I don’t think I can tell you… that I shall ever be able to tell you… why I took the horse. Even now, I don’t properly know. What I can give you is my account of the events of that time and my confirmation that, yes, I was the one they called The Rider.
When first I saw the mare she was at the top of the steps that lead into the Metro station situated nearest my place of work, steps I had climbed and descended many hundreds, in fact thousands, of times previously. A greasy rope tethered her by the neck to the end of a rail worn smooth by the hands of countless commuters. I was, at the time, on my way home with no intention or expectation of involvement in anything out of the ordinary. I’ve a memory of my fingertips on the cracked leather of her bridle. Before I knew it, I was on her back. Soon we were at a trot, then a canter, then a gallop on the hard slab pavement, running against the grain of the thickening evening traffic. There was shouting behind me but I – we – rode on, my bag strapped over my shoulder, bouncing against my hip, so that I felt myself to resemble a mailman in a tunic from some history book. The bag flew open and my dull work papers inside peeled from it self-importantly as if they were the incendiary broadsides of anarchists or the deathly decrees of Czars. They blew against windscreens and shop fronts and entangled themselves in rosebushes and the high branches of black-barked trees.
Ahead of us an underpass disgorged commuters. I drew the mare’s reins left. We wove through the traffic, as if fording a river, before zigzagging across a twin set of trolleybus tracks. A driver hit his klaxon but the mare was calm and steady and sure. We headed down a side street that was mostly in shadow and here, for the first time, I became aware of her shoed hooves as the street boxed-in and amplified their clatter. An aproned woman came to the step of a grocery store that had trays of fruit outside. A man in overalls eyed us over her shoulder.
At the end of the street lay a small park. I took the horse to a fountain and dismounted. While she drank I had my first proper look at her. She was, as I have said, a mare: sorrel brown. I have no expertise in equine matters but to my eye she seemed neither wild from the Steppes nor a thoroughbred, and, while she had not been treated well she did not seem to have been wholly neglected either. In places her coat was rough and matted, it was true, and at her withers and reins lay weals, possibly the result of an ill-fitting saddle or harness. These I made a point to avoid. There was, anyway, no saddle on her now. Her mane had a brittleness that made me think of the British in the Crimea whose ravenous horses turned their teeth on their own hair and tails. I reasoned she’d been brought to Moscow for rides or for sale. Her age was difficult to determine, but she was not young.
Her neck and chest were wet with sweat and I felt guilt at the way I had ridden her. Yet I could not help but think of the manner in which, together, we had swept past the kiosks and malls, beneath bridges and across intersections and how I had felt myself far more in her hands than she in mine. It was as if she (and maybe all horses) possessed some inner compass that arrowed a safe passage, ancient and sainted, through the asphalt and tar and concrete and metal of Moscow that no man or woman might themselves divine.
Our corner of the city grew dark. Past lit shop windows of handbags and televisions, we walked on through the warm night… my mind set on somewhere the mare might safely graze.
We reached Sokolniki at dawn. The dry floor of the birch woods cracked beneath us as the first light fingered its way through the trees. When we came to the ponds mists were hanging over their still waters. I left my clothes on a bank. I led the mare through a shore of bulrushes till I was submerged to my shoulders and she to her ribs beside me. Then I let go of her. She forged ahead gently through an island of lily pads into the deeper middle waters till all I could see of her were her head and neck and the plateau of her back (the water eventually closing over this also). I swam to the bank and dried and dressed. The mare lifted herself from the other side of the pool, the disturbed water rippling away from her flanks. She rounded its edge and came to me. As I fell asleep she moved softly and pulled at the grass near where I lay. Later, when the sun forced itself on us, we retreated to the shade of the woods.
