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I am old and I am tired. So old and tired that I can no longer remember my name. Horse, the man calls me, as he walks past me now.

Old horse. Skinny horse. Useless horse. 

These are the words that fill my ears from each passer by. And I am all of those things, I suppose, but they are not my name. At least not the name my weary mind seeks.

What was I first called? Was it a handsome name from gentle lips? I cannot recall.

Duke. Duke comes to mind, but this is a name from not too long ago. The farmer’s wife called me this. Named me such the morning I was off-loaded from the beat up pale blue hog truck, crammed into the stock compartment with a dozen grunting swine bumping and rooting against my hocks, to serve as the new plow horse somewhere in the dusty fields of the midwest. 

I travelled a long way to get there, to that pig farm. A week of offloading in the middle of the night, brief rests in brightly lit truck stops, changes in haulers, changes in handlers, drivers who took the corners slow and cautious, others who flung me and my traveling companions wall-to-wall without ever touching the brakes. Small meals. No meals. Non-potable gas station water in a cracked, leaking bucket. An apple core from a shy hand. Across the country, two dozen states, maybe more. But I didn’t mind. It was a long way from the cold, snowy, wintery work of the east coast. Mild winters, early, quiet mornings dragging the moldboard plow through iron rich soil that felt soft beneath my sensitive feet. It was fair work for a horse my age. Honest work. 

I suspected the farmer’s wife called me Duke in mockery. Mockery of the fact that the aged, thinning, tired and sore gelding that lurched off the stock truck on unsteady feet was no more worthy of the name Duke as the swine were deserving of Mary or Madonna. She smiled when she said it, not too kindly, and winked at her husband that stood by her side. 

“Good old, faithful Duke. You got yourself a winner there, mister. Those online auctions saw you coming from a mile away.”

The farmer didn’t laugh, just took my rope and lead me to the crudely built shed row that would serve as my next home. He was quiet and serious and fair. The kind of man who put his shoulder to the plow in the rough spots, who called me partner, who rubbed out the sores on my spine prior to tending the blisters on his feet and shoveled fresh straw in my stall before he laid his own head down to rest. The kind of man that made hard work tolerable. The kind of man who could give a work horse his dignity. His final resting place.

The time of Duke, however ironically named, was a time of worthiness. But the time of Duke did not last when the farmer passed away.

I do not feel so worthy now, here, in this strange place, in this cramped corral, with all these people walking by. 

Horse. Old Horse. Skinny Horse. Useless Horse.

A new name is tacked on as a number is spray painted on my hip. 

Lot 962. A name reduced to a number. A life reduced to a lot.

The number makes me think of New York City. The time before Duke.

Twelve years. Forty-eight seasons. More than a dozen pairs of hands at the driving lines in a variety of horse drawn vehicles: Hansom cabs, Cinderella carriages, coupes, taxis, coaches. Driven single or in pairs. Winter in the slick ice and hoof deep snow, summer in the humid, blistering heat, warm spring evenings in Central Park and crisp Autumn nights with leaves that blew out from beneath the yellow cabs, mixed in with the trash of the gutter.

Thousands of tourists: the gleefully screaming children who had never laid eyes on a horse, their small outstretched hands begging to touch the soft whiskered skin of my muzzle. Shy, anxious couples with rings hidden in their pockets or lapels, waiting on me to give them the perfect moment for a proposal of Happily Ever After,  pretending—with well intent—that anything lasted for life. Furtive, shadow-faced patrons with groping hands and stealthy kisses that inspired the drivers to go slower with silently passed twenty dollar bills so that they might draw out the privacy of their illicit affairs. Midnight drug drops, birthday rides, quinceañera parties, loud, drunken New Year’s Eve celebrations and the occasional slow march of a horse drawn funeral. 

Some of these events orchestrated by kind, caring, careful hands of soft spoken drivers who cherished their work and the horses that earned them a living, while others were extracted behind sharp, angry pulls of ruthless oppressors that whipped and beat and kicked their way to rent and food and housing. If I had a name during this time, I did not know it. Chestnut horse was what I heard.  Amish horse. Slow trod gelding. And for one short season a friendly young driver called me Iron Horse and though I knew not what it meant, he always spoke it with a smile.

Lot 962 does not feel like an Iron Horse any longer.

The time before that I skim over. It is not a happy time. It is not a fair time or a worthy time or a time of tolerable existence. Backbreaking work, sun up to sundown, work in the rain, in the snow, in the mud and in the dry cracked clay of the summer. No grain, no kind words, no gentle gestures or moments of rest. Sleep standing up, ill-fitting harness, hands that neither care for comfort or for health. This is where I learned to pull. This is where I learned to work. This is where I learned not to question the hands that held the reins.

But there is a time before it—I know there is. I grasp for it, reaching for something that feels lost, but not entirely forgotten. I can feel those days in my creaking old bones. I can feel the warm sunshine on my back, a gentle breeze blowing through my mane. I can almost smell the grass that grows to my knees, hear the high pitched peals of laughter that echo across the fields.

Children, small, barefoot, shiny-eyed run toward me. There is something in their hands: sugar cubes, carrots. They pet my neck and bury their sweet, sticky fingers in the shininess of my coat. And there is a man, their father, I think, who shows them how to halter me, who plops them on my back, who leads me around the pasture in loose, lazy circles, humming a soothing tune.

“Happy birthday!” He says to the smallest child, a girl whose head is not higher than my chest. “He’s yours, my darling. What shall you call him?”

I close my eyes and listen for her voice. 

But all I can hear is the murmur of the crowd, the rattling of numbers, the fast paced gibberish of a language foreign to my ears. I catch only words, phrases. 

Long in the tooth. Lame. Arthritic. Smooth mouthed. Past his prime. Useless.

I open my eyes and watch the man with the microphone that stands above the crowd. 

“Do we have a buyer?” He says, taking a break from the muttering of numbers. He looks out to the sea of faces, not seeing me at all.

“Going once.”

Again I close my eyes. I’m so tired. I feel so heavy. So worn.  

I breathe in slowly. It’s summer. I have no aches, no pain. I want only to run, to gallop across the grass, to take carrots from my little girl. She is there, stroking my nose, her face pressed to my chest.

“Going twice.”

She kisses my muzzle, her brown eyes locked on mine.

I remember it now.

“I’ll call him Friend,” she says to her father, though I know, in that moment, she is speaking to no one but me. Her small hands brush back my forelock, rub my ears, smooth my coat. “Friend,” she says once more, her forehead against my own.

I close my eyes and draw the warmth from that summer day. I once was a horse named Friend who was loved by a little girl. It’s all that could be asked for in a lifetime.

Somewhere, far away, a man’s voice echoes.

“Sold!” He says, “Lot 962.”

I ignore him. 

That is not my name.

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