The man put the rug on its back. The young horse’s flesh twitched, turning teeth to flanks, sweat forming on his shoulders. And from the veranda, shaded by the jacaranda tree that flourished there in the summer months, Alma could see the fear in her son’s eyes.
This was the moment when he would realise if he had wasted their money or spent it wisely on a good bloodline. Two years of waiting had come to this and he was aware; aware of the physical danger from the stallion and the emotional danger of losing any reputation he had gained through late-night whisky talk.
Alma watched the horse. The legs of a thoroughbred, narrow enough to snap at the fetlock, tapering to elegant knees, his coat blacker than the sun-worn backs of the farm workers. As he sidestepped and pranced on light, unshod hooves through the sand, she let her eyes run over the lines of muscle and realised at three years old he was easily the biggest horse they’d had on the farm and when he filled there would be more to come. Watching that balled-up power was a potent reminder of what she had lost.
She knew the fight both man and horse were about to enter and, unable to watch, she turned her head to the west. The air was dry. It carried cool winds from central Africa and with them the dust that invaded her home. Coarse brown dust lay on her kitchen table so that when she polished she sanded, year after year, renewing the oak grain. She put her hand to her face and drew her finger through the deep lines that ran along the sides of her mouth, let her fingertips glide over the wrinkles etched at the corner of her eyes and ran the fleshy part of her forefinger in a straight line down the middle of her brow, feeling the furrow that had become her dominating feature.
She called Nsousa. Tea would come presently. Sometimes they shared a cup, but they had nothing much left to say to each other after all these years. They were just two old ladies with dwindling families.
There was a sharp cry which returned her gaze to the paddock. Her son was in the sand, rubbing his thigh. Patches of crimson rising into angry circles on his cheeks as he stood. He gripped both sides of the head-collar, using his bodyweight against the animal. The stallion shook his head and moved backwards on low hindquarters, dragging Callum as he edged closer to the fence. It had become a game of brute strength – something Alma had taught him never to enter into with a horse.
There was a high-pitched whinny before the animal lowered his head to his knees and sprang up, crashing his bony poll into Callum’s jaw. Her son, once again, lay struggling in the sand.
As he paused to catch his breath, the horse settled. If Callum knew it, this was the moment he could regain control; the horse was still prepared to give him another chance. The great animal exhaled soft grunts as his ribs rose and fell with his breath. He took several small steps back through the sand, watching and waiting. Callum only saw the challenge of the unbroken animal and swore as he reached behind him to grab the long training whip.
Using his flight or fright instinct, the horse, with flared nostrils and eyes rolling, jack-knifed into the air and bucked all the way to the edge of the paddock. As he leapt, the backing rug flew off him, and before it had even landed in the red dirt, the horse had galloped, churning dust clouds behind him, to the boundary of the menage and Alma saw what he was capable of as the animal powered down into his haunches, lifted his front legs high into the air, stretched his neck out into a perfect arc and cleared the barbed-wire fence with inches to spare. In one leap, the horse had become free-range.
With two-thousand hectares for him to roam in, it could take days to track him. He could join the small zebra herd or run with the buck for a while. It was clear he would not be running back to her son’s hands.
Callum was looking at her now and she averted her eyes. No point in denting his male ego further. Nsousa silently manoeuvred the tea things into place and shuffled into the kitchen.
He was a weak boy. He looked strong enough, but the person he wanted to be shadowed everything he did. Unsure of his place in society, feeling the need to be accepted and yet, feeling too different to fit in. Alma always thought if he had been brought up somewhere else, where the need to be a man was less prevalent, he might have made a success of himself. But the refusal to leave was ruining him. And that was not something you could tell a son. Ironically, he blamed her, as children who do not want to recognise their own failings are apt to do with their mothers.
She watched her son abandoning the paddock and heading for the stables. No doubt concocting a story for his father in which others were to blame for this latest misfortune.
The heat had a sound of its own, a hazy, static crackle accompanied by noon noises: cicadas, the swish of the dairy cattle’s tails, the drone from the ever-present flies, Nsousa clattering her way slowly around the kitchen.
She collected her cane from the side of her chair and stood up. Bones and wasted muscles protested. She took her time, waiting for her body to become fully erect, and thought of the stallion and the leap he had taken. She had tamed many wild horses, but this one was different. He was neither vicious nor lazy, as stallions can be. She had watched him roaming the enclosures, making contact with the mares, the workers. A horse like that would do well in the right hands and if he made stud grade they might be able to pay back what they owed on the farm. Then there would be something to sell, she could move to a flat in town and she would not have to die in this hot place.
But a good stud horse needed to have education as well as bloodline. No one would pay for a rogue stallion to cover valuable mares. No one would risk a brood mare breaking its back against the best stud stallion in the world.
She stepped off the veranda and began her slow walk over the lawn towards the stables. Using her cane for support, she took care over the patchy buffalo grass. Once manicured to perfection, it now straggled menacingly around the perimeter of the garden, host to alien grasses and grainy ant-heaps. The sharp grasses caught hold of bare flesh and dug in, to remind that a real African grass, even a domesticated one, was an element that one should be wary of.
She no longer took painkillers for her knee. She embraced the pain – more of a discomfort these days now that she was used to it. It meant that on the better days she could imagine the injury was healing and her body was finally renewing itself.
Physical pain was far easier to endure than psychological pain. Thoughts could drive a person to madness. And she had fought against that slow demise since that morning, when her men had set out against her wishes, without her.