Jen was glad of the cup sleeves on her Warehouse nightie; most ones these days had singlet straps but this one might give a little protection if she fell. As it was, the air swirled around her shins and down her neck. The horse warmed her thighs, her core. She remembered the feeling from childhood of muscle next to hers, the forelegs rippling and straining against the hill. She leaned forward, her fingers wrapped around the mane. Danny, the horse, didn’t seem to mind the climb. Jen fluttered her hand across his neck. Thank you.
Overhead, the moon – sliced neatly in half – bounced its reflection off rocks on the Avoca Valley track. She hadn’t been up here for months—not since the earthquakes. A new sign had blocked the track entrance: Danger. Do not enter. They’d found a gap between the bushes and gate. Danny hadn’t minded the scrub brushing his legs either when Jen guided him through at a trot. She didn’t know what would have happened if he did.
She glanced behind. Shadows moved across the sweep of headlights below. Tracey and Scooter had stopped at the gate. The engine on their SUV was idling and their angry shouts reverberated off the hill.
The horse climbed and Jen listened to his breathing. They had almost reached the skyline. Further down the track, the motor whined and groaned against the gradient. Tracey and Scooter had scraped back the gate and decided to follow. Jen considered how it had come to this – her knees shifting against Danny’s sides, a link like an umbilical cord attaching her to those people below. Perhaps it came down to a difference in beliefs. Her belief in the beauty of running and freedom as opposed to Tracey and Scooter’s belief in fences and taming what was yours. Freedom versus ownership; she couldn’t have changed it if she wanted to. She could only ride, following the track to the rim of the crater, the moon lighting her way.
She’d first seen Danny when she moved to the Valley two months ago. He was a block from home on the ring road, standing up to his fetlocks in bog in a paddock squeezed between a container yard and a truck stop. As she biked pass him on the way to Uni, he had followed her with his ears. She’d taken to saving her apple cores and carrot ends, holding them on the palm of her hand for him to take, the whiskers on his lips tickling her skin.
It took an hour including Danny’s stop to get to Uni, but she preferred it to driving. Pumping legs, the sweat on her back. Once, after feeding Danny, instead of sticking to the ring road she’d gone past the house where she used to live. The plaster had fallen out of the walls in the Feb-twenty-second and Lewis still lived there. Nobody was home as she’d expected, but the heat rushed to her face. She couldn’t have born the thought of him watching as she biked past. Quickening down the street, she imagined how she would have looked if he’d seen her. A face all shrunken like Skulduggery Pleasant, her clothes hanging off her frame.
Jen had kept up her paper through the aftershocks. Environmental Management, three lectures a week in a tent. Recently the Uni had added catch-up tutorials on Friday afternoons before the exam.
Today the other four students hadn’t come. What had they expected? She tried to pay attention to the charts on the table, but her tutor had finger-joints like bulbs and hairs sprouted along the front of them. In the first shake, she’d seen the shadows of his fingers wobble through the old-fashioned water-jug and she’d thought of fern fronds over a lake. She’d looked up and caught his eye. They smirked; how many was that now? Moments later, the floor jolted again—maybe a five, not massive—but the jug slipped, smashing on the table, and a triangle of glass flew into her tutor’s wrist severing his artery.
At first, she couldn’t understand what had happened; that moment of frozen terror in the middle of an aftershock, then water running down her legs; she almost laughed. But then she saw his face leaked of colour and the pulp pumping through his fingers in his lap. She pressed both of her hands over his, feeling the glass shard against the side of her palms; shouting over her shoulder for someone to come and help please.
When the ambulance officers pulled her hands away, towelled her down with warm water, and took him away, somebody offered her a ride home, but she shook her head. “I have a car, I can drive,” she said, picturing her bike locked in the basement.
She went straight to Lewis’s place. A yellow Beetle she didn’t recognise was parked behind the Nissan in the driveway. Dropping the bike, she hurried to the porch. There were voices behind the door. A man and a woman. She glanced down at her clothes and they were streaked with blood. She rubbed at them – rubrubrubrub – but it made no difference. A kettle whistled inside and she froze. Lewis couldn’t see her like this. Ducking her head under the kitchen window, she ran, grabbing her bike off the front lawn, and fled.
About midnight she sent him a text. Jug broke in eq 2day cutting my tutor’s wrist. Lot of blood. I’m ok but thought u shuld kno. She got out of bed and took a glass of milk down to the garden. The half moon lit the sky and the scraggly lawn glowed. She left the glass on the gatepost.
Danny whickered when he saw her, though she had no apple. She rested her forehead against his warm neck. There was a slight breeze and the shed door was knocking. She walked over to it and Danny followed. It wasn’t locked. Maybe if it had been, she might have squeezed back through the fence and walked home, she didn’t know. She found a bridle on a nail inside the door. As she slipped it over his ears, now making quick glances behind, Danny blew bubbles on her arm. He followed her readily as she lead him out the gate and lined him up next to the fence so she could climb on.
They must have heard Danny’s hooves clattering on the road.
Scooter was bringing the SUV up the track. Danny flicked his ears back as she pressed her heels against his sides, urging him across Summit Road. The track continued along the ridge, parallel to the road. No rockfall here. Not that it mattered; the earthquakes didn’t scare her most of the time.
Tracey and Scooter scared her.
Fear prickled her like a knife at the base of her neck. And she accepted it. It was like coming across an angry bull in a paddock of cows the moment you realise there’s nowhere to run. Or opening your front door in the dark and a crazed cat is screaming round the skirting boards, yellow eyes flashing.
