A Clockwork Phoenix featured story
The Souls of Horses
Ilsa knew the souls of horses, how they twined between her fingers as silky and strong as strands of mane, how even in death they ached to gallop across fields or melt lumps of sugar upon their tongues.
Few men could understand them as she did.
“Sweet Jesus, are those the flying horses?” asked Lieutenant Dennis.
Ilsa granted him a curt nod. Captain Mayfair and more soldiers waited in her house, and she didn’t know what they wanted of her. Only that she must pack her necessities and best tools and leave promptly.
Her barn held a fully assembled flying-horse carousel. A dozen horses dangled from a wooden canopy that could be dismantled to fit in a large wagon. For many years she had traveled summers and worked fairs from Virginia to Connecticut. Cannon fire at Fort Sumter had ended that.
“Pardon my blasphemy, ma’am. I’ve never seen the like before. Is it steam-run?”
“Yes.” She eyed the Confederate officer. He couldn’t be older than twenty. His gray uniform draped from his reedy frame.
He frowned as he circled a piebald Arabian mix. “Why carousel horses? Why would dying horses even want this . . . existence?”
“The Captain said you were a cavalry unit, correct? I assume you know horses well?”
“Yes, ma’am. My mama had me on a horse when I could scarcely walk, and my father breeds racing stock.”
Ilsa had no desire to get chatty with a soldier, much less one who intended to drag her from her home, but this was a horseman. “Then you understand that horses know what they want. Like a person, they hate some tasks and love others. These horses love people, being ridden, and don’t want to lose that joy. I show them what awaits, and they make this choice.”
“They really have a choice?”
She stiffened. “Of course. An unwilling soul can’t be bound. A horse might lose its body, but it doesn’t lose its kick.”
“If they are a different sort of horse, one that wouldn’t like a carousel, what happens?”
“They float away.” She left it at that.
Her papa had been a transferor, too. He had staunchly believed that since a dying horse’s soul drifted upward, it must travel to heaven. When Ilsa was a child first witnessing those tendrils of escaping souls, such a thought had been of great comfort and joy.
It had been a long time since she was a child.
Ilsa rested her hand against the smooth paint of a mare’s neck. Beneath her touch, the soul stirred. The mare was strong, even after death; Ilsa needed that same resilience.
The officer darted out a hand to touch the mare’s blaze. Astonishment brightened his face. “It . . . quivered?”
Lieutenant Dennis was a special sort of horseman to sense that. “Souls can only inhabit something that once carried life. Wood works well. The carousel grants them some locomotion, too. They miss the ability to move.”
“I’m glad this horse can move then, be happy. What about that horse figure in the house, ma’am? That one—I stared at it, and it stared straight back. Gave me chills. That horse wasn’t the sort for a carousel?”
“No. Some aren’t content to spin in circles. Bucephalus . . . he’s the kind of horse who would unlatch his stall and that of every other horse in the barn, and kick his heels like a colt afterward.”
Lieutenant Dennis burst out laughing. “I’ve known the very sort, ma’am. He’s named after Alexander the Great’s warhorse?”
“We could use more horses like old Alexander’s.” His expression sobered as he looked to his pocket watch. “We must go, ma’am. The Captain’s waiting.”
Ilsa looked to her tools again, remembering why she was there, who she was with. She hefted a skew gouger in her palm, the handle’s patina dark. These tools had been brand-new when she bought them in New York City twenty years before. They had aged with more grace than her.
She found Captain Mayfair in her parlor. He scowled and motioned her to the door. She looked to her mantle.
Bucephalus was carved in pale butternut and no larger than a grown man’s hand. Three hooves were grounded, the muscles of his hindquarters tensed as if ready to rear. Ilsa wanted to plead for a few moments of privacy with her horse, to say farewell, but she had no desire to show any weakness to these men.
She turned away and blinked back tears to find Captain Mayfair gazing past her to Bucephalus, his grizzled features softened with wonder.
* * *
They arrived at the encampment of the newly formed Confederate Independent Provisional Cavalry, and Ilsa was escorted straight to a makeshift foundry. Men talked in the shadows, metal clanging, their furnaces like blood aglow in the weak evening light.
“Captain Mayfair, why am I here? You do know I can’t transfer into metal?”
Ilsa opened her mouth to scold him, to demand answers as they entered a dim room. Light slanted down from a high window, as if in a cathedral, and illuminated a gleaming horse. She gasped.
