It starts when Jinete Camacho decides to get his beloved Paso Fino Mamey stuffed after she's totally wrecked by an '85 Suzuki Swift near KM 12, just outside of Yauco. A freak accident next to a stand selling American-style donuts that leaves the road closed, but not un-taken, since traffic never stops for anyone on the island, not even a flipped hatchback and a half-dismantled horse.
Actually, it starts when she gets hit. No one hears about these kinds of accidents through the paper, especially Agüita who always has her ear to the ground—no one gets any of their news from the paper when you live at the base of El Gran Pipón. Instead, it's a game of telephone—after the paramedics have pulled the lucky survivors from their tiny tank of a car, after the policemen have taken their coughed-up statements, they choke on their laughter, all smiles hidden behind rarely used notepads. They crack jokes to tight-lipped EMTs, and into their crackling radios that warn them news trucks are on the way, even to the rubber-neckers who stop long enough to ask ¿que paso?, elbows hooked on their doors as they lean out to shout. Nothing, don't worry about it, cops'll wave them by. Just some jíbaro's horse.
Except it isn't some jíbaro's horse, it's Jinete Camacho's, but no one outside the shadow of el Pipón recognizes the name the way they should, and when the jíbaro in question is called to the scene from the top of the mountain, he's hysterical. Not like a man, they'll say, like an animal. Like a lover. That horse was that man's lover. The policemen's laughter is edited out of the final story, especially when Jinete follows his beloved horse first to the hospital, by stepping out into traffic, then to the grave, after he gets himself hit.
Agüita doesn't actually hear about the accident through the paper, and she doesn't hear about it from word-of-mouth. She hears about it when Papi Jupi comes clattering into the back room of their carnecería, agitated – which isn't unusual – and scrubbing his mustache with a forefinger – also not unusual. He pulls harshly on his own apron strings until his paunch is cut to resemble the twist in a link of especially-stuffed chorizos.
“Viejo, you needa lose some weight,” Guango says. He's busy deboning a chicken breast, thick fingers carefully coaxing each one free.
“Stop what you're doing and clear the floor of the freezer,” Papi says.
“What?” “You too, m'ja,” Papi continues. He starts pulling plastic for Guango to wrap his leftover chicken in. Agüita drops her wet-nap and looks up.
“What?” she apes after Guango. They meet in a glance.
“Just do as I say,” Papi Jupi orders, turning again as the shop phone rings. “Cover what we’ve got in plastic.”
Guango props the freezer door open with a bulk box of wax paper, and the cold air wafts out in big, white rolls. Agüita hooks her father's keys onto her cane and limps her way into the small room, carefully feeling out the floor for any slippery patches.
“What the hell is going on?” Guango says above the hum of the freezer. He elbows a rack of unyielded pig carcasses to the back, and the hinges shriek in protest. Agüita winces against the sound and busies herself with pulling long sheets of plastic over and across them. It's crime scene chic.
“Why does something have to be wrong?” she says. Much of their stock is on wheels or racks already, and so pushing them up against the walls isn't difficult, but Guango still hovers behind her just in case. He takes a dolly off her hands, just in case, and intercepts her grip with a shove when she starts to push a metal shelf back, just in case.
“You're in here,” is all he says, and cuts in front of her to take care of another hooked carcass. It swings into the wall with a thud. “Vamos caminando. It's cold as balls in here.”
“It's a freezer,” she says. “It's supposed to be.” Guango sucks his teeth and shepherds her out.
Papi Jupi isn't in the shop when they let themselves back onto the main floor, and the lights aren't on, their OPEN sign facing the seating area. Peeking through the broken blinds, they see Papi talking to a woman seated behind the wheel of an old pick-up whose bed has been repurposed into a horse trailer with planks of wood and soldered metal poles. Small as their town is, Agüita has never seen that particular truck pulled haphazardly onto the curb in front of their shop. The woman is blonde, but not a real one since Agüita can see her roots, and she's familiar in a way that Agüita can't place.
Papi backs up to give the truck room to turn until the bed is facing the doors, and Agüita can't see anything, but Guango's right. Something is definitely up. “Papi?” she ventures when he comes back in.
