The Sticks

I have never shared my family’s affinity for horses. I have seen one break my grandfather’s jaw with an unexpected kick to the face. I have seen another bite my brother on the back of his neck, the blood staining his collar a rusty brown.
From the hills above my grandfather’s stables, I watch people coming and going, some leading horses onto the arena, others loading horses into trailers. Everything out here involves a horse.

We visit regularly, venturing out into the ‘sticks’. My brother and I are in the backseat of the car armed with things to occupy us for the trip, while outside the scenery gradually changes from manicured lawns and busy intersections to wide plainlands, dotted with cows. Out here the colour of the grass alternates between ‘vibrant green’ and ‘bushfire hazard’. The ducks compete with lily pads for space on the lakes. When the smooth bitumen roads finally give way to gravel, I kick my brother’s shin and say, ‘Finish your game, we’re nearly there’.
My grandfather is either out in the paddocks, tending to a fence or to a horse, or he is in his foam-padded chair in front of the television, a XXXX stubby in hand. Today, as we push aside the flyscreen door, his eyes fleetingly leave the TV. My mother nudges my brother and I: ‘Go kiss your grandfather’. With as little fanfare as possible, we do. His cheek scratches my lips. My grandmother emerges from the kitchen neatly dressed in purple with earrings and necklace to match. She seats us at a table filled with sandwiches, biscuits and glasses of weak cordial. My grandfather is summoned to sit at the head of the table, my father at his elbow.
I slink from the house and sit on the swinging chair that faces the arena. My uncle is there, shouting directions at a horse and its student rider. They complete endless figure eights, chopping up the sawdust until a haze rises above them. In the distant mountains a spiral of smoke curls into the sky.

The visits become more regular. When we arrive my grandmother is in her sagging armchair, a purple hand-knitted beanie on her head, an oxygen tank by her side. My grandfather’s chair has been shifted. ‘Go kiss your grandmother,’ my mother prompts. Her cheeks are sweaty but we wait until she looks away before wiping our lips on our sleeves. We bring our own food this time—hot chips smothered in chicken salt. We perch on the couches instead of at the kitchen table. My grandmother nibbles on a chip. My grandfather peers at the television from his now less-than-prime position. My father rifles through the newspaper on the floor. My mother makes us cordial—she gets the ratio right.
I continue to slink out of the house, but now I venture further. I walk through the paddocks and warily eye the horses. I walk past the stables, tread through steaming piles of horse droppings and send the guineafowls running. I follow the dirt track out to the furthest reaches of the property, where the open fields give way to untamed scrub. This is uncharted territory. It is where the foxes that eat the chicken eggs hide. It is where my uncle will take a horse that needs to be shot. It is where we buried my childhood dog.

Now our visits are infrequent, forced excursions that my parents spring upon us. After a dental appointment or on the way home from a school rugby game, the scenery from the car window will begin to change and my brother will cry out from the back seat: ‘Why can’t we just go home?’ My mother will be silent in the front, so I will kick him in the shins.
My grandfather sits in his foam-padded chair, back to its position in the centre of the room. A stubby in one hand; a collection of empties on the floor. We don’t bring food anymore because it only stirs up the flies that have settled in the house. My mother doesn’t make us cordial because the glasses are no longer clean. The newspapers are now stacked by the front door. Outside the swinging chair is silent. The tips of the grass brush against my waist.
On our last visit, my grandfather’s eyes leave the TV screen for a moment: ‘A foal was born last night.’ His eyes return to the screen. ‘The mother didn’t survive.’

Published on Bumf, 21 May 2014


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