Penn heard it first amidst the clanging and rattling of the factory: a horse’s voice, clear and compelling. It was not like the sound of a startled cab horse, but the roar of an exultant and free creature. It seemed to shake the very foundations of the brick building.
“Did you hear that?” he asked the foreman.
“Hear what, sir?”
He heard it again a few days later, as he walked by the docks, speaking with the captain about the coming voyage to England. All at once, in the midst of his sentence, the horse’s voice spoke again, the same portent of power. The waters shivered with the force of it, as though blasted from within.
“What’s the matter, Penn?” the captain asked. “You were saying…?”
“Didn’t you hear it?” Penn asked.
Then came the night when, driven by some inner compulsion, he left behind the cacophony of the city with the closed-packed stink of human sweat and excrement, and the fumes of the factory, and walked along the road that wound near the sea. The marbled waters crashed and rumbled upon the rocks, and he walked, higher and higher, until he glanced up and spied the lighthouse upon a rocky peninsula. It struck him that this was his destination, though he could not think why.
Just as he crossed the sparse, rocky lawn toward the home that sat at the base of the lighthouse tower, the horse called again. It was so close, and the force of it so great, that every hair on his body tingled and stood up.
As the sound died away, the door opened and a woman stepped in its yellow light toward him, the sea wind rippling her skirt across her legs and whipping her hair from its tight bun. She met him, her eyes searching his face, then turned abruptly and entered the house. He followed.
The interior of the home was spare but orderly, with an iron woodstove for heat and cooking, a simple wood-framed bed in the corner, and windows without curtains. The woman indicated a seat at the wooden table, and they both sat.
In the light of the lamp mounted upon the wall, he saw that she seemed about sixty, with hair more silver than dark, but eyes that remained keen. The set to her jaw was one he was not accustomed to observing in a woman. He saw that she, in turn, studied him.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” he said at last, irate because she made him nervous.
“You are here because you were called.”
“Called?” He glanced sharply at her.
“No one called me.”
She smiled a little, but it was not a smile of mirth, and Penn felt somehow scolded.
“What the hell is going on?” he snapped.
“Hell,” the woman said quietly, “is exactly what is going on. And It is nearer than you think. The ways of the children of men call for Wrath, and Hell is Wrath unleashed.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Yes, you do.” The sharpness of her voice slapped him. “But you blind yourself. So, I will show you.”
She rose and motioned and, for reasons Penn did not understand, he followed. The wind buffeted him as soon as he stepped foot outside, and he reeled against it as they came around the corner of the house, and came in sight of a stable. Something seemed odd about it, and he stared at it for several moments before he recognized the absence of any fencing, paddock, or containment of any kind.
The woman entered the stable through a small side door, and as he followed, it seemed as though the sound of the wind cut off instantly. A dreadful silence filled his ears.
Four horses looked upon him like kings observing a criminal brought before them for judgment. The stable held no stalls, and he felt naked somehow, without a barrier between himself and the horses.
“These are the Immortal Horses,” the woman said. “And I am their Keeper. They shall be kept until the last age, when all shall be fulfilled.”
The woman touched the withers of a horse so white that its flanks seemed to glow in the dimness.
“This is Overcoming,” she said. “You have been overcome by the number of your desires.”
The white horse held Penn’s gaze, and suddenly there flashed between them a spark, rounding itself until it became like a bubble, swirling with rainbows. He saw men and machines and the flash of steel and the shine of sweat.
“Your company town,” the Keeper said. “You see progress, industry, men given work.”
“Yes,” said Penn, confused.
He blinked and the scene transformed before his eyes. The bodies of the men were old, though some were hardly of an age for beards. Scars from burning dust pitted their skin, and when they cleaned the flue dust from the brick checker work on top of the furnace, their lungs burned like paper shriveling before flame.
“They have work,” Penn said suddenly, as if he had to speak. “That’s more than some have.”
“A man,” said the Keeper, “is more than the sum of his work.”
She turned, and touched the second horse, a mahogany more red than any he had seen before, as though dipped in blood.
“This is Sword,” she said. “You have brought the sword to many families.”
Penn turned to leave, but the horse’s gaze constrained him, and the same sphere of vision opened between them. He stood, transfixed, as molten slag spilled from a ladle upon a crane, pouring upon four men below. Their screams shattered inside Penn’s skull.
“They did not receive prompt medical attention,” the woman said. “Nor were their families compensated for their loss, or the survivors paid beyond a pittance.”
“The accident was their fault,” Penn stammered. “It’s company policy not to compensate for...”
“Your steel mill has lost and replaced hundreds of employees in the last several years, many of them immigrants, untrained, or youth. What a man does not know to do, how can he do?”
Penn had no words.
“This is Balance,” the Keeper said, her palm upon the third horse, so deeply black that it seemed to extinguish light. “You have been weighed in the balance, and found lacking.”
And Penn saw lack: lack of light, lack of hope, lack of future, men earning enough from the company to pay back for the use of the company housing, willing to work because they had no other option.
