The moon called through the eucalypts and we went, my brother and I, barefoot against the mountain night. At the bank of the creek we stopped and rolled up our pyjamas. The flannelette, still warm, felt like fur. Our toes searched for smooth river stones and with our arms linked, we nudged our way through the icy water. It stung but it felt good too, like an ice-cream headache.
When the stones became earth again, my brother laughed and we were running, our legs stretching out across the crack of sticks and leaves. We leapt tussocks and logs and whooped like we used to. The moon made shadows of shrubs and the ground danced out in front of us, reaching for the ridge. We tore through the long grass, feeling the scratch of burrs but not caring.
When we reached the escarpment, the boulders were rough and our palms burned with the cold, but we didn’t stop. We knew he couldn’t be far. We’d seen him at dusk, standing against the sky, all flank and mane and muscle. The silver spirit, my brother had whispered when Dad was out of earshot; ghost of the gum country. We’d wanted to climb the ridge but we knew Dad wouldn’t allow it. He was still fuming about the brumbies. On the road up, when we came across a herd, Dad had leaned into the horn, long and loud. Bloody pests, he’d said, and Mum nodded her approval from the passenger seat. Then Dad launched into a lecture about soil erosion and the threat of horses and hooves. To us, the herd looked pretty harmless, mostly big-bellied mares and a couple of foals.
When Dad accelerated, they took off for a stand of gums and pulled up, all at once, to watch us. Like the clowns at the show, their heads turned in time, following our car, and in the backseat we did the same, straining to keep an eye on them as long as we could. Should be shot, the lot of them, said Dad as they disappeared from sight. My brother and I looked at each other and we knew to keep quiet.
Now, scrambling towards the ridge, we were thinking of last night when the herd thundered through our camp, raiding our food bags and kicking up a cloud of dust. Dad, half-naked, swearing and waving his arms, and us pressed up against the tent, watching as the night turned chestnut and black and bay. In the mass of legs and manes stood a stallion, his skin made silver by the moon. No matter how much Dad yelled or jumped around, he stood his ground and we loved him, my brother and I, for his defiance. When he’d had enough, he snorted and turned the herd, their necks outstretched, bolting for the bush. We’d wanted to run after him but Dad growled us back into the tent.
Now the bush blew quietly and we stopped to listen. Leaves rubbed against each other, and off in the scrub, a lone cricket clicked. We willed the air to be transformed by the pounding of hooves, but it stayed quiet. We moved up the mountain’s side, scaling sandstone and scrambling through scrub until the bush spat us out at the top of the ridge. Our tent looked tiny in the valley below. As we spun around and around, the sky opened up, and in the expanse, it felt like there was nothing we couldn’t see.
It was the summer before Dad found his own dark horse but we didn’t know it yet. Before the week long sessions at the TAB, eyes glued to screens, scanning numbers, calculating odds. Before he scratched marks on slips of paper and fed them to machines in exchange for hope. This is the one boys. This time we’re gonna get lucky. It was the summer before the horses gnawed at his pockets and kicked him in the guts. And it was two summers before Mum took off, galloping as far away from us as she could.
But that night, on the crest of the ridge where the world touched the sky, it felt like everything was in sight. And in the tangle of gums, we saw what we’d come for, a flash of silver and the rush of hair and horse. It was quick, but I’ll never forget it, the way the stallion came to us and stood, just out of reach, still as a ghost gum, except for his nostrils, flaring, and the push of his breath, warming the air between us.
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