Georgia English | Essays

While my two older sisters were huddled inside a heavily curtained bedroom, channeling spirits and calling on ghosts, I was outdoors in the sunlight amongst the rocks and thistles searching for horses. I was seven and seeking a glimpse of the famed silver brumby, Thowra. It was school holidays and we were at my grandparent’s sheep property in Australia. Though our property was far from the mountains, I thought that Thowra could gallop past if I looked hard enough. He was the stallion and protagonist of a book that I was reading, and according to the book recently he had left the safety of the secret valley to lope along the Crackenback River towards the snowy mountains of the Ramshead Range. It did not occur to me that he was fictional, and as I stumbled across the fields of fescue, under the fiery sun, talking to the birds and startling the grazing sheep, I was giddy with hope and the notion I could will things into happening. Before leaving the house, I had told my grandmother what I was looking for and to her credit she did not dissuade me but sent me off with two hard boiled eggs and an apple saying that anything, even Thowra with his silver mane and tail and his high-pitched whinny, could appear if I spent enough time looking.

As children, we spent every moment that we were not at school on my grandparent’s farm. It was a five-hour drive from our home in Sydney, but it was where my mother had grown up, where my grandparents lived, and where thousands of merino sheep grazed and supported our family farm. My mother, finally free of school pick-ups and cooking, often left her four daughters to gallivant about under our grandmother’s watchful eye, disappearing as she would into the hills to paint, carrying with her a thermos and sandwiches and a tartan rug. There are photographs of us from those days that I study now for clues of who we were. There’s one of me at age three, nestled in front of my grandfather, his left arm around my waist, my tiny legs dangling across the withers of a big bay horse. I have a wild shock of curls and I am grinning and he is grinning. There are a few of me and my sisters standing on the back of the farm truck with four sheep dogs lolling at our feet, their tongues pink and their gums black, and beyond the truck in the stretches of paddock are thousands of dusty merinos all milling and bunching in the shade of a single eucalypt. And there is me, aged four, all slick and tanned, jumping from the side of the swimming pool to leap into my waiting grandfather’s arms; my grandmother and mother are in the background, wearing mirrored sunglasses and smoking cigarettes while stretched out on plastic banana chairs. But when I was five my Grandfather died and my uncle came to run the farm. My Grandmother was moved to a smaller house on a hill off in the distant paddocks. There is a photographs of my grandmother planting trees in her new garden, on the hill, and I am leaning on a shovel and she is staring off into the distance.

Through the years, my uncle, who was now in charge of the sheep and the horses and the planting of crops, often dismissed my grandmother when she inquired about the decisions he made even though the property was still in her name until she died. My mother and my uncle had grown up on the family property and though my mother was the eldest, in Australia, in those days, it was the son who always inherited the land. Besides, my mother had married my father who was a writer, an editor of books and a man well known for being impractical. And my uncle had attended Cirencester University in England where he had earned an Agriculture degree and a reputation for drinking malt whiskey and playing pranks.

My uncle was a very handsome man, with fleshy lips and a thick combed-back head of hair. He loved it when he was told he resembled Elvis Presley. He was short but when he stood before you with his shoulders back, his chest pushed into the space between you, he seemed tall. His voice fog-horned across open fields. He slammed doors, crashing into rooms and thundering down hallways. I spent my youth trying to please him, trying to elicit the praise that rarely came.

My father said that my uncle had the wrong temperament for farming. That a farmer needed to accept the unacceptable and not fight against the weather and the seasons and the length of the days. That a farmer needed to take time to stand still and notice changes and sniff for mist in the air and to acknowledge the amber of an evening sky. My father also said he was a clever man, but that his was a different sort of intelligence. Not a farming type of clever. He was restless, ate fast and smoked countless cigarettes and could be heard shouting into the telephone in his office in the evenings while drinking rum and coke on ice. He pushed against things and made things harder than they needed to be, and he was a man who rarely stood still. Maybe, if he had not inherited the land, he would have done something different with his life. When he was not in the fields he spent arduous amounts of time making sure we knew that he knew things beyond the price of wool and how to drive a combine harvester. My mother and my grandmother and my aunt were often trapped in the hallway or pinned to the dining table while he repeated a story about staying with the Sultan of Brunei and impressing him with his knowledge of his country or how he had rowed in a crew along the Thames and won races.

