2010 Emerging Writer Award
I met a traveler from an antique land
THE MID-DAY HEAT HELD EVERYTHING ON THE FARM IN ITS IRON GRIP. Even the air felt as if a giant hand were holding it in place. The sun's glare reflected back from the cracked windshield of a rusty Wyllis jeep that had carried US troops from Normandy to Berlin. Now it carried dust and fertilizer. It sat in the hot sand where the driveway curved around the house and emptied into the backyard.
Waves of heat shimmered up towards the cloudless sky from the tin roofs of the house and barn. Faded yellow curtains hung limply in windows left open in hopes of catching a breeze. A single window fan creaked and shuddered in the window beside the back porch.
The heat radiated not just from the sun, but from everything on the farm. The house, the paddock, the barn, even the ground were giant furnaces, each trying to out-do the other.
The house and the paddock had both been painted white once, and many years ago the shutters on the house had probably been green. But decades of hot summer days and years of windblown dust had worn everything to a flat, dingy gray.
The paddock fence drooped in the heat. Most of the paint had chipped off, and the rails were warped and split. Several sections of the top rail were worn smooth from
No grass grew in the paddock or anywhere else in the back yard of the house; the dirt was packed too hard from years of foot traffic. But, there were several live oaks
Just as they had been doing for hundreds of years, the oaks offered their ancient invitation to anyone who had the time to sit and rest in their shade. They gave shelter from the sun to animals while they napped and children while they played. The oak trees' whispered lullabies had sung five generations of children to sleep on hot summer nights when curtains flapped in the breeze through the open windows of the house. The oaks had hidden those same childrens' terrified first kisses and timid embraces when they became teenagers, and countless declarations of enduring love had been carved into their trunks.
They had seen the house built. The first automobile on the farm had been parked under their branches. They had seen babies born and seen them die old men and women. Five generations of husbands and fathers had stood under one or another of the oaks and deemed himself master of all he saw.
But the oaks did not whisper this day. No wind was blowing to give them a voice. The only movement came from the paddock, where a dozen sharecroppers were watching a majestic black horse that had just arrived on the farm. The beast pranced around the paddock, daring anyone to enter his new domain. His size and power defied even the heat. Everything on the farm watched the massive animal.
Several dogs were dug in beneath a 1938 Studebaker that had last been driven during FDR's final term in office. It sat behind a dusty tractor, underneath a shed roof attached to the side of the barn. A rooster that had been holding court from the top of the car sat transfixed by the great black horse.
The animal stood twenty hands high and weighed at least fourteen hundred pounds. His tail moved like a bristly pendulum, sweeping away the horseflies that buzzed all around him. He snorted and pawed the ground, hating the attention and telling all that could hear that no man could tame him.
Several of the sharecroppers had been sitting on the fence, but he had bitten them or knocked them down, and no one dared to get too close.
"Y'all cain't show dat horse you scairt," the youngest of the sharecroppers told the group, strutting up to the fence.
"He sho nuff won't know you was there," said another of the men, slapping his knee and cackling loudly. All of the other men nodded their heads and murmured their agreement.
"Das' a bad animal. I b'lieve I'd sweet-talk him, if'n I was you," said the young man's father. "You get broke up and cain't crop dat bacca, yo mama hurt you lot
The young man climbed on the top rail of the fence and waved his arms at the horse. The animal stopped and looked at him; his look seemed to ask if maybe the young man was crazy. The animal decided to find out, and moved towards the foolish looking man.
When the horse reached the fence, the young man sprang up like a ballerina and landed squarely on its back. Each hand gripped a handful of the horse's mane. The horse stood perfectly still for almost two full seconds before he became a raging fiend.
He opened his eyes and saw the horse towering above him, rearing up in triumph, about to crush his chest with huge front hooves. But the animal spun suddenly when one of the sharecroppers hit him in the rump with a tobacco stick. The horse leaped after the fleeing sharecropper, furious at having been stung so easily by a man. While the
A short, thick sharecropper was walking from the front of the barn to the paddock gate as the young man was dusting himself off. He had dusky skin, and he was wearing
"I'm man enough, awlright," the young man sulked. "But I ain't going back in wit' dat damn horse."
