Ned! Ned! Prick up your ears, for you must listen out for the sound of clopping hooves! It is a sound that betokens the coming of the preacher man astride his horse. The horse has been shod with iron horseshoes by the fat florid farrier at the fearsome fiery forge. While he waited for his horse to be shod the preacher man stood by the horse trough in the market square, preaching. He preached of a sulphurous vision of times to come, and the villagers trembled. Then the farrier’s urchin came running to tell him his horse was duly shod, and the preacher man stalked off to the farrier and paid him for his labour and mounted his horse and came a-clopping along the high ridge, silhouetted against the darkening sky. As night fell, he dismounted from his horse and tied it with a halter to a sturdy tree trunk by a brook, and he unrolled upon the ground his sleeping bag, a secondhand sleeping bag that once had belonged to an Antarctic explorer. Then the preacher man dipped his tin cup into the brook and gave water to his horse, and dipped the tin cup again and drank it off, and then he made a fire using gathered sticks and kindling. The moon looked down upon him, and he looked up at the moon. He shook his fist at it, but shouted no imprecations, for he did not wish to cause his horse alarm. The horse was timid.
Ned is tucked up in a makeshift bed on the balcony. The stillness of the night is punctuated by the hacking of his cough. Ned is tubercular, hence the balcony. His parents had not the means to send him to a high and healthful Alpine sanitarium, but their simple home has a balcony, so that is where they put him. Out there, he will be the first to hear the clopping hooves of the preacher man’s horse, when at last he comes a-calling. In the fug of their parlour below stairs Ned’s parents huddle around their radio, listening to dance tunes by Xavier Cugat & His Orchestra, and to strange buzzes and whistles and hisses and hums and crackles which interrupt the broadcast now and then, as if some alien intelligence far away in the boundless firmament is trying to communicate with them. There is a fire in the grate, made with gathered sticks and kindling, and it crackles like the radio.
The preacher man tied a nosebag filled with feed to his horse, and then he squatted by the fire and plucked from the griddle balanced over it the sausages he had cooked for his supper. As he chewed, the stars twinkled in the black sky. He could not bear to look up at them. He stared instead into the fire, and saw imps and demons dancing, and souls in torment. The horse shuddered, and kicked the sturdy tree trunk, but weakly. The preacher man had rescued it from the knackers yard, paying a pittance to the knackerman. He had yet to give the horse a name. In a pocket of his preacher’s black suit, as black as the sky, he had a list of the names of racehorses. He would pick one, all in good time, for this horse, if it lived. Musing over the names of racehorses was sinful, but like all men, he was a sinner. There was gristle in his sausages.
In the bed upon the balcony, Ned, his ears pricked up to hear the clopping of hooves, should they come clopping, cannot stir. He is tied to the bed with bindings. His parents had listened to a radio programme in which Blötzmann propounded his views on the treatment of the tubercular. Several parts of it had been inaudible due to buzzes and whistles and hisses and hums and crackles, and they had pieced together afterwards what they understood. Balcony air, plenty of milk, and binding to the bed. Ned hears nothing but the racking of his cough and the howling of distant wolves. He stares up at the stars, and gives them names. In one of his pyjama pockets he has a list of the names of racehorses, a list he has committed to memory, and he passes his tubercular time allotting the names to the stars in the sky.
Morning came, and the preacher man kicked the embers of the fire and smeared his face with the ashes. Birds were twittering in the trees, and he cursed them. He had specific sets of curses for different types of birds, and he knew all their songs, he had learnt them long ago at his mother’s knee. He cursed his mother too. He pictured her in her cell at the lunatic asylum, perched on an Alpine slope. She would greet the morning with her own demented song. He was thankful he no longer had to hear it. The horse was still asleep. The preacher man pissed into the brook. He fought a craving to eat an eel for breakfast. He awoke his horse and mounted it and set it a-clopping with a kick.
As dawn comes, Ned falls asleep, bound to his balcony bed. Below, his parents tend to their cows and their poultry. They keep their eyes peeled for the postman. They are expecting a parcel.
Outshone by the sun, the stars were no longer visible, so the preacher man could gaze up at the heavens without fear. His horse clopped along, back on the high ridge, out of the valley.
Ned’s head is awash with dreams. He dreams of cows and poultry and racehorses, all horribly intermingled, cows with chicken heads and racehorses with beaks and feathers and chickens that snort like racehorses. Stars burst and explode, birds sing, and alien beings from far in the boundless firmament buzz and whistle and hiss and hum and crackle. And there comes a sound of the clopping of hooves, at first very quiet, as if from afar, but it grows louder and louder, closer and closer, and Ned wakes from his dreams, and still he hears the clopping of hooves, and he rises as far as he can from his makeshift bed and weakly he calls to his parents below, “Ma! Pa! I hear the clopping of hooves! The preacher man is come!” and the effort of calling makes him cough and cough, and he collapses back on the bed on the balcony, thin and frail and tubercular. But his parents do not hear him, for they have spotted the postman, in his little red van, chugging along the lonely road below, and they run down the hill to wave him to a halt.
Up on the bridge, the preacher man’s horse, exhausted, collapsed beneath him.
The birds fall silent. The radio crackles. Ned coughs.
There is no parcel from the postman today.