Silver skin flowed with the ripple of muscles, highlighting an arched neck and strong hindquarters. It stood fifteen hands tall, the same as an average horse. Black orbs for eyes had the dull sheen of rocks worn smooth in a river. This was no crude machine. It was a sculpture, a masterpiece.
“What is this?” she whispered.
“The auquine, the automatic horse,” said Captain Mayfair. Lieutenant Dennis stood beside him. “This is our prototype. Steam-run in part, but requires the motivation of a soul.”
“I already told you, I cannot—”
“You will carve the wooden heart. Its nervous system consists of vine coated with gutta-percha. The soul will have room to expand, control the limbs.”
Ilsa knew the relentless, unfilled ache to truly move that irritated every horse bound to the carousel. “The engine and soul together. It could work.”
Bucephalus would love such a body, but he’s no warhorse, nor could I steal a creation like this. There would be no way to keep such a thing a secret.
Dennis cleared his throat. “It has worked, ma’am, in Britain. They’re readying cavalry units for India.”
“People with your skills are scarce, Mrs. Klein,” said Captain Mayfair. “We’re in dire need of horses.”
She looked between the metal horse and the soldiers. A horse’s soul—one suited to be a warhorse—would delight in this new form, so much closer to its original. She touched the metal neck, almost expecting the lurch of life that pulsed within her own carvings. “Who made this?”
“Culver,” said Captain Mayfair.
She wondered if she should recognize the name, but a shadow shifted behind the horse, and she realized it had been a summons.
The Negro looked of age with her, his white hair bound in a queue at his neck. He was clean-shaven, his clothes tidy despite their extreme wear.
“Culver’s from my father’s plantation. No one knows horses and metal like him,” said Lieutenant Dennis with obvious pride.
“Impressive,” Ilsa murmured. Impressive that a slave had been granted such a role in this army.
“Master Dennis.” Culver bowed, the motion slow and heavy like an old oak bent by a fierce wind.
“Sir! Captain Mayfair!” Another soldier strode in. “An urgent telegraph from General Lee, sir.”
“Culver will show you how the auquine works, Mrs. Klein.” Captain Mayfair exited. With a bright smile for both her and Culver, Lieutenant Dennis departed as well.
Ilsa considered the craftsman. “Is everyone in the forge working on these . . . auquines?”
“Yes’m. This’s the first one done, ’bout twenty more juss ’bout there, and salvage aplenty for makin’ more.”
Her hands traced the seams of metal, the large eyes. “You modeled this on a Morgan.”
“Y’know your horses, missus.”
Her voice lowered. “Metal is soulless, dead, but this—this works. You know horses’ souls.”
“Slave’s not supposed to know ’bout such things, missus.”
“Neither are women.”
“God’s truth, missus.”
“How do you open up the horse?”
Culver crouched down. His leg wobbled, and he landed on all fours with a grunt.
“Are you well?” Ilsa lay a hand on his shoulder. Through the worn fabric, she felt the ridged scars of the lash—layers, mottled like cold candle wax.
Equine memories flashed in her mind. Agonized neighs. The fall of the whip, the fierce sting, the heat of weeping blood.
“I’m sorry,” she said, recoiling, and knew he wouldn’t grasp the full meaning.
“Body don’t work like it used to.” He trembled as he leaned on the auquine.
She shivered, too, willing away the shadowed pain of other souls. Culver was property, same as a horse.
Ilsa made herself focus on the task at hand as he opened a hatch in the auquine’s chest to show her the fundamentals of its design.
Lieutenant Dennis beamed with pride as he reentered the room. “The auquine’s a beauty, isn’t he?”
She liked the boy, his enthusiasm for horses. He’s of attitude and age to be my son. The thought provoked a twinge of grief that hadn’t stirred in years.
“Yes. I should speak to Captain Mayfair again, if you please.” With a nod to Culver, she followed Dennis into the brisk evening air.
Captain Mayfair stood beside a campfire with a group of soldiers. “Mrs. Klein. What did you think?”
She took a deep breath. “This man Culver’s work reminds me of the high craftsmanship I saw as a girl in Germany. Extraordinary.”
“Yes. He’s a peculiar Negro.”
“That said, Captain, my carousel brings joy to my horses and riders, especially children. Working on warhorses like this . . . it’s not right for me.”
“I was afraid you might be reluctant.” Captain Mayfair nodded to a soldier beside him. The man folded down a burlap bag between his feet. There, wadded in wrinkles of coarse cloth, stood Bucephalus.