"Watch yo mouth, boy, and git out de way. Now you watch how a man do it." The bald sharecropper took the sugar cube and climbed the fence slowly and sat on the top rail, holding it out with both hands.
"Come on here, boy. Come on blackie," the man cooed softly. "Come git dis sugar. Come git somethin' sweet, now. Come on, blackie boy. Calm down. Das right."
The horse pawed the ground and snorted, and bobbed his head up and down. He trotted from the center of the paddock to the other side and back again, his eyes never
"Dere you go. Eat dat good sugar, blackie. You a good horse. See?"
As the horse took the sugar from his hand, the man slowly reached out with his other hand to stroke the horse's nose. But the horse wouldn't be tamed even that much. In a fit of disgust and anger he shook his massive head. Then he nipped the man's hand and pushed him off the fence. The horse whinnied his triumph over yet another man. The beast seemed to be laughing at the weakness of the men who had tried to break him. In fact, when the sound of laughter drifted across the yard, each of the sharecroppers thought just for a moment that the horse was laughing at them.
Then they realized that the laughter was coming from the screened in back porch of the house. It was the Man. He had been watching and listening since he’d finished
The Man completely filled the doorframe as he pushed his way past the porch’s screened door. The door slapped shut behind him, and he paused on the top step a moment to consider his domain. The cigarette burning between his fingers looked like a tiny twig in his huge hand. His other hand worked a toothpick in and out of his mouth like a tailor's hand would work a needle and thread in and out of a piece of fine cloth.
Sweat glistened on his balding head as he stood on the steps, and his sleeves were stained dark beneath his arms. Thick, black chest hair spilled out of his unbuttoned shirt. His hard, rough skin was burnished a deep reddish brown. He took a final drag from his cigarette and blew the smoke out of both nostrils before flicking the butt out into the yard and descending the steps. The Man moved across the yard with the speed and grace of a lynx and the pent up power of a bull.
"Yes suh, Mr. Dicksie, but cain't nobody ride dis here horse. He a demon," said the bald headed sharecropper, holding his injured hand out for the Man to see.
"Somebody oughta shoot dat horse, if'n you aks me," the subdued young man muttered.
"You ought to watch your mouth and leave my damn horse alone if you can't handle him," the Man said as he approached the group of men. They all stepped back to make room for him as the Man reached the paddock. He put his hand on the weathered fence rail and planted his feet.
"Don't make me wait all day. I'll drag your ass over here if I have to! Come on, dammit!""He a mean one, now, boss. You best be careful wit him. You'se a big man, but he throw you, sho nuff," the wizened old sharecropper said, wiping the sweat from his white hair with a filthy handkerchief. "He a mean one, awlright."
"Go to hell," the Man muttered. "He's my damn horse in my damn barn eating my damn food, and I'll ride him whenever the hell I feel like it.
"Now come here, you black bastard," he bellowed.
The horse pranced and whickered nervously, sizing up this new threat to his dominance. His tail flipped back and forth.
"Don't you go in dat fence, boss. You let dat horse alone," the old man said again, as the Man threw his thick leg over the fence.
"Damn that horse," he said to the old sharecropper. Then to the horse he said, "Well, by God, I'll come to you."
The man and the beast locked eyes for a moment, then the Man strode forward with a concentrated purpose. Dust swirled up each time his foot struck the ground. His fists were clenched, and his eyes bored a hole straight through the heat and the dust into the horse’s eyes.
The horse snorted and threw his head up and down and back and forth. He pawed the ground with his front feet. His tail no longer moved; his entire attention was focused on the man moving towards him. The Man drew up even with the horse. The animal stood his ground.
The Man's hand whipped out suddenly, and he grabbed a handful of the horse's mane. In the same graceful movement he leapt off of the ground and onto the horse's back. As he landed with the horse squarely between his knees, he planted his heels in the horse's sides and grabbed a second handful of the horse's mane.
"Now buck, mule,” he yelled. “Buck, damn your soul!"
The horse was in violent motion before the man was settled on his back. He flung his hind legs up and out with incredible power. He threw his head toward the ground then threw it back at the sky. Every muscle in the horse's body was straining to throw the hated man from his back.
"Yowwwww! You ride him, boss," the sharecroppers hollered.
"Ride 'im hard, boss!"
"Whoooo look at 'im jump!"
