My first name is Bradley, but what I’ll do is shorten it, so that only my mother and father, when they call me, call me by that name. Two years ago, I was one of the ten thousand or so individuals who adopted a talking horse.
Now, hold on: because no sooner do I try and tell people these days than they give me a real earful about what happened with the horses and the riots and animals’ rights or whatever. What I say is, easy to judge those things from a distance. I had no distance. Owing to the nature of my occupation, I prospered at a time when a lot of people were losing job security, and I ignored the public outcry when the Vermont Factory Ranch started placing ads on primetime. The ranch is absolutely identical to how it looks in the commercials. I drove down across the border, and in a shady stable picked out a piebald little guy who leaned the cool length of his face against my hand. A couple of signed papers, some literature on how and what to feed him, and we had to spring for a harness for the bed of my brother-in-law’s pickup, though the hay was complimentary. Easy peasy.
I got to name him there at the ranch. “Give it some thought,” they told me. “Treat it like naming a child.” But they looked so impatient! Meanwhile in the truck bed a nameless pony brayed and brayed. Chad was my father’s name, and my brother’s middle name. Secretly I’d always loved it.
Chad and I hit it off.
He cried on the way home—this low repetitive rustling sound—but the sedative kicked in, eventually, and he lay down in the back of the truck and slept like the dead. At the border we handed over our export papers and the border agent came out and stood on the back bumper of the truck, taking measurements. “He’s just a baby,” the agent said. “Welcome to Canada, little guy.” My brother Owen and I looked at each other.
When we got Chad into my condo in Toronto he was already different—quiet, with a certain readiness. He would stand there on the newspapers I had shredded for him (the special flooring hay was still in the mail) and look around with a reflective quiet readiness at what must have seemed to him a very strange assortment of things.
He wasn’t the only one. In fact, it turns out that the simple presence of a pet can be enough to make you reflect more on yourself and your surroundings. The more attention Chad paid to all my stuff, the more I thought about my stuff, too. For example: he was fascinated by my vintage Bowflex. And after a couple days, I, too, began to be fascinated by my vintage Bowflex. Why had it been made to move just the way it moved, and what did Chad think or sense about it? Did it appear to him like something in nature? Perhaps like some large dried-out squid. And not only did I think more about my stuff, but I thought about myself, too. In the evenings, after work, on my Bowflex, I would wonder how like an animal I was, or how unlike one. In no time I started getting back in shape.
I had had none of this in mind before I got Chad, but he led me to it surely. You can be wise without knowing you are wise: that is the first piece of wisdom for which I credit Chad the Pony.
I had to teach Chad the English language.
This occupied us for months, though Chad was a quick study. There are online courses, guides, forums for sharing strategies. It was all very complicated, and the people who ran these sites had strange profile pictures and motivational quotes on their bios, and it seemed like they were always going on about how their pony could memorize such and such’s poem. Frankly they did not look like the kind of folks whose pets I would want to know.
I wasn’t looking to raise a complicated pony. I went with oats.
Chad ate two large bags of Quaker five-minute oats a day. Before I gave him the bowl, I would say, “Oats.” Then I would hand it to him. Meanwhile I kept an empty bowl beside me on the sofa. Which began as an accident: I had left my bowl on the seat after cereal while I was playing Warzone: Colonial Era. But the look Chad gave that empty bowl! I began keeping one next to me on the couch whenever he ate. In those early months he downed his oats surreptitiously, then somewhat frantically, then guiltily, nosing rogue flakes off the linoleum. It was all three phases at each meal, for he always knocked over his bowl; and if I called his name out during, he would shudder.