Ilsa couldn’t hold back a gasp, her hand flying to her mouth. Lieutenant Dennis shuffled his feet in clear discomfort.
The captain kept his focus on her. “This horse is special to you. People talk of him. I understood why once I entered your home.”
Ilsa shivered in rage. These soldiers took her as they took so many horses, supplies, even homes. If she fled north, she couldn’t expect any better. The Yanks would be constructing their own horses soon enough. They’d be no kinder in their pillaging of property or people.
But maybe the Yanks wouldn’t stoop this low.
“How dare you, Captain?” she whispered.
Captain Mayfair glanced at the fire behind him. “It’s my understanding that nothing binds as well as an original body. You must be very close to catch a soul, correct?”
She barely managed a nod. For Bucephalus’s soul, I would brave the fire. A strong soul like his can be transferred several times. I could make him a new body.
“We need horses, Mrs. Klein. We’ll house you well. My men will not harass you.”
She ached to bolt, to make for the road, to fly from this place. She looked at Bucephalus and shuddered. “If I am to—to help, then I must say straight out that I won’t abide with any horse being killed without need.”
Captain Mayfair motioned, and Bucephalus was gently wrapped up again. “Horses are dear to us. We have no desire—no capacity—to replace them completely. And it’s not as though we lack in dying horses.” Sadness curved his mustache.
“Yet you threaten to burn mine.”
“Is he a horse anymore?” The captain sounded curious rather than facetious. “How long has this Bucephalus been bound by wood?”
“As long as you’ve been in America, then.” The man had done his research. “Lieutenant Dennis will show you your quarters and your workshop.”
“You want me to start now? Tonight?”
“Yes. The Union’s building pontoons to cross the river. Soon there’ll be plenty of horses in need of new bodies.”
* * *
Smoke veiled the furrows as if attempting to hide the mangled blue and gray bodies in the mud. The air of the place—of so many distended souls—weighed on Ilsa like a hundred winter coats.
Lieutenant Dennis helped her down from a buckboard wagon loaded with rattling wooden equine hearts. “Ma’am, I’m sorry. This is no place for a lady.”
“It’s not a place for anyone,” she whispered.
Never before had she sensed the presence of human souls, much as she had tried. God, had she tried. She couldn’t see them, but there were so many here that her head felt as afloat as a hot air balloon.
“There’s a horse over here!” called a soldier.
She stumbled over roots and rocks and things her gaze slid across but could not comprehend, and then she came to the horse.
The air shimmied as the stallion struggled against death. He stubbornly stood on all four legs even as his ribs—and more—were bared to the air.
“There, there,” Ilsa crooned, focusing on him. “Good boy.”
His eyes were glazed over with pain, but she saw beyond that. He was a horse as described in the Book of Job, all flaring nostrils and eagerness at the herald of a trumpet.
Like men, some horses were born fools.
“Fine lines,” murmured Dennis. “Some Thoroughbred to him.”
Ilsa brought her face so close that vapors of soul caressed her like steam. “Do you want this?” she whispered. She exhaled an image of what awaited the horse: a new body, built strong; how the hooves would clatter; how he might miss the taste of oats, but he would still know the joy of a gallop.
Even in agony, his ears perked up. His soul gushed outward, eager to move on.
“His body’s pain needs to end,” she said.
A soldier aimed a gun barrel between the stallion’s eyes. At Ilsa’s nod, the gun fired. Even expecting the noise, she flinched. The horse collapsed. She grabbed hold of the soul as it drifted out from his eyes. The effervescent strands were strong, testing her as if straining against a bit.
“I need cherrywood.” A strong wood, bold as the horse. A soldier dashed off for the wagon. “Shh, shh, easy there,” she whispered. She plaited the soul with her deft fingers, forming a loop to confine its essence.
She pressed the soul into the wooden heart as she took it in her hands, patting the ventricles the way a person molds clay, and after a few minutes, she nodded. The soldier took the heart away.
“I wish I could see and feel what you do, ma’am,” said Dennis, voice softened in awe.
“No, you don’t, lieutenant.”
Ilsa rubbed her torso, reminding herself that there was no pain, no blood. Impressions from the dying horse glistened across her mind’s eye. Green fields, contentment. The good man who smelled of leather and damp wool, how they rode into battle together—excitement—hoofbeats—wind—galloping, galloping—and then a lightened load. Many others had sat on his back since. Where was the good man?
She shivered out of the reverie. At least she had granted this horse’s soul some extra time on earth, doing something he would love. For the first time, this enterprise felt worthwhile.
