“A white horse is actually grey — it’s a colouration that occurs when a gene causes the hair coat to gradually lose its colour. A horse may be born chestnut, black, or even palomino, but if its genetic makeup has a dominant grey gene, the coat will change over the years, turning dark grey when the horse is six to 12 months old and often pure ‘white’ by the age of six.” – Dr. Mac, Farmer’s Weekly
The last sound Liliana heard, after setting the horses free, was that of the wind chimes. It was Roman’s idea, to do it. To leave it open. Leave it open, they’ll run out — let’s GO! — he had yelled, as he banged the lid on the loaded trunk of the car, and what stuck in her head was how his voice had sounded like sandpaper. Before Liliana packed their marriage license, some cash and jewelry from the top of the dresser, their wedding photo, a box of protein bars and a few bottles of water into the back seat, and after an unsuccessful attempt to reach her boxed wedding dress on the high closet shelf, she had scrambled up the dry grass embankment, the turf already catching an ember here and there, and opened the barn door, getting a painful splinter under a thumbnail and ignoring it. Sweat made worm-tracks through the soot on her face, and she didn’t notice how furnace hot every part of her was. When an ember landed on her shirtsleeve, she patted it out, feeling nothing, like a devotee of some obscure sect walking on burning white coals. As they drove away, she watched Pinky and Greyfoot run out of the barn, equine embodiments of fear, making sounds she didn’t know they had, sounds from a warped dimension of the universe, sounds she would never forget and hoped she would never hear again. But the last sound Liliana heard, after setting the horses free, was that of the wind chimes.
Sounds brought colors to Liliana. She had loved the jazz riff of her copper wind chimes whenever it was breezy — sea green, she heard, or what she thought of as sea green, and she pictured mermaids dancing. Later, when the wind was strong and they could see smoke like thick coal dust all those miles away, smell its sharpness, and touch the grit and the powder that was ash even on the varnished floor of the safely distant community shelter, Liliana lost the sense of color in the chimes and saw them the way she saw so much of the world — black.
She had found his resume outside a Starbucks, only two years ago, almost to the day, on a particularly chilly November morning. The paper was pockmarked from the tiny bumps in the concrete and showed the faint outline of a Nike footprint. She assumed correctly that the resume belonged to a guy around her age, somewhere in his twenties, because it was filled with descriptions of temp jobs and stints at Popeye’s and Burger King. Roman Adams – it crossed her mind to hope that whoever Roman was had another copy to take to his interview. When she lifted a grey-woolen-gloved hand to open the door, a good-looking dude wearing Levis and a floppy beanie opened it for her as he crossed her path on his way out of the building. He smiled at her.
Liliana dropped the resume into the bin marked LANDFILL before she took her position as third in the coffee line. When her turn came she cleared her throat and listed all the adjectives: nonfat, half-caff, skinny, caramel, hot. While she waited for her drink she punched a code (1,2,3,4) and went into the bathroom, where she always expected to find a dead homeless person, but as usual, did not.
After she peed, she squirted soap from a squeaky dispenser, pushed the faucet to turn it on, washed her hands with tepid water and shook off the excess in the sink before trying unsuccessfully to find the right spot to activate the hand blow-dryer. She wiped her hands on her jeans and turned the lock to open the door. At the pickup station she waited another two minutes until she got her drink, LILLY ANNE printed on the label on the side, and then she went to the trashcan, pulled out the resume, now coffee splotched as well as foot-printed, proceeded to the electric scooter she had left outside and scanned the QR code on the handle.
Liliana and Roman sat curled into themselves against the north wall of Taft High’s gymnasium, along with a hundred other people. Those who had laptops passed them around — laptops containing a live feed of their homes burning. Liliana gasped when she saw their own house on fire, when she heard her wind chimes playing a demonic symphony, driven wild by the huge gusts that fed oxygen to the flames.
She covered her face with her hands and lowered her head, causing her blonde, ass-length hair to engulf her black-clad torso. She looked in mourning, as she often did, dressed in her customary black. It was simpler that way — she had a rare eye condition she had once thought she shared with dogs, only it turned out dogs have it better. Liliana saw everything in black and white or variations of grey, and it happens that dogs see some blues and yellows.
Liliana perceived Roman’s shock-distorted face to be the same color as the white hot flames lapping at the frame of the open barn door, creeping forward like the tide, but faster, eachinch causing the heat to make more and more impact, small flames growing into bigger ones, then bigger. Liliana and Roman’s house burned.
The wind raged. The house burned. The horses screamed.
