We hold hands – the five of us across. The polar winds are cutting past our small pale faces and whipping into the landscape. We can feel the coast. Sleeting rain wets our ears and lips, our arms stippled with goose-bumps. Eric leads us from the middle. Steps forward a full head taller than the rest of us, and fearless.
We walk purposefully in an arrow formation; the children whose parents can afford them, decked out in brightly coloured coats. I can feel Eric’s fingertips pressing into my palm, tracing my lifeline, searching for another spiral. His lifeline spirals. It has done so since infancy.
‘Our Eric, I sometimes think he’s been here before. That spiral means something,’ his family says.
Often, at school, I watched as he traced spirals in the grass, around the knot in the blackwood tree, along the curve of a snail’s shell. I watched him smooth snail’s silver between his fingertips, thinking. In the inky black, it’s these same fingertips, these same long slender hands, still searching, that comfort me now.
Without a full moon, we can’t see more than a few feet in front of us. The two-and-a-half hour walk from the schoolhouse fills the younger children with fear.
‘They’ll detour to avoid us,’ he assures.
There are no lights here, and loose horses on the road – we can hear them, their invisible galloping, coming towards us. On the few occasions we’ve caught a glimpse of them, they tower over us like no horses we’ve seen before. And the wild stomping and snorting – the rushing of these powerful beasts – haunts us in our sleep. But the walk is so, and they wait for us day after day, to play the game.
Eric is twelve and certainly not the eldest, but clearly the biggest. And that horse recognises it – the big one, with the scars on its face and flanks. He stops, the big horse stops. After years of running, he just stops. Doesn’t detour, sledding wildly by us as he usually does, like the other horses do now. He is directly in front of us and Eric barely comes to the top of the great legs, legs that will carry him one winter soon, when the air will bite away at his chest, rescuing him. Eric meets the horse’s eyes, holds steady the kind of warm, thick look he usually reserves for me. There are no trees across the flats and therefore few birds to cry. It is hauntingly quiet, and through his hand, through Eric’s right hand – I swear I feel the horse’s heart beating
‘It’ll be okay,’ he whispers, ‘just don’t let go.’
In the bitter fleece of my childhood he is always there, and it is many springs before we are separated. Minutes go by and he drops my hand, gently drawing something out of his bag – a large jar with wax on one side. A rich liquorice smell wafts as he screws off the lid and tar-like molasses drips thickly onto the road.
The sliver-moon is covered again. We can barely see him. And if I close my eyes tight, I’m alone again – shut in my room – sleeping.
They acknowledge each other, and the stallion dampens Eric’s forehead with his nostrils, flared – the wetness smearing upwards into his hair. The horse pushes downwards against Eric’s head until his chin is at his chest and his neck looks like it may snap at the stem. And as if knighted in some kind of ritual, Eric then backs away, his breathing quick and controlled. It’s over.
We walk through the bleak Tasmanian plains and over the steep hills of home where Bonnie Waters broke her leg upon the sleek. We can hear the waves in the distance engulfing the jagged shore. We know the moment the horses are gone: the sound of their hundreds of hooves suddenly silenced by surrendering sand.
It’s like they fall right off the end of the earth.
‘Eric (1927)’ was first published in the The Victorian Writer: Jan-Feb 2015|Fiction Edition