The girl is back. She stands silhouetted against the sunshine, the great Barn doors thrown open. Wisps of newly-mown hay lift and scatter. Light floods into the stalls.
‘Hi horsies!’ The girl is holding a cloth napkin full of peaches. She walks up to the first stall and holds out a pale yellow fruit.
Rutherford arches his neck towards her outstretched hand. Freckles of light float across his patchy hindquarters. He licks the girl’s palm according to a code that he’s worked out,—-—-, which means that he is Rutherford Birch Hayes, the nineteenth President of the United States of America, and that she should alert the local officials.
‘Ha-ha!’ the girl laughs. ‘That tickles.’
When Rutherford woke up inside the horse’s body, he was tied to a stout flag post. He couldn’t focus his new eyes. He was wearing blinders. A flag was whipping above him, but Rutherford was tethered so tightly to the post that he couldn’t twist his neck to count the stars. He could hear a clock gonging somewhere nearby, a sound that rattled through his chest in waves. That clock must be broken, Rutherford thought. It struck upwards of twelve times, of twenty, more gongs than there were hours in a day. After a certain number of repetitions, it ceased to mean anything.
Rutherford stared down into a drainage ditch and saw a horse’s broody face staring back at him. His hooves were rough, unfeeling endings. He stamped, and he couldn’t feel the ground beneath him. The gonging wasn’t a clock at all, he realized with a warm spreading horror, but the thudding of his giant equine heart.
A man with a prim moustache and a mean slouch blundered towards him, streaked fire up Rutherford’s sides with a forked quirt, shoved Rutherford into a dark trailer. The quirt lashed out again and again, until he felt certain that he had been damned to a rural Hell.
‘The Devil!’ Rutherford thought as the man drew closer. He shied away, horrified. But then the man reached up and gave him a gentle ear-scratch and an amber cube of sugar, confounding things further.
The man seemed a little on the short side to be God. His fly was down, his polka-dotted underclothes exposed. Surely God would not have faded crimson dots on his underclothes? Surely God would wear a belt? The man kept stroking his blond moustache. His voice sounded thick and wrong to Rutherford’s ears: ‘He’s in, hyuh-hyuh. Give her the gas, Phyllis!’
The trailer rolled forward, and in three days’ time Rutherford reached the Barn. He has been stabled there ever since.
The Barn is part of a modest horse farm, its pastures rolling forwards into a blank, mist-cloaked horizon. The landscape is flat and corn-yellow and empty of people. In fact, the prairies look a lot like the grasslands of Kentucky. There are anthills everywhere, impossibly huge, heaped like dirt monsters.
There are twenty-two stalls in the Barn. Eleven of the stabled horses are, as far as Rutherford can ascertain, former presidents of the United States of America. The other stalls are occupied by regular horses, who give the presidents suspicious, sidelong looks. Rutherford B. Hayes is a skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare. Rutherford hasn’t made many inroads with these regular horses. The Clydesdales are cliquish and pink-gummed, and the palominos are inbred buffoons.
The ratio of presidents to normal horses in the Barn appears to be constant, eleven: eleven. Rutherford keeps trying and failing to make these numbers add up to some explanation (‘Let’s see, if I am the nineteenth President but the fourth to arrive in the Barn, and if eleven divided by eleven is one, then…hrm, let me start again…). He’s still no closer to figuring out the algorithm that determined their rebirth here. ‘Just because a ratio’s stable doesn’t make it meaningful,’ says James Garfield, a tranquil grey percheron, and Rutherford agrees. Then he goes back to his frantic cosmic arithmetic.
The presidents feel certain that they are still in America, although there’s no way for them to confirm this. The year—if time still advances the way it did when they were President—is indeterminate. A day gets measured in different increments out here. Grass brightens, and grass dims. Glass cobwebs spread across the tractor’s window at dawn. Eisenhower claims that they are stabled in the past: ‘The skies are empty,’ he nickers. ‘Not a B-52 in sight.’