“Get a cart and come help us,” Papi says to Guango, and gives a palm to Agüita as she steps forward. “M'ja, get behind the counter.”
“Papi,” she says again, because he could never ignore her twice, especially not in a row. His thick hand moves up to cover his mustache and Agüita's stomach cramps.
“Mamey got hit by a car,” he says. The dolly's wheels spin, clatter across the scuffed-tiled floors. “And Camacho is in the hospital.”
“Are they okay? Papi?”
“Get behind the counter, mi vida,” Papi Jupi says, so gentle and fond and sad, and this time she yields.
Agüita used to ride horses in the shadows of the mountains. That's where her neighbors and all the caballeros-in-training would set their horses loose to graze alongside bleating, temperamental goats. The horses watched after themselves, and Agüita watched after them. She was bold then, used to wander out into the tall grass barefoot when everyone was taking their afternoon breaks, Papi Jupi included. She could never sleep, was usually wide-eyed in her bed, listening to the distant wickers of horses until she finally went out to join them. She would talk to them until their ears would unfold to listen, and their strong, dusty bodies would relax. They'd lower their heads to graze again instead of giving her the whites of their eyes. That's how she knew they trusted her, and when they trusted her, she would grab fistfuls of their brush-dry manes and haul herself up onto their sturdy backs.
Agüita taught herself how to pinch their sides with her heels to make them go, how to lean into her turns, what ankle to push into their ribs to make them pivot, to tug what mane she had wrapped around her hands like marionette strings, and how to duck her body close against them to streamline herself until their spines were only a breath apart. They would race along the outline of El Gran Pipón, black beauties and bay Pasos, Barbie's Palomino horses. She loved them, and they loved her the way they would themselves. Agüita was neither human nor horse, but she still belonged.
A paint Paso Fino appeared among the others in the middle of summer one day, sprung from the dirt like a wildflower. This one wasn't wary of her when she approached, continued ripping up shrubbery and snuffling at the flamboyan blossoms that fell across her spotted back. Her eyes were colonizer blue.
Agüita approached with an outstretched hand. The horse's pelt was well-kept, not covered in the usual layer of work dust. She didn't yank the mane the way she did the other horses, but grabbed onto a low-slung branch of the flamboyan, shaking yellow flowers loose.
“What do you think you're doing, muñequita?”
She was eleven and an idiot and fell in love as soon as she looked up. Jinete Camacho wasn't a very handsome man, but he was charming, confident and talented and had the best posture their slice of the island had ever seen. He wore a pava hat as if people still worked the sugarcane fields, and his indio-lacio hair was sweated against his brown forehead. He swung his legs down and leaned into his knees.
“Well?” he'd asked.
“Is she yours?” Agüita bounced back. Her palms were slick on the branch so she let herself drop. Jinete followed.
“Yes. Pride and joy,” he said once he'd wiped his hands on his linen slacks. “She's a Paso Fino, you know. Rides so smooth you can drink a glass of wine and not spill a drop.” He turned his hand up, swirled an invisible goblet. “Do you ride?”
Agüita dug her toes down into the dirt and felt her body burn with his attention and her own shame. Was she supposed to admit to riding other peoples' horses?
“Sometimes,” she finally managed.
He looked out over her head towards the other horses. She twisted around with him and squinted an eye against the sharp sunlight.
“Which one's yours?”
Don Morales's stocky bay battering-rammed Dama Miranda's dusty black Arabian with the flat of his long, broad nose, and she protested with a distance-muffled note.
Agüita thought, she needs a bath, and with a fond smile, said: “All of them.”
The answer must've pleased him, because he spent that summer teaching her how to ride like a real Puerto Rican.
La Funeraria de la Arca had only been meant for people. Not appreciating Papi Jupi's bribe of a second horse if they would stow Mamey with their dead, they answered him with a dial tone. They wheeled Mamey's broken body into the freezer, covered her in plastic like the biggest, most prized cut of meat, and left her with the remnants of pigs and goats she might have known once out in the grassy pastures where she grazed. Agüita kept her eyes covered with her palms so she wouldn't have to see the brownbloodied plastic until she heard the seal of the freezer suck shut.
The blonde woman, Puchi—who worked her way through half a pack of cigarettes, blowing smoke into the floor fan—was Camacho's ex-prometida, and she didn't have a tear to shed for him.
