According to my elders, I was born a year after the sky hoarded its waterfalls and the fertile soil turned to dust. While human children listened to legends of dashing chivalrous heroes or fables with wise morals, I grew up on stories murmured through the dry mouths of the curmudgeonly old horses who had gone through the gnawing episode of having nothing to eat or drink. They whispered to me tales warning of having to resort to eating sagebrush instead of grass, which made them sick, and droughts that cracked the ground. I didn’t pay much attention to them. I was only concerned with filling my own spoiled stomach. I got tired of my mother telling me whenever we grazed upon the golden grass, “You are so lucky, Anna. You don’t know what desperation is truly like until you see what you love teetering on a cliff of life and death.”
I hate to admit my mother was correct, but not because of my pride. I didn’t realize that she was correct until the day I knew I would never see her again.
It was the twilight of summertime, what humans call ‘September’, when the sun is stolen away by clouds the color of smoke and ash. I was a filly of just a little more than two years, living with my herd of eight other horses, but we lived in such close proximity to other herds that an outsider might mistake us all for one large group. We were content with our lives; it rained enough for us to be comfortable, and although the vegetation was nothing close to verdant and bountiful, all the grass that we needed to survive grew in healthy amounts.
On the fateful morning that changed my life forever, I was expecting nothing. I was woken up rather mundanely by my mother who playfully battered her hooves upon my back. She was in an unusually good mood. “Wake up, Anna!” she exclaimed.
“How about no,” I muttered, still half-asleep.
“We have to migrate quite a bit today, remember? New watering hole?”
At that statement, I reluctantly got up. There was no time to waste. The watering hole we had been using for the past few days was too small and was drying up quickly, and if other herds got to the new watering hole before we could, then we would risk going thirsty for a few days.
The sun was still rising when our herd drew towards the dewy petrichor emanating from the south. We didn’t encounter any horses from other herds as we cantered through the shallow canyons, which I thought was odd. When we were relocating ourselves, we hardly ever went a day without encountering at least a lone horse, if not an entire herd seeking the same goal we were: water. “Where are the other herds?” I asked my father as we were slowing down for a walk to catch our breath.
“I don’t know. Looks like all of their noses aren’t working today,” he said, snorting. “Better luck for us I guess, for once.”
Suddenly, a high-pitched, unfamiliar whinny echoed from behind me. Oh, at last, I thought, turning around to see. Looks like their noses do work after all. However, the sight that met my eyes baffled me.
Scores of horses spilled down the edge of a small hill, just around fifty meters away from us. I felt in my own body the agitated drumbeats of hundreds of hooves vibrating through the ground. They galloped in a panicked mass as if a pack of all the most horrible creatures in the world were chasing them down.
“What is this?” my mother murmured. The other horses of our herd took a few uncertain steps back.
Then, I saw it: a floating vessel with gyrating blades attached to the top, slicing through the wind so swiftly, the air must have died from all the lacerations it suffered from the spinning edges. We stood, shocked and unable to fully comprehend the alien aircraft hovering just behind the fleeing herds, pushing them towards us.
My father gathered his senses first; he took off, hollering, “GO!”
The rest of our herd bolted after him. Well, everyone except for me. I was still paralyzed in place, too overcome with fear to move. The strange vision of a building wave of stampeding animals, reduced to their primordial beings by terror and the deafening thwip, thwip, thwip of the revolving knives turned my limbs to stone. All I could do was stare into the unfeeling eyes of my imminent annihilation.
“Anna!” I could barely hear my mother’s call. She galloped back to me, nudging me. “What are you doing? Go!” she shouted.
Her voice switched my mind back on, and just at that unfortunate moment, my brain processed that the stampeding crowd was only meters away from me. Whatever gears within my legs screeched back to life and before I knew it, I was among them, galloping on and on.
I couldn’t see where we were going or distinguish any individual. Forward, go forward, was the only thought we had the wit for.
Then, it all unexpectedly stopped. My nose bumped into the side of another horse as it suddenly halted, digging its hooves into the ground. I tried to turn around, to see where I was but there were too many of us, crammed together like a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t quite fit together. I glanced towards the sky and saw, to my relief, that the flying metal entity was going in the other direction. However, the fright that had controlled me just seconds ago possessed me once again when I realized that none of the horses within close proximity were of my family. “Mama! Papa!” I yelled.
It was of no use. I wasn’t the only one calling for the members of their herd, and the whinnies and neighs of too many turned into one cacophonous nightmare. The dust kicked up by all of the running, swirled in our faces, and the sweltering heat didn’t help me cool off either: it was too much. I stopped trying. I closed my eyes, wishing everything would just go away.
Over time, I felt less hides rubbing against me and the vocals of horses were gradually replaced by something else, a foreign voice. I don’t know how much time had passed, thirty minutes, an hour, perhaps a day, when something cold suddenly gripped my face and I opened my eyes, surprised and irritated.
Not a horse, but a human, I realized, had their hand on me. I twisted away from the human and they backed away from me in alarm. What are humans doing here? I wonder.
My eyes drank in what the situation was now: approximately half of the horses that were crammed with me were gone now, and we were in a strange enclosure, with wire fences that only the strongest, most powerful horses could possibly leap over. There was more than just one human; in fact, humans outnumbered horses now.
“Anna? Anna!” I heard a familiar voice, laced with distress, coming from somewhere behind me. I turned to see my mother, lying on her side. One of her back legs was twisted at an ugly angle. A certain red liquid leaked onto the ground beside her. My heart crawled into my throat as I rushed over to her side.
“Are you okay? Wh-what happened?” I stammered.
“Anna, listen to me,” she said hoarsely. “During the stampede, I fell and my leg broke. The humans found me lying on the ground and they brought me here to examine me. Then, they left me, and I watched them look at the other horses and … do things to them. Anna, they are somehow putting horses to sleep, they are putting the elderly, sick, and injured horses to sleep, with strange needles. I tried to wake them up, Anna, but they didn’t wake up.”
“I’ve listened to the humans, Anna. They say that they are doing this because there are too many of us. They say that there isn’t enough water to support us. They mean to … I don’t know what. Anna, look at me. Something bad is going to come out of this. I want you to jump over that fence now and run, run as if you were your own stampede.”
“But it’s too high-”
“Now, Anna. I love you. Please … do it. You’re strong, Anna. I know you can do it.”
I wanted to ask her about her broken leg, how she’s going to heal, how she’s going to find me, but the steely look in her eyes shut my mouth. I glanced back at her one last time before I faced the metal fence. It was too tall, too unconquerable, but I reared up anyway, propelling my legs into the air, because my mother believed in me. I heard some indistinct human shouts as the bottom of my stomach grazed the sharp metal. Then my front hooves hit the ground, and I was galloping, galloping away from that peculiar, awful place. Oh, how good it felt to run alone without a hundred other grimy horses racing across the land next to you! The bloody cut on my hide didn’t bother me in the slightest.
Eventually after running for a few glorious minutes, I got tired and remembered my thirst, that watering hole, and the purpose of the day that had brought me through these events. I followed the comforting, damp smell, and was delighted when I found that welcoming water hole, and was even more pleased to see that I had it all to myself.
As I drank from that water, I noticed my strange reflection. My gray coat was crusty with dirt, but the single white star on my forehead was still somehow miraculously untouched. My mother had the same star on her forehead. We were the only horses with a star on our forehead in all the herds of these lands. How is she going to join me? I wondered.
They didn’t wake up, whispered my mother’s voice in my head, as if in response. They didn’t wake up, they didn’t wake up.
And then I was tearing across the golden grass, hurtling towards that cliff of life and death my mother had warned me about, so long ago.