The horse had gotten into the garden and was devouring Alma’s basil. Of all things, the basil. From her sick chair near her bedroom window on the second floor, she could look down on the devastation but do nothing. Alma had warned her husband Pietro against buying the animal. He had dreamt about a horse for a month, he said. Always white, always winged. When he heard about this pathetic specimen for sale at a farm down the road, he bought the wreck and walked it home, determined he could nurse it back to health. They did not own a barn, not even a shed, and Pietro would not consider putting the horse inside the derelict chapel because of the progress he’d made on its restoration. Instead, he tied his ridiculous purchase to the olive tree beside the driveway. After shearing away every scrap of grass around the tree, the grey beast—you really could not call it white!—broke free and commenced a limping rampage in her garden.
Where was Pietro? Alma called out to him. The answer was a sigh of wind in the chestnut tree. Not far from the house, she heard the aggressive roar of a tractor. Giovanni Santi, their spiteful neighbor, was plowing in the fields and vineyards. It was late September, too early to harvest and too late to plant. Still he was out there all day every day tormenting the earth with his rusted tractor and making Alma’s head hurt.
Pietro should have told Alma he was going out, but he was avoiding her. He had become afraid of the things Alma said. After thirty years of non-stop laughing and arguing together, sharing the same bed, working in the same architecture firm, always moving around and with each other, their silence was like a lonely fall from a great height. Soon after they’d moved from Rome to the edge of a village outside Florence, the sickness had begun to eat at her. She was only 52. Within hours of making their bed in the villa for the first time, what should have been a joyful dance for the both of them, she’d turned away from Pietro and lain down to take one nap after another. She now lived her life in her dreams. She had tried to tell Pietro that in those dreams, the barrier between her present and what was coming had grown thin, like curtains turning sheer with light, giving way to the wind. She was ready to flow over to the other side, disperse into the sweet release, but she could not yet figure out how.
The horse raised its ratty tail and shit. One ball of feces after another thudded into the garden path. There had been one basil plant left. Only one, and its green stem was trembling in the horse’s teeth as it strained to shit. Alma’s entire efforts at gardening had failed. Insects had eaten the roses she transplanted from their home in Rome, her lettuce had dried up in the field. Less than a year ago, when she was still her old self, she could have tilled the dirt herself, pounded in fence posts with Pietro, and planted the fig trees she’d always longed for. No stupid horse would have dared enter her domain.
Before they bought the house, the garden had spent too many years in a state of neglect, as had their new home, one wing of a priest’s villa left abandoned for over a hundred years. The other wing of the villa belonged to the farmer Giovanni Santi. The entire property had been in the Santi family since the medieval church at the heart of the two houses had fallen into disuse. Santi had assumed the diocese would one day sign it all over to him, even though he would have let the chapel crumble to rubble, but the local parish needed money. They had been swayed by Pietro’s slick proposal to restore the church to attract tourists. Americans in particular would pay to stare up at the chapel’s modest dome with its paintings of saints Alma could not name. Without Santi’s approval or knowledge, the local diocese sold the chapel, the south wing, and the small garden to Pietro and Alma. Santi seethed with hostility whenever he saw the two interlopers. He regularly blocked the shared driveway with his tractor, let his dogs bark all night, seemingly on a mission to drive the Romans out.
Alma could hear that tractor charging up the driveway now, where Santi would no doubt let it run for an hour for no reason except to bully them. Pietro refused to give up. Alma, on the other hand, felt it was no longer worth the fight and was trying to let go.
Last night while alone in their bed, adrift in a medicated dream, a hot white light had filled her head. She’d thought it was time. She was dying, and she was ready to go. Then suddenly her head felt enflamed, as if a thousand blood vessels had been heated to bursting. The fire shot through her throat into her heart. In the dark she fought to breathe. She woke knowing the pain was grief at leaving Pietro and the old age together in the country they had planned for. The rest of the night, she did not dare to close her eyes. To burn to death with sorrow was not the way she wanted to die. In the morning, she lay awake agitated, could not nap. Fear had made her get out of bed and find her way to the chair by the window.
Before her terrible dream, Pietro had stood over her, his face filthy from work, and admitted he’d prayed for a miracle in the chapel. He’d never prayed before! She would get well, he said. God would save her. He told her this with a low, certain voice, but he would not meet her eyes, not look at her limbs, ravaged beyond repair. He told her to come down to the chapel in and see for herself. She wouldn’t answer him and wept with loneliness when he closed the door behind her.