“He deserves it,” she says, ashing her cigarette. She bobs her foot, pulls a mucousy swallow down. “He loved that horse more than he loved me.”
“She was a good horse,” Agüita says, voice frail.
“Good enough to get stuffed.” Puchi's voice pitches high. Guango snorts so hard he reaches up to pinch his nose.
“I mean it,” she continues. “Ay Dios, he wants her taxidermied. Do we have those here? On the island?”
She crushes her cigarette on the bottom of her chair, forehead finding the tips of her fingers.
Papi Jupi is quiet, arms crossed over his belly. His expression is carefully contained sourness, and though he doesn't look at Agüita, she knows she's in his periphery. She knows that when he finally does look at her that he's got something charged to say about Jinete right behind his teeth. His gaze drops. Agüita rolls onto the side of her good foot.
“Shouldn't you be getting to the hospital?” he asks Puchi, who's fumbling with her carton. It flips out of her shaking hands and Guango ducks to catch it.
“Yes.” It's a hard breath out. “No. Never mind. He doesn't love me.” Still, she shoves her chair back to stand.
“Go,” Papi shoos. His irritation is faltering. “I'll call around about a taxidermist.
The sooner I can get this creature out of my freezer, the better.”
Maybe it's the kindness that does it, because Puchi's face crumples the ugly way faces do when people are about to cry. She keeps it in, stutters forward, then back, before Papi heaves a sigh and beckons her into a quick, grateful embrace. Puchi breaks it first, wipes her eyes with the heels of her palms, streaking eyeliner.
“What a weird woman,” Guango says. Agüita ducks past him as fast as her twisted foot will allow as he lifts the countertop and steps behind it.
“Papi, can I go?” she asks as she ambles towards Puchi's truck. The engine has already groaned awake, blows dust up towards their windows where it flattens and spreads. The truck bed yawns open with a creak as the vehicle lurches forward.
“You're not family,” Papi says. “They wouldn't let you in.”
And maybe if he didn't have a dead horse in his freezer, waiting to be stuffed, Papi Jupi would've said yes, but the animal that had crippled his daughter was back there, collecting a fine film of frost like tiny sequins as she waited in death for a verdict. He intercepted Agüita and twisted the lock as though she couldn't pop it open and get out herself, then run—albeit brokenly—after Puchi's truck. It wasn't the act that kept her from moving, but the look he gave her, obstinate and resolute, stubborn as all the horses at the bottom of the mountain.
Jinete Camacho taught Agüita how to ride along with the Paso Fino stride on the back of a borrowed horse. He never gave her a saddle, told her he didn't have an extra, but provided a worn halter that he showed her how to slip over the beast's head.
“You have to push the bit back. Don't worry about being bitten, though. I've been bitten plenty of times.” His fingers, thick and warped and a little scarred, coaxed the bit into the fleshy space in the horse's gums; it chewed experimentally, click click.
“You don't need a saddle to learn, but these'll help,” he continued. He grasped her waist and lifted her easily to mount. He curled her fingers around the reins—she felt unsteady with her elbows cocked at her sides like wings, wanted to lean forward and press her cheek to the creature's spine, monkey her arms around its neck and match its breaths.
“Hold the leather close, but stay loose. Sit up straight.”
“How am I supposed to sit up straight and stay loose at the same time? That's dumb.”
It took her days to get her posture right.
Jinete spent his early afternoons riding alongside her on Mamey, her off-white hooves tapping out a staccato beat into the dirt. None of Agüita's horses would follow suit, refused to pick their legs up unless they threatened to canter. She knew it had nothing to do with them and everything to do with her.
“Pull the reins up,” Jinete directed. “Like this.”
“I am,” she complained, yanking her arms up. The horse tossed her head and stamped her hooves as she came to an abrupt halt.
“Okay,” Jinete said, puzzled. “Okay. Let me try.”