Though given her druthers, she would still grab Bucephalus and run.
“There’s another horse over here, sir! Ma’am!”
The dying mare lay on her side. Her ribs heaved like bellows, breaths wheezing through bloodied nostrils. Wisps of her soul clouded the air and Ilsa’s consciousness. A child’s laugh. A hand at her mane, a kiss at her muzzle. The girl’s wails as the horse was ridden away. The mare kept turning to look toward home, toward the girl. Reins jerked her head straight.
Home. Where the girl waited along the split-rail fence.
“What sort of wood?” Dennis’s voice shattered the image.
“No.” Ilsa gasped. “Not a warhorse. She should never have been here. She needs . . . I need . . .”
Children. Soft hands. Bouncy, light bodies within the sway of her back.
“Mrs. Klein, I’m sorry. We can’t fill a heart we can’t use.”
“I just need one!”
“Will there be only one like this here?”
This soul wasn’t as strong as Bucephalus. It couldn’t transfer more than once. Nor could she hold more than one soul at a time as she journeyed across the battlefield, but she wanted to, she needed to. This mare belonged in the carousel. Ilsa couldn’t bring forth the same girl, but there’d be others. She clawed for the dissipating strands of the horse’s soul. The bellows of breaths softened, the horse’s gaze distant.
The last vapors vanished against a sunbeam.
Gone. Not human, not saved by baptism. Lost, like the soul of the unchristened stillborn babe, born in an outhouse behind a Berlin carousel shop.
Ilsa would grab all the souls if she could. She would be the leaden weight to anchor them to earth.
“Ma’am?” Lieutenant Dennis whispered. “I’m sorry to put you through this, but—”
“I came to America to start my life again. I’m in the same place, but this is no longer America.” Her voice rasped like that of an old woman. She was an old woman.
She stumbled onward, eyes blinded by tears, guided only by the tendrils of another agonized equine soul.
* * *
Confederate commanders encased her in a gray ring. They murmured excitedly, buzzing like machinery.
Culver waited by the first empty auquine, the prototype. “Pay them men no heed.”
“If this fails—”
“Ain’t gonna fail, missus. You know what you doing. You know these horses.”
She thought of Bucephalus, the horse she knew best of all, then looked to the heaping basket of wooden hearts beside her. The harvest of the battlefield. Days had passed, and her agony had turned to numbness.
Do the job. Give these souls a home. Let some good come of this.
She touched a knob of smoothed walnut, then delved deeper to find cherry. The heart pulsed in her hand, quickening. In her mind, she retraced the metal body before her, showed it to the soul the way she would once have extended a palm of oats.
As she knelt before the auquine’s chest, the murmurs behind her ceased. The horse’s chest compartment opened on hinges to show the vascular chamber. Stroking the heart, she murmured wordless assurances as she set the wood within its new cradle.
Death is rife with pain. So is rebirth.
Ilsa stabbed sharpened wood connectors into the heart. At each strike, the soul shivered as it spilled through the puncture wounds to explore gutta-percha veins. The auquine rumbled as the engine started.
She sealed the body shut. A hoof tentatively stomped on the dirt. At the auquine’s head, Culver made shushing noises, stroking along the silver muzzle. Ears pivoted on their roller joints, head lifting as if to sniff. The commanders broke out in applause.
“There, there. You mighty fine. You doing good, girl.”
Culver wasn’t whispering to the horse.
Ilsa moved on to the next auquine in the long row.
* * *
“You’ll look after Culver for me, won’t you, ma’am?” Dennis asked. Dawn had yet to pierce the oil slick of the sky, yet the camp bustled.
“Lieutenant, he’s as old as I am. I think he can look after himself.” Ilsa softened the words with a faint smile, her eyes on the auquines. Her horses, their silver and copper hides dull by firelight.
The Provisional Cavalry had practiced in the valley for weeks to acclimate the horses’ souls to their new, stronger bodies. Now their orders had come in.
“Well, I-I suppose so.” Dennis stooped in a way that reminded her of Culver, an invisible yoke heavy on his shoulders.
“Lieutenant Dennis. Mrs. Klein.” Captain Mayfair granted Ilsa a tip of his hat. “It’s time to mount up.”
“Yes, sir,” said Dennis, snapping out of his salute. He cast Ilsa a nod and joined the rest of the horsemen.
“I have been meaning to speak to you, Mrs. Klein,” Captain Mayfair said, “on the matter of that horse of yours.”
