by Mark Tredinnick
Editor's Note: The following passages come as Mark Tredinnick is riding the pastures of Jim Commens, a man who has spent a large part of his life working the valleys and ridges of the Blue Plateau in Australia's Blue Mountains.
The heads of 30 kangaroos poked from the grasses bunched by Potter’s Cottages. The animals held themselves as still as holy men, if nowhere near as calm. They stood in a sustained and perfect vigil of alarm, and we were what alarmed them: two men on horses, crossing their ancestral grasslands.
But Jim wasn’t looking at the roos. He was pointing at the fox stealing through the grasses away from us. “Knows ’is way around these tussocks,” Jim said, and steered his horse after the fox. “The old bugger. Ya see ’im? There ’e goes.” I turned my horse after Jim, but I lost the fox at once.
Veering thus from our slow straight line, we tipped the roos from the precarious meridian they’d been holding; they gave up, in an instant, the hope of not being seen, and they bolted for the timber. Jim nudged his horse. I pressed my heels to Stock’s sides, drew the reins tight, and we turned our horses after the roos, and the tall grasses crowded about us, so many clustered bristles on the head of a broom. We were the afternoon’s breath. We were passing among these grasses like a thought through someone’s mind.
If you’d asked the roos, whose elegant panic had carried them already into the brittlejacks, they might have said the thought we embodied was threat or nuisance, just plain trouble. And they might have been right. What the fox spells—for animals with a far longer lineage in this valley than the fox, for young kangaroos and smaller marsupials—is death. If Jim had a rifle he’d have been firing it, but not at the roos.
Jim’s palomino side-stepped sharply round a strand of blackberry in the tussocks as though it was barbed wire, and Jim rode the swerve and got himself straight in the saddle again, and our horses broke into a run for the ridge.
If it had not been so much like riding through belly-high grass toward the trees, I would tell you that this metrical rise and fall, this rapid rolling stress and unstress, felt like cantering in dactyls through cloud.
I’m describing an afternoon in early June one year. At three o’clock, as we set out to look over some of the horses Jim agists, he’d pointed to the sky. “It’s two years since I saw a cloud like that,” he said. A skein of high cirrus, fraying and bone white, was drawn taut across the blue sky, north to south—ice, braided by wind. Up there the winds were screaming; down here in the grasses of the Kanimbla, sunlight pooled, and the air was very still. ‘I wonder what shapes a cloud just that way, every other year,’ Jim said. Two years earlier, one afternoon in winter, the quality of the light and the mood of the wind high above these dry paddocks had been just the same, and way up in the troposphere the air had been as fierce and cold.
To remember this, to be fluent in the language of the sky, to recall the figures it recites and repeats, is to belong, I thought then, to a valley as the roos belong to it.
Halfway round the horses, we stopped by Jim’s mother’s house, and Jim’s twin Lachlan was there working in the yard. The sky that morning had been full of clouds, and Lachlan reckoned they were an odd color; he reckoned they were stained with dust blown all the way from South Australia and all the dry country in between; and he reckoned the dust was still in the air. The afternoon was now so clear—just that rope of cloud, as pellucid as optic fiber—I found it hard to see how the sky could be steeped thus in drought. But as afternoon wore on, and we rode among the horses, the cirrus rolled east, and the sun fell west and as it fell discovered filaments the sky remembered, all of a sudden, from the morning. The droughty sky flared pink, and evening made a sunset out of all that desert overhead.
Jim looks at a horse the way some men look at a car. He loves it, if it’s any good—sometimes even if it isn’t. He knows its sins, its signature moves, the way it breaks his heart; he works with it; he enjoys the way it carries him across the ground; and when it breaks or grows too old, he lets it go. He sells it or—speaking of horses exclusively now—he puts it down.
“Ya dig a hole till ya find rock,” said Jim as we rode on toward that sunset. “Then ya lay the horse on the rock an’ backfill. Ya make a mound over it, an’ ya let it settle flat. Ya need ta dig down ta rock—ya need it deep or the dogs’ll get at it. No one wants that. ’Cept the dogs, a course.
“People get sentimental about animals,” Jim went on. Among the agisted horses that afternoon was a white mare, 28 years old, three-quarters blind. She had to come up close to find out what we were, and we watched as she made her way off through the paddock, head lowered, walking half-steps, feeling out the terrain. She came up too close to a pony and shied. “An’ that one’s over 30,” said Jim.
