THE OLD HORSE
He was never friendly, but somehow Flo liked him. At the end of each riding class she would go to the fence and watch him. She had started into the habit of offering him an apple, and even when other horses would come to her she would ignore them or shoo them away to let him know that the apple was for him. But he kept his distance. If he glanced at her at all, it was with little interest. But Flo would not give up - she was made of stronger stuff and could not be put off by the rudeness of the old horse.
Yes, he had a limp when he walked. And yes, she had been told by her teacher that the old horse would not let anyone ride him. Maybe it was the mystery of his grumpiness that made her more interested. After all, the bond between man and horse had grown over many centuries and she was puzzled to know that there was a horse who shunned contact with people. She was also fascinated by his beauty. His coat was faded and it was hard to tell if that glowing white was not in fact heightened by grey hair, but he had a dignity about him. A dignity that merited a better name for him than Peg Leg Gus.
Flo had learned much about the old horse. She knew that he had once been a champion jumper - known then as Augustus - and had won many prizes before a tragic accident that left him lame. He was the son of Julius, another champion. The males of the stock had been named after Roman emperors, and in years past Augustus had sired other champions. He now lived in retirement on the stables grounds.
He was known to be unpredictable and unfriendly. He had never been safe for young people or for pupils of horse riding, and in time he came to be left alone by horses and people alike. He was kept on the stable lands out of respect for his past achievements. But respect, rather than love, is what others felt for him.
Yet Flo would end each weekly lesson by going to the fence with her apple and trying to encourage him to come to her. It was only when her mother arrived to collect her that the young girl would throw the apple into the field as near as possible to Gus and walk away - often glancing back in the hope that there would be some sign of interest from the old horse. There never was. And she never knew if Gus or one of the other horses ate the apple.
Patience and time yielded one strange clue. Flo realised that Gus usually stood near a tree and on a low branch of that tree there was often a magpie. Was it possible the two were friends? If so - might she make friends with Gus by gaining the confidence of the magpie? She wondered then - what do magpies like? What would be a treat that could lure the bird?
After her next class Flo went to the fence but this time she was equipped for a different approach. She threw bread crusts into the field. At first, some young horses came to pick up the food. But Flo threw harder and the bread landed near Gus. Flo could see some interest from the magpie. He tilted his head from side to side. It seemed like he was examining the offering and the little girl. But he did not accept the gift.
It took the arrival of winter to change the magpies mind. One day Flo ended her lesson and went out to the frost-hardened field with her apple and her bag of crusts. She threw a piece of bread as far as she could and it landed near the tree. Then she waited and hoped. The offering was irresistible to the magpie. He flew down and happily tucked into the bread. Flo was sure that she saw old Gus look to her for the first time. His long white mane quivered as his head turned to her. She held out the apple for him.
Come on Gus, come on, she urged.
But he did not move.
Flo threw more bread but sparrows and crows began to descend. Then her mother arrived and Flo, once more, had to throw the apple into the field and walk away.
This time there was one difference. When Flo looked back old Gus turned to her - moving unsteadily on his legs - and clearly watched her walk away. It was a moment of triumph for the girl.
That night, Flo went to bed happy. For the first time, she felt she was making some progress in becoming a friend of the old horse. On that same night, in the stables, a conversation took place.
The magpie landed on the stable door and Gus looked to him.
Too cold out there? he asked.
Its colder here, my friend, the magpie replied.
What does that mean?
Why not make a friend of someone who likes you?
I see no reason, the horse answered. Now let me sleep.
Youve been sleeping for much too long, the magpie said. This could be your chance to wake up. No horse is complete without a human. And youll never achieve your destiny until you team up with the human who is your true mate.
The old horse stomped away. He had to listen to his friend - his only life long friend - but these thoughts could not be accepted.
That little girl? Gus snorted.
What if shes the one?
Dont say that, the magpie replied. Youre the one stuck in a stable when you know where you belong.
The old horse turned to the magpie. Then he stepped forward into the light of the crisp, cold night. The stars above sparkled in the midst of darkest blue, making the shapes of constellations.
Let it go, my friend Gus said.
Not, the magpie replied, until the story is told.
It cant be over, the magpie said, clipping nearer along the stable door to the horses head. The story hasnt reached its end.
Reluctantly, old Gus looked up at the night sky.
You still have hope?
Yes, my friend, the magpie whispered.
The two looked up in silence at the stars. They saw the shapes of the great mythical figures of the past; Orion, the Plough, the Great Bear, Leo, Gemini, and of course the one that meant most to them.
As they stared they thought back on past times and how they had met.
Long ago it was. Back when they were young and knew each other in a time of dreams and magic.