“And this,” said the Keeper, “is Death, for you have chosen Death rather than Life.”
The horse had the same paleness a plant would have when removed from the sun, leached of all color. It was not the sharp, clean white of snow, but the paleness of death. Penn shut his eyes and clenched his fists.
“No!” he shouted. “I have not done anything differently than any other man has done. There are many company men who have done the same, even worse. I gave men work when they could have starved. I gave them wages and housing, better than some have.”
“By whose standard do you judge better or worse?” the woman asked.
“Why me? Why not the others? There are many.”
“I tell you your doings and your fate. I do not tell you theirs.”
“What are you, some kind of suffragette with a quartet of painted horses?” He laughed harshly. “You don’t scare me.”
The woman regarded him quietly. “What you have done to the least of men, you have done to the Man. And all shall reap from their doings, one way or another, unless they turn.”
“I make steel, not men!” Penn snapped.
“That is true.” It felt as though she had confirmed evidence he had spoken against himself.
Penn turned and fled from the stable. The roar of the last Horse shuddered the air around him. He knew, somehow, that it was the pale Horse who had called to him.
The iron-haired man at the railing seemed coiled, his eyes fixed on some point along the shoreline. Andrew watched him, wondering if the tension was a battle with sea-sickness or with some inner conflict.
“It’ll be gone soon,” the man said suddenly, startling Andrew. “Gone over the horizon. In a few weeks, I’ll dine in England and tour their steel mills and learn what I can. And then I’ll come home and never have to look at it again.”
“Look at what, sir?” Andrew asked.
“The lighthouse. What was that?”
Andrew glanced at him inquisitively.
“It was like the light from the lighthouse sort of changed,” the man said, as if to himself. “I could swear it looked like horses, running across the waves.” He laughed tightly. “Hell! My imagination’s going wild, I guess.”
As soon as he said the world hell, his face changed. It was as though some furnace had opened and cast its glow upon the man’s bearded cheeks, and he had felt unbearable heat.
Perplexed, Andrew looked out toward the land, but the sea and the mist and the receding shore seemed to be made all of one slate-gray fabric. Some distance away, he saw a dark wave break open into spray, and, for a moment, it seemed as though the spray coalesced into the image of a white horse.
The man—Penn—clapped his hands over his ears and swayed against the railing like a sick man. Andrew thought perhaps it was time to get this passenger indoors. As he strode across the deck, the entire ship quivered and Andrew found himself on his side.
“What was that?” Andrew shouted to another sailor as he scrambled upright.
“What was what?”
“It’s like we hit something,” Andrew replied.
“It was the red horse,” Penn said, as he sought a foothold to rise. “It rammed the ship.”
Andrew and the other man exchanged puzzled glances, and advanced to offer assistance.
“I’m no different than any other man,” Penn panted as they approached. “I’m no different. So why should my punishment be different?”
“Well,” said Andrew, groping for comforting words. “Maybe it’s not.”
Penn suddenly wrestled himself from Andrew’s gasp and pressed his palms again to his ears, clenching his teeth. A darkness clenched a fist around the three men, so thick it seemed devoid of air itself. Penn ran to the railing.
“It’s gone,” Penn said, shuddering. His skin was clammy. “The lighthouse is gone.”
“What lighthouse?” Andrew’s companion asked. Andrew shrugged, and Penn only stared at the darkness.
“It’s the third horse,” he said raggedly. “That’s why I can’t see the lighthouse. He shuts out the light. Take me below, quick. The fourth one will be here soon, and I won’t let him find me!”
The man was mad. Andrew and his companion laid hands upon Penn and began to haul him bodily across the deck, and he seemed to be just as eager as they to return to safer quarters.
Without warning, the ship tilted steeply and Andrew saw something that he never afterward could explain. The sea rose around the ship and a pale horse strode upon the waters. It stepped over the railing onto the deck, its eyes flaming like a furnace and the breath smoking from its nostrils. Every step of its hooves shuddered the steel deck and its call was like the voice of many thunders.
Penn flung Andrew and the other man aside, and sprinted across the slippery deck. At the same time, the deck tilted again, and flung Penn forward. Andrew saw him clutch at the railing, miss it—then the waters swallowed him whole.
Andrew lay on the deck with his eyes shut tightly, fists clenched.
“Andrew?” his friend bent over him. “Are you all right?”
Andrew opened his eyes and saw only the steady seas and heard only the grumble of the engines.
“Craziest man I ever saw,” the other sailor said, shaken. “Clocked you hard and just took off across the deck and threw himself over the railing. Nothing I could do. If he got struck by the turbine, he’ll never surface again.”
“The ship… It didn’t tilt?” Andrew asked.
“Tilt? Look, are you feeling all right? You look almost as wonky as that passenger did.”
Andrew waved away the offered assistance and climbed unsteadily to his feet and glanced toward the shore. For a moment, it seemed that the gray mists parted, and a pale light upon a lighthouse tower gleamed from a promontory.
Then the vision was gone, and only the distant call of a horse remained.