by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色 墨)
illustrated by Ramie
He opened his eyes, flat on his back in a wood. It was too perfect a place, the trees all the same height and color, as if someone had taken a rubber stamp to the world. The smooth, slender trees had no branches anywhere except at the top, so that the effect was of a series of white pillars leading up to a leafy ceiling that waved gently in the breeze, sending golden dappled sunlight down onto the forest floor. The leaves on the ground made a gentle shushing sound as Alec sat up, shielding his face from the glare with one hand. A moment ago he’d been in Baltimore, on his way back from the United Drugs.
About thirty paces away, the elves stood in a half-circle. There were perhaps a dozen of them, all nearly identical in form and face. They all had the same fine, pale features and the same long, fair hair, so that you could hardly tell man from woman, if indeed the elves even bothered with such distinctions. They were all dressed very richly, though strangely. Alec had always imagined, from reading Shakespeare, that they clad themselves in the finery of lords and ladies of ages long past, hose and doublets and robes and the like. Rather, though their clothes were clearly very rich, they were bizarre in shape and color, with some parts resembling the parts of flowers and other flora, and others resembling the parts of animals. The strangest was when the two came together and combined, so that one elf might have the arms of a flower and the antlers of a deer, while another might bear the faint suggestion of a giant cat, but in the pale pastels of a carnation.
“Welcome to Elfland, Alec Dailey,” said one of the elves in a high, musical voice that put Alec in mind of snowmelt up the mountains. “We require of you a service.” Not, Alec noticed, a “favor.” Elves asked favors of no one. They had no need. Alec wondered what elves could possibly need or want from someone like him, and then he said, “We require a rider,” and all of Alec’s insides sank.
“I’m no jockey,” he mumbled, looking down at the ground. The leaves weren’t any shape that he was familiar with. “I just exercise them. You want a jockey, you should ask–”
“It is most assuredly you we are after.” Alec couldn’t tell if it was a different elf that spoke or the same, they all looked and sounded so alike. “We will provide you a horse. All you must do is ride him, when the time comes.” The elf gestured to another elf, who disappeared behind an invisible curtain, seeming to vanish into thin air. When the elf returned, they were leading the most magnificent horse Alec had ever seen.
Seventeen hands if he’s an inch, Alec thought, open-mouthed with wonder. This horse was splendid, more like the idea of a horse than a real flesh and blood animal. Coal black from tip to tail, not a white hair on him, and perfectly proportioned, with knees not too high or too low, a broad chest, and a trim runner’s body. Alec took a step forward, then remembered that the elves had not given him permission to move. When they said nothing, Alec continued, making a wide circle around the horse, who watched him with ears pricked. There was something in the beast’s eye he didn’t like, something onery. But he didn’t care. He wanted this horse.
“We will see to his feeding and stabling,” said one of the elves. Alec didn’t even turn to look, he was still gazing awestruck at the horse. “All you need to do is train him, and win.”
“What happens if I don’t win?” asked Alec, though he knew that astride this horse–no matter how big Alec might be–he could outrun even old Man O’ War.
“Then you and the horse will die,” the elf answered.
When Alec first showed up at the track five years ago, they all looked at the skinny boy with the Boston accent and fox-red hair and knew he’d never make a jockey: his feet were too big. He tried to hide them in tight shoes, but sure enough, he sprouted the next year, and the year after that, and now at nineteen he towered over the rest of the jockeys at five foot ten. He was skinny, but in this line of work, skinny didn’t cut it; he was still too heavy to ride anything but the biggest handicappers, and no one wanted to risk putting a green boy up on a horse for one of those. So Alec was stuck exercising them, and he managed to get by, as long as he slept in one of the stalls and ate at the bread lines.
He didn’t hunger for company, at least. There was Eddie Kurtsinger, a dark-haired, dark-skinned, lean little ferret of a man. He was a proper jockey, but not a winning one, else he wouldn’t be sleeping at the stables. But he never let it get him down; he was always ready with another wisecrack, and he kept all their spirits up. And sharing Alec’s stall was little Johnny, a boy barely bigger than a wheatstalk, with sandy hair and freckles peppered all over his smiling face. He was a hotwalker, but he wanted to be a jockey someday. He had a tendency to flame up red when teased, which just made the others tease him more, and then he’d put up his dukes, though he was easily half the size of any of them.
That day, though, Alec couldn’t keep his mind on the horses, or rather, he could only think about one horse. He ticked past the quarter-mile poles and just kept wondering how fast the black horse could go, who he’d be racing against, where he’d be racing. But a man’s all alone when he’s on his horse, and if anyone noticed Alec’s state of mind, it was just the horses and the clockers.
Johnny waved at Alec on his way off the track, leading a heaving Strange Bedfellow back to the stables. “Oi! Alec!” he hollered. “You hear about Sunny Jim?”
Johnny went to the newspaper office nearly every day, though he couldn’t read much and mostly had to listen to what the others were talking about to figure what they were about. Often Eddie went with him, as Eddie could actually read. Today, though, Johnny had a newspaper, which raised Alec’s eyebrows. Johnny couldn’t afford to go spending his wages on something like that, not in this slump. He handed off Strange Bedfellow, and Johnny traded him the paper. Strange immediately lunged for the water bucket, and it took Johnny and two other grooms to pull him out and get him to the back to bathe him. Alec leaned against one of the stalls and studied the paper. The headlines were the usual: Hitler and Mussolini, the slump, what Roosevelt was planning next. Alec turned to the Sports page, where the big story was the disappearance of Sunny Jim Ramsay. This must’ve been what Johnny wanted him to read.
Alec had never seen Sunny Jim in person, though he’d been proud to exercise a few horses in common. Sunny Jim was a jockey for the big leagues, rode the best and brought them home kings. The article listed a bunch of his big victories: Aesop’s Fable to the Triple Crown in ’38, Avalon to victory in the Santa Anita Handicap, Arabian Magic in the Pimlico Special, It’ll Come to Me in the Travers Stakes. Alec heard the fame had gone to his head, that Sunny Jim was a mean son of a gun that cussed jockeys, horses, stablehands, and just stopped short of cussing the owners and trainers that kept him fed. The photo showed Sunny Jim atop Aesop’s Fable at the Belmont last year, dressed in Riddle’s silks. He was smiling, but there was something smug and sort of secretive about that smile.
Now he was suddenly gone without a trace. He’d been supposed to ride Et In Arcadia Ego at the Santa Anita and never showed. They’d searched his home and found nothing amiss, though his roadster was missing. Run away, maybe? Afraid of going up against Charley Arcaro on Aeolus? But that didn’t hold water. Sunny Jim felt and acted like he was invincible, and he sure wouldn’t admit to being afraid of man or beast. No jockey would.
“Whaddaya think, huh?” Johnny called over. They’d brought Strange back. He still kept lunging for the water bucket, but he didn’t get very far hitched up to the four-armed contraption that they used to walk the horses in a circle. Johnny was so short that he was practically on his toes, hanging from the horse’s head. His arm was gonna smart later, but that was the price you paid in the business. Alec folded the newspaper back up. “They thought he was pullin’ a George Woolf, but it’s been three days now and no hide or hair, and he’d never miss a purse! Fitzsimmon’s mad as a nest o’ hornets; he’s gotta find a new rider for Manifesto tomorrow.” He heaved a gusty sigh and yanked Strange to attention again. “F’only it could be one of us, huh?”
“I’m too big,” Alec said, words clipped, and then felt bad afterward. He never wanted to be short with Johnny, who was a good kid and deserved better than getting paid fifty cents a day to hotwalk horses. He tossed the paper back. Johnny caught it one-handed just as Strange made another lunge, this time almost taking Johnny and the walking ring with him.
“Whaddaya mean?” Johnny panted, soon as he had Strange walking in a proper circle again. “Lookit Willie, he’s almost as tall as you! It’s all about learnin’ to reduce right, you just gotta sweat off a few pounds–”
“What d’you reckon happened to Sunny Jim, anyhow?” Alec asked, just to make Johnny stop talking about it. “You’re right; nothing’d keep him off a purse.”
Johnny shrugged, using his free hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “Beats me.”
Alec woke suddenly, so suddenly that he reached for the sugar cubes under his cot before he realized that he wasn’t sweating, that his fingers and toes felt fine. He held still a moment or two, trying to hear what had woken him, but there wasn’t anything. Nothing at all, and that was just plain strange. No horses rooting around in their stalls, no crickets banging away, not even Johnny breathing in his sleep. Alec looked fearfully at the dark tangle of blankets on the other cot, but he had a hunch what was going on now. He got up and put on his trousers and a work shirt, pulled on his boots. Before he left, he brought with him a book, an apple, and loaded up his pocket with sugar.
Now was the witching hour of the racetrack. All the clockers were home in their beds. The lights cast an orange glow over everything, turning the track into a yellow smear in the darkness, the quarter-mile poles like the ghostly trees of Elfland. The grandstand creaked under its own weight, and if you held your breath and listened quietly, you could hear them creaking under the weight of the spectators, bellowing as the horses rounded the curve and headed down the homestretch. Alec made his way across the track, his boots kicking up a fine spray of dust with every step. On the other side of the inside rail, in the infield paddock, stood one of those elves, and with him was the big black horse, which seemed to vanish into the night, he was so much the same color. The horse looked as magnificent as ever, decked out in silver tack that looked like shafts of moonlight against his glossy black hide. He was nervous, tossing his head and rolling his eyes around, stamping.
“Thank you, but I don’t need that,” said Alec. He held up his book and his apple. “We’re just gonna get to know each other tonight.”
The elf arched one eyebrow at him, but said nothing. He removed the horse’s bridle and saddle, and they vanished somewhere into the night, the elf with them. Now the horse looked at Alec, ears pricked, every line of his body radiating uncertainty. He snorted and wheeled away. For a moment Alec was afraid he would leap the rail, or worse yet fail to leap the rail and hurt himself, but the horse broke and ran alongside it instead, tossing his head. Alec watched him go, then sat himself on the rail and opened his book. It was a little difficult to read, being so dark and all, and the light from the lamps overhead more orange than white. But he found his place easily enough, and he took a bite of his apple, just a little bit, more skin than flesh.
Grandpa Joad had just died, and Alec had scraped off about half the apple’s skin with his teeth, when a huge black nose thrust between him and the book, tickling his nose. Alec laughed, his mouth half-full of apple, and gave the horse’s head a playful shove. “Get out of the way, you’re blocking the light.” The horse just flipped an ear at him. “Wondering why in the world I’m not chasing you around, trying to bash you around the head until you behave? Maybe I’m more interested in reading my book, is all. Here, take my apple. Maybe then you’ll leave me alone.” Alec was able to read a page or two more in peace while the horse munched the apple, then rooted around in the grass for any stray bits he might have dropped. Then he nosed around in Alec’s pockets. Alec laughed and shoved the horse’s head away again. “Robber baron,” he said, and fished out a sugar cube. The horse crunched with great enthusiasm while Alec went back to reading, this time out loud. “Life began to move again. The sun touched the horizon and flattened over it. And along the highway there came a long line of huge freight trucks with red sides. . .”
Sometimes the horse wandered off to frolic in the grass, cantering here and there, investigating this and that. Othertimes he came and stood quite close to Alec while he read, especially if Alec happened to be holding out a cube of sugar. When the elf reappeared, however, the Joads were in California, Alec had read himself hoarse, and the horse was standing next to him, tail swishing, nibbling at the grass.
The elf tack had to go.
Alec had moved up to galloping the horse around the track, but never without a lot of head-tossing. Alec figured he could cure that with a gentler bit, though the elf stuff was gorgeous. Light as half a feather in a cup made of moonbeams. But the horse just didn’t seem to want to respond, and in fact got more ornery as time went on, so Alec dragged out his grandpa’s old bridle, which had a nice, thick bit.
He’d just gotten the bit in the horse’s mouth when he gave a fierce neigh–almost a shriek–and reared up, throwing Alec flat on his rump and scaring the living daylights out of him. The horse pawed the air, snorting, and started to. . . shrink. Alec gaped as the tail seemed to suck itself in and disappear, the mane lightened, the legs shortened, the hooves spread out, the fine black hairs of his coat paled and then disappeared altogether. And then, standing in front of him, sweaty and panting, was Sunny Jim Ramsay, naked as the day he was born, clenching a bit in his mouth, the rest of the straps trailing down his chest. Alec tried not to stare.
