But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us. —Ernest Hemingway, on Beryl Markham
The sun was setting over Lake Nakuru, peering through lavender clouds to leave a golden trail across the water. Beryl leaned against the brick wall of the stable to watch the lake. The horses were munching their hay, and later she’d groom the filly. Or maybe she’d ride the stallion out for the first time, the one she’d gotten for nothing at auction a few weeks ago, the one with the perfect bloodline. The one who’d killed a man with his hooves and teeth in the corner of a stall in Nairobi. If the filly was her favorite, the stallion was her hope.
She ignored his name because she would give him a new one. She’d give him a new life. He would be reborn into glory on the track, and the customers would line up at her door.
Why don’t you ride him already? she chided herself. You know you can do it. You’ll have to do it if you want to make your money back, and God knows you need money.
Her servant and friend Kibii, whom she’d known all her life, told a client yesterday, “Memsahib is fearless. She’s been riding racehorses since she was eleven.” True, she’d been raised in Nairobi by a father who raced Thoroughbreds, managed a troubled farm, and forgot her birthday. True, a horse had picked her up in his mouth when she was seven and thrown her; she still had the purple scar on her neck.
She could throw a spear like the Nandi. She could hunt. She rode a half-broken motorcycle over the vacant, muddy road from Nakuru to Nairobi when she got lonely, after dark, when you could hear the lions. Once, when she had to pee, an elephant rose from the dark brush and startled her; she ran back to the motorcycle with her wet pants not entirely up.
“You didn’t stand down the elephant?” Kibii asked when she told him, feigning disbelief.
“I’m brave,” she said. “Not an imbecile.”
She poured herself a glass of wine, measuring it because the bottle had to last a week. A week without guests.
She went back to leaning against the stable. She sipped the wine and watched enormous, salmon-colored clouds of flamingos drag their overturned heads across the muddy shallows of Nakuru.
Deafening birdlife meant a constant stream of shit on the racetrack, but her horses were too well trained to stop and smell it, or lick at it the way her dogs did.
I want to be alone when I turn the stallion out, she thought, looking for his proud head over the stall door. I want him to know me as his master, his alpha and omega.
She drank more wine, eyes back on the sunset. She could see the silhouettes of water buffalo grazing by the lake, followed, she knew, by clouds of blackflies and the threat of river blindness. She knew a stable boy who’d poured boiling water down his back to relieve itching caused by the flies. One bite from a fly like that on the stallion’s belly and she’d be thrown and broken, left for dead in the ring.
Have I had lunch? she wondered, touching her flat stomach.
No, she had not. Might as well do it now and call it dinner.
Recently divorced and broke, she lived alone in a small white canvas tent underneath the racetrack stands. Her bed was covered in zebra skin. She kept tins of beans next to bottles of wine and boxes of biscuits in a trunk that had once belonged to her father.
She never ate much. Meager eating was good for keeping her figure, and her figure was an asset, on a horse and in the bedroom. She wanted to look good in clothes and out of them.
Cross-legged on the ground, she speared the beans with her fork and took increasingly quick bites.
Today is the day to ride the stallion, she thought, and the light won’t last forever.
She stood up and brushed off her legs. She locked up the dogs. She pulled her hair away from her face. She took her riding crop from the corner of the tent.
She’d always been a cruel person, she knew that, and today it was in her favor. Savage practicality and courage had been bred into her, and facing down a beast of a horse in the last hour of light, she could use that.
“Beryl is easily bored,” people said. It was true. She was hungry to feel something every day, and fear is what she felt pulling open the stall door. She relished the feeling, the goose pimples on her arms, her heightened sense of awareness. Her singular focus.
I will have you, she thought, locking eyes with the regal horse.
The stallion was enormous, seventeen hands high. She could sense the energy he’d built up behind the stall door. She led him to the crossties and put on his tack, carefully, firmly. He swung his head toward her, and she met his face with her elbow. He did it again, and again she met him with her elbow. He balked at the bit and began to pull back, but she waited him out, pressing her thumb into the corner of his mouth, and got it in.
She led him to the ring, careful not to look back, not to show fear. She was the leader, and he should follow. She walked the ring, then had him canter, and trot. His muscles excited her. They showed potential. They would make her a winner. Holding on to his lead line, she walked closer to his face.
“Back up,” she said.
He didn’t. She pressed his broad chest until he moved. “Back up.” She leaned into his back legs to make one cross over the other, the way his mother would have done in the paddock when he was young.
“You’re stronger than I am,” she said calmly. “But I’m more determined than you. Throw me, and I’ll get back on. I’ll whip you raw.”
They could say what they wanted to about her in town. They could say she was a bad wife, too young. They could say she was cruel. She had a stable all to herself in the evenings, and wasn’t that better than watching your sad sack of a husband drink himself stupid, fighting him off because you didn’t want to sleep with a flaccid, unshowered maniac? Yes. The empty stable was better, even if it meant being unable to buy new clothes. Even if it meant buying your own horses, the dangerous ones you could afford. The ones who’d been passed over, written off.
Don’t let your mind wander, she reminded herself. Not even for a second.
She led the stallion to the mounting block. He shifted as she gripped his mane and swung her leg over him. What man would ever be more exciting than this? she thought, squeezing the horse between her strong thighs.
“You will respect me,” she said, as he began to turn without her cue. His body stiffened and his head began to dip. He was going to try to throw her, she could feel it.
This battle of wills was real and she would win. She would give herself fully. This moment was falling in love.
From Almost Famous Women: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman. Copyright © 2015 by Megan Mayhew Bergman. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc.