I am running through the trees. Even if the moon wasn’t so full, I’d know the way. I’ve done it countless times on Bessie, trotting noisily through the scrub. Never bare foot though, and never alone.
Never like this.
I’m glancing behind me every third step or so. Can’t help it. But he’s not following. Not yet. It’s fine. These are the words I keep repeating to myself. He’s so big and heavy, I’d hear him if he were here . . . . if he were close. I know this. But I also know that the blow I gave him with the candlestick—hard as I could make it—won’t keep him down for long.
I’m glancing at the ground, jumping the fallen branches and rocky patches. Even so, corners of twigs dive into my heels and flint-rock scrapes the palms of my hands when I stumble. I shove a fist into my mouth, stop the screams. My skin tastes like blood and salt and desperation. But I must be quiet. He mustn’t know where I’ve gone; mustn’t even guess. I try to move like the kangaroos do, on velvet padded paws, jumping with the sway of the trees.
All the same, Bessie will know. Her hooves would pick out this path just as soon as he lets the reins drop.
But would he let the reins drop?
He’d pull a bit into her mouth and yank her head around and kick, hard. He won’t want to trust her.
I stop. Pick a thorn from my foot. As I do, I look around me. I need to be careful now. I’m at the very bottom of the gully, where Gilbert says the spirits live. It’s darker here, and the vegetation is thicker. I used to get lost here until Gilbert told me about the red banksia tree that marks the small pathway that leads directly up to the yard. When I jumped the summer-drained trickle of the creek, several feet back, I was crossing the line of where my father’s property ends. I’m in wild country now; the place nobody owns. If I were to turn right and keep walking, this land would stretch all the way into the mountains and to the desert-land beyond. It’s good that I’m here. My father might not expect it from me.
Be careful of wild country, he told me in the first weeks after we moved, don’t go there alone.
But this is Gilbert’s land too; he knows it like he knows his horses, and loves it in the same way. It’s as ancient a place as you’re ever likely to find, he says, a place with magic. As he accompanied me on my rides, he told me of the spirits who have waited in rocks and trees since this land was young; waiting to emerge again.
‘Protect me,’ I whisper to them. ‘Help me find the way.’
It’s what Gilbert says too.
I scan my eyes across the scrub, looking for the banksia. It’s harder in the dark. Nothing seems solid, and edges of things blur into the background. Everything is one. Gilbert told me that there are shifts, sometimes, between human and land; that it’s possible for someone to merge right into the bush and disappear like a shadow. I want this now. I want to be silent and still and just like Gilbert; a shadow brought to life.
I force my eyes back to where I started looking, and scan for a second time. No banksia. I almost panic then, almost think I hear a crashing and stumbling down the bank on the other side that could be a human. But then I see a smear of red amongst brush. And I know, really, it can’t be my father making the sound behind me. It’s some sort of night bird, or possum, something leaping rhythmically and graceful through branches.
There’s nothing rhythmical about my father’s movements, certainly nothing graceful. He’s all thrust and bluster and heavy booted steps. All the same I watch the other side of the gully for longer than I need to.
The bush is different at night, like Gilbert warned me. The trees smell mustier, and they’re wilder somehow. Nothing seems safe. The trunks of the gums look like silver bones, doused by the moonlight. I squint at the dark spaces between them, and see the stillness and silence and deep darkness. Nothing moves there, nothing I can see.
Today there is no black stallion fading into the shadows, no gentle stamp from shoeless hooves in the dirt. Even so I whisper to him as I did to the spirits.
‘Protect me. Keep him away . . . Kill him.’
It’s stupid, I know this, but I’m desperate. And that horse is different. I know this in the same way that I know my father is bad. I looked into his large brown eyes, which didn’t roll back in malice like the townsfolk said they would, and I just knew. The horse’s eyes were steady and calm and intelligent; kind eyes, not demon eyes.
But I have no doubt that horse could kill if he wanted, has killed.