Bucephalus. The name pained her. “What of him, Captain?”
“He has a strong soul, doesn’t he?”
“Could he be transferred to an auquine?”
She looked at the men—boys, really—and their metal horses. All of them giddy in anticipation of what was to come. These horses would truly die if their wooden hearts were pierced or their veins too badly mangled. Their souls escaping into nothingness. Ilsa couldn’t follow the cavalry and save them.
“You’d put Bucephalus in front of cannons?” she asked. “Why not just drop him in the campfire, then? It’s faster.”
It was selfish of her, she knew, to value his soul more than the rest, but Bucephalus had been her constant companion for decades. She had twined his soul and kept it warm beside her own heartbeat. She spent weeks carving his new body in butternut. They traveled the seaboard with her carousel until the war started. She talked to him; he listened.
“A great deal depends on this unit and its success, Mrs. Klein. These auquines could turn the course of the war. They could end it.” The captain was silent for a long minute. “I met my wife when I was at West Point. At the start of the war, she went back to New York to be with her parents on the farm. I would very much like to see her again.”
“My horse will not change that.”
“Smaller pebbles have changed the world, but that’s not my point. My inquiry is not about Bucephalus now, but for when the war is done. I own property in the Low Country down near Charleston. There’d be a place for him there. I would like to see him in action as he really is.”
“Captain,” said a soldier. He passed over an auquine’s reins.
Captain Mayfair swung himself into the saddle. “It’s something to keep in mind while we’re away, Mrs. Klein. Farewell.” He rode to join his men.
“Bucephalus is my horse,” she whispered to the dust. “Not yours. You stole him.”
Ilsa retreated to her room and listened to the soft thuds of hoofbeats as they faded away. The walls boxed her in like a stall, the ropes that bound her invisible yet strong.
* * *
The knife was a familiar weight in Ilsa’s hand. She inhaled the heady scent of wood so fresh it almost cleared her senses, her memories. A gas lamp cast the workshop in an orange glow.
Beyond the thin walls, men cheered. The first mission of the Provisional Cavalry had been a grand success. Their two-day pursuit of the Yanks had resulted in a decisive victory and the acquisition of a Union quartermaster’s wagon loaded with honest-to-God coffee beans.
“We couldn’t have achieved this victory without you,” Captain Mayfair had said. As if she needed the reminder.
She also did not need anyone to do the mathematics for her. Five horses gone. She did not count the men.
Ilsa didn’t look up when the door opened. As had become their ritual over the past month, Culver sat down on the lopped-off stump across from her. She was so used to working and talking aloud to Bucephalus that it felt peculiar to share her space with someone who replied. Peculiar in a pleasant way.
Culver opened a toolbox and began busywork with wires and bolts and fingernail-size scraps of metal. The soldiers in the foundry knew their jobs well by now, and he wasn’t required there anymore. He mostly acted as manservant for Lieutenant Dennis.
A fiddle whined outside, and voices arose in chorus:
“Jeff Davis is our President,
Lincoln is a Fool!
Jeff Davis rides a white—horse—auquine!”
The song broke off at the overlapped words. The men cheered again.
“They better be glad Cap’n said they sleep late tomorrow,” said Culver. “Gonna be a long train ride down to Alabama in three days.”
Alabama. Deeper south, deeper into this whole mess, and this time Ilsa was to come along. More horses would die. Dozens heaped together in a day, their memories blurred like hummingbird wings.
“How do you stand it?” She clenched the handle. “Knowing that if you headed north a ways, you could be free. That every time you build a horse, you’re building something that keeps you a slave.”
“I been free.”
“I been free. When I’s a young man, I ran north, to New York. What a place, what a place.” Culver shook his head, still marveling. “Got me a ’prenticeship and a girl and a baby girl-child. And then blackbirders came, trussed me up, and hauled me back to Georgia.”
“My God,” she whispered. “I lived in New York back then—twenty years ago, was it?” Culver nodded. “I heard about those men, that they even dragged free-born Negroes south and into slavery. Your family—what happened?”
“Don’t know. But I had my family down in Georgia, too. Lord be praised for that. Got to see my boy grow up.” The curve of his smiling cheeks reminded her of Lieutenant Dennis, how he looked at the auquines.
My boy never grew up. He never even breathed. She was ashamed of herself for envying Culver in such a way when he had lost so much more.
“To be free and captured again . . .”
“Didn’t lose all my freedom.” He tightened a bolt.