THE FOAL AND THE MAGPIE
He took his first fumbling steps as his mother watched. The newborn foal was of the highest pedigree because he was sired by Julius out of Minerva and his parents had both been champion steeplechase horses with many victories to their names. He came from a line of stallions named after Roman emperors and so, in keeping with tradition, he was named Augustus. He had inherited a rare gene in the line and was pure white. This wiry little foal stood bright in the darkness of the night as he staggered around the stone floor of the dim stables. A great future was expected for him, and the owners of the horsebreeding stables were sure they would receive a high price for his sale once he became a yearling.
Augustus stumbled around, recognising his mother and seeing the humans who had helped with the birth. He was keen to understand his surroundings, keen to test his gangly legs, eager to be in this new world. But he was weak and cold and hungry. His mother nuzzled him close and he settled into her warmth. As he was about to lay down and feed from her he looked towards the open top half of the stable door. He saw sparkling lights flicker in blackness. Augustus walked towards this sight. He looked up and watched the bright flecks of light in the black sky.
Those are stars, Augustus, his mother whispered.
He looked up and could see shapes in the stars. Could he reach the shapes?
The foal tried to jump up in order to be nearer to the stars. But he bumped back on his scrawny legs. His mother laughed.
Come to me, my child, she said. Augustus shook his head, dazed by this test of his balance, and turned away from the night sky. He returned to the warmth of his mother and fed from her.
Just before he fell asleep, he looked up again at those twinkling lights in the black sky. He felt that he belonged there.
Each day he became stronger. Soon he was brought out with his mother to the pasture. It was a warm, sunny day and Augustus squinted in such bright light. He had been limited before to the stable or to the stable yard, and was delighted to see how big the world was; green fields led on and on beyond fences to meadows and hills. He wanted to explore all these places, and he would trot away some distance across the field - always looking back to see his mother was not too far away.
Life poured into Augustus. Each new day he was slower to tire and slower to need the consolation of being near his mother. The adult horses were content to graze and rest - he wanted to test himself.
One day, he discovered something that had never fully grabbed his attention before; he had not realised before that there were creatures who lived up in the sky. He halted in the middle of the field and watched a black and white winged creature skip across the sky. The creature landed on a tree branch and Augustus rushed to it.
The creature paid no attention to him, but instead preened its feathers.
Hello, Augustus called, what are those things called?
These? the magpie replied, these are my wings.
Wings. How do you grow them?
The magpie looked at the foal and laughed.
By being a bird, he said.
Cant I grow them?
Are you a bird?
Im a horse, Augustus said. The son of champions. Ill be famous one day. Im a thoroughbred.
Good for you, the magpie replied - not impressed. Im a thoroughbred magpie.
Augustus skipped, trying to leave the ground. He hopped about beneath the tree, trying harder and harder to be in the air.
What are you at? the magpie asked.
I want to fly, Augustus said. Will you teach me?
Horses cant fly, the magpie replied. You need wings to fly and only birds have wings.
Thats what you think, Augustus said. The foal skipped away, trying again and again to leap into the air as the magpie watched him. I can fly. I know it. I was born to fly. If you cant see my wings, its because you are blind to the truth.
Be happy with what you have, the magpie said. You have humans who will care for you and feed you, and you have four strong legs.
I know I can fly. Watch me. Augustus took a leap, and another, and another. Each time a little higher, but each time landing back on the ground. All I need is practice - teach me!
Something magical happened; the magpie realised that perhaps he was speaking to no ordinary foal. As the foal continued his determined skipping and hopping across the field, the magpie wondered if perhaps this was the horse he had been told would be born one day.
The magpie watched the string-legged white creature and dismissed the thought.
Augustus was restless that night. When he saw the stars, he felt the sky was nearer than it appeared to be in the daylights endless blue. His mother could not encourage him to sleep, because Augustus believed that if he were only allowed to go out into the pasture at night he could leap up and land on top of a star and then hop from one to another, riding across the sky. Such thoughts kept him awake and full of hope.
Sleep, my child, his mother whispered. But Augustus fought against the tiredness until it overtook him. And even then he dreamt of leaping from star to star.
When the foal was asleep, there was a flap of wings. The magpie landed on the door of the stable and observed this scrawny white bundle of energy. There were many stories about flight among the brotherhood of birds. One story was about a man who made wings for himself, but then flew too close to the Sun and the wax holding his wings together melted. He fell to Earth. Another story told of a winged horse. It was a story that had come from the distant and perhaps imagined past. The magpie knew that the story could be true. But could this skinny newborn creature be part of that story?
The magpie studied the baby horse. For some reason, he felt that there was something different about this foal.
