Lenny proudly tied his brown rider’s cloak around his neck, smoothed out his jodhpurs breeches, and straightened out his equestrian helmet. He flashed a devilish smile at himself in his master dormitory suite’s full-length mirror, the same room and mirror belonging to his brother. He imagined his brother’s spirit standing over him, beaming down upon him a proud and equally impish grin, wearing the senior garb of the Epsilon Omicron Alpha house.
It had taken three humiliating years for Lenny to get there. Three diminutive years of hazing, obedience, and misdemeanor to stand in that room, to wear the Equestrian garb, to take the reins of Nymphis University’s Halloween, the inception of Nymphis’ Harrowing festivities.
“You wear it well, sire,” Rusty, his foal, complimented. “Colton would be proud.”
Lenny withheld the temptation to rebuke his foal for bringing up such a stinging and sentimental subject, and yet it warmed him to hear how his brother’s legacy lived on. His brother, Colton, died under the influence in an automobile accident just a year after his graduation, and Lenny had anticipated four years of shame and prejudice merely by association. What he experienced instead was favor and special treatment from the fraternity, an easier first three years than most, a brotherhood that placed high expectations on him to one day lead and leave his mark upon the ‘Greek Life’.
“Too bad he’s not here to see what he created,” Lenny sighed.
Lenny’s brother Colton was among the founders of the Epsilon Omicron Alpha house, or rather the usurpers. Eight years ago, a poor but rambunctious group of collegians had crashed their rival fraternity house’s Halloween party wearing horse masks, the namesake of their school’s football mascot. The damage incurred by them in their celebration forced the former fraternity to move and thereby disband, granting free residence to Colton and his cronies. The remnant of their rambunctious vandalism marked the fraternity building to that day, and stains of their revelry marking the old wallpaper and aged carpets remained untouched.
“It’s sundown, sire,” his foal reported. “The festivities are about to begin.”
Lenny turned around to face his foal, seeing him donning his ceremonial horse mask.
“Remind me, foal, why do we make you wear those masks in this house?”
“So that we never forget we are someone else’s foal, sire.”
Lenny shook his head and paced his room pensively.
“It serve that function, but it’s more than that. Every collegian has pent up energy, a burning to step out of the former constraints of one’s home and high school. The horse mask gives you that opportunity, to do as you would without reproach, to create bedlam not only for the university and city, but even for your peers. Still, you’re correct, it serves as a reminder of the wild horse within each of us, and that we all require a master.”
“Very good, sire.”
“Tonight you wear my cloak, foal. You’ll lose some anonymity in so doing, but you’ll gain the regard to do as you please under that hood. And tonight I shed it off along with my past.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing both, sire.”
“Come with me. I want to show you something first.”
From the fraternity master suite to the private library was a short walk. The old lighting flickered on lazily, revealing bookshelves of dated literature with torn and weathered spines. Save for its couches and armchairs, the entire room’s furniture was lined with dust and cobwebs. The room hadn’t been used for the purpose of an actual study since before Colton took the dormitory, and such a woebegone façade suited the fraternity’s goals.
“Now is as good a time as any,” Lenny said, walking his foal to the end of the library, and gently tugging on the faded spine of a book titled, “Horse Anatomy.”
The book shelf pivoted out gently, and Lenny looked back, seeing his foal shudder at the sudden movement of the trick bookcase. Lenny stepped between the wall and the bookshelf, shined his phone’s flashlight on a hidden cubby carved out of the wall of a hundred or so photo albums, each labeled with initials.
“Rusty Abrams,” Lenny said, pulling an “RA” from the hidden bookshelf.
Lenny sidled next to Rusty and opened the book to the first page, with a simple header titled, “Freshman Year: Pre-Halloween.”
“Remember this?” Lenny asked, pointing to a photo of Rusty captured three years ago.