He slipped from Mamey's back and pulled Agüita from hers. His hands found his hips as he took a stroll around the dappled horse, humming low in his throat. Agüita watched him in his jíbarito splendor, Mamey's body a warm outline behind her. He was the ideal. Sometimes, at home, she daydreamed about marrying him. Theceremony would be in this pasture and they would be on horses. He would wear his best pava hat and she would wear her first communion shoes and have ribbons in her hair and they would race back and forth, both in perfect Paso Fino form. She would fall asleep to this thought, but when she would actually dream, she dreamt of being Agüita Camacho, not as his wife, but as rider, as him. She wore the best pava hat with ribbons knotted in her hair, and her fingers, twisted in the reins, were scarred by horse bites. Mamey was brilliant beneath her, her high gait worthy of royalty.
Jinete pulled himself onto the horse's back and grabbed a hold of the reins, clicked his tongue and squeezed its sides. The creature paced forward, strides clipping into high-kneed steps.
“That's not fair!” she called after them as they gained some distance. Jinete's laugh was gobbled up by the mountain.
Agüita grabbed onto Mamey's reigns and stared at the stirrups fastened high at her sides. She'd ridden all the horses in the field except Mamey – she was Jinete's, and he'd never offered once, so Agüita had never asked. But she dreamed, and here, now, she was the only horse close enough to mount, close enough to race after Jinete. Mamey lifted her head, ears erect, and gave a swing of her tail.
“We can catch him, girl,” Agüita said. She placed an unsteady foot into the hot metal stirrup and climbed into Jinete's saddle, still warm from his departure. Agüita didn't have to kick her heels before Mamey took up her Paso pace, colibri-quick.
“Concho!” she yelped, butt thumping against the hard leather seat. She gripped the reins close to her chest, legs too short to properly reach. Her posture wilted with each hard thud, arms frozen. All she wanted was to lean forward and grab for something live so that she'd stay alive. She tipped forward and dug her fingers into Mamey's neck, who bobbed her head and nickered, ears flapping back. Agüita felt herself slide sideways, teeth rattling in her head.
“Stop!” she shrieked.
The wind stripped her ears, made her hair lash her eyes until they watered. Agüita yanked on the reins, but Mamey only turned. She buried her fingers into her mane and tugged, and the horse pushed up in an aborted buck. Agüita's body lifted the same way laundry did when it caught the breeze. When she came down, she kicked her foot out, caught a stirrup, felt her muscles bunch with something that made her lizard brain cry until Mamey jumped again, this time with her back hooves. They clipped the air and Agüita lost her hold, felt her ankle, her knee, her hip twist, pop, a stiff legged action figure pulled in two different directions. She was hard plastic. She was a flapping doll. Her side flared hot, the burning wick of a votive candle.
There was no pain after that.
Jinete Camacho is pronounced dead as soon as Papi Jupi says that he's found an embalmer willing to try his hand at taxidermy. His name's Don Sendo and he reminds Agüita of the cartoon version of Gomez Addams, and she wonders why morticians always have to look the part. He's visiting the carnecería, is standing at the threshold of the open freezer, arms crossed, the cold freezing the sweat on his face, when Puchi calls them. Guango picks up, holds the phone far from his ear—they can all hear her wails, tinny and high, shrilling from the phone and know him to be dead.
“You take it,” Guango says to Agüita before she can get away.
Her breath is caught in her chest, lips pressed colorless.
“Hello?” Her voice is tentative.
“I'm going to have to pay for this,” Puchi is saying when Agüita finally presses the phone to her ear. “All the money I was going to use to get married I'm going to have to give to his mother.”
Agüita's breath is thready. She tells herself that it's not her tragedy to mourn. Papi Jupi hovers in the doorway that leads to the back.
“His mother has barely any money! So that's the wake and the horse and the hospital bill! A casket and a plot—because she's Catholic and doesn't want him cremated even though it'd be the most convenient, not to mention cheaper.”
Agüita's gaze slides to her father and Don Sendo. Their mustaches are twitching with low-spoken words and Guango stands between them, one arm crossed over his chest, an elbow propped up, hand at his mouth. He's nodding, scrubbing his upper lip like her father does, though there's nothing there for him to rub.
“I wanted to go to Nueva Yol with this money,” Puchi continues, and Agüita is startled, laughs. “It's not funny,” Puchi says.
“Sorry,” Agüita says back.
