Margita Figuli

Three Chestnut Horses

translated by John Minahane

Reprinted with permission of CEU Press.

I’d been going from the Polish border towards lower Orava. Behind my back Babia Mountain was still jutting out, like the outward breathing of that hilly land, smoothed to a rounded shape by the bitter gales.

In the valley in front of me I spotted the first roof, with a cross standing out against the horizon. I did not know the name of the settlement which I could see beyond the church, but that was of no consequence. The important thing was that I would have somewhere to sleep and rest, worn out as I was from the day-long traveling.

Weaving my way between the spruces, I came to a clearing and I would soon have made out the way to the village, when something made my horse uneasy and fearful. I too became somewhat unnerved, and immediately I pulled on the reins to make him gallop. But my horse, instead of rushing off, stopped still, shivered, and cocked his ears. I spurred him sharply a few times in the underbelly, but he stood as if made of stone. Plucking up my courage, I looked around me to see if some danger was threatening.

At that moment two shots rang out from the Polish side and the echoes carried thunderously through the peaks. Immediately afterwards we were surprised by a loud noise which rolled down the mountain towards us like some gigantic boulder. It was approaching at such speed that I could scarcely keep track of it. All I could hear was twigs snapping and the earth shaking. Eventually I distinguished the drumming of hooves, and right then I spotted a team of seven horses careering through the trees. I knew immediately that these could only be smugglers coming from Poland with the customs guard pursuing them. There were two men. They had the horses tied together with thin ropes for halters. One of them was leading two horses and the other five.

I moved aside, as they were racing down the hillside in a furious gallop straight towards me.

The one in front was pressed right down upon his horse’s back, to avoid the bullets. The man behind him was hanging in the stirrups with his face turned up to the sky. He appeared to be wounded.

My horse, in confusion, reared up, spluttered, and then took off along with the others, racing like a wild thing. I was quite unable to hold him back and had no other option but to loosen his bridle and gallop through the pasturelands at breakneck speed.

I guessed that the smugglers were making for the secluded wood behind the stream that flowed under Babia Mountain. They would have to hide so that our police would not catch them, and I too knew of this place as a safe refuge.

Two of us cleared the stream at a leap. Only the man hanging in the stirrups was left behind, because his horse shied at the last moment — afterwards it turned out that the animal had been shot through the thigh. In the end he laboriously jumped across the current, but he lost his footing on the slippery bank at the other side and fell heavily right on top of a sharp tree stump that ripped his belly open. The horse was still struggling when I went back to help his master. He looked at me so mournfully and beseechingly that I had to avert my eyes, because I pitied him so much. Indeed, I wanted to shoot him, but they wouldn’t let me in case the shot gave us away. So we left him like that, at the mercy of the wild beasts.

Naturally, I first rushed over to free the lad who was hanging from the horse’s body. His head was dipped into the stream and the water was lapping at his hair. I lifted him up, freed him from the straps, and laid him on the bank, on the grass.

He breathed, came to life and looked at me. I felt him staring, rigid with surprise. Slowly he opened his mouth and grasped my hand, saying:

‘Am I dreaming, or is it you, Peter, really you?’

‘It’s really me,’ I replied, and I too was amazed to find him here.

Now I can speak fairly calmly about this shock, but at the time my heart was pounding as if it would burst right through my breast. That was how agitated I was, because the man lying before me was none other than Jožko Greguš from Vyšný Kubín, yes, Jožko Greguš, Magdalena’s cousin.

Only a little while back I had begun weaving a story out of our two lives, Magdalena’s life and mine. I thought no one else would enter that history apart from us, but I had barely taken a few steps when it all began to get tangled up. So I sensed that this encounter in the remote mountains of the Polish border could not be pure coincidence. Disquiet surged into me suddenly, like lightning striking a tall tree. The one who made me most uneasy was the one who had fled with the five horses, and involuntarily I spun round in his direction. By now he had the horses tied to trees and was looking down from the height at us where we were by the stream.

‘Who is that man?’ I asked Greguš suddenly.

‘That’s Zapotočný,’ he replied absent-mindedly, running his fingers over his head to see if he was wounded.