"Dat man might jus ride dat horse!"
Then the horse bumped against the fence just as he threw his hind legs out and his head down. The Man had anticipated the buck, but not the contact with the fence.
When the horse's hindquarters came down, the Man's knee cracked into the fence, and the sudden pain made him release his grip on the horse's mane. When the horse's back feet hit the ground, the Man cart wheeled into the air and landed on the fence. The sound of splintering wood told everyone who had won the first round.
"Damn you!" the Man bellowed as he crashed through the fence rails into the dirt. The impact was like a tree trunk hitting the ground after the final ax blow. Dust billowed up and swirled around everything.
"Oh lordy dat horse done throwed the boss," the young man breathed. His brow was furrowed, and his mouth hung open in disbelief. The other men were silent. They were busily staring at the ground.
The Man, though, would not accept defeat, especially in front of his hired help. He was jumping up like a giant, enraged jack-in-the-box before all of his body parts had hit the ground.
"Damn your soul to hell!" he thundered. "You sorry two bit mule! I'll ride you or I'll kill you one, you son-of-a-bitch! Get over here," the Man raged as he stepped back into the paddock across the broken pieces of fence.
The horse again stood his ground.
"Dat's enough, boss," the white haired old sharecropper cautioned, leaning over the fence. "Either you gone kill dat horse, or dat horse gone kill you."
The Man ignored the warning. His eyes gripped the horse, and the horse stood in uneasy challenge. He reared his head and waited for the Man to try to mount him again.
The Man was silent as he snatched back his bleeding hand and stepped backwards, aligning himself face to face with the beast. His huge fist, driven by a tree trunk-like arm, slammed into the side of the horse's head. The animal stumbled sideways and sagged to its knees. Blood ran from one nostril. He shook his head back and forth, as if trying to turn the world right side up again.
"I tole you you'd kill dat horse," the old sharecropper moaned around the wad of tobacco in his cheek. "You done gone and killed dat purty horse. I tole you to let him be."
The young man who had been thrown stood preening. "I knowed he could be broked," he crowed. "I jus' needed a few mo' seconds to get my grip right, and I'd a whipped him, too. Jus lak the boss done. I almos' had 'im. Dat horse got what was coming to 'im."
No one paid the young man any attention; they were all watching as three of the sharecroppers rushed into the paddock and stood on either side of the huge animal.
One of the other two men in the paddock had pulled out his handkerchief and was trying to wipe away the blood that dripped from the horse's nose, but the angry beast bit
"Damn dat devil," he yelled. "Dat animal ain't nothin' but a big black demon!"
The injured man had run out of the paddock and sat in the dirt moaning and cradling his damaged hand.
"Well don't just stand there looking stupid; get him some damn help," the Man barked at the dumbstruck group of workers. "Take him on in the house and call the doctor. Get him fixed up.
"The rest of you get on back to work. I told y'all you weren't man enough to ride my horse," he told them. "Now get on. Get back to work like I told you to.”
While he was talking, he used one hand to grab the horse's mane, and the other to slap the horse's side. "Get up, you damn mule," the Man said roughly. "I feel like taking a ride." He led the horse over to the fence where the sharecroppers were staring and shaking their heads in awe.
He put one foot on the lower fence rail and threw his other leg across the horse's back. The animal stood patiently while the Man settled himself and took the horse's mane in his hands.
"Now you boys get on back to work like I told you," he said again as he rode bare-back out of the paddock.
The horse trotted at an easy gait. As the horse and rider passed beneath the oak trees, a breeze sprang up and relieved the searing heat.
And high up in their branches, the oak trees laughed.
Roy earned a BA degree in English from The Citadel in Charleston, SC, and went into the business world. Many years later he decided to justify his parents’ investment in his education and put his degree to work. Ozymandias was the result of that decision, and other stories followed. He has also written for several regional magazines in South Carolina. He is married to his best friend, and she is his biggest fan and biggest supporter. They have a rescued Boxer named Isabella Nubago. Roy’s daughter is a senior in college and plans to teach English after graduating. He and his wife moved to the Dallas, TX area three years ago for his work, and he has been active in a local writers’ group. The move has been an adventure, but they are looking forward to returning to the Carolina coast. Roy is currently working on a novel.
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