While I lived in Reupeo, I saw a little boy (who thought he was a horse) cry, which for him was almost as good as if he’d smiled. I called him Chuvo, which means “horse” in Reupeonese. I didn’t know his real name. I called him Chuvo because he did everything a horse does, all on two seven-year-old legs. He walked, trotted, cantered and galloped like a horse. He whinnied and neighed like a horse. And the first time I tried to touch him, like a horse that doesn’t want to be touched, he bit me.
I hadn’t realized he was serious about his horse impersonation until he did that, and when he did, I cursed him. But he just stood there on the sidewalk in front of the Cafe of One hand, staring at me, like a horse.
“That’s not nice,” I told him in Reupeonese. His teeth had marked my hand.
He snorted, not meaning insult, but like a horse. When a boy who thinks he’s a horse snorts, I don’t take it personally; he snorted.
“Good morning, little boy.” I tried again.
He shuffled his feet around, looking my way, but not at me.
I decided to ignore him, returning to my newspaper (“Lua Jornala dol Madjona”) and my little white cup of chocolate-black coffee. But after I’d finished both my cup and the article I’d been reading, and looked up, he was still there, his head inclined loosely on his rigid little neck.
“So you’re a horseboy.” I stood up and stretched, after sitting in the Cafe most of the morning.
The waiter saw me getting set to go and came over. After he counted my saucers and told me what I owed him, I asked him about the horseboy. “Does he ever stop–”
“Being a horse? Never, my sir. I have worked mornings in this cafe for three years, at least a year before he began to prance up and down on the sidewalk, and never have I seen him be anything but a horse!”
“Do you know his name?”
“No, my sir, I call him horse.”
At the time I was involved in a casual relationship with a girl who lived not far from the Cafe, around two corners but crossing no streets. I didn’t have anything I had to read for my thesis that afternoon, so I decided to walk around to see if she’d arrived home from her morning classes. I paid the waiter and started off. Chuvo followed me, at a trot. Sometimes he would move out ahead of me, but soon he would wheel, passing me going the other way, then catch up again.
My friend was home, but in a bad mood. I asked her about Chuvo.
“Oh please Chig, I haven’t and idea. The boy’s obviously troubled deeply, or worse. He follows me in the morning.”
“But Chig, it’s frightening, as I make my bleary-eyed way to the underground, to have a boy who thinks he’s a horse, galloping and snorting at my heels.”
“I love the way you put things.”
“Do you? Why?”
“Because you’re so clear in a baroque kind of way.”
“I find you romanesque. Do you want a drink before you go?”
“No thanks, but listen. I have an extra reupeo or two. You want to go out to dinner tonight?”
“I’ve got an engagement tonight, Chig.” She put her hand on my arm. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
She walked me to the door, her arm around my waist. “Actually I’d rather stay in; I’m three books behind myself. And dinner with you would be nice.”
“Why go out?”
“Because he needs me more.” She stared at me. “Understand?”
I nodded. “I’ll come by next week.”
“Do.” She paused. “On second thought, don’t wait that long.”
Downstairs, I found Chuvo. He cantered with me along the sidewalk back around past the Cafe of One Hand as far as the section of Roman viaduct which straddles the narrow street. When I stepped down onto the cobblestones, he stopped.
I stopped too. “That your mother forbids the horse to go into the street?” I asked in Reupeonese.
He didn’t answer of course, just turned and galloped away.
Over the next few months, what with mornings in the Cafe and visits to my friend, I saw quite a lot of Chuvo. Only interrupted by the viaduct, the sidewalk ran all the way around the block, passing the Cafe, and my friend’s building; but no matter where I set foot on that sidewalk, there he’d be, colting in circles.
He never smiled. But how many of us have seen horses smile. Some claim they have, I know. Horse-lovers. But I’m not a horse-lover. Which doesn’t mean that I dislike horses. I don’t know them very well. Horses are a luxury in cities, where I have always lived, though I know people who have horses, to ride, in cities.
I don’t know horses or whether they smile, I’ve never seen it, but this was a boy, not a horse, who never smiled. But I could touch him now, pat his head, as I pat a horse’s head, respectfully. And he had begun to let me feed him cubes of sugar.
That was the only “human” thing he did consistently, the way he ate sugar cubes. He would circle in close toward the sugar on my outstretched palm, go through all the motions of eating it horse-fashion, then quick pick it up in his hand, check if for dirt up near his eye, pop it into his mouth; and back to horse.
Once I left the wrapper on the sugar cube. He took it off so fast I never learned where he put it, then back to horse.