To Rutherford, this new life hums with the strangeness of the future. The man has a cavalry of electric beasts that he rides over his acreage: ruby tractors and combines that would have caused Rutherford’s constituents to fall off their buggies with shock. The man climbs into the high tractor seat and turns a tiny key, and then the engine roars and groans with an unintelligible hymn. Cherubs strumming harps couldn’t have impressed Rutherford more than these humming ploughs of the hereafter.
‘Come back! That’s not holy music, you dummy!’ Eisenhower yells. ‘It’s just diesel!’
The man goes by the name of Fitzgibbons. The girl appears to be Fitzgibbon’s niece. (Rutherford used to think the girl was an Angel of Mercy, but that was before the incident with the wasps.) She refers to the man as ‘Uncle Fitzy’, a moniker that many of the presidents find frankly alarming. Rutherford, for his part, feels only relief. ‘Fitzy’ certainly doesn’t seem so bad when you consider the many infernal alternatives: Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, old Serpent, the Prince of Darkness, the Author of Evil, Mister Scratch. Even if Fitzgibbons does turn out to be the Devil, Rutherford thinks, there is something strangely comforting about his Irish surname.
At first many of the presidents assumed that Fitzgibbons was God, but there’s been plenty of evidence to suggest that their reverence was misplaced. Fitzgibbons is not a good shepherd. He sleeps in and lets his spring lambs toddle into ditches. The presidents have watched a drunken Fitzgibbons fall off the roof of the shed. They have listened to Fitzgibbons cursing his dead mother. If Fitzgibbons is God, then every citizen of the Union is in dire jeopardy.
‘Well, I for one have great faith in Fitzgibbons. I think he is a just and merciful Lord.’ James Buchanan can only deduce, given his administration’s many accomplishments, that this Barn must be heaven. Buchanan has been reborn as a fastidious bay, a gelding sired by that racing great Caspian Rickleberry. ‘Do you know that I have an entry in the Royal Ledger of Equine Bloodlines, Rutherford? It’s true.’ His nostrils flare with self-regard. ‘I am being rewarded,’ Buchanan insists, ‘for annexing Oregon.’
‘But don’t you think Heaven would smell better, Mr Buchanan?’ Warren Harding is a flatulent roan pony who can’t digest grass. ‘The Presidency was hell,’ he hiccups, ‘All I wanted was to get out of that damn White House, and now look where I’ve ended up. Dispatch for Mr Dante: hell doesn’t happen in circles. This Barn is one square acre of hell and Fitzgibbons is the devil!’
Rutherford lately tries to avoid the question. All the explanations that the other presidents have come up with for what has befallen them, and why, feel too simple to Rutherford. Heaven or Hell, every president gets the same ration of wormy apples. Every president is stabled in a 12′ by 12′ stall.
Maybe we have the whole question reversed, mixed-up, Rutherford sighs. At night the wind goes tearing through the Barn’s invisible eaves and he wonders. Maybe the man is Heaven, the mobile hand that brings them grain and water. Maybe the Barn itself is God. If Rutherford lops his ears outwards, the Barn’s rafters snap with the reverb of something celestial. At dusk, Fitzgibbons feeds them, waters them, shuts the door. Then the Barn breathes with the promise of fire. Stars pinwheel behind the black gaps in the roof. Rutherford can hear the splinters groaning inside wood, waiting to ignite. Perhaps that will be the way to our next life, Rutherford thinks, the lick of blue lightning that sets the Barn ablaze and changes us more finally.
Perhaps in his next body Rutherford will find his wife Lucy.
One day, at the end of an otherwise unremarkable afternoon, James Garfield makes it over the Fence. Nobody sees him jump it. Fitzgibbons and the girl come in to groom the horses, and Rutherford B. Hayes overhears them talking about it. Shouting, really: ‘Well, I’ll be sweetly pickled! A runaway!’ Fitzgibbon’s face looked blood-pulsed, flush from the search. But his eyes crinkle up with delight. Sunup, sundown, Fitzgibbons follows the same routine. Surprise is a rare and precious feeling on the farm.
‘How do you like that, angel? We’ve never had a runaway before…’
‘But where did he run to, Uncle Fitzy?’
