Besides Laila, the other key character in Three Horses is Selim, a man whom the narrator befriends and helps, acts of kindness which have consequences. Like Laila, Selim is only seen through the narrator’s perspective. He first appears a quarter of the way into the book.
The narrator has gone to work at the garden.
“A tall man, African, older, calls to me from the gate…I let him in and invite him to the toolshed for a coffee.” The two men sit and talk, and finally the narrator asks if he can help with anything. Selim asks if he can have some of the flowers to sell in bouquets, and the narrator gives him “a good armful.” Selim wants to pay, but the narrator says no, adding: “So treat me to a bottle of wine when the blossoms are gone, we’ll drink it together.” The narrator does not note Selim’s reaction, apparently assuming he’s merely grateful.
After several days, Selim comes to the garden to pick up more flowers. He wants to pay, he’s earned something. “Forget about it. Without you the blossoms would still be here, inside a closed garden. You, instead, do the wind’s work. You scatter them far, pin them to women’s breasts. It would be exploitation if I took a percentage from the wind. Pay for drinks one night.”
‘Kay. Despite his “flowery” rhetoric, the narrator is a generous dude. But he’s missing something that’s implied from the dialogue and scenes, something we will pick up later. I promise you. An important theme in the story is that there is a need to discharge obligation.
After several days and nights of hanging out with Laila and remembering the traumatic past, the narrator is once again at work when Selim appears. They sit before a fire of laurel twigs and drink coffee. “With a remaining branch, he (Selim) pokes at a corner. ‘The ashes say that you have to leave.’” (Selim says). “…I look at the shifted embers that hum with a whispering of oak, like Laila’s voice, but rather than make me speak they want me to listen. I’m initially annoyed by this earthen horoscope from downcast black eyes. I swallow, saying only that I have no place I’m trying to reach. ‘Here no one is following me and no one is waiting for me elsewhere.”
“You have to leave.”
“I don’t leave anymore. Now my verb is to stay. There’s also a woman to love.”
“You have to leave…The ashes are blood, including yours shed beside it. The ashes don’t say love.” The narrator does not remark on the connection with his initial description of the fellow menacing Laila (on the first page) “he wears “a hint of ash.”
However, after this, the narrator puts Selim’s warning together with Laila’s saying that the man who is menacing her must die. Then the gardener seems to integrate much of the trauma he experienced in Argentina, and out of this healing he resolves to kill Laila’s foe.
“I know the evil of killing before her so I can spare her the trouble. I’ll go. I have to be quick. There’s nothing to prepare. I’ll go and pull it off tonight, like Argentina.”
As he prepares to leave the garden to find this man, Selim appears.
“At noon I have to go somewhere, I’m not going to the tavern,” I tell him.
“I’m coming with you,” he says.
They go and see where the man lives, then return to the garden.
Selim speaks: “You don’t want my money, you don’t want the wine for my debt. That’s how you keep someone tied to you, not set him free. You say no to a man and don’t give him the peace of repayment. I have to honor my pledge. You have to be friends with men and you have to be even.”
He prepares to leave. It’s apparent to the reader—if not to the narrator—that Selim wants to be treated as an equal and not given stuff, even out of generosity. The narrator is oblivious.
Selim says: “The time for wine is over, man. I’m taking away the last bundle of my debt. I will repay you all at once.” Selim leaves.
After several hours, the narrator returns to the menacing man’s house, intending to kill him. But he’s disabled all of a sudden by a severe bloody nose. A doctor helps him and tells him—not knowing who he is—that the man he came to kill is already dead. An African man pulled the man from his car and cut his throat.
So, the narrator realizes that Selim killed the man in order to repay a debt of gratitude. Of course, it’s…let’s say, ironic (homage to Jordan Catalano) that they both emit a lot of blood. (One of them too much). Selim’s prophecy is fulfilled.
The narrator takes the train home. There, “in the darkness of the kitchen, my second horse dies…The people of a year migrate in a day, no more hold-me’s or olive pits…I stay behind. At least tonight I don’t touch the emptiness they have left.”
Hold-me’s or olive pits refers to Laila and Selim—the people of the narrator’s last year who have moved on. (Laila makes no further appearance although we might wonder what happens next, as she knows where the narrator lives and has proven herself not to be shy). The narrator stays behind, entering the third horse, or period, of his life. He has apparently put closure on his life as a violent rebel. Someone running from his past.
The narrator says: “I take the book stopped at a fold, deliver myself to its pace, to the breathing of the other storyteller. If I am someone else, it’s also because books move men more than journeys and years.
“After many pages you end up learning a variant, a different move than the one taken and thought inevitable.”
‘Kay. A very good “meta” comment on reading and writing. The narrator is saying he believed his life would be different, specifically that he would kill Laila’s foe. Instead, because of his acts of generosity to Selim, another man has taken up the burden of being a killer. Not what he planned. He has been “moved” by the book he’s in, by the implied author, best beloved.
In the final paragraph, the narrator puts the book he’s been reading inside his jacket pocket. “Where the gun used to be, now there is its opposite.”
We can recall that the first line of the book also references books and reading. “I only read used books.”
Even though I always speak in the present tense, I only exist in a story that has already been told.
The theme of discharging obligation is picked up nicely in what transpires between the narrator and Laila. The narrator feels he failed Dvora in Argentine, failing to protect her from evil men. He owes her, he is “tied” to her, but she is dead, and there is no way to discharge the debt till he meets Laila and says, “Aha! Now I can discharge my obligation.” (He doesn’t really say that).
Next week, now that we’ve discussed two of the main relationships in the book, let’s look more closely at the narrator’s style, and if he is, on occasion, fooled by the other characters.