He’d never seen Sunny Jim up close. The newspapers didn’t do him justice. He was small, yes–five feet if he was an inch–but with a grim, arresting look that warned you he wasn’t to be trifled with. He was lean and tough all over, built like a boxer or a prizefighter, without the wasted look of some of the taller jockeys that had to reduce too much to make weight. His hair was a dark bay color, not black like in the newspaper photos, and lighter eyes. There was still a bit of the horse about his face, around the nose and jaw. Even buck naked he carried himself like a man that didn’t waste a single motion, back straight and shoulders level. He had this look that said, “What the devil you lookin’ at?”
Jim spat the bit out into his hand. “What the hell did you do?” he demanded. He had an accent like the cowboys in the Old West, which was something the papers didn’t tell you.
“Nothing!” So then this horse had–Sunny Jim was–this whole time? He’d been riding Sunny Jim around, urging him on to greater speeds, feeding him apples and sugar and reading him John Steinbeck. The elves, of course, it had to be the elves, it all lined up, the disappearance–but why? And here was Sunny Jim, glaring at him like he was somehow responsible for this whole mess. His face flamed, and he grasped for the only thing he now understood. “I just–you–the horse didn’t seem to like the bit, so I–”
Jim frowned down at the bit and turned it over and over in his hands. “Cold iron,” he said in a low, thoughtful sort of voice. “Well, I’ll be damned. I guess I owe you one, Mister–” He looked sharply at Alec.
“Just Alec,” Alec said, not knowing what else to say. Now seemed a little late for introductions.
“Alec,” Jim repeated, dismissively, in the way of someone who’s already forgotten the conversation of the last five minutes, because you’re beneath his notice. He was looking at the bridle again, or mostly at the bit. “I’ll have to borrow this until I get something made. Can’t carry a bridle around in the saddle with me.” He started to walk away, still stark naked, still carrying the old bridle.
It was the bridle that finally spurred Alec into action. He couldn’t stand the idea of some stranger just up and taking his grandpa’s bridle like that, even if that stranger was Sunny Jim Ramsay. He scrambled to his feet and called after him. “Wait! Where’re you going?”
Jim turned round and fixed Alec with a look that said plainly, What’re you, stupid? “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been a fucking horse. Now you fixed it, through sheer dumb luck it looks like, and–” He stopped, suddenly. “How long’s it been, anyhow?”
It took a moment for Alec to remember. It seemed like forever ago that Johnny’d showed him that article, another world practically. For a while there’d been an article about the search for Sunny Jim Ramsay in the paper just about every day, but they’d gotten smaller and fewer as the days went on. They still hadn’t even found his car. He swallowed. “Two or three weeks, maybe. I think they’ve stopped looking by now.”
Jim’s lip curled. He looked down at the bridle again, but Alec had the feeling he wasn’t really seeing it. “Figures. They probably think I did a runner. They tried dragging the river yet?” He gave a little laugh, but it sounded awful, like he’d rather be crying.
Alec didn’t know if he was supposed to answer the question or not, so he just gave it a try. “I don’t think so, sir.”
“Fuck, don’t call me ‘sir.'” Jim looked up. Gave Alec a hard look. “So what’s going on here, then? I know why I’m a horse, but why’re you riding me around, what is this, Pimlico?”
Alec wanted to ask why Jim was a horse, but he held his tongue. “This is Pimlico, s–It’s Pimlico. And the elves, they told me to ride you in one of their races, or they’d kill us both.”
“Kill us both, huh?” Jim fell into a thoughtful silence. It made Alec uncomfortable. He wanted to snatch the bridle back, but he knew it’d be unkind. It was horrible, really, that the elves had turned Jim into a horse. And gosh, now that Jim was a person again, Alec would lose his night rides, and reading Steinbeck and feeding him pieces of apple, and just having his own horse, and that right there made his heart hurt. But, well, Jim was a man, and he had his own life to live. Alec looked down at the dirt track and scuffed it a little with his shoe. He oughta be happy that Sunny Jim Ramsay would ride again.
“Well, I guess I’m not in any of a hurry,” Jim said, finally, and Alec looked up in amazement. “Why not? They’re not lookin’ for me anyway.” He was smiling, little and private, like at some joke only he knew. Then he looked up at Alec again, and the smile hardened. “Let’s get this straight—I don’t give a damn about you. You ain’t my pal, and I sure as hell ain’t yours.” He stabbed a finger in the air, at Alec. “Besides, it’s fucking freezing out here.” And he flung the bridle to the track.
Alec’s days fell into a pattern. He did his morning and afternoon workouts. Then he napped in his stall until dark. Johnny and Eddie and the others ribbed him about having grown old while they weren’t looking, but Alec paid them no mind. Just thinking about riding the horse–Sunny Jim–was enough to make him feel peaceful inside. And then night came, and Pimlico was transformed, and a man is alone when he is on the back of his horse.
Sunny Jim was fast. Alec couldn’t clock from his back, but he’d ridden enough to know what it meant when the poles slipped by that fast. He knew what it meant when he practically flattened himself against the horse’s mane, when he wasn’t so much riding the horse as simply hanging on for dear life. He knew what it meant when he ended every run panting and sore, eyes still stinging from the force of the wind. He knew he had a winner, a champion, a horse that would blow everyone else off the track.
Then one night, it rained. It pounded the track into sludge and turned the infield into a swamp. When the elves brought Sunny Jim, the raindrops just hung in the air, and Alec left a trail of clear air behind him when he walked through it, to retrieve his horse. The track sucked at his boots. Sunny Jim stamped and flattened his ears back and glared, as if to say, “You have got to be kidding me.” He wasn’t a mudder. So Alec brought him into the stables and rubbed him down, and found an empty stall next to his own. He took his father’s bridle from its peg in his own stall and pressed the cold bit to the horse’s face.
Jim grabbed the bit away from him. “You could get me some trousers,” he snarled, showing all his teeth. “It’s fuckin’ freezing in here.”
So Alec brought Jim one of his shirts, and his spare trousers. They were far too large for him, but they weren’t going anywhere. They just sat in the stables, staring out at the large fat raindrops that shimmered in the light like clear marbles. Everything was suddenly too quiet, now that the rain had stopped in the middle.
“You could’ve run,” said Jim. “They run races in this weather, y’know. Some of the horses like it.”
“Do you like it?” asked Alec. It was more comfortable for Jim to sit on one of the stools than a proper chair, he was so short, so Alec had to look down to talk to him.
“Then I’m not going to make you run.” Alec looked back out at the rain. “‘Sides, you might hurt yourself.”
Jim gave him a strange look, like he thought Alec was crazy, or soft in the head. “What’s the big idea, anyhow? Giving me this.” He held out the bit.
Alec shrugged. He was lonesome, maybe. He didn’t talk much to anyone anymore, now that he spent his nights running Sunny Jim in circles, then walking Sunny Jim up and down the stables to cool him off after. He spent a lot of time talking to Jim when he was a horse, especially during the walks, but he thought it might be nice to have the fellow say something back, once in a while. Besides, he wanted to know more about Jim.
“How come you’re a horse?” he asked.
“The hell do you care?” Jim sneered. “I’m fast enough, aren’t I?” He was patting down the pockets of the outfit Alec had lent him, like he was looking for sugar. “Where the hell are your cigarettes?”
“I don’t have any cigarettes,” Alec answered. “I don’t smoke.” He didn’t drink, either. He’d gotten teased for it at first, but now the others mostly let him alone, thinking he was just an odd bird.
“You don’t smoke?” Jim sounded downright disgusted, like Alec had just admitted to eating manure for breakfast. He gave up, though, and let his hands dangle down between his legs.
“So how come you’re a horse?” Alec asked again.
Jim was a long time answering. Maybe he wouldn’t answer at all, cross over the cigarettes. He curled his fingers, making a loose fist and then spreading his fingers out, and then back again, over and over. Finally, he said, “All right, but you better bring me some cigarettes, next time you want to jaw.
“We were swappin’ stories in the jockey’s room, just like usual. Usually the stories are about, you know, the usual: horses we rode, women who rode us. Then someone or other starts talking about elves, how they been makin’ trouble, and someone else tells a story about how they used to believe that you could sprinkle buckthorn in a circle and dance in it under the light of a full moon, and an elf would come and grant you a wish.” Jim grinned a mean sort of grin, rubbing between his first two fingers with the thumb of his other hand. “So I got drunk one night and did just that, and next thing I knew, I was a horse. Not that horses know much.”
Alec stared. That was the dingbustingest story he’d ever heard, and he wasn’t sure what half of it was true and what half of it wasn’t. But, well, Sunny Jim sure was a horse all right, and Alec himself had ended up in Elfland, so obviously that part of it was true. He had so many questions, and he was so downright befuddled, that he ended up only being able to ask one of them, “So what did you wish for?”
“Hell, wouldn’t you like to know?” Jim answered. “I’m a Luckys man, by the way.”
Hunger woke Alec nearly in the middle of the night, and he lay there and ran his tongue round and round his teeth. He got up and fetched a drink from the stable tap. It didn’t help. His mouth felt as dry as the entire state of Oklahoma. Alec was uneasy. The box under his cot had been empty for days. He knew he should’ve done something about it, but, well, he’d been busy, what with Sunny Jim and his work during the daytime.
All or Bust could tell something was wrong, like maybe Alec was sitting too heavy in the saddle, or he wasn’t holding the reins right. Alec couldn’t tell; he felt like he was hanging on by a thread. But he could feel the horse fidget under him. He patted the horse’s neck, trying to reassure him, but his fingers were thick and clumsy as sausages. His head buzzed like a beehive.
“Hey, Alec, you all right?” Johnny’s small face peered up at him in the racetrack lights, brows drawn together in worry. “You don’t look so good.”
Before Alec could catch his breath and lie, Fitzsimmons hollered, “Dailey, you’re up!” He felt All or Bust surge into motion under him, though he wasn’t sure if he’d been the one to start it, and after that everything was all right again. He was standing in the saddle, leaning over the withers, toes in the stirrups, while the white poles flashed by. All or Bust’s hooves pounded rhythmically against the track, and he pulled at the bit, testing. Alec grinned. The cool air felt good against his face.
He was still awake when he hit the track, though his limbs felt as thick and heavy as mud. When he tried to move, he either flopped like a dead fish or barely twitched. He couldn’t talk right. Not when Fitzsimmons and Johnny and Eddie came running up, yelling and patting his face and trying to get him to stand. Alec wanted to tell them he was fine, he’d be fine, but everything became very blurry and indistinct after that, like opening your eyes underwater.
He opened his eyes in a hospital room far too nice to be the one near the track. He was the only one in the room, which was small but airy. Light spilled in the open window; the sheets were clean and smelled fresh; the paint was nice. He also felt much, much better. His insides sank immediately. Sure enough, before he’d even turned his head, a familiar voice said, “You’re an idiot, Alec.”
Alec sighed and turned his head. He tried to smile, but the scowl from the doctor sitting by his bed made him wince. The doctor was tall, a head or more taller than Alec, though he had hair the same shade of Man O’ War red, and a moustache that was just a little bit darker. His face was longer and harder than Alec’s, and his eyes had a hard, glittering look to them that Alec’s didn’t. He had his hands in his long white coat before, but presently he withdrew them to rest them on his thighs, one of which he jiggled incessantly.
“Hullo, Pat,” Alec said, weakly. God, but he hurt all over. Falling off a horse did that to you.
Patrick Dailey’s frown deepened, but his voice was menacingly quiet when he spoke. “It’s a miracle you aren’t dead.”
“I’ve been watching what I eat–” Alec began. He knew that protesting too much only made him look guilty, but he wanted some credit for what he did.
At last, Patrick raised his voice. “This isn’t something you can control just by staying away from sweets!”
Silence settled on the room like a blanket. Alec stared down at the clean white sheets without really seeing them. “I was busy. You shouldn’t go around giving medicine away, anyhow. Times are hard.”
“Times are hard, and that’s why we look out for each other.” The lines on Patrick’s neck stood out when he spoke again. “I’m going to have to tell our parents about this.”
“No.” Alec tried to sit up, to drive his point home, and one side of his body screamed with pain. He bit back a yell, and then for the first time looked down at himself. The bottom half of his right arm was in a cast, wrapped across the bottom of his palm so that he couldn’t turn his hand. Moving his arm was like moving a lead weight. He stared for a moment until he realized what must have happened. If Fitzsimmons saw this–no, what was he saying, Fitzsimmons had surely already seen. Already knew. Patrick had probably told him everything.
