The groom spends the following weeks working to cure a Clydesdale of the stereotypies and kicking tic she developed from his neglect. His stipend has been docked and he gives most of what’s left to the stable bar, saving only a little in a box buried in the hay for a place for himself and the girl from California. She calls to tell him of jobs she finds from the internet and wild magazines. She dreams simply of waitressing at a sidewalk café in the city or stocking shelves at a bookstore.
The evenings find the groom reading in the bar while the horses are at pasture. After, he moves to a table outside and tries to write. The stablemaster is often still there, for his pay includes meals after the kitchen is closed. The stablemaster tells him stories from another country. They talk even long after the restaurant closes and rather than thinking the stablemaster a distraction, the groom fills pages of notes. They often sleep in their chairs and wake with the horses.
I dreamt of a woman with no face, says the stablemaster early one morning.
The groom can’t help smiling.
Look, the stablemaster tells him, I know a story that’s just as sad. It’s about an expriest living in my country.
Tell it to me.
He was working for the people of his village, trying to keep them off drugs and that sort of thing, you know? Telling them that God loves everyone equally.
Did the Church remove him?
Was he defrocked? No. Disillusioned, the stablemaster says with a pause long enough to roll a cigarette. He met God.
And God was nothing special?
No, just listen, the stablemaster says. See, the priest was shot dead by a narco or something. You know how Peter’s supposed to meet you at the gates? Well, that’s the first sign something’s wrong; the priest had a speech prepared and everything. But, one second he’s pissing himself in front of this hopped-up narco, and the next he’s standing in front of the pearly gates, wide open like anyone could walk right in. So he goes in, and it’s empty. No one’s there. But he hears this voice.
The stablemaster rolls another cigarette.
He says: I don’t remember the particulars of what the voice said. Friend of a friend and that sort of thing. Something about Hell being a made-up story to keep us from killing each other and fucking other people’s wives. But we do that stuff anyway—like the priest especially needs to be told—so God thinks the human experiment has failed. It doesn’t really matter though, because he rewards our patience at life’s suffering with solitary bliss in Heaven.
So, Heaven is empty, the groom says.
It’s filled with everyone who’s ever lived.
But you’re horribly alone.
The stablemaster smokes his cigarette. If I thought that in death I’d see all the people I’ve met in life…
As the sun begins to come over the horizon the stablemaster and the groom gaze together toward the pasture where dew had formed on the conifers overnight and turns now to mist, reflecting blood-red with the sunrise across the field to the east and the horses, formerly mounds laying amidst the red, rise like half-tame golems from where they’d been left the night before and begin to neigh, muffled by the distance and damp air.
But anyway, the stablemaster says, Meanwhile the priest is dead in the hospital and by some medical miracle they revive him after several hours. The first thing he does is tell his mother what he heard, and you know what she does?
The stablemaster puts stress on mother. Tell his mother. The groom makes a noise.
She hangs herself.
As the groom and the stablemaster make their way among the horses to the stable he tells the groom of a journal that pays local writers for stories. The groom calculates that four stories would pay for a bus ticket to visit the girl from California and maybe a few days at a cheap motel. That night he calls from the bar phone to tell her he’s coming soon and sits in his small cabin by the pasture, avoiding the stablemaster, thinking for the first time that he might be a distraction.