But the idea was to have the empty bowl to remind him of the oats without having them there so he could eat them. I wanted Chad to express his hunger: this was what most of the forums agreed on as a first step. So then one morning I didn’t feed him. I had the empty bowl there on the cushion next to me. In Warzone I had finally made it to the colonial era and Cortés was eating it before my massive army of eagle warriors. Chad stood at the edge of the couch, breathing through his nose. “What is it, bud?” I asked him. He lifted and lowered a front hoof. He farted, tentatively. He was too timid to paw the way a cat or a dog might. It was morning, and the sun was on his flank, and birds were chirping in the space between my building and the next, and my apartment was warm and warm-smelling—that moment excluded, Chad was a good-smelling animal, which was all things considered an amazing stroke of luck. I paused my game. The door to Chad’s bedroom was open and, craning my neck a little, I could see some of his toys on the floor.
I was looking at them when Chad said, “Oats,” with a little tremble of his head.
We began with the other foods. Multiple foods. The lack of food: I want, I need, I must. You can do a lot with language if you sit with an apple and think of all the ways you relate to it. Chad’s voice was a breath springing from the deep hollow of his body, a gentle thing to hear. Though I must note he was an apple fiend and learned how to sneak them out of the bowl in the fridge. I tried quicker oats—the one-minute variety. Tragedy. We stuck with the five-minute. I have a friend in the building, Carla, who suggested quinoa. This was early on.
One night I learned how to make quinoa and tried feeding it to Chad in my tiny Bay Street condo.
“I don’t, think, I like … nee-haw,” said Chad. This was pretty impressive. Quinoa is a difficult word even for some people I know, even when they’re hearing not seeing it. And besides, that was the first time Chad had expressed a negative response, which according to the Kaplan Guide to Your Talking Horse put him at a level three, roughly equivalent to that of a preschooler. Level four was a ten-year-old one might describe as “bookish”; level five an AP high school graduate; level six a mystery. No one had succeeded in getting their horse to level six, accreditation for which required a test that cost 2000 dollars to run, and plus you had to go all the way back to Vermont just to have him take it.
When Chad told me he didn’t like quinoa: that was the moment I decided I was going to raise a level-six pony.
Though word on the street suggests pony maintenance is a terrific burden, taking care of Chad was not that difficult. It was certainly easier after he began telling me what it was he wanted and how he felt. He ate a lot, but I eat little, so the grocery bill wasn’t exorbitant. Chad was small enough that I could walk him down the street, but large enough to ride home if I got tired. I set up a treadmill in his bedroom, into which Chad hooved four and a half miles each morning, at a good clip. I brushed him regularly and took him to a special remote VFR location north of the city for immersive therapeutic baths—the thing is like a Roman bath, with hot stones and a steam room. They only let one pony in at a time, so as to control pony-to-pony interactions—what they told me. Chad would always say a soft hello to the ponies he passed going in.
It was his education that I expected would give me the most trouble. But here, too, Chad quickly took things on himself. He was constantly experimenting. In lessons he would outlast me in an hour just with his speculations, and he had a real knack for word problems. I came home one day to find my laptop open on the floor of his room. He had figured out how to install and open the online children’s encyclopedia I had been recommended by a friend. Chad was on CHOCOLATE—CHOCTAW, and I was hit with the startling impression that he’d started from A.
“Chad, what’s that?” I asked, as he tapped the laptop’s track pad with a hoof.
“Cacao beans were also employed by Mesoamerican peoples as a form of currency,” the computer said.
“Social studies,” Chad told me.
A thing I noticed: he seemed to have no habits. In this respect he was not like me at all: I am a creature of habit. Every morning before I went to work at the Premiums office I would go through the same routine, spending the forty-five or so minutes of extra time before I had to catch my bus catching up on Warzone. My eagle warrior army had come down with a violent flu, which slowed their running speed (-0.5 m/sec) in any kind of rough terrain. If left idle, their tiny sprites wheezed and eventually lay down, an easy meal for the pixelated panthers that hid in the brush. It was difficult strategy. But Chad, though he walks in the mornings, might still be asleep; or he might be walking; or he might be nosing one of his toys around the room. I am myself somewhat unevenly educated, and achieved my position at the Premiums office on the recommendation of the father of a friend.
I wanted Chad to be different.
