Wild Horses by Howard Cunnell

Untitled, (man with guitar case)

Untitled, (man with guitar case)

Photo by Laura Kiselevach


‘Wild Horses’ by Howard Cunnell


I leave Puerto Angel.

In a shack in San Augustinillo a red-faced white man with straw-coloured hair sells me a beer. He wears an ugly green mesh cap and is bare chested and tattooed with swastikas and snakes. I try not to look at the young pregnant Mexican girl the red-faced man has his arm around.

I drink beer and mescal with a coked-up fisherman who calls himself No Way. No Way goes to piss in the stall outside. He pisses with the door open. Coming out he bends to pick up stones that he throws at a thin dusty mongrel dog sleeping in the bed of an arroyo. No Way hits the dog in the head. The dog stands up slowly and walks away until I can no longer see him.

“American dog,” No Way says.

The red-faced man has a tattoo of a rooster with a rope around its neck on the back of his leg. “My cock hangs below my knees, man,” he says.

No Way drinks shots of mescal and cries and shouts “No quiero mas.”

“Get that motherfucker No Way out of here,” the red-faced man says, “he’s fucking MIA.”

I take No Way outside. He goes up the dark hill behind the bar and disappears, I hear dogs barking and children calling out and No Way crying and shouting all the way home.

In the early morning I walk out into the surf. It is low tide. The water is warm and the sun is hot. After a while I sit on the beach. I am hungry. I walk over to where a man sits on the sand holding a big straw hat with feathers and flowers sticking out of it. The man is thickly built and very tan. His long grey hair is tied back with a band. The man has a rough beard and teeth missing. He wears sun faded old blue shorts and no shoes. The man has green eyes. There is a peace symbol tattooed on the fleshy part of the right hand between the thumb and forefinger. There is dirt under his fingernails. He is watching a blonde girl crabwalking on the shoreline.

“Hey,” he says when I sit down, “We saw you last night. You were fucking off it man. We didn’t think you even spoke English. We thought you were some kind of mulatto, a half-breed. That’s what Lala said.”

The girl crabwalks over to us.

“You know,” she says, “What I could really go for is some Bacardi.”

Her long blonde hair hides her eyes. She shakes her head and her hair tornadoes around her face. She is wearing black bikini bottoms and nothing else except for the rings on her toes and on her fingers and in her ears and the bracelets on her wrists. She”s about half the man’s age. She has small breasts and large pale, rose pink nipples.

The man takes a packet of Mexican cigarettes from his pocket and a lighter and takes a cigarette from the pack and lights it with the lighter and hands the lighter and the pack of cigarettes to me.

“Budget it in man,” he says to the girl, “budget it in.”

“We have eighteen dollars left,” she says,” maybe you could sell the peyote.”

“Yes, yes,” the man says,” maybe I could sell the peyote to the French guys.”

“Yes,” says the girl,” sell it to them. I hate those fucking French guys after what they did to Karen. They”ll give you sixty dollars, man. They’re always loaded.”

She wheels in the sand, taking quick little sidesteps with her hands and feet towards me so that when she speaks from behind this storm of hair I know that she is talking to me. She is wet with sweat and sticky with sand and broken shells.

“Stick around,” she says, “We’ll sell the peyote to the French guys and then we’ll party. You can have a ride, if you like.”

“She’s from Texas,” the man says, “what can I tell you?”

He looks down the beach where the girl crabwalks among the Mexican boys playing football in the wet sand.

“She’s wild man, feral.”

He puts out his cigarette in the sand and then shreds it.

“One thing I learned in the service,” he says.

The football game is fast and serious and I watch. I ask him where you could buy Bacardi from and he says,

“There’s a little store up round the bend there. They sell some kind of clear rum up there. She calls it Bacardi, I don’t know what the hell it is.”

“Who are the French guys?” I say.

“Ah,” he says, laughing and showing his long yellow teeth, “The fucking French guys.”

I play cribbage with Lala and the man whose name is Ray in their little tent. Lala goes out and buys some of the rum she calls Bacardi. She mixes it with some cola and some berries and leaves she’s picked. We sit around and play cribbage and drink rum.

Late in the night the wind coming off the ocean slaps loudly against the sides of the tent and makes crazy shapes in the fabric.

When there’s no money left we go along the coast to Ventanilla. For food we work for a French woman called Lydia. She wants to keep horses on the beach. We build a shelter for when the people come who want to ride horses. In the camp there are three red horses with uncombed, sun-lightened manes.