‘Which Zapotočný?’ I pressed him, because there were many Zapotočnýs.

‘Jano Zapotočný… Jano Zapotočný from Leštiny,’ he said eventually, rising.

‘I’ve heard of him,’ I remarked casually, wanting to know more.

‘And well you might,’ he said with relish, ‘since he’s the leading farmer in Leštiny and the most dangerous horse smuggler. He doesn’t do that often, because he doesn’t need to. He’s got money like chaff. But now and then the passion seizes him. This time round he roped me in too, and I all but paid for it with my life. I won’t be lured a second time, not if Poland had horses of gold. But this time I had to bend to his will, because he wanted to smuggle in a few more horses before the wedding. After that, according to him, he’s going to give up smuggling and just be a farmer. He’s still only at the stage of deciding to go and propose to her, but he expects he’ll be successful at that. So he’s decided that on the way back from these hills he will ask for her hand.’

‘On the way back from these hills…’ I repeated mentally after him.

Mentally I repeated it after him, and I felt a mild shiver go through my body at the thought that a similar duty awaited me. Just that my situation would be more difficult, because I didn’t have money like Zapotočný. I didn’t have money like chaff. I didn’t even have my own roof over my head. I was a common tramp who bought wood round the country. But this did not in any way deter me. That day I was so audacious and resolute that I had no fear of asking her to join with me forever. And I believed that my Magdalena would unite with me, because she would always prefer love to mammon, such a great, deep and pure love as my own.

I was musing like this all the time that Greguš was talking about Zapotočný. In the meantime we had taken our two horses and set off up the slope. We left the third horse on the bank, his eyes distracted, glazed by suffering. That was the one with the riven belly, and now he was dying. Once more I picked up my gun to shoot him, because his pain was eating at my heart like rust on iron.

Zapotočný, furious, shook his fist from the height, warning me not to dare shoot, for fear of alerting the policemen who were still lurking nearby. And he was right — we might easily have given ourselves away.

Greguš too eventually caught my hand. To divert me from my purpose he took up his narrative again, saying:

‘Look, I ought to tell you who Zapotočný has chosen. It’ll interest you, definitely. When you were children you were neighbours in Turiec.’

That indeed caught my interest and I fastened my eyes firmly to his lips. Or rather, what fastened them there was the foreboding that, at that very moment, I might receive a fatal wound. I waited, unspeaking, tense, for Greguš to pronounce the name, and yet that was the very thing that I feared.

Then Greguš said:

‘My cousin Magdalena.’

At that I pulled the trigger, so that her name would vanish in the noise of the shot. I could not listen to it, because it went through me like a nail, hammered through the skull into the brain.

While the shot animal wheezed and my hand dropped, Greguš repeated once again, as if I had not understood on account of the noise:

‘He has chosen my cousin Magdalena, and she’s lucky.’

I was not able to fire again, to block out the sound of that beloved name, because up on the crest, over which the first stars of nightfall were gleaming, Zapotočný was savagely cursing me for using the gun despite his warning. I was forced to hear her name audibly and accept the blow that struck me on the first step to my dreamed of eternal happiness. But I had no time to absorb what I had heard straightaway, since my shot really had brought danger upon us.

I had scarcely come to my senses when we heard dogs barking and the police approaching from the opposite side of the hill.

Zapotočný, with a smuggler’s dexterity, untied his horses from the tree and gave the sign for us too to mount up and go off at a gallop. We set off in the opposite direction and went with such tremendous speed that there was no time even to look round to see what was happening behind our backs.


The police did not catch us by Babia Mountain, but it was only by a hair’s-breadth that we escaped. The dog came running after us, giving them our direction by his barking. Fortunately, when he was trying to get in front of our horses Zapotočný hit him deftly with the thick end of a whip-stock, and he rolled over, stunned. From then on we felt safer, and the further we got from the borders, the more securely we sped along.

Meanwhile it had grown completely dark. We drove onwards only by the light of the sky, seeking concealment in the commons.

