The summer air tasted sweeter than it did four years ago. Somehow without all the pain, misery, death, and destruction coloring the air, the entire world feels lighter. Freer. If I closed my eyes, I could still feel the barbed wire cutting into my chest and hind legs. I can still feel the warm hands of the two boys who cut me free and then walked me back across the swath of earth they called No Man’s Land.
But all that is in the past now. My days are no longer filled with the sheer terror of war but rather with my sweet Leo’s sure brush strokes as he works the burrs out of my mane or soaps the sweat out of my withers. No longer can I close my eyes and still not escape the harness where I was forced to pull weaponry up hills piled with the bodies of my fellow horses. Instead, I worry about the wind in my mane as we canter up the greening hills of Saint-Laurent du Var.
“Lionheart!” Leo’s voice makes me look up from my grassy field, and I watched as he runs closer to me, brown hair flying in the wind. I nickered in response and trotted over to him. His arms came up around my neck as he hugged me, corded with muscle from his days in the war. My boy has come home changed, much like I have. We both have scars, both inside and out. But we found our way back to each other one way or another. He’s my boy, my horse whisperer. And I’m his horse, his best friend.
I remember when Leo first started training me. I was dealt a lucky card in the game of the world. My horse whisperer took the approach of love and kindness. He did not lean in and speak in a unique equine language. He let me run free in my pen. When I stopped tossing myself around, he signaled to me, and if I stood still, he would pet me as my mother did with soft body contact. When I wanted to run away, he let me run it out. When I was tired of that, I always came back for more petting. We repeated that process every single minute of every single day until I trusted Leo with every fiber of my being. Our relationship was always positive.
In the war, I would see the humans beating my fellow horses, trying to get them to move in the traditional approach. What is the "traditional” approach? To “break” a horse? Whips, fear, beating - often ending in sending the poor horse for slaughter when it is too traumatized to be of use. Why do men treat us horses this way? Do we treat people this way? The hardships my fellow horses and I had been through in four years is something that I would not wish upon my worst enemy.
I was woken up by the sound of rat-tat-tat. My mind immediately flew back to the trench when that sound was as common as heartbeats thudding in the silence between the shots. A paradox of life and death. Genocide, eight letters to describe more murders and pain than the human mind can take in. That the horse mind can take in. I would never have thought humans were capable of such destruction as I saw. That a species so small, so defenseless could carry that much rage, that much hatred, the simple fear in their bodies.
After one or two deaths, there is a catastrophic malfunction, and no more is understood, no more emotion forthcoming. One dead boy, barely a man, is a tragedy. Millions of them are something so horrific that my brain cannot even comprehend the sights I saw. I am back in the trench, surrounded by the bodies of those I charged into war with, unable to put the image before me with the very much alive men of just a few hours ago.
Closest to me is Robert, twenty-two years old and with a babe on the way. Next to him is twenty-eight-year-old Mark, the one who wanted to save the whales and sail the oceans. Right in front of them is Ryan, only twenty, and he had wanted to fly spaceships around the galaxy. I could go on, but who would understand it, who would listen? They were all special, all beautiful, and now they are meat for the buzzards. Perhaps that is the problem with bringing math to the issues of humanity. Do not tell people numbers. Instead, tell them names, who the victims were on the inside. Always humanize, not dehumanize.
“Lionheart! Lionheart!” Leo’s voice dragged me back to the present - no, the future - and I calmed myself down. He was lying on the floor, in between my front hooves. I studied him, so small, so broken, but alive. I snuffled his hair, and his glassy eyes shift around. He puts a hand on my cheek, and I snorted warm air onto his face. His expression relaxed. “It is ok, boy. It's ok. It was just the milkman’s truck. There there. I am here.” He continued rambling nonsense as my great heart slowly comes back to its normal speed, and we sit there well into the morning.
I remembered the first day of the war in the hours we sat in my stall. The first day without Leo in my life. It was terrifying, but it was also new. I did not know what was going on, but I had the captain upon my back. He made me feel powerful, mighty, heroic. In each noble breath upon the field where goodness made its stand, I towered above those men, fully calm in equine soul. I galloped onward despite the danger and the blasts, my four hooves meeting earth in full valor. I could feel the captain atop me, his body tense and his fear acute. I wished I could have spoken to him at that moment. Right before he was shot right off me, his comforting weight was forever gone. I would have told him that whatever happened, I was your co-warrior; I was born to fight this battle with you.
I knew there were nights Leo dreamed in such vivid detail that when he woke up, he was confused, forgetting for a fraction of a second that his sight was gone. Those were the nights he slept in my stall. He would reach for me, and for the minutes that followed, I could feel the grief that he felt, the loss of things he never even considered missing. My Leo had never been one to dwell on flowers, the shape of a tree, or passing clouds - poetry had not been his thing. He had been all action, all hero, never slowing for even a day. Once the sadness became less acute, he would reach for me, and I would stand on my feet again, letting my body be his cane. We would walk out of my stall and even if it was dark outside, wander about the meadows.
I would never let anything happen to him, and he knew it. We would wander up and down the meadows until I could feel him getting tired. I would lead him back home, back to my stall, and we would nestle down among the warm hay once more. I could feel the sadness pouring off his body, feel the grief in that he would never see his aging, forever twenty in his mind’s eye, though his fingers would tell him of the wrinkles and hair loss in due course. Part of me wondered if the dreams would change if one day they would be the same monochrome shadows of his days.
But I knew that no matter if they did or they did not, I would still be here for him. Until my dying breath, I would be next to my boy as we waited for the dawn’s morning rays to caress our faces. Much like the instant love my mother felt as I slid out of her, a bundle of fluids and gangly limbs, Leo and I were bonded together forever.