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The Kindness of Men

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Ginger dimly remembered being proud and haughty, and wished that pride kept her aching knees locked as she was tied in her narrow stall for the night. No, it was instead fear of the knacker that prevented her from sinking to the cold, hard floor and never getting up again. For it was one thing to wish to die, to hope to have one’s heart give out in what Ginger supposed would be a great burst of pain before blessed relief. But she’d seen the knackerman and what happened when he arrived; the horrible blow to the head and the convulsive suffering of the poor horse.

And so she bore it, the long, endless days, the nights of fitful sleep, the pain of her empty belly and swollen knees until one day she simply could not. When her driver tugged on the reins to back her out of the cab stand she let out a miserable whinny and refused to move no matter how savagely the driver whipped her. She just closed her eyes and took each blow until finally she heard a voice say, reprovingly, “Leave the wretched thing be.” Another voice said, “Poor beast, it looks starved.”

Ginger, her eyes still closed, thought back to when the squire had called her his pretty one and stroked her proud neck, how James used to rub her forehead, and let her head drop until her nose almost brushed the cobbles. Now, she thought. I don’t even care if it hurts, let them call for the knacker now and have an end to this.

But her driver did not call the knacker. Perhaps shamed by the murmuring of the crowd that had gathered he put away his whip and went to her head. With a hard hand he grabbed the reins close to the bit, pulled her head up and forced open an eye. She met his angry stare with numb expectation of a blow, but he merely cursed at her and then pulled her around and led her back to the stable.

“The chestnut mare is done for,” he said to the stable owner. “I’ll need another horse.”

She was unceremoniously unhitched from the cab, and then tied to a post. Still numb, she waited and when a light carriage rolled up instead of the heavy knacker’s cart, she felt despair pierce her sense of quiet acceptance. For of course she would fetch a better price alive than dead, so the stable owner had sent for the veterinarian.

“Not fit to work,” he pronounced after a cursory examination. “Unless you want to send her to the countryside, see if she does better.”

Her owner shook his head and Ginger was almost glad that she had no hope, for it would have been more than her heart could bear to have it crushed.

A stable boy was called. A rope was put around her thin neck and she was taken down winding streets to the horse market. Not Tattersall's, but a little fair with a mix of blooded and work horses. Ginger was led to a dealer, had her mouth pried open and her legs and feet examined. After a time a small amount of money was handed to the stable boy and she was turned loose into a small paddock with two other horses who gave her dispirited looks. Ginger let her legs unlock, one by one, and with a groan, lay down in the dust and slept as if she were dead.

For a week the horse dealer did his best to make Ginger presentable for sale. Every morning he wrapped rags soaked in cold water around her legs until the swelling went down. She was fed hay - not sweet, fresh hay but better than the dusty fare at the cab stable and once a day she was given a small taste of grain.

By the time she was put out on the sale picket, she was still thin and rough looking, but her legs no longer looked as if her joints were inflamed and she no longer felt as much pain with every step. Still, no one looked twice at her. Not when younger, healthier horses beckoned potential owners with their bright eyes and shining coats. A few cab drivers, attracted to what they thought would be a bargain turned back when they saw the distinctive bald spots where the harness had rubbed the hair away and the whip marks on her back. It was a relief when they did so for Ginger was resolved that she would never pull another cab; she would not kick and bite, but she would lie down and not get up again.

As she thought this, a customer came forward and spoke with the dealer. He wanted a carriage horse to take his master about London. “Quiet and calm,” he said, “as my master is in delicate health and it will not do to have a horse that startles and spooks.” He watched as a few horses were trotted up for him, but remained non committal, his dark face impassive as he stroked the small animal he carried in his arms. Ginger thought it to be a cat until it turned and looked at her with a wizened little face. So startled was she that, “What are you?” burst from her without her volition.

The creature cocked its little head, then sprang from the man’s arms and scampered up the picket line until it was at her nose. No, not a cat, Ginger thought, but it moved like one, quick and light with its long tail waving behind it.

“I am myself,” the creature said, “but I am not surprised you do not know of my kind, for I am from a far away land. I am a monkey.”

Ginger had never heard of such a thing and found herself roused from her apathy enough to say, “No, I have never seen your like. What are you for?”

The monkey wrinkled its brow and said, “I beg your pardon?”

“What are you for? Man never keeps an animal for pleasure or out of charity. Horses are for riding and pulling. Dogs are for hunting and herding, cats for mousing. What are monkeys for?”

“My job is to amuse and entertain,” the monkey said. “I make my people laugh and bring them happiness. Sometimes,” he added with a sly look, “I help them find what they are looking for.” And with that, he sprang to Ginger’s back and said, “Pray, don’t move.”

The man, intent on watching and then rejecting another horse suddenly noticed that his little pet was gone and let out an exclamation of dismay. He turned about, his eyes frantically searching until he spied the creature calmly sitting on Ginger’s back. He said something in a language Ginger didn’t understand then made his way over to them.

“Come, you scamp,” he said holding out his arm, but the monkey made a show of playing with Ginger’s lank mane and ignored him.

“This one?” the dealer said in a dubious tone, but then warmed into his pitch. “Might be just the thing, sir. Gentle as a kitten, as you can see.”

“Gentle or broken down?” the man said, but still took Ginger’s muzzle in his hand and lifted her upper lip.

“Still got quite a few years left in her,” the dealer tried. “Just wants a kind hand and a warm stable.”

The man made no reply, just looked at Ginger’s eyes then ran a hand over her coat with a pause at the whip marks and the old scarring from where she’d been spurred. Ginger didn’t swing her head or lay back her ears, even when he flexed her legs and her joints cried out in pain.

The monkey, now perched high on her neck, curled a little paw around an ear as if to comfort her.

With a final flex, the man put her leg down and gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Not many good years, I wager, even with a kind hand and the grandest of stables. And yet,” he said as he took in the monkey and the hopeless look in her eyes, “this was fine horse once.”

“A fine horse indeed, sir, and a bargain at five pounds.”

The man laughed, but not unkindly and said, “I said once. I shall pay two pounds and we shall pretend that we each are getting the better deal.”

After some negotiation, money was once again exchanged and a halter slipped over Ginger’s head. The man led her to a carriage, where she was tied at the rear. The monkey, back in the man’s arms, said, “My man is kind and will ask for a gentle pace home.”

Ginger simply said, “I do not believe in the kindness of men.” Yet the driver was instructed to keep his whip quiet and they traveled through the streets of London at a moderate walk.

They arrived at a house with a modest stable where the hired carriage was dismissed. The dark man led Ginger into a box stall and she froze in confusion when the halter was slipped off. Surely, she thought, this was a mistake. She hadn’t had a box stall since her days in the countryside. But no, the man patted her shoulder, then filled a bucket with water and the manger with hay. Then he paused and lifted her head again and prodded at the corners of her mouth. Despite his fingers being gentle, Ginger winced and he let her go with a sigh and muttered something in his odd language again as he left the stall.

The monkey spoke from the man’s shoulder. “He said you’ve been sorely used for a fine lady.”

Ginger turned her head. “I’ve been sorely used for a beast. That is what men do, use us until we can be used no longer.”

“Some do,” the monkey said. "Some do so kindly. Have you never had such?"

"Once," Ginger said, "and it is a cruel thing. Better that they teach us from the start that our lives will be pain and suffering."

But when the man returned to the stall he carried a gently steaming bucket and said, "Here, lady. This should not hurt your mouth."

She cautiously dipped her nose in, inhaled the scent of crushed oats and bran mash and took a taste, and then another. The man held the bucket steady until she had eaten it all, then gave her forehead a gentle rub.

"I told you he is kind," the monkey said as the man closed the stall door behind him.

Ginger would have replied but she’d already let herself down into a nest of clean, sweet straw and was asleep.

It must have been the scent of the straw that made Ginger dream of her time at the squire’s and when she woke, she half expected James to enter her stall with a cheerful whistle. It was, instead, the dark man from the day before with another bucket of mash and a soft brush. He curried her while she ate and tsked a few times as he worked. If she were still proud she might have been ashamed at the thinness of her mane and how dull and coarse her coat had become; instead she ate and then licked the bottom of the bucket when she was done.

The stable door opened and a young girl with dark hair entered, the monkey on her shoulder.

“Is this your lady?” she asked, her eyes intent in her solemn face.