“You’re lucky your wrist was all you broke,” Patrick snapped. “With how fast that horse was going–”
“He wasn’t even going that fast!” Alec protested. Patrick was being unfair. He didn’t know the first thing about racehorses. Alec was a big galoot; they had him do the easy workouts, high and loose in the saddle. If All or Bust had dumped him at top speed, Alec would’ve broken more than just his wrist.
But Patrick wasn’t listening. His mouth had gone into a hard, thin line, like the way their father’s had when Alec had run away from home and they’d found him at the racetrack trying to find someone to hire him as a hotwalker. “You obviously haven’t been looking after yourself, or treating your diabetes, and now you’ve gone and nearly gotten yourself killed. Fitzsimmons isn’t going to let you exercise any more horses, not after this, so you might as well come home.”
Alec didn’t look at him. He knew what Patrick said was true. Alec looked at both his hands, lying atop the sheets before him. He curled and uncurled the fingers on his right hand. It hurt, and it wasn’t as strong as his left, but he could do it. He said, “How long?”
“Alec–” Patrick began, warningly.
“How long?” Alec knew he was shouting, but he didn’t care. He could still move his hand.
Patrick blew a breath out through his mustache. “Five weeks until we can take off the cast. Could be longer. Longer than that to fully recover, certainly.”
Five weeks! Alec let his head fall to the pillow and stared at the ceiling. He didn’t have five weeks. The elves had never told him when the race would be. It could be tonight, for all Alec knew, and what could he do with his arm still in a cast? He was of half a mind to tell his brother the whole story, but Patrick would never believe him. Elves were something that happened in the ranches out west, or in the old country, where there was enough nature for them to hang on to; they’d long been eradicated from the cities. Their mother had always said that you could never really do away with elves, but Patrick had always scorned such talk. That was why he’d grown up to be a doctor, and Alec hadn’t. Alec focused on making a fist with his right hand and let the pain strangle the words.
“Alec?” Patrick sounded worried. He reached out and touched Alec’s shoulder. Alec did him a favor and didn’t jerk it away. “It’s for the best, Alec. Really, it is.”
“I’d like to sleep now, Pat,” Alec said. He kept looking at the ceiling, pretending that the white tile soothed him. “I’m very tired.”
Patrick didn’t say anything for several moments. At last, however, Alec heard the chair scrape against the floor as Patrick got up. “All right. I’ll be by later, if you need anything. The nurses will bring you by some food and water. And your painkillers.”
“Thank you, Pat,” Alec said. He closed his eyes, then, so that Patrick wouldn’t think he was lying. At first he heard nothing, and then he heard Patrick’s footsteps, crossing over to the door, and then the click as the door shut behind him.
In the end, there wasn’t much to pack. Sleeping in a stall and getting paid fifty cents a horse meant you didn’t have much in the way of worldly possessions. Everything fit neatly into one bag: his shirts, his extra trousers, a few tattered books, Grandpa’s bridle, even the pack of Lucky Strikes, which hadn’t ever been opened. Looking at them made him want to weep and punch his brother, and he very nearly threw them away, but then at the last moment he stuffed them under his shirts. His brother wanted him to leave the shirts, too; they could, after all, buy him new clothes from Lord & Taylor. Alec didn’t pay him any mind. His clothes were worn in all the right places and smelled comfortingly of horse.
Johnny stopped him on the way out of the stables. “Alec, is it true that–” He stopped in midsentence as soon as he saw the bag, and then he looked up at Patrick. Pat wasn’t in his white doctor coat, but he sure looked like he didn’t belong at a racetrack unless he was making bets up in the grandstand. Then Johnny looked out at the gate, where the Ford sedan was parked. He looked up at Alec again. Alec didn’t look back at him, fixing on the walking ring instead.
“You’ll write us, won’t you?” Johnny said. “You won’t forget about us?”
Alec let loosen his grip on the bag. “I’d never forget you, Johnny,” he said, and finally he looked at the smaller boy. Johnny looked sad, but determined; that was Johnny all over. “Say goodbye to Fitzsimmons and Eddie and everyone else for me, will you?”
Johnny’s head bobbed. Alec wanted to shake his hand, but he couldn’t with one arm in a sling and the other holding the bag, so he smiled instead. Patrick was already walking away, saying they had a train to catch. He didn’t say a word on the way to the train station except to tell Alec, “Call me when you get home.”
Though he never quite forgot about the cast, Alec was still unused to having to move everything with his upper arm, and he banged his cast against the compartment door when at last he got on the train. His yell of pain startled even himself. “Sorry,” he mumbled, after everyone had turned round to stare. The conductor punched his ticket and showed him to his seat. The cast wouldn’t fit in his sleeve of his coat, and it flapped uselessly at his side. Nobody was looking at him now, but Alec still felt ashamed, and swallowed his pills dry.
The four-hundred mile ride was excruciating. The seats were comfortable, the scenery fine, but all Alec could think about as he stared out the window was Sunny Jim. Where was he now? What had happened, when the elves came to Pimlico only to find him not there? What would happen to him, without a rider? What would happen to Alec, without a horse? Did the terms of the deal still stand? Would they both die? As he gazed out the window, he could almost see the black form of a horse, galloping alongside the train, but it was only in his imagination. At last, exhausted by misery and lulled by the pills, he fell asleep.
When he woke, it was dark outside. They’d passed the farmland, and outside were the dark and dessicated shells of the factories, their chimneys and spouts thrust up into the air like Ozymandias’ monoliths, their windows blank and empty. It was troubling to look at, and for once Sunny Jim fled Alec’s mind as the hollow buildings paraded by. Then they were gone, and as they entered the Hub proper, the lights and gloss that Alec recalled flickered through the train windows, the buildings getting shinier, the gaslights glowing orange with the onset of nighttime. All around him the other passengers were coming back to life, one small child piping, “Are we almost there, Mama?” Alec tried to rearrange himself so that he was more comfortable, but there never seemed to be anywhere he could tuck the cast.
His folks met him at the station. His father, a tall, mustached man with hair the same shade as Alec’s, smiled bravely and clapped him on the shoulder, voicing a gruff, “Welcome home, son.” He was wearing a dapper suit. His mother, a petite woman with a round, kind face and dark tresses covered by a fashionable hat, seemed on the verge of tears and only embraced him. Alec tried awkwardly to return the gesture, and when she brushed against the cast, her breath caught in her throat and she had to look away.
“I’ll take that, Alec,” Mr. Dailey said, stepping forward and holding out a large, meaty palm.
“It’s all right,” Alec said, quietly. “It’s very light. It’s only my right wrist that’s broken,” he added, for good measure.
Mr. Dailey’s face fell. “All right,” he said, in a voice that meant, Well, if you’re going to be like that. Mrs. Dailey touched his arm and looked at him pleadingly. They exchanged glances, and finally, Mr. Dailey said, “Well, wait here, and I’ll bring the car ’round.”
Home was in the upscale and well-to-do Back Bay, and as they wove through the streets, Alec felt himself growing more and more sullen. Already the racetrack seemed far away, like a daydream he’d had staring out the window in school. Now they’d want him to go to university. Maybe they’d even want to send him to MIT or Harvard; they’d want him close, where they could keep an eye on him and make sure he didn’t get any foolish notions. At the very least, they’d want him to learn the banking business. Someone had to take it over, and Patrick was down in Baltimore, with a wife and family and a job at the big hospital and no views toward quitting it to take up banking. Alec was downright mulish by the time they reached the brownstone.
He wasn’t used to being properly inside anymore. The ceiling was too close, the rooms too cramped with all their furniture and his mother’s knickknacks, the floors too polished when they weren’t too thickly carpeted. Everything was too quiet and smelled stuffy. Alec was aware of how he was dressed in a work shirt and work trousers, his shoes all scuffed. He seemed too big for the place now, though he wasn’t much taller or broader than when he’d left it.
Mrs. Dailey touched Alec’s shoulder. “I’ll go get some supper ready,” she said with a small, uncertain smile, like she wasn’t sure how Alec would take it. “You must be hungry after that long trip.”
“Actually, I’d like to rest,” Alec said, quietly.
Mr. and Mrs. Dailey both gave him a look, like when you scrutinize a new horse for trouble, and then glanced at each other. Mr. Dailey said something in a low voice that sounded like “long journey” and “let him rest, if he wants to rest.” Mrs. Dailey put on another smile and turned to Alec. “All right, honey. Your room is upstairs, just like it used to be.”
“Thank you,” Alec said, and would’ve tipped his hat, if he had one. He went slowly up the stairs, feeling his folks’ eyeballs on his back the entire time. They started talking again, as soon as he reached the landing, and he was sure they were talking about him.
Turning that knob and opening that door was like stepping back into a ghost of himself. The sheets were fresh–they must’ve just aired them–and the bookshelves, mostly pulps and adventure novels, were free of dust. Maybe the wallpaper was a little faded in places, or maybe it’d just been sharper in his memory. They’d even left the pictures he’d pasted up over the bed, mostly clipped from newspapers and magazines, of racehorses and polo ponies and cow ponies, yellowed and curling at the edges. Alec dropped his bag by the bed and reached out with his bad hand to brush his fingers against the edges of a photograph of Gallant Fox, caught in mid-stride at the Belmont Stakes, head outstretched and legs gathered under him, jockey Earl Sande crouched over his back.
Alec caught the corner of the photo between the thumb and forefinger of his crippled right hand and tore it savagely off the wall, leaving behind a few sad, dangling tatters. He scrabbled at it with the nails of his other hand until it was little more than a smear, and then gave all the rest of them the same treatment. Shredded newsprint rained down on the sheets and scattered across the floor.
When all that remained of a boy’s shrine to the equine world were dark smudges of paste, Alec sat heavily down on the bed and stared at his knees. Then he raised his right arm and, quite deliberately, banged it against the bedpost, so that he gasped in pain and his eyes teared. Then he did it again, and again, until the tears leaked out his eyes. Then he stopped, but the tears kept on coming.
He must have fallen asleep, because he woke suddenly in the middle of the night. The light was off. Alec couldn’t remember if he’d never switched it on, so perhaps his mother had come in to check on him and dimmed it. His left arm was stiff from lying on it, and he’d fallen asleep with his boots on. He was still surrounded by bits and pieces of paper, and some of it was stuck to his face and shirt. He brushed it off and thought that something about this atmosphere felt familiar, this stillness and anticipation. He hardly dared to hope, but his blood quickened despite himself. Holding his breath all the while, he made his way down the stairs. The grandfather clock on the second floor landing that normally ticked so loud you could hear it all the way down the hall was silent. Alec stopped by the front door and peered out the window.
An elf stood in the green belt that ran down the center of Commonwealth Avenue. Next to him was the unmistakable figure of a glossy black horse.
Alec threw all caution to the winds then and trusted that whatever had protected them at Pimlico would protect him now. He dashed out the door, across the street, and all but shouldered aside the elf to fling his arms around Sunny Jim’s neck, even though it jarred his arm. Sunny Jim snorted and jerked his head.
“The date for the race has been set, Alec Dailey,” said the elf in the same high, musical voice as all the other elves, like the wind blowing through icicles. “It will be two fortnights from now.”
Two fortnights. Four weeks. Pat had said the cast would come off in five.
“Do you intend on riding, Alec Dailey?” asked the elf, like he knew what Alec was thinking. His voice had turned silky.
“Heck yeah,” Alec breathed into Jim’s mane. “Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”
The Boston Commons was big enough, and green enough, that when you were in the middle of it you hardly knew you were in the middle of a city at all, ’til you ran across a paved path, or a bed of flowers, or a monument. Sunny Jim and Alec walked side by side through the unnaturally silent common, weaving this way and that through the trees, cutting mindlessly over the paths. It was so silent that it seemed they must walk between the crickets’ chirps, and you could hear the paper burning when Jim smoked his cigarettes. Alec told him about running away from home so many times as a child, about the diabetes mellitus, about how at last his parents relented and let him see if he could find work at Pimlico, where at least his brother was nearby. He told Jim how he’d broken his wrist. Jim didn’t speak a word the entire time, just smoked one cigarette down after another. He was strangely beautiful when he blew the smoke out between his lips, better than any of the advertisements Alec saw in the papers or the mags, even if Jim wasn’t a movie star.
They ended over by the duck pond. Alec had talked himself out of words, and they stood there by the black-looking water. No ducks bobbed on the water or curled in dark shapes on the grass or in the reeds. Jim tapped the ash of his cigarette into the water, the bridle wrapped round his wrist jingling as he did so. “So, you gonna keep riding?”