Which is why I found it so remarkable that there were so many resources available for teaching Chad for free, or very cheap. For half of what I paid for Chad’s daily living expenses, I picked up a book of German grammar, a romantic poetry anthology, and a long novel called Jane Eyre. The cute clerk at the used bookstore told me the novel was “creepy,” and I did not get much out of reading it out loud to Chad after dinner. But Chad devoured it, and the poetry, of which he had a special fondness for John Keats, and was even making headway in the German when I got a response from Vermont in the mail. I had sent them an email requesting the test kit for level four: it was time to see exactly how far Chad had come.
Hey, Customer! the letter began. I read through the two exclamation-ridden paragraphs. Behind me, watching a DVD copy of Jane Eyre, Chad cried, “Rochester—hah!”
The letter informed me of some recent developments in the Kaplan: Test Your Horse! Initiative. An apology was in order: to the many customers who have been pursuing higher levels of pony education, it was important to note that new discoveries in the cognitive science wing of KTYHI had disproven the theories under which the initial system, the one using levels, had been designed. There was, properly speaking, no level five, nor anything higher. Level four, that which resembled but did not equal a precocious child, was as high as pony intelligence could get, even those unique ponies (such as CHAD!) who had been suitable for cognitive voice-acculturation implants. But even this, it went on, was an abstraction, nothing that could be accurately measured or surpassed. The developmental intelligence of horses was simply not comparable to that of human adolescence. Level six, much discussed but never seen, was a fable. While a level-four pony could learn much and express complex emotions, its development was in all respects limited: it might happen to merely resemble a singularly complex ten-year-old, but it would be ten, as it were, forever.
Chad told the TV, “Don’t you feel sorry for him!”
You can imagine I was pretty bummed. Chad began to make his peculiar weeping sound over something in the movie. What was I going to tell him?
Or if he didn’t understand?
I tried to shake the doubt out of my head. It was not as if Chad did not “know about Vermont.” He knew. He could see me and he knew I had no hooves and that my skin was mostly hairless and that my legs, and face, were short and pale and stout compared to his. He developed a brief but troubling habit of nosing his way into the bathroom while I showered, where he stood breathing until I toweled up, got out, and led him by his little reins back to his room. He had seen horses on television—there were ponies aplenty in Jane Eyre—and they did not appear to give him some kind of existential shock, and their lack of voice did not seem to bother him. At the same time, he did not like to talk about the time before I knew him.
For a few days, I was distraught. Then, in a move I imagined would be therapeutic to both of us, I redoubled my efforts to educate my pony. Abstractions be damned: Chad was going to know his stuff. And the more time I spent teaching him, the happier he got. Over the course of the summer we read more than forty books together, and he far surpassed me in German comprehension, and had memorized whole sonnets by poets from across the world. And movies: I looked up the AFI Top 100 list and we went through them relentlessly. Chad began to imitate a Transatlantic accent and maintained it into the 70s, when his accent changed, with remarkable subtlety, to a brusque New York Italian. He did not grow an inch and reliably devoured two bags of oats a day. It was the happiest I can remember being.
Then August came—a hot, dull, dry month, with peach-colored evenings—and Chad became different.
He was not the first of the talking horses to rebel. Early on, forum discussions talked about the change as though it were a kind of collective horse puberty. Rudeness, insubordination, a stubborn return of “animal” tendencies, like going to the bathroom on the living room floor. I avoided all that, thank God, but my Chad grew restless. He stopped eating, and gave up his morning walks. He was quoting all the time, but he read so much it was impossible to know where he was getting his references. He began to look with quick untrusting glances out the windows, and once cried over a seagull that landed on my balcony and would not leave. He was occasionally dismissive toward my gaming habits. He would not go near my Bowflex.
At Queen’s Park one day, playing Frisbee, Chad let the disc fall from his mouth, and lowered his barrel belly onto the grass. “Long ago,” he said, “I had a kingdom. Long ago, I was a king.” I approached him and picked up the Frisbee. “A king, huh.” He must have meant among the other ponies at the Ranch. “A pony king. King of the ponies?”