“How is that?”
“When you carvin’ those carousel horses, what’s it do for your soul?” An oddly blunt thing for Culver to ask.
Ilsa stroked the half-carved heart in her hands. “Years ago, I had a small boy ride the carousel time and again. He told me he’d truly been riding a mustang to California. He said the horse knew right where to go. That’s how I feel when I carve, when I see the carousel horses in their new bodies. That I’m going the right way. Escaping without escaping.”
“Mustangs. I heard ’bout them, out west. Crazy place, all dirt far’s the eye can see.”
“We should go there.” She set the knife on her lap. “The two of us. Forget this fools’ war.”
“Aw, Missus Klein. I’m too old to go off somewhere new. Maybe you can, your skin. Anyone take one look at me, they know where I come from, know right where I go. Blackbirders did.”
“I knew a horse like you once.” She resumed carving in furious strokes. “He had known freedom. He had known love. He was a bit Arab, a bit Thoroughbred, a bit of everything. He could race—Lord, could he race. His mind, it was faster than any whip. But then he was hurt and sold, and spent his last year pulling a glueman’s wagon down the cobbles in New York City. He pulled it like a royal chariot, awful as its load was, piled with dead of his own kind.”
“This that horse of yours? The one Cap’n has?”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
The two of them worked in silence as her mind untangled frustration and fear and the need to do something for Culver, for Bucephalus, for herself. She thought of her carousel horses and mustangs.
“I’m going to ask the captain for a last trip to my shop for supplies.” Ilsa smiled at Culver. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever been on a flying-horse carousel?”
* * *
“I’ll need a few minutes to start up the steam engine.” Ilsa scurried about the old barn, connecting the engine and walking the long length of the cord, checking for rust or rat’s nests.
“Can I be of help, ma’am?” asked Dennis, their guard for the foray into town. He had seemed especially weary in recent days. She didn’t think he was too happy about the cavalry moving south. Maybe it brought the war too close to home.
“I know my own rig best,” Ilsa said. To his credit, Dennis let her be.
A neighbor had kept an eye on the place these past few months, but that did nothing to ward away dust, or to fill that empty place on her mantle. Walking through her parlor just about broke her heart, especially as she’d seen Bucephalus that morning for the first time in weeks.
The wooden horse sat on the corner of Captain Mayfair’s desk in the command house. Bucephalus had a window view of soldiers drilling on newly transferred auquines.
Captain Mayfair didn’t seem worried that Ilsa would try to escape on her trip into Richmond. He had Bucephalus, after all.
She had noted that not a speck of dust was to be found on the carved horse, not even in the delicate whorls of his mane. In truth, he looked . . . loved.
That pleased her and vexed her all at once.
Her fingers had brushed his back. If Bucephalus had been of flesh, he would have scarcely flicked an ear her way. He was fixated on the auquines in the yard with an intensity she hadn’t seen in years, not since they traveled the coast with the carousel.
Bucephalus is mine. He should be home. I could move him from the mantle, give him a better vantage of the street.
She directed her frustration into the carousel’s crank. She could already feel the wood-bound horses’ anticipation. They stewed with restlessness, just as they had in life at the first hints of spring.
“Choose your horse and mount up,” she called.
Culver ambled around the carousel. He stopped at the most ornately carved of the lot, a white stallion on the outside ring. The lead horse. Ilsa had designed the horse’s colorful barding like that of a medieval charger straight out of Ivanhoe. Culver tried to lift his foot to the stirrup and staggered backward.
“Here, old man,” Dennis said as he gave him a boost.
“Thanks to you, master.”
The two men shared like smiles. It made Ilsa grin, too, to see how Dennis doted on Culver. “What about you?” she asked Dennis as he joined her in the center. He shook his head.
Ilsa released the brake lever. The canopy shuddered as the mechanism activated. Slowly, the horses began to move.
Culver gripped the red pole and looked to either side of his horse as it swayed. “This horse. It different.”
“It’s a rare breed from Austria, called Lipizzaner. They’re taught to dance.”
“Fancy that!” Culver’s eyes shone as he passed by.
“Thank you for letting him do this, lieutenant,” she murmured.
Dennis was quiet for a long moment, watching the horses spin. “One of my first memories is Culver standing alongside Mama, both of them holding me on a horse.” He sighed heavily. “I didn’t just bring him to Virginia because he’s the best artist with metal. I wanted to save his life.”
“Save his life? By bringing him into the middle of a war?”