On the other hand, my grandmother walked calmly amongst the sheep and the crops daily, fingering the wheat and stopping to watch the sky, and as I stumbled along beside her she told me about the weather and the Australian climate.

When my grandmother moved to her house on the hill, my aunt, so organized and opinionated, ran the big homestead. She slept with a clipboard beside her bed for jotting down midnight notes and walked around the house with it, assigning chores to my sisters or whomever she encountered. I watched her cross things off her list with a look of delight on her face. With brown, lank hair and a large but handsome nose, she was attractive in the way she presented herself as a bustling, can-do, reliable woman. She wasn’t intentionally malicious, but she always noticed you had a button missing or a wedge of parsley in your teeth, and she would draw attention to it in public. She would mention the five kilos you had gained or lost since the last time she saw you. When my mother or a neighbor wore a shirt or a dress my aunt admired, she had no qualms about digging into the collar at the back of their necks and reading the label aloud, then jotting it down on her clipboard. Her comments, about appearances, pierced and stuck like the bindi-eyes that pricked and worked their way under the soles of your feet if you ran barefoot on the lawn. She remarked upon my hair one morning in the kitchen, saying only girls of a certain beauty with lovely facial features could wear their hair scraped back in ponytails.

Natasha and Sophie had a book they were reading about the power of dead people and spirit guides. My grandmother had bought the book and given it them explaining that channeling ancient beings that had been on the land before us was a powerful way to understand things. My grandmother often told us about the aboriginal people who had walked this land. My sisters lay by the pool most days giggling about how they both felt something in the shifting air which made their bodies twitch at the same time or whispering things to each other that made their faces solemn and their eyes wide. I felt it was because they were older that they were so serious and though I longed to be included I didn’t share their need to raise the dead. I was frightened by the darkness and my sister’s intensity as they called on spirits but didn’t want them to think of me as weak. Usually, when I was included, I joked around and Natasha said I ruined the mood and we ended in a fight, but sometimes I complied and felt unusually cold and a stabbing pain like broken glass in my throat and my flesh goosed and something like electricity sparked through my hair.


Disaster struck in the spring of 1979. We had worked hard all week, even my sisters and mother had spent long hours in the sheep yards and in the paddocks, separating the lambs from their mothers, castrating the males, docking woolly tails, and then, like always, we celebrated the end of lambing week with a special dinner. Often we went to town to the Chinese buffet or the local pub for veal schnitzel with green peas and fries. But that year we went to a restaurant, newly opened by a friend my aunt knew well, on the outskirts of a town that was over two hours away from our property. It was rare that a new restaurant sprung up in those parts and my aunt was determined to make the effort to support them. We all went, except my father. He was in Sydney working.

At the restaurant, in the early evening, the tables for dinner were set up outside and we children ran around the gardens and drank 7-up which made us crazy and wild. We dodged and hid from each other and some other children who belonged to another family, while the adults ate pasta and roasted vegetables and drank wine. Finally, as the huge orange sun began to ease towards the horizon, we piled into the car, the adults with rosy cheeks and tired eyes and us children with belly aches and dirty knees. My older sisters and my cousins rode in the back of the station wagon, lying down flat and sprawling their sticky arms and legs all over each other. I rested my head on my grandmother’s shoulder in the back seat, while my younger sister collapsed on my mother as we headed home.

