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from the March 2021 issue

Alberte Merlo’s Horse

In this fantastical story of a man and his horse by Álvaro Cunqueiro, it becomes increasingly unclear who holds the reins. 

One lovely summer afternoon Alberte Merlo gave his horse a little fresh grass, then sat himself down on his chopping block to read the newspaper. The horse, chewing, leaned over his master’s shoulder, and in the voice of a man, inquired:

“What’s new in the world today?”

So began many long months of conversation between Alberte and his horse. By Alberte’s account they spoke of politics, of taxes, of the latest festival in Noia, of weddings, and funerals. One day, the horse confessed he hated being named Moro, and suggested that Alberte find him something more proper, even if something French. So Alberte consulted a good friend of his in Muros, a teacher, who told him he ought to call this Moro of his Cheval, as they call horses in France. The horse liked the sound of this, but not without muttering that a surname might be nice, too. At the horse’s suggestion, Alberte went around to his neighbors and told them his Percheron and Moorish cross was now to be called Cheval, asking they kindly note the change. "For practical purposes," said Cheval.

But as months went by, the horse seemed ever more restless, growing jealous whenever Alberte went off to speak privately with anyone else, or whistled to Tirol, the dog, or read the newspaper to his wife, who had never learned to read.

“As if sleeping with her weren’t enough!” Cheval spat.

Almost a year had passed since the horse and Alberte began their chats, and as they were heading back one morning from the mill, Cheval, heavy with flour and bran, froze on the bridge and solemnly declared:

“We’ve been chatting for nearly a year now, but if you would like for us to go on talking about the world, you must promise to speak to me, and me alone, from this moment on. I am, after all, the only horse in all the province to talk to his master! Yet I’ve heard you lie once too often to take you at your word. You must draft a contract. If you refuse, you’ll never hear from me again!”

Alberte anticipated a difficult conversation with the lawyer. They would almost certainly take him for a madman if he were to walk in claiming he spoke to his horse, who now wanted a contract that bound the man to speak to no Galician but him, except in gestures. So Alberte traveled to Muros to visit his friend. The teacher advised he scribble out something on a scrap of paper, as he was sure Cheval didn’t know how to read.

“And how do we know he hasn’t learned to read?” Alberte pressed.

So the teacher produced a sheet of stamped, three-peseta paper and wrote up a sworn declaration in which Alberte pledged to speak to no one except by permission of Cheval the horse, previously known as Moro . . . Signed, Alberte Merlo . . .

Back home, Alberte showed the document to Cheval, who made him read it twice.

“Very good! Now bring it to the Recorder of Deeds!”

Alberte’s mouth fell open while he stared at Cheval.

“Off to the Records Office! I know how these things work. Remember, I once belonged to Abeledo, the famous lawyer.”

(A famous lawyer indeed, said to know Mischief Law inside and out.)

Declaration in hand, Alberte paced over hill and down dale, reclining on a boulder here, leaning against an oak tree there, chewing the whole thing over, wondering what to do, and whether to go into Noia, to the Recorder of Deeds . . . while the horse said nothing, and watched.

© Heirs of Álvaro Cunqueiro and Editorial Galaxia. By arrangement with the heirs and Galaxia. Translation © 2021 by Scott Shanahan.

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