Lydia is with a man, a Mexican who tells us to call him Alfonso and says he’s from San Diego. Alfonso has a teardrop tattoo below his left eye. He’s the only one of us who can climb the coconut trees in the grove in the bush that surrounded a lagoon inland from the beach. He cuts the coconuts down with a machete.

Ray says, “Nobody’s going to come and stay here with that lagoon in back. There’s too many damn skeeters.”

“Have you said anything to Lydia?”

“Hell no,” he says, “I’m looking to get fed.”

A hurricane has left fallen and broken trees along the beach and in the coconut groves.

It”s cold at night in Ventanilla. I sleep in a hole I dig in the sand. At first light I make coffee on the fire. We keep the fire going all night. I make coffee.

Alfonso squats by the fire. His machete is stuck blade-down in the sand. He looks at me and rolls a joint.

Ray and I carry dead trees to use as corner posts. Lala and Lydia dig deep post-holes. We criss-cross thin branches and lash them to the posts and across the branches we lay palms leaves for a roof. We work in the mornings until it’s too hot. The days are bright and scorched.

In the day the horses are hobbled in the coconut grove. In the late afternoon Lydia rides them in turn along the shoreline. Sometimes she swims with them.

At night we eat rice and beans and tortillas. Sometimes there is fish. There is no beer and Alfonso does not share his weed.

When I am not working I watch Pelicans flying low to the sea. I study the shallow tracks of hermit crabs. I see shoals of baitfish break the surface of the sea as barracudas and jacks hunt them. I fish for baitfish with a hook and line. I strip off my wet clothes and stand naked in the camp.

The French guys are here. The old one has long white hair and a hatchet nose. He wears wire frame glasses, a salt-lined faded denim shirt, outsize khaki shorts and walking boots. He’s brown and small and thin. The young one is taller and wears a black t-shirt and thin black cotton trousers. There is some Chinese writing tattooed on his left arm and the words Prosperity and Courage tattooed in English.

“What happened to the girl?” Lala says to the young French guy.

“I don’t have a girl.”

“Yes you do,” Lala says, “yes you do and her name is Karen and she was my friend and now she’s gone.”

The old French guy spits in the sand and sticks his nose out. “Fuck her” he says. He licks his lips and looks at Lala.

“I know about you,” he says.

“You fucking asshole,” Lala says.

She gets up and goes to her tent. Ray follows her. Alfonso is looking at the French guys’ packs. He catches me watching him and smiles.

The French guys sit with their packs behind them. They don’t move to open their packs. They don’t smoke or eat or drink. They talk to Lydia in French. I sit by the fire. I look for shooting stars.

A horse snickering wakes me. In the light of the fire I see Alfonso standing over the French guys with his machete raised. “Yo tengo nada!” he shouts. He swings at the French guys and they hold their packs in front of them.

Lala comes out of the tent naked and with a pistol in her hand. She stands in front of the fire and points the pistol at Alfonso and the French guys and says, “Don’t you fucking move!”

The shadows of the flames from the fire dance in her legs and belly.

“Get the packs,” she says to me.

I go to get the packs and the old French guy grabs and hisses at me. I kick him in the head. The young guy doesn’t move. Alfonso is disgusted. He throws the machete in the sand and sits down. Ray gets the horses.

We ride bareback south along the shoreline, Ray in the lead. I follow Lala”s naked back. The storm of her hair flashes in the moonlight. Ray and I carry a pack each.

“Where are we going?” I shout.

“We’re headed for Zipolite this way,” Ray shouts back. “We could ride through all the way to Potchucla and get a bus out.”

“Let’s go to Guatemala Dad” Lala shouts.

“Budget it in,” Ray shouts, his voice whipped in and out by the wind we make, “budget it in,” and we ride on.

The horses kick up handfuls of dark sand, and the sounds of the running horses and the black sea thunders and crashes in my ears.


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Howard Cunnell


Howard Cunnell is the author of the novels Marine Boy (Soulbay, 2008) and The Sea on Fire (Picador, 2012). He is the editor of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road – The Original Scroll (Viking, 2007). He lives in London.
Visit his website.

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3 Responses to Wild Horses by Howard Cunnell

  1. I used to live there once — San Augustinillo, Mazunte, Zipolite, etc. I know these places exist. Back then it was dangerous. God knows what it is now. The end of the world. This took me back. And I thank the author for that. As good as it was, what was missing for me is the sense of the extreme beauty of it all, even in the midst of all squalor.

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