I remember that drive. Driving at night was a rare event and it filled me with longings. I wanted to see the places in the books I read. I wanted to see Thowra and run like a wild brumby through hills and places with snow, and I wanted my grandmother and my father to read the poems I wrote secretly in my journal about horses and clouds and shifting emotions. I wanted them to think my poems were marvelous and that I was a brilliant writer. Miles of fences, fields of black cows and the odd lone mailbox seen on the side of the road made me yearn for things beyond my normal life. Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” was on the tape deck. His Vienna was waiting for me, though I wasn’t sure if it was a person or a place. A white moon, like a slice of apple, rose and disappeared behind wispy clouds. I did not want the ride to end. But the rattle of the cattle guard and the slowing of our car announced our arrival home, and I heard my grandmother tell my uncle to pull over. We were halfway up the driveway and near the homestead paddock. We all stumbled out into the black night. The air was cold with a biting frost that made me shiver. The day had been warm but the night was unseasonably chilly. The adults stood clustered and talking. I knew that cold was not a good thing. The trees along the driveway moaned as a frigid wind, restless and disturbing, blew up from beyond the hills. And all the while through the creaking of the trees and the rustling of the wind was the sad, soft crying of the lambs, a thin sickly sound like hundreds of wind instruments moaning in the night.

“The lambs are weak,” my grandmother said.

My uncle nodded and scratched at his forehead.

My sisters got back in the warm car but I stood beside my grandmother under the hazy moon and breathed in the smell of the eucalypts and heard the eerie howling of dingoes. I was uncomfortable in my shorts, the air riding up my legs and chilling my bones, but I listened as the grown-ups discussed the lambs. My grandmother repeated several times that a snap-change in weather could kill them, what with the loss of blood from their recent docking and gelding and the shock of being weaned. My grandmother wanted to move the lambs into the shearing shed, but the logistics of loading them all onto trucks was quickly undercut by my uncle’s plan.

“We will wrap them. We’ll get rolls of hessian and bundle them up,” my uncle instructed.

Once we got to the house my sisters ran inside, my uncle drove with my male cousin down to the paddock of lambs, and my grandmother and my mother and I drove the farm truck to the wool shed and managed to hoist two large rolls of hessian, the size of overstuffed arm chairs, onto the back of the truck. I sat back there, on the truck, between the two rolls, the sharp wind gnawing at my cheeks, holding onto the string binding the hessian, my nose pressed against the rough musky fabric, my hands frozen into claws. It all smelled of lanolin and dirt, and I howled quietly to myself as my grandmother drove the long miles from the shed back to the lambs. My hands froze to the string tied around the bales, which bounced and threatened to fall at every turn, and I whimpered and longed for bed.

We swaddled over three hundred lambs in that hessian. My uncle shouted orders as we covered and wrapped them. The lambs were bunched in a cluster of limbs against the barbed wire fence, bleating and pitiful. Too tired and cold to move, they watched us with fearful eyes as my mother and grandmother and I unwound the roll of fabric and stretched it across the front of them, pulling it and passing it to my uncle and my cousin who tucked and rolled it behind the lambs and against the fence. It took a long time, working in the yellow glare of the headlights of the truck and the car. And I remember vacillating between wanting to end my own misery, to warm myself and get inside and snuggle in bed, and to help the lambs. My bones were frozen and my hands hardly worked, but I knew better than to complain. My mother and grandmother had not paused to change from their summer dresses and good shoes, and I could see their skin goosing up with the cold and heard them breathing hard as they worked so I kept my mouth shut as we dragged the cloth around, and gathered it up and over the little legs and bodies and heads of lambs. And when we were finished, we barely glanced at the shapeless mass we had created, the lambs smothered and swaddled like an enormous potato, but stumbled to the house and collapsed into our beds, our hands smelling of sheep and dust.

The next morning, I woke late. The house was quiet, and from the silence I knew things must have happened while I slept. In the kitchen, I touched the tea pot; it was cold. I was way behind. It was mid-morning and the sun was high in the sky. I ran down the driveway where there was frost on the rose bushes, only slowing to decipher the movements of the adults beyond me in the paddock. I remember the air, sharp and cold in my chest, and the air coming out of my mouth in great smoky puffs. The adults, including my aunt, were stooping to lift and drag things that I could not see yet. I watched my mother holding something rigid, cradling it in her arms and walking slowly towards a large trailer that had been backed into the paddock. It was the trailer we used for hauling our trash.