“I have to.” Alec scuffed his boot in the grass and dislodged a pebble, which rolled over the grass and disappeared into the pond, sending silvery ripples across the surface of the water. “I can’t live my life not around horses. It’ll kill me just the same.”
“You’ll die, keepin’ this up.” His folks said it in raised voices, his father red in the face, his mother with tears in her eyes. Jim said it so plain, almost like he was talking about the weather, or what he’d have for breakfast the next morning, blue smoke escaping from between his lips. “But then, you’ll die anyway, horses or no horses.”
He was right, once Alec really thought about it. Either the horses would kill him, or the diabetes would. When he looked at it like that, everything suddenly seemed so clear. “So you’re saying, I’m gonna die anyway. Just a matter of what gets to me first. So I might as throw my luck in with the horses.”
“You’re crazy,” Jim said. He sounded almost fond about it. He tapped another cigarette out of the pack and used the old one to light the new one. “Got no sense of self-preservation.” He dropped the stub of the old cigarette into the pond.
Alec thought maybe he had the hang of Sunny Jim now. The man wanted to keep the world at arm’s length, well, Alec could play along. “Yeah, and what’s it to you? You said we’re not pals.”
“We’re not. But I like that kinda crazy in a man. It’s what makes a man dangerous, is when he’s got nothing to lose.” Jim grinned at him then, the cigarette sticking out of one corner of his mouth, and Alec thought it was maybe the first genuine smile he’d ever seen on the man. “And that’s the Sunny Jim way.”
So it was settled. Alec would ride, and Sunny Jim, well, he’d be a horse.
By day, Alec was the model of perfect behavior. He took his insulin, ate no sweets, and tested his urine once in the morning and once in the evening. He spent much of his days at the Boston Public Library. Mr. Dailey, not realizing that much of that time was spent reading back issues of the Daily Racing Form, hoped this meant Alec was ready to forget “this horsing nonsense” and embrace academia, or banking. When he broached it with Alec, however, Alec would only shrug and say, “Maybe,” or “I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t push him, honey,” said Mrs. Dailey, when Mr. Dailey expressed outrage at his son’s wishywashyness. “He’s been through a lot. Let him recover first.”
Every night, Alec stole out of the house and drove the sedan to the racetrack, where the gate was always mysteriously open. An elf would be waiting with Jim in the infield. Suffolk Downs was brand spanking new compared to Pimlico, but Alec had little time or energy for admiring the grandstand, or the new paint, or the careful cultivation of the infield, with its bean-shaped pond and carefully kept trees. He had to ride different, with the reins mostly in one hand and the other just sort of laying on top, fingers curled loosely around, and the whole time he felt like he might lose his balance and go spinning off, or that he might accidentally coax the horse too far to one side or the other. Sunny Jim’s gait wasn’t smooth enough, either, especially at full speed, to keep from jarring Alec’s arm, and he ended every night sore and gritting his teeth against the pain. But he had a race to win, and Sunny Jim seemed to feel much the same way. (“Losin’ ain’t what Sunny Jim does.”)
It seemed impossible that Jim should lose, though, with the quarter-mile poles whipping by faster every night. Then Alec would fret: suppose they weren’t running against other horses? Suppose they weren’t racing on a track, but over grass, or through woodland? Suppose he fell again? Suppose–
And what would happen, when they won? The elves had spelled out in no uncertain terms what would happen if they lost, but what was the prize for the winner? And what–and this made him very uneasy–what if after they won the race, Alec never saw Sunny Jim again? It wasn’t the same lurching sadness as before, when he’d first discovered Jim was a man, when he thought he’d lose his perfect horse. That was a part of it, but now he found himself remembering that rare, genuine smile that Jim had shown him that night, when they’d found themselves to be two of a kind.
He spent a lot of the time at the library reading about elves. There wasn’t much about them that wasn’t fairy tale nonsense, and if there was one thing everyone had learned about elves by now, it was that they weren’t anything like how Shakespeare had said, and also completely like how Shakespeare had said. It was hard to separate fact from fiction, so Alec stuck mostly to the newspapers. Here was a lady whose son had been turned into a chicken, and she’d ate him without realizing. Here was a man who’d gone from a bicycle salesman to an automobile repairer with some one-time help from elves. And here was a woman who’d desperately needed money to fulfill her husband’s last wishes of breeding his prize mare to a racehorse stud, and she’d suddenly found oil on her land. It mostly seemed to depend on how the elves felt, and whether or not, by their standards, you were a decent enough person that they’d help you instead of harm you. Nowhere did Alec find any stories of people actually outsmarting elves, or getting elves to undo something they’d already done.
Jim didn’t seem to be hurting for being a horse, anyhow. Alec supposed he half-envied him. Heck, at the track, he’d seen horses being treated better than most people. Good food, roomy stalls, people stroking them and patting them and grooming them, and crowds of people cheering for them. Alec did good by Sunny Jim, talking to him, giving him plenty of treats, letting him frolic in the infield now and then. Those weren’t the eyes and ears of an unhappy horse, Alec knew that.
One night, it had rained. Alec tested the track, walking up and down, judging how wet it was, how slippery, how muddy. It was still fine to run, especially now that the water just stayed hanging in the air and not hitting the ground, and not a breath of wind. Sunny Jim, watching him over the rail with ears pricked, didn’t seem to mind the weather or the track, either. But Alec had pushed him hard this week, and he thought Sunny Jim maybe deserved a break. Besides, he missed talking to someone that didn’t tiptoe around him or nag him, like his folks. He didn’t have any friends here in Boston.
Jim always lit his cigarettes with the reverence of a man at prayer, cupping one hand around the flame so as not to let it go out. They strolled up and down the stables, past the dark and quiet stalls, by the creaking walking rings. Alec was restless tonight and wanted to keep moving. Jim didn’t seem to mind; give the man a pack of cigarettes, and you could haul him around all you liked, it seemed. Alec thought he’d gotten even leaner and tougher lately, maybe from all the running.
“What’s it like, being a horse?” Alec asked.
“Not so bad, when you’ve got a sucker lookin’ out for you, givin’ you sweets and things, and not makin’ you run in the rain,” Jim answered.
Jim wasn’t a mean fellow, Alec figured. He wasn’t a mean horse, anyhow, and he thought that said a lot about the man’s character. He was a man that just said mean things, like a horse that’s been treated mean and now just goes around picking fights. So he asked, “Is it nice to run?”
Jim was a long time answering. He had to take a drag off his cigarette first, and then he had to blow out the smoke. “Yeah,” he said, finally, like he couldn’t bear to lie about this one thing. “It’s great. You’re the fastest thing in the world. You can outrun anything. Everything.”
Alec hadn’t been allowed to take exercise with the other children in school. His parents had been too afraid that he’d have a hypo, and of all the trouble that’d cause. So he’d sat and watched while they ran around, or threw balls to each other, sick with misery and relief. They’d teased him, and then they’d let him alone when he wouldn’t rise to their bait. He thought maybe that’d been where it all started.
Jim was looking at him, holding the cigarette in his hand, just letting it burn. He had a strange look that put Alec in mind of a determined horse, waiting for his human’s signal to charge. When he realized Alec was looking back, he brought the cigarette back to his lips and took a quick drag. He spat out the smoke and said, “You’re gaining weight.”
“I am?” Alec looked down at himself. He didn’t look any different, he thought. Felt different, sure, but that was what happened when you were finally back to three squares a day, plus insulin. He figured it made sense that he’d gain weight after all that. “I’m not causing you any trouble, am I?”
Jim snorted smoke out his nose. He took another drag off the cigarette, then sort of mumbled out, quietly, “You look better.”
Alec was just about flattened out with surprise, and then he couldn’t have been more delighted than a child on Christmas morning. He started laughing. Jim looked outraged, but Alec managed to say, between laughs, “Well, that’s the first nice thing I’ve ever heard you say!”
“Yeah, well, don’t turn into a lead pad, is all,” Jim snarled, but the damage was done. Alec spent the rest of the night smiling, and when he drove home that night, it was the happiest he’d been since coming back to Boston.
Everything went downhill from there.
The night began normally enough. Alec snuck out of the house as soon as the grandfather clock went dead, past his father, who’d apparently fallen asleep in the armchair with his book poised in front of him, too quiet to be breathing. He drove to the track, through the gate that was always unlocked, and he was careful to lock it beside him once he was inside. He left the car by the grandstand and crossed the track to the infield, where the elf waited with Sunny Jim. Alec smiled and nodded at the elf, spoke softly to Sunny Jim, and took the horse by the bridle. He saw a flash of something in Sunny Jim’s eye then, like the look he used to sometimes see on the filly Hold For Call, who could do a quarter mile faster than you could exclaim, “Jack Robinson!” if you could get her to work at all. There’d been no harm in her, just mischief, and you knew when she looked at you if she was up to something. He saw that devilish look in Sunny Jim now, or he thought he did, but he thought he must’ve seen wrong. After all, he and Sunny Jim were pals.
“Well, c’mon,” he said, and started to lead Sunny Jim to the track. It was like yanking at a stopped train; Sunny Jim planted all four feet and wouldn’t budge. Alec looked at him, bewildered. Sunny Jim just glared back, ears flat and rebellion in every line of his body. Had the elves maybe done something to him? Alec tugged again, gently. Sunny Jim just hunkered down.
Hold For Call had done this before, and Alec had been the one to discover that if she wouldn’t be led, she’d consent to be ridden. Wondering if Sunny Jim would succumb to the same sideways logic, Alec let go the bridle and went round to mount. He had one foot in the strirrup when Sunny Jim abruptly stepped to one side, nearly pitching Alec onto his back. After windmilling his arms wildly, Alec regained his balance and tried again. Though Sunny Jim did his best to squirrel away again, this time Alec was ready for him and managed to scramble onto his back.
His troubles didn’t end there. Now he managed, through nearly talking himself hoarse, to make Sunny Jim walk, or nearly walk. Sunny Jim hunched, hopped, and scuttled to the track, joggling Alec’s arm ’til he could barely feel his fingers. Then, once actually on the track, he put down roots and pretended he was deaf as a post while Alec pleaded, coaxed, and cajoled. Alec was completely bewildered. There were a number of reasons for horse misbehavior, and prime among them was injury. He couldn’t stand the thought of Jim being hurt, so he leaned down and asked, “Is something hurting you, Jim?” hoping the horse could understand enough. At that, Jim lurched into a trot, but the worst trot Alec had ever sat. Sunny Jim kept his head down and his strides short and choppy, rattling Alec’s bones and sending shooting pains up his arm. He gritted his teeth and sat back in the saddle. Every time the horse’s hoof struck the turf, it sent a jolt straight up into Alec that clacked his teeth together. He couldn’t feel a limp, though. Maybe Jim had just been stiff and was working out of it now. He didn’t know how the elves kept him, after all. He rose up and forward in the saddle, leaning his toes in the stirrups. Sunny Jim moved into a canter, and Alec’s spirits lifted.
It was not to be so. Sunny Jim’s canter, normally so graceful and swift, tonight rang ker-clunk ker-clunk on the track. His head snaked back and forth. At the fourth stride, Alec felt the horse’s back hunch under him, like he was about to give a terrific buck, and his heart leapt into his mouth. He tightened his hands on the reins. The mooment passed. Jim’s hooves hit solidly. Ker-clunk ker-clunk. On the fourth stride, that lurch again. Ker-clunk ker-clunk. The buck never came.
Enough was enough. Alec hauled on the reins and Sunny Jim obediently came to a stop, the first thing he’d done properly all night. Alec slid off the horse’s back, knelt, and felt all four legs. He couldn’t see much, in the dark, but he could detect no heat or trace of swelling. He pulled off Jim’s tack next, ran his hands over the horse’s glossy back and squinted. No sores or burrs or other annoyances here, either. What could possibly be wrong? He went round to the horse’s head and was taken aback by what he saw. Jim looked positively wild, ears back and eyes rolling, all but foaming at the mouth.
