On 21 December, a horse moved into our spot in the valley. I’ve never had anything to do with horses and I was a little wary of him; he seemed unperturbed by me. I assumed an owner was near by.
The next day, and the day after, the horse was still there with no owner in sight. Puzzling. He didn’t look very young; perhaps he was no longer required. Had he been abandoned? I was no longer wary but concerned for him. I’d approached him and he’d come towards me. He seemed so mild and gentle for such a massive creature. I reasoned he couldn’t have been abandoned. Not only did he look well cared for, his mane nicely trimmed, but also it would be impossible to cast off a horse without anyone knowing about it. In every fold of these valleys there is a house, and the people – certainly the Portuguese, and probably the foreigners as well – know everything that goes on.
‘I see you’ve bought a horse,’ said Eleuterio.
It was Christmas Eve and he had come to give us gifts: his own olive oil in an old bourbon bottle and a loaf of Maria’s freshly made bread, still warm. I was so touched I could hardly speak. I can say little enough in Portuguese as it is. Husband explained about the horse mystery and Eleuterio began to puzzle it out.
He returned later with a bucket of beautiful deep-orange oranges, having established that we didn’t already have a glut of our own. We have plenty of grapefruit and lemons, but few oranges. Then he and Husband went to work on the pump at the well by the river: Husband provided the new materials, Eleuterio the expertise and labour. (More on pumps and water issues to come.)
Later still on Christmas Eve we heard a tinkle from one of the two tiny ceramic bells that hang from the pomegranate trees in front as our concession towards seasonal decoration. Eleuterio again, and he had worked it out: the son and daughter-in-law of the Sensibles had lived here for a while and she had had a horse. She sold it; the man who bought it couldn’t afford the upkeep so he’d brought it back and quietly dropped it off, mistaking who we were.
We went to sleep on Christmas Eve wondering what on earth you do with a horse. I woke up on Christmas Day thinking: horses like carrots. I went down the path towards the river and looked for Horse. When I found him, I called him over; he came, huge head hanging low. I was too scared at first to feed him the carrots directly, but I got braver. He took the food infinitely gingerly from my hand. I began to understand how people can love horses.
Back in the house, we heard the sound of people coming up our road. It’s a dead end and no one comes here unless to see us (or our holidaying neighbours, when they are here; we haven’t met them yet) or because they’ve taken a wrong turn. The three English people apologised for disturbing us on Christmas Day, then:
‘Have you by any chance seen a horse?’
So we learnt on Christmas Day that a horse called – unbelievably – Jingle had, four days earlier, shed his horse collar, jumped the fence and run off. He lived two kilometres away. Judging by the timing, he had come straight here. And why not? This is such a lovely spot, with pasture to graze and water to drink. Clever Horse.
They’d been looking for him ever since and now, at last, had found him. I felt sad, but there was nothing for it.
Except that when we came back from Christmas lunch, Horse was still here. The owner had given us his number and I phoned him; they hadn’t been able to capture him.
By Boxing Day we were out of carrots and apples. I went down to the river anyway to see Horse. He heard me coming and emerged from the morning mist over the river, backlit by the rising sun.
We were out for the day, things to do, not least getting in horse-catering supplies, and as soon as we got back I went to see him, this time with morsels to feed him.
And so it has been every day since then. I feed Horse morsels, and I worry about him. Is he all right? Is he hungry? Is he lonely? Has he decided to go somewhere else? One day the hunt came by and Horse shot off. I was abject. Two hours later he was back. The next day some rather aggressive dogs chased him off. An hour later he was back, unruffled. I mostly call him ‘Horse’ and he answers to that. Now, if I walk down to the river he comes to say hello even if I haven’t got a bag of carrot pieces – though I often have. I also talk to his owner, who visits him twice a day, bringing hay and horse pellets, trying to pick the right moment to get the horse collar back on and take him home.
I promised to write about the important issues of water and fuel but at the moment I am preoccupied with Horse. I hope for a happy ending, which will ultimately be Horse back where he belongs – just not quite yet, please.