There's a horse in their freezer and a hero dead in the hospital and a stranger sobbing into the other end of the phone. Her father's haggling prices with an embalmer and Guango is pretending to listen along like he knows what's going on, and her twisted foot aches. Agüita wants to be out in the shadow of El Gran Pipón. She wants to chase goats and talk to the horses and learn to ride a Paso Fino like a real Puerto Rican.
“Don't worry about a casket,” she says into the phone when Puchi's lost steam.
“How am I not supposed to worry?” the woman snaps. There are tears sticky in her voice, finally, the same way there were tears sticky in Agüita's laugh.
Agüita stares at her father and Don Sendo, until Don Sendo looks her way.
“Maybe we can stuff Camacho too,” she says, and she doesn't think she says it loud enough for Don Sendo to hear, but his face clears and her heart rattles behind
her ribs. She says it and she knows it must be the right choice. “He would've wanted to die riding.”
“There's nothing in the books against it,” Don Sendo says when Agüita tells him.
“This is sacrilegious.” Papi Jupi crosses himself.
“Nothing in that book either.” Don Sendo says. “I know. I've read them all.”
“He's got a point,” Guango says. Papi shoots him a look and he pulls back, palms upraised. He backtracks, “I mean, what about that thing about idols?” Guango casts for Agüita.
The hand on her cane is sweating and their attention makes her face go ruddy.
“It's what he would've wanted.”
“His horse is in our freezer!” Papi's hands fly into the air. “He's wanted enough!”
“Just one more thing,” Agüita begs. “And he's gone for good.”
“No,” Papi Jupi says. “He won't be.” He shakes his head and steps back. “I'm not paying for this.”
“No, you're not.” Agüita turns to Don Sendo. “Puchi is. She said it's fine.” She had said 'whatever,' but it was as good a yes as they would get from her.
“It'll be expensive,” Don Sendo warns.
“I know,” she says. Amends: “She knows.”
It takes weeks, and foot traffic at the carnecería slows when customers find out they'd had a horse stuffed in their fridge. A rumor goes around that they've been serving the town horse meat for years. Puchi visits every day, nails bitten to their beds and argues with Guango when it strikes her. Papi Jupi cuts their hours and, for a while, refuses to speak to his daughter, so Agüita spends more and more time in the fields below El Gran Pipón, struggling with each step into the brush, just to watch familiar and new horses pick their way through the grass and chase the goats. Don Morales' bay always comes the closest, always snuffles his way into her palm, soft and warm. She is never scared. It shakes loose within her a longing she'd all but forgotten.
Don Sendo is Doctor Frankenstein to Agüita. Sometimes she imagines a stuffed person looks like the dolls at the wax museum she saw on television years ago. Sometimes she thinks of the great brass statues in the parks around the island, all dedicated to men she is told are worth remembering. She wonders if Mamey will look like the velvet horses she used to have as a child, the ones that came packaged with little plastic combs; and she keeps herself up at night, thinking about what Don Sendo will replace her blue eyes with. Maybe polished twos stolen from the local pool hall. Maybe glass marbles filled with salt water. She can't imagine any stone being Mamey blue.
“I tried calling ahead,” Don Sendo says to her when he pulls up to the shop one evening. “But no one picked up.”
“We haven't really been checking,” Agüita says, setting her broom aside. It clicks against the glass window Guango had scrubbed and scrubbed that morning. “We keep getting prank calls and complaints.”
Don Sendo nods. He jingles his keys in his pocket and a silence balms the air between them, like maybe he's not quite sure how to proceed, like he's never had to make small talk once in his life. “Well,” he begins, then pauses, presumably thinking better of it. “If you get everyone together, I can take you to see the man and his horse. A soft reveal, if you will.”
Agüita's fingers wrinkle her slacks. “They're done?”
Don Sendo holds his thumb and forefinger close together. “Just about.”
Agüita glances back through the window of the shop. Guango is behind the counter, head bowed, and she knows he'd be willing to accompany her for the spectacle of it, and the thought makes her ill. Papi Jupi is nowhere to be seen, and she knows he'd be too bitter. She thinks of Puchi, of Jinete's mother, wonders where they could be and how long it would take them to get there. The list of people grows longer and longer, a horse tail snapping tangled in the wind.
“Let me see them,” she says, and Don Sendo wrinkles his chin. “Let me see them first. Please.”