“What’s the matter?” Alec asked, laying a hand on the horse’s neck. “You sore? Maybe you just need a rest. We’ll find some liniment in the stables, give you a nice rub, a massage, and–”
Alec had never given too much thought to how much Sunny Jim understood when he was a horse. He talked to Sunny Jim like he could understand everything he said, because that was the way he talked to all the horses, but, well, Sunny Jim was different. So Alec talked about different stuff, too: what he’d been reading lately, mostly, and nothing that could embarrass him later if Jim happened to remember. But, well, how Sunny Jim reacted after what Alec said about the liniment left no doubt in his mind that Jim really did understand and maybe even remembered afterward, because the horse gave a terrific snort and ripped himself free of Alec’s hold, and just took off into the stables. Alec yelled, of course, and chased after him, but he didn’t stand a single chance of catching a horse on foot. God, if Jim broke something, or ran into something in this dark–
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Jim demanded, striding out of the darkness. Buck naked again, and clutching a shoe that some horse had thrown or that someone had changed out. Alec slowed to a trot, then stopped completely, leaning against one of the stalls to catch his breath. Jim came over and stood in front of him, eyes popping and veins standing out on his neck. “Goddammit, anyone else would have punched me, and I would’ve deserved it!”
“What?” Alec gasped out, trying to get his heart to stop doing its best to punch its way out of his chest. His arm hurt like the dickens, and it made it hard to think.
“You! I shake you half to pieces, I practically buck you off, and here you’re going to find me some liniment and give me a massage?” Jim sure was mad, waving his arms around and pacing back and forth, raising his voice. It was a good thing the elves had made sure that no one would hear them. He marched back over to Alec now and let his arms fall by his sides. “You’re too goddamn nice, is what you are,” he said in a low, breathy hiss, like a wildcat.
“Why?” Alec asked, still all bewildered. He still didn’t see what had Jim all in a lather. And then maybe he did, because Jim leaned up on his toes, grabbed Alec by the face, and kissed him.
A lot of things went through Alec’s mind then. The first one was just that Jim sure didn’t kiss like a girl. The second one was that, hell–pardon his language–Jim was a–
Then Jim took a few stumbling steps back, the first time Alec ever saw him move like he didn’t know exactly where his feet were. Now that Alec had a clear head, though, he had half a mind to clock Jim. He had his right hand in a fist before he really thought about it, and it hurt bad enough that he suddenly remembered that maybe he wasn’t in a shape to go around slugging people. Jim, meanwhile, had his shoulders hunched and his dukes half-up, and the look he gave Alec then reminded him of the first time he’d met the horse in the paddock at Pimlico, when he looked like he expected to be knocked around some.
“Hell, Jim,” Alec said, voice shaking. “You’re a–you’re a–”
“A queer, yeah,” Jim snarled, and Alec had never heard a man make a word sound so ugly. “A homo. A fairy.” He wouldn’t put down his dukes, but he wouldn’t put them all the way up, either. “Go on. Slug me. I deserve it.”
Jim deserved no such thing. All the fight drained out of Alec like water out of a broken bucket, and then he was just dog tired. He stood up straight. Jim, eyes narrow, put down his fists, but he was still tense, like a horse that’s thinking of bolting. Alec thought he should maybe talk this out, but he didn’t know what to say. Everything was just such a big mess, all of a sudden, and he couldn’t see his way clear. “Let’s just call it a night, Jim.”
“Sure,” Jim said, and he relaxed just a little bit, enough that his shoulders weren’t up by his ears anymore. “Sure,” he said again. “Let’s call it quits.”
Alec spent the whole next day thinking about how Sunny Jim Ramsay was a homo. He thought about it at the breakfast table that morning, so much so that he didn’t hear his mother ask him three times if he wanted more oatmeal. He thought about it at the Public Library that day, staring at one page of that day’s Daily Racing Form for almost four hours, and finally he put the paper back without having read a word. He thought about it, too, as he strolled around the Commons with his arm in a sling, by the statue of George Washington. The walk ended by the duck pond where Sunny Jim Ramsay had once smiled at him, blue smoke curling up from his lips.
He watched the ducks drifting across the water, leaving little V-shaped ripples in their wake. There was something soothing about them, and they made the strange tight feeling in his chest unknot. Nothing had changed, he realized, and nothing would change. They were still in this together. Alec wasn’t about to stop riding just because his horse was a pansy, and it wasn’t like Jim was a nance. He didn’t wear rouge, and he had hair on his chest, and other places, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jim was a man, even if he was a homo.
There was something else that gave Alec trouble, though, and it was that Jim had kissed him. Just leaned up and kissed him, like a fella kissed his best gal. So did that mean that Jim liked him? That Jim wanted him to be his girl–so to speak? Alec turned that one over in his head when he lay in his bed that night. The idea didn’t repulse him. He’d never been much for skirts, anyway. Sure, he’d kissed a few, even done some fooling around, but in the end, they were an awful lot of trouble. He’d rather have spent the time reading, or down at the track, but it’d always seemed like he should have enjoyed it, at least, the other fellas made it sound–
That night, he went to Suffolk Downs prepared, with his grandfather’s old bridle wrapped round his cast, the bit resting cold and heavy in his palm. He drove in through the open gate, then got out and shut it behind him, then got back in the sedan and drove some more. He stopped the car by the grandstand and strode across the track to the infield, where one of the elves usually waited with Sunny Jim.
Tonight, though, there was just an elf, dressed up like a squirrel covered in autumn leaves, reddish-brown fur streaked with gold-and-red maple patterns.
Alec stopped short. He looked left, and then right. He didn’t hear a thing, not even the wind blowing through the grass; there was never any wind when the elves did their work. No whinny, no sound of hooves or the jingle of tack, although the elf tack had always been quiet as cat’s feet. “Where’s the horse?” he called. Then, thinking that now there was no benefit in not playing his hand, “Where’s Sunny Jim?”
The elf didn’t twitch, didn’t even so much as bat an eyelash. Alec didn’t think he’d ever seen one of them blink. Maybe they were like lizards. “He has indicated to us that your partnership is over.”
Alec didn’t think he’d heard right. “What?”
“He informed us that you two will no longer race together,” the elf answered. His expression didn’t change even once. It was like talking to one of those Indian statues that you saw out in front of the more imaginative stores.
Alec lost his temper. He’d come here intending to talk to Jim, and he wasn’t leaving until he’d had his talk. “Well, I didn’t agree to anything, and I’m not ending anything without talking to Jim first. So you just go and fetch him, and then you take your elfen heinie back to Elfland until we call for you.” The elf didn’t move, although he did hesitate. Alec shook the bit at him, and its cold jingle made the elf take a step back, eyes narrowed. “Well? Get going!”
The elf got, disappearing into some little wrinkle in the air that looked exactly the same as everything around it. Alec paced around in the grass, swinging his arms back and forth. Partnership was over? No longer race together? What the heck was that all about? Did he think Alec didn’t want to race anymore, now that he knew Jim was a homo? Well, he had another think coming, because this didn’t change anything. He’d decided that already.
He heard a rustle behind him, and Alec spun around so quickly that he overbalanced and almost fell on his rump in the grass. The elf was back–Alec knew it was the same elf because he still looked like a squirrel that had taken a roll in some leaves, or some leaves that taken a roll in some squirrel–and this time he had Sunny Jim, as big and glorious as ever, though he had his head sunk down low like some old beaten nag. No tack this time, just a simple halter, which suited Alec fine. He hadn’t planned on doing any riding tonight, anyhow.
The elf left them alone without another word, just like Alec wanted. Alec stepped forward to take off the halter so Jim wouldn’t get all tangled up in it later. Jim had his head down so low that Alec had to bend down and practically pick his head up, to get at the catches. It was hard with his right hand all bound up, but he got it off and let it fall, like pieces of pale eggshell in the dark grass.
“What’s the big idea, anyhow?” Alec asked softly, fumbling the bit against Jim’s neck. “Why’d you tell them that you didn’t want to be partners anymore?”
“You said that,” Jim rasped a second later, taking the bit away. He looked down at the bridle in his hand and slowly wound the leather straps around his wrist. “You said we were calling it quits. I just agreed, that’s all.”
“I never said that,” Alec said, heatedly, but he couldn’t be angry anymore, not with Jim looking like that. A man never looked half so miserable as Jim did right at that moment. He took pity on the jockey, sighed and scratched his head. “C’mon, I brought some clothes for you. I think we need to talk.”
Jim had quietly smoked through a cigarette and used the stub to light his next one by the time they got to the stables. Though they were absent their usual sounds, the rustle of horses rooting around in their stalls, the soft whimpers and exhalations of the guard dogs, the creak of the walking rings, the smell was still homey and familiar, and Alec was able to stop feeling so tight all over. He found a bench pushed up against the stalls, probably where the stablehands sat when they weren’t grooming or walking or riding, and sat there. Jim remained standing, puffing away on his cigarette like a steam engine. He stared off into the distance and didn’t look at Alec, while Alec sat and thought of what he wanted to say first. There was so much that he didn’t know where to start.
Finally, Alec decided to ask about the most important thing. “Do you want to call it quits, Jim?” It’d been Jim that tried to call it off, after all. He didn’t want to make the jockey stay, or do anything he didn’t want to do, though the thought of not riding in that race, after all the time and effort they’d put into this, near broke his heart. And Jim was about his only real friend, too, even if he was a queer, and he couldn’t imagine not being able to talk to him anymore, or see him.
“Sure I do,” Jim said, in such a hollow voice that it was like it spread to Alec’s insides. “Don’t you?”
“No,” Alec said. Jim turned round and looked at Alec with surprise written all over his face. “I’m not gonna quit over–over something like this.”
“Hell, you should,” Jim muttered. “Anyone in their right mind would.”
“You said I was crazy. Got no sense of self-preservation.” Alec kicked his heels a little. Then, before he could lose his nerve, Alec drew in a breath and blurted out, “Will you kiss me again, Jim?” He said this all while looking at Jim’s knees.
Jim gaped at him like a landed fish, pop-eyes and all, and caught himself before his cigarette could slip from his mouth. “You don’t mean that,” he said, bleakly.
There’s nothing like telling a man that he can’t do something that will make him want to prove you wrong. So Alec jutted out his chin, set his jaw, looked up at Jim, and said, “Come see if I don’t.”
Jim stared at him a moment longer, then gave a laugh like a man headed for the gallows, half stricken and half hysterical. He took one last drag off his cigarette, flung it to the ground, then strode over and kissed Alec with one hand on the wall above his head and the other holding Alec’s chin. Alec could feel that hand shaking, the bit jingling where it was wrapped around his wrist.
Jim’s mouth tasted foul, like burning smoke and tar, and he sure didn’t kiss like any girl. Alec hung back at first, unsure of what to do. He’d never played the girl’s part, after all. Then he figured, well, he wasn’t a girl, and he wasn’t a nance, and Jim surely knew that. So he gave back as good as he got, tentatively at first, and then bolder as Jim let him know, through a series of pleased sounds, that he was doing the right thing. That got Alec maybe a little too excited, because he very nearly clobbered Jim in the head with his cast, trying to get his arms around Jim. Alec swore and stammered out an apology, and Jim laughed, of all things, a bright, happy sound that made him ten years younger.
“C’mon,” Jim urged. “This ain’t the place for fooling around. Let’s get inside.”
That was how they ended up kissing on a tangle of saddle blankets in one of the empty stalls. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing, or the warmest place for it, but it was a sight better than a bench. Here, Jim wasted no time in getting Alec out of his clothes, and with every button that he undid, he claimed that territory with a kiss. It was practically romantic, and it made poetry spring to Alec’s mind: I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held– Then Jim’s hand came down on Alec’s belt buckle, and he knew for certain where that would lead. His face flamed, and he groped frantically ’til his hand found Jim’s hair. “Jim,” he hissed, “Jim, there’s something–”
“What?” Jim looked up, clearly displeased at having been interrupted. When he saw Alec’s face, it took only a moment for it all to melt into fear. He pulled his hands away from Alec like he’d been burned, or like he’d burned Alec. “Jesus Christ, I–”
“I’ve got a bit of trouble.” His throat closed up, then. He couldn’t speak anymore. He’d only ever spoken about this to Patrick, to ask if there was something wrong with him. The fear on Jim’s face turned to resignation, and Alec forced himself to go on. He couldn’t make his tongue shape the words, though, and finally he settled on, “It’s like Jake Barnes.”
“Jake Barnes?” Jim repeated, face blank.
“From the Hemingway book.” Jim, thank God, had read Hemingway, because now he looked shocked. Horrified, even. Now that he understood, it was easier for Alec to speak, though he had to look at the ceiling instead of Jim. He could feel his ears burning and wished he’d never brought this up. What if now Jim had second thoughts? “Only I wasn’t hurt in a war, of course, I just–” He stopped and couldn’t keep going. There was no excuse, no reason for this.
Jim said, in a strange voice, “Was this with fillies?”
