When the crescent of the Armada broke in the late summer of 1588, it scattered splinters and bodies across the North Atlantic and along the northern islands in a macabre embroidery. Flags and riggings decorated with holy families and the Five Wounds bled into the sand. Gold and armor lay untended and frosted with rust.
In the initial panic, the towering Spanish galleons leaned into the wind like rooks on a chessboard, eager to return to the hinterland of its ranks and the shadow of their king. These were bulky assassins, and in order to lighten their load and so increase their speed, all that could be jettisoned was: crates, food, drink, guns, cannon, ammunition. And then – possibly as a last, pained resort – the horses. Andalusians, Barbs, jennets were thrown overboard into the sea thick with salt and hypothermia. In the months following accounts came from the outskirts of guilty Scotland and Ireland of the looted remains of soldiers and the sight of horses, either lying dead on the shore, or still swimming – the crescent of white in their eyes echoing the battle formation of Spain’s ‘Great and Most Fortunate Navy’.
Out of the 30,000 soldiers, sailors, priests, shanghaied criminals and farmers who sailed with the Armada, less than 10,000 returned. Many horses were lost, but no one knows how many. Some washed up onto the sand, dead or dying. Some floated on the water, their fiery blood quenched forever.
But there were a few that sank. Not to die, but to live – to feel the abyssal cold and pelagic molecules wind around their equine DNA, to be transformed, to swim, to forage for the particles of air that lurked inside the seaweed and water. Their equine flesh became tinged with brine and a maritime sentiment.
Their journey was deep, and the pressure of the sea’s embrace increased. They became small and toy like, and like mermaids their legs disappeared, submerged beneath a skin of scales and luster. They curled around shrouds of kelp far below the splintered ships and bloody riggings – floating through oceanic slipstreams and prisms of fish the color of silken horizons.
Centuries have passed since this incarnation, when the Armada’s herds escaped from their rancid bodies. Neptune had long fancied a team to pull his chariot of pearl and blue-eyed scallops; his decision made, he pointed with his trident to the dying animals above him. He pitied their beauty. Their drowning spirits offended him, for he was a sympathetic god, despite his brawn and salty humor.
There is little of the sea horse now that would recall its origins. But riding along their backbones there are spikes that are still as sharp as the quivers of pikes carried by the invading navy. And their curious skin is patterned in subtle plates, as if they wore the remnants of the armor once worn by the foolish and unprepared sailors. Many are as bronzed as Spanish gold and occasionally dappled with scarlet, to show that they had not forgotten the distant invasion that had punctured the sea with drops of blood.