Fitzgibbons grins down at her. ‘I don’t know.’
Fitzgibbons doesn’t seem at all put out by the loss. Something about the way that he squints into the green mist beyond the Fence makes Rutherford think that Fitzgibbons is rooting for Garfield’s escape.
‘Do you think that Garfield will return?’ James Buchanan asks now, looking nervous. ‘Because he must return, for the good of the Barn. We elected Garfield to represent the mallards. Who is going to speak out on behalf of the mallards at our next Convention? You can’t just shirk a duty like that. You can’t just abandon your post!’
Apparently, you can, thinks Rutherford. The other presidents all stare at the waves in the air in James Garfield’s stall.
The next incumbent
The following morning, Fitzgibbons comes in early to clean out Garfield’s stall. The Barn buzzes with speculation about the next president to join the ranks. Millard Fillmore is nervous enough for all of them. ‘Do you think he will be an agreeable sort of man? Do you think he will be a Republican? Why, what if he’s just a regular stud horse, and not a president at all…?’
Nobody answers him. Every man is scheming in the privacy of his own horse-body. Andrew Jackson, a stocky black quarter-horse stabled next to Rutherford, can barely contain his ambitions in his deep ribs. You can feel his human cunning quiver from the fetlock up. ‘Whoever the newcomer is, I will defeat him,’ he says. Jackson has been lonely for an adversary. Every spring he runs uncontested for the office of Spokeshorse of the Western Territories. Many of the presidents have sworn themselves in to similarly foolish titles: Governor of the Cow Pastures, Commanding General of the Standing Chickens. They reminisce about their political opponents like old lovers. There’s a creeping emptiness to winning an office that nobody else is seeking.
At noon, Fitzgibbons leads the new soul in. He’s a thoroughbred with four white socks and a cranberry tint to his mane. Buchanan recognizes him right away: ‘John Adams!’
Adams lets out a whinny so raw with relief that it dislodges sleeping bats from the rafters: ‘You know me!’ Adams woke up just yesterday, in the dark, close trailer that he assumed was a roomy coffin. ‘Excepting that I could see sunshine through the slats,’ he says in a voice still striped with fear. He seems grateful when Buchanan gives him a friendly bite on the shoulder.
‘Are we dead?’
Ten horses nod their heads.
‘Is this heaven?’
It’s an awkward question. Ears flatten; nostrils dilate as wide as a man’s fist. Rutherford unleashes a warm, diplomatic sneeze to ease the tension.
‘That depends,’ shrugs Ulysses. A series of bleary, battle-weary lines cross-hatch his black nose. ‘Do you want this to be heaven? Does this look like heaven to you?’
Adams studies the dark whorls of mildew, the frizz of lofted hay, his own hooves. He goes stiff in the ears, considering. ‘That also depends. Is Jefferson here?’
Jefferson is not. There are many absences in the Barn of unknown significance: George Washington, Lincoln, Nixon, Harrison. The presidents haven’t arrived in the order of their deaths, either. Woodrow Wilson got here before Andrew Jackson, and Eisenhower has been here since the beginning.
‘But we can’t live out our afterlives as common beasts!’ Adams’s eyes shine with horror. ‘There must be some way back to Washington! I am still alive, and I am certainly no horse.’
There is always this period of denial when new presidents first arrive in the Barn. Eisenhower still refuses to own up to his own mane and tail. ‘I’m not dead, either, John Adams,’ Eisenhower says. ‘I’m just incognito. The Secret Service must have found some way to hide me here, until such a time as I can return to my body and resume governance of this country. I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I’m no horse.’
‘I’m no horse!’ Andrew Jackson mimics. He butts Eisenhower with the flat of his head. ‘What the Christ are you, then?’
‘The thirty-fourth President of the United States.’ Eisenhower shakes burrs from his tail in a thorny maelstrom.
Adams is rolling his eyes around the Barn, on the verge of rearing. His gums go purple: ‘Gentlemen, we must get out of here! Help me out of this body!’ By the looks of things, Adams will be a stall-kicker. He kicks again and again, until splinters go flying. ‘We need to alert our constituents to what has befallen us. Gentlemen, rally! What’s keeping us here? The doors to the Barn stand wide open.’
