by Mirri Glasson-Darling
This horse is in space. See the horse in space. See the blue-black mane against the surrounding deep-black of space, how the black of space around the horse is deeper and blacker than the duller, bluer-black of the horse’s hair floating, curling away from its face and rump, how the individual fibers of the horses hair trickle out from the skin, taper and split into tributaries, how they dissolve outwards into the space around them, how in the space where they are not the horse they become space, how that space is the same bright-black color of the pupils of the horse’s globe-shaped eyes. See the spaceship of the horse in space. Spinning slowly, a vessel made of titanium and high-temperature quartz glass to withstand the pressure and temperatures of space, the quartz glass crystals designed by Russian scientists who work for the Soviet space program, who thought about time and weight and how it effects ships that looked like jets driven by fire, hurtling upwards through the atmosphere, burning off the blue of the earth in exchange for black and snaggle-toothed stars.
Look at this horse and its spaceship, launched two days ago from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the steppes of Kazakhstan, out where the horse was born, not far from the railway station of Tyuratam, a word that comes from the Kazakh meaning “Tӧre’s grave.” Tӧre being a descendant of Genghis Khan who came west through Kazakhstan with his army and thousands of horses, riding across the vast plain of the steppes with its green and yellow and brown grass and endless sky. The horse itself is Kazakh, the kind of horse that is bred for the steppes, descended from the Mongol horses of Genghis Khan, a horse that has been bred for wind and grass and sky. It also is the first horse that has ever been in space.
The rocket is not well designed for a horse; designed instead for space and the purpose of getting the horse to be the first horse in space, a Soviet horse, not an American horse, another notch in the belt of the Soviets next to dogs, monkeys, rabbits, frogs, and spiders. Though the spaceship is big enough for the horse to turn its head, float, and experience the full effect of zero gravity, it is only equipped with enough supplies for a little over a week in space, since the logistics of having enough food on hand to feed a horse in space make weighting the spacecraft difficult. Like many animals before it, the horse’s ticket is one-way. The body of Laika, the Soviet dog who was first animal in space has already burned up by now, but there are other, smaller crafts left over filled with dead and dying animals in orbit with the horse, though the horse cannot see them, knows nothing about them, has no real concept of where it is, or what space is, or why it is in space.
Through the quartz-glass windows of its spaceship the horse can see all of space, the space where the earth is and all the space where the earth is not. The earth below is a blue and white marble, spinning slowly, and the horse’s spaceship is also slowly spinning so that sometimes the horse is facing the earth and sometimes it is facing space; sometimes the side of the earth that faces the horse contains Kazakhstan, and sometimes it is the side that contains America. The horse does not feel any difference in emotion when it looks down on its home in Kazakhstan verses America, but the emotion is still there. The horse does feel loss. The loss of Kazakhstan, the loss of wind and grass on the steppes, the loss of the taste of grass, of the smell and touch of other horses, of insects biting flanks and the smell of smoke from men and steppe fires. The horse remembers sights and sounds and smells, and knows they are not here. It knows, with a profound sense of sadness, that it may never see, hear, or smell them again.
The horse has now been in space for three days. Hear the clock ticking in the lab below, where the Soviet scientist Chernigov sits, recording information from the horse’s spaceship, down in the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The sound of the clock’s tick is like the scratching of his pen. The face of the clock is smooth beneath the blur of the glass, the same color as the pale shadow of a moon outside of Chernigov’s window, ghost-white on the rawest blue. There is a glare from the sun spiking across the glass of the clock, the same glare of the sun on the horse’s eyes this morning when it rose over the thin blue curve of the earth in a white, perfect asterisk—the shape of a six-pointed star.
In the spaceship, the horse’s breath is warm, stirring tiny hairs on her nose and chin that gleam, axen in the sun’s light. Her breath is the only movement on the spaceship; the slow, labored breath and the gentle heave of her sweating sides as she takes in the stale air, and breathes out as carbon dioxide.
As Chernigov watches the moon and listens to the clock tick, he thinks about the horse in her spaceship. He imagines her breath, and the motion of her rib cage as he listens to the scratch of his own, blue-inked pen.
Stephan, the man who sold the horse to the Soviet scientists, sits outside in the field where the horse was born. He too, is watching the morning moon and thinking of the horse as he sits on the steppe and drinks his tea, sitting on a three-legged stool. He bought the brass samovar that his tea was heated in with the money that Chernigov gave him for the horse. He knew that the Soviet scientist could have just taken her, but because he had taken the time to come all the way out on the steppe, Stephan listened through the speech about duty and country which this strange, awkward man gave him in Russian instead of Kazakh.
Stephan agreed in as few words as possible and took the money without complaint, not because he loved his government (he did not) or because he needed the money (he did) and certainly not because he treasured the thought of sending one of his horses into space to die just to suit Moscow’s vanity—but because it seemed to him that Chernigov had gone out of his way to be kind. He had no obligation to be kind, and it touched Stephan to think that someone somewhere had fought an uphill battle to try and use this mission to do a another human—a Kazakh human being— some quantifiable good.