His foal recoiled at the sight of the old photo of siphoning a keg of beer while wearing a cardboard costume fashioned out of beer cans and cases. Lenny relished the subtle squirms as the photos on the next page revealed only further impaired decision making, wearing far less than his armor of alcohol, the drunk French maid far more clothed than he. Lenny paged quickly through the subsequent pages of damning photos, cringing himself as he beheld parts of his foal he’d rather not have laid eyes on, until they came to the second heading, “Freshman Year: Initiation.”
“Please, sire,” Rusty begged.
“This is the last time we’ll have to walk through any of this,” Lenny reassured.
A chill went up Lenny’s spine seeing a hellish gathering in the fraternity’s main lounge, just before a lit fireplace. Lenny remembered his own initiation as he paged through Rusty’s, seeing the diaper clad men of the fraternity paired with the bikini-clad women of the sorority lined up like soldiers. Standing obediently stiff around them were the horse-clad Sophmores, of which Lenny could spot his own former self. Stretching out and forming a circle around the lower classmen were the Juniors, their faces shadowed by their long rider hoods and cloaks, holding their former horse masks in hand. Standing gathered before the fireplace were the Seniors, Equestrians, dressed in the same splendor that Lenny enjoyed that day, save for the diminutive cloak.
“What was that day?” Lenny asked.
“It was the saddling, sire,” Rusty said weakly.
“The day you were broken in. But you weren’t my foal yet.”
“I was…someone else’s, sire.”
Lenny made a face, paging to the next heading that read, “Sophmore Year.” He found a page where Rusty bowed down on all fours in the dining hall, obediently at the side of a feminine figure donned in the rider’s cloak, the creases of her frown barely visible behind her hood. It wasn’t customary for a member of the sorority to take a member of the fraternity as a foal, or vice-versa. And yet, both the fraternity and sorority seemed to understand advantages of maintaining their rigid hierarchies by allowing romantic relationships to exist between the houses and ranks.
“You haven’t heard from her since?” Lenny asked, paging boredly through photos of the two of them egging a rival house and milk jousting inside a supermarket.
Lenny stopped at first page without her, the first page that showed him hooded where the girl once stood, the two of them standing proudly above a pair of away team linebackers following their lost championship game.
“Wish that photo I could save,” Lenny sighed, slamming the book closed and tucking it back onto the shelf. “But rules are rules.”
“Any that you would save from your own, sire?”
Lenny squirmed at the thought of his own photo album, and took solace seeing it missing from the bookshelf. He remembered having to go through the shameful photos of his impulsive and humiliated past with his former rider and Equestrian, a subtle reminder of the importance of the hierarchy, a reminder of the danger that came with leaving…
“None,” Lenny answered. “Come now. Wouldn’t want to miss the big celebration for the two of us.”
The two solemnly walked out the library and down the dimly lit hallway.
“What ever happened to that cheerleader of yours?” Lenny asked.
“To Abigail?” Rusty asked.
“Yes. Abigail. Abigail Brewer. Your old rider. What happened to her?”
“She left town.”
“Left town, what?”
“Left town, sire,” Rusty corrected himself.
“We all know she left town, foal. But what really happened to her, Rusty?”
“I suppose she wanted out, sire.”
“She’d gone through the worst of the hazing. Her last two years would have been nothing. Why risk tarnishing her entire future and leave?”
“Perhaps she wasn’t as concerned with her photo album?”
“Remind me to show it to you when we are finished, Rusty. The things inside that thing make your ledger seem so tame.”
“You haven’t released it yet then? Her photo album?”
“With the hope that she’ll return and recant. But for now it keeps me company at my nightstand.”
The two descended the hall’s creaky staircase, ushering the entire longue to turn and address them both. The lineup was a familiar one: half-naked freshman kneeling at the center, horse-headed sophomores standing obediently at their side, an outer band of juniors still donning their horse masks in anticipation for their cloaks, and equestrian clad seniors standing ready at the fireplace each with a wineglass in hand. An empty podium and stack of photo albums sitting upon it separated the equestrians, dividing the sisters from the brothers. Lenny smiled and took his place at the center while his foal filed in with the rest of the horses.