‘Rutherford,’ says Ulysses. He stands sixteen hands high and retains his general’s authority. ‘Why don’t you show our good fellow Adams the Fence?’
Rutherford and Adams trot out of the dark Barn into a light silvery rain. The fence wood is rotted with age, braided through with wild weeds. Each sharpened post rises a level four feet tall, midway up the horses’ thick chests. Fitzgibbons put it up to discourage the fat blue geese from flight.
‘This is the Fence? This is what keeps us prisoners here? Why, I could jump it this moment!’
Rutherford regards Adams sadly. ‘Go ahead, then. Give it a try.’
Adams charges the Fence. His forelegs lift clean off the ground as he runs. At the last second, he groans and turns sharply to the left. It looks as if he is shying away from an invisible wall. He shakes his small head, stamps and whinnies, and charges again. Again he is repelled by some invisible thicket of fear. Sweat glistens on his dark coat.
‘Blast, what is it?’ Adams cries. ‘Why can’t I jump it?’
‘We don’t know.’ The presidents have tried and failed to get over the Fence every day of their new lives. Rutherford thinks it’s an ophthalmological problem. A sharp dark corner in the mind that forces a sharp turn.
‘How did James Garfield manage it? And where did he run to?’ Garfield’s hoofprints disappear at the edge of the paddock. The fence posts point at the blue sky. Adams and Rutherford stare at the trackless black mud on the other side of the Fence. There are two deep crescents where Garfield began the jump, and then nothing. It’s as if Garfield vanished into the cool morning air.
Animal memories and past administrations
Woodrow Wilson is giving speeches in his sleep again: Ah, ah, these are very serious and pregnant questions, Woodrow mumbles, his voice thick with an old nightmare. Upon the answer to them depends the peace of the world.
Poor Wilson, Rutherford thinks, watching as he addresses the questions of a phantom nation. Wilson paws at the stall floor as he dreams, his lips still moving. The world is drafting new questions, new answers, without him.
In his own dreams, Rutherford never returns to the White House. Instead his memory takes him back to his Ohio home of Spiegel Grove, back to the rainy morning of his death. Unlike the other presidents, Rutherford’s dreams find him paralyzed, powerless. He remembers watching the moisture pearl on his bedroom window, the crows lining the curved white rail of his veranda. Lucy’s half of the huge pine bed had been empty for years. In the end, divested of all decisions, there was only an old thick-waisted nurse opening his mouth, filling it with tastes, urging him to swallow. Boyhood tastes, blood-pumpkin stew and sugared beets. His son and his youngest daughter were two smudges above the bedside. The boy quietly endeavoured to blink goodbye. Then Rutherford’s throat began to close, shutting him off from all words, and he felt himself filling with silence. The silence was a field of cotton growing white and forever inside him. Rutherford wasn’t afraid to die. My Lucy, he remembers thinking, will be waiting for me on the other side.
The first first lady
Lucy Webb Hayes was the first president’s wife to be referred to as a First Lady. Nobody besides Rutherford and a few balding White House archivists remembers her. Rutherford wishes that he was still a man and that she was still a Lady. He wishes that he had a hand to put on her waist. ‘Lucy?’ he hisses at a passing mallard. ‘Lucy Webb?’ Women revert to their maiden names in Heaven, Rutherford feels fairly certain. He can’t remember where he learned this—France or the Bible.
The duck goes clucking away from him, raising the green tips of its wings in alarm. When Rutherford looks up, Fitzgibbons and the girl are standing at the edge of the pasture, looking at him strangely. ‘Uncle Fitzy? Does it sound like that horsie is quacking to you?’ Rutherford and Fitzgibbons stare at each other for a long moment.
‘You know, Sarge has been acting up lately. All of the horses have been behaving mighty queer. Worms, maybe. We ought to get the vet out here. We ought to get them some of those hydrangea shots.’