Don Sendo refers to his mustache. Agüita tucks her fingers into her palm.
“Okay,” he says finally. He opens the passenger door of his station wagon for her.
Agüita lowers herself as carefully as she can into his car. The bell of the carnecería jingles as Don Sendo starts it. Guango's mouth is opening, closing, but it's too late. They are already on their way.
“This is the best work I've ever done,” he tells her outside the funeral home. The tile floors in the parlor are so polished Agüita can see herself in them and it's so cold her skin pimples. Her sweat makes her shiver. “This is something. This is going to catch on.”
He's excited, his shoulders are bunched in close, tight. He leads her into the chapel through one of the side wings, past banquet tables stacked with pressed, folded linens, tin trays, and open boxes of wine. There is no grand gesture in the reveal—the door to the chapel has already been propped open, and there in the center of the room, a spotlight trained over them in a halo, is Camacho, his posture as perfect as it had been in life now in death. His hair is combed neat, swept off of his forehead to tuck underneath a jauntily tilted hat. He is smiling, and it looks like his smile, looks real, except that his teeth are hidden, and that's Agüita's only indication that he's not alive. They stare up at him on beautiful Mamey, her dainty hoof upraised, her coat so glossy that when the light shifts she might as well be breathing. She looks ready to spring into the sea of chairs around them. She is heartbreaking. Her eyes are blue marbles and they glitter, they gleam.
“They're perfect,” Agüita breathes, but the word is jagged in her mouth. All that perfection blooms at once in her chest, blooms too quickly, is too much to handle, and she feels a seam splitting from sternum to hip, threatening to tear her open. The shadow of Jinete's upraised arm bars her face, and his hand, palm-up, balances an empty wine glass. Don Sendo catches the line of her sight.
“I'm going to fill it with real wine for the actual wake,” he says, and she hears the proud bristling of his words. “Shall we call the others now?”
Agüita sinks down into the front row, gripping her cane tight. “Yes.”
Don Sendo lingers, but Agüita is unmoved, eyes fixed on a single point. “Alright,” he says to the empty room. “I'll be back.”
When it's just her, Jinete and Mamey, Agüita can smell the dust and dry grass beneath the mountain. She can hear the noisy goats, the hollow nickers. She wants to close her eyes, but she can't. For once, her body doesn't ache.
Even in death, Jinete is magnificent. A jíbaro in his prime, but not perfect, not yet. Agüita stands and scrapes her chair closer. Mamey must be bolted to the stand, she thinks, reaching out to stroke the fur Don Sendo had so meticulously stretched taught. She's firm and sun-warm. Agüita traces her way to Jinete's leg, and his canvas pants, pressed just so, are also warm to the touch. His leg feels alien beneath her hand. She drags her chair closer, then crosses into the wings for the box of wine.
She decides then that she will complete him, even though she can hardly bend to set her cane down against Mamey's back hooves and has to clutch her flank to pull herself up. Mamey doesn't budge beneath her. Agüita lifts the chair next, and then crouches carefully on the cushioned seat. She remembers Jinete's hands around her ribs when she was a child, lifting her in one fluid motion to sit upon the bony back of a horse that has long since disappeared in her memory. She stands with a wobble and is just tall enough to tip the wine into Jinete's glass.
Which one is yours? she can almost hear him asking.
“All of them,” she says, dropping the bottle and swinging her bad leg over Mamey's back. The horse rocks beneath her, but not as much as Jinete does in his saddle; he creaks like old leather when she bumps in behind him. He's not stitched on properly, she realizes, his feet aren't anchored to the stirrups.
“What are you doing?” Agüita hears Don Sendo shout behind her, but it's too late. Jinete is falling, his hat whipping into the air, and Agüita leans forward in an instant, like Mamey is bursting straight out the gate, bad leg and good leg hugging her empty ribs tight, and snatches the wine glass free from his hand. His body, perfect even after being struck by a car, tilts, slides, hits the ground with a thud and with a rush of breath, Agüita thrusts the glass into the air out of the way and the wine spins, sloshes, but she keeps her hand still and steady and strong, and not a drop is spilt, just like Jinete had promised years ago from the back of his Paso Fino.