NINE YEARS EARLIER
It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all
the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch
the ever–changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by
They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the
black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so
dangerous as today, race day.
This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks
feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs
sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding
up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it
is like to be warm and what a full night’s sleep feels like and
what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across
yards of sand.
I am so, so alive.
As I head down to the cliffs with my father, one of the race
officials stops me. He says, “Sean Kendrick, you are ten years
old. You haven’t discovered it yet, but there are more interesting
ways to die than on this beach.”
My father doubles back and takes the official’s upper arm
as if the man were a restless horse. They share a brief exchange
about age restrictions during the race. My father wins.
“If your son is killed,” the official says, “the only fault is
My father doesn’t even answer him, just leads his uisce stallion
On the way down to the water, we’re jostled and pushed by
men and by horses. I slide beneath one horse as it rears up, its
rider jerked at the end of the lead. Unharmed, I find myself facing
the sea, surrounded on all sides by the capaill uisce — the
water horses. They are every color of the pebbles on the beach:
black, red, golden, white, ivory, gray, blue. Men hang the bridles
with red tassels and daisies to lessen the danger of the dark
November sea, but I wouldn’t trust a handful of petals to save
my life. Last year a water horse trailing flowers and bells tore a
man’s arm half from his body.
These are not ordinary horses. Drape them with charms,
hide them from the sea, but today, on the beach: Do not turn
Some of the horses have lathered. Froth drips down their
lips and chests, looking like sea foam, hiding the teeth that will
tear into men later.
They are beautiful and deadly, loving us and hating us.
My father sends me off to get his saddlecloth and armband
from another set of officials. The color of the cloth is meant to
allow the spectators far up on the cliffs to identify my father, but
in his case, they won’t need it, not with his stallion’s brilliant
“Ah, Kendrick,” the officials say, which is both my father’s
name and mine. “It’ll be a red cloth for him.”
As I return to my father, I am hailed by a rider: “Ho, Sean
Kendrick.” He’s diminutive and wiry, his face carved out of
rock. “Fine day for it.” I am honored to be greeted like an
adult. Like I belong here. We nod to each other before he turns
back to his horse to finish saddling up. His small racing saddle
is hand-tooled, and as he lifts the flap to give the girth a
final tug, I see words burned into the leather: Our dead drink
My heart is jerking in my chest as I hand the cloth to my
father. He seems unsettled as well, and I wish I was riding,
Myself I am sure of.
The red uisce stallion is restless and snorting, ears pricked,
eager. He is very hot today. He will be fast. Fast and difficult
My father gives me the reins so that he can saddle the water
horse with the red cloth. I lick my teeth — they taste like
salt — and watch my father tie the matching armband around
his upper arm. Every year I have watched him, and every year
he has tied it with a steady hand, but not this year. His fingers
are clumsy, and I know he is afraid of the red stallion.
I have ridden him, this capall. On his back, the wind beating
me, the ground jarring me, the sea spraying our legs, we
I lean close to the stallion’s ear and trace a counterclockwise
circle above his eye as I whisper into his soft ear.
“Sean!” my father snaps, and the capall’s head jerks up
quickly enough that his skull nearly strikes mine. “What are
you doing with your face next to his today? Does he not look
hungry to you? Do you think you’d look fine with half
But I just look at the stallion’s square pupil, and he looks
back, his head turned slightly away from me. I hope he’s remembering
what I told him: Do not eat my father.
My father makes a noise in his throat and says, “I think
you should go up now. Come here and —“ He slaps my shoulder
before mounting up.
He is small and dark on the back of the red stallion. Already,
his hands work ceaselessly on the reins to keep the horse in
place. The motion twists the bit in the horse’s mouth; I watch
his head rocking to and fro. It’s not how I would have done it,
but I’m not up there.
I want to tell my father to mind how the stallion spooks to
the right, how I think he sees better out of his left eye, but
instead I say, “See you when it’s over.” We nod to each other like
strangers, the good–bye unpracticed and uncomfortable.
I am watching the race from the cliffs when a gray uisce
horse seizes my father by his arm and then his chest.
For one moment, the waves do not attack the shore and the
gulls above us do not flap and the gritty air in my lungs doesn’t
Then the gray water horse tears my father from his uneasy
place on the back of the red stallion.
The gray cannot keep its ragged grip on my father’s chest,
and so my father falls to the sand, already ruined before the
hooves get to him. He was in second place, so it takes a long
minute before the rest of the horses have passed over the top of
his body and I can see it again. By then, he is a long,
smear half-submerged in the frothy tide. The red stallion
circles, halfway to a hungry creature of the sea, but he does as I
asked: He does not eat the thing that was my father. Instead,
the stallion climbs back into the water. Nothing is as red as the
sea that day.
I don’t think often on my father’s body strung out through
the reddening surf. Instead, I remember him as he was before the
I won’t make the same mistake.