman often rode Nico's best friend, a flashy red bay with a fine dished face, while her husband rode Nico. Huge and wise, Nico was easygoing and patient with the children the woman occasionally put on his back and was quick and daring on the trails. He led a happy life, but he missed the freedom he felt when the wind ruffled his mane and the sun warmed his back as it had when he galloped on the plains.

When the air was crisp and fresh and the grass speckled with dew, Nico saw his chance. If he pushed against a rusty nail, the nail would certainly give way to his large body. He would gallop out and over the mountains and forever be free to do whatever he wanted. At least that's what Nico thought. Nico perked his ears at the fence, approaching it with determination. He leaned his side hard against the board and pushed. With an unexpected crack, it gave way too quickly. He crashed to the ground, a leg caught under his thrashing body at an odd angle. It landed with a dull thunk and the delicate bone snapped. Pain shot through his leg, but he did not feel it. Instead, he felt the worse pang of failure. He had forever sought freedom, but for what purpose? Though not free, he had a new family of loving people and animals. The range was a lost daydream. He heard the woman approach him. She cradled his big head in her lap. From then on, all was foggy. He could focus only on the dull sadness that engulfed him. A needle pricked his neck; slowly, the pain ebbed. He lifted his head and meekly neighed. He stared, misty eyed, at the slopes covered in grass and imagined himself galloping to the horizon. His breathing slowed. Finally, it stopped. His head dropped, and his soul fled to the skies, where it galloped freely with his beloved mother once more.

LISTEN ONLINE

An audio recording of "Nico" has been posted on Palo Alto Online.

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