Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley




Part One





ONE




            Paras had won her race. She had jumped all the jumps with a great deal of pleasure, and, she thought, in excellent form. The number-two horse, a chestnut gelding from down south somewhere, had been so far behind her that she hadn’t been able to hear his hoofbeats on the turf (and of course the crowd was yelling, too). She had, she thought, almost danced across the finish line. Everyone was happy—the jockey did a backflip off her, the groom gave her a kiss, and Delphine, her trainer, gave her a hug and three lumps of brown sugar, not to mention an excellent feed of carrots when she was all cool and calm after the race.

            Since it was the last race of the day, and, indeed, the year—it was early November—the van, which already had its four horses, had left before her race began, so as to come back and get her, but now the van was late, the stable was empty, and Rania, her groom, had, she said, gone to the bathroom, and why not in the stall, thought Paras, but she could never get an answer to this question.

                         Twilight was descending over the vast green expanse of Auteuil Racecourse. The jumps had dimmed into dark shapes against the still vivid green grass. Admiring this, Paras did something that she often did—she pressed against the door of the stall, and this time something happened that had never happened before—it swung open. After a moment, Paras stepped carefully out onto the fine, crunchy gravel and snorted. Everything remained quiet. She could see now that every stall was empty and dark—in fact, the green of the racecourse was the brightest color around, so bright that, for a moment, she didn’t dare head out there. But Paras was a very curious filly.

            At her feet were several items that Rania had left behind—the grooming box, full of brushes, Paras’s blue blanket, and something that Paras knew was called a “purse.” This was the only thing that interested Paras—she had seen lots of purses, and heard even more about them—she had, in fact, just won a purse, and so, she thought, this would certainly be it. She dropped her nose, snuffled a bit, and found the handle. She picked it up, and trotted out of the stable yard onto the racecourse. Really, she thought, for a horse who had just run a long race, and with fourteen jumps, she felt quite full of beans. She kicked up her heels and gave a squeal.

            To begin with, Paras had no idea of making a getaway. Not only did she like racing, and Delphine, and Rania, and her “owner,” Madeleine, and several of the other horses, as well as her nice clean stall up there in Maisons-Laffitte, she really didn’t know much else—none of the horses did. All had been born on pleasant farms in the country, and all had come to Maisons-Laffitte when they were hardly more than babies, and all had been galloping and eating and riding in the van and racing and galloping and eating and racing for quite a while, as long as Paras could clearly remember, actually. It was an active life, and in Maisons-Laffitte there was plenty to see of a morning, especially if you raced over jumps. But the horses did talk among themselves about what else might be out there. Some worldly ones who had traveled from down south, or from across the sea, had seen different courses. They lorded it over the others a bit. There were also those who talked about escaping this life, but they never talked about what else they might do. Paras did not think that any of them were as curious as she was.

                         And here was the grass—turf, they called it, but grass, really, as thick and green and appetizing as it could possibly be, and a racehorse never got to eat a strand of it, never even thought of doing such a thing. A racecourse was for racing. Paras took a few bites.

            It has to be said that the grass was delicious—sweet, fragrant, flavorsome, and a little fruity-tasting. A mouthful was excellent chewing—not too light, but not at all tough, like hay. And it was nice to bite off the living stalks. She walked along, nibbling, occasionally trotted, occasionally kicked up her heels, and even reared twice, just for the fun of it. She was careful to keep track of her purse, though, and always circled back to retrieve it before she got too far away. Pretty soon it was completely dark, but Paras didn’t mind. She could see quite well in the dark.