Here’s a short story for you. It’s my imagining of how it went the first time a person tried to ride a horse.
Jalk was pleased as he looked up at the puffy white clouds. Those kinds of big, billowy clouds, like overgrown sheep, meant that there would not be rain on the long trek to the cliffs. That was a very good thing indeed.
Unlike the other, hardier members of his tribe, Jalk found it difficult to tolerate the discomforts brought on by bad weather.
In fact, he found it difficult to tolerate many things.
The tribe was preparing for its annual trip to The Cliffs, where they would drive a herd of buffalo off the edge, using spears and unpleasant shouting. Once the buffalo had been pushed to their deaths, the tribe would travel down to the bottom — a long, noisy walk full of celebrations and back thumping — where they would slice up the buffalo into manageable parts, and carry the blubbery mess back to their caves.
Jalk did not care for the buffalo hunt. But it was necessary.
Jalk’s woman, Valc, was coming toward him, carrying a woven basket full of berries. She was a good woman, an excellent forager, and a lovely thing to behold.
She hated Jalk.
In the distance, a herd of horses ran with all the speed they could muster. Jalk felt the vibrations of their stomping in his feet. He wondered what they were running from. They were too far away for him to be overly concerned about it. But he wondered all the same.
Valc entered the cave now, where she would store the berries. The berries and dried buffalo meat would be their breakfast for the next few days.
“Valc, what do you imagine those horses are running from?”
Valc looked at Jalk with a long-suffering expression.
“I have no way of knowing what they are running from. I can’t see from here.”
“No, I know. But what do you imagine they’re running from?”
Valc wiped the sweat from her forehead with her forearm. “I don’t know. As I said, I can’t see from here.”
“I know you can’t see. I can’t either. But mightn’t it be fun to think about? To guess?”
Jalk ignored his woman’s irritation. “Well, I think they might be running from a…giant lizard. What do you think of that?”
Valc shook her head in exasperation. “I have work to to, Jalk. I don’t have time for your foolishness.”
“Or maybe they’re running from a mass of biting snakes.”
Valc lifted the bearskin blanket that was her bedding. She took it out of the cave and draped it over a pole, so as to beat it into cleanliness. She clearly did not want to talk to Jalk, but Jalk had no one else to talk to, and so he persisted.
“Do you think the horses might be running just for fun? For the sheer joy of it? You know, like children do.”
“If you want to know why the horses are running, why don’t you go and see for yourself, instead of bothering me with your questions? Some of us have work to do.”
Jalk was hurt by his woman’s haranguing. He had only wanted to speculate.
That was the problem with the people in his tribe. No one ever wanted to speculate with him. It made him feel lonely and sad.
He walked away from his wife, leaving her to her rug beating. He gazed into the distance, where the horses were now a tiny speck, retreating over the horizon. They were so fast, much faster than anything he had ever seen.
He wondered what it would be like to go as fast as a horse. It would certainly make the trip to The Cliffs much easier, and much less grueling. Why, a trip that normally took over a week might take only a few days! It would be an enormous improvement.
But of course, there was no way for a human to go as fast as a horse. His wife was right. There was no point in speculating.
But Jalk could not stop thinking about it. After all, if horses could run as fast as they did, that meant it was possible, in theory, to go that fast. Why couldn’t a human perform the same feat of speed? Of course, horses were bigger, and they had additional legs, but those seemed like the sorts of problems that could be overcome, with persistence.
Jalk began practicing his running. He ran as fast as he could, several times a day, gaining speed each time he practiced. Still, though he had improved, it was not fast enough, and worse, he was exhausted by the effort. He could run very fast, but not for a long time, and certainly not all the way to The Cliffs.
His next experiment was to run on all fours, as the horses did, reasoning that the extra legs might assist him in attaining a super-fast speed, and would take some of the burden off his sore legs and bloodied feet. Aside from earning him the mockery of his tribe, this experiment had no effects whatsoever.
He watched the horses every time they came near, bursting with envy. There had to be a way. He was sure of it.
One day, Jalk was out hunting small game, using a slingshot. He liked his time in the woods, hunting rabbits and grouse. It gave him time alone to think and muse, and time away from the constant mockery that was a large part of his life among the tribe.
It was a nice day, sunny and warm. He worked his way deeper into the forest, moving toward the river. Lots of small animals lived in close proximity to the water. It was a good place to hunt.
Today, however, he found something much better.
Two horses, drinking from the current, still and beautiful. Jalk moved slowly, so as not to frighten them. He wanted to examine them up close. Perhaps a close inspection would reveal the secrets of their speed.
One of the horses was extraordinarily tall. The other was smaller, its back only about to Jalk’s waist. They both had a lovely golden-brown coat of fur, with long, swishing tails.
The tails reminded him of something, a game he had played as a child. One child would sit on a rug, which was attached to a rope, while another child pulled the rope, taking the sitting child on a crazy, dizzying ride around the camp. They would all take turns in this game, while the adults worked. It was great fun.
What if a horse’s tail could function in a similar way? What if Jalk held onto the horses tail, and allowed it to pull him? Might he borrow the horse’s energy to move faster than he was able to do on his own?
It couldn’t hurt to try.
Slowly, quietly, he snuck up behind the larger horse. He reached out and grabbed a hold of its tail
It hurt. Everything hurt, but especially his ribs. His head throbbed, and his vision was blurry
“What were you thinking, you idiot?”
Valc stood over him, hands on her hips, glaring.
“What? What happened?” It hurt to speak.
“What happened is you got yourself kicked by a horse, were knocked unconscious, and spent the night laying in a puddle of mud in the forest. A search party had to scour the woods looking for you, which means that there was no hunting yesterday, which means you’ll be eating berries for dinner.”
He tried to move, but every twinge of muscle brought on spasms of pain. He was not doing well.
“Can I have some water?”
Valc threw her hands up in the air. “Now I’m your servant, am I? You want water, fetch it yourself.”
She stalked out of the cave, leaving him there, thirsty, in pain, and discouraged.
So, his plan to ride on the horse tail had been a failure. He wondered where he had gone wrong. He supposed the horse must not have enjoyed him pulling on its tail, and had exacted revenge in the best way it knew how. He wondered if horse tails were especially sensitive, or if this was just an especially bad-tempered horse.
It didn’t matter. He had learned his lesson. There would be no more horse tail pulling in his future.
It was some time before he was able to emerge from the cave. Valc’s anger had relented after a while, and she had begrudgingly agreed to bring him water and mashed berries and boiled nuts until he was able to fend for himself again. This nourishment, combined with weeks of almost total stillness, eventually healed him.
When he finally was on his feet again, he was weak, and walked with a funny gait that invited much comment. While his fellow tribespeople were more or less happy to see him recovered, that didn’t mean that they were ready to forget his strangeness, or ignore his new injury-induced foibles.
It was a bitter pill to swallow.
And yet, he was glad to be up and about again. It’s true that his head sometimes pounded with terrible pain, and it’s true that his chest had a raw, tender patch that never seemed to get better. But he was upright, and ready to resume his life.
The buffalo hunt had taken place without him, as he had been unable to walk. Now there was fresh buffalo meat cooking on every fire, and the smell was intoxicating. He did love buffalo meat, even as he hated the process by which it was procured.
As he walked past Bragzor’s cave, he noticed that Bragzor was not there, which was strange, given that it was still early morning, and Bragzor never left his campfire before midday. Though they hadn’t been close, Jalk had thought of Bragzor as a sort of father-figure, an old man who dispensed wisdom and advice, and was always around to lend an ear.
Jalk approached Bragzor’s woman, who was rotating a spit of buffalo meat over the fire.
“Where is Bragzor?”
The woman’s face fell. “I guess you haven’t heard. Bragzor collapsed on the long trek to The Cliffs. It was too much for him at his age. I told him not to go, to leave it to the younger men this year, but he insisted.”
Jalk was horrified. Bragzor must have been nearing his thirty-fifth year, an ancient, decrepit man. Why on earth had he attempted such a foolish quest?
But of course, Jalk knew. There was glory to be had in the buffalo hunt. The warriors who capture the animals were lauded as heroes, celebrated among the tribe, praised and loved by all the women for their efforts and their skill in providing. It would be hard to turn your back on that sort of thing, even at Bragzor’s advanced age.
Saddened, Jalk left the fire after giving his condolences.
He thought of the long trek to The Cliffs, and how grueling it was, even for the youngest and strongest among them. And a fierce anger burned in his breast. Why? Why did it have to be so grueling, so painful, so dangerous? Why wasn’t there a better way?