After Fitzgibbons and the girl disappear behind the house, Rutherford continues on his quest to find the soul of his wife. There is a sheep that Rutherford has noticed grazing on the north pasture, slightly apart from the others. The sheep perks up when Rutherford trots over. It might be his imagination, but he thinks he sees a fleck of recognition, ice-blue, floating in her misty iris.
‘President Wilson?’ Rutherford nudges him excitedly. ‘Could I trouble you to take a look at one of the ewes?’ Rutherford has heard that Woodrow Wilson grazed sheep on the South Lawn. He hopes that Woodrow will be able to confirm his suspicion.
‘Your wife, you say?’ Wilson exchanges glances with the other horses. ‘Well, I will gladly take a look, President Hayes.’ His voice is pleasant enough, but his ears peak up into derisive triangles. Rutherford’s shame grows with each hoof-fall. The closer they get to the sheep pasture, the more preposterous his hope begins to seem. His trot hastens into a canter until Woodrow is breathless, struggling to keep pace with him. ‘Slow down, man,’ he grumbles. They stand in the rain and stare at the sheep. She’s taking placid bites of grass, ignoring the downpour. Her white fleece is pasted to her side. ‘Uh-oh,’ says Woodrow. ‘Hate to break it to you, but I think that’s just your standard sheep. Not, er, not a First Lady, no.’
‘Her eyes, though…’
‘Yes, I see what you mean. Cataracts. Unfortunate.’
Rutherford thanks him for his assessment.
‘President Hayes?’ Eisenhower is smirking at them from across the field. ‘Pardon, am I interrupting something? The other presidents have all gathered behind the bunny hutch. You are late again, sir.’ Rutherford straightens abruptly, his cowlick flopping into the black saucers of his eyes. He takes an instinctual step in front of sheep-Lucy to shield her from Eisenhower’s purple sneer.
‘Late for what? Not another caucus on that apple tax.’
‘We voted that into law two weeks ago, Rutherford,’ Eisenhower sighs. ‘Tonight it’s the Adams’ referendum. On the proposed return to Washington? We are leaving in three days’ time.’
Washington or oblivion
Secret deals get brokered behind the Barn, just north of the red sloop of the bunny hutch. A number of the presidents are planning their escape for a day they are calling the Fourth of July.
‘The country is drowning in sorrow,’ Adams snorts. It’s high summer. Oats fall around him like float-down snow. ‘Our country needs us.’
After several months of nickered rhetoric, Adams has convinced a half dozen of the former presidents to be his running mates in a charge on Washington. Whig, Federalist, Democrat, Republican—Adams urges his fellow horses to put aside these partisan politics and join him in the push for liberty. He wants the world to know that they have returned. ‘It is obvious, gentlemen: of course we’re meant to lead again. It is the only thing that makes sense. What other purpose could we have been reborn for? What other—’
Adams is interrupted by a storm of hiccups. Behind him, Fitzgibbons is hitching Harding to a child-sized wagon. He helps the girl into the wooden wagon bed. Fitzgibbons grins as he hands the child the reins, avuncular and unconcerned, his big arms crossed against his suspendered chest.
‘And tell me,’ Rutherford asks quietly, ‘tell me, what evidence do you have that the country needs us to lead again? They seem to be getting on just fine without us.’
Now Harding is pulling the girl in miserable rectangles around the bare dirt yard, hiccupping madly. ‘This—hiccup!—is—hiccup!—Hell.’ The girl waves a dandelion at him like a wilted yellow sceptre. ‘Giddy-up, horsie!’ she laughs.
Aside from Rutherford and Harding, the other presidents are in ecstasies. ‘Surely the term limits of the Twenty-Second Amendment won’t apply to me any more. This rebirth is the loophole that will let me run again, Rutherford.’ Eisenhower grins for some invisible camera, exposing his huge buck teeth. ‘And win.’
Oh dear, thinks Rutherford. That smile is not going to play well on the campaign trail.
‘With all due respect, sir, I fear you might be seeking the wrong office? I think there are some, er, obstacles to your run that you perhaps haven’t considered?’