Gilbert told me later than no one comes near to that stallion. He said the stallion makes it that way; the stallion chooses who he wants. Gilbert was standing in the stable yard when he said that, shyly shuffling his feet and looking at the floor, dark fringe falling over his eyes. He hadn’t seemed surprised when I told him I’d seen the stallion through the trees, watching me; when I said the stallion hadn’t moved away when I stepped up close. He’d wanted to tell me something else that day, I know this too. I wonder now if the stallion had let Gilbert come near to him, too; that perhaps he’d let Gilbert touch his thick, shining neck. It wouldn’t have surprised me to hear this. Gilbert has a way with horses; a softness and an understanding that I’ve never quite experienced with Bessie.
But the stallion is not near now. And Gilbert is still another twenty minutes walk away, less if I run.
I feel my thighs burning as I take huge steps up the bank, feel my body flinching as blackcurrent bushes brush against my bare calves.
Gilbert will think I’m half-dressed. But, I am half-dressed. I dread what he might suppose when he sees me, unaccompanied and running at midnight in my night-gown towards him. If he called the sherif out, I would be arrested for improper behaviour. Deemed un-marriageable. But what choice do I have? There is nowhere else.
And perhaps . . . perhaps it is as I always imagined it; there’s that thin, invisible thread that links me to him across the wide, brown paddocks of our property, forging a path through the untidy bush gully and straight into the yard of his stables where he sleeps in the groom’s room above the stalls. It’s what I felt the first time I met him, after all; that connection. I picture him there now, alone apart from the shift and sway of horse’s bodies in the straw beneath him. Does he think of me as I do of him? Or perhaps he has all the company he needs right there with his horses.
One thing I know, he’s not like the other men round here; not all spurs and ropes and bringing down the brumbies. He doesn’t drink like the other men, either. He doesn’t drink like my father. He’s shy and skittish in town streets, hiding under his thick, black fringe. He’s like his horses.
There’s a sound behind me that cracks and echoes through the gully.
Just once. But there will be more. My father is coming for me. He’s warning me of that.
Soon he will be saddling up Bessie, if he hasn’t already, trying to get her to move faster that she’ll want to; yanking and whipping her on. And good, kind Bessie will move because he tells her to. She’s too scared to do otherwise. And even though she’s fat and older than most of the horses round here, Bessie can move quick when she has to. Quicker than me, anyway. I dig my toes into the dry, warm earth. I try running faster than I’ve ever run before. I don’t let my body feel the thorns that try to snag me and keep me in the gully.
It happens finally, when I’m wheezing for air and almost on my knees; I get to the top of the rise. The stable yard is only a few hundred metres on from here. I keep running, though my vision is going blurry from tiredness and my night-gown is sticking to my spine. There are no more gun shots, but my ears feel as if they are pricked like an animal’s, straining for sounds. I think I hear hoof-beats.
Gilbert is waiting for me. Somehow I knew—hoped—he would be. He has hearing like a fox. He’s dressed in riding clothes, leaning on the stable door.
His voice is hesitant, shocked certainly, but not reproving of the state I must look. I slow to a walk but keep moving towards him. His shirt is untucked and his hair is sticking up like scrub grasses. He is wild and beautiful and shy as an animal. He’s perfect.
When I get to him, I’m breathing too hard to say any word at all. He does it for me.
I nod. ‘He came for me. I was sleeping.’ It’s all I can get out. I double over, gasping and wheezing for air. I remember the gunshot, the sound of the hooves. ‘He’s coming now. There was nowhere else I . . . ’
Gilbert steps towards me at that, and one of his arms reaches for me. ‘Coming through the gully?’
I nod. ‘I don’t know how long . . . . he’s on Bessie.’
I feel Gilbert’s hand on my back, warm and wide. He must feel how wet my night-gown is, must realise how see-through it is too, but he doesn’t say anything. He just scoops his arm around my shoulder and folds me in towards him. I find my face against where his neck meets his collarbone. He smells of leather and trees and soap, and yes, horse too. He smells of every good thing there is in the world. I breathe in and in and in. I don’t realise I’m crying before I feel him circling my back with his palm and hear him whispering,
‘It’ll be OK, I promise. I won’t let him hurt you. Not again . . . ’
I shut my eyes. ‘I don’t know how you can stop him.’ I don’t want to say it, but I do.
