Death and the King’s Horse
I wrote this piece after reading Wolé Sóyinká’s Death and the King’s Horseman. The play made quite an impression on me (I was in high school when I first read it) and I wanted to put to words some of the complex feelings I had about the play. It is written from the POVs of the king’s horse and the horse’s lover (weird, I know) but I was looking to explore an angle Wolé Sóyinká didn’t. I wondered about the role the King’s favourite horse would play in all that drama, and what if, just what if, the King’s horse was bestowed the “honour” of dying with its King like the King’s horseman? I do realize that the plot would be lost on anyone who hasn’t read or seen the play, but I thought I’d share this piece all the same and I hope someone out there enjoys it!
The air was thick with the smell of manure and the distinctive scent of horseflesh. In the stall at the far end of the stable, a thoroughbred neighed and stamped his hoofs. It was getting dark and the crickets were starting up their special rendition of the night’s symphony. With the setting sun came a light breeze which lifted the heat and humidity that had settled like a smothering blanket during the day.
I stood very still, my eyes adjusting to the dimming light, taking in the sounds, breathing in deeply. I didn’t pay the mosquitoes buzzing around my head any mind. I loved this place with the last drop of blood in my veins. I had been born here, had played in the open fields that sprawled for miles and miles as far as I could see with my siblings and numerous cousins until I grew too old for frolicking. When I was old enough, I’d started my lessons right here, going lap after lap around the tracks that circled the property. This place was all I’d known and all I cared to know.
I heard a familiar neighing in the distance and I stilled my breathing, straining to hear, listening with more than my ears. I recognized his voice immediately; he has returned! In contrast to my stilled breathing, my heart started a gallop that matched that of the fastest and strongest of the horses. My galloping heart pounded in my chest, just as it had done that day when I’d first set my eyes on him, and every single time since then. I finally let out the breath I’d been holding and took another deep, long one, a feeling of contentment and serenity settling over me. I let my eyes drift shut as I listened intently to the sounds of his steps as they approached. The air seemed to tingle with a charged sense of electricity as he drew closer. He had that kind of effect. He only had to walk into a space to set it a-buzz and everyone, both man and beast, couldn’t help but pay attention. He was like a breed set apart from mere mortals, majestic and terrifying all at once, like royalty itself.
I imagined his deep brown eyes on my face, intent like they always were, like he could see right through me, straight into my very soul. I shook my head slightly, letting my beautiful mane cascade and ripple down my long, beautiful neck. He’d sought me out in the dark, not needing any guidance or beacons to light the way, one heart calling silently to another, their thudding synchronizing like ukulele strings in resonance.
My lover is home!
He blew through his nose and circled around me, prancing in the dominant strut of the alpha male. I was his and he was mine as surely as there was night and day.
The Horseman, Elésin, came in after him with a hurricane lamp, which he placed on a stoop. He watched us for a few moments with reflective eyes. If I hadn’t been so excited, I would have noticed the air of foreboding Elésin had brought in with him. I would have noticed that he didn’t speak to us in that affectionate way that was characteristic of him. In fact, he didn’t speak at all, he just watched us with unseeing eyes. Even the stable boys seemed subdued and stood afar off, like they were giving the Horseman a sacred moment alone with us.
In the distance, I could hear the beating of drums and a horn belting out a mournful song. It sounded like a dirge and a celebration all at once, mournful yet jubilant. It was that sound that planted the seed of unrest in my belly, and it grew with the sound.
“Oba wàjà. The king is dead” Elésin finally said, in an almost reverent whisper.
Esin Oba, the King’s Horse, whinnied against my neck and stamped his hoofs. I could feel the pent-up energy within him. It poured out on me in waves and waves, increasing my feeling of foreboding.
“My friend, this is the moment we were both born for, the moment we have lived for,” Elésin said, running a hand through Esin Oba’s mane. Esin Oba threw back his head and neighed loudly, stirring up the other horses in the barn.
I looked at Esin Oba, trying to catch his eyes. I knew something was afoot, but I had no idea what it was.
Quietly, Elésin took off Esin Oba’s bridle and harness and handed them to one of the stable boys. He ran a gentle hand down Esin Oba’s leg and lifted his foot to pick his hoof and remove his horseshoe. One by one, he lifted and un-shoed all four hooves and then proceeded to brush Esin Oba down while I just looked on. As Elésin wiped Esin Oba’s beautiful, magnificent face with a damp cloth, man and horse locked eyes on each other, and something passed between them, an understanding that knotted their destinies together. I couldn’t have felt more afraid and alone than I felt in that moment, standing in that crowded barn while Elésin combed Esin Oba’s mane and tail. The stable hands stood reverently around us in the eerie glow of the hurricane lamp, hands clasped in front of them and eyes down. Someone struck up a dirge, humming gently under their breath while Elésin finished up his little ritual. It was after that that Esin Oba finally looked at me.
“This is how it must be, my Love.”
“No, it isn’t!”
“This is destiny, mine and his. We must make haste to join our king.”
“Says who? We didn’t ask for this!”
“It is a gift, the highest honour bestowed by the gods. I shall journey on with my king and we shall conquer in the afterlife as we did in this one.”
“What about me? Where does all this leave me? Who finishes my journey with me?”
“You, my Love, will remain always, the Bride of the Conquering One, the mother of my children. You will be the envy of all, the pride of our clan.”
“But I don’t want to be envied, I don’t want to be a hero. I just want you…”
With the dirge swelling up to fill the barn, bursting my head and shattering my heart, Elésin led Esin Oba out of the barn into the dusk.
Commander of the King’s horses.
Akínkanjú, Esin Oba,
You, between whose ears the wind of heaven blows.
Today you shall soar with the King
And trot the air,
With you, his companions, he shall ride the sky.
The earth shall sing no more at the touch of your hoofs,
Àjànàkú lo, ó dìgbère.