“Get out,” Alma yelled at the horse.
The animal turned its patchy rump to Alma and shifted hard into the old, abundant jasmine bush that had come with the house. Blossoms rained down upon the wild grass. Her rage grew. She called out for Pietro.
A scream of a handsaw gave her his answer. He was in the chapel again.
When the saw went still, the air was filled with the happy sounds of the swifts that nested like mice along the chapel walls. Then, of course bird song was lost to Santi revving his tractor. The swifts’ exuberance taunted Alma. Soon enough they would lift in a swirling mass and return to their winter home in Africa. She dreaded the coming stillness without them. She considered her thin hands resting on her aching knees. Her knuckles were swollen. Always a sturdy and pretty woman, the grotesqueness of her illness and the side effects of the drugs, all the distortions she now saw in the mirror, confused her. Last night when Pietro denied she was dying, she said, “Look at me.” He avoided her face and pointed to her hair coming in more thickly, although not yet curly like before, and the pink flush to her cheeks. She was confusing aging with illness, he argued. Pietro was aging as well. On some mornings his back hurt, he had arthritis in one shoulder, but he whistled when he made coffee. He still, of all things, pushed up against her at night.
And he bought a horse. For what? For them to take turns riding?
The beast chewed on the jasmine, rocking side to side on its haunches in the sun. Alma had not even bothered to ask if it was male or female, a stallion or a gelding. It was, for certain, an old horse. Its bony shoulders rose up like stunted wings, not the fine Pegasus Pietro had imagined.
She pulled herself to standing and leaned out over the windowsill. The effort made her shake. “You. Horse! Look at me.”
The animal lifted its head and turned toward her with chalky eyes. My god, was it blind as well? She needed her own glasses to tell, and those were across the room. She laughed at the ridiculousness of them trying to see each other from this distance. The horse chewed balefully, taunting her. Alma hunched over in a voluminous nightgown that needed a wash. Someone should put them both out of their misery. There was a gun leaning in the corner, a rifle for dispersing pigeons that collected en masse on the roof of the house. Alma knew how to use it.
She made her way to first her glasses then the gun. She hoisted up the smooth wood, the metal barrel. Her arms ached from the weight as she made her way back to the window. She would shoot into the air above the horse, just to drive it out, the way Pietro did with the pigeons. By the time she propped the gun on the window frame, lowered herself back to the chair, the horse was no longer in view. The garden seemed empty, its destruction complete. Who would repair it now?
In the driveway, Santi was pushing the tractor’s engine like it was sports car, child that he was, the sound echoing off the house. If she could only point the gun at him. Suddenly over the shriek and grind of the tractor there came a piercing cry. The sullen farmer yelled. A crude man. Always yelling. Was that Pietro shouting back? They were arguing, over what Alma could not make out.
She worked her way to the doorway of the room, gun in hand, then with slow labor down the steps. She had not been downstairs in days. My God the effort made her sweat. Her thigh muscles stretched, her nightgown dragged on the stone steps. Flecks of light swam in her eyes. It was a dim house with thick, white walls always cool to the touch, like sand on a beach at night. If only Alma had more time, she would have let herself love the house with all her heart. If only they had moved in when they were younger! Her slippers slid loose on her feet because she did not want to bend to put her heels into them. A few years ago she would have dashed down those stairs, her wild hair flying. How she longed for the fiery spirit she once was. She and Pietro had once danced on the roof of their apartment in Rome. How she had spun, her white dress lifting over the city. That woman, a sophisticated Roman, would have gotten into the face of Giovanni Santi and told him she and Pietro were never leaving. Rather than sulk like a baby for the next 100 years, he should make the most of it. Think of all the tourists they would be bringing right to his door. He could sell more of his wine if he would work with his new neighbors.
Pietro was swearing. The tractor coughed and died. In the shock of quiet, the voices of the men were loud. Alma pushed out the door into the garden. The walled enclosure embraced her with a wind that singed her skin. The doctors said her sensitivities were unusual, but it was an unpredictable disease. Perhaps Alma’s mind was affected more from the treatments and drugs than was typical. Hers was a mysterious case they simply could not solve, like a crossword puzzle that would go out with the trash before it was finished.
Beyond the wall she could hear Pietro say, “You did it on purpose. I could kill you.”