“It’s called achromatopsia,” she had said to Roman, spelled it, enunciated each of the six syllables, one by one. She echoed what her mother had told her when she discovered that her friends saw things differently than she did. It doesn’t make you abnormal or anything. “It doesn’t make me abnormal or anything.”
“That’s cool,” he said.
“Not everyone reacts that way,” Liliana said. “Most people want to fix it. There are supposedly these glasses you can get, I don’t know. Yeah, when I was a kidthey tried to make me see colors. Lots of doctors. Lots of shrinks. I dyed all my clothes black and my hair too. I wanted people to see me the way I saw them.”
She would always wonder how her life would have been if she had left the resume in theLANDFILL bin, or at least fished it out and put it in RECYCLE, her impulse when she first retrieved it. If she hadn’t been curious, if she hadn’t impulsively called the number of the guy who turned out to be the one who smiled at her at Starbucks. She wouldn’t have had the ranch, or Pinky and Greyfoot, of course. She wouldn’t have had the fairy tale wedding, the princess wedding dress.
He proposed to her only weeks after they met. By then she knew that Roman worked at places like Burger King in spite of the fact that he did not have to, that his parents’ money would support him forever, that he lived on the small ranch that his parents had given him, complete with the two horses. She had trouble separating his charm from the charms of the ranch. At first she resisted the easy money, but then Liliana saw the horses. It seemed to her later, in hindsight, that perhaps she and Roman had both had done a little soul selling.
The first time Liliana met them, the horses, she got out of the car, leaped over a small tree stump, and ran to the corral next to the barn, where Pinky stood and seemed to be watching and waiting, just for her, as horses did, as she was indeed a whisperer, a gift she was not even aware she had, a gift that came with her love for the animals, for the way their voices cut the air with the melodic line of their whinnies. Liliana approached her, blew air into her nostrils, and reached for the baby carrots she carried in her pockets. Pinky snorted a horse pleasure sound as Liliana flat-handed several of the crunchy veggies into her slurpy grey mouth and, without looking back, climbed over the fence and hoisted herself up on the horse’s bare back.
“She’s Pinky because of her color, isn’t she?” she called to Roman. “Chestnut roan?” She saw the mare dapple grey, as she saw many horses, but instinctively she felt her redness.
The horse seemed to welcome this particular new passenger — she let Liliana grab her mane and steer her around the paddock. They went from a walk to a canter and back again, no trot in between. When they finally stopped, Pinky needed a rub. Liliana delighted in the currying and brushing, even the picking of the horse’s hooves. She watched Roman watch her out of the corner of her eye.
Liliana finished her task, laid down the grooming tools, leaned over the fence, and kissed Roman. A second horse stood eyeing them. “That’s Greyfoot,” Roman said, pointing to the gelding, which was indeed a dapple grey. “I bet we see him the same color.” Greyfoot neighed and ran back into the safety of his stall.
It seemed right that Roman quit flipping burgers. It all seemed right. They lived on their ranch, with their horses. Liliana loved them, rode them, took care of them. After a while, Roman did not. He stayed inside and played video games. They saw each other at night, sometimes with love and passion, sometimes without.
For two minutes Liliana took her eyes off the screen, stopped listening to the sounds that made what she thought were crimson images. She sucked the thumb with the splinter and glared at Roman, knowing that to blame him was not completely fair, and yet her eyes blazed with anger. She stifled a sob and caught the tears before they could come. Roman’s sour mouth twitched. When did he begin to have that sour lemon I’m-better-than-you pucker? She had loved that mouth. Even as they watched the horror on the small screens, Roman said words to Liliana, words she no longer wanted to hear.
“I love you,” he said, ina voice that sounded like an artificial squawk box, as if his mouth were a desert, or, conversely, filled with puke. Liliana slapped him, right there in the gymnasium. The kid next to them gasped, but nobody else paid attention.
When they went together, in silence, back to the place where they had lived for such a short time, a home that they would no longer share, to the black and white and grey ruins that would look black and white and grey to everyone, not just her, Liliana was filled with a self-hating glee to see the strings of her wind chimes had been blown into a dark charred tangle, the metal tubing melted closed. The remains of her wedding dress, blackened, lay on the floor of what had been the bedroom closet.
How could they have known the horses would run back into the barn?
Isabel‘s fiction has been published in Amoskeag Journal, Front and Centre, The Listening Eye, and Paterson Review, among others. Bear Creek Haiku has published her poetry, as has Walk Write Up, where she has been a regular contributor. Her photographs have appeared in Trajectory and Olentangy Review.