Read by Grace Cookey-Gam
An hour outside Napier, the Art Deco town in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, there is a sheep farm snuggled in the green crevices of a landscape like an upturned egg carton. Beyond the rounded peaks and ridges of the steep earth-folds, the dark blue of the Pacific glints beneath a southern sun, beneath a sky as clean as a bedsheet freshly washed and blown out smooth.
Today we are on a mission to find an injured sheep, a ewe with a uterus prolapsed after lambing. I ride behind the farmer, followed by a Canadian couple, Brian and Jen, and a laughing Dutch blonde named Wieke. Brian has never ridden before. Having been coaxed out at the last minute he’s still wearing his pyjamas, and struggling with the reality of unpadded saddle leather. At home this would never happen, a novice off the lead rope and in such hazardous terrain, conjuring injury and litigation and expense. It is not that the farmer has more relaxed codes. He has faith in his horses, trusts them, and knows that they understand their responsibility.
The sheep are speckled over the hills in every direction, and having mounted the top of a rise we follow the farmer’s homing instinct along the rocky ledge to the east. Whenever we approach a quivering herd they scatter clumsily, stumpy legs jerking beneath a mass of bulky wool. Our group is the perfect example of magnetic repulsion – we could ride into a throng of sheep and space would clear around us, instantly, like hot oil in water or hair recoiling from a flame. The farmer sends one whining dog out at a time with a high clear whistle; his pack of four never take their eyes off him, and he calls each one by name to let them know they’re on their mark. The chosen one streaks off, coursing over the undulations until it seems like he’ll keep going to the ocean, but somehow he hears the next call and drops flat, or turns, or draws his invisible net round in a wide arc to gather the sheep together.
When we finally spot the ewe, she looks like she’s trailing a red sweater with the sleeve turned inside-out. She’s waddling heavily up the opposite hillside, her rear end puckered and open like an obscenely botoxed pout, muddy blood matting the wool of her hind legs. We stay put while the farmer and Shawn pick their way down and up to her. The ewe is driven into a small triangular pen built into a corner of the boundary fence for the men to return to her later, and she stands alone beneath the shade of a gnarled tree as we swing round to take the perimeter road home.
The level ground is strange and easy after the morning and we talk more on the three-mile track back. The farmer is right-wing, denounces AIDS and homosexuality, favours capital punishment, law like a noose. It seems as if he hasn’t talked with anyone who argues in a while, but I try to be respectful: he is old, he is from another land. He seems to like me even though I don’t agree with him.
“You’re an intelligent girl,” he tells me, “and you’re a good rider,” which pleases me more. His attitude is grandfatherly, but still I feel embarrassed when our legs press together with the sway of our horses’ tandem gait, and I try to ignore it rather than deliberately move away. The farm is becoming hard for him to run, he says – he is in his 70s, which surprises me, and much of the heavy work falls to Shawn. The farm has been his whole life, he says, and he surveys it with the fierce love of ownership, and with just a little fear.
In the afternoon Brian and Jen prepare lunch at our cabin. We drink a bottle of wine, and Wieke breaks her resolution to quit by smoking my cigarettes. I have come on this trip to slip out from beneath the weight of a stifling city, to shake out my life like a dusty rug, and I’d been hoping that going away would amount to more than mere avoidance. So far I can’t say whether I’ve actually achieved what I wanted, and although the beauty of the country thrills me more each time I take a walk through the ferny forests, or hike redwood trails inhaling eucalyptus and pine, a melancholy whisper reminds me that all of the beauty is tinged with the sadness of leaving, and that none of it is mine.
These are the first people I have shared more than a few hours with in New Zealand, despite the many warm and open people I have met, and we sit easily together, the right balance of sociability and space.
“You’re good at being by yourself,” my friend Lindsey told me a few years ago, “but you’re not so good at being with other people.” So I breathe the fresh outdoors air like a remedy, and tuck into succulent rosemary fish with these friends.
Later the farmer saunters up the path to find us still sitting around the picnic table. Once he’s checked who plans to ride out with him again tomorrow, I ask after the ewe.
“Did the vet come?” I ask him, and he laughs with the pleasure of setting me straight
“No,” he grins at me. “Shawn went out after lunch and slit her throat.”
I try not to be such a city girl, but stupidly I feel like I’m going to cry, and I concentrate on swallowing the lump, nodding like I understand. The others carry on talking and when my ears clear suddenly the farmer is mentioning that he has cancer, telling us about his prostate and a biopsy and a trip to the hospital. I’m stunned by how easily he says this to us, a group of young and careless travellers who have come to ride over his land; how easily he tells us that he is going to die. And I feel all the immediacy of the day, of life in the morning and death in the afternoon, of the heat of an animal’s blood and the raw fact of its pain.
Earlier, as we ride home, the farmer asks me if I want a gallop. “But don’t let her go completely,” he warns me. “You won’t be able to stop her.” I try not to look too eager and trot ahead of the group, contained, until Sabine and I are clear enough not to set the others bolting. I try not to let excitement transmit down the reins like a phone call flashing down wires, but joy is surging through my blood and Sabine shoots off, careening round blind turns and sending the clatter of hooves ringing through the valleys. I keep holding on to her, just for a minute, and then I let her go.
(c) Melanie White, 2014
Melanie White has published stories in Londonist, .Cent Magazine and Liars' League, as well as arts journalism. She edits Shooter Literary Magazine, which launches later this year. If interested in contributing short fiction, nonfiction or poetry please visit shooterlitmag.com.
Grace Cookey-Gam graduated from the City Lit in 2013 after innocently signing up for "just one" radio drama course. Titania and Hippolyta, numerous short films, voiceovers and roleplay for UN recruiters have followed. She also holds a BMus from Birmingham University, is a classically trained soprano, teacher and choral