Barren Island is the only place or locality in or near the city of New York for the destruction of garbage and dead animals in the city, and is the only proper place for the rendering of the same . . . .
—The New York Supplement, Volume 70 (New York State Reporter Vol. 104), containing the decisions of the Supreme and lower courts of record of New York State, permanent edition, May 23-July 11, 1901
The first horse makes itself from the bones of other horses scattered in the bay. It sews its parts together with the spines of baitfish. It drags itself from the water and bleaches on the island shore until it is pocked-white, picked clean as it can be by the flies and the birds and the mites that make caves of its marrow.
Still the first horse stinks. More than an ordinary corpse, more than the sweet rot at low tide, the pink undertongue of marshy sand. No one remembers that smell anymore. The diseased breath of the first horse fills the air now. It is the breath of the boiling tank, of bodies distilled to dust, fat-clogged sewers, the trash of the whole city rising in gas and embers to the sky. Even on the clearest, brightest day, out on the barrier of sand to the east where happy children play in the waves and their mothers pull their skirts up to their ankles, when the wind picks up there will be no forgetting the things that happen on this island. The first horse makes sure of this, most of all to the people who live here and cannot leave: the men who stir the tanks, the rag-picking women, the children whose sorry schoolhouse floods with the tide.
On the shore the first horse collects itself bone by bone. A diadem of jewels hangs over its hollow eyes. This is a treasure from a rag-picker, the loss of which earned a maid fifteen lashings in a fine house uptown when it tumbled out with the rubbish.
The first horse is used to taking things. It was born a whisper of breath from the mouth of a ship. It was cough and itch and boiling blood rolling far across this continent before the time came to collect the bones.
Yet the people of the island know the first horse by sight. Buckling with each step, it walks the streets of their town in the shadow of smokestacks, down the twisted lanes until it comes to the sunken schoolhouse. It pushes open the door with a nod of its caverned nose. The children feed it their fingers; it lets them lick its hollows in return. Beneath the tallow rot they taste something like freshwater and look up into its empty eyes with love.
The second horse never wanted to be, but here it goes: gathering itself out of baby shoes and broken glass, taking bottlemouths for eyes, the handles of meat cleavers for jawbones. Hairbrush bristles are the crooked line of its backbone; the second horse makes itself lopsided, one leg a stack of old boots, one a mantelpiece beaten to driftwood, one a collection of rolling pins, one a lady’s dress twisted to a rope and stiff with saltwater.
The second horse is red, for it is holding itself together with clots of rust: the rust of doorknobs and window grates, the forks and knives and spoons of people who left their homes too quickly to carry them along. It is pulling itself from the water, bleeding its red hoofprints down the risen highways of the city.
The second horse knows it has a father. It is going to find him and crush his neck in its jaws of rotted wood. Dragging a rusty trail down the highway’s median, taxicabs and trucks swerving, as it runs the second horse sheds the spoils of its father’s war, a war waged on the people of the city. It releases and returns the guts of razed homes: ointments and treasures, brooms and soapboxes and nail polishes and crockery and Clorox bottles. From fire escapes and rooftops, stoops and storefront windows, people set down their work and stare. By the time the second horse finds its father it will have nothing left but rust and its boot-leather lips, drooling red spittle up the marble steps.
But with the highways its father has woven a labyrinth, and the second horse loses its way. Under the high sun, halfway down Long Island, it is peeling and flaking, and its glass eyes are burning prisms. By the side of the road a woman tending chickens runs to bring it water in a dirty tray. It stares at her strangely but stops to drink, in long rasping gulps.
When she pets its scaly neck, trying to understand, the second horse breaks to dust under her palm.
She takes up the scattered bottles and leaves them in her windowsills, and in the spring fills them with meadow flowers: Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed, clover blossoms.
The third horse rises halfway from ocean slick, stretching its oily neck. Its skin is patterned with camera eyes, forever shifting, working muscles beneath of liquid mercury, bones of palladium and cadmium. Below the surface, swollen guts of polyethylene choke and stutter on hydrocarbon slurry, saltwater and antibiotic substrate. The third horse swims in this amnion, drinking it ceaselessly as the whales of old: its own blood and body. Nothing could ever be enough. The third horse was born famished.
It does not come ashore. The shores are further now than ever, and the city is quiet even in its highest towers.
The third horse did not fashion itself like its kindred but was beaten together in the surge of storms, a sticky nucleus snotting alive from ultraviolet radiation, a wet black foal dreaming beneath the waves. Now it drifts and starves, dreaming human dreams, its body an endless aching library, bloated with memory. Microprocessors and microplastics sway in its intestinal dark. The third horse knows a hundred billion names, murmurs ten trillion histories to an audience of plankton evolved to eat its quiet secretions. It knows so much and still it hungers.
When on occasion a ship passes the third horse—a tanker buoyant and empty, a girl-sized woman paddling a skiff—it will roll its heavy head in that direction, and blinking camera-eyes with no recognition, dive again below to suck poison through its teeth.
One morning the girl-sized woman paddles out with a knife and an empty jar; on the far-away shore they need fuel, and the third horse’s blood will do, in a pinch. Clots of it have washed up on the beaches, and in their campfires and cookstoves it makes a strange multihued flame that smells sharp and strange, but it burns, and this is what matters. Now from her skiff she spots it like a storm in the water, spinning with its own gravity. As its current draws her closer, she murmurs thanks for the gift of its blood as she has been taught, her own voice startling her. It is small but sounds so loud, with all that endless water around her, the empty towers sparkling in the distance.
An oar’s-length away the third horse raises one eye to the white spot of the sun. Gently, her skiff drifts onto the dark halo it makes in the water. Its head is lolled at the sky, showing its neck, and she almost laughs. She has only to reach her knife into that outstretched vein and muscle, and what will fill her jar will feed many fires, and many mouths on shore.
She takes the knife and the jar from her belt, subtle as she knows, and reaches.
The moment before she is pulled under, she sees a face reflected in its shiny hide—hers—before her world overturns and all is dark and plugged and choking. It has swallowed her, is eating her whole with gnashing thrusts of a huge tongue, or claws, or unseeable teeth, nothing certain but the force of its hunger. She yearns to scream but cannot speak, to struggle but cannot move, and the harder she tries the more it tightens its chokehold, until she has gone totally still, and the third horse goes still around her. Then she feels nothing at all.
Until she opens her eyes and sees at once the whole horizon, the skeletal city in the distance, the sea extending everywhere, the sky embered bright with stars. When she stirs in the water and heavy droplets fling from her mane, she is surprised, but distantly. She knows so much more now, and she is rearranging her molecules, summoning her parasites, swimming for the shore, changing the waters with her as she goes.
The fourth horse has been here from the beginning. It is bone-meal, glass ground to sand, metallic flakes, polymer and hydrocarbon dust.
Mostly it is air. It rises from our firepit, shimmering pale silver, bucking on the wind. Here it is small, but the fourth horse can make itself out of anything it likes, anything that remains. We see it some nights, dancing over the bloody-bruised sunsets and violet-shadowed storm heads; when the rains come the fourth horse trips high into the clouds, where it scatters and rearranges and scatters itself again.
One day soon it will go higher. It will gather the rime of the sea and the ash of our fires and it will rise hot and fast, hooves forging solid in the heat of its ascent, hurling itself through the darkening layers of the sky.
And it will not stop. The fourth horse knows what stars are made of, because we told it.
When it comes home again, we will not be here to greet it, but until the last of us lays in the earth we will look to the heavens and remember.