A Story From the Vault
Rather than blog about my extremely interesting and fun filled life (I’ve almost finished season 5 of The Wire – what DVD box set will I watch next??) I have dug into the vaults of my computer and found an old story I wrote around about the same time as the first draft of Chicken Stu – it shares similar themes and I wrote it during the short period when 3 of my grandparents passed away. It is also based on a real life horse named Rocky that we had as kids. It’s a 1500 word story, so pour yourself a cup of tea and enjoy.
An Old Fashioned Horse
These days, it’s not unusual for a girl to want a pony when she’s growing up; what is unusual is for a boy to want a horse. Not long ago, every lad had one – it seems the horse sprouted wheels and now goes by the name motorbike.
When Charlie, my younger brother, asked for a horse, it was not at all unexpected or unexplained. Charlie and our recently deceased Grandpa were, or had been, fanatics for The Man From Snowy River. I guess most parents could use the excuse that they just didn’t have enough room for a horse, but in our case, 2000 acres wasn’t exactly limiting.
‘I wouldn’t even know where to get one,’ Mum said, exasperated because she had a high tick-rate when it came to Christmas wish-lists. ‘Do pet stores stock them?’
A horse is a high-maintenance pet, is how Dad put it, ‘They require constant exercise, feeding, brushing ….’ Charlie nodded impatiently, and I thought back to the time I received the same lecture about my first dog (though I’m pleased to say that neglect was not the principal cause of death).
‘I’ll ride it every day,’ Charlie told Dad, ‘I promise. Grandpa said he’d get me one.’
Six months on and Charlie was still using the Grandpa sympathy card. Grandpa and Charlie had a special bond – and try as Dad may, he and Charlie just didn’t connect. Charlie hadn’t been allowed to go to the funeral, which Mum thinks was a mistake. I was there – it was really formal and cold.
We were all living on Grandpa’s farm now, us two boys and Mum and Dad, though we weren’t farmers like Grandpa was. We were impostors. Dad was an artist and used the space to make his sculptures while Mum taught at the local preschool. We didn’t sell the farm because Charlie was supposed to take over running it one day. This had been Grandpa’s wish after his only son and first grandson showed no interest in the family business. It was such a dated concept to follow in your father’s footing, dated like owning a horse.
Dad made Mum buy a book first, a sort of dummies guide to horses for both him and Charlie to read. Dad really got into it.
‘It’s not like in the movies, Charlie, you have to know what you’re doing when it comes to Horses especially because they’re damn expensive.’
So after a few phone calls and arrangements, Rocky moved in with his own removalist van dropping off his saddle, bridle and other horse-things. Dad took an instant dislike to Rocky, nervously keeping his distance to avoid being kicked to death. Rocky wasn’t a cute well-mannered horse either, he was a brute of a thing, chocolate brown in colour, with dark expressionless oval eyes, so Dad’s fear was not only something I understood, it was something I shared.
Charlie, on the other hand, entered Rocky’s yard fearless. I guess he figured they were going to be best of friends right from the start. Unfortunately, Rocky resisted all Charlie’s attempts at sugar-cube bribery, opting instead to keep his head and teeth down in the grass. The horse was so expensive that any discussion on riding lessons for Charlie went unspoken. Dad, armed with his dummies guide was instead going to play the role of instructor. Mum thought this was a great idea
‘It will give you a good chance to get to know Charlie better,’ she said despite Dad’s insistence that he didn’t feel comfortable around the horse.
I spent much time watching the riding attempts. From Dad’s inability to properly mount a saddle, to Charlie’s immense frustration, it was always entertaining viewing. Rocky didn’t respond at all to kicking, clenching, or rein pulling, in fact the only thing that got him moving was when Dad grabbed the bridle and pulled hard. So Rocky, with Charlie perched on top of him, would be dragged up and down the road until Charlie gave up and allowed Rocky to lower his head back down into the grass and continue eating.
Rocky grew fat, and despite daily dragging, he continued to get fatter. Charlie gave up on him and I’m sure Dad took this defeat personally, blaming his incompetency instead of Rocky’s stubborn lazy nature. There came a day that even dragging couldn’t get Rocky moving. Shortly after that, Rocky lay down and wouldn’t get up.
