The hand tugging at the reins
I won’t be allowed into the house, even though my legs are bleeding. I realize this even before I get to the boardwalk after cutting across the stubble field. I’ve pulled my socks up as high as I can, but they’re only thin cotton, and very soon my shins are covered in scratches. I don’t stop to inspect them. All my attention is on the house, on the motionless shapes on the veranda.
Locusts float ahead of me when I leave the track on my way to the boardwalk. The grass on the edges of the field is almost taller than me. My feet get caught in the blackberry bushes and the thorns rear at my legs. Without slowing my pace, I hit out at the prickles as if they’re insects. Something tells me that scratches don’t matter now, that the important thing is to get inside the house.
But I can’t go in, I can tell by the attitude of the men on the veranda. There are four of them. They’re wearing caps with earflaps turned up, and lace-up rubber boots. They are leaning against the wall and the screen door. Each has one leg pulled up and his arms crossed. Bags hang off their belts. They don’t speak. Like cattle in a thunderstorm, they all look in the same direction: to the silos in the distance, just past the bend in the asphalt track.
Not that I’m not used to them being there. The men quite often stand about on the veranda. No sooner is the threshing of the grain done, when they come round to show off their horses, to talk about cartridges and bullets, to choose the right time to start the hunt. But the fact that they are still here at this hour of the day is surprising. By this time, they’re usually in a hurry to go and hang the day’s catch in their cellars, pluck the birds from the previous hunt, which have lost their stiffness, light the fires and put fat in the pot. Today, they haven’t even unsaddled their horses, just loosened the nosebands; the animals stand uncomfortably on the dirt track, snorting.
Soon, dinner will be ready. The light is fierce, but falling at an angle, making the dust that hangs over the land glitter. I am dead tired after so many hours of light and air. It is time for me to lie flat on my back, on the carpet in the living room, where the curtains are always drawn early so everything feels cool, even the sheepskins on the couch. Listening to my mother moving between sink and scullery in her canvas shoes, my father softly talking to her, in his socks. Waiting for the familiar scents to drift into the lounge room and for someone to say, ‘Go and wash your hands.’ To finish the meal with apples so sour it is as if they are biting you instead of the other way round.
I have walked past these men many times. I am used to them hardly ever saying anything. They’re always busy with their horses and their gear. Normally they don’t take any more notice of me than I do of them: they’re part of the scenery. This time, they stamp their heels on the boards as soon as I get to the dry-stone wall. ‘There she is!’ they say to each other. And then, louder, their faces turned to the house, ‘She’s here! The little one’s back!’ And they move between me and the door.
At first I think I just have to wait for my mother to come out. That then I’ll soon be inside, with the soft drink and the lemons. That her arm will appear in the door, holding it open, high up so I can go in underneath it, and she’ll be asking me where I’ve been, washing the blood off my legs.
And she does come out, it doesn’t take long, but she seems larger than normal, completely filling the space between the screen door and the door. She looks at me, then at the distant silos, then back at me again. Her glance doesn’t even go down as far as my legs. One hand grips the collar of her dress, the other is clenched into a fist over her stomach. She is wearing her grey eye-patch, so I know she is expecting visitors. ‘Don’t come in now,’ she says flatly. On the clothes hoist at the side of the house, the washing is flapping in the wind.
I could have understood if she had said, ‘Dad isn’t here yet, we’ll wait for him.’ Then I would have gone back to the yard and got on with my game amongst the old trucks. But my father is here, his gun is leaning against the wall. Near the fence, his mare stands with the other four. His quails lie on the gravel, their crops cut open, the clover carefully removed from their throats, their guts left behind in the scrub. What I notice most is the scent of thyme and rosemary. In early spring my mother had built a small screen out of prunings, but the men ignore her work: they stand with their backs thoughtlessly turned to the herbs in the pots. The twigs sway, giving off a cloud of scent.
