If all went according to plan, Guayito and I were to ride to El Foyel together the day before ‘La Fiesta de Caballos’ (the horse party). But, as is the way in Argentina, all did not go according to plan and leaving at four o’clock with a group of Guayito’s friends turned into leaving at eight o’clock, alone together.
“How long does it take to get there?” I asked, swinging my leg over the saddle.
Guayito shrugged. “Not much. About four hours.”
I glanced up at the darkening sky and tried to look unfazed.
“Won’t it get dark?”
He shrugged again.
A few miles uphill from Guayito’s house, there’s a young guy with his hood up, standing by himself on top of big rock that’s jutting out of the hillside. Guayito’s phone pings as we approach. The guy on the rock keeps holding his phone high in the air to catch signal, then bringing it back towards him to write his next text. Up ahead, I can see tiny arms pointing excitedly out of the back windows of a beaten up Ford Ranger. “Horsies! Horsies!” Three toddlers stroke my horse’s nose while their dad puts the handbrake on and pauses by the rock to get his messages at the modern day watering-hole.
Guayito starts frowning and looking up at the sky. We’re off the road now, and in amongst the trees. When there is path, it’s narrow, and zig-zags obstinately, and where there isn’t a path, the trees snag incessantly; determined to bring my trousers into their ranks. My thighs become thick and green with pine-needles. Guaytio’s had to use his knife more than once to free me from their twiggy fingers.
This seems like madness, but what’s a girl to do? It’s my turn to shrug.
Guayito nods, then gestures at me to go ahead of him. “That horse goes nuts if it’s behind.”
One hand on my hat, the other on my reins, I kick my horse on. He’s more willing than I’d like. He raises his head high and pulls it back as he lurches his chest forwards into a rapid, panicky canter. The trees are thick and close, making each blind corner a lottery of accidents. Sometimes I’m confronted with a low-hanging branch, sometimes it’s another corner, swinging towards me much sooner than any of us imagined. Sometimes I hear Guayito shout “Stop!” moments before my horse and I go crashing through a wooden gate. I wish he’d just go in front. Guayito hops off, reaches into his poncho, and pulls out a ring of keys fit for a medieval jailer. Once through the gate, he notices that his saddle-bags are falling off and pulls out a kitchen knife. He deftly cuts one of the leather straps in half lengthways to make another, and ties them back in place. One final reach into the inexhaustible repository of the poncho brings out a small bottle of wine.
I decline. I’m already close enough to falling off my horse.
Darkness gathers just after we cross the Route 40 road. Guayito walks his horse back and forth along the hard shoulder, crunching the gravel as he turns tight circles, mumbling “I know there’s a path here somewhere.” He dives between some trees. What there? Looking over the edge of the verge feels something like looking down a well, but with added prickles. I can just about make out Guayito’s face looking up at me, very small at the bottom of the slope. I point my horse down it and lean far back. Somewhere out of the darkness, a branch hits me in the face. And another one. Normally you’d lean forwards to duck under trees like these, but if I do that, me and my horse are in for a serious tumble. I try to put my chin down to protect my eyes from the worst of it. I get a pinecone in the knee instead.
I assume the forest thinned, because soon I could see that we were walking along a white path. Everything else around us had been swallowed by fathomless black. Guayito and I rode in silence along ‘the old road’, while intermittent headlights curled along the Route 40 way above us. Occasionally, a flash flew up between the horses’ feet as their iron shoes struck the stones. I don’t know how long we spent on the white path. Without sight, there was no way of judging the passage of time. The wind began to pick up, quietly rushing through the trees. It got louder and louder until I realised the sound wasn’t the wind at all. Crashing along the valley to my right was a wide river, glowing white as the path, and running parallel with us in its smooth convulsions. Then the unmistakable square lights of a house appeared around a corner, and it started to rain.
We tied our horses to the bushes and let ourselves in. In the first room there was nothing but exposed brick, a staircase, and a broken freezer. In the second room, warmth, and life. Nine adults, and a two-year-old called (of all things) Nirvana, smiled as Guayito greeted them. A bald man in a sweater-vest pulled two magnificently decrepit armchairs up to the wood-burning stove and took our hats. He gave me a glass of box-wine mixed with orangeade. I was grateful. Something smelled good. Balanced on top of an unlikely chest of drawers was a gas stove, and on top of that was a metal cooking pot that looked as if it had fed our host’s great-grandparents. The little girl cantered her My Little Pony across the concrete floor while the rest of us pulled up benches for supper. Too tired to understand a word anyone said, I zoned out and watched Animal Planet on the TV instead. Then someone changed it to boxing, and I zoned out altogether.
Guayito and I had intended to continue riding for another hour to El Foyel, but it was midnight and the rain hadn’t stopped. We let the horses loose and decided to stay the night. I hadn’t had any water since we left Guayito’s house in the daylight, and with only wine and off-brand Fanta orange to choose from, I was becoming increasingly aware of my throat. At 1 o’clock someone arrived with ice. Drop by drop, I waited for my glass of water.
Noelia, the host’s daughter, whispered, “Are you tired?”
I blinked my way through a lie about being completely fine, honestly, fine.
“The beds are already made.”
I conceded defeat.
Inside the roof cavity were six mattresses. They had clean sheets and inviting blankets but they spared us the fandangle of bed-frames. I had now seen the entirety of the house, without seeing sign of a loo anywhere, and my experience with outdoor Argentinian loos told me that they weren’t worth trekking through the rain for. Noelia testified that it was better just to go in the countryside, so I opted to hold it, and collapsed onto a mattress still wearing my pine-prickled bombachas. Men’s voices rumbled on late into the night, until I was vaguely aware of feet scuffing past my head, and silence finally swallowed the dark farmyard.
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