He thought again of the horses. Their speed and their strength. He knew he could not hold onto their tails and expect to get anywhere. No. That had been a silly idea. But there was another way. There had to be.
One moon cycle later, Jalk sat perched on a tree branch, overlooking the river. It was a high place, but not too high. He had brought some dried buffalo meat and dried apples with him to sustain him. He wasn’t sure how long he would have to wait.
Fortunately, it was not long. A few hours after his climb, a lone horse made its way to the river, drinking deeply from the waters. This was an old horse. Jalk could tell from its slow gait and dull coat. Perhaps that would be to Jalks’ advantage.
Jalk crept closer to the horse, crawling along the branch like a lizard, keeping as quiet as possible, which was very quiet, given his many years of hunting experience.
He was close enough to the horse to smell it now, its musky, furry odor.
He crept closer.
He leapt into the air and landed belly down on the horse’s back. He clasped his arms around the horse’s middle, in an attempt to hold on, but his arms were not long enough to reach all the way around. His legs dangled off the horse’s rear, and he could feel the horse’s tail whipping against his feet.
The horse was terrified, and bucked accordingly. Jalk did his best to hold tight, but his best was not good enough, and the horse flung him into the air. Jalk’s back hit the tree, knocking the wind out of him, seriously aggravating the pain in his chest. He fell to the ground in a splat, and watched with disappointment as the horse ran away.
Fast. The horse was so fast.
Contrary to what most men might have felt in the wake of this failure, Jalk was now highly motivated to reach his goal. He had been close — so close! — to getting a hold of the horse. If he’d only been able to hold on a bit longer, that horse might have taken him on the ride of his life!
There had to be a way to hold on to the horse, to make it do his bidding. And he thought he had figured it out. The problem he had faced in his last attempt was that his arms were not long enough to fully embrace the horse. He needed longer arms. And for that, he needed rope.
The tribe used bits of animal skin to make long, skinny ropes, which they used for various purposes. Jalk had the idea that if he could wrap a rope around the horse, he could hold on to that rope, and stay on the horse until he was ready to get off.
And so, armed with a rope and an excess of confidence, he strode into the forest, aiming for a tree by the river, again.
This time, when the horse came, he looked it over, trying to ascertain the best location for him to apply his new tool. Around the belly? Would he be able to get it around fast enough, before the horse bucked him off?
Maybe. Around a leg, so the horse could drag him behind as he ran? No. He was not going to get behind a horse, ever again, for any reason, as long as he lived.
What about the neck? Hmm. Yes. That was promising. Would the horse turn around and bite him? It was a real concern, but Jalk reasoned that he could slide away from its teeth in time, should the horse seem so inclined.
He lowered himself closer. This horse was a medium sized, dark-brown one, with a shiny black mane. He wondered if he could hold onto the horse’s hair, instead of using the rope. Would that work? He didn’t know.
He shook his head. He remembered the sensitive horse tail. Best not to try it. Best stick with the original plan.
He leapt into the air and landed on the horse. He tried to land on his belly, while still tossing the rope out in front of him, looping it around the animal’s neck, but instead, he found himself seated upright on the horse, one leg on either side of its back.
The horse sprang into action, jumping and bucking.
Jalk tightened the rope around the horse’s neck, pulling with all of his strength. He squeezed his thighs together, gripping the horse with all his might.
He held on. The horse shook his head back and forth, trying to dislodge the unfamiliar noose. But he had stopped jumping and bucking.
In a sudden fit of inspiration, Jalk stopped screaming and spoke in the soothing voice he used on Valc when she was in the middle of a rage episode.
“It’s ok. Calm down. Easy. Easy.”
He stroked the horse’s neck. He petted it nicely. And slowly, eventually, the horse calmed down.
Jalk had never felt such victory. Not when he made his first kill. Not when he got Valc to mate with him. Not when he found his first chin hairs. Nothing had ever made him so proud in his life.
He spent the next several hours with the horse, refusing to get off, refusing to let the horse panic. He was glad that he had a packet of dried apples in his belt, because the horse seemed to love them, and would respond to his demands readily, if rewarded with the treats.
Before long, he was able to sit astride the horse while it walked. And then, while it ran.
And when he returned to camp, astride a running horse, taller than any man in the village, there was no mockery for Jalk that day. Only awe.