‘Obstacles?’ A fly buzzes drowsily between them and lands on one trembling whisker. ‘Now, give me some credit, Rutherford. I’ve put a lot of thought into this. Let me outline my campaign strategy for you…’ Eisenhower has made this speech before.
‘And what about you, Rutherford? What are you, a stallion incumbent or a spineless nag?’
Rutherford blinks slowly and doesn’t answer Eisenhower. Both options are depressing. He doesn’t want to return to Washington, if there even is a Washington. He just wants a baaa of recognition out of this one ewe.
‘Neither. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving my wife.’
‘Baaa!’ says the sheep. She is standing right behind him. Her head is a black triangle floating on the huge cloud of her body. Rutherford has been training the sheep who might be Lucy to follow him. He holds his own supper in his mouth and then drops clumps of millet and wet apple cores to coax her forwards. ‘Come on, sweet Lucy, let’s go back to the Barn.’
The other presidents mock him openly, their ears pivoting with laughter. The sheep trails him like a pet delusion. Or like a wife who hasn’t woken up to the fact of our love yet! Rutherford tells himself, tempting her with another chewed-up apple. White apples stud the slick grass behind him. The sheep that might be his wife follows him into the Barn, blinking her long lashes like a deranged starlet.
The girl comes again later that evening with a curry comb and six leafy carrots. Her arrival causes riotous stirring in the Barn.
‘Does the child have her book bag?’ Buchanan inches forwards in his stall and cranes his neck, trying to see around the child’s narrow back.
‘Yes!’ Adams crows. ‘To arms, gentlemen!’
The horses have been trying to get hold of the girl’s school books for some time. Every president wants to find out how history regards him. Fitzgibbons is no help; he is maddeningly apolitical. He’ll spend hours musing out loud about fertilizer or the toughness of bean hulls. But Fitzgibbons never complains about property taxes. He never mentions a treaty or a war. He seems curiously removed from the issues of his day.
‘Get her book bag,’ Eisenhower hisses. There’s something sinister about the angle at which his lips curl over his rubbery gums. The girl’s school bag is leaning against the Barn door frame.
Van Buren tries to hypnotize the child by rhythmically swishing his tail. ‘Look over here, girlie! Swish! Swish!’ He shakes his head from side to side. Eisenhower steps gingerly into the looped strap of the child’s bag and drags it with his foreleg. He has it almost to the edge of his stall before she notices.
‘Uncle Fitzy!’ the girl yells. ‘Gingersnap is being bad!’ Eisenhower hates it when she calls him Gingersnap. He complains about it with a statesman’s pomp: ‘Gentlemen, there exists no more odious appellation than…’—nose crumpling, black lips curling—’Gingersnap.’
The girl walks forwards and snatches her book bag back, but not before Eisenhower has shaken it upside-down and kicked several of the books under a clump of hay. ‘Hurry,’ he hisses, ‘before Fitzgibbons comes with the whip!’
The presidents crowd around the books. Literature, mathematics, science, cursive. No history book. The Cursive book has fallen open to a page thick with hundreds of lowercase bs. Eisenhower sends the books flying with a swift kick from his right foreleg, disgusted. ‘Every subject but American history! What has become of our education system? What are they teaching children in schools these days?!’ It’s an urgent question. What are they teaching children these days? And how is each president remembered? That’s the afterlife the presidents are interested in. Not this anonymous, fly-swatting limbo.
James Buchanan is busy rewriting his memoirs, Mr Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion. He is furious that none of the other presidents ever read the original while they were alive. ‘Yeah, about that,’ coughs Harding. ‘Pretty sure that’s out of print.’
It’s a laboured process. Equine anatomy severely limits the kinds of letters the presidents can straight-leg into the dirt. Buchanan can draw an H, an F, an E, an A, a T, an I, an X with the meticulous action of his right hoof. Z, once you get the hang of it, is also quite easy. Os and Us and Ss are impossible. Ks and Ws leave him shuddery and spent. Buchanan never questions his own record of the past; commas are tough enough, and he would have to break his leg to make a question mark. He is just now putting the finishing touches to Chapter Four. ‘Voila, gentlemen! And now I will add a final paragraph of summation and then on to chapter…oh no!’ Fitzgibbons rolls one of his red fleet of tractors over Buchanan’s sod parchment, erasing even the prologue.
