When Phar Lap the racehorse was offed by the mob in California — his knees bashed inwards in a dark alleyway, poison entered intravenously into his bloodstream, a pillow over his muzzle, his hooves encased in concrete, led inescapably to the water and made to drink — his mourning public didn’t know what to do. He was the most famous horse in all the world, the most beloved. They had huddled around their radios, pored over their newspapers, plunged money into his races, following his golden streak. He was the pride and joy of the country, the fastest horse in all the world, a fact which bears up because he lived in the 1930s, and they didn’t have facts back then. How could anyone know if he was the fastest horse in all the world? He carried the nation on his back. He carried two nations on his back. He had a big back. His stupidly massive heart was twice the size of a normal horse’s, too big even for him to carry. And when he died everyone wanted a piece of him, nobody could decide where the claim was greater. So, like the Lindsay Lohans in The Parent Trap, they divvied him up: his bones went to Aotearoa; his skin to Melbourne; his heart lies in Canberra, where it’s right at home, as nothing much else beats with life.
What slips out lifts forth. Our muscles burned with life. Our muscles removed, murdered, grinning with righteousness.
At Melbourne Museum, Phar Lap stands surrounded by his possessions, the cups he won, portraits of himself in the prime of his life, black-and-white photos of the grinning men who accompanied him across the world. His skin is glossy and complete. His legs go all the way up to his armpits. You could be forgiven for forgetting that he’s stuffing all the way through.
Phar Lap’s bones hang out on the fourth floor of Te Papa Tongarewa, tucked under a stairwell by the lifts, strung from the ceiling like a marionette. Behind him, on the wall, a life-size photo: Phar Lap, enfleshed, looking wistfully out of frame. If you stand in front of him, look directly at his flank, his bones line up with the picture, his skeleton a shadow of the real horse, his body flimsy and full of holes in front of its image. The tourists don’t bother much with him, even at the height of cruise ship season. Maybe they find something off-putting about the skeleton of a giant horse looming over them, his empty eye sockets staring blankly into the distance, his huge teeth fixed in a brilliant white smile.
Phar Lap, you’re a horse, so I hope you’ll forgive me a bald analogy: people also look right through me. Every morning as I got off the lift I would pass him on my way to the café, tying up my apron as I went, always running late. The museum opened at ten; by ten-thirty the cruise ship people had exhausted all four levels of exhibits and descended on us. By midday the tables would be full, and a line would form that snaked its way out into the museum, groups of tourists, mostly Americans, ordering normal coffee, just a normal coffee, just regular coffee, what do you mean I can’t get that to take away. We worked in a panic for hours, half running to tables, replenishing coffee cups as quickly as they were used up, clearing dishes in great stacks that toppled over onto us. I developed a knack for staring into the middle distance as I wove between tables, so as not to catch anyone’s eye. Occasionally, the skeleton of a dead horse would float, fuzzy, past my eyeline.
Even in battlements, the busiest days end. By six, sweaty, sore, desperately requiring a beer, the tables would be miraculously empty, streaked with over-soaped cleaning spray, the kitchen lights were off, and the only sound was the audio loop of waves from the waka next to the café. The last task of the day was to take the bins out. Every night, arms full of rubbish, I passed Phar Lap on my way to the lifts, and I would think, madly exhausted, yes, it me, dead horse bones. Neigh.
Stories of Phar Lap’s heart may have been exaggerated. Independent reports cannot verify these claims. Who, actually, has ever been to Canberra?
Glass agitates, floor rocking. Long constant rocking. Full flight, outpaced.
We don’t know when the time will come for us to be called for something greater than ourselves. Some people have an innate sense that they belong to a higher purpose; some are galvanised by the forces surrounding them, wrecked by the world until their bodies churn for action, plagued by their certainty, their conviction.
I am sure only of this: Phar Lap must be reunited. His flesh must be extricated from its stuffing, his bones removed from their cage, his heart freed of Canberra. We won’t pretend to have what we’ve lost; his organs, his muscles, his eyes are gone. His desiccated skin must be draped over his bones like a child dressing its fleshy body up as a ghost, gaping holes where his eyes once were, his jowls stretching inexorably towards the ground. His giant, bloated, overbearing heart must be placed gently in his ribcage, and placed there again when it slaps wetly onto the floor, and placed there again when it fights it way out again (we might need a full-time staff member for this job), and he will be beautiful, our baggy, blind champ of champs.
This will be an international effort, a trans-Tasman peacekeeping corps, a chance to put aside wrongs only grumbly dads care about. We can’t agree to whom he belongs. For the sake of fairness, he will be put on a barge and sent out to sea. Museum curators will cry about humidity, sea salt causing damage to the hide, and fragile bones being exposed to rough waves, but as any child of divorce knows, nobody can thrive in a state of constant separation from oneself, not even already-dead horses riddled with formaldehyde.
Out on the sea, he’ll feel the wind in his hair. He’ll feel the waves lapping at his feet. He’s been still for so long, it’s been almost a century since he’s felt bones in legs or a heart pumping jerkily, exhausted, in his chest. The rocking of waves feels like a gallop, if you don’t know what galloping feels like, or if you’re a horse and you’re dead. He was the fastest horse in all the world. Let him prove that to the waves, let him win, every day, a race against the turning of the earth. Let our poor lad run again.