It must have been the new man, Nedlin, who hadn’t secured the horses properly. The last in the line had gotten loose during the river crossing and fell backwards into the water in a thrashing squall of foam, but of the briefest duration. The horse didn’t make the sounds a horse ordinarily does, no matter how distressed. Instead they suggested human screams, equally dimmed and amplified by the water so that the high ends had the thudding quality of the lows, and the lows pierced like the rarest of notes.
Maro swore, racing from the wheelhouse of the barge with his rifle so that the horse wouldn’t have to suffer any more than it had already begun to, though it’d be over soon all the same. The piranhas attacked instantly. The swarm had taken all of the skin off a leg in seconds. A hum came from under the water of teeth, a rarely heard—but instantly identifiable—metallic, clanking rhythm, overlaid with the motoric, efficient whir of a beehive.
The horse’s head resurfaced as if by some miracle, or an expenditure of transcendent will suggesting it had already acquired some of the attributes of the realm to follow. There was even some air left in its lungs, and the gasping sound the horse produced, despite the bullet that had gone through its neck rather than its head, was like a great booming that sent up a plea discernible for miles, the kind that is made, as it is made, because it knows it will not be answered. A totality so immersive as to stand apart from all.
“Can we throw a rope around its neck and tug it free?” Nedlin also pleaded, his desperate need to placate and make amends evidenced in the swirling alarm of his pupils.
A couple members of the crew laughed until Maro turned and glared at them. They’d seen it before, from time to time. It happened. Maro wanted to put a rope around the new man’s neck and hang him from whatever was closest to hand. The wheelhouse wasn’t high enough. That was a problem with a barge.
“How would you like to follow him in there?” Maro snapped.
“You mean now?” Nedlin answered, as if his answer mattered, or it was conceivably another time that Maro might be referencing. Tomorrow, perhaps, as a different component of the job, a way to make things right, or closer to it.
More hints of laughter, barely suppressed, followed from the men. Maro was uncertain if he hated Nedlin most for his stupidity or his fear that paradoxically would cause him to do anything if told to do it. The new man’s eyes blinked rapidly, as though doused with chemicals, a soldier of commerce who’d dive into the river were he told to, and was anticipating instructions. The hate was greater in its impact than the loss of money, which was itself considerable. Maro hadn’t lost a horse on a crossing in years. He couldn’t afford to. It wasn’t a big operation.
A piranha landed on the deck. They fed with such intensity that they sometimes launched themselves bodily from the water. A strip of hair from the horse’s tail hung out of the fish’s mouth. They ate the tail last. The piranha thrashed like it was trying to turn itself upward so that it could align its jaws such that it might start eating through the wood of the barge to get to additional meat, and would deal with the men and the rest of the horses later.
Nedlin bent down to throw the fish back into the river, exposing his fingers to the mouth as it opened and shut with the same rapidity of movement that had characterized Nedlin’s own eyes. He felt for the fish, out of its element, but hoped he wasn’t betraying any weakness or revealing undue signs of sympathy. His hands were immediately covered in blood from the micro-slices across the tips of his fingers, the sort that could make a man wonder if a joke were being played upon him, only he didn’t know how, and might never learn. They were perfect slices, invisible as wounds, save for what comes out; first the leaking, then the flowing. He couldn’t even feel what should have been the pain in them.
An ominous shadow of red communicating all there was to say about deliverance trailed the barge like a cloud that had already given its fair warning and then done what it had the power to do, but with sufficient conviction that a person who had experienced the disgorging had to allow there might be more. Always more. Its rippling dispersal and concomitant lightening in the barge’s wake—at the pace of an extended, foggy crawl—spoke to the further totality of just how little of the horse remained. The completeness of nothing.