I wait for more explanation. She can’t just let me stand here. She knows how tired all that sunshine makes me. Like a fox cub, I now need a lair, a place I can get down to where it is cool and dark. But before she can say anything, the expression on her face changes. I turn round to see what she is looking at. In the bend near the silos a car appears. The men squeeze their eyes half shut, whistling through their teeth. They move the peaks of their caps, and as that doesn’t help, they hold their hands up against the sun. Their faces are dusty, the wrinkles round their eyes dark. My mother is pulling her collar so tight that the vest under her dress becomes visible. ‘At last,’ I hear her say. On the veranda, these words are repeated a few times: at last.
Suddenly, everyone is moving. The men come down the steps. Two of them walk onto the road, as if they want to block it. I want to go with them, but someone asks me to do something, I don’t understand what. ‘You’re needed to help with the seawater, Chloe!’ I look around me, at the men to my left and my right. One of them said that, I have no idea who. The request is not repeated. Did I hear ‘seawater’ or something different altogether? I expected my mother to help me, but all I hear is the screen door banging shut. Behind the screen, the doorway is dark.
I know something is expected of me. So I make a guess and go to the place I automatically go, even when no-one gives me any instructions.
One of the men follows me. It is Rocky, our neighbour. I recognize his step in the boots that have so much straw squashed inside them that it has become a solid lump under his soles. You hear every step he takes twice; the boot hangs loose around his foot so it hits the ground before he puts down his heel. He follows me to the stable by the side of the house, goes inside with me.
‘Hurry, little one,’ he says as I stand in front of the saddle rack. I hesitate, shuffle my feet, so he gently pushes me aside. He takes a harness under each arm, on his left even the one that belongs to the stallion, with the special rear cinch. I watch him resting the saddles on his hips and follow him. One of the stirrups hasn’t been fastened properly and bounces against his thigh.
Now I know it was he who gave me the instruction, and what he said becomes clear: the horses have to be taken down to the beach as soon as possible, and my pony has to go too.
Rocky takes care of the horses. I think my father pays him for it. He does other jobs too, but mainly the horses. At least, as far as I know: I have never been with him to Chacka in the van, so I have no idea what he does there.
With a bow, he puts the saddle down next to my pony’s box. He points at the bit and the reins on the hook next to the rafter. I look at them, and at my pony, wondering if I’ll have to ride in bare legs; my breeches are inside the house, where I am not allowed. I rub the back of my neck. I had just taken the shortest way through the stubble field, to escape from the light, so I wouldn’t have to look at the sky and the fields around me, and so I could at last get out of the emptiness which had surrounded me all day long. And now I would have to go through all that again on my pony.
Rocky walks on to the stallion’s box, to saddle him. His wife, Lorna, is the only person who rides the stallion. She works in the hardware store in Chacka, but the untamed horses are for her. She is not tall, she rides light and high, like a jockey. ‘Is Lorna coming?’ I ask hopefully.
Rocky nods. He motions at the house. ‘She’s here already,’ he says.
A moment later, Lorna appears in her grey velvet vest. A switch with a loop at its end sticks out of her boot. She is carrying my breeches, my riding boots and the chaps to go over them. ‘The horses have to get into the surf, Chloe,’ she says. She holds up the breeches for me to step into, frowning at the scratches and blood on my legs. She bends down over me and pulls up my pants. ‘You’re a brave girl, you’ll manage.’ As soon as she has finished with me she goes over to Rocky to help him.
‘How are things with Greg?’ I hear him ask softly. He is busy with the bridle. Sliding a finger into the corners of the stallion’s mouth he pushes the bit inside.
Speaking just as softly as he did, she replies, ‘I don’t know. No change.’
‘But what do you think? Does it look bad?’
Lorna throws the reins over the horse’s neck. They get caught in the mane, so she throws them again. Over her shoulder she glances at me very briefly. She sees that I am listening, says nothing, pats the horse’s withers.
There is a commotion in the yard. ‘Bring the horses to the gate,’ Rocky shouts, opening the stable door to go outside. In the sudden flash of sunlight, I see a car. I recognize it: it is the doctor’s. I remember it from the occasion when a splinter under a toenail caused such a swelling that the nail came off and the smell of pus made me ill.
