Redemption - The Severed Cord

Stephen Twartz

He folded his fingers about the reins. The fingers of his left hand felt slightly stiff in the cold of the morning. He hoisted himself lightly into the saddle; it smelled of oil. The world always looked slightly smaller from up here, people scurrying about their yard duties, horses avoiding inevitable capture. The dust of the stockyard formed a billowing film just above the ground, veiling the hooves of the animals despite the bright dawn sun. It was the chaos in the yard that struck him the most. He could almost see himself entangled in its cords, pulled every-which-way to its rhythms and its discords.

After a while, the pandemonium dissipated. He didn't see its beginning, but it seemed to melt away. He gently pulled the reins to the side, heading to the gate. One of the men, finishing the final tightening of a girth, looked up at him and nodded. He smiled and angled his head in the direction of the waiting herd. The light green of the paddock against the dense-packed bush of the hills pulled him forward.

They followed as the herd, strung out for almost a mile, rose through the mountains towards thinner pastures. The trees were shorter now, squat and bent amongst the wiry, long-stemmed grass; a light chill breeze blowing up the narrow valley had scattered the remnants of the previous days' snowfall across the exposed pink granite slopes and spalled boulders. The cattle tarried only briefly to sample the sparse greenery; plumper, sweeter pickings were promised across the range. They had made this journey before.

He watched the winding column for a while from the top of the pass; they were warriors trudging towards some unknown, unsuspected foe. Their mottled hides blended well with the landscape, comforting in a way he couldn't understand or wouldn't be able to explain, but – he suspected –a possible salve for his battered soul; immersion into the land, transparency was, after all, what he wanted most.

His horse suddenly moved nervously sideways; he knew horses found their sense of the land in the same place as himself, but it always seemed more acute, and he wondered what depths they delved into the earth. He put his hand out, felt the slightly greasy mane and slid his fingers down the horse’s warm neck. The horse settled, but he felt tension still; perhaps the memory of friends neglected, violated, abandoned.

He smiled, the thought of old friends, remembrance tinged with regret. He recalled the yawning expanse of a dry land where there was a merging of friend and foe. But he couldn’t remember when it all ended.

How he had wanted to be part of it all; to create a history, and forever tell of the journey. He had loved the inclusion, the brotherhood with its jokes and laughter, loved the naïveté of their lives, loved the destruction, loved the way their survival rested upon such thin circumstance and loved as well, the orders that reinforced the minimalism of their existence. You could always trust that stupidity would outrank sense; their infallibility was a given. You had to be in their shoes he supposed, to feel the weight of decisions that brought so much loss, before remembrance carried any burden, before forgetting was a welcome release.

It was no ordinary achievement, they said, but victors record history, inscribe the tombs of their dead, crush the graves of the vanquished. An allusion of the approaching misery, a preview of universal grief, came with those souls flung away in their mad rush to ruin. No matter how often it occurred, he could not reconcile his part in it all.

But how could he have avoided his share? He had struggled with intractable characters, tried so hard to show the way, made mistakes, allowed the gradual domination of a malign perspective that took hold of all their lives, heard still the condemnation, You stood by while it all went to shit, you let it happen.

His wife didn't agree, preferring to see all the destruction, the instability, the flux of their lives as merely a procession of events beyond any control. And he saw the sense of her part. She came from the earth, deeply embedded in the fabric of the land; an old line, that was rich in the lore, an irresistible beacon that muted the madness threatening to flood his mind.

He reached forward to stroke the horse’s neck and readied himself for the move back to the trail. Mid-afternoon. The herd would need water soon, slowing to a crawl no matter the encouragement they gave and risking an extra night within these barren hills. He smiled again, the tantalising thought of a visit to the sacred places at the high pass, then realised he was looking directly at Jacko. His most reliable hand – the one who could carry forward without him – short, square and almost glued to the saddle, and a typically deadpan face.

He took a deep breath and repositioned himself in the saddle.

‘Jacko,’ he said.

The man remained silent, implacable. Behind him, he could see down the road, into the tight v-shaped valley, the tail of the herd disappearing around a steep promontory of the pink granite, almost at the crest. The sunlight glanced off crystal in the rock, through the thin cold air.

‘Time to go, boss,’ said Jacko.

‘Yeah, nice view from here.’

‘The bloody cows need water.’

‘Yeah.' And he remembered foam streaked horses, at the last of their endurance, labouring slowly up yet another dune, the probability of yet another desperate fight over the crest. Where had the years gone? Where was the praise, the respect, the gratitude for all their suffering? Where was the completeness that had kept them all together, sane, safe and committed?

He shook his head, turned the horse to leave, walking towards yet another desperate column of beasts.

‘Water at Eukumbene. Only a few miles now.’

The day was turning cold with short days and lowering sun. He headed the horse downhill towards the rough road, just a path really, into the shadow of the mountain where the small patches of hard, icy snow, remnants of the previous cloud soaked week, survived, to eventually feed the creeks and rivers of the lowlands. There was a chance there, a chance of redemption, despite all the damage done, a hope that the tide would reverse, where he could savour once again familiar places, his kin, the truth.

‘Better hurry,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Dark soon. No time to waste.’