Someone had beheaded George Washington's horse. I finally realized it after staring at the statue in the Public Garden for five minutes, drawn there by the crowd gathered at its base. Gloved index fingers were thrust into a clear sky, conducting a symphony of voices rising and cameras clicking and tires sweeping along the street behind. Washington himself was intact, a calm look upon his face as he gazed into the distance. But the horse, oh the horse, he (she?) hadn't made it, a casualty of war, of Washington's hubris, the victim of a bored teenager, or, the people whispered, a terrorist act.
I stood on the fringe of the group, my hands tucked deep into the pockets of my coat but my fingertips still frozen, watching the crowd grow, an instant community, moving and morphing'swaying'an indecisive mob, casting their eyes to Washington, pleading with him to tell them what to do, what to think. I tried to catch his eyes too, because I wanted to shrug, to apologize for the broken mass of humanity below him. But he never wavered, that's George Washington for you, staring beyond, at something indistinguishable, maybe the future. His horse was still standing, and wasn't that all that mattered? Stand tall, even when your head's lopped off. The real trick would be to do it with your legs cut out from under you.
The police came shortly after, on top of massive horses clip-clopping along the asphalt path. 'What's going on here?' one of them demanded of the crowd. A small Japanese woman standing near caught his eye, and pointed. The policeman followed the path of her finger. 'Oh my'' he said, letting the rest of the sentence get swept up by the wind, the unspoken word riding the air. The horses neighed and clomped the ground and demanded vengeance. 'Who did this?' the policeman asked. 'Who did this?'
We all felt the urgency of the question, as if a storm cloud covered the sky, small rumbles of thunder growing louder, lightning flickering within, each moment filled with the threat of an explosion. Something was going to happen. Something had to happen. Why didn't anything happen?
I'd only been in town two weeks, but I'd walked past the statue every day, cutting through the Garden on my way to and from work. I had even stared up at it the first time, admiring the contrast with the buildings rising behind, as if he were leading them into battle. I squinted, alternating focus between the statue and the buildings, each time discovering something new: the way Washington threw his shoulders back, or how his hands gripped the reins, or how his sword hung diagonally from his waist, rubbing against the side of the horse, maybe flapping against its taut stomach as it galloped. I remembered another statue, a shadow from my childhood: in Key West, a sad bronze sailor stood saluting, encircled by hundreds of tombstones. Almost every weekend of the first six years of my life were spent in the company of that sailor'whenever we'd leave the base, my dad always took me and my brother there first, I don't know why, maybe he wanted to guilt us into acting good, or maybe he wanted to remind himself of something he was too afraid to forget. We'd stand in the cemetery, me and my brother fidgeting, pinching, pushing, while my dad stared up and offered a salute. 'Stand straight, boys,' he'd always say. 'We're in the company of greater men.'
The wind picked up, no longer a whisper but a whistle, pulsing through the Garden, the Commons, through the city itself, rustling the skeletons of trees, pushing along dead, brittle leaves that swirled and twirled and bounced along the beaten lawn and pavement. People shivered and stumbled, and the policemen leaned down as their horses braced themselves against the onslaught. A flake of snow dropped to the ground in front of me, or maybe the promise of a flake of snow, the foreshadow of a flake of snow. Then more came, a flurry of white dropping out of a clear sky, coming, literally, from nowhere. 'What's happening?' a woman whispered, addressing her question to Washington. He stayed still, a stern look blanketing his face. I thought I saw the horse's muscles quiver, and wondered if maybe, in someone's closet, in Dorchester, or Malden, or Medford, among dirty clothes and empty duffel bags and boxes of pictures and legos, the bronze head of a horse was neighing.
'This is crazy,' a woman said to the left of me, a few tufts of blond poking out from beneath a gray beanie, her hands opening to the snow that was slanting in with the wind.
I turned to her and she shook her head, still looking up. 'I've never seen snow before,' she continued.
'Really?' a man asked, on her other side. 'I didn't know that about you.'
'Yeah, you really don't see snow down south.' She looked over at me, a small smile playing on her lips.
'That's right, I forgot, you're from 'the south,'' the man said, putting his arm around her. She laughed, and tilted her head up again, sticking her tongue out to the fluttering flakes.
'So does this happen often?' she asked after a moment.
'Oh yeah. It snows a lot in Boston. Good thing you have someone to keep you warm.'
'No, I mean this,' she gestured to the horse. 'Is there a lot of vandalism around here?'
I snuck a peek again, and was surprised to meet her eyes. Deep dark clear blue, in which you could see for miles but never find the end, stretching on, maybe into infinity, carrying a million little promises that bob along the surface, so that you could just barely feel them, but never hold them. The kind of eyes Washington has'the whole country's in those eyes. I looked away.
'I've never seen anything like this,' the man said.
The white fell steadily now, a slow-motion rain, covering the asphalt and the grass and the bushes like a tarp, or a carpet, blurring the edges of the park, softening everything up. A few people were laughing, watching children try to catch snow on their tongues, one little girl bawling when a flake landed in her eye. The sky was blank, and it started to feel like we were standing there for hours, like it was twilight already but we were still waiting, and maybe we'd keep waiting, an eternity of waiting for something to sink in. I remembered places: Key West, Great Lakes, Ill., Kings Bay, Ga., Meridian, Miss., Fort Worth, Texas'a lifetime of waiting, never stopping to take a breath, because once you did, you were gone again, onto the next place. 'I wonder if it wasn't always like that,' the woman said. 'It kind of makes sense, you know? I mean who really looks at the horse?'
Washington's creamy bronze gleamed, and he sat stalwart, upright, ignoring the snow, fighting the elements with the same dignity he had at Valley Forge. I glanced at the woman again. 'What do you think he's looking at?' she asked.
The crowd began to disperse, taking cover from the elements. A group of 100 people dwindled down to around 20 within a few minutes. The police stood idly by, or rather, they sat on horses idly by, watching to make sure no one started anything, but unable to do any real thing about the statue. 'Well, I've got to get to work,' the woman said. 'I'll see you after.'
I felt her eyes fall on me, which sent a tingle zigzagging down my spine. I wanted to look, to crawl right up into them and swim and swim and swim, past the tombstones, past the tall buildings, past the snow'I wanted to find what she saw, what Washington saw, what the sailor saw'home.
'The tail!' someone said. 'It's gone!'
One of the police horses snorted violently and thrashed its head back and forth, whipping the snow off its mane, the flakes hovering around it like a shroud for just a second. Then, it rose up on its hind legs and kicked out. Plumes of air came billowing from its muzzle and it rose again, and again. 'Whoa, Nelson!' the policeman cried, but the horse wouldn't stop. Finally, the policeman slipped off the side, and fell to the ground with a soft thud, a sheet of snow splashing around him. 'Someone grab him!' he yelled.
The horse took off through the garden, galloping along the path, cutting across the lawn, skirting a bare-branched cherry tree. We watched in silence as it sprinted over the bridge and then disappeared, the sound of clip-clopping along with it. I turned to the woman, but she had already started to walk the other way, toward the street.
I looked up to Washington, hoping to catch his eye. He refused, instead peering out into the beyond, waiting.
BIO: Eric Fershtman recently graduated from the University of Central Florida with a BA in English literature. He is working on a collection of short stories and plans to pursue an MFA. This is his first published story.