“Safer than being near Papa. He’s never treated Culver well, and in recent years . . .”
Ilsa thought of Culver’s escape, his layers of scars. The horses picked up speed as centrifugal forces began to pull them outward at an angle. Culver passed by, his gap-toothed grin brilliant. He circled again, and this time, his arms were flung wide, his eyes closed.
“These are very different horses than the auquines, ma’am, and I don’t mean the contrast of metal and wood.” Dennis shook his head. “These horses—there’s a particular kind of happiness. Like foals in a meadow.”
Proof again that the lieutenant had an extra sense of horses’ souls. Ilsa wondered who it carried through in his family.
“You understand, then, why I told the captain I shouldn’t be making warhorses.” She paused. “I think you understood from the very start. Since you first saw my carousel.”
He said nothing for a time, watching Culver. “You know, ma’am, things will get terribly confusing as we ship south. People might go missing.”
Her breath caught. “The soldier in charge of those people might get in awful trouble.”
“You’re set to ride on a civilian train part of the way. No guards. The captain believes Bucephalus is all the motivation you need to come along. I think that’s because he’d do as much for that horse. Captain even talks to him, there in his office.”
The words hurt. “I used to do the same.”
“What if I can steal the horse?”
“I’m afraid to ask too much, lieutenant.”
“What if you only took his soul, and left the carving behind? The captain wouldn’t know until he unpacked Bucephalus down in Alabama.”
Tears of hope made Ilsa’s eyes smart as she nodded.
Culver flew by, laughing. His eyes were still shut, his arms still out like wings.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him make such a sound.” Dennis’s voice was soft with awe. “You know what, ma’am? I changed my mind. I think I do want to ride.”
As the horses slowed, Culver opened his eyes, his arms dropping to his sides. The carousel rocked to a stop.
“Missus Klein, never in my life I had an experience like that.” He made to stand up, but she waved him down.
“Sit. You get another round, and this time you won’t be alone. Lieutenant, mount up.”
Culver craned around. “Master, you can’t be back there, you—”
“I’m fine here. You lead me like when I was a boy.” Lieutenant Dennis took the horse directly behind Culver. It was a red unicorn with a gold-leaf horn. A goofy grin lit the officer’s whole face. “Mrs. Klein, don’t tell me this holds a unicorn’s soul.”
“Why don’t you tell me once you’ve had a go?” Ilsa started the machine.
She leaned against the central pillar and closed her eyes as the men laughed and whooped and eventually turned silent as midnight mice. Beneath the engine’s rumble, she heard the echo of hoofbeats.
* * *
Ilsa waited in a shed adjacent to the rail yard, her satchel at her feet. The gray blurs of soldiers constantly passed the window. The Provisional Cavalry was mustering a quarter mile away to load up for their journey south.
The clock tolled eight times. Lieutenant Dennis was now late.
Ilsa’s stomach twisted in knots, her fingers clenched with the need to hold Bucephalus again.
A knock shuddered through the door. She gasped, a hand at her anxious heart.
Lieutenant Dennis entered, Culver in his wake. “I got him, ma’am.”
The lieutenant motioned to Culver, who held a worn leather bag. Ilsa reached inside and found those curves and nicks made by her own hand. She knew Bucephalus’s alarm—his frustration—at being in the bag, at this change.
“It’s me,” she murmured. Her fingernail found the soft juncture where his left foreleg met his body. She pressed in just enough to know the heat of his soul there, lingering beneath the surface.
Ilsa let her joys and hope flow through to him—how she would braid his soul and hold it close as she traveled, how she would carve him a new and even more beautiful body, how they would explore the frontier west together.
He balked. His soul dug itself deeper into its wooden body.
“Bucephalus?” she whispered.
He told her without words, showing her the coziness of a body that he had known for twenty years, far longer than he had ever known flesh. He showed her the view from Captain Mayfair’s window, the auquines engaged in their drills. He knew they were horses—he recognized the scent and presence of like souls. Bucephalus was not a warhorse, but the bustle of the encampment made him feel alive again, even as a statue. He didn’t comprehend that he was stolen; all he knew was that he was in good care and stimulating company. Bucephalus, in life, knew how to work a stall clasp open with his lips so he could get to an oat bucket. Now he saw something else he wanted that was just out of reach.
He wants to stay with Captain Mayfair, not me. The betrayal stung her. He hadn’t even thought of the captain, not directly, but the implication was there. She gripped the wooden horse as if she could convince him to leave through sheer will.