Alec nodded and put one hand over his face. Then he felt hands scrabbling at his belt buckle.
“Jim!” Alec exclaimed, and took his hand away from his face. Jim yanked out Alec’s belt and threw it to one side, and using one hand, undid Alec’s trousers. He studied Alec carefully, as a scientist might observe a specimen, and then bent his head.
Alec gasped and grabbed at the saddle blankets, banging his cast hard enough that it brought tears of pain to his eyes. He jerked his hips up, and Jim grunted and snaked out both hands to hold him down while he worked. Alec tried to shove both hands in his mouth, found he couldn’t, and had to settle for chewing on his left fist. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but he sure hadn’t expected this. He’d heard, of course, from the other stablehands he’d heard, but this wasn’t something respectable women did–he’d never thought–never even imagined–
He floated in a heady daze of possibilities and pleasure. He no longer even heard the soft, wet sounds that Jim made with his mouth. It was effort enough to keep breathing.
“Shit.” Jim sounded agitated enough that Alec hauled himself out of his warm, pleasant dream and propped himself up on his elbows. He got an eyeful of himself, slick with spit, and Jim, his chin wet and shiny, staring down at Alec with a rueful grimace. “Hell, Alec, I’m sorry.” His voice shook. “I tried, but you’re not–maybe if I were a woman–”
Alec didn’t know what Jim was talking about, but he didn’t like his tone. He closed his fingers around Jim’s forearm and shook, gently. Jim stared up at him with an unreadable gaze, but Alec thought there was something sad and guarded in the way he looked. “If there’s anyone around here that’s half a woman already, it’s me,” Alec said, quietly. “Why, I can’t even–” Once again, he couldn’t say it. The enormity of all this had suddenly struck him full force between the eyes. It hadn’t mattered when the girls had turned up their noses and left, or laughed, because even though it’d stung and made him so ashamed he thought he’d die, there’d always been riding and living to do. Jim, though, was different. He liked Jim, and he didn’t think he could stand it if Jim mocked him or turned him away.
He tugged Jim’s arm some more. “C’mere.”
Jim came, though he looked like he might bolt any second. Alec undid his shirt, or tried, since his right hand was worse than useless. His shoulder hurt after, from having to hold up the cast so carefully for so long, but he still had the trousers to do. His fingers skittered indelicately over the belt, and Jim’s hand caught him by the wrist. Alec looked up, fearfully, and met Jim’s solemn gaze.
“What’re you gonna do?” Jim asked, softly.
“I’m gonna do to you what you did to me,” Alec said, and was proud of how his voice didn’t even so much as quiver.
“You don’t have to,” Jim said, urgent like he was trying to tell Alec something else, under the words, maybe through his eyes. Alec couldn’t read it, though. “I mean it, Alec, we can call the whole thing off. This isn’t something you should be doing.”
Well, as we already know, there’s nothing like telling a man what he shouldn’t do to make him want to do it. Alec set his jaw, and through supreme effort and concentration got Jim’s belt open. He went after the trousers next, noting with pleasure how Jim’s breath stuttered. Then, next he knew, he was holding Jim in his hand. It was a strange and almost reverent experience. He couldn’t stop staring at how thin and long he was, and how hard, swelling in Alec’s hand. Jim’s breathing was getting pretty ragged, too. Before he could think about it too much, Alec bent down and took Jim in his mouth.
Jim gasped. Well, Alec had certainly never heard a woman make that sound, and it sent a thrill through him. He tried sucking a little bit, like he’d felt Jim do, and wished he’d paid more attention. He wanted this to be good for Jim. Jim let go a high, quavering moan, which Alec took as a good sign, so he kept sucking. Then he tried licking Jim all over, like he was an ice cream cone or a lollipop, and Jim demonstrated how he liked that, too. It seemed like Alec couldn’t do anything wrong, and that made him grin. Why, this was fun. He’d never thought it would be fun.
Jim was thrusting now, like he was pumping into a woman. That made it hard for Alec to lick or suck, but he didn’t know if there was a polite way to ask Jim to stop. Or maybe he was just supposed to take it. Then Jim gave one terrific thrust, and Alec choked and had to pull away. Jim groaned and mumbled, “Sorry, sorry, can’t help it, you gotta hold me down.”
Hold him down? Hold him down how? Alec tried it several different ways and finally settled for keeping his left arm down across Jim’s hip. He felt Jim strain up against him when he went back to work, but Alec was heavier. Now he could play around again, while above him Jim whimpered and cursed and mumbled bits of things that sometimes sounded like poetry. Damn, but here of all places the man would not be quiet. Alec was glad the elves made sure nobody would hear.
Then Jim tensed. “Alec–” he gasped out, the first time he’d said Alec’s name like that. Alec looked up, and then choked as Jim spent into his mouth, bitter and salty. He jerked away without thinking, trying to spit, and the next jolt hit him on the cheek. He held out his hand to catch the rest of it–Jim sure had been pent up–and then wiped his face with the back of his knuckles. He didn’t want to clean his hand on the saddleblankets, so he used the shirt Jim had been wearing.
Jim had mostly stopped gasping like a winded horse by this time. “Shit,” he said, and put one hand over his face. “We shouldn’t of done that. I shouldn’t of done that.”
Alec stopped in the middle of buttoning his trousers. Jim sounded a little bit wrecked, and it worried him. Had he done something wrong? Jim had finished, after all, so it couldn’t have been that bad. “Why not?”
Jim took his hand away from his eyes and glared at Alec. “You’re not a homo, Alec.”
Oh, was that all? Alec squared his jaw. “Says who?”
“Says me,” Jim growled, and he gave Alec a good glare. “I don’t know what cockamamie idea you got in your head, but you want to walk away from this. This ain’t a good place to be.”
Alec just leaned down and kissed Jim for a good, long time, until Jim relaxed and stopped fighting it. Then he drew back, looked Jim right in the eyes, and told him, “Well, you ain’t the boss of me.”
Alec spent the next several days looking at himself in the mirror, watching himself for any signs of change. There weren’t. He didn’t start rouging himself in the mirror every morning, and he still had to shave. He didn’t want to wear skirts, or hose, or any of that nancy stuff. Then again, Jim was surely a man, even if he was a queer, so why did Alec think he was going to be any different? But it took a load off his mind, anyhow.
Everything seemed to come together, during those next few weeks. Sunny Jim was friskier than ever, sometimes even bucking in his glee, until Alec yelled for him to stop because he was hurting his arm. He went so fast during their blowouts that Alec was surprised they didn’t set the track aflame, and he’d hardly be sweating afterward, ready to go again. He watched Sunny Jim carefully for any signs of lameness or unsoundness, running his hands down the horse’s legs before and after every gallop, and each time Sunny Jim would just butt him with his head, as if to say, “What’re you doing that for?” And then Alec would laugh and tug on Sunny Jim’s forelock until the horse snorted, and think that if he could only do this forever, then he could be happy.
They took another few tumbles, after that first one, and Jim could be remarkably creative in working around Alec’s lack. It turned out there were all sorts of things you could do with your hands and mouth, and Alec was glad to learn every single one, especially if Jim kept smiling at him like that. Jim also promised that they’d find a way for Alec to sodomize him one of these days, which Alec couldn’t believe, and the promise sent such a blast of heat through his bones that he almost thought he could make good on it that night. He did do it with his fingers, with some tack oil and lots of instruction from Jim. He didn’t see how Jim could possibly like it, but from the way he thrashed and hollered and spent, there was something to it, and Alec had half a mind to try it for himself, if Jim had so much fun with it.
Relations in the brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue, however, were stretched to the breaking point. Mr. Dailey and Alec hardly spoke. This didn’t trouble Alec any, since all Mr. Dailey could seem to talk about was banking or university, but it clearly troubled Mrs. Dailey. She could often be seen staring wistfully after Alec, when he left the room, or sending her husband pleading looks when he demanded once again, over dinner, what Alec planned to do now that he was back in Boston. She was the peacemaker and peacekeeper of the Dailey home, and if Mr. Dailey was the head, then she was the neck, able to turn the head whichever way she pleased. But Mr. Dailey was a stubborn man, as was Alex, and these days Mrs. Dailey’s face was always lined with anxiety.
One evening, while Alec was in his room pretending to be absorbed in one of his old dime novels when really he wanted to be out at the track again, there came a knock at his door. He quickly closed the book and put it away, then called, “Come in.”
It was his mother. His parents came rarely to his room, and Alec was startled. She looked as if she didn’t know quite how to behave, and she sat down in the other chair with an embarrassed smile. It made her look very young, and it made Alec feel strangely old.
Then Mrs. Dailey looked grave, and also very anxious. “Anna came to me quite distraught earlier today,” said Mrs. Dailey. “It seemed you swore her to secrecy, but she couldn’t overcome her conscience.”
Alec had frozen, because he knew full well what Mrs. Dailey meant. Anna was their housekeeper, and one of Alec’s oldest confidantes. She’d always been very careful and thorough in her work, and it was remarkable that until yesterday she hadn’t found the workout clothes, which Alec had been so careful to keep in his bag under his bed, until such time as he could take them to the laundry. She’d wanted to tell Mrs. Dailey at once, but Alec thought he’d succeeded in swearing her to secrecy promising that it would only be for another week.
“She said she couldn’t live with the thought that something might happen to you, and she would have let it.” Mrs. Dailey took a deep breath, as if steeling herself for bad news. “Alec, is there something you’d like to tell us? Tell me?”
Alec looked down at his hands. His palms and the creases of his fingers were callused and blistered from the reins, and he was careful to hide them against his trousers. “No.” It wasn’t a lie, really. This wasn’t anything he would like to tell them.
“Alec.” Now Mrs. Dailey sounded disappointed, and that’s nothing any boy can stand to hear. Alec looked up at his mother. She was biting her bottom lip and looked on the verge of tears. “Your father wants to send you away to university. I’m against it. What fools we were, to let you go to Baltimore! Why should we let you go away again? Your father’s thinking Harvard, or the Institute of Technology is right across the river, you’d be safe enough there, and perhaps you would, but–oh, Alec, to think of how many times you could have died!” She was sobbing now, openly, and it made Alec uncomfortable. He’d never seen either of his parents cry before. Tears were rolling down her cheeks, and now she had to pause and wipe them away. “What if something happened to you again? Alec, you wouldn’t worry me like that again, would you?”
He didn’t want to lie to her, not while she was crying, so he didn’t. He leaned across and put one hand on her shoulder, awkwardly, not sure how to comfort her. She leaned into him, so it seemed only right for him to lean into her too, and wrap his arm that wasn’t in a cast around her, the way she had so many times when he’d been a child in the throes of one of his hypos, or when he’d cried at not having any friends.
“Why do you need to ride, Alec?” she sobbed into his shirt. It’s a terrifying thing, when the parent becomes the child, demanding answers to questions that you don’t know the answers to. “Why can’t you be good? Why?”
How could he explain? When he rode a horse, he was outside of himself, free of this sick and troublesome body that was too skinny and so slow. They became one new and incredible animal, smarter and faster and stronger than anything else. But you can’t understand that if you’ve never ridden a horse and felt the power underneath you, or the wind in your face and your hair, or the knowledge that you and your mount can have absolute faith and trust in one another. Mrs. Dailey couldn’t understand that. So Alec could only hold her, sick with his own helplessness.
Alec heard the clock on the landing go dead. Had he really lain in bed that long? It felt like no time had passed at all, but at the same time, it seemed like he’d been in bed forever. It was a relief to open his eyes because every time he’d closed them that night he only saw his mother crying. He remained in bed for a moment longer, thinking of what he’d do that night. He wouldn’t gallop the horse, not with the race so close. Horses needed time to rebuild and recuperate their tired muscles, and rest to gather energy for the big day. Maybe they’d hold one another tonight, a thought that made Alec feel giddy and warm, chasing away the remorse that’d haunted him all night. He pulled the warm blankets aside and sat up, then gasped at the ghostly form of an elf in the doorway.
It was lovely, arrayed like a doe peeking through the willow branches, and it beckoned with one arm outstretched. Alec went, feeling as though he were moving through an underwater dream. The elf guided him with one hand on his arm and another over his eyes. The hand was cool, like a pebble washed smooth by the river, and the elf smelled like a cool, starry night out in the woods. A breeze passed over Alec’s face, and the elf took away its hand. When Alec opened his eyes again, he was in Elfland.
