I smell the burning varnish used to coat the stalls long before I first notice that the stables are ablaze. My initial thought is that someone is having a bonfire. I sometimes light bonfires myself, when the pile of broken fence slats and posts behind the tack room grows too great. Those fires smell of burning varnish too. The chemical tang of solvent fills my throat.
After several minutes of the smell, I am drawn from the kitchen, where I was cooking myself dinner, to the conservatory. I cannot remember how I came to be standing in the kitchen, or what I was cooking, but that must have been what I was doing. It is then, as I move towards the glass, that I see the distant glow of flames in the darkness. My chest tightens, but I do not move. I can do nothing except stare, transfixed, at the uncertain orange in the night.
The house sits at the top of a hill, where it has a clear view of the paddocks and the surrounding countryside. Mine is the only house for miles around. I have seen many things, standing at the conservatory windows, but never this. Even as I watch, the flames scatter higher, the tips of their tongues licking the moon and the stars. Most of the stars have vanished. The same chemical that fills my nose and mouth gives off a dense black smoke, through which even starlight cannot shine. The stables were recoated recently, to protect them from the coming winter. The coat was fresh. The smoke makes monstrous clouds before the moon.
From the cool, bright confines of the conservatory, I might be watching a television screen, or peering through space into a different place where there is no glass, no pale spotlights, no lace doylies or marble Olympians; only blackness and heat and the savage light that comes when these two things collide. The paddocks that I have fenced off and knocked down and re-fenced for twenty years flicker ominously. Jumps and their poles cast long-legged silhouettes across the ground. The stable walls lose definition, sagging on their frames, slumping softly, cracking and becoming black before drifting hotly on the wind; new stars, made for a blacker, more noxious night.
I realise that I should call the fire brigade. The telephone is in the hallway, at the bottom of the stairs. It will take me moments to walk there, lift the handset, dial the number that will bring fire engines, but my legs will not move. Even before I hear the screams, I know it is already too late.
The wild sounds stir me to movement. My hand slides to the key on the coffee table. Automatically I open the door and wander outside. The wind is strong. I can feel it against my face, see it as it toys with the flames. The taste in my mouth is poisonous, the breeze cold, my cheeks wet. I realise I am crying.
I first see them as I wander down the hill. It is not a long walk from my house to the stables, but it feels like forever in the darkness. I marvel how anything can burn for so long and not be consumed. I wonder if time is passing or if I have died and am forced to endure this endless conflagration forever.
The first of the horses bursts like a fireball from the stables. A bright orange mane of another kind streams from its hair and back. It does not seem like my horse anymore; this burning mass of muscle, fat, bone and primal terror. I cannot see its eyes at this distance, but I know they are white, its mouth frothing, if the froth has not been scorched away.
A second animal tumbles madly in its wake. It emerges from the next stall but does not make it far before crumpling to the ground. The smell on my tongue accrues a meatiness that is not altogether distasteful. Licking my lips, I turn to the hedgerow and dry-heave.
Three more of the horses scatter like cinders into the night. Theirs is the screaming; fire-song composed of ash and agony. I realise that I should call the fire brigade. The telephone is in the hallway, at the bottom of the stairs. I wonder if I have died, and found my way to Hell. Over and over, the giddy screams of the horses pierce my ears.
My feet guide me to where the nearest of the horses fell. It does not look like a horse anymore; reduced to a smoking heap of charred blackness. There are glistening spots, which I assume are bone or some other internal structure made liquid and shining by the heat, and protruding sticks that might once have been its forelegs. The wood-fires behind the tack shed go much the same way, when they burn themselves out. The iron nails that once held the fences together grow black and white and twitch like slim maggots. Perhaps the horse and the nails are not so dissimilar after all. Perhaps we are none of us so different; metal, flesh, warped wood and old bone made up of the same base structures, atoms and molecules revealed now, unmasked by firelight, released by heat into the sky, stardust to stars again, like barbequed meat on my tongue!
At some point, when the fires reach their zenith and begin to quieten, I find myself walking back up the hill. In the hallway, at the bottom of the stairs, I lift the receiver and dial the fire brigade. I tell them I was sleeping, and when I woke my stables were ablaze. There is nothing else I can say.
The sight from my conservatory is much different, now. The fires have almost exhausted themselves, but there is still a bright glow, a smouldering redness in the night. I imagine it is the fire’s pulse, beating low, almost spent as it licks its lips and yawns and succumbs to death. I close the conservatory door, to keep out the cold and the smell, but the smell has already saturated the house.
Shortly, the night will fill with screams again as the fire engines carve blue flashing paths through the vast night. The darkness seems bigger now, emptier without the fire.
The smoke is thinner too, almost run out, and I can see the stars again. They wink down at me from the coldness of space, and I imagine they are my horses, some skeletal, others plump and round-bellied, running through the night, manes and tails and thundering hooves alight and glorious.
I do not think I will ever stop seeing my horses, galloping overhead. I will never forget their stench, burned into my soul and the walls of my house. And when I turn in for bed, and close my eyes, and fall asleep, I will hear their mad whinnies again; this nightmare, luminous and alive.
~ Thomas Brown
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