A short story by Steven Cubillo

The adobe house stood on the last hill of the village, shaded by two huge fig trees, which gave it a quiet air sheltered from the hot afternoon sun. Don Ulpiano was dozing thoughtfully in his old wicker rocking chair while waiting for Doña Leticia – his wife – to finish cooking the corn tamale she used to prepare on Thursday afternoons. He tried to distract himself from his meditations listening to the innocent chirping of the chickens that were born just the day before, but the worries danced like frightened hurricanes in his chest and he thought and thought until the delicious smell of freshly dripped coffee brought him out of his reverie. 

“Here honey, have some tamale and a cup of coffee,” Doña Leticia said as she offered it.

He thanked her with a gesture, took a piece to his mouth, and accompanied it with a sip of the steaming coffee until a doubt escaped from his mouth:

“Darling, when did we get so old?”

“My daddy used to say that life is but a blink…” As she said this, she rubbed her milk-white hands together, and the sunlight streaming through the window highlighted the burns of a lifetime at the skillet.

“Darling,” said Don Ulpiano, taking a second bite, “do you think if I go to the Robles’ estate they’ll give me a job?”

“You’ve already worked a lot, you should rest. You said so as well, we are old.

“But…” he fell silent to take a long sip of coffee and continued “I feel useless sitting here all day. We have to pay the mortgage tomorrow, otherwise they’ll take our little house and I’m not going to allow a banker to drag me out of the house like a dog.”

“The kids are already figuring out how to send us money. Don’t worry, they’ve never left us alone.”

His wife approached him when she saw that this did not reassure him and stroked his shoulder as she always did when she wanted to give him strength… He, used to not showing weakness, suppressed a sob and simply took her hand as a sign of affection. They gave each other a tender look with tired eyes. He brought his hand to his lady’s face and found it just as charming as on the first day, until after four sharp knocks a voice rang out from behind the door: 

“Don Ulpianooo!”

Unaccustomed to receiving visitors, he rose with heavy steps and opened the creaky door to find an old friend smiling at him:

“Juan, my friend, what are you doing here?” said Don Ulpiano with a smile.

They shook hands for a few seconds. Don Ulpiano saw that his friend looked much older than him, but he kept those cheerful, jovial eyes he always had. 

“What brings you here?”

“I’ve never seen such a cunning horse and no villager could tame him for me, so I came to you so you could train him with your experience. “

“What if you neuter him?”

“No, God forbid! I need him to get some calves out of him.”

“Oh Don Juan… Can’t you see I’m already old?

“I know… but it’s all skill. Besides… I’ve never met a tamer like you, Don Ulpiano, do you remember when we were kids, you used to tame all the horses in the village and then we’d go for a drink with Lucho and Lopez to celebrate-

“Do you remember?” He said wistfully, as if that phrase had transported him back to those glory days “the four of us were always working, seducing girls and partying. Take heart and relive those glory days. Besides, I’m willing to pay you.”

All he could think of was that the money would help him pay off the mortgage debt, so he responded resolved:

“I know my wife isn’t going to like this at all, but I really need the money. Let’s go.”

Don Ulpiano felt a huge surge of hope at the thought of taming a beast again. This was what he needed to feel alive. He shook off his doubts and entered the house. He found Doña Leticia eating in the rocking chair while watching her TV show. She looked beautiful in a yellow dress.

“Who was that?” she asked without taking her eyes off the television.

“It was my friend, Juan Ureña. He wanted me to help him choose some bulls for an auction. He’ll give me some money for this service.” He lied, knowing that his wife would not allow him to ride a wild horse. 

She stood up, drew a cross on his forehead, and hugged him saying: 

“May the Virgin Mary be with you.” 

He hadn’t visited the village in several months, but for some reason he noticed that it was more colorful and, as he rode at a slow trot, he could hear the murmur of adults talking to the youth:

“This is Don Ulpiano, there isn’t a horse that this man cannot tame.” 

These words made him feel on his back the weight of upkeeping his mythos intact and to not disappoint the new generations of tamers. He continued to stare straight ahead, pretending not to hear, until he reached the pen. They dismounted and went straight to the steed. He felt a spasm at the sight of such a large animal.

“What’s its name?” he asked.

The Devil Never Sleeps, but we affectionately call him The Devil.” They answered. 

He swallowed hard. The beast looked huge. It was a dark gray color, scaled with dark tones. But what really scared him was the sight of its red and black eyes, dilated with fury. It took a tremendous effort not to run back home like a lit firecracker. He muttered, “Oh my God, when did I get myself into this mess.”

Recovering from the shock and with a tone of confidence that surprised him, he said:

“Saddle him for me, and we will tame him today.”

One by one, the villagers approached the pen to watch the show and this made him even more nervous. His mouth went dry and, to his surprise, he saw Don Mario collecting money from the newcomers. Why is this old fart collecting money? 

Don Mario was an elderly man, with a lively look and eyes a bit like a vulture’s. He stopped worrying when, in the crowd, he saw his three friends from his youth: Juan, Lucho and López. They were talking to each other. Looking at them together filled his heart with memories, he wanted to greet them, but he was so nervous that he preferred not to approach them so that they wouldn’t notice his shaking legs.

Taking advantage of the fact that they did not realize he was watching them, he allowed himself to analyze them carefully. He perceived them as old, battered, and he understood that time takes its toll with all of life’s adventures. Lucho, for example, had a full head of gray hair, overly fat, so much so that his protruding, pink cheeks barely showed his eyes. López, on the other hand, was very thin, a bit sickly and hunchbacked, standing shakily on his old tortoiseshell cane. They were laughing loudly, whispering jokes.

