Knock in the night: a rancher saying his horses had broken free of their stalls and bolted into the moonlight. Formed a harras toward the horizon.
You know what called ‘em all up like that in dead of the night, don’t you? the rancher asks. Don’t you know what place or god they might’ve got set on their minds?
With every careening sun, more horses join the harras. Together they scramble down anticlines of crimson shale, set in new erosions, send pebbles skittering. They unravel every landscape.
A mile-wide harras sleeps standing and dense, moonlit skeletons delineated into groups of faded color—auburn against the bone white against the mottled—not unlike a body: of water or of living.
When he steps close, they scatter, and so the veterinarian waits—let it open its skin or its coastlines, then, to he who asks the quietest.
In a time before, the veterinarian saw miseries, differentiated diagnoses. He became a killer before he became a healer.
Azoturia for the overworked and underfed, muscles locked in spasm. Laminitis: hooves hot to the touch. Abscessed channels in need of being cleansed from the puncture of sharpened rocks. Navicular disease and its telltale lameness. Mud fever and colic and mange and bog spavin.
And with each, a moment of waiting—perhaps this one will offer thanks on its prehensile lips.
He worked years in wait of the perhaps.
Hoofsteps like a heartbeat. The veterinarian presses himself against the desert as though it is a stethoscope carrying an answer to a question he never thought to ask.
Dark mane long and braided in mud like thin ropes of bloodied muscle. A horse fallen as the harras moves on. With his palm on the leg’s chestnut callosity the veterinarian works the stifle, feels swollen warmth and hears crepitus in bones grinding.
Before, there were blinders of his own: not a life but a catalog of symptoms. Now, he tries to read from an eye held open. A syringe, a slowing heartbeat. An eye held open as if to say: Look at us. Look at what we are. Look at what we are to you. Look at the difference.
A horse’s eyes: deepcolored lodestones that refuse to blink out, even in death. Once the veterinarian believed it’s because the burdened long have and forever will see the collective dark of their human companions and are in want of an excuse to be blinded.
Here, in this harras, he’s no longer so sure.
The veterinarian lingers closer to the harras. Sleeps in the mud just beyond its borders. Clutches, attaches. The harras surveys from a distance, dark orbits of their eyes deep and reflective as a night’s sky, as burden, as all corralled futures, as if all saying, And even now you think you hold in your hands and in your heart the answer to everything?
The veterinarian asks the landscape, the ever-shifting spine of this revolt: What kind of myth or life is made of horses for cartilage, of horses for keratin, of horses for vitreous humor, of horses for the muscled walls of a heart’s thumping ventricles?
The harras kicks into the air dustclouds so wide they form weather systems. As the veterinarian follows from the east, he is flooded in thunderstorms that drop globules of mud for hours.
In his pursuit, the veterinarian finds a lame horse fallen and trampled by the harras, tongue extended like a dipstick in blood.
Its dark eye a warning, a plea. A horse’s eyes, largest on landfall: like all biologies, he thinks, there must be reason. As in the shape of their bones, which gives them the curse of capacity.
He tries to speak in touch: pain will soon be stripped away by moonlight, all burdens relinquished. Quiet calm extends into the coming unday.
In the desert night, new moon unshining, a whinnying. The veterinarian rises and moves toward the harras and on its fringes, in the bluestem, he finds a mare in labor. He cups her head with his hands and she sighs as if to say she is a broken kind of tired.
Come pale dawn light the foal is birthed after the veterinarian takes its hooves in his hands. He is doused in a sea of birthing, sweetsmell of amnii in the back of his throat. A rising sun forces the harras to squint or twist their great heads westward.
The harras’ firstborn opens its eyes for the first time. It watches him, orbs like a pair of black holes—the veterinarian wants only to step inside.
The foal takes long to stand. What should take minutes lasts hours.
As night falls, he steps forward and with his hands helps teach the foal the particular language of walking.
And when it finally learns, it slips from him and into the harras, each body dark like a cave’s narrow-mouth opening into undiscovered communes that still cannot say thanks in any language he can hear.
His bones are frozen in the desert night and he falls to his knees and claps down his hands to stamp his prints among the crescents of the harras’ passing like a million small moons.
The veterinarian is alone against their eyes: a thousand thousand judgments. Eyes not in want of an excuse to be blinded but in want of another that might learn to see.
The harras holds, watches, waits.
The veterinarian prays—if there is anything to be said, kick into the sand or bleed in particular patterns or speak in ways more ancient than this skirmish for an answer in wind brushing the grasses.
The harras steps toward him. He climbs onto its whole back, spine arcing long as his eye can see.
Joel Hans lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona. His work has appeared in Redivider, Nashville Review, Necessary Fiction, No Tokens and others. He is currently working on a novel about algorithms, epitaphs, and final thoughts.