No Man's Mare
by Djuna Barnes
Pauvla Agrippa had died that afternoon at three; now she lay with quiet hands crossed a little below her fine breast with its transparent skin showing the veins as filmy as old lace, purple veins that were now only a system of charts indicating the pathways where her life once flowed.
Her small features were angular with that repose which she had often desired. She had not wanted to live, because she did not mind death. There were no candles about her where she lay, nor any flowers. She had said quite logically to her sisters: "Are there any candles and flowers at a birth?" They saw the point, but regretted the philosophy, for buying flowers would have connected them with Pauvla Agrippa, in this, her new adventure.
Pauvla Agrippa's hair lay against her cheeks like pats of plated butter; the long golden ends tucked in and wound about her head and curved behind her neck. Pauvla Agrippa had once been complimented on her fine black eyes and this yellow hair of hers, and she had smiled and been quite pleased, but had drawn attention to the fact that she had also another quite remarkable set of differences - her small thin arms with their tiny hands and her rather long narrow feet.
She said that she was built to remain standing; now she could rest.
Her sister, Tasha, had been going about all day, praying to different objects in search of one that would give her comfort, though she was not so much grieved as she might have been, because Pauvla Agrippa had been so curious about all this.
True, Agrippa's husband seemed lost, and wandered about like a restless dog, trying to find a spot that would give him relief as he smoked.
One of Pauvla's brothers was playing on the floor with Pauvla's baby. This baby was small and fat and full of curves. His arms curved above his head, and his legs curved downward, including his picture book and rattle in their oval. He shouted from time to time at his uncle, biting the buttons on his uncle's jacket. This baby and this boy had one thing in common - a deep curiosity - a sense that somewhere that curiosity would be satisfied. They had all accomplished something. Pauvla Agrippa and her husband and her sister and the boy and Pauvla's baby, but still there was incompleteness about everything.
Nothing was ever done; there wasn't such a thing as rest, that was certain, for the sister still felt that her prayers were not definite, the husband knew he would smoke again after lunch, the boy knew he was only beginning something, as the baby also felt it, and Pauvla Agrippa herself, the seemingly most complete, had yet to be buried. Her body was confronted with the eternal necessity of change.
It was all very sad and puzzling, and rather nice too. After all, atoms were the only things that had imperishable existence, and therefore were the omnipotent quality and quantity - God should be recognized as something that was everywhere in millions, irrevocable and ineradicable - one single great thing has always been the prey of the million little things. The beasts of the jungle are laid low by the insects. Yes, she agreed that everything was multiple that counted. Pauvla was multiple now, and some day they would be also. This was the reason that she wandered from room to room touching things, vases, candlesticks, tumblers, knives, forks, the holy pictures and statues and praying to each of them, praying for a great thing, to many presences.
A neighbour from across the way came to see them while Pauvla's brother was still playing with the baby. This man was a farmer, once upon a time, and liked to remember it, as city-bred men in the country like to remember New York and its sophistication.
He spent his Summers, however, in the little fishing village where the sisters, Pauvla and Tasha, had come to know him. He always spoke of "going toward the sea." He said that there was something more than wild about the ocean; it struck him as being a little unnatural, too.
He came in now grumbling and wiping his face with a coarse red handkerchief, remarking on the "catch" and upon the sorrow of the house of Agrippa, all in the one breath.
"There's a touch of damp in the air," he said, sniffing, his nose held back so that his small eyes gleamed directly behind it. "The fish have been bad catching and no-man's-mare is going up the headlands, her tail stretched straight out."
Tasha came forward with cakes and tea and paused, praying over them also, still looking for comfort. She was a small woman, with a round, wrinkled forehead and the dark eyes of her sister; today she felt inconvenienced because she could not understand her own feelings - once or twice she had looked upon the corpse with resentment because it had done something to Pauvla; however, she was glad to see the old man, and she prayed to him silently also, to see if it would help. Just what she prayed for she could not tell; the words she used were simple: "What is it, what is it?" over and over with her own childhood prayers to end with.