But Chad did not answer. He looked away, and said, “There was a plot—spies in the castle. You would be surprised to know that a king has nowhere real to run when danger approaches. A king is the centerpiece of his kingdom; whichever way he goes, the kingdom stretches to accommodate him. And besides, his servants are there, always, watching. So what does this king do. Disappear? But how? It happens quickly, before his assassins, already within his walls, could possibly know. A body is found, nondescript, about his age, in the stables. A horse is missing. A boat leaves the dock later that day headed for the new world. What has happened?”
This being the first time Chad had made up his own little story, I decided I would play along and guess. “Maybe … the king went rogue!” I offered. Chad did not move. “Then … killed the stable boy, took a horse, and what. Sneaks off, gets to the docks, and he’s on the boat. Boom. Did I get it all?”
“Boom,” Chad repeated.
I felt a little uncomfortable around my talking horse.
“I really liked your story, Chad,” I told him.
He closed his eyes tight. “I want to go home,” he said.
I decided it might be nice for Chad to hang around a bit with some other ponies. And horses, too: I didn’t want him developing some kind of complex. It turned out to be good timing, anyway, for tragedy had struck at the Premiums office. A junior exec got canned and returned later that day with a gun and shot himself to death in the lobby. He had come in at noon and shot through his own hand, and into his abdomen, and then managed to shoot himself twice in his head before collapsing, and all this without anyone else being hurt. When I got in after my lunch break the air was sharp and people were digging bullets out of the marble wall near the elevators. The exec had already been removed, everything cleaned. It was unnerving. “It’s in the air,” someone said while I waited for my elevator. Did they mean the smoke? I could, I thought, smell the residue of gunshots in the lobby. But it was not the smoke. When I got to my desk I learned that my entire sector had been demolished.
It wasn’t that hard to find a stable outside the city. Chad did not insist on being with others of his kind; on the contrary, he appeared to prefer the company of mute horses. I was turned away from three ranches who did not want a talking pony antagonizing their stables, but being laid off had produced in me a kind of dull patience. I had some savings put aside, a lot of free time, and was in no hurry to do much of anything. In Warzone, the bird-god Quetzalcoatl had descended upon my army, and had given them the knowledge (+2 INT and +2RFLX) to better defend against Spanish musketfire. Chad was sullen as I unhooked him from the harness in the back of my brother-in-law’s truck—this was outside Orangeville. But when he saw ponies beyond the fence, grazing, he grew distracted, and barely registered my departure. “I’ll come back in a week,” I told him. “If you need me, have them call. I love you, Chad.”
In the meantime, I had enough to keep me busy. Even laid off, I learned that I would be required to attend work-sanctioned trauma psychotherapy for victims of office violence. This applied to me even though I missed all the commotion: for liability purposes my feelings would have to be accounted for. At therapy I got the idea to look into support groups for Chad. There were help forums online, and at least a hundred websites devoted to the discussion of talking-horse cuteness and affability. But where did one go when one’s pony became inconsolable? Eventually I found my way to a meeting in a city college classroom, where a bunch of recently laid-off people recounted their troublesome horses.
“Tiffany was adamant about the carrots. If there is one thing I wouldn’t have guessed about ponies, it is that they are so adamant.”
“We confronted Flannel about it at least twice, but he was committed to wrecking up the bathroom anytime we left the house.”
When it was my turn to speak I asked if any of the horses or ponies ever told stories about the “old times.” None did. I was hesitant to do more research. I wondered if Chad were exceptional, and in the context of the group the thought worried me. But later that day Zanzibar made the news.
By the time the stables called to complain about Chad I had been following Zanzibar’s story for almost thirty-six hours. I had barely slept. Zanzibar was a Clydesdale in Poughkeepsie who had defected (his word) and tried to convince the horses at a nearby farm to organize. He had kicked his owners into submission, and on the threat of trampling had convinced a young boy at a neighboring farm to copy down his manifesto. The boy’s whereabouts were unknown. The whereabouts of half the farm’s population of animals was unknown. But five people had been killed in a stampede through a city park, one of them trampled to the point that she had become, as a reporter described it, embedded in the earth.
