From the time that I was born, I swore that I would never allow any creature– human, horse, or otherwise– to control me. From my first breath until my last, I would be as free as the winds that swept over the desert plains. Every sensation I felt would be glorious and exhilarating because I alone had chosen to experience it. Regardless of my circumstances, I would be wild, unfettered, and fully alive. In the days when my world and my soul were young, I both believed that my future was limitless and I knew I would never be broken.
I was wrong.
The first memory I have is of myself running. I was a capricious, gangly colt: mischievous (in a good-natured way), obsessed with speed, and almost constantly in trouble. My mother– along with most of the adults in our herd– kindly but firmly guided me. When I wasn’t causing a ruckus, I spent my time frolicking in the vast plains that I called home. I raced the other foals, devoured as much food as possible, and swam whenever I stumbled upon lakes. Every moment of my existence was idyllic and wonderous.
As unforgettable as my days were, I treasured the nights even more. After the herd had finished dinner and the slow, peaceful rhythms of dusk settled upon us, a change would come over the other horses and the landscape itself. The once-bustling plains would become eerily silent and empty, their grasses and heaps of dirt brushed by a gentle evening breeze. The sky would be filled with a crimson hue and the earth would be blanketed by a crystalline stillness, its features illuminated only by fleeting rays of light from the setting sun.
While the transition from day to night was mesmerizing, it paled in comparison to the shift that occurred within the horses. The weary, reticent elders would suddenly come alive with the memories of their youths; their plodding, sometimes cynical demeanors would change to ones of buoyancy and nostalgia. They spoke of their entire lives, spent on the endless, unchanging plains. Whenever the younger horses felt worried or lost, they would remind us of their struggles and of the challenges our ancestors faced– and overcame. “For as long as anyone can remember, this land has been our home,” an older mare once told me. “Our lives are difficult– and we always must work hard to survive– but they’re beautiful and irreplaceable, too. You see, these plains and this way of life aren’t just features that compliment our existence. They are a part of our souls. Regardless of where life takes us, we’ll always carry the memory of our home inside of us. This land doesn’t belong to us– and yet it is ours’. Always be proud of it.”
On that particular night, I stared into the starlit sky and made a wish. I asked for a life like the ones my ancestors led; I wished for health and happiness; and– more than anything else– I was filled with a longing for the freedom to exist as I wanted to.
My luck only held until I was four years old. One sweltering summer day, I decided to stray from the herd in pursuit of adventure. I was aimlessly following a winding river when I suddenly heard a deafening, unearthly shriek. Pivoting around in alarm, I noticed a massive, glinting object in the distance– a train (although I didn’t know it then). Without thinking, I bolted. Filled with frenzied energy, I continued to gallop wildly about until I stumbled over something long and slightly raised. With a snort, I toppled over and fell painfully on my side. Panting, I rose slowly to my feet; however– because I didn’t perceive any immediate threats– I decided to examine the object I had tripped on. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Several feet wide (but only a few inches high), the unnatural feature appeared to continue beyond the horizon. Its outer perimeters were marked by silvery, rectangular pillars. Between these boundaries, rough wooden planks had been laid. For a brief moment, I was so befuddled by the railroad that I didn’t move. As I stared, transfixed, a sudden clang caught my attention. Seconds later, the tracks began to tremble violently as a cacophonous rumble filled the air. I raised my head and was met with a horrifying sight: the immense contraption I had seen earlier was hurtling towards me.
A wave of terror crashed over me. Petrified, I attempted to flee, but I was so frightened that my legs simply buckled. For a few precious seconds, I lay sprawled on the ground, helpless in the face of imminent danger. In a desperate effort, I gathered my legs beneath me and hastily found my balance. Electrified by fear, I leaped away and blindly rushed forwards. Even so, I narrowly avoided being hit by the oncoming train. When I had put at least two-hundred yards between myself and the locomotive, I swiveled around to watch it as it swept into the horizon.
For an instant, I was filled with a sense of triumph. In spite of my enemy’s best efforts, I had survived. As long as I stayed away from the path on which it seemed to reside, I would never have to face that wicked contraption again!
As I started to prance around in exultation, a grim realization shivered through me. I stopped celebrating. Slowly, nervously, I began to survey the surrounding area. Nothing was familiar. My head sagged and my ears drooped as I grasped my predicament: I was stranded on the wrong side of the impassable trail. I had been cut off from my home, my herd, and everything that I knew. While I could cross the tracks, I was so terrified of the locomotive that I couldn’t bring myself to even set foot on them again. As I gazed longingly at the rolling plains that lay just beyond the tracks, I formulated a plan. The railroad couldn’t possibly continue on forever; eventually– if I followed it– I would discover its end and pass to the other side without endangering myself. Strengthened by my resolution, I turned and broke into a brisk trot, tracing the path that the train had taken.