It was not the featureless wood where he’d first encountered the elves. Now he was in the foyer of some enormous manor, of the sort in which a duke or a prince might live, but different, in the way that their fine clothing was different from humans’. This manor was built out of a living wood. Instead of luxuriant carpet beneath his bare feet, there was verdant moss. The stairs that rose up before him were made of a mass of twisted and gnarled roots, rising to join the raised trunk of some impossibly gigantic tree. Here and there more pillars sprouted from the ground and braided their branches above into a canopy through which little light penetrated. But it wasn’t dark, for from each tree there sprouted branches like cupped claws, and from each claw bloomed a flower that glowed like a firefly. From above dangled enormous blossoms, glittering like chandeliers. And everywhere Alec looked, there were animals, for whom this palace was a home or a playground: a great spotted cat lounging on the stairs, birds chuckling and twittering as they fluttered here and there amongst the branches, the ghostly flight of pale dun moths.
The elf that had brought him here laid one hand on his arm and gestured up the knotted stairs. Alec swallowed and followed the elf, whose footing was so light and sure that it seemed as if it were floating. At the landing, however, it seemed to be a dead end: they faced only a broad, seamless expanse of trunk. Then Alec’s guide pressed one hand to the tree, and it wrinkled and folded out of the way until they faced a hole roughly large enough for one man to pass. The elf disappeared through.
They must be inside the tree now, but around them was only polished wood. Now they proceeded down a hallway, narrow at first, but broadening quickly until they came to an enormous hall, larger than could possibly have fit inside the tree Alec had seen outside–or perhaps not, the tree had been very large. Small animals, from mice to squirrels to even hares, roamed freely about underfoot, as part of this place as they had been everywhere else. Flowers and grass grew up below and around their very feet. Here, too, it was very light, and when Alec looked up, he could see why: here, out of all the places, you could see the sky. And on the other side of the room, sitting on a throne of living wood and curling ivy and flanked by two attendants with the spotted coats of fawns, must be the Lord of this place. He was robed in furs in the colors of moonlight and shadow, his coronet set with two yellow stones like eyes.
“So, you are the rider,” said the elf Lord, in a voice like church bells. He seemed bored, and also deeply amused, at the same time.
“Yes, sir,” Alec said, uncertain whether he should bow. He kept his head down and hoped that that was enough, aware that he was still clad in his pyjamas, and that he was barefoot.
Then the elf Lord smiled, though it was the cold, impersonal smile of a child filled with malice. “Well, if you’re to ride for the House of Terre, you’ll bear our colors.” He gestured to one of his attendants, who performed that trick of disappearing round a corner that didn’t exist, which never ceased to fascinate Alec. When it returned, it bore a spill of fabric in its arms. Alec’s mouth went dry. He knew what those had to be.
They were silks. Alec nearly wept with joy and exultation: here, finally, was the moment he’d dreamed of, that rite of passage for every boy and man that’s chosen to devote his short and wicked life to racehorses. His hands shook as he took them. They were cool and comfortable to the touch, and mottled in the colors of earth: forest green, woodsy brown, the almost-black of loam. They were folded so that the symbol of the House of Terre faced up: it was a sprig of buckthorn in white relief, enclosed within a circle like a full moon.
“Thank you.” Alec’s voice trembled. He didn’t know what else to say. Was he supposed to put them on here, now? “It’s an honor,” he added, while he tried desperately to think.
The elf Lord waved one hand dismissively. “Show him to his room,” he said.
Alec’s guide bowed, its hair spilling in a perfect fall over its shoulders, and Alec hastily did the same, still clutching the precious silks. Then the elf turned back the way they’d come. Alec followed, feeling very much as though he’d wake up any moment, and hoping he wouldn’t.
Alec couldn’t have told anyone, later, how he reached his room. The elf opened the gap in the wall, so that they were back in the foyer where they’d first arrived, and then led Alec down a warren of tunnels until there was suddenly, incongruously, a door. It looked quite like a normal door, but here it was so startingly out of place that Alec was at last convinced that this had to be a dream. He was even more certain of it when the elf opened it at a touch and Alec stepped into his own room in the brownstone.
No, it was not quite his room. The window faced not Commonwealth Avenue, but a green slope that led down to what was quite clearly a stable, built of what seemed–at this distance–marble and gold. And there, over his bed, was his old shrine of newspaper and magazine clippings. But the bed seemed to be his bed, the carpet his carpet, and the books on the shelves his books. Alec brushed one hand against the curled newspaper, then turned and pressed his palm to the window. “Is Sunny Jim down there?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the elf, “as well as the others in tomorow’s race. Have you any other needs?”
Alec began to shake his head, then stopped. “My insulin–”
“You have no need to worry of that here,” the elf stated. Alec wondered what that meant, and nearly asked, then thought better of questioning it. “Is there nothing else? Then I bid you good night. Sleep well.” The door closed behind the elf, and Alec was quite alone.
Too alone. The surroundings were familiar, and he was warm, but he was anxious, and his very skin thrummed with nervous energy. At last, unable to take it any longer, he got up and put on the dressing gown he found in the closet (perhaps one of his own, from home), and went to the stables. How he got there, he would again never know, for he hadn’t the least idea of the way. It was as if the very place knew where he wanted to go, because he hadn’t walked very far or long at all when the tunnel abruptly spat him out in the cool night air. It smelled strange, completely unlike the city, and Alec had a sense of what it might have been like to be the first pioneers, or the pilgrims, landing at the threshold of a new, foreign world. He stood there for what felt like a long time, simply breathing, and then set off for the stables, which he could see at the bottom of the slope.
There were no guards. At home, Alec wouldn’t have been able to enter any racetrack unchallenged at this time of night. Either they were trusting here, or there was magic afoot that would sense any malice. Alec felt better as soon as he was inside, where it was warm and smelled comfortingly of straw and sounded of sleeping animals. “Jim?” he called. He heard a snort, the ring of a hoof against a stall door, and a familiar neigh. Alec took off at once, dressing gown fluttering around his knees, bare feet pounding against the cold floor. He skidded to a stop in front of a door that was now shaking with the force of the blows and flung open both halves. Sunny Jim nearly trampled him in his eagerness. “You’ll wake all the others!” Alec hissed, and herded Sunny Jim back inside, closing the doors behind him. Once enclosed, Sunny Jim resumed his search for sugar, and snorted a warm breath over Alec’s face when he explained, with great apology, that he didn’t have any. Sunny Jim forgave him, nibbling affectionately on Alec’s hair, and indeed, seemed just as pleased to have him there.
Alec was woken the next morning by the abrupt introduction of light to the stall, where he’d fallen asleep in the straw, using Sunny Jim as a pillow. Jim snorted beside him and lurched to all fours. Alec raised one hand to his face to try and shield the light. He could barely make out the silhouette of one of the elves. He couldn’t see its face, but something about its demeanor suggested indifference, much like all the other elves. It had also brought Alec’s silks, which it offered now, as neatly folded as Alec had left them on his bed last night. “Dress,” it said. “The race will begin.”
Embarrassing though it was, the elf helped. Alec could only be grateful, as the cast made it difficult and slow to dress himself at the best of times, and here they were pressed for time. One of the sleeves was short, perfectly the length to allow for Alec’s cast. Another elf appeared bearing Jim’s tack, and they saddled and bridled the horse with an efficiency Alec had only seen in the oldest and most experienced of grooms. But Alec was the one to test the straps and check Jim for comfort, and only when he was satisfied did he mount up and allow the elves to adjust the stirrups so that his legs were high up against the horse’s withers.
They must have been one of the last to leave the stable, because the other stall doors they passed were wide open, their contents empty. And there, up the slope where the palace had been before, was a forest of brightly colored pavilions topped with fluttering flags. The noise grew steadily louder as they grew closer, and then they passed the first of the tents and Alec was assaulted with a riot of sights and sounds and smells. It was very much like a carnival, and here there were not only elves, but giant, green-eyed cats with intelligent gazes that wore their belongings in pouches ’round their necks; bulls that walked upright like men; stubby, short-legged men with overflowing beards; green-skinned, bald-headed creatures with ferocious tusks, bulbous noses and too many fingers. Alec got hardly a glimpse of the hawkers and sellers and bargainers, entertained barely a whiff of the food–the elf led him past all these and to the paddock, where the riders waited to enter the track.
As soon as he arrived, all Alec’s hopes sank. Against other horses, he might have had a chance. Instead, there was a young man about Alec’s age, mounted on an enormous bird with feathers as yellow as his rider’s wild hair. There was a boy about Johnny’s age, but entirely bald save for a blue arrow painted on his forehead, mounted on an enormous four-legged creature with the vague shape of a hound, but a slick, slippery hide like an eel. There was a very young girl atop, of all things, a gigantic white bear that was clad all in medieval armor. And more, at least a dozen more, and none of them horses or anything like a horse. Alec had not enough time to take them all in before the horn sounded for the post parade.
Even filled with so much dread, a rush of elation went through Alec at the cry that came up from the grandstand when they passed. He dared to look, and he saw hundreds and hundreds of spectators, some standing, some waving, some crying out in foreign tongues. Alec sat up a little straighter, and below him even Sunny Jim tossed his head and pranced, very carefully, so as not to jar Alec’s arm. The track looked very much the same as Pimlico and Suffolk Downs, though here there was no inside rail, and no white quarter-mile poles. Their absence made the track look strangely naked and primitive.
Then a voice boomed across the track as they arranged themselves at the starting line (here there were no starting gates), startling them all. Alec looked for the source of the voice, but couldn’t find it. It droned: “Your attention, please. These are the rules by which all riders must abide. Failure to do so will result in immediate removal from the race. One: all riders must remain on the track at all times. No shortcuts, no flying, no teleportation. Two: no harming of opponents, or opponents’ riders. Three: no rider may assist their mount by supernatural or otherwise unnatural means. Should you violate any of these rules, we will know.”
Silence fell over the track then, and in it the time seemed to slow, so that Alec’s heartbeat felt very fast. He crouched over Sunny Jim’s withers and waited. The signal came not from a bell or a gun, but the piercing cry of some great bird of prey that now launched itself into the air. Alec realized it only after Sunny Jim had already lurched into motion, though how he knew that was the sign was anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was only from living in Elfland for so long.
Though Sunny Jim was one of the first to break, he quickly fell behind. The average horse typically gallops at 35 to 40 miles per hour, though some may sprint faster or slower than others. Some racehorses have been clocked at 50 to 55 miles per hour. Sunny Jim, if you can believe it, was faster than any of these, but he couldn’t keep up with an Oriental youth on a red antelope-deer, who seemed to skim over the surface of the track, and he couldn’t keep up with the blue-arrow boy on his eerie fish-hound, and no matter how he strained the others began to pull away, little by little. But none of them could match a tiny green sprite that spun and whirled ahead almost too quickly to see on his two-legged mount. Alec curled the reins in his sweaty hands. He could feel how hard Sunny Jim was working and knew that he had the stamina to maintain his speed, but should he save him for the home stretch? It was so difficult to predict how these other animals might run, which ones might tire and which had untapped reserves, and meanwhile the green rider with the two-legged antelope got farther and farther away–
A terrific roar split the air. Sunny Jim spooked and swerved instinctively toward the infield, and Alec kept them from being disqualified only by dint of yanking on the reins. Not a single hoof landed outside the dirt, though Alec’s arm throbbed afterward, and he looked over his shoulder to see what had made such a noise. It was the girl on her white bear, sending a cloud of dust up behind them as they pounded down the track. Not all of the riders had been so lucky as to be able to control their mounts in time, and a few that had pelted into the infield or the outfield now looked very sheepish. Alec grinned a little, proud of his mount, and turned his attention back to the race.
The bear galloped past them, so close that Alec could feel the bear’s fur brush his face as they passed. The girl could hardly be seen, she was pressed so close to the bear’s back, but Alec thought she looked both terrified and exhilarated. The bear let out another roar at the green rider, lowered his head, and charged. Alec saw the green rider look over his shoulder and wheel his mount around. The mount remained running backward, much to Alec’s astonishment, and then–Alec wasn’t quite sure what happened next–the bear simply fell down, tangled in his legs like a newborn foal. He collapsed with a crash and an angry bellow, nearly crushing the girl when he rolled; she went flying with a shriek.
The track, which was already in pandemonium thanks to the bear’s initial howl, now turned into complete chaos as riders frantically reined in their mounts in order to avoid colliding with the downed bear and others attempted to swerve around their suddenly stationary opponents. Sunny Jim, who had fallen behind during the whole commotion, suddenly pricked up his ears and fought for his head, sending pain reverberating up Alec’s arm. Alec, bewildered, let him have it.