The samovar that Stephan purchased is brass-colored and shining with a dull luster, covered in thin-lined filigree that makes it look as if the metal is embroidered. The samovar affects the flavor of Stephan’s tea, making it also taste strangely metallic, but he is proud of the new samovar, and so he drinks it anyway. The tea he drinks is black-red colored, bitter, and without milk or sugar—which only makes the metallic taste stronger.
When he took the money, Stephan let Chernigov pick whichever horse he liked. They walked out onto the steppe together, chain-smoking cigarettes with the butts falling in the grass like bullet casings. Chernigov surveyed the horses with the quiet, unconfident air of a man who is in nature and aware he has no idea what he is looking at.
In the end, Stephan had to pick the horse for him. He chose her because she had injured her leg in a rodent hole and would probably have limped for a good portion of her life. She had no chance of fetching a good price—except for potential breeding—but she was still a strong and handsome enough specimen that she was no insult to Kazakh horses. This mattered to Stephan, since she might very well be the only thing from Kazakhstan that he suspected the Russians would ever allow to make Soviet history.
Back in the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Chernigov is recording the horse’s data, even though he knows, very soon, she will die. He is not quite sure why this bothers him so much. He and his colleague, Biyelog, have already launched up everything from dogs to bacteria, firing them off into the ether with the idea that they would meet their valiant fate as Soviet martyrs, emblazoned with the holy fire of the scientific record for all the world to see.
Are the bacteria on the horse’s spaceship aerobic or anaerobic? Chernigov wonders. He wishes there were no bacteria at all, so that the horse’s body would remain intact until she fell to earth. He prefers the idea of her frozen and beautiful with her long pupil-black hair, but, as a scientist, he knows that there are bacteria onboard.
If the horse runs out of oxygen first and suffocates instead of starving to death, there will be enough oxygen for aerobic bacteria, and so she will probably decompose more than she might with anaerobic. Either way though, the horse will at least begin to decompose. Whatever bacteria will probably eat up all the water inside of her before completing the process. Then her remains will be freeze-dried and only finally break up as her vessel falls, burning and crashing into the earth.
Chernigov tries to comfort himself with the thought that, as upsetting as it is, since there are still bacteria on the horse’s spaceship, she is not the only living thing up there.
He used to be proud of his job, but somewhere around the point at which Moscow ordered the space-death of a fourth dog on what appeared to be a minister’s rather drunken whim, a kind of exhaustion fell over him. Chernigov does not see any scientific benefit in sending a horse into space.
When he first learned of it, it upset him. He did not grow up around horses and he knows nothing about them, but there is something about the image that strikes Chernigov, perhaps in the same exact way it struck the ministers in Moscow. The romantic symbolism of horses: the way horses seem to represent independence to Americans, but in the Soviet Union, the carriage pulled by three horses, or troika, has become a calloused gure of bourgeois wealth—despite the fact that the poorest of Soviet farmers still rely on horses to pull their plows. There is something about the way horses need space to run, but how they look so beautiful when they do so; how they are sensitive creatures who love humans and will charge with them knowingly into battle, while at the same time they frighten easily like children and have to be touched and talked to in order to be calmed.
The reasonable logic behind sending a horse into space seems utter nonsense to Chernigov, and thus only the emotional logic of the decision remains, which he finds unequivocally cruel. Later tonight, in this lab, as his clock ticks in darkness over the Baikonur Cosmodrome, he will drink homemade vodka with his colleague Biyelog, and say one very careful, dangerous sentence.
It just seems a little bit excessive.
But Biyelog will say nothing in return, only watching his colleague out of the corners of his strange, curiously bright blue eyes.
See the papers in Moscow that ordered the horse to be sent into space, being signed. See the ink below the felt-tip pen, how it glistens so black and wetly, dulling to matte as it dries.
By the time the ink is dry, everyone in this room will have already moved on. They will be sending up men next—some of whom will also die—and everyone knows it.
See the four, glassy drops of vodka the ministers have left that fell onto one of the signatures in the parchment, how those drops now blur and reflect the black ink below. How that ink is more gray and fading than the raw black of space behind the caerulean curve of the earth just before the sun peaks—a melon-smooth, cobalt arch, glinting over all the world—soft as the curve of an eyelid, soft as ash, glittering on the unbroken horizon.
Mirri Glasson-Darling is an MFA student at Virginia Tech who recently moved to Virginia from the Arctic village of Utqiagvik, Alaska: the northern most community in the United States. She has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and her stories have appeared in such journals as Willow Springs, Crab Orchard Review, South Dakota Review, The Dr. TJ Eckleburg Review, and Bosque. She is currently working on a novel and enjoys running very long distances at a very slow pace.