Lorna rolls open the gate. She has moved the six bays from their boxes and linked their halters together. She mounts the stallion and rides off ahead of me. I follow her, the horses moving in front of me like beads on a chain, in an untidy file.
On the veranda it is now quiet, everyone has gone inside. The screen door is half open. Less than a week ago, Lorna’s dog left a snake at the door, but everyone seems to have forgotten this now. Lorna shouts something, whether to me or to the bays I can’t figure. Rocky comes up behind us on his own horse, my father’s mare, still not unsaddled, by his side.
We change from a trot to a walk and back to a trot again. As we go, crows fly up from the fields. We arrive at Rocky and Lorna’s house. The skins he is drying hang in rows under the lean-to. Rocky unsaddles the mare and goes inside. Lorna helps me off the pony. We stop at the bathtub for a moment, watching Freeman, the turtle, eating. Through the fly screen, we hear Rocky talking on the phone. We drink a glass of milk and inspect the cats’ nest. I should lie on the ground and stretch my muscles, says Lorna, so I’ll be fit for the ride to the coast. She lies down next to me, puts her arm over me. When I want to sit up, she pushes me down to the ground. I wriggle free, look at her. There are black smudges on her face, her eyes are red, but her face is not wet, no tears to be seen.
Rocky emerges with two saddlebags, puts one on Lorna’s stallion, the other on his own horse. We all climb back on our mounts, the unsaddled horses between us. The sun is slanting down in front of us, stretching the horses’ shadows. ‘Are you OK? Are you managing?’ Lorna asks me a few times. My back and my shoulders are hurting, but it is not because of the long ride. Perhaps it is because of the sun or the wind: it is as if someone is holding me by the scruff of the neck with a cold hand. At times we move at a trot, then another stretch at a walk. Hardly a sign of life, just hoof prints on the path, birds shooting up out of the scrub, the occasional lizard. Hills become dunes, we are now following sandy paths through impenetrable thorn bushes. The path is covered with a thick layer of soft, slippery sand; the horses are labouring.
We can smell the sea before we see it. The horses raise their tails, snort, swivel their ears, they seem to have a better idea of what’s awaiting them than I do.
Rocky lowers the saddle bags onto the sand. Next to them he puts the mare’s saddle. He takes off his boots and walks into the water till it is up to his waist, pulling my father’s horse behind him.
The mare rears up in the waves. Rocky’s hand is locked around the reins. In his other hand he has a scoop which he fills, empties over the mare’s mane and fills again. He pours the water over the spots where the skin is cracked and raw, the hair thin. The mare rolls her eyes, leaps up as far as she can, breaking up the wave with her body. But Rocky does not let go, speaks to her, forces her.
Lorna rides the stallion away from the other horses, moves further along, against the wind, following the line of the surf, to a spot where it is quiet and the stallion can’t hear the mare’s neighing. There, she chases him into the surf. She makes the same movements as Rocky. The stallion, too, is rebellious, unwilling, not familiar with the water. She has to try again three or four times. She holds the reins tight, raising her switch high. I cannot see if she hits him. One at a time, Rocky comes to get the other horses. Their hooves leave depressions in the sand which instantly fill with water. ‘Unsaddle your pony,’ he calls out to me from where he stands next to the saddles which lie on the beach like manta rays. ‘There is probably no problem with him, but let him have a bath anyway, just in case.’ I put down my saddle with the others. My pony follows me over the sand which, close to the tide line, is as smooth as a lake.
At first, the water feels cold and pulls with a force that makes me stagger. My pony snorts, pricks up his ears, stretches his neck. He goes ahead of me, he is not afraid. Further out in the sea the swell becomes less vigorous. But my pony is not large, so we do not go in as deep as the others. When the next wave comes along, I hold onto his neck. When the water flows back, I touch bottom again. We get used to the sound of the sea, the tug of the tide, the biting of the salt on our wounds.
The horses are back on dry land, their reins tied onto branches. On the beach, Lorna collects cockles. Rocky opens them with a sharp knife, eats them raw. I look for shells of my favourite colour, pink like gums. Trying to make sure not to crush any, I put my feet down carefully. I may seem to be unmoved, but my head is spinning with thoughts, images of home, the gun leaning against the wall, men shouting, ‘the little one is here, she’s back at last.’