It took me several hours to realize that I had grossly underestimated the size of the treacherous tracks. I walked until my legs ached and my progress slowed to a crawl, but the never-ending trail stretched on, taunting me with its unnervingly straight lines and the inevitability of its presence. While I was accustomed to the warmth of the plains, I found myself overwhelmed by the searing heat for the first time. I was relieved when night finally fell. Miserable, exhausted, and apprehensive, I stopped to rest. I attempted to sleep, but a primal fear lurking within me kept me awake until the first rays of day penetrated the sky.
Unwilling to waste any more time, I set off, shaking my head periodically to prevent myself from dozing off. The whirling dust rose before my weary eyes as I staggered forwards, momentarily blinding me. This area of the plains was sparsely populated; the few animals who dared to make their homes in this inhospitable environment evidently kept to themselves. Worse still, the unforgiving ground was littered with stones. Every time I took a step, rocks were wedged into the cracks in my hooves, causing me to limp badly. In an effort to preserve my sanity, I tore my eyes away from the hateful railroad and surveyed the land around me instead. This didn’t help much. Aside from the path separating me from salvation, the place I had come to was characterized by small, dull mounds and dusty flatlands. The monochromatic landscape was punctuated only by occasional patches of shrubbery (which– if nothing else– provided me with the food I needed to sustain my trek).
When the sun sank beneath the horizon at last, I collapsed. Every part of me– from my bruised feet to my parched throat– was throbbing. In spite of my efforts to stay alert, I had begun to drift off when a single, reverberating clang reached my ears and shot through my entire body. Scrambling to my feet, I strained to locate the source of the monstrous sound. Before I even grasped what was happening, the terrible contraption I had seen the day before roared past me. Instead of running, I froze and shut my eyes, paralyzed by the certainty that it would destroy me. For thirty unbearable seconds, my world narrowed down to the shrieks of the hideous machine clattering along beside me. Gradually, its bellows quieted. I cautiously opened my eyes. Astonished, I scanned the area around me, shaken but profoundly grateful to be alive. For the rest of that night, I kept a watchful eye on the tracks, standing in a sad, silent sentinel.
When dawn broke, I resumed my march. I didn’t know how far I’d come, or if– after such a long journey– I would ever be able to find my herd and home again.
When the sun reached its zenith, my weary eyes grasped a strange cluster of objects on the horizon. Despite my sorry condition, I was overjoyed to have stumbled across something. Jubilant, I forced my smarting body into a painful trot. Slowly, the unusual collection of buildings came into focus. As I drew closer, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks: the horrible railroad ended before the dwellings!
Just as I was about to cross over to safety, however, I noticed a flicker of movement. My excitement rapidly ebbing away, I shifted slightly and began to examine the buildings. Constructed of sturdy wooden planks and arranged in patterns that no animal I knew of could create, they bore resemblance to only two things: the terrifying train– and the railroad.
Unnerved, I jerked my head backwards as a gleeful, malevolent yell erupted behind me. Whipping around as quickly as I could, I was greeted by the sight of five human beings. Stricken, I started to back away until one knelt down, beckoned to me, and extended an open palm. In it was a glistening cube of sugar.
“There, there, little horsie,” he crooned, his voice as sweet as the delicacy in his hand. “Don’t worry; we ain’t gonna hurt you.” I was very suspicious– his kind, gentle voice didn’t correspond with his tense demeanor– but the smell of the sugar was far too tempting. Nervously, I approached the man and plucked the treat from his hand. For a moment, I munched quietly on the cube, savoring its rich flavor.
Then– before I could even react– the man brandished a lasso he had been concealing behind himself and flung it around my neck. Completely caught off guard, I tried to pull away, but another man grabbed the rope and helped his companion to restrain me. I attempted to fight, but my long ordeal had taken a terrible toll on me. As I struggled against my two captors, the remaining men surrounded me, shouting madly and pounding me with sticks. Even in my weakened state, I put up a heroic battle until they finally subdued me. Ignoring my protestations, they dragged me inside a small, wooden structure and shut the door, leaving me in total darkness. As I lay on the rough floor, battered and broken, a single, long-suppressed memory came to me. I saw myself as a hopeful little colt, staring at the sky, wishing for life and longing for freedom. And, in that moment– even as I began to repeat my forgotten dream over and over again– I knew in my heart that it would never come true.