Chad had not tried to organize the horses. He had begun reciting lines from Dracula, a book I didn’t remember having read with him, and he went berserk when someone tried to quiet him down. I spent a large part of the drive to retrieve him wondering about monkeys and typewriters, but it would turn out that Chad had listened to the thing on an audiobook copy he had downloaded on my tablet. In any case, it was a distraction from what else was happening. They had caught Zanzibar fleeing south, trapped him in a wheat field, where he made his final stand, and was taken down at full gallop by a rifleman of the National Guard. Other Vermont horses had come up with similar delusions. Began citing Marx, spoke of the spoiling of the natural world and what-all else. They had a knack for impersonation—a historical figure, a politician, a dead spouse. Anything they might think of. Mobilization had begun, and already armed groups were sweeping the western states; a comparable force was amassed in Calgary. Resistance movements made up of cattle ranchers, activists, and belligerent young people were perforated by rubber bullets, kettled, and zip-tied en masse. Rumors abounded: that what the talking ponies had was in danger of spreading became the subject of public debate. Other such nonsense. It was a matter of time.
That day I took the pickup out alone. I picked Chad up from the farm in Orangeville and drove west, further into the country. Chad had the rear window open so that he could poke in his head and eat oats from the backseat. But he did not eat and we drove a long time in silence. “Did you have an okay time at the farm?” I ventured.
“I hear the horses are in revolt,” he said.
I asked him, after a pause, what he thought of that. “It was bound to happen,” he said. He had not, it seemed, heard the latest developments, for he continued: “I have no doubt the response will be violent. They give us a voice, so they will have to silence it. I don’t know. I have been more concerned elsewhere.”
Chad said, “Yes. I am in love.”
I slowed the car. My throat felt thick and strange. “In love?”
“With Nastasya Fillipovna.”
No one could have so named a horse. “Is that so, Chad.”
“It is so.”
I drove on through what looked like the flat extent of the earth.
“But her father—Philip Philipovich Trepanin, he owns the cannery where I am employed—has forbidden me for seeing her. This man Trepanin is vile through and through. He has not heard of the extent of our affair, but on the knowledge that once I called on her, has docked my pay thirty percent. He has threatened to denounce me should I decide to leave. I am at wit’s end. I have an aunt, in the country, her name is Orlova Shostokoyevich. She has told me she will put me up. I made an entreaty to Trepanin: let me live with my aunt, I told him. She is feeble. I shall take care of her, and never trouble you again. Only yesterday he accepted my offer, on condition of meeting this aunt and ensuring himself—the baron!—of my exile. Fair enough, I thought. But later I learned the truth: who, in this wide country, do you think that my aunt, in her youth, spurned when he made a reasonable offer of marriage, owing to a too-lively temperament? It is only a matter of him seeing her face—he will recall everything. Oh, the world is much too small for me. Why have we stopped?”
I had pulled over next to a large, open field, grown with maybe a foot of yellow grass. We weren’t far from a broken sign advertising fresh manure, 5mi, keep right. I didn’t know the area but assumed that it had been a long time since anyone had kept right for five miles and bought that manure. I got out, and lowered the gate, and untied Chad’s harness.
“I have taken the time necessary to consider my options,” Chad said, stepping down. “My option is this: I must kill Stasya’s father.”
We descended into the field and I began walking out into the tall grass. Chad followed. I had the instrument commissioned from the Vermont Factory Ranch in my pocket. I took it out and turned it on; it began to hum.
“Chad,” I said, “this came in the mail yesterday. It works a little like a radio, but the waves are dense and travel in a very tight cone from this eye thing, here. I’m supposed to use it on you. What it does is impair your cognitive functions. For good. All this, living like … all of it will be gone. And with it, they tell me, will go a lot of horse. It’s 50/50 you won’t be able to feed yourself. If I use it on you, we’re going to do it in my apartment. But that means the rest of your life, you’ll be in there. I don’t know if you’ll know who you used to be. And if I don’t use this thing, I’m going to be arrested for complicity, or treason, or something. These stories—no one is going to want to know that there’s a pony who thinks he needs to kill a man to, to be free. They’re shooting horses already, in the Southwest they slaughter them, Chad, I—” I broke down. “I’m telling you because I need your help,” I said.