‘Jesus!’ I hear him answer.
‘Just behind here is a good spot, a bit away from the sea,’ she says. And then, more quietly, her head turned away from me, while I pretend all my attention is focused on my shells, ‘If you really want, you could ride back on your own. But I am staying here with her.’ Rocky’s head sinks between his shoulders, he coughs, sits down where he is, his head in his hands.
Inland, near the wooden cross on the dune – a memorial to a ship that sank long ago – they put up a tent, using the last bit of sunlight. I didn’t know they carried one. I am overwhelmed by a fear which feels like hunger and thirst: the dread that I will have to sleep here, with nothing but the vastness of the sea behind the dune, and above me nothing but the vastness of the sky; me, who when evening falls have such a need for a hole to crawl into, a home, a bed, a blanket. I cannot express this and watch silently as they stamp the pegs into the ground with their heels. All I ask is, ‘Where is Ilana?’
‘She must be on her way by now,’ says Lorna. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if they are bringing her home, given the circumstances. Schools take care of that sort of thing.’
I touch the front guy rope of the tent, feel it vibrating as Rocky tightens the canvas. Given the circumstances? I take courage from the thought that the words may have something to do with a present.
‘And Sandy?’ I ask a bit later. Sandy is my cousin who came all the way from Greenmark yesterday on his trail bike. When my father goes hunting, he can come along. They arranged that last Christmas. ‘Is he staying?’
‘Sandy!’ Rocky snaps behind the tent, suddenly so fierce that the horses take fright. I wait, but that is all he says. I look to Lorna for an answer, but she is already walking away through the thorn bushes. She clacks her tongue, shakes her head, picks up rocks to put on the tent flaps.
When I ask for something to eat, it turns out they mainly carry water. They have a couple of apples and a tin of corned beef for each of us, but no bread, they didn’t think of that in their hurry. I don’t like corned beef, so I walk away, up the dune. I take Lorna’s binoculars and try to see what she saw. I can see as far as the silos, see our house in the distance, but it is only a dot on the horizon. And there is the path we followed through the dunes, faint, as if it had become overgrown since we came.
I lie down in the sand. I look out over the landscape at a low angle. It is like looking upwards along my father’s chest, the same slope, the same overgrowth on the raised areas. I think of the quails on the gravel in front of the veranda. No-one there to put them on the draining board. No-one to stroke them to see how the plumage changes colour. Why am I here, I ask myself. I scan the bushes, expecting something to happen. I might see a deer, or Jesus might appear from the undergrowth.
I feel uncomfortable, I can’t sit without rocking back and forth. When my pony is in his stable, he starts weaving his head, up and down in front of his manger for hours at a stretch. He keeps doing it until I take him out. ‘He is feeling ill at ease,’ my father says then. The animal wants to be outside, but when I think of feeling ill at ease, it is precisely light and open air I think of, I want to be inside.
Rocky and the horses have gone. Lorna has hung the wet clothes on the guy ropes. Her boots stand outside the tent, her riding switch sticking out of one of them. It is getting dark and she brings a gas lamp from the saddle bag. It burns with a hissing noise by her feet. ‘When is Rocky coming back?’ I ask. Stars are appearing. She extinguishes her cigarette in an empty corned beef tin. I tell her I want to go home, to my bed, with Ilana, with my knitted donkey and the night light, that I do not want to stay here overnight.
I am standing upright in the tent. My forehead touches the canvas. ‘Lie down,’ says Lorna for the umpteenth time. There is a tingly pain between my shoulder blades. I have been standing here for quite a while. Looking over my shoulder is impossible, my head is stuck fast as if in a halter that has been fastened much too tightly. The tent smells of horses and leather because the saddles are lying in one corner. It is a good smell, better than that salty air outside. But it does not reassure me. I cannot lie down.
