The Horse Ballad
The authorities speculated that the epidemic had perhaps been caused by water contamination. They could not think of a more rational explanation for the bizarre gambling addiction that had consumed the small island.
In the course of a month, the entire island population started spending all day, every day at the racing track, betting on horses obsessively. Those for whom there was no space at the track stayed outside and watched the race projected on large screens.
Reeking of horse manure and sweat, the premises were crammed with men, women, mothers holding infants, shouting at the horses all day, hoarse-voiced and red-faced. Often a fight would break out, which would immediately turn into a mass brawl, legs kicking in all directions and fists punching indiscriminately.
For as long as the island existed, its residents had bred horses. The prehistoric ruins of gigantic stone-carved horse statues could still be found around the perimeter of the island. Standing tall, they faced the horizon, overlooking the sea. Millennium ago the animals were worshiped as divine creatures by the indigenous islanders, then – as centuries rolled on - exposed as false gods and sacrificed to the true god. Finally, a race-track was built and horse-betting became such a popular pastime that it started attracting visitors from outside the island.
No one could pinpoint the exact time, however, when things got out of hand. One spring the pastime turned into everyday routine. Suddenly betting on horses was not consigned to the weekends only, but to weekday evenings as well. One by one, the local cinema, bowling alley and pubs went bankrupt.
The authorities started to get seriously alarmed, however, when gradually people stopped going to work. When on the island the markets became barren, seafood - normally supplied by the island fishermen- dried up, the government decided it was time to take measures. Envoys they had sent never came back, allegedly having become addicted to horse race gambling too. The authorities were wary of sending more people, fearing they should fall prey to the mysterious irreversible addiction as well.
In the end, they resolved to send a plane dropping propaganda leaflets that read 'Stop this madness and let us help you'. The plane never returned either. Later it was revealed that the pilot had landed it on the island, sold the plane to the scrap metal shop and joined the betters. Drone cameras had identified him amidst the crowd, still wearing his flight suit and goggles, elbowing his way to the forefront of the racing track. The authorities started speculating that perhaps it was not the water, but the air that had been contaminated. They agreed all hope was lost and since no one seemed exempt from falling prey to the mysterious illness, the only thing left was to wait for the epidemic to die out on its own.
What they did not know, however, was that one island resident remained unaffected. The 27-year-old audio engineer - whom everyone referred to as 'the sound guy' - worked at the track. He was in charge of producing the sound effects, making announcements and sometimes playing music during the breaks.
He had originally been trained as a musician, but took up the job at the racing track when the horse-betting business exploded. He worked in a tiny booth along the side-lines of the racing track. When he was not busy producing sounds, he always wore his headphones and killed time doing crossword puzzles. He assumed that the reason why he remained free from the betting fever was because his favourite horse always came in last. Knowing he had no chance at winning, he never saw any point to betting.
The horse - a light brown mare with scant white spots - had belonged to his neighbour farmer from his childhood. The sound guy had been friends with the farmer's daughter, who was the only kid his age in the area. During summer holidays, sometimes they would go horseback riding, for which the brown horse was their only choice as the farmer deemed it useless for farm work. As time passed, the girl moved to the mainland, never to return and the farmer sold the horse to the racing track.
Still, the sound guy was fond of the horse. While at work, he would watch it ruefully as it struggled to keep up with the other horses. It would always fall behind, then eventually stop galloping altogether to graze brown grass over the track fence. Whenever that happened the sound guy would play a comic, forlorn-sounding jingle, causing roaring laughter to erupt from the crowd. Sometimes he would visit the horse at the stables and they would share moments of silence. Away from the humdrum and noise of the racing track, he would watch the horse munching carrots and shooing flies off with its tail.
One day, due to exhaustion and starvation the horse suddenly died. It happened during the race: falling with an unceremonious thud, it sprawled to the ground with limbs stretched out, foaming at the mouth. As the crowd rippled with a wave of a slow 'boo', the sound guy played the jingle three times in a row.
Later, he asked the management to sell him the cadaver so that he could give it a proper burial at the farm. He was turned down: like all the dead horses, he was told, it was to be sent to the local canteen as lasagna-meat. He begged, threatening the management that he would quit. Finally he was allowed to have its tail.
As soon as he got home, the sound guy started disassembling the horse's tail. Picking out single strands, he used them as strings for a homemade musical instrument. The air was still heavy with dried wood lacquer when he pulled at the strings tentatively. Recalling the summer days of his childhood, the feel of the girl's arms around him as they rode the horse, he strummed few chords, forming the fragmented sounds into a lyrical tune.
On the following day at work, during an intermission when people took a break from betting in order to have a meal - mostly lasagna - at the establishment's canteen, instead of playing the usual music, the sound guy pulled out the musical instrument. Into the microphone he played the melody he had composed the night before.
At first the crowd's chatter drowned out the music from the loudspeakers, but gradually quieted down as the poignant tune played on. The sound filled the enclosure of the racetrack, echoing off the tote board and large screens.
When the music stopped, nobody clapped or talked. Wordlessly, people dropped their betting ballots on the ground and made a beeline to the exit.
The next day everybody went back to work. Shops were reopened, market stalls restocked with fish and the scent of freshly baked bread cast out the stench of manure from the streets. In few days the life on the island returned to normal. The authorities, dumbfound but relieved that the spell had been broken, thanked the sound guy and honoured him with the 'national hero' medal.
The island, however, was now faced with a new dilemma: what to do with all the horses that were now useless?
"Set them free", suggested the sound guy, but he was told that freeing such a large number of horses into the wilderness would upset the island ecosystem. Already the few horses that had managed to escape due to the absence of supervision had caused harsh damage to the carrot harvest at the local farms.
The only option left was to send the horses to the slaughterhouse. From their tails they manufactured the stringed instruments that the sound guy had invented. They were sold to tourists, who were told that the music could cure addictions.
The other body parts were sold to the glue factory and supermarkets. There was a rumour going around that an inland mafia had seized the horses' heads and were using them in their vendetta schemes.
The sound guy returned to his childhood home and buried his stringed instrument at the neighbouring farm. The farm was deserted and there was no one to ask about the girl's whereabouts. He left the island, moving to the mainland to resume his search.
By Anna Rogava
Anna is an anthropologist from Tbilisi, Georgia.