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The Best Horses Are Found in the Sea, and Other Horse Tales to Emerge Since the Rise

Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy from Harper Voyager. She's a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at bethcato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

The residents of Morro greeted me with understandable hesitance. My clothes and accent marked me as a traveler from distant Tehachapi, and saying that I came from the university in search of horse stories made me even more suspect. City denizens rarely ventured this deep into the coastal wilderness, and if they did, it was to engage with bootleggers smuggling in liquor from the south. It took several days for people to accept me as an academic eccentric, not a government informant.
"Horses? I've heard of them," said a pox-scarred teenager, "but they were imaginary like dragons, right?"
His father, a town elder, countered, "No, horses existed. They came from a place called Kentookee."
I scribbled notes as more residents chimed in. One woman, a child clutched to each hip, described how the shift in Earth's climate had created a new disease that slaughtered horses even as the oceans rose and obliterated land populations of all species. "And that's why the best horses ran to live in the sea instead," she added to finish her telling.
I try to be an impartial listener, so I offered no corrections to her story. That said, I couldn't conceal my excitement. Tales of so-called "drowned horses" along this stretch of the mountainous Isles of California were why I had come to Morro. I was directed to speak with Amber Figueroa, a fisher and storyteller.
Upon my arrival at the Figueroa household, I encountered an older man unloading jugs from a boat. As I raised my arm in greeting, I recognized the product in his hand: illicit tequila from beyond the Isles.
I immediately realized my own peril as well. Here I was, an outsider, witness to a crime that'd get this man sentenced to hard labor in the Sierran mines. I backtracked before he could see me.
In the garden Amber Figueroa and her young daughter Esme greeted me like I was an old friend. As we ate a lunch of tortillas and lingcod, I almost choked when the bootlegger entered the home. He introduced himself as Tomas, Amber's husband. His quiet manner soon put me at ease again, and my anxiety faded completely as we began to discuss horses.
"My grandma used to say that drowned horses can only be ridden by saints, so I can never try to ride them," said Esme. I asked her for details, since some people classify the millions who died during the Oceans' Rise as "saints," but Esme confirmed her family's belief was religious in nature. Indeed, she showed me their shrine facing the sea, which included various forearm-sized clay icons of women and horses.
"Some horses ran to the sky, too," said her mother. "Chosen people still ride them. You can see their holy lights pass over us at night." I'd never before encountered this story.
"Why do you care about horses?" Esme asked me.
"I'm asked that often," I said, omitting how derisively I was usually treated due to my subject of inquiry, even by my university colleagues. "Earth lost many creatures and plants in the Rise. Something about horses has always seemed particularly lovely to me."
Professors had accused me of romanticizing the past; I did. How could I not marvel at an era when most people lived past fifty, when we flew in projectiles around the planet within a single day, when horses ran free in green meadows that were now ocean bottoms?
"Saints ride the prettiest horses," Esme stated as fact.
I didn't believe in saints, but I thought of the Figueroa household shrine with a peculiar yearning.
Though a wind was picking up, Tomas offered to sail me where local lore claims drowned horses live among the crags of the submerged monolith of Morro Rock. I was giddy and oblivious as he paddled us out.
Only when we were far out in the bay did he speak. "Can't let you gab about what you seen."
His words confused me, distracted as I was, but as his paddle swung at my head, I realized he had indeed noticed me as he worked his illicit goods.
Pain rang through my skull as I sank into the cold, black water. Like anyone borne in the Isles, I can swim, but my clothes dragged me down. Instead of panicking, I felt a strange sense of peace: I'd die in a place known for saints and horses. I'd never before experienced such a divine calm.
My fingers met slickness like seaweed and I grabbed hold. With a heavy, dreamy feeling, I understood that I actually held a horse's mane.
I awoke on a beach cast in pink sunset. Shivering, I staggered down the road, and to my dread I soon met Tomas and Esme. She greeted me with tears. "Papa said a wave took you overboard!"
I met Tomas's cold gaze over her shoulder and spoke a truth I couldn't fully accept. "A horse brought me ashore."
Her eyes went wide. "You're a saint!" Tomas's demeanor shifted to regard me with fervent awe.
Though I surmised that my mention of the horse had saved me from further attempts on my life, I refused to return to their home. I continued my way uphill to town. I studied my hands and wondered how I'd escaped drowning.
Stars sparkled overhead, one bright speck moving fast.
My university education told me it was likely an ancient machine called "satellite," but in that instant I wanted--needed--to believe that a horse galloped overhead, all the world beneath its hooves.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 14th, 2020

Author Comments

This story emerged out of a Codex flash fiction writing contest. I had only a weekend to churn out a decent story. This particular bout offered up prompts in the form of donated story titles. I spied one along the lines of "The Best Horses Are Found in the Ocean," and declared dibs. I mashed it up with several of my other usual writing themes--a post-apocalypse world, California, and the power of story-telling--to create what turned out to be my favorite story of the whole five-week competition.

- Beth Cato
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