HORSES — Kate Millar

He and She drank green tea in a Hanoi alley where a woman had just slaughtered three chickens. As the woman held the limp necks and plucked feathers from the carcasses, He and She sat on plastic stools and talked about the future. Not their future. Their future was tenuous at best, a handful of days in the same place at the same time. They talked about the bigger future. The future that involved everyone. He was optimistic of what was to come, speaking ardently of technology and human ingenuity. She was more given to cynicism, and had read too many post-apocalyptic novels. ‘Prepare to be fucked,’ She insisted. They clinked glasses.

When the chickens were plucked, the bird woman rinsed the blood and feathers away into the gutter with water from a metal bowl. He smoked a cigarette. She ordered another pot of tea. Somewhere in the alley rang the insistent sound of a small copper bell. A SuperCub was kickstarted drowsily to readiness by a deliveryman wearing falling-apart sandals. Blocks of ice were strapped to the back of his bike, and though the weather was cool, ice water dripped through the rubble sack and into the cement where the blood had been. The engine revved.

She and He held hands through the flower market, a gesture born not out of romance but of necessity from the rush of people around them. Everywhere, red and gold banners heralded the lunar new year. The horse year. They each tried to imagine the city streets being overtaken by floods of thunderous stallions and it was both exciting and unsettling. Market-goers loaded their motorbikes with small trees of flowering boughs and swelling kumquats. Holiday gifts for family members. The trees seemed to sprout from the motorists’ backs. Arbor wings for everyone. She squinted through the parceled kumquat trees in the traffic, trying to make the roadways appear as an immense moveable forest.

At night they drank beer in the park and He stood guard while She peed in the bushes. They shot pool on a crooked billiards table. When all of the drinking places had closed for the night, they lay at the banks of West Lake with their hands down each other’s pants. They slept all through the morning in He’s bed, listening to the muted sounds of the lane outside. A man sang karaoke in one of the neighboring houses. His voice slid up and down trying to find the melody, and for every right note he hit, there were eight wrong ones along the way. He and She liked the song better for his effort.

On New Year’s Eve, half of the city emptied for ancestral homes in the countryside. They had no such place to be, He and She. They lay unclothed in He’s bed, listening to the fireworks. The echo of the bombardment He felt in his chest, in his abdomen, in the arch of She’s back where his hand rested. The sound of explosion blasted into grime-worn buildings around them, until it seemed the whole city was under siege and crumbling except for the dark confines of He’s room. They lay and listened, skin to skin, twinned in the vertiginous thrill of collapse.

The morning street was littered with confetti and upturned cockroaches. He walked She to the street corner. Each wore their unease like a skin too tight for its body. They had a goodbye that was inadequate and rushed in front of a waiting taxi, but neither He nor She liked goodbyes much anyway. He wondered why the tenderness that exists at the end of something is so often stronger than the tenderness that exists in the middle of it.

The bottlenecked traffic of the Old Quarter relieved itself onto broader expanses of roadway as the taxi carried She out of the city. Morning colored the horizon in violet, vanilla, and smoke. In the distance, construction cranes echoed their namesake, iron egrets that bowed to crystal palaces glimmering in caught light, towering beyond the honeyed-green fields.

***

Kate Millar’s work has appeared in Paper Darts, Event, The Danforth Review, and Imminent Quarterly. She was the recipient of Canada’s Western Magazine Award (fiction category) in 2012. A native of Atlantic Canada, she lives in Ho Chi Minh City.