The very next moment, another announcement rang out: “Number 19 is disqualified for violating rules two and three.” And before Alec’s astonished eyes, number 19–the little green rider–and his mount were whisked off the field as if yanked by an invisible string. He craned his neck as they passed the spot where they’d been, but there was now no sign of either of them.
Sunny Jim and Alec blazed down the home stretch, now nearly alone. The great white bear’s fall had been a boon to them, slowing or halting many of their quicker opponents when they’d been far enough behind to take the lead. Alec chanced a quick glance behind him. There was a long-haired brute of a man, whose silks consisted of little more than a loincloth, flogging his camel along; Alec had no worry there. Nor did he have to worry about the fat little man in silks of red and blue, urging on a squat green and white reptile. But there, from behind, came the Oriental youth on his graceful antelope creature, bounding along and gaining ground with every stride. And there was the young man on the yellow bird, which now had its head down and wings fanned, dashing along at incredible speeds. Alec turned his gaze forward again, to where the finish posts loomed ahead. Sunny Jim saw it, too. He lowered his head and, although Alec could feel he was already at his utmost, went faster. Alec could feel a wild cheer bubbling up inside. They were going to make it. The others wouldn’t catch up in time.
Then, below him, something went wrong. Sunny Jim’s gait missed a beat. The horse staggered, and Alec heard that sound every horseman dreads: a sharp crack. Alec was frozen for a moment, paralyzed with fear and dread, and then stood up in the stirrups and hauled back on the reins, despite the pain that shot up his right arm. “Stop!” he yelled. He could feel the pain that now jolted up Sunny Jim’s body with every stride. “Jim, stop!”
Jim hesitated, swinging his ears back, then forward again. Then he clamped the bit between his teeth and threw himself forward, nearly yanking the reins from Alec’s hands. The gait was horrifyingly wrong, and they weren’t going at even half the speed they’d been before. Alec jerked weakly at the reins, begging and pleading, but to no avail: Jim was pretending to be a post again. The finish was only a dozen steps away now. Jim was sweating as he never had during their workouts, foam flecking his lips and dripping down on the track. “Please, Jim, stop!” Alec cried. “It’s not worth it!” He glanced behind him. The wild-haired young rider with the yellow bird was closing in. Alec pulled on Jim’s mane, trying to make him listen.
But Jim didn’t listen. Jim wouldn’t listen. Jim stretched his nose across the finish just before he buckled, spilling Alec from the saddle. Alec landed on his bad arm, and for a moment he saw stars, and blackness closed in on him. Then the world returned, and he was lying flat on his back on the track, the wind knocked out of him. Jim was on his side beside him, wheezing with pain. Alec could see, from his new vantage point on the ground, a tiny rider cross the finish line, mounted atop a snail. A great cheer went up from the crowd.
The other riders closed in on the tragedy on the field, murmuring to one another in varying stages of sympathy: “If only I had my materia,” and “If only I had my gun,” and “If the gods will it,” and so on and so forth. Alec heard none of them. He had the horse’s head in his lap and could hardly see through his grief. He couldn’t bear to look at Sunny Jim’s leg, to see how badly it was broken, if the bone had splintered through the bruised flesh. He already knew the answer: too badly. Horses had been put down on the track for less than this. “We won, Jim,” he whispered, head bent close, stroking Sunny Jim’s forelock. “You did it. We won.” He wished they hadn’t. He would rather have died.
Two elves glided through the crowd like fish slipping through the water weeds. They bore a certain resemblance to fish, too, slim and agile, gleaming and silvery. They were here to present Alec to the Queen, but Alec had no interest in leaving Jim. “The Queen will be displeased,” one of them suggested.
“No,” Alec repeated stubbornly, clutching Jim’s head. He could feel how much pain Jim was in, but he could do nothing to ease it. All he could do was stay.
The elves went away. The crowd murmured amongst themselves, and they, too, began to break away, some of them to attend to their own sweating mounts, some to return to wherever they had come from, others for their own reasons. A few of them stayed, whether out of sympathy or because they had nowhere else to be, Alec didn’t know. He didn’t care.
Then a shadow fell over man and horse, and the jingling of bells and beads filled the air. All went silent; even the wind seemed to hold its breath. Alec drew in a deep breath and looked up, blinking away his tears. What he saw dazzled him.
The Queen of Elfland wore not a crown of gold or jewels, but a crown of antlers that spanned wider than her shoulders. She bore them with incredible grace, as if they weight nothing at all. It was these antlers that were draped with a multitude of colored beads that clicked against one another as she walked. She was draped from head to toe in a cloak of pale gray feathers that rustled and swept around her, and bangles and bells adorned her wrists and ankles. Her eyes were dark and cold, like glass, but her smile was amused.
“She lays her feet in the dust for you,” said one of the attendants in a dangerous voice, though the Queen did no such thing; her feet hardly touched the ground. “We have struck down more for less.”
“He weeps,” the Queen observed wonderingly. “Why does he weep? For the horse? How droll!” she exclaimed. “Why don’t we just remedy that, then? That is easy enough to do.” She turned to one of her attendants, who looked quite sulky, though no outsider could have guessed it; Alec had spent enough time among the elves to be able to discern that their faces did change, albeit very slowly. “You will see to it, won’t you?”
The attendant did, though his lip curled in a manner most unelflike. Below Alec’s hands, hair gave way to skin, which gave way to a familiar rasp of stubble, the nose shrank, the face lengthened. Alec stared.
“Fuck.” Sunny Jim lay curled on his side, cradling his injured arm. The hand dangled from his wrist at a painful angle. “Fuck, I need a drink.”
The Queen had already lost interest and turned away. “Bring them to the pavilion.”
The Queen, naturally, had her own tent, which from outside wore the same colors as the pearly feathers of her cloak. From the peak flew a flag emblazoned with a rampant stag. Inside, however, when you looked to the ceiling you saw the sky exactly as it had been a moment ago, and you could very nearly feel the sun on your face. There were no rugs or cushions underfoot, but a carpet of lush and verdant grass. Alec couldn’t believe that he wasn’t outside. Sunny Jim took little notice; he leaned heavily against Alec, sweat beading his forehead.
The silver-pelted Lord of the House of Terre was already there, holding a wooden goblet of wine in one hand. He rose to greet them when they entered, but instead of bowing low to kiss the Queen’s hand as a human nobleman might have, he allowed her to rake his fine, curved nails across his cheek, drawing four thin trails of blood. He didn’t even flinch; in fact, he smiled and seemed to take great pleasure in it. Alec shuddered. Jim had eyes for nothing except the pitcher of wine perched atop a rock on the ground that appeared to serve as a table here.
The Queen lowered herself to the grass, and the attendants immediately arranged themselves to serve as pillows. Alec seated himself Indian-style, while Jim leaned on him and continued eyeing the wine. The Lord of Terre arranged himself in such a manner so that he was propped up on one elbow, leaning toward the Queen. “I must commend you,” she purred. “Nobody even dreamed that your rider stood a chance, much less would win the whole thing. Marvelous entertainment. This race will be talked of for ages.”
“You honor me, your Majesty.” The Lord would not or could not meet her eyes, but he preened.
“Are you planning to keep them?”
They talked about Alec and Jim as if they weren’t there, and Alec realized that to the elves, they were little more than exotic animals. Jim, who was still naked, was starting to shiver, his skin clammy with sweat. He was likely still in a great deal of pain and needed to see a doctor, but the elves surely had no doctors.
“I haven’t the patience for pets, I’m afraid,” the Lord replied, most mournfully. “Would your Majesty care for them? They’re most entertaining. Why, my servants found him sleeping in the horse’s quarters this morning. They can’t bear to be separated.”
“How cute!” the Queen exclaimed. “I shall have to consider it. I do like them in pairs; they look after one another that way and don’t get as lonely.”
“Hey,” Jim said, startling Alec; he’d thought Jim was asleep or perhaps unconscious, he’d been so quiet. “Do we get a say in this?”
Both the elves–and the attendants as well–looked at Jim as if they’d thought he wasn’t capable of speech. Perhaps they hadn’t. Alec was speechless with shock, and then sudden fear rushed in to replace all his wits. Elves were dangerous; you didn’t speak to them in such frank tones. “Jim!” he hissed.
“Because, you know, I’m not wild about the idea of being in someone’s private zoo,” Jim went on, his voice growing more and more strained. “If you’re going to keep us, the least you can do is put us up nice, maybe a farm or something where Alec can train horses–”
“Jim!” Alec pleaded.
“–and do something about Alec’s diabetes so that he can ride, and by the way we’ll want a big bed to fuck in. Also, you gotta do something about my arm, it hurts like I been shot,” Jim finished.
Alec closed his eyes and braced himself for the inevitable blow. What would the elves do? Turn them both into horses, perhaps? That wouldn’t be so bad. But what if the elves just struck them down right here? Would his mother ever know what happened to him? At least he and Jim would die together–
The Queen tittered. “How amusing. Of course you may have all that.”
Alec’s eyes flew wide open. “Really?” he said, forgetting momentarily who he was addressing. “Even the horse farm?”
“Yes, certainly. I hope you find the horses to your liking.” The Queen seemed very amused, like a mother indulging a child.
“No one that’s stayed in Elfland has ever found cause to leave,” said the Lord of Terre, pouring three more goblets of wine. One he gave to the Queen, and the other two he gave to Alec and Jim, who found his arm suddenly whole and well once more. “Drink. Refuse, and you may never get another chance.”
They could feel the significance of the wine they now held in their hands. Once they drank, they could never return to their old lives. Alec stared into his goblet, at the dark, rich liquid inside, and thought of his mother and father, and Patrick, and how much they’d struggled for him. He thought of Johnny and Eddie, probably still at Pimlico, sleeping in one of the stalls. He thought of all the horses he’d ridden and had yet to ride. He thought of how he hadn’t had a single hypo here, and how nice he felt; in fact, he’d never felt this good in his life. So free. He bent his head and sniffed. The scent rose up and enveloped him. It didn’t smell like grapes at all, or like what he’d imagined wine smelled like. It was an old and wild smell, like earth and the musk of wild animals.
Jim was watching him, looking uncommonly serious. “Well?”
“I don’t know,” Alec said, quietly. “What about you?”
Jim was quiet for long enough that Alec began to worry. At last, he said, “I got nothing except you.” It sounded like it shamed him to admit it. “I’m wherever you are.”
Wherever I am, Alec thought, staring back down into his goblet. Wherever I am, Jim is there. And that is enough.
あとがき / Author’s Notes:
There are only two genuine racehorse names in this story. One is Man O’War, a celebrity of the racehorse world and ranked #1 in Blood-Horse‘s Top 100 U.S. Thoroughbred Champions of the 20th Century. The other, Gallant Fox, won the Triple Crown in 1930, ridden by Earl Sande. The other racehorse names were collected from unsuspecting friends, who were innocently asked what they would name their racehorse, if they had one.
There was no Triple Crown winner in 1938.
Everyone in this story is named after a real jockey or trainer, with the notable exception of the protagonist, Alec Dailey, whose name comes from Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books. Sunny Jim’s surname is also from those books.
George Woolf was a real jockey who, it seemed, could get away with all kinds of misbehavior. He once failed to show up for a race. They eventually found him in his room, reading a book. The manager fired him on the spot; Woolf just went back to reading.
There is, as far as I know, no legend concerning a woman whose son was turned into a chicken. The bicycle salesman who went on to repair (and sell) automobiles is Charles Howard, owner of Seabiscuit. The woman who needed money to fulfill her husband’s last wish and found oil is Rosa Hoots, owner of 1924 Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold.
Black Gold’s last race was in 1928. He broke a foreleg on the homestretch and finished–as some said–“on three legs and a heart.” He was euthanized on the track.
You may have noticed a number of cameos in the race scene. Kudos to you, if you can name them all.
Certain liberties had to be taken with Alec’s condition, or this story would not exist. My apologies.
My thanks go to:
Ramie, who not only provided the beautiful illustration but also acted as a consultant for horse and jockey behavior;
Tougyo, who indulged and encouraged my completely ridiculous idea and pointed out when things didn’t make sense;
The Berkeley Public Library, its resources, and its amazing librarians;
Innumerable others, for cheerleading and answering questions about everything from broken wrists to homosexuality during the Great Depression;
Walter Farley, where it all began;
Everyone, man or beast, involved in the cruel, brutal, and breathtaking sport of horseracing.