I got to like him. As a horse he was a heck of a boy. So when my friend told me she was leaving the city for good, robbing me of sixtysix percent of the reason why I studied at the Cafe in the mornings instead of at one of Smepriroa’s many libraries, I knew I wouldn’t see Chuvo as much as I had. I guess that’s why he sticks in my mind because the last time I saw him was the last time I saw her.
My friend had told over dinner that she had been asked to some kind of family reunion in Rome, her friend’s family, and because she felt her life settling into a bloody awful rut and wanted some change of scene, she had decided to accept the invitation; from Rome she would go some place else, but she wouldn’t return to Smepriroa.
“That’s short notice.”
“You won’t miss me, love.”
“I will; I’m used to you.” I liked her because I could say things like that to her.
“Just your old mattress.” She turned serious. “I’m sure you understand this isn’t a life for me. I shan’t be taking courses forever. I think I’d better get on to my real life, don’t you see.”
“Of course. When are you leaving?”
“Wow.” That was short notice.
“I think you’re moved, Chig.”
She smiled catlike. “Then you’d better take me home. I still have packing to do. And eventually I must get some sleep.”
Outside the restaurant, feeling romantic, I suggested we take a horse and carriage, across the Bridge of Towers and along the river, to her place.
“What a silly idea. You spend too much time in books. Let’s!” We walked to the fountain, where the hack-drivers park in ambush for the tourists. “And that’s true, you know. Things which only happen in books are things you do.”
“Like taking a horse-drawn carriage because your friend is going away. How absurd!”
We woke up a hackey and asked him to drive us. He climbed out of the back, up onto his high seat, and we got in. Despite the cobblestones, the rise wasn’t bouncy, which surprised me, but I did think we weren’t going very fast. I asked the hackey about it.
He cursed and how for two minutes. “This stupid animal has been eating at my liver this entire day, my sir. Worthless! I would take him to the glue factory except that I know they’d reject his wormy toes.”
“But a horse hasn’t toes.” My friend was lightheaded, an occasional state.
“He has the split toes of Satan. Of this I assure you, miss.”
“I shouldn’t talk like that about someone who helps you make a decent living.”
The hackey made a sour face and turned back to his driving, snapping his whip across the horse’s back. But it didn’t make the horse go faster. By the time we entered the Street of the Viaduct the animal was hardly moving at all.
I was disappointed because I had wanted to see Chuvo with a horse, like an experiment to test the depth of his impersonation. Now the horse I’d hired seemed less of a horse than Chuvo.
I told the hackey to stop in front of the Cafe; we’d walk the rest of the way. I stepped out, looking for Chuvo, then helped my friend to the cobblestones.
Meanwhile, the horse died. I tell it that way because it happened that way. We stepped down, then I heard the traces creak, looked and the horse had dropped to its knees. Then it fell over to its side. Then it was dead with a sigh.
“Poor thing.” My friend looked genuinely sad.
The hackey turned livid. He jumped down off the seat and started to kick the horse in the head. I confess it, I winced.
“Stop that!” my friend shouted at the hackey. “Chig, make him stop.”
The hackey was kicking the horse so hard that I was glad the horse was dead and couldn’t feel. “Hey, stop!” I shouted in English.
Chuvo galloped up. It was about an hour before dark; restaurants serve dinner early in Reupeo. So Chuvo was still down on the sidewalk. He galloped up and stood, pawing, snorting, watching the hackey kick the dead horse.
Then he charged and started to kick at the hackey with such force that sometimes he lost his balance and fell on his backside, a little boy in short pants fighting a man. Finally my friend went up to them, pulled Chuvo away with the grip of a schoolteacher, then put her other hand softly on the hackey’s arm. “Enough, my sir. The animal cannot feel your hate.”
“Hate? I’m trying to wake him.” He covered his face with his hands. “I want to wake him. Satan, get up. If you please.”
My friend came back to me, leading Chuvo. “Suppose we could buy him a hot chocolate, Chig?”
But Chuvo had gone back to horse, twisting away from my friend, racing up the block and around the corner. By the time we reached the corner, already trying to ease the pain of the incident with little jokes, he had disappeared into one of the street’s many doorways.
The next time I went back to the Cafe, the waiter told me he’d heard that the boy’s mother had sent him to live with an aunt in the provinces, kind of putting Chuvo out to pasture.
I realize I forgot to tell the most interesting part of the story. When he was kicking the hackey, Chuvo was crying. Do horses cry? I’ve never seen it.
William Melvin Kelley
Originally published a long time ago in a now-defunct literary magazine called “Canto” (not to be confused with an apparently new, Rochester, NY-based magazine by the same name), Chuvo is one of WMK’s earliest short stories.