Rutherford used to believe it was the civic duty of every elected official to preserve a full record of his administration. While in office, he was a compulsive memoirist who filled dozens of journals with his painstaking school-boy script. But now he has only a single use for the human alphabet. He hoofs messages in the rich loam behind the coop, too, but they are for one woman instead of posterity. LL-L-L he writes, by which he means, Lucy.
Hunger and restraint
Rutherford is losing weight. He keeps the sheep near him all the time now, crooning to her through closed gums: ‘Lucy, Lucy, give me your answer do. I’m half-crazy…’
‘Pipe down, Rutherford,’ snaps Harding. ‘Stop giving that sheep your food, you idiot. You will starve to death if you keep it up.’
Rutherford ignores the other presidents and kneels next to the sheep. He smiles at the blue fleck of evidence that his wife is hiding somewhere inside this fleecy body. I know you, he whispers. He lets a brown apple plop into the sawdust between them. The sheep eats it with gusto, and Rutherford hopes this means his love is requited.
In the morning, Fitzgibbons yelps when he discovers the sheep in the stall with Rutherford. ‘Sarge!’ Fitzgibbons smacks a palm against his bald head. ‘What in the hell are you doing with that blind ewe? That is spooky, Sarge. That is goddamn unnatural. You feeling sick, Sarge? You get into some rat poison or something?’ Fitzgibbons approaches Rutherford with the oiled halter. ‘Come along now,’ he grunts. ‘Open up…’ He jostles a carrot around Rutherford’s stubbornly pursed lips. A second later, the carrot has disappeared and Fitzgibbons is cursing and hopping on one foot. ‘Jesus!’ he growls. ‘Sarge, you old fleabag, you bit me!’
I am becoming very clever at getting the carrot without opening up for the bit, Rutherford thinks. He keeps the carrot in a pouch in his cheek, a gift for Lucy. At the games of hunger and restraint, my fellow countrymen, I am becoming excellent.
In the yard, the other presidents are still hungry for power. They are practising for the return to Washington. Adams is so starved for dominion that he begs the girl to allow him to represent her interests to her uncle Fitzgibbons. ‘Elect me to take part in the public life of your Barn, young lady, and I shall act a fearless, intrepid, undaunted part, at all hazards…’
‘Ha-ha, Mister Pretty, you are so noisy today!’ The girl hums a nonsense tune as she plaits Adams’ tail with geraniums.
Martin Van Buren is barn sour, but even he shouts out impossible promises at the turkeys from the dim interior of his stall: ‘You are my constituents, my turkeys,’ Van Buren neighs, ‘and the love I feel for you is forever.’ The turkeys promenade around the yard and ignore him. Rutherford wonders if they, too, have human biographies hidden beneath their black feathers. The presidents spend a lot of time talking about where the other citizens of the Union might have ended up. Wilson thinks the suffragettes probably came back as kicky rabbits.
‘I don’t understand,’ Rutherford says. ‘Don’t you gentlemen realize that you are stumping for nothing? What sort of power could you hope to achieve out here?’
Rutherford was ready for his term to be over. He was happy to keep his promise not to run for re-election. He had been a reluctant incumbent in the first place, unwilling to leave his war post to take a furlough for the stump. Mark Twain campaigned for him, and still he never expected to win. Rutherford never knew a generous margin in the whole of his life. His victory was the most disputed in American history. A single electoral vote would have given the Presidency to Samuel J. Tilden. ‘It was a squeaker,’ Eisenhower nods. ‘I remember studying it in school.’ Often, Rutherford wonders what would have happened if Tilden had won. He wonders if he has unjustly displaced Tilden from this stall in the blank country-sun of the after-life.