Twice in the two months since Jen had been biking to Uni, she hadn’t been able to feed Danny the apple cores she saved for him. The first time was when she’d seen a woman prancing towards Danny with a saddle that clunked against thick legs. Trying to ignore the saddle as she swung her hips, the woman’s eyes flicked continuously back to a small wiry man leaning against the shed behind her. The man had the look of a stoat about him, hunched in a grey coat chewing on a piece of grass. As there was no sign of a vehicle, Jen had guessed they’d come from the remnant of run-down houses behind the paddock. The woman had little regard for Danny as she flung the saddle over his back. She flicked her dyed, white-over-black ponytail towards the man and the last thing Jen saw before disappearing round the curve was a swinging stirrup hit Danny’s withers and his flinch.
The second time Danny didn’t get his apple the stoat-man was watching the woman jiggle on Danny’s back as he trotted round and round the perimeter of the fence his hooves flicking up mud. Jen heard him say: “You’re a picture Tracey doll, ridin my horse.”
“Fuck, one of your better acquisitions eh Scooter?” The girl flashed her eyes at him, her hands jerking Danny’s mouth. Scooter’s throaty chuckle followed Jen down the road.
Danny ducked through the scrub. The track wound too much for cantering. Her seatbones thumped on his bony-ridged back as he trotted, and the sides of her legs chafed against the withers. Her hands had turned to claws, clamped around the reins. She could hear the SUV crawling along the road beneath. Every now and then the vehicle would slow for Scooter to negotiate rocks or for Tracey to listen for Danny in the bushes. They caught her in the headlights once where the track dipped. Jen looked back and Tracey was standing by the car, a shadowy figure waving a fist shouting: “You bitch. Why don’t you give up cos we’re not gunna.” Dust motes cloaked the air between them, until Danny clambered the bank onto the ridge again.
An hour later, or two, she couldn’t tell, the track crossed the road to farmland below. Rocks littered the road behind them. Jen couldn’t hear the SUV anymore. She lay on Danny’s neck while he cantered across a grassy knoll. The air raspberried from his nostrils in time with his stride. I’m ok but thought u shld kno. His hooves tapped the rhythm while her nightie flapped about her back. Thought u shld kno. Thought u shld kno. What else could she have said in a text?
I’m not coping Lewis. Stop me from doing this.
She imagined going to him instead; not stopping to rescue Danny but walking past, turning left off the ring-road. This time there would no Beetle in the drive; he would be sitting outside at the picnic table as he did sometimes, not sleepy, admiring the night sky; he would see her and stand up, nod for to come sit next to him. That’s when she would have spilled out all the words that she’d needed to say earlier so they could start again:
I was thinking of the time we mountain-biked from Porters to Arthurs. Do you remember our tyres humming? And the sunset? The way it lit the hills and fired the sky?
And that other twilight in Golden Bay? When you took my hand and led me to the Marram grass but we disturbed the oystercatchers and one swooped you, but you laughed and pulled me to another dune anyway?
He would move a fraction along the bench and the hairs on his leg would touch her thigh. She would close her eyes and keep talking.
I was thinking we were those oystercatchers, always returning to their patch of beach—summer, autumn, winter, spring—despite the sands shifting and covering our tracks, our love imprinted there anyway.
In silence he would pull her up from the table and they would walk down the moonlit driveway to the end of the street, the breeze rippling his shirt against his biceps, their arms swinging and sometimes touching, beating the pavements at midnight, everything back as it was before.
They’d almost reached the heads, Danny and her; the sea shimmered beyond the bluffs the colour of the moon and there was a ribbon of fire between her legs. She got off to lead Danny down the zig-zags. Exhaustion crashed down and fuzzed her vision. Sometimes when she felt the reins jerk in her hands she remembered Danny was there but mostly she walked alone in the grey space on the ground in front of her feet. When she became aware of waves crashing on the sand, she realised the slope had ran out to a valley of dunes and she saw a stream trickling through the grass and hobbled towards it. Danny stood watching her as the sky lightened the horizon and water mixed with the blood from her chafed thighs. Before toppling into sleep, she dragged herself onto the tussock beside the bank.
The sun was piercing her eyelids with fine yellow needles. Danny was chomping grass next to her ear. “Get up,” said Tracey and a boot jabbed her ribcage.
Jen swivelled away; tugged her nightie down from her thighs.
“I said get up.” The dark shape of Tracey stood over her, sunlight blurring her edges. Scooter stood hunched in a grey coat behind.
Jen sat up. Scooter’s jaw was moving. Up. Down. Around.
“My partner doesn’t like you.” Tracey flicked her head towards him. “Negotiating those rocks in the dark like that. You’re out of your mind. Fuck.” She booted the ground. “I’ve got a mind to…”
Scooter leaned in next to Tracey. The grass lolled in his mouth but Jen didn’t hear what he said. Tracey’s cheek twitched. She stepped towards Jen. Jen swayed, but Tracey reached past her and caught Danny’s reins. Jen felt the air between them touch her arm as Danny brushed past.
A horse float sat behind the SUV at the road-end 50metres down the valley. Danny flicked his tail when Tracey led him onto the ramp.
Scooter had stayed put. He grimaced, baring an incongruous line of white pearlers in the pinched face, the end of the grass stalk clenched firmly between. He pulled a coin from his pocket, which he let fall in the grass in front of him. “Bus fare,” he said, and he hoicked the lump of stalk – now fully masticated – to the patch of ground at her feet.
Hidden behind the bus-stop clutching the $2 coin, she faced the reality of the journey home in her nightie. Even sleeves couldn’t cover the exposure she felt. Perhaps she would get off at Lewis’s stop and hobble, streaked with grime and blood, to his door.