That’s when we hear the hoof-beats, both of us. Gilbert’s body tenses at the noise. They’re close.
It’s Bessie, I’d know the sound of her step anywhere. My father is galloping her straight down the opposite side of the gully, over where the rocks are. I hear the ring of her hooves as she slips and skitters.
‘Idiot,’ I murmur.
‘He’ll kill her,’ Gilbert adds.
He leads me into the warm midnight haze of the stables. There are horse-shaped shadows, moving gently and making dust particles dance with their breath.
‘We’ll saddle Comet,’ Gilbert says. ‘She’s the fastest. Then you’ll ride as far as you can, straight out of town and over the mountains.’
‘I’ll face your father.’
I grip his arm then. ‘No.’
I think of Gilbert’s slight body standing in the way of Bessie, trying to slow down the force of my father. He’d never do it. My father would trample him just for fun, maybe even kill him because he could.
‘Come with me?’ I say. ‘You must.’
He shakes his head, just once. ‘He’ll catch us that way. He’ll flog that horse until he drops, and you know Bess, she’ll run because she thinks she has to, until she can’t do it no more. I won’t ask that of my horses. You’re better riding alone. Faster that way.’
I feel a pang then, thinking of good, kind Bessie running until her hooves collapse underneath her. My father would leave her in a heap of writhing legs, unable to get up ever again. My Bessie; my only friend out here before Gilbert. My father wouldn’t even give her the kindness of a bullet. He’d leave her like he left his dying cattle; stretched out and twitching in the sun. I feel the hot tears again on my face.
I won’t let him do it.
‘I’m staying here,’ I say. ‘We’ll face him together.’
Gilbert’s head moves. It’s not exactly a nod, but it’s such a slow, sad movement that it puzzles me a little.
‘There is only one other option then,’ he says, his voice fragile and catching on itself.
He takes my hand. His fingers are warm and dry and circle around my whole hand with ease. He leads me out of the stables and back into the yard. ‘I don’t want you to be frightened,’ he says. ‘Promise me you won’t be?’
I shake my head. I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I want him to know I’m brave enough for whatever it is.
‘You can do anything to him,’ I say. ‘I won’t care.’
There’s a frown on Gilbert’s forehead. Whatever he is thinking is difficult for him, I’m not sure he wants to explain. But what can be worse than what my father has just tried to do to me?
‘Shoot him,’ I tell Gilbert suddenly. ‘Kill him. I don’t care.’
He gives a half-shrug. ‘You might.’ But there’s a sad, deep look in his eye; a look that I almost recognise. My breath catches in my throat.
The hooves are closer now, galloping up the rise. I can hear Bessie’s breath too, ragged and hollow in her ribs. I would do anything to stop that sound; to breathe air back inside of her. Gilbert pushes me behind him. ‘Get back. Stay well away.’
Then my father is here, so suddenly, crouched forward over Bessie’s neck with the reins looped and flailing. He is screaming at the night, the full moon high behind him. I see the glint of spurs, the vivid red of the gashes in Bessie’s side. He sees us waiting for him, and does what I always knew he would. He turns Bessie’s head, and rides straight at Gilbert.
‘Gilbert, no! Don’t do this . . . !’
I’m starting to yell, starting to run, but it’s too late. My father is getting closer, galloping top speed. And Gilbert is running towards him, hands raised as if he’s about to reach up to my father’s neck and pull him clean off Bessie’s back. Perhaps that’s his plan. He’s yelling too, running like a thing possessed. I’ve never seen him like this. Gilbert is quiet and calm, he is never full of anger, not like my father is.
I see my father reaching to his belt for it. And I feel so sick, because I can imagine, all too clearly, what will happen next. Gilbert, with a bullet in his neck. Bessie collapsing. Then my father coming for me.
I won’t let it.
He won’t destroy my family again.
I run towards Gilbert and my father and the whole crazy mess that’s unfolding before me.
And that’s when it happens.
Gilbert’s body starts to change.
