Art Inspires: Author Kelly Barnhill on the missing horse of the “Bronze Horses of San Marco”

"The Bronze Horses of San Marco," by Charles Caryl Coleman, painted in 1876 and on view in gallery G323 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

“The Bronze Horses of San Marco,” by Charles Caryl Coleman, painted in 1876 and on view in gallery G323 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Regarding the Missing Horse of the Bronze Horses of Saint Marco

My Darling,

You will notice, when you wake, that there are several things missing from the apartment. Your wallet, for one. And truly, my love, I am sorry for that. It can’t be helped. When I am next in Venice, I swear to you I shall repay you in full.

Assuming, of course, that I return to Venice. Or anywhere on Earth, for that matter.

It is true—and certainly you have guessed—that I need no money where I am bound. But I do love the look of paper when it burns. And a coin, once liquified, produces the most charming luster. And I have always been vain. Indeed, you have known that from the beginning.

You will notice, too, that I have taken your shoes. They pinch my toes, I know, but I love the way your pretty heels click upon the marble floor. You could not know this darling (how could you? You cannot speak Stone with your fleshy tongue; you cannot hear Stone with your fragile ears; you cannot hear our murmurings or our gossip—our wails, our grunts, our ecstatic sighs; how quiet the world must be for you!) but the marble floor shivers every time you walk across it. And the granite table moans each time your delicate hand wipes it clean. We love the sound of your feet. We love the echo of your voice against the old stone walls. We have loved you for years.

I am sorry for our argument last night, darling. And I am sorry for leaving you now. But you were right—I made a better statue than a man. This should have been obvious to both of us. We were foolish to try.

(But oh! Each night I held you in my stony hands! Each night you pressed your warm lips to my lips! A candle, once lit, is doomed, but do we not revel in its singular brightness in the face of the dark? Do we not treasure its light, knowing full well that it, like all good things, must eventually sputter and die?)

What is done cannot be undone. I cannot go back to the thing I was. I cannot stay as the thing I am. I must go somewhere…else. I find myself called by heat and light and fire. I do not know yet where it is. I shall know it when I see it.

And, my darling, as you pace the apartment, as you run your hands along the surfaces, exploring each empty space (it’s true! I stole ever so many things! Rings! Books! An exquisite brooch! Even a cookbook, which was a strange choice, I admit, given that I do not, nor have I ever, eaten food. Not once in my life). I shall hear you sob and shout. I shall hear you curse my name. No matter how far away from you I travel, your voice will make its way to me, reverberating through the rock. It is both curse and gift—the voice that woke me will stay with me. Forever. Indeed, despite everything, it is mostly a gift. I will treasure the sound of your open mouth. I will touch the crack across my face (your strength, my darling! It is a thing to behold!) with longing.

When you look out the east window, and climb out onto the veranda, you will see the last thing I took. I know how much you loved those horses. And I know how much you detest breaking a set. I woke the fifth horse the same way you woke me—I kissed its mouth; I breathed upon each eye; I whispered into each ear; and I climbed upon its back. As I woke, so the horse woke. And now we must leave.

The horse asks that you inform its brothers of its departure. It asks that you touch their backs and nuzzle their noses and whisper of strange places and far-off lands into their ears. Tell them what sand feels like under the hoof. Tell them what the sea tastes like. Tell them of pushing their way through muck and water and grass. Tell them what it means to be alive.

Your ever-loving and mostly faithful companion,


Kelly Barnhill, of Minneapolis, is the author of the novels Iron Hearted Violet and The Mostly True Story of Jack. A new novel, The Witch’s Boy, comes out this September from Algonquin, and a short story, Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch, is forthcoming from