Lorna comes to my side. ‘You always used to really enjoy camping out on the beach.’ Kneeling, her head just misses the canvas. She brushes her fingers through my hair, touches my face. I smell the nicotine on her hands. The gas lamp, behind the mosquito net, throws an uncertain shadow. She tries to hold me, pulls me against her vest, which feels as if it is made of moleskin, but I stiffen.
‘Here,’ she says. ‘Let this melt under your tongue.’ The gas lamp throws light onto her veiny hands. She holds out a box of little round tablets. ‘I find them really helpful.’ I don’t know what we need help with. She holds the box against my lips. Her hand is shaking. I suck the tablets as she asked me to, but I still can’t lie down, the tablets are not working.
She says we should go outside for a while. I say neither yes nor no to that. She pulls on the zip of the tent. It opens a few centimeters, then jams. ‘Blast,’ she hisses. She kneels so she can pull harder, moves the slider up and down, tugs, tries again. ‘What a lousy tent,’ she says. ‘A lousy tent on a lousy day.’
Moving to the side of the tent, she pulls the riding switch from her boot. It frightens me, I think she is going to come at me, brandishing the whip the way she does with the stallion. But she doesn’t. She throws the whip to the ground and pulls on the boots. I follow her, stiff as a wooden doll. We move away to the side, into the scrub, but I can’t pee, even when she goes first. ‘Go back and wait for me, I won’t be long,’ she says when she has finished. The glowing tip of her cigarette floats ahead of her. I return to the tent, stand facing it, but cannot go in. I find her switch on the ground. I know there are thorn bushes everywhere, but go after her anyway. I wave the whip in front of me, as if I am blind.
Lorna is moving to where Rocky and the horses are. As she walks, she brushes the sand out of her clothes. I stay on the other side of the bushes from her. In the dark, the dunes all look the same. I get my bearings from the cross that marks the shipwreck. I follow her, keeping the bushes between us. Not once does she look in my direction.
Rocky has taken the horses near the creek further inland. The wind could come up again, but behind the thick undergrowth, the animals are sheltered. There is also clover and alfalfa growing there. He has his own sleeping spot there, with a ground sheet and a sleeping bag. You know where he is, because you can hear his dry little cough. ‘This is never going to work,’ I can hear Lorna say to him. ‘I thought I was good with children, but I am making a real mess of this.’
Rocky sits up. He coughs and unzips his sleeping bag. Lorna sits down next to him on the ground sheet. They sit facing the horses. This does not prevent me from leaping up out of the undergrowth brandishing the whip. I run straight at the animals. With all my strength I hit my father’s mare with the whip. The mare neighs, rearing sideways in a fright.
‘Whoa!’ I hear Rocky shout. In a flash, I see him race over to the horse and throw his arm round the animal’s neck. As if they had rehearsed it, Lorna flies at me, picks me up and pulls me back, away from the horse and her hooves. The mare calms down immediately. I am not very strong yet, but I had really hit her hard. Rocky talks to the animal, I don’t know what he is saying. I lean against Lorna, still shaking, unable to explain what got into me. In the same way he coaxed the horses into the sea, Rocky now leads me to the mare. I see her coat gleam in the dark, hear her breath, the stamping of her hoof as we approach.
Rocky talks to me. ‘She doesn’t know, she can’t remember what she has done. So it is too late now to hit her. She’s a good horse, she was only irritable because her eczema was bothering her. We should have come to the beach much sooner. The sea water disinfects. She has never really misbehaved. Without that itch, she would not have reared. She does not mean mischief. Look at her, you can see the universe in her eyes.’ He lifts me. I can see that the mare can see us, much better than we see her in the dark. Her round, black eye glitters, the stars shine from her eyeball.
Along the shrub, we walk back. I am calm now, I can turn my head without feeling pain in my neck. Lorna walks some way ahead of us. ‘Rocky, give me a riddle,’ I say when we are near the cross. ‘What sort of riddle?’
‘Just something you think I don’t know. Papa always gives me riddles when I can’t sleep.’ Rocky throws his head back, sighing deeply. One of his arms lies around my shoulder, under the other one he holds his sleeping bag. This is not part of the plan, but tonight he is not going to sleep with the horses.