At first I think I am imagining it, but I blink and blink and I know it is true. He’s still running, but now his body starts to hunch over towards himself; his neck folding forward to his chest. The body in front of me is no longer Gilbert. Instead there is a huge, black shoulder where his head should be, and his arms are stretching to the ground, growing darker and more like legs. It happens so quickly that I can’t understand what I’m seeing.
I see the look of shock register on my father’s face, too; the fear and disbelief over what’s happening before him. I see him hesitate with the gun in his hand, see him try to pull up Bessie and spin her around.
I stop right there in the middle of the yard, and gasp.
Gilbert’s body grows and stretches and darkens, until it’s not Gilbert standing there anymore.
It’s a horse.
Not any horse.
It’s the stallion from the woods.
He’s pawing at the ground, then rearing up towards Bessie and my father. I can actually hear the breath quicken in my throat.
Suddenly it all makes sense, even though it doesn’t. The understanding; the knowledge Gilbert has. The way he is so different to any other person I’ve ever met. The way he just knows the horses.
The stallion and Gilbert, they’re one.
I can do nothing but watch. Gilbert – the stallion – keeps pawing at the earth, skittering dust in every direction. His coat shimmers in the moon-glow, revealing the muscles beneath. He is breathtakingly beautiful.
He rears, staying up on his hind legs for seconds, kicking at the air. He whinnies at Bessie.
And Bessie does something I’ve never seen her do before. She rears, too. I didn’t think the old girl could, but she does. My father, who’s too shocked to be gripping on, tips right out of the saddle and tumbles over her back end into the dirt. The pistol falls from his grip and the stallion lands down hard on it, his hooves smashing against it.
Bessie gallops towards me. I hold my arm out and catch her reins. Every inch of her body is lathered and hot, she’s breathing like a locomotive. I smooth her neck, whisper things to her.
‘You’re all right now, girl, you’ll be all right . . . ’
But behind her, things aren’t all right. As if sensing this, Bessie whirls around to watch too. It’s all I can do to hang onto her and keep standing. Gilbert—the stallion—is standing over my father. My father is backing up, crawling along the ground, heading towards the ridge. His right hand is reaching all the time for the smashed gun or anything that might protect him, but his fingers and hand are shaking too much to do anything useful.
‘Be careful,’ I scream. ‘He’ll trick you.’
My father looks at me then, glares at me with a look that could quieten the spirits; the same look he gives before he strikes with an open palm.
‘Devil Child!’ he yells. ‘You have cursed me . . . ’
Gilbert won’t let him speak anymore. He rears again, brings his sharp hooves straight down into my father’s chest. I hear the snap of ribs, the wrench of air leaving my father’s mouth. My father tries to grab at Gilbert’s thin, strong legs, but Gilbert avoids him; lands on my father’s neck instead.
My father’s body twitches once, and is still.
I think I’m going to fall at any moment, but Gilbert backs up, leans against my shoulder. I’m shaking and shaking. I smell his horse and leather and tree-laced smell. It’s Gilbert. I know it is. It’s the same essence of him, just inside a new body. When the stallion’s neck turns toward me, it’s Gilbert’s eyes looking back at me; dark and still and sensible on mine. Kind eyes.
Very gently, he bends his knees. His hind quarters go next until he’s kneeling on the ground, his withers no higher than my waist. He’s looking at me the whole time, then he’s looking at his back. I don’t know how I know this, but I do; I know exactly what he wants. Very, very slowly I walk up to him. I place my left hand on the tips of his warm withers where there are a few stray tufts of mane. He whickers gently, like Bessie does when she wants something. So I cautiously slide my left leg over his back. His body is wide and warm and very solid. It is exactly like the dream I had as a child of being invited to ride on the back of a Horse God.
I grip onto his thick black mane, so much like a boy’s fringe grown wild; so much like Gilbert’s. And the stallion lurches and stands. He’s quivering beneath me, ready to run, ready to get as far away from this place as we can. So I lean forwards, right up over his neck, and I whisper in his ear,
His whole body shivers as I do.
And he takes off; his silent shoeless hooves whispering in the dark. Bessie runs with us, over gully and through stream and over pastureland, until we reach the edge of the mountains.
Image by heystrobelight.