The grown-ups were lifting frozen lambs. The hessian had been pulled away and covered the grass now like a brown carpet, and the whiteness and the stillness of the pile of lambs was like a strange sculpture against the barbwire fence. The bodies of the lambs were snuggled together, eyes closed, heads upon legs, and legs upon heads, as though they were asleep. The hessian was silvery with frost and crunched as I walked on it. My mother ignored me, muttering something to herself, and kept her face turned away. My grandmother cast her eyes over me, and I saw they were red-rimmed and her cheeks were sucked in. “Sorry,” she said to me and stooped to lift another tiny dead body. The wool of the lambs was iced into tight curls. Their eyes like sealed envelopes and their lashes dark against their white cheeks. I began to untangle a pile of them, my fingers fat and clumsy. I felt the damp grass through the knees of my jeans as I knelt, and I smelled the lanolin from the wool as my hands melted around the stiff bodies. I considered the pink whirls of the ear of one lamb and felt the curls of wool spring back a little as the warmth of my hands melted the frost. My cousin was on the back of the trailer, and as we passed the bodies to him, he placed them unceremoniously in piles. No one spoke except to occasionally apologize if we bumped into one another. I remember my jaw clenching as though I had something to say. The sun was well up by then, but muted, as though it too was alarmed by the unseasonal cold. My uncle was conspicuously absent. No one told me where he was. Thinking back, I am sure he was devastated and aware that my grandmother had been correct to suggest moving the lambs into the shed.

We never spoke of the lambs that died. At meal times and in the paddocks, we avoided the subject. The adults must have talked about it, they must have calculated the money lost, but I never heard them. Nothing good would come of talking about it. But I insisted to my sisters that quietly we must acknowledge the deaths. Natasha and Sophie and I held a serious ceremony in the dark of our bedroom a few nights after the night of the frost. Holding hands, seated crossed legged on the floor around the stub of a candle, we closed our eyes. As we sat in a circle, Natasha asked for us to remember the lambs, then said a part of a poem she had learned from our grandmother. It was from Thomas Gray’s, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and though I did not understand what it meant I cried when she said, “some heart once pregnant with celestial fire.” And when Sophie heard me sniffling she leaned over and hugged me hard, and I smelled the strawberry shampoo in her long black hair and felt better.

My uncle continued to live and graze the land and I continued to spend all my holidays there. My sisters spent more time in Sydney with their friends, while I walked the hills with my grandmother or rode horses with my cousin. Over the years that followed, rabbit plagues came; they bred in uncontrollable numbers and ate every new shoot of grass, leaving nothing for our livestock. Mice plagues came and ate the wheat in the fields and the grain stored in the barns and silos. And drought came and dried out the land, creating large fissures in the paddocks as the earth cracked open waiting for the rain that never came. Wool prices dropped, but my uncle continued to raise more sheep. He borrowed money from the bank to feed the sheep, throwing bundles of bought hay from the backs of trucks. And every year, we weaned the lambs, docked their tails, banded them, and thought about the weather; but it never got as cold so fast as it had that year, and we never lost lambs in great numbers like that again.

That spring of 1979 we had lost an entire generation of livestock in one night and there was nothing to be done about it and nothing to say. I think now about my grandmother back then and how often over the years she had an intuition about the farm and things that needed attention. But she was a woman and getting older and her opinions were, according to my uncle, dated, and so she removed herself more and more from working with him and saying anything about how the farm should be run. Instead, she stayed up in her small house on the hill, amongst the rocks and the ancient eucalypts. And often I stayed with her, not below in the homestead with my cousins. We’d sit up in her bed in the mornings drinking black tea with milk, staring out her large picture window, with me still hoping for Thowra to gallop by and her watching the weather and noticing the sky like a wise hawk. And on those mornings, that I remember now with a longing to go back, she would point out a fox with a red tail sliding through the rocks or two magpies drinking from a puddle and tell me how the aboriginal people would study the animals for signs of the weather. If kookaburras laughed raucously for longer than five minutes, she told me once, it was a sign of rain, or another time, that when snakes baked on the rocks in the sun for days at a time it was going to be a harsh winter. I remember her asking me what animal I would like to be in my next life, and I told her I would be a silver stallion. And she told me she would be an eagle.