Alma opened the gate into the driveway. The horse lay on the gravel, his huge body caving around his ribs and hip bones. A gelding, Alma was close enough to finally see. The tractor sat hot and stinking of gas, its wheels caked with mud. Santi had hit the horse with it. He had backed over the gelding. The chapel’s two front windows, bricked over—Pietro had not yet been able pry the rocks out and open them—stared with blind passivity down on the ugly scene.
Pietro grabbed Giovanni Santi by the neck and shook him with his large, smooth hands. The neighbor’s head bobbed like a doll. Pietro, who never lost his temper or touched anyone with less than extreme care, was ready to destroy another man. Tears sprang to Alma’s eyes. This was because of her, because she could not get well. Pietro’s obsession with her recovery was breaking his spirit. She suspected he had actually been praying for months, although he hid it from her. He had always claimed God was a fantasy for the poor, but that had changed when he saw he would lose his wife.
Alma went to the horse. His eyes, dilated with pain, reflected the sky. His white, muscled legs lay splayed as if he were running. Even though covered with scars, they were strong. His hooves shone as if polished. His mane, the color of copper, spread upon the ground. Except for his straining ribs, he seemed in perfect health, not at all like the rickety specimen she’d seen from her window. Squatting, she put her hand to a cheek that felt almost human. His breathing was labored, like a pump wearing out. Up close she could see right into his shocked velvet eyes, just as he could see into hers. In sympathy, Alma pulled air painfully into her own lungs, a deep inhalation.
The air was redolent of jasmine, basil, and blood coming from the horse’s mouth, a heady scent that infused Alma as she breathed. A wet, chewed profusion of green, white, and red. The jasmine, some blossoms still intact, hung in the horse’s teeth. In the past, she would have been repulsed by a dying horse, even the masticated chew falling from its mouth, but now she put down the gun and stroked the animal as she wanted to be stroked, with no demands that he hurry up and get well or hurry up and die either.
Alma went on petting him without ceasing, would not look away from the horse or try to stand, although her hips vibrated with pain from crouching. Nothing else seemed to matter now but the horse. Even the men fighting meant nothing. She tried to find the source of the horse’s suffering, and her hand rested on his spine between his shoulders, which she could feel was twisted. He’d been broken by the impact of the tractor. She relaxed her fingers on the ridge of bones. At her touch, the knobs of vertebrae seemed to grow soft and fluid, to rise up under the thin pale hide.
“No, cara,” Pietro said. He tried to pull her away.
She shoved him off. He had been so intent on saving her he was missing it entirely.
Specks and flecks swam in her eyes. “Wings,” she said.
Two tufts of white, wet feathers thrust themselves up from between the horse’s shoulders. As they grew, the wings expanded into bright, wet sails in the late morning light. Before the feathers were even dried, the horse’s back arched as he strained for flight. He needed to be still, she tried to tell him. The wings were not ready. In his struggle his wet nose and mouth came to rest upon Alma’s neck and her heart opened completely. If only she could lift him like a sick child and carry him off with her! If only she could sleep upon him when he was finally able to fly off. She nuzzled him, arranging and rearranging his damp feathers until the flies were thick in the blood flowing from his mouth. While she patiently waited, he closed his eyes for the last time.
When the church’s afternoon shadow came over them and she began to shiver, Pietro helped her up. The two of them stood arm in arm, formally, as they had not stood since their wedding day years before when they were both young and feared nothing. He touched her hair with wonder and showed her a lock. It had gone completely white. He could see now she would never be the same as she had been. Time had passed while they had danced out their years together. Death would live with dignity in her now for one more day, one more year, maybe more. She and Pietro would both have to give it space to breathe and hover so it would not destroy all they had made possible together.
They watched as Giovanni Santi, anger drained from his face, tied a rope to the dead animal and then to the back of the tractor. Alma saw an efficient farmer, much older than Alma and Pietro, doing work in front of the chapel as generations of his family had done. In a gruff voice, he apologized for his carelessness and promised he would repay them. He had not seen the horse until it was too late. He would drag the carcass to a field where he would bury it.
As he set off down the road, the farmers he passed put down their tools and came out to see the odd sight coming down from the little chapel, Santi on his ancient tractor pulling along the limp body of an old horse, dead but trailing great wings. When the wind gusted, setting the olive trees and grapevines fluttering, the horse’s wings lifted briefly, as if he were preparing to stand and soar away.