Lenny cleared his throat and unfurled the scroll as all eyes lay upon him.
“In Vino Veritas,” he began, raising his glass. “En Oinos Alitheia, or, in wine lies the truth. Each of us came into this house through the libation, through becoming acquainted with our uninhibited self. Our predecessors showed us our wild horses, and we are reminded of those mavericks until we leave this house.”
Lenny turned to his fellow Seniors.
“Equestrians, fellow Seniors, tonight we shed our capes of shame and immolate the annals of our truth. Our time of being lorded over by our past shall wither in the hearth!”
Lenny then turned to the still horse-faced juniors.
“Juniors, tonight you shed your horse faces and don the cloak, learning authority, saddling your foal.”
Lenny arched forward, addressing the stiffly lined columns of horse-headed Sophomores.
“Sophmores, you will continue to wear your long faces, for you are still all wild horses. Your initiation is not over yet. But take courage, for in no time at all you will meet our ranks, and in the meantime you will carry the torch of revelry that has ignited this house so brightly. You will be set free upon our city as horsemen of the Harrowing, proudly rendering bedlam and carousal.”
Lenny stepped forward, coming to one of the freshmen, who seemed to shiver as Lenny’s shadow hovered over his naked body.
“As for you, Freshmen,” he said, pouring his drink over the head of the novice. “You will be shod, you will be branded, and you will be broken in until you are deemed worthy of this house. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sire!” The freshmen obediently chimed in chorus.
Lenny waltzed back to his position behind the podium and threw his glass into the fire where it shattered in the heat.
“Every Equestrian begins by being broken in, made a fool and foal of him and herself. We cannot leave our pasts until we leave. We must pass through the fire of the Harrowing. We must don the mask, become our beast, have our drink, and subject ourselves to being mastered, before we become masters ourselves. Only then we are freed. But until we become lords of our houses, we are subjects to our shame.”
Lenny outstretched his arms out in a flamboyant and ritualistic manner, as though to embrace the whole student body.
“All, but the Freshmen, tonight, will be set free! Starting with the Juniors! Juniors, shed off your faces, and take up the mantle that we bestow on you!”
Lenny made a sweeping gesture with his hands, closed his eyes, and craned back his head in a dramatic fashion.
“Juniors! Take off your masks!”
What Lenny anticipated as a solemn moment of silence came to a sudden burst of gasps and indignant murmurs. He opened his eyes, seeing half the Juniors without their masks as intended, and the other half wearing sheep masks, with austere expressions crafted into their plastic mold.
The rest of the student body looked to Lenny in anticipation, and Lenny fumbled to produce some fitting response.
“What is the meaning of this? Some silly new prank!? Save it for the Harrowing! This is a solemn observance of our great tradition!”
But the sheep did not. They did not move. Instead their unnerving, quiet stares pierced Lenny.
Lenny looked over to where he knew Rusty had took his place, seeing him among the sheep. Lenny strode up to him, and came within inches of his face.
“Take that mask off immediately, foal,” Lenny hissed, “or I’ll send off your dirty little memory book this very night!”
“You have no power over him!” A feminine voice shouted from across the room.
Lenny looked up back towards the staircase, seeing another sheep staring at him from the banister, though dressed starkly different from the rest. She wore ragged shepherd’s clothing, harkening to customary garb worn in a mountainous village in the Balkans. In her hand, she carried what looked like a Bo staff, its steel sheen shimmering in the firelight of the hearth.
“And who are you supposed to be?” Lenny scoffed. “Little Bo Peep?”
“Something like that,” she replied.
“And you think you’ve made a mindless flock of my bold foals?”
“No,” she answered. “I’ve come to set them free of your blackmail, to release them from your perverted little cult.”
