The horses come every year, on the eve of summer solstice. When the sun slides down Magnolia Hills, the horses run over Aurora Bridge. They strike the asphalt with hooves of thunder. Their coats shine black and brown. Their tails fly like banners of war.
Three summers ago, I was finally old enough to be chosen by the horses. We made wreaths of clover and stood on our doorsteps as the horses passed. We waited for the alpha stallion, because he would choose one of us for the sacrificial feast.
When the alpha came, he searched us with eyes the color of rain-soaked earth. He flared his nostrils and flicked his ears toward us, smelling, listening, watching.
Oh, I was so nervous! You have never seen anything like him, the alpha stallion with powerful muscles under his black satin fur.
He walked up to our porch and tasted the wreath I wove, there at my feet. He tilted his head, listening for the sound of my heartbeat. I was shivering all over, and cold, because I knew he has seen things I will never see: the deep and secret corners of the earth.
I looked into his eyes and I saw the devastation of cities. I saw myself.
But then he tossed his mane and turned away from me. Disappointment shook me to my bones. I couldn’t help it. I cried out and reached for him as he passed.
The alpha stallion walked to Annika’s house next door, where she trembled between her mother and father on the front stoop. Her two little brothers watched wide-eyed as the stallion nuzzled Annika’s forehead.
I’ll never understand why she cried. It was an honor to be chosen! The horses took her down to the bridge, nudged her onto her back. Her long blonde hair streamed out in a halo, and I wept with envy as the horses bit into her with their great yellow teeth. They ate her moist heart and blue eyes, her pink steaming guts, and the ropey coils of her brain. Everything Annika ate and thought and saw and touched was now in the bellies of the horses.
When they were done eating her, the rain came, just like it always does. After the rain, the horses devour every leaf, twig, blossom, and weed, leaving behind steaming piles of manure. Everywhere their manure falls, something green and spikey sprouts from it two weeks later.
The horses leave before our crops grow. Their hooves spark rainbows from the slick pavement as they trample the old roads, the old bridges, the old ways. Sometimes the roads crumble behind them, and I am glad, because the old things are passing away. The horses make all things new.
But this summer is different. We haven’t seen the alpha stallion at all, and the horses ignore us as they graze.
Our neighbors are sad, because without a sacrifice there will be no rain. But my mother is happy.
“I’ll have my daughter with me for another year,” she says, kissing me on the forehead.
But I pull away, because my mother is foolish, and thinks of no one but herself. Doesn’t she know how big the world is, how vast and deadly and beautiful? The horses know. I know.
And then I see him, the new alpha. He’s magnificent. A young, muscular gray with hooves black as iron. His mares follow close behind, and the other horses flank them on both sides. And he’s coming closer to my house, walking across the muddy yard, and he stops before me, so close his breath blows on my face.
This is it, I know it is. The alpha has the earth in his eyes, the newly turned soil of spring. He is ready for his garden to be planted, planted with my bones and with my body. I am ready, too.
I look at my mother, who closes her eyes. She can’t bear to watch. And I think about the things she told me, about the strange old days when ashes fell like rain from the heavens, and the metal corpses of satellites crashed down from the sky.
My mother still loves the old days. I know this because she keeps a box under her bed with secret pictures in it. She’s wearing fine clothes in those pictures, and lipstick, and smiling in the arms of men I don’t know.
My mother doesn’t smile anymore. And I’m glad those times are gone because they’re not real. Only this is real, the alpha stallion’s breath steaming with the smell of sweet hay, his silver head bowed, tickling my cheek with his whiskers, urging me on before him as I leave my mother’s house.
I walk with the horses down to the bridge. Their warm bodies ebb and flow around me.
Sometimes, I think about crossing this bridge and following the road all the way to Yukon Territory, where they say the world is still green and beautiful. Even though the sun is pink and cool, the road still burns my feet. The horses gather, swishing their tails, their eyes liquid and eager. I imagine everyone in the village watching us with long, electric breaths.
The alpha stallion bends his strong neck and pushes into my chest with his forehead. It’s time.
I lie down, my dress and my hair fanning about me. I see bats flying overhead. The horses have faces, each face more beautiful than the last, and the alpha bends over my throat, his teeth bared. They say it only hurts for a moment.
I close my eyes, feeling a buzzing in my head, hands, stomach. I am ready to enter the bellies of the horses.
The alpha’s teeth pinch below my left ear. There’s a wet trickle of blood, and I hear the sharp intake of breath. Then…
I wait. I am quiet, patient. The hot breath of the alpha leaves my skin and I think he’ll deliver the kill bite, but instead he neighs— one soft neigh— and I hear the horses clopping away from me.
I open my eyes to a purple sky as the horses leave, ambling along as though my sacrifice meant nothing to them. They part around me like water around a rock.
They did not eat me. They did not want me.
My mother is happy about this. So happy, she smiles.
When I was a child, I saw the end of a rainbow. I wanted to climb it into the clouds. But the more I ran after it, the farther it slipped away—