“Not my lady, missee. She shall be the sahib’s if he approves.” The man’s brow furrowed and he gave Ginger a doubtful look. “And if I have not done ill. She is not the type of horse that sahib said would be suitable. And yet…” his voice trailed off as he stroked a hand over Ginger’s mane.

“And yet you couldn’t leave her, could you?” The girl stepped closer and half closed her eyes, as if thinking very hard and said softly, “Because perhaps she had been a noble racehorse stolen by a competing stable the night before her most important race and then sold to scoundrels who mistreated her. Or maybe she was an officer’s horse in the war and when her master died in battle, she made her way back to his home.” Her eyes gleamed as she warmed to her tale and she continued, “She crossed enemy lines, her reins broken and dangling, his saddle still on her back and his sword still in its scabbard. She knew she had to bring it home, so she she shied away from everyone for fear they would take it and somehow made it back across the channel and found her way home, only for it to be empty, for his family lost everything when he died. Her heart was broken, and when she was caught and sold into drudgery she couldn’t fight her way free.”

The man gave a gentle laugh and said, “Perhaps it is so.”

“You’re safe with us now,” the girl said earnestly to Ginger, and her voice was so gentle and low that Ginger pricked her ears forward and took an involuntary step toward her. The girl continued in the same tone, “You will have good oats and sweet hay, always. Your stall will have fresh straw and your coat will shine like a copper coin when you’re brushed. On Sundays you will take us to the park and in the summer we will go to the country where you shall spend the warm days drowsing in the meadow under the wide oak trees. When it’s cold, you will have a blanket and warm mash.”

Ginger almost felt as is in a dream, because for a moment she could see what the child promised, feel the tickle of long grass under her belly and the heat of the summer sun on her back. She shook her head and snorted in disbelief, but the girl said, “You will see. Your life has been hard, but now you are home.”

In the weeks that followed, Ginger awoke every day and waited to be harnessed, for her new master to reveal himself.  But instead she was not expected to do anything, it seemed, but to eat and sleep, with occasional turnout in the small paddock in the back.  So she slept, and ate and felt her strength and health gradually return.  One day as she was being groomed, the dark man made a sound of satisfaction and stroked her neck.  "You are almost ready," he said.  

The next afternoon another man accompanied him; tall and thin, with lines of strain or illness bracketing his mouth.  Yet he smiled when he saw her, and said, "So this is the brave war horse who somehow magically crossed the Channel to bring home her Captain's sword.  I hope she won't find it too far beneath her to pull my humble trap."  When she was harnessed and hooked up, she waited, her back hunched and braced for the whip.  But her master merely clucked at her and said, "Walk on."  He had quiet hands on the reins and when he asked for a trot without touching the whip, Ginger responded with a little spring in her step that made him smile.  They made a leisurely, looping circuit of the neighborhood, and when they arrived home the dark man held her head while her master slowly stepped down from the trap.  There was a hint of tension in the grip at her reins that eased when her master said, "She goes very nicely.  Not flashy, but then, neither am I."  He then stroked her neck and said, "I think we'll do very well together." 

It took several months for Ginger to allow herself to believe what the girl had promised was true, but as everything happened just as she’d said, hope awoke in her heart again. Her new master was gentle and kind and called her Lady. The girl brought her sweet tidbits and sometimes sat in her stall and told her tales - about magical horses and other fanciful things - in her low little voice until Ginger came to regard the sound of the latch at the stable door with eagerly pricked ears and a welcoming nicker. She never swung her head or laid back her ears; she never had need to.

One day as she half dozed on her side in her stall as the rain hissed outside, snug under a warm blanket and knowing she would not be called upon, she started a bit when the monkey slipped a window open and jumped down next to her. They regarded each in silence for a moment before Ginger said, “You were quite right, you know.”

The monkey cocked his head and said, “Was I?”

“Your people -” she shook her head, “our people, they are kind. I was sure that my lot was to die wretched and unloved; indeed I had hoped for death.”

“But no longer,” the monkey said and moved to curl against the warmth of her sleek neck.

“No,” Ginger said as she curved her head toward him. “I wish I could tell my friend that he was right. Men are not always brutes and blockheads.” She settled a bit deeper into her warm bed of straw and added, “I dearly hope that he is well, and has the same measure of comfort and happiness I have found.”