Lenny marveled at the grace of her movement, how she effortlessly vaulted over the banister, how she twirled her staff hypnotically in front of her, around her, over her, with helicopter like speed. The sheep parted away from her reflexively, the sorority fled, and a fraction of the fraternity of every class stood their ground.
“All pomp and no substance,” Lenny spat. “Take her down!”
Those loyal and brave enough to stand their ground enveloped the shepherd and raised their fists. The first that leapt forward took a hard thwack to the chin, and another a stiff prod to the sternum. Another handful charged, while the rest waited.
Bang. Smack. Crack.
Even the meatier linebackers of the fraternity fell like dead weight before the spins and strikes of the Bo staff.
Those initially bold to confront her had since sheepishly backed off, and stood nervously before the masked shepherd, giving her wide berth of the lounge.
“Any one of you cowards who does not take her down will have their photo albums released!” Lenny threatened.
“Are you sure about that?” The masked shepherd asked.
Lenny shot her a perplexed glare before he made out the smell of smoke and within seconds heard the blaring of the fire alarm.
“What the hell!?” Lenny swore.
“The library is on fire,” The masked shepherd proudly announced to the room as she slowly strode towards Lenny. “You are all now part of a new Harrowing. Your pasts are all being burned up. You are all free to leave not just this building, but this organization…for your own safety.”
She spun her Bo staff dramatically as she came within striking distance of Lenny.
“We’ll make this quick.”
Lenny glanced over, seeing the whole house vacate, save for his old foal, save for Rusty.
Lenny chuckled to himself.
“I don’t know that I’d be laughing,” she said, poising her staff towards him, “if I were on the receiving end of this very heavy stick.”
“I should’ve known it was you…that you’d return…Abigail.”
Lenny expected a dramatic flinch, a paralyzing moment for the sudden reveal. Instead, he marveled, seeing her gracefully remove the sheep mask from her face, and throw it into the fire.
“What gave me away?” Abigail asked with a subtle smirk.
“Never seen anyone work a pole like that,” Lenny said devilishly. “Which brings me to my next point. Are you sure you’ve set fire to all the photo albums?”
“You mean this one?” She asked, pulling from her a fold of her garment a photo album, initialed “A.B.”
Lenny remained unflinching as she took her album and tossed it carelessly into the hearth.
Lenny fell back, as the staff punched into his gut without warning. As he attempted to catch his breath, he watched as Abigail turned towards her former foal and hand to him the stack of photo albums from the podium.
“Go ahead, Rusty,” she told him. “Send these to the press. Make copies. Let the city, the whole internet, know about this place and its customs.”
“Are you sure about that?” Lenny choked, pulling out his phone and opening a saved draft of an e-mail.
He let his thumb hover over the send button, while he outstretched the screen to show the two of them a collection of photos awaiting to be sent to a handful of publishers of websites of ill-repute.
“Want to let the city, the whole internet, know, Abigail, about your own checkered past here?”
“Y-you saved her photos?” Rusty stammered. “That’s against the house’s conduct!”
Lenny rolled his eyes and chuckled.
“Do we really look like a house of rules, Rusty? We let you imbeciles parade around in horse masks so you could prank each other without consequence. We endorsed your bedlam and vandalism! You really think ceremony would keep me from saving your girlfriend’s delectable secrets? Don’t you—”
Lenny blinked hearing her so sharply interrupt him, so immediately and with stone-face call his bluff.
“Go ahead. Scapegoat me for your scorched earth. You can try to destroy my future with my past. If that’s the price to pay for their freedom and to bring this system down, so be it.”
Lenny grit his teeth and pushed his thumb on his phone, sending her digital photo album off into the ether.
Abigail flashed a wide and pearly smile and slammed her staff into Lenny’s mouth. He coughed, feeling the debris of shattered enamel burst into his mouth and throat from the impact.
“Look on the bright side, Lenny,” she said, taking him by his ankle and dragging him from the house filling with smoke, “you’ll never smile again for another photo album. Happy Harrowing.”