‘I don’t know what to do with him,’ Dad told Mum. ‘If he continues at this rate, he’ll die.’
‘Maybe you could call the vet and make him better,’ Charlie suggested. Mum and Dad didn’t say anything, and I know they were thinking about how much a vet would cost.
‘We could send him away to fat camp,’ I suggested.
Mum worked with a woman whose husband was a vet and she managed to pull in a favour, so Mr Betts came over to our place one afternoon under the guise of attending a barbeque. After lunch, Dad walked him down to Rocky’s paddock, and Charlie and I followed closely behind.
Mr Betts looked at the obese horse and made a tut-tut sound with his tongue. He circled Rocky and then began to run his hands along his flank.
‘Poor thing – he’s in a bad condition – lots of pain,’ he said. ‘You’re going to have to put him down, I’m afraid.’ I looked across at Charlie but he seemed unaffected.
‘Do you want me to do it?’ Mr Betts asked. Dad shook his head.
‘No. I’ll manage.’ I always thought Dad was stupid for saying that. I think he was trying to act brave in front of the vet, probably trying to show off in front of Charlie. Or maybe he just felt responsible. For whatever reason, Mr Betts and his wife left and Dad went off to fetch the key for Grandpa’s gun cupboard.
Charlie and Mum sat down to watch one of Charlie’s favourite films while the deed was being done. Unnoticed, I followed Dad. He carried the shotgun awkwardly with both hands, as though it could go off at any second if he wasn’t careful. Grandpa used to carry his gun like it was just an extension of his arm.
Rocky had eaten all the grass within his reach, and exposed, had no choice but to look at his assassin. I was hidden behind a fence but within earshot.
‘Rocky,’ Dad said to the horse, ‘What more do you want from me?’ He started crying and I felt awkward like I did once when Mum fell over at the supermarket. The gunshot, always louder than you think it will be, signalled it was all over and during the numerous echoes that followed, Dad threw up.
The disposal of the body was the next issue. Grandpa used to drag the sheep and cattle carcasses off and dump them in a pit covered with flies and reeking of death. Charlie and I had discovered the pit once and since that day, had always given it a wide berth. Dad proposed we dump Rocky there.
‘No. He should be buried. You always bury pets, the pit is for stock, don’t you know anything?’ Charlie looked angrily at Dad.
‘But Charlie,’ Mum protested, ‘a horse is a big animal, it’s not very practical.’
‘Dad can use the tractor,’ Charlie said.
I don’t think Dad had ever driven the tractor before. He swore a lot and his face flushed scarlet. Charlie and I watched for hours as he dug out a hole down by the creek.
‘Is this like how they buried Grandpa?’ Charlie asked me.
‘Not really,’ I told him. ‘The hole was already dug, and it was smaller and covered in fake grass.’
‘Do you think if Grandpa was alive then Rocky would be too?’
‘No. I think Rocky was just a dud horse.’
After digging the hole, Dad drove the tractor to Rocky’s paddock and attached the dead animal to the machine using chains. Once more, Rocky was dragged up the road against his will. Dad manoeuvred him all the way into the hole he’d dug so that he was lying down on his back, with his legs sticking up in the air. I helped Dad remove the chains, but Charlie refused to get close.
‘We should say something,’ Dad said. ‘Anything you want to say, Charlie?’ Charlie shook his head. ‘Well, Rocky. We’ll miss you and the moments we shared. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ Dad started up the tractor again and used it to shovel the dirt back into the hole, somewhat spoiling the moment.
When all the dirt was filled in, one hoof stood high out of the ground, bent slightly into what I fancied was a parting gesture.
‘Damn,’ Dad swore. He started digging up fresh dirt with his hands and creating a mound over the offending limb. When he had achieved his task, he stood up, his shirt heavy with sweat, his face streaked with dirt and his hair on mad display. He walked over to stand with us and together we looked at the ridiculous grave for the horse that none of us had ever liked.
‘Thanks, Dad,’ Charlie said and held his hand. Dad smiled and held Charlie close to him. They didn’t notice as I walked away.