Suddenly, he saw all three of them carefully and suspiciously taking money out of their leather wallets. All the money was given to Juan Ureña, who piled it into a single roll and, with a mischievous smile, approached Don Mario to hand it to him. He picked it up and counted it carefully, paying close attention to each note. He attentively wrote something in a small yellow notebook and got lost in the crowd, where he continued his particular work.

Intrigued to know what was going on, Don Ulpiano approached and asked Don Mario:

“What’s the deal with the money collecting?”

“What do you mean you don’t know? We are making bets on whether you will be able to train The Devil or not.”

“Wow!” he replied, “What a burden of responsibility I feel now after learning that Don Juan and my other friends bet on me.”

Mario laughed a mischievously and confessed:

“Oh, Don Ulpiano! Your good friends are all betting against you. They say they don’t trust you at all.”

He remained silent, assimilating what he had just heard. Disappointed and annoyed, he took out a handful of crumpled banknotes, what he had gathered to pay the mortgage, and, without thinking, he bet everything in his favor. He left convinced that he was still useful, that his years of experience were not in vain. He walked towards the horse that was already saddled. He stood there, respectfully looking at this growling wild animal… until he heard behind him.

“Don Ulpiano, it’s easy. Right?”

He didn’t need to look around to know that it was Juan Ureña speaking to him. In a hoarse voice he replied: 

“God said: God, human, and beast. Not God, beast, and human.” 

“It’s nice to hear you are so sure of yourself. So, are you going to ride him?” 

“Yes, Don Juan, but on one condition. That if I tame him, you change his name to one <i choose.”

Don Juan, confused, burst out laughing but, finding no other remedy, he accepted this whim. The whole village was there. The enclosure flooded with a deep silence broken by an occasional whisper that reached Don Ulpiano’s ears. These whispers said things like “If he can do it, he’s cunning” or comments like “He won’t last a minute, he’s already too old.”. 

He approached The Devil Never Sleeps. It reared up on its hind legs and, approaching him, tried to kick him with its hooves. Don Ulpiano, who already knew this movement in wild horses, took the opportunity to step on the left side, leaving his boots marked on the sandy ground. In the same movement, the old man propelled himself and in one leap climbed onto the back of the animal. He was afraid, he had never climbed on such a high horse. He took the reins and the beast rose on its legs. All the assistants photographed with their pupils the image of this brave old man who clung with all his strength and all his years to the biggest and bravest horse they had ever seen. 

The titan, who despite his size was still a colt, stretched his prominent musculature and gave his all with every jump. He whinnied and snorted with the wrath of hell, kicking heavily in the air while Don Ulpiano clung to the agave rope with the palms of his hands, holding on as if he refused to die. The infernal swinging raising clouds of reddish dust. The audience finally broke the silence and shouts erupted, imbued with the breath of one who sees his hero fight his greatest battle, and he, at this cheer, felt alive. But like the greatest of knights, he put his ego aside and devoted himself to feeling that sparse white horse tremble in the wind and, closing his eyes, concentrated on becoming one with the movements of the animal.

It would drop to the ground and immediately get up again with roars of fury, alternating between hind legs and front legs. It would contort its body to throw the rider off balance, trying not to be tamed. 

As the sun was almost down, the beast suspended in the air made a sudden movement, causing the man to let go of the rope and, in order not to fall, entwine his fingers in the dark mane of the animal. Those present watched in the orange light as the horse and rider became one piece, a single shadow that shook like a majestic and violent cyclone. 

All this seemingly eternal event had happened in just a few minutes, and the villagers could hardly believe that Don Ulpiano had not fallen. Instead, he seemed to have mastered the situation, although he was sweating rivers and the shrill falls were hurting his already sore bones. Not until the horse gave a last sigh, as if asking for a truce, did the old man release one of his hands and caressed its fine coat with affection. The steed gave by inertia two more small jumps, but the fatigue made him remain motionless, breathing restless, calming down when he felt his back being caressed and a tenuous voice whispered in his ear:

“Easy, easy, we are now one being, you and I are one… you have brought me back to life boy.”

He stood there for a while, talking to the horse and giving it instructions on how to move. When he dismounted, everyone applauded him and his heart filled with joy. Don Mario came up to him and gave him his payment, then pat his shoulder. He limped over to where Don Juan Ureña was, along with Lucho and López, and said:

“Don Juan, my payment so I can leave.”

With a sour and visibly annoyed gesture, the latter gave him a fifty colones bill, without saying anything… Don Ulpiano received it with joy, putting it with what he had won in the bet. He put it in his pocket and looking directly at all his “friends”. He told them:

“The only thing missing is to change the name. The horse will now be called: Angel of God, because the devils of this city seem to be others.” 

They turned pale, understanding the comment, but only lowered their heads and grumbled. Don Ulpiano set out for home, limping and badly injured, his back and hips broken, he knocked on the door. He was greeted by his sweet wife, and without a word, he hugged her with all his strength. She happily but confusedly asked him:

“What happened to you? Why are you in this state?”

Don Ulpiano, smiling, showed her the money all balled up in his aching hands and said:

“Darling, give me another tamale and make me a cup of coffee so I can tell you the story.”

Author: Steven Cubillo
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