She had a great deal of the quietness of this village about her, the quietness that is in the roaring of the sea and the wind, and when she sighed it was like the sound made of great waters running back to sea between the narrow sides of little stones.
It was here that she, as well as her brothers and sisters, had been born. They fished in the fishing season and sold to the market at one-eighth of the market price, but when the markets went so low that selling would put the profits down for months, they turned the nets over and sent the fish back to sea.
Today Tasha was dressed in her ball-gown; she had been anticipating a local gathering that evening and then Pauvla Agrippa got her heart attack and died. This dress was low about the shoulders, with flounces of taffeta, and the sea-beaten face of Tasha rose out of its stiff elegance like a rock from heavy moss. Now that she had brought the cakes and tea, she sat listening to this neighbour as he spoke French to her younger brother.
When they spoke in this strange language she was always surprised to note that their voices became unfamiliar to her - she could not have told which was which, or if they were themselves at all. Closing her eyes, she tried to see if this would make any difference, and it didn't. Then she slowly raised her small plump hands and pressed them to her ears - this was better, because now she could not tell that it was French that they were speaking, it was sound only and might have been anything, and again she sighed, and was glad that they were less strange to her; she could not bear this strangeness today, and wished they would stop speaking in a foreign tongue.
"What are you saying?" she enquired, taking the teacup in one hand, keeping the other over her ear.
"Talking about the horse," he said, and went on.
Again Tasha became thoughtful. This horse that they were speaking about had been on the sands, it seemed to her, for as long as she could remember. It was a wild thing belonging to nobody. Sometimes in a coming storm, she had seen it standing with its head out toward the waters, its mane flying in the light air, and its thin sides fluttering with the beating of its heart.
It was old now, with sunken flanks and knuckled legs; it no longer stood straight - and the hair about its nose had begun to turn grey. It never interfered with the beach activities, and on the other hand it never permitted itself to be touched. Early in her memory of this animal, Tasha had tried to stroke it, but it had started, arched its neck and backed away from her with hurried jumping steps. Many of the ignorant fisherfolk had called it the sea horse and also "no-man's-mare." They began to fear it, and several of them thought it a bad omen.
Tasha knew better - sometimes it would be down upon the pebbly part of the shore, its head laid flat as though it were dead, but no one could approach within fifty feet without its instantly leaping up and standing with its neck thrust forward and its brown eyes watching from beneath the coarse lashes.
In the beginning people had tried to catch it and make it of use. Gradually everyone in the village had made the attempt; not one of them had ever succeeded.
The large black nostrils were always wet, and they shook as though someone were blowing through them - great nostrils like black flowers.
This mare was old now and did not get up so often when approached. Tasha had been as near to it as ten paces, and Pauvla Agrippa had once approached so near that she could see that its eyes were failing, that a thin mist lay over its right eyeball, so that it seemed to be flirting with her, and this made her sad and she hurried away, and she thought, "The horse had its own defence; when it dies it will be so horrifying perhaps that not one of us will approach it." Though many had squabbled about which of them should have its long beautiful tail.
Pauvla Agrippa's husband had finished his cigar and came in now, bending his head to get through the low casement. He spoke to the neighbour a few moments and then sat down beside his sister-in-law.
He began to tell her that something would have to be done with Pauvla, and added that they would have to manage to get her over to the undertaker's at the end of the headland, but that they had no means of conveyance. Tasha thought of this horse because she had been thinking about it before he interrupted and she spoke of it timidly, but it was only an excuse to say something.
"You can't catch it," he said, shaking his head.
Here the neighbour broke in: "It's easy enough to catch it; this last week three children have stroked it - it's pretty low, I guess; but I doubt if it would be able to walk that far."
He looked over the rim of the teacup to see how this remark would be taken - he felt excited all of a sudden at the thought that something was going to be attempted that had not been attempted in many years, and a feeling of misfortune took hold of him that he had certainly not felt at Pauvla Agrippa's death. Everything about the place, and his life that had seemed to him quite normal and natural, now seemed strange.
The disrupting of one idea - that the horse could not be caught - put him into a mood that made all other accustomed things alien.
However, after this it seemed quite natural that they should make the effort and Tasha went into the room where Pauvla Agrippa lay.
The boy had fallen asleep in the corner and Pauvla's baby was crawling over him, making for Pauvla, cooing softly and saying "mamma" with difficulty, because the little under-lip kept reaching to the upper lip to prevent the saliva from interrupting the call.
Tasha put her foot in the baby's way and stood looking down at Pauvla Agrippa, where her small hands lay beneath her fine breast with its purple veins, and now Tasha did not feel quite the same resentment that she had felt earlier. It is true this body had done something irrevocable to Pauvla Agrippa, but she also realized that she, Tasha, must now do something to this body; it was the same with everything, nothing was left as it was, something was always altering something else. Perhaps it was an unrecognized law.
Pauvla Agrippa's husband had gone out to see what could be done with the mare, and now the neighbour came in, saying that it would not come in over the sand, but that he - the husband - thought that it would walk toward the headland, as it was wont.
"If you could only carry her out to it," he said.
Tasha called in two of her brothers and woke up the one on the floor. "Everything will be arranged for her comfort," she said, "when we get her up there." They lifted Pauvla Agrippa up and her baby began to laugh, asking to be lifted up also, and holding its little hands high that it might be lifted, but no one was paying any attention to him, because now they were moving his mother.
Pauvla Agrippa looked fine as they carried her, only her small hands parted and deserted the clef where they had lain, dropping down upon the shoulders of her brothers. Several children stood hand in hand watching, and one or two villagers appeared who had heard from the neighbours what was going on.
The mare had been induced to stand and someone had slipped a halter over its neck for the first time in many years; there was a frightened look in the one eye and the film that covered the other seemed to darken, but it made no objection when they raised Pauvla Agrippa and placed her on its back, tying her on with a fish net.
Then someone laughed, and the neighbour slapped his leg saying, "Look what the old horse has come to - caught and burdened at last." And he watched the mare with small cruel eyes.
Pauvla Agrippa's husband took the strap of the halter and began plodding through the sand, the two boys on either side of the horse holding to all that was left of Pauvla Agrippa. Tasha came behind, her hands folded, praying now to this horse, still trying to find peace, but she noticed with a little apprehension that the horse's flanks had begun to quiver, and that this quiver was extending to its ribs and from its ribs to its forelegs.
Then she saw it turn a little, lifting its head. She called out to Pauvla Agrippa's husband who, startled with the movement and the cry, dropped the rope.
The mare had turned toward the sea; for an instant it stood there, quivering, a great thin, bony thing with crooked legs; its blind eyes half covered with the black coarse lashes. Pauvla Agrippa with her head thrown a bit back rested easily, it seemed, the plaits of her yellow hair lying about her neck, but away from her face, because she was not supported quite right; still she looked like some strange new sea animal beneath the net that held her from falling.
Then without warning, no-man's-mare jumped forward and plunged neck-deep into the water.
A great wave came up, covered it, receded and it could be seen swimming, its head out of the water, while Pauvla Agrippa's loosened yellow hair floated behind. No one moved. Another wave rose high, descended, and again the horse was seen swimming with head up, and this time Pauvla Agrippa's hands were parted and lay along the water as though she were swimming.
The most superstitious among them began crossing themselves, and one woman dropped on her knees, rocking from side to side; and still no one moved.
And this time the wave rose, broke and passed on, leaving the surface smooth.
That night Tasha picked up Pauvla Agrippa's sleepy boy and standing in the doorway prayed to the sea, and this time she found comfort.
End of No Man's Mare by Djuna Barnes