If we could just reach a consensus that this is heaven, Rutherford snorts, we could submit to it, the joy of wind and canter and the stubbed ashy sweetness of trough carrots, burnished moons, crushing the secret smells out of grass. I would be free to gallop. The only heaven that Rutherford has known in the Barn comes in single moments: a warm palm on his nose, fresh hay, a tiny feast of green thistle made nearly invisible by the sun. At dawn, heaven is a feeling that comes when the wind sweeps the fields. Heaven is this wind Rutherford knows for an instant, bending a million yellow heads of wheat.
By nightfall, though, the wheat has straightened and the whole notion of an afterlife strikes Rutherford as preposterous. ‘All these arguments are nonsense,’ he confides to Lucy. ‘We are all still alive. This is still America. The stars look the same,’ he continues, ‘and we are fed. We are here.’
One afternoon, the sheep is not waiting for him in his stall.
‘Rutherford,’ Jackson sniggers from the pasture, ‘take a gander at this. Looks like Fitzgibbons is doing something very untoward to your wife.’
Fitzgibbons is kneeling in the centre of the field, shearing the sheep that might be Lucy. Wool flies up and parachutes down in the sun. Fitzgibbons razors off first one clump of fleece and then another, until the sheep is standing shorn and pink before him. All of a sudden Rutherford’s body feels too heavy for his coltish knees. He stares at the growing pile of fleece, heart pounding, and for a crazy moment Rutherford thinks that he can still salvage what’s left of his Lucy. Perhaps there’s some way to put this wool back on the sheep’s body, to cover her up again? He paws frantically at the white curls with his hoof.
The sheep rises up out of the green grass completely bald. Now the fleck in her eye looks bright and inhuman. Worse than meaningless, Rutherford thinks. A symptom of illness, cataracts, just like Woodrow first said. Rutherford hangs his head and keeps his eyes on the ugly dandelions. He swallows the grainy pear that he has been holding to feed the sheep with. ‘That is not my wife.’
On the eve of the other presidents’ push for liberty, with a whistling nonchalance, Fitzgibbons leaves Rutherford’s stall door open. The latch bangs in the wind, a sound like open, a song like no accident. Rutherford strolls through the doors into the dusk light.
‘The Fence is just a wooden afterthought,’ Rutherford thinks, coming as close to its rough posts as he dares. ‘We’re imprisoned already.’ He can feel the walls of his new body expand and contract. Tonight it’s not an altogether unpleasant sort of heaven to be trapped in. The stars are out, and for the first time in months Rutherford has swallowed his whole ration of grain at the trough. He can feel a forgotten strength pulsing through his body. It’s our suspicion that there’s another, better heaven behind the cumulus screen, he murmurs into the grass, bending and tearing at a root that tastes beautifully yellow. That’s the trouble. That’s what keeps us trapped here, minds in animals.
Rutherford begins to run, lightly at first. What am I, Rutherford wonders, a horse’s body or a human mind? Both options are twining together like a rope, then fraying. They are disappearing, the faster he runs. The sound of his hoof beats doesn’t trouble him now; it doesn’t even register. They thud and they vanish. His tail is still attached to him at the root. But Rutherford isn’t trying to outrun his horse tail any more. It sails out like a black flag behind him, its edges in tatters.
Rutherford turns and starts running again, and this time he finds that he cannot stop. The Fence is right in front of him now. It takes on a second life inside his mind, a thick grey barrier. His blood feels hot and electric inside him, and Rutherford knows from the certainty of his heartbeat that he is alive, that there isn’t any ‘after’. There is no reason to believe that anything better or greener waits on the other side of the Fence. There is nothing to prevent him from jumping it. There it is, Rutherford thinks, the blue lick of lightning. His eyes still refuse to focus, but now he finds that he is no longer afraid of the blind spot. This is for the Union, Rutherford whinnies, and suddenly he stops worrying about cause and effect, about the impossibility that his hoof beats could hold any Union together, or why any of this should matter, one horse running in an empty field: none of his speed, none of his grandeur, no droplets of sweat streaming off his hide like wings, and he runs. And nobody is watching when he clears the Fence.
Photograph © Jess Johnson