LEARNING TO FLY
Augustus was only a few months old when a human came to give him flying lessons. At first Augustus was not pleased because the human strapped a leather mask on him and led him with a long rope out of the stable yard and into a small field. But then the human led him to a strange object - a plank of wood resting across two bricks. Augustus stepped over it. This led to another object, raised a little higher off the ground. Augustus halted and stared at this. He wanted to walk around it but the human led him back to it. Finally, Augustus could see no other option and so he hopped over it.
Well done, the human said, giving him a piece of apple.
The human led Augustus to another plank - this one raised higher still off the ground. Augustus stepped away. But then he decided that this could be a challenge and not an obstacle. So he rushed forward and... crashed right into the plank. It toppled off and Augustus was frightened by the noise.
The human patted him and stroked his neck. Augustus felt frightened and confused. He wanted to be with his mother. But the human led him on to face another plank of wood and this one was higher still - almost as high as the foals knees.
Augustus wanted to go home to the stable. But the human made soft, encouraging noises and Augustus looked around. Then he realised. The four planks were jumps set out in a circle - each of the four higher than the one before.
The human wanted him to learn how to jump higher and higher. The human wanted Augustus to learn how to fly!
Once Augustus realised this he became eager to master the task. He trotted back to the low plank and skipped over it. Then he trotted to the next plank and with little effort he cleared that also. He rushed forward to the third plank and this time sprung off his hind legs to launch himself over it. He sped towards the fourth - the highest - and rushed at it while aiming for the sky. He landed with a thud on the other side and the human was delighted. Augustus received two more slices of apple and many pats on the neck. But as far as he was concerned this only slowed him down. Augustus rushed again into the four jumps and cleared each one. Triumphant, he kicked his hind legs at the air to declare his determination not be trapped on the ground from now on. He wanted the human to raise the height of the planks, but instead had to be satisfied with repeating the same jumps while dreaming of lessons to come when he would learn to leap into the air and land only when he so chose.
Later, when he was out in the pasture with his mother, Augustus saw the magpie and raced to the tree where it landed.
Im learning to fly! Augustus announced. The human is teaching me how to go higher and higher into the sky.
The magpie looked at him, head tilting side to side.
Youre learning to jump, the bird said.
Dont be so silly, Augustus replied.
Birds fly, horses jump, the magpie said.
Youre just jealous.
The bird said nothing. He just took one last look at the foal and then did what the foal could not do - he flew away.
Come back! Augustus called. But the bird was gone - wings flapping as he rose higher and higher and then circled the fields.
Augustus ran after him and tried to leap into the air. But each time he leapt he landed back on the earth.
Augustus! Be careful! his mother called.
The foal slowed down and gave up. But he was determined that one day he would join the magpie up in the sky. He watched how the bird would flap his wings to gain height and then spread them so that he soared over the fields. There were no boundaries for the bird and that was what Augustus most wanted. Augustus ran around the field, kicking back his hind legs with excitement, as he tried to imagine that he was in fact flying around the field. He believed that one day he would soar into the sky just like the magpie.
That night, Augustus had a dream. In the dream, he sprouted long proud wings. He trotted out into the pasture and looked up to the sky, then he rushed forward, wings flapping, and leapt at the fence that surrounded the field. He rose in the sky, flying. He flapped his mighty wings and caught the air to bring him ever higher. He sailed past the field and up towards the Sun. He flew higher than the distant hills and looked down on the tiny speck that was his home. He flew above the clouds and these became a new pasture over which he sped before taking another great stride into the sky and starting his journey into the stars.
When Augustus woke next morning, he could still feel the invisible wings stretched from his shoulders. When the human came to bring him for another lesson, Augustus took each jump with greater courage. Augustus believed in his wings. He was certain that soon the wings would grow and that this training was a preparation for a day to come when he would reach the sky.
One day, Augustus asked his mother why she and the other horses did not have wings.
What a foolish question, she replied, we are horses. Horses dont have wings.
Then why is the human teaching me how to fly.
He is teaching you how to jump. One day, working for the humans, you will run and jump with other horses.
But I can already do that, said Augustus. I dont need training for something I can already do.
Be patient, my child, his mother said.
But the answer was not good enough for Augustus.
The magpie would often sit watching Augustus trotting around the field. They would chat from time to time and they had become friends. Augustus would trot up to the tree where the magpie was perched and ask his new questions for the day. The magpie was surprised that the young foal never gave up the idea of flight.
When did your wings grow? he asked the magpie.
You know I was born with wings.
How did you learn to use your wings?
When I was strong enough, they simply worked.
But in time Augustus became annoyed with the magpie.
Theres something youre not telling me, Augustus said. There must be a reason why I am so sure I can grow wings and fly. You know more than you are telling me. What is it?
Horses cannot fly.
Augustus snorted and walked away. The magpie watched the foal and knew that the youngster had yet to learn the truth about horses and humans.