Bucephalus coiled within his shell, alarmed. Afraid of her.
What am I doing? Ilsa knew the feel of spurs and the lash. She would not—could not—be like that.
Her son’s invisible soul had once slipped away. Now Bucephalus had escaped her, too, but only in part. He was still on earth. He had not dissipated. He is not lost.
“I understand. I don’t like it, but I understand,” she said to the horse then looked to Culver. “Bucephalus wants to stay in this body.” Tears streaked down her cheeks. Culver nodded, expression thoughtful as he secured the horse in the bag again. “Captain Mayfair will take good care of him. So will you, lieutenant.”
Dennis looked genuinely confused. “I—of course, ma’am. I just didn’t expect . . . Well, this will be a trade, then.” He pulled a stack of tri-folded sheets from his jacket and passed them to Ilsa. “Those are Culver’s papers. Take him with you.”
“Master Dennis?” Culver blinked rapidly.
“I gave her your papers, old man. You’re going west.” Dennis took the bag from Culver.
Shock filtered over Culver’s face, then joy, then anger. “Master, no, I am not. I cannot.”
“You must. Captain Mayfair’s sending you back to the plantation.” Dennis’s voice cracked. “You know how Papa is since Mama passed. I won’t be there to protect you, I . . .”
Ilsa looked between them and thought on their like recognition of equine souls, their uncommon closeness, the similarity in their smiles. Their skins were of different shades, true—Culver’s dark as ebony, and the lieutenant’s the deep walnut tone of a man who lived in the sun—but their bearings would have established their disparate roles even if they stood in silhouette. Culver’s back was bowed by a life of hardship, whereas Dennis was the epitome of a Confederate officer, his posture ramrod straight and ready for a parade. They’re slave and master by reality. Father and son by blood.
She took a steadying breath to hold back a new wave of sorrow.
“You never ask me nothing, Master Dennis. You never ask me where I wanna go, what I wanna do.”
Frustration twisted Lieutenant Dennis’s face. “Then what do you want?”
“If I’m a-going anywhere, I’m going north. Got family I’d like to find again, if they livin’.”
Dennis clearly tried to act stoic even as he blinked back tears.
Ilsa tucked the papers into her bag and pried out stationery and a pencil. “I can smuggle him north.” Smuggle herself, too, so the Union wouldn’t use her as the Confederates did. “I know New York.”
“Missus, you already gave me freedom on them horses the other day. I don’t ask for more than that.”
“You shouldn’t just get one or two chances at such a thing, Culver. I promise I will do everything I can to help you find your daughter.” Ilsa scribbled words onto a piece of paper.
“New York City.” Culver said the words like a prayer.
“Thank you,” Lieutenant Dennis whispered, his voice breaking.
A train whistle pierced the air.
The two men stared at each other, saying everything in nothing. Culver brushed a gnarled hand against Lieutenant Dennis’s gray sleeve, then turned away, trembling.
Ilsa steadied him. Even through layers of cloth, the scars on his back were hard lumps. “You’ll need to carry my bag for appearances.”
“Of course, missus. Of course.”
Ilsa sealed the paper into an envelope addressed to Captain Mayfair and passed it to Dennis. “When the war is done, Captain Mayfair is to expect company in the Low Country. I told him this is no giveaway. An old woman might be asking for room and board as part of the deal.” Culver opened the door.
“I’ll tell him you left behind this letter,” Lieutenant Dennis said, his voice thick. “And ma’am?”
She looked back. He cradled the bag with Bucephalus as if he held a newborn baby. “It really was a unicorn I rode, wasn’t it?”
Ilsa smiled. She turned away again, her gaze already northward.
Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.
She’s the author of The Clockwork Dagger (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for first novel) and The Clockwork Crown (a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone was a 2016 Nebula nominee. Breath of Earth begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.
About “The Souls of Horses,” she had this to share: “When I was in fifth grade, I won a school district library essay contest by saying I wanted to write books about the Civil War and horses, maybe even from the horse’s point of view. Here I am, almost twenty-five years later. I feel like ‘The Souls of Horses’ is the story I have been waiting for all this time. It took me that long to know how to tell it. I think my inner child is pleased.”
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“Allen’s strange and lovely fifth genre-melding fantasy anthology selects 20 new short stories of unusual variety, texture, compassion, and perception. . . . All the stories afford thought-provoking glimpses into alternative realities that linger, sparking unconventional thoughts, long after they are first encountered.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review