The End of Everything
People assume I get up at dawn. Sometimes, when the lamps flicker on, a glimmer of false light that precedes the real thing by at least an hour, I wish that were true.
But at this, my favourite time of the year, it is not such a hardship. It’s during the summer months that I start to feel sleep deprived; the days of work too long, the nights of sleep far too short.
Whatever the season, I eat a simple breakfast; a high energy slow release sort of thing, before I descend to the stables. It’s still quiet, but at my approach there’s a faint snicker as one or more of the horses stir. It’s usually Bronte, a subterranean rumble to her breathing. But, by the time I slide back the bolts, all four are awake; expectant.
They’re eager to be up and running. For them, the long winter nights are no great boon. To each his, or, her own, I say.
“Good morning, Aethiops”, I softly call. “Good morning, Sterope.” I lower a sack of oats from my shoulder. The same oats I ate earlier, though my four horses–two male, two female, the males taking the trace, the females the yoke–my horses prefer their oats raw. Eous nuzzles at me, trying to make me spill more than his fair share, but I’m careful that none of them gets more than any other. They must pull equally; they must pull together. Things go awry when they don’t and this is not the day and age for things to go awry. Maybe once I could get away with it, but now, any indiscretion would be quickly spotted and cause the greatest of turmoil. My route is circumscribed.
It is good that my horses are so well behaved. The most beautiful horses ever to have lived, I proudly claim; sleek and powerful, as they have to be for their unusual load. Intelligent, too. Far too intelligent, sometimes.
After they have fed, I take care to brush each of their coats, to comb through their thick manes. I run blunt hands over their fine limbs, making sure they are and remain in good health. Occasionally, and fortunately rarely, one turns lame and I need to borrow a replacement. Those are not generally good days. Even as I do my work I worry about leaving a poorly horse behind, untended and alone.
I check my watch. It was a gift, a railway man’s pocket watch, the numbers large and easy to read, the knob for adjusting the time protected from accidental knocks. It is the same device that allowed the trains to run on time and on schedule, for a while, at least, and it serves me the same purpose.
Before I had it, before it was invented, no-one would notice if I was a few minutes late, or a few minutes early. But those times are past. My comings and goings are written down months, years in advance.
Today is the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year. The mares are restless, brimming with too much energy. I slow my brushing, doing my best to calm them.
Once each has had equal treatment, I turn my attention to their tack; to the bridles and straps, the reins and the trace. No saddles; these four horses pull a chariot.
It is the chariot, of course, and not I, that brings the dawn.
I leave hitching it to the last minute. Once it is attached my horses will have no choice but to pull away from it, to protect themselves from its fierce heat and light, even at this time of year.
As we ride out of the stables and take to the skies I breathe in the cold air. You’d have thought a sun god would be used to the heat, to miss it even, but I always enjoy that first crisp gulp, a taste of the last of the night. Today it is scented by wood smoke and heady with the forthcoming festivities, the ones that should really have taken place last night, as they did in olden times, at the very turn of the year.
And then we’re climbing, soaring, and I must pay close attention to my route.
Even so, and as I may have mentioned, this is my favourite time of the year.
It isn’t simply because I savour the extra time in bed and most definitely not because I do not enjoy my work, my allotted task. It is because, at this time of the year we fly so much closer to the ground, barely clearing the trees even at noon. And so I get to watch, as each of you goes about your carefree business, safe in the certain knowledge that I can’t possibly exist.
Safer still that I will never forsake my sworn duty, for to do so, even for a single day, would mean the end of everything you know.
published previously in Arachne Press’s “Shortest Day, Longest Night”, December 2016
Liam Hogan is a London based short story writer, the host of Liars’ League, and a Ministry of Stories mentor. His story “Ana”, appears in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 (NewCon Press) and his twisted fantasy collection, “Happy Ending Not Guaranteed”, is published by Arachne Press.
http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk or tweet @LiamJHogan