The moment he entered the bar, I knew that Mister J. wasn't your usual guest. Maybe it was the way his eyes darted around, taking the measure of everything he saw, or that half smile as he twirled ... [+]
The Menagerie Machine
Zebra, Mule, and I stood abreast, as always, and studied the newcomer. Sea Horse reared up from his pale green tentacle of a tail. His upper half resembled the cavalry horses behind us, complete with kicking hooves and a spray of mane. Of all the carousel steeds, only Sea Horse boasted such fine aquamarine paint, not our bland neutrals. From my spot behind the bench next to him, I strained to watch his half laughing, half snarling face and one of his silver eyes.
He'd replaced Ostrich after she'd lost hope and decayed, but no one ever mentioned that. Not even the cavalry horses. To speak of the circumstance that had brought him gave it too much power, made the memories of Ostrich real.
Admiring Sea Horse distracted me from the machine's three miseries: endless circles during the day, motionlessness at night, and, most of all, the cavalry horses.
"The dromedary," they called me, never Camel. Mule claimed it was because we are jumpers and they are mere standers—Sea Horse also bobbed up and down with us to the band organ while the horses and bench stuck fast—then Mule insisted I should bask in the compliment of their jealousy.
I wondered if I should praise Sea Horse using flattery disguised as jealousy. At least it would break our pattern. I gathered the courage one night after the plaza lights had darkened to make way for the stars. Distant branches around the perimeter rustled in a breeze. All else lay still. Halted. Moonlight angled under our canopy, spilling over Sea Horse's contours. His blue-green paint gleamed like a jewel.
"Imagine, not having any trappings," I said.
Sea Horse's eye peered back at me in a silver flash. I clearly meant him. No tassels, no buckles, not even glass gems like the ones in Zebra's mane. Every other steed glittered with adornments, yet no other steed pulled off such stark magnificence as he did.
The cavalry horses behind me snickered. "The dromedary's blathering again," one said. "Too bad her own tassels aren't enough to distract anyone from her drivel."
"Or her droopy face," said another.
To my left, Mule stamped his hoof. To my right, Zebra closed her eyes and hummed the carousel song, as she did when agitated. Some days that song was a lullaby to me, other days it was a dirge. Today it lingered in a strange disguise, as though in a different key.
"Tell them off," Mule said. He'd done so often enough, although they still called him an ass.
Sea Horse's gaze had chased my voice away. He thumped his tail against the platform. I'd never seen him move it before without the machine's assistance. Zebra stopped humming but kept her eyes closed. Mule's tail flicked, but he said nothing.
"I think she offended the hippocampus," said the third horse behind me. Snickers followed.
They always said "the hippocampus," never Sea Horse.
"No trappings at all," I said, forcing the rest out, "but twice the splendor of all of us with our fineries."
Sea Horse's eye opened wider. Why wouldn't he turn around? I hoped it was just shyness, that he recognized my compliment for what it was.
"The stargazer sure aims high," the central horse behind me said. Stargazer. That was a new one. While Zebra and Mule's heads faced straight ahead, only my neck was carved to curve upward.
The three horses burst into snickering. Between that all-too-familiar noise and Sea Horse's cryptic gaze, I longed to close my eyes and hum the carousel song like Zebra, feigning some sort of escape. But those horses would always follow me, inescapable, laughing. I glanced at the crescent moon visible under the canopy's edge. It resembled the bottom of one of Sea Horse's hooves. I wished it could come down and kick those horses, but alas, it had its own pattern to follow, with even less chance to break it than I could mine.
"Why would the hippocampus care what she thinks?" the central horse said.
"His name is Sea Horse," I blurted.
"Yes, and mine isn't One of the Cavalry Horses," she replied.
I gritted my teeth. She had a point. How could I criticize her for refusing to use our names when I didn't bother to know hers? I pivoted on my pole and stretched my long neck toward her and the other horses.
I'd viewed them sideways plenty of times, but never straight on before. Their wide-spaced eyes glared at me from their bridles and filled me with competing emotions, just as when the machine wound down to a standstill each evening: annoyance at disruption from a pattern, relief that the repetitiveness had ended at last, and a buried fear that the familiarity might never resume.
"How would you like to be addressed?" I asked.
She snorted. "Not by the likes of you."
I inhaled to calm myself. That's when I noticed the stench. I leaned in as close as I could and sniffed deeply. An odor of staleness and grime bit into my nostrils.
Decay. Like Ostrich.
"Just as I thought," I mumbled.
The horses looked scandalized, too proud to ask me what I meant, but desperate to hear my conclusion.
"You're so used to your own smell," I said as tenderly as I wished them to treat me, "you don't even notice it, but it's clear to us." I glanced toward Zebra, Mule, and Sea Horse. Then I turned back. "But we can put up with it for as long as we have to." We'd outlast them, after all. I hoped my friends didn't mind my speaking for them.
I spun back into place and waited for the horses' insults. They sniffed together, but without their usual self-importance. It came softly, an embarrassed sound. I risked a peek back. They hung their heads with their eyes and—for once—mouths closed.
I wondered if this was peace. No, this was silence and stillness. We'd still keep spinning and stopping, spinning and stopping. Whether we moved or stood still, we went nowhere.
My stargazing head lowered. But then I noticed Mule tossing his mane in approval of me getting the better of the horses. Zebra whinnied giddily.
Sea Horse turned his romance side to me, the side facing out to the plaza, the more decorated side, or in his case, the one that would've had more ornamentation if he'd had any to begin with. Then I spotted it. On the edge of his otherwise plain saddle, a small mirror glinted in the shape of a star. The reflection of my eye with long painted lashes peered back at me. I was a stargazer indeed.
I took advantage of my long neck once more to gaze at him as I turned my romance side to him. I lined up my own side mirror, a thick crescent like tonight's moon, with his star. I like to think that our mirrors reflecting into each other formed an endless, straight corridor that led us, in our minds at least, somewhere beyond the confines of the machine. Freedom in our own night sky.
His half-snarl turned into a full smile. I knew he felt the connection and—bliss of all bliss!—progress as well. Who would've thought our trappings would provide temporary escape? Suddenly, alternating between bobbing in circles and being stuck in place no longer vexed me. We had a third option, and it was ours to choose. This was peace.