It has been said there is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse. And Rafael had to believe it was so, was he to make it through these next minutes. He had to believe he could trust this animal beneath him, as nothing less than full commitment from both parties would avoid serious injury. As the cold of the night settled around him and his steed, the flickering of the burning pyres that lay ahead on the cobbles blinked against the terraces, the smoke filling his nostrils with the scent of burning grass, a literal incarnation of the fragrance of fear. As he began to focus on the task at hand, the beat of the omnipresent drum faded, the festival celebrations and the discomfort from too much sangria fell away and Rafael was left with only his doubts, the black night sky, his horse and the fire.
In his heightened state, he could feel the twitch of his rides powerful tendons underneath the saddle. He could feel the familiar texture of the leather reins in his over worked palms. He could hear his father bray, as clear as if the old man was leaning on his frame in front of him, ‘It’s tradition Rafael! It’s time you took your place’. The gusting wind was funnelling cool air down the blocked off street, blowing sparks from the crackling fire with reckless abandon, throwing the embers to their deaths against windows and walls and the woollen garments of those gathered for the spectacle. As the swirling air subtly changed direction, the blue smoke began to blow directly into Rafael’s squinting eyes. He knew it was time. No more would he shun a 500 year old tradition. No more would he be so weak as to consider the health of his horse.
With a calculated and gentle nudge of spurs into his horses soft flanks, the animal began to move forward, chomping on the steel bit of the harness and blowing freckled saliva from the edges of its mouth. Resisting the urge to go any faster towards the flames, the horses head rose and tucked against its chest in an act of denial. Another tick of Rafael’s worn spurs was the vital inspiration needed to break into the requisite canter. Anything slower they wouldn’t make it. Anything faster and they would overshoot.
Doing all in his might to harness the speed and strength of the proven grey charger, Rafael tucked his head as close to that of the horse and began to rise and fall with trained rhythm, completely in sync with the flex and relax of the horses awesome frame. Rafael closed his eyes just as the first hot and twinkling coals disappeared, hidden beneath the girth of the rising animal.
The tendons of the fire licked the horses belly and singed Rafael’s riding boots. Time slowed down to a fraction of its worth. Tick. Tick. Tick.
And then it was done.
Rafael exhaled and opened his eyes, with a whoosh of sound and a clap of hooves, time returned to the familiar. The drums and the sounds of the festival returned to his ears. He could hear the clap of hands and the chinking of glasses. The smell of smoke was drowned out by his stomach’s churning for meat and bread and his horses four shoed feet clopped on the cobbles. People laughed and nodded approvingly. But all Rafael could think was that he had fulfilled his duty. The promise he had made to his ailing father.
In jumping the flames, in risking his health for tradition, Rafael’s family joined the ranks of other old town families. Those families for whom jumping the burning pyres of flame and smoke set up in the town centre meant protection from the plague for another year.
An audible sigh escaped from the depths of his chest. Rubbing his fore head with the back of his left hand, his right busy patting the grey hair of his mounts neck, Rafael whispered in a barely audible tone; ‘well done old girl, well done’.
The inspiration for this short story came from Tom Haines’ new 16mm short ‘Luminarias’.
Set to 1930s Spanish poet Rafael Alberti’s passionate paean “Galope,” the film captures the dramatic scenes of the annual Luminarias festival in San Bartolome de Pinares, in the mountains northwest of Madrid, where every January locals leap over burning pine pyres on horseback as part of a 500-year-old ritual originally intended to purify villagers during the plague. Still devout in the belief that the flames and smoke have a purifying effect, pregnant women and new born babies are regularly seen leaping flames on horseback.
This stuff seriously happens. How badass is that?
- Gallery: Las Luminarias de San Anton Festival 2013 (metro.co.uk)
- Photos: Saint Anthony Bonfire Festival in Spain (photos.denverpost.com)