I am lying between them, their sour breath brushes my face. I am sleeping badly, not used to moving bodies beside me. Long before daybreak, I am awake. I go outside, onto the dunes. With my toes digging deep into the sand, I climb up the slope, feeling my heels sinking once I am over the top. Amongst the marram grass, I finally manage to pee. A small fleet of fishing boats is setting out. It fans out over the sea and becomes invisible in the mist.
I go back inside the tent, even though the heat in there is unbearable. I listen to the breathing of the two grown-ups beside me. They are huge, like whales, but restless, moving and groaning in their sleep. I keep quiet, but they are beginning to talk. Drowsily, in short sentences, telling me it is still far too early, but none of us can go back to sleep.
Lorna climbs to the top of the dune. The mist has lifted and the wind is has come up again. She looks intently, then lowers the binoculars. A tuft of hair keeps being blown into her face, bothering her. Two seagulls fight in flight. ‘We have to go home, you must be hungry,’ she says when she comes down.
We go back, knowing it would have been better to have stayed. Rocky and Lorna saddle the horses, clenching their teeth. Rocky rides in front. We go the same way as yesterday, but the landscape now looks different. Whirlwinds skim low over the crops in the fields. The horses are becoming covered in dust. You would expect them to gradually start smelling home, but they can feel the tension and shake their heads. They pull at their reins, even my pony is becoming surly. Past Governor’s Hill they bump into each other instead of moving straight on. We cross the stubble field and detour to avoid the thorn bushes. On the track to the house, Rocky’s horse starts to drag its feet.
Now I can see it, now I understand what Lorna was looking at through the binoculars. My mother’s washing is still on the clothes line. It has become bone dry, it is getting dusty from the wind, but something is keeping my mother so busy that she cannot manage to bring in the sheets, the towels, the underwear that embarrasses her.
We tie the horses to the fence. Rocky waits for Lorna, he is not going onto the veranda without her. Lorna bites her lip, runs her fingers through her hair, stands waiting on the steps, one foot on top of the other. Only when Rocky is right by her side and quickly squeezes her hand, does she move on. ‘Linda?’ she says in the doorway.
My mother has heard us. ‘Chloe!’ She calls, just my name. She comes out of the door, grips my head and kisses my hair. When I look at her, she looks away, her bad eye uncovered, the iris dull. She looks at Lorna and Rocky equally briefly, her shoulders pulled up high as if it is much colder out here than inside. She opens her mouth to say something, but I hear nothing. She stands still for a moment, her fists pushed together. Then she grips the handle and holds the screen door open for me.
I have crossed my arms over my chest. I cannot go in. The pain between my shoulder blades is back, so is that reluctance in my arms and my legs. They will not move and seem to be attached to me like planks.
Our clothes catch the wind, the dust on the boardwalk whirls up and blows against us. Lorna has put her riding switch back inside her boot. I am hoping she will pull it out, wave it high in the air and force me inside. But I am not a horse, she does not use it on me.
Because I stand still and won’t go inside even after she whispers, ‘Come on, sweet, go and see your dad,’ my mother goes back inside the house. The first thing we see when she comes out again is her back, then her calves which tense up. She is pulling something on big wheels behind her. It is a wheelchair. In it sits my father. A wide, white band sits round his neck. His feet rest stiffly on the supports, his arms lie rigidly on the armrests, but he has a smile on his face. ‘Good morning,’ he says in a bass voice I don’t recognize. He lifts his hand and moves his fingers.
The relief for Lorna and Rocky! Their jaws drop, their hands cover their faces. ‘O Greg,’ they call. They rush up to him, grip him by the shoulders, laughing and talking. They stand so close to him that his wheelchair rolls back. My mother has to put the brake on to keep it in place.
My tongue is dry, sticks to my palate. I look at my father’s arms and legs. I recognize the stiffness, the cramp that suddenly seizes you. My legs relax, I can lift my arms, I can walk up to him and grip his fingers. It is as if the hand at my back, which has been tugging at my reins, lets go.
Translation: John Nieuwenhuizen