For a while that was how we lived: galloping through Moscow, in sun-tranced days and neon-lit nights, emerging then disappearing in streaks and blurs and flashes. To us these crossings seemed not only natural but necessary. We rode the length of the ground floor, between shoppers, at the palatial mall at Kievskaya. Amidst reclining bathers we circled the sides of the old Olympic pool at Luzhniki. One spectacular time we sped past the statue of Zhukov in his stirrups and on into Red Square. We flew past Lenin’s mausoleum and, while the police were still dozing, disappeared behind the domes of St Basil’s and across the river bridge to Gorky Park. Our rides took us past schools, libraries, markets and factory gates. At night we raced past high-end hotels whose staff wore livery, clubs where the young and fashionable turned from their queues to look at us and beer stalls and pharmacies where the night workers poked their heads from small hatches to catch sight of us in the gloom.
We rested at places such as Sokolniki, Gorky (in the high ground amid the trees and streams) and the ferned and falcon-haunted woods of those tumbling slopes at Vorybyovy Gory. We watered at night at quiet loops in the river or the ponds at Novodevichy and, once, at the large lake at Chistye Prudy where diners rose in restaurants on the shore to watch as we moved through the moonlit water to the trees on the far bank. At another time we ran beside a Metro train as it cut above ground to hammer through a strip of summer-seared scrub. Passengers pushed up against the windows and pointed and took our photograph. More than once I encountered our likeness, real or imagined, in graffiti. These depictions reminded me of photographs I had seen of men and horses carved into chalk hills in the countryside of southern England. I learned later that some spoke of us as symbols while others thought us angels or portents or ghosts.
The Rider. That’s what they called me. Anchormen in TV studios who cut to women with big hair holding microphones by fountains in parks or at intersections or under statues or on cathedral steps. ‘So Olga/ Irina/ Katya/ Olesya… just where is The Rider now?’ The women would pivot to a police officer or city official who’d sweat and stumble through some script while the furred and lip glossed reporter switched back and forth between priestly solemnity and whorish smiles.
I’d never intended to make what people call a statement, but when coincidence gave us the chance we took it. One afternoon, in Old Arbat, we charged from a side street to leap directly over one of these divas with her cop – mid-interview – and show them our heels. Once, a news programme cut off a Government Minister in full flow in order to broadcast some phone footage of the back of us turning a corner near Pushkin Square. On another occasion, a crew quit covering a football match to thunk and bump their gear through side streets till they glimpsed us slipping into a monastery garden.
I‘d always hoped they’d spare her, agree it somehow, amongst themselves. But when it happened – in one of those drab, nowhere places where bloodletting gets done – the bullets flew in from all directions. Even before their guns fired I had the sense we’d reached our journey’s end.
Her front legs went first. Next, her neck and head… scorching the hard, dry earth. Then she tipped and just lay there, on the yellowed grass. I was thrown. My head hit the ground. She was still breathing – I could see her side rising and falling – but making no sound. Then black shoes came close to us, more shots and finally… nothing.
The pain from my thigh – a bullet hole, crimson with a black crust – brought me round. I was on a bench in a part of the city I didn’t know. I made my way to a hospital where they treated my wound. Two nights later, I limped away.
I returned to my home and, in time, my work. My profile at the office had never been high. No one seemed to know I’d even been away.
For a time the television channels found other news: about children, farms, migratory birds. But people wanted to know about The Rider and The Horse. The graffiti and questions spread. There were slogans on the walls of underpasses and railway sidings, flyers that poured into the letterboxes of my and everyone else’s block, scrawled conversations that turned to arguments on the backs of doors in the bathrooms of bars and restaurants. ‘They live… they are dead… they have never lived… I have seen them… You lie.’
It has been a year. Last night the TV said The Rider and his horse had been seen and that the authorities had confirmed this as a fact.
But I ride nowhere. Not even in my dreams. To me the city is a sick and steel grey sea whose waves collapse, exhausted, on a parched and featureless shore. I have no map, no compass. I am lost, stranded, unhorsed.
Giles Rees has been a reporter on several British newspapers, a teacher and a black cab driver. In Russia he taught English at a school in central Moscow, passing the Kremlin on his daily commute. Last year he entered the Creative Writing MA programme at Swansea University as a mature student. He’s currently editing an intended novel which he describes as a dark comedy about a gang of teenage misfits and their coming of age in urban, Putin era Moscow.