“Oh,” Chad said very softly.
“I think I understand now,” Chad said.
“Listen,” I said, “if you run, right now, I won’t be able to catch you. You could have a chance. Find a ranch somewhere, stay silent, wait this out.”
“No, no. There is nowhere to run,” Chad said. “No other choice. But I understand.”
“Well I don’t know about that, I mean no one can know, really, I’m just saying there’s a shot—”
“I must disguise myself,” he said. “You are perfectly right. We will do it here. No sense waiting. Use that thing of yours.”
It was the way he said disguise: with a turning of his head, so that the light in his round eyes changed, sparked, and settled again. He knew what he was asking for. “All right, Chad,” I said.
I put the machine up to his ear, set the dial to Chad’s weight range, and listened to miniscule gears turning, an electric whirr. I wiped my eyes and waited. Wind picked up in a stand of trees not far away and stirred them. Chad rested his nose against my forearm, looking over my shoulder. I was—I really think so—on the verge of pushing the trigger.
Then Chad said, under his breath, “If I am properly disguised, Philip Philipovich will not recognize either me or my aunt. The meeting will be successful. And, in time, I will win my love away from him. I will travel with her to the far reaches of the earth.”
I lowered the machine.
“What will he do, with no one to terrorize? Well, who can say. Who can say! It is even possible that, in time, the Philip Philipoviches of the world will be erased from the passage of history itself. As though all this trouble never was.”
“Chad,” I said. “There is no Philip Philipovich. No Nastasya. We are in the middle of Ontario. None of what you’re saying is real.”
“Then I have already won,” said Chad. And, rearing suddenly up, gave me a strong kick with his front legs, on either collarbone, knocking me back onto the ground; and with that done, he leaned down his long neck to the grass and hoofed at the mechanism, turning it on and radio-blasting his wondrous mind into oblivion.
My collarbones were broken, and I must have passed out, for the next thing I remember was the smell of his hair, opening my eyes to a bumping painful rhythm, the uncertain sight of ground above me: I was draped over Chad’s back. I tried to move but the pain in my chest and shoulders was real. “Chad?” I asked, but was greeted only by the rhythm of his hooves.
Chad carried me to a farm not far from where we settled it, and as he walked up the driveway the farmer came out, a young man, younger than me, with a rifle. “That thing speak?” he asked.
“Ask him,” I said.
“Doesn’t work like that,” the farmer said. “Hey there,” he said. “What are you feeding him?” Chad snorted and tapped his front left hoof. The farmer came up carefully, helped me down, jumped back when I winced at his hand on my shoulder. “A kick,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve seen this type of thing already.” He was holding a rope, which he draped over Chad’s neck. “Come on, sweetheart,” he said, and chirped. Chad followed, around behind the farmhouse. I gasped; I tried to yell, but no air was getting in. I made a sound like a honk. The farmer’s children came out, three of them, to the front porch, to see. Then two of them ran in for their mother; the third came to me and took my hand, leading me to the porch steps.
“We seen a couple people like you,” this one said, a little girl of maybe eight. “Want to dump a horse. So you come out here to the perimeter! But this is country, too.” She sat down at a cautious distance. “I never breaked a bone before. How much does it hurt?”
I really couldn’t tell her. I looked at the front yard sloping down to the road, a distant silo, a pasture dotted with sheep. It seemed surreal that so much land belonged to a man not yet my age. It was some way to live, I thought. I thought: probably a hand-me-down, the same land to roam for one hundred hundred generations, or some such half-dazed poetry. Then the gunshot sent birds screeching off the eaves and a lone dog barking, and things blurred, and I went down again.
M.W. Johnston grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada and is a grad student in literature at the University of Toronto. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Antigonish Review, Vallum, and The Puritan.