My horse was holding up well — he was a good racer. Greguš’s too would have been able for more. But Zapotočný’s horses were completely exhausted, having come all the way from Novy Targ. They were staggering with fatigue. We advised Jano to let them rest awhile, now that we were free of the main danger. But strange to say, he didn’t even acknowledge our suggestion. To keep them going he whacked his heels into their bellies, then spurred them with the ends of his boots. When even that did not work, he took the whip-stock from behind his boot and began to thrash the horses so unmercifully that Greguš and I shouted at him, the veins standing out on our necks, to stop his cruelty. The worst thing was that the horses took fright and we had a hard job bringing them to a halt.

Finally, near Jasenica, he pulled on the animals’ halters to calm them down. They did not refuse obedience: they stopped, but they were turning their heads fearfully to all sides, as if expecting a new rain of blows. But he did not beat them again. He thrust the whip-stock in behind his boot and looked around our hideout. Not far away there was an area of waste ground. It had tall bushes and he pointed us over to it.

It was not entirely a safe place, but while I was making up my mind to tell him, Greguš anticipated me.

He asked him:

‘Are you planning to rest here?’

‘You’ll see right away what I’m planning,’ Zapotočný answered, and even the darkness could not conceal how his brutal face lit up.

‘This isn’t the safest place for us to hide,’ Greguš objected, ‘we’re very near the village.’

‘That suits me,’ and a smile spread out the length of his coarse jaw. ‘I’ve an acquaintance here, I’ll be off to visit her.’

I saw how that displeased Jožko and how his face contorted.

Zapotočný took no notice and continued in broad, lusty language, saying that no matter what the journey, he wouldn’t pass her by. It would be a waste of a warm bed, a fine drinking session and his fill of food. The wayfarer had a right to such refreshment, after all. He guffawed into the night and smacked his lips, as if the taste of all that was on his tongue.

I did not involve myself in their talk, I was merely an observer.

Greguš hung his head and looked at the ground.

‘What’s up with you?’ Zapotočný roared at him, when he saw he was silent.

‘Nothing,’ Jožko said quite calmly, ‘I was just thinking of Magdalena… tomorrow you’re planning to propose to her, or have you forgotten her?’

‘I’ll be going to her tomorrow,’ he said with a smile, ‘but I’m giving tonight to Eva, and if she wants it, I’ll even give her a son to remember me by. Now, understand,’ he said menacingly, ‘not a word to Magdalena! You’ll admit yourself that I wouldn’t be much of a man if I didn’t say goodbye to Eva. She’d be waiting for me and heating the bed for nothing. All year long she was faithful to me and she hasn’t been niggardly with her love. I don’t know if Magdalena will equal her. But…’

He came to his senses and himself admitted that he shouldn’t talk like that. When he was silent a moment, Greguš took the opportunity to reason with him. But all words were in vain, and only now did he admit that the reason he had thrashed the horses was so as to get here in good time and be able to spend the night with Eva. Now, when that cuddly creature was at hand’s reach, he would have to be crazy to pass her by.

Because Greguš didn’t want to have to guard the horses in an exposed area, Jano decided to bring them with him to Eva. No one would see them in the dark in the enclosed yard. He instructed us, if we were afraid, to go on ahead. But only a little way, and he’d catch up with us. He fixed a spot where we were to wait for him if he happened to be late, in the commons area of the county town. We should not go to the Maliariks’ place without him, because then they would know immediately there was some reason for his absence. He was anxious not to give himself away, as he didn’t want to lose Magdalena. From tomorrow she’d be his, and a little chicken like her wouldn’t be a bad exchange for Eva.

Greguš’s jaws moved sharply, as he gritted his teeth at these shameful utterances.

Zapotočný was ready to go, but he hesitated and then came over to me.

Intensely he said:

‘You too, there’s something I want to say to you.’


‘Girls like to hang around good-looking lads,’ he said warningly, ‘now be careful that our paths don’t cross.’

I stood directly in front of him and did not shrink from the fist that he slid in close to me. I looked at him directly and with courage.

‘Meaning, I wouldn’t want anyone meddling in my affairs at the Maliariks’ place,’ he continued with eyes bulging, ‘because whoever he was, I’d slit his throat.’

© Mullek and Sherwood