Another old limping mare belonged to a woman who’d moved to Tasmania three years back. “She rings me one night,” Jim said. “‘How much would it cost to ship her down?’ she asks. To Tasmania. A horse 30 years old. ‘More than it’s worth,’ I tell her. So she asked me ta keep the horse here. She shoulda put the mare down. But I couldn’t bring meself ta say it. A thousand dollars a year is a lot ta spend ta keep a lame horse alive, though I’m ’appy ta take it.”
“An’ look at this old thing . . .”
Our ride among the elderly continued. But these horses didn’t look old to me, and if they were suffering they weren’t showing it. Or was it just the kindness of the light they grazed in?
It had been months since I’d ridden, and we pushed the horses along, for the afternoon was failing, and we still had a way to go. I was thinking how sore I’d be tomorrow or the next day, and how this was the widest I had been awake for weeks, out here in the air on a horse in a valley. We moved at a steady canter past the old woolshed, and we were talking as we rode, and I was thinking how smart that felt, when Jim’s mobile phone rang. It made a sound like a frog in a swamp, a frog in some agony. At a canter, Jim pulled the phone from his belt and held it up and looked at the number on the screen and pressed the talk button and asked, “What’s ’appenin’?” This is what cowboys do these days.
“Righto,” Jim said to the phone. “Won’t be long,” and I guessed then it was Judith. This particular cowboy had just turned 45, and Judith had a party organized for him up on Camel’s Hump that night, though Jim thought at that stage it was just a barbeque with a couple of friends. Jim clipped the phone back onto his belt, still at a canter, and we pressed on.
“The wind’s gettin’ up,” Jim said, “an’ it blows like buggery on that ridge.” And he didn’t know it yet, but 50 people would be up there later freezing with him in the wind and letting him know he’d be out to pasture soon himself.
At Potter’s, we had trouble with the gate. The post, which was new, had shrunk in the dry weather and pulled the chain taut so that Jim had to take pliers, from his belt beside the phone, and bend the hook so it cleared the eye. He got that done, and we rode through and I shut the gate behind us, and that was when we became two doubts in the mind of a mob of kangaroos.
We slowed the horses to a walk and came down off the ridge through the evening timber, and Jim said, “I guess it’s what ya grow up with.
“When we were kids an’ Dad come in an’ said there’s an old cow or some bloody thing that needed a bullet, there’d be a fight f’ the job. You know, Lach’d be goin’ Jim shot the last one an’ it was ’is turn an’ I’d be runnin’ ta get there first. It wasn’t that we liked the killin’. I don’t think we were ’specially cruel. It was just a job with a gun, an’ that made it one a the good jobs.”
I looked up at the sky again and the darkening scarps as we rode through the home paddock, and I decided I’d been wrong earlier about the light. It wasn’t kind; it was, as ever, simply true. It touched the grasses and it brought out the drought in the clouds, and it didn’t care. It knew nothing about pity. But it seemed to me that we should. We need to be careful, though, whom our pity serves. Are we sparing ourselves or an animal? What is right, I was thinking, is what has about it the quality of this light; whatever helps to keep such stern beauty alive.
As we rode past Jim’s new house Judith came out and waved and called, “We won’t have any horses ridden through here, thanks,” and Jim sang out “Did ya drench the horses?” and she said she had. “But get a move on down there, you boys,” she added.
By the shed, a fire still smoked in a big circle of rocks Jim had built there for the tourists. There was a billy hanging in the smoke. “Now wouldn’t it be nice ta sit an’ drink some tea right now,” said Jim. But we didn’t have time, and he knew it. We unsaddled the horses, and hung the leathers in the container where they were stored. Jim fixed the horses’ feed in a couple of buckets, molasses and oats, and stirred water into it under the tap.
We waited till the horses had eaten. Then we opened the gate to the yard and let them water at the trough. They stood a bit in the last of the daylight, and each of them looked out across the paddocks for his mob. It must have felt good—it felt good just to watch them—to look out at the evening, fed and watered and done carrying men, done spooking at blackberry and chasing roos, ready to find your mates and graze with them while night fell.
Then Judith came down and hurried Jim away, and he sauntered to the house flicking through a book I’d given him. A book about a meadow, a place not unlike this one, but at the mercy of a different sky. And I walked to my jeep, and turned it around, and I waved at Jim and drove away. Halfway up out of the valley, a lyrebird crossed in front of me and carried his furled tail into the bracken by the road. A shadow puppet on the gray backlit screen of the night. And then it was night entirely, and I let the jeep peer ahead astigmatically into the darkness and take me home.
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