There’s this photo in the hallway I can’t stop looking at.
My mother sat astride a golden horse with a blue ribbon pinned to the bridle, her hair the same yellow as the horses. It’s hung in a wooden frame, the colours faded behind glass.
My mother was nineteen years old, the same age as I am now. She’s not smiling yet she seems happy, a serene and satisfied look as if she had all she needed in this world. The horse’s name was Rain and she was ten years old. I was inside my mother still, buried deep, not yet conceived.
My mother always said Rain understood her better than any man ever had. When I was a child, it seemed like the most amazing thing in the world, for her and Rain to have such a bond. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood she was saying something about my father too.
She is my first memory, this horse, the world between the tips of her ears. The pale hair of her mane in my hands, the slippery feel of her sides as I bounced around on top of her.
Now when I go out to feed her, I stand and watch her eat and I wonder if she knows. I feel like she does. I think she understands everything in the world and even some things beyond, just as my mother always claimed.
Sometimes I tell her, “She’s dead, she died,” and Rain flicks an ear toward me, makes a soft breathy noise. When I look at her sunken eyes and ribs standing high from her once glossy sides something aches in me, and I realize it will be possible for my heart to break more than once.
“Rain is thirty-four years old,” I told Johnny the first time he came out here.
“Cool,” he’d said, gazing over the paddock, toward the house. As if all he cared for was getting back in there to where my bedroom was. He didn’t understand Rain was as miraculous as a ninety-five-year-old human who still got up every day. But at least he had come out here. Who else ever did?
Every morning I went into the café in town my aunt Jeanette ran. She kept me fed with slices of lasagna and chicken pies and custard squares left over from the day before. Even though I knew how to cook, it wasn’t something I ever did. Not anymore. I just lived off what she gave me.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, my mother was sure she would live if she just ate all the right things. Only vegetables grown from our garden, no sugar, no alcohol, no meat. I realized now it didn’t make any difference what you ate. She might as well have gotten drunk and ate steak.
“Well, there you are,” Jeanette said as I pushed through the swinging doors. As if I hadn’t only been in the day before.
Jeanette was my father’s sister and she’d said I could move in with her. But no way in hell I was going to live in her little house in town and share a room with my twelve-year-old cousin and tiptoe around when my Uncle Pete was in a bad mood. No way in hell I would ever leave Rain.
“I’ll make you a coffee,” Jeanette said. “Why don’t you get something out the cabinet?”
Usually, she had whatever it was boxed up in the kitchen and I just grabbed it and left. The variation made me wary and I stood staring at the glass cabinets for a while. I was always hungry but never knew what it was I wanted.
She came out with the coffee in a cup and saucer instead of a take-out cup. Put it down at a table and then sat down. Looked at the seat opposite her until I went over and sat down in it.
“Has your dad told you when he’ll be back?”
“I talked to him last week; he’s back in five weeks.”
My aunt made a huffing noise. My father wasn’t someone she usually talked about. She was still angry he’d gone back out to sea on the fishing boats while my mother was sick. Came back too late, only here for her funeral, and six weeks after that he went away again.
I wanted to be angry and yet some part of me understood. He couldn’t not go back to sea, no more than my mother could have given up Rain. My parents were each wed to something that was not the other. But my mother had left me Rain. He left me nothing.
“Since he’s not around then, let me talk to you,” Jeanette said. “People in town say you’ve been going around with Johnny Miller. You know that boy’s trouble.”
I knew now why I’d been trapped here at the table. I folded my arms, narrowed my eyes at her. Aware of the hum of talk around us from other customers.
“They’re just judging him because of his family. That’s not his fault, what his dad and brothers do.”
Jeanette stared at me a second, then she turned and grabbed the local paper off the counter behind her. Flipped it open and jabbed her finger at a section from the court page.
"John Miller, 20, was charged with reckless driving and resisting arrest after attempting to flee police," she read out.
She stopped and looked at me again. “That’s him, not his family. You know about that?”
I didn’t bother pretending to be surprised. I’d been there, beside him in his car. That was the same day we met, the first night we spent together. Gripping my seat as he sped through the night and the sirens wailed behind us and he was only laughing, going faster and faster.
Every time he smiled at me or passed me a drink or a joint or a cigarette, it felt like something was being poured into me. He had stepped into the hole of my life. Followed me down when no one else did. Or maybe we dove down together. Either way, it was the same place.
“Listen, Vanessa,” my aunt said. “He knows your vulnerable right now. If your father was here-“
“But he’s not here,” I said, standing up, leaving my coffee. Oh, and Jeanette, I didn’t say, that night was the first night I didn’t cry.
Rain stood under the barn light, watching as I mixed her feed. I ran my hands under the tap to rinse them and pushed the bucket toward her. She swung her head toward it and I stroked her neck, clicked my tongue at her.
“Eat up, come on,” I said. She lowered her head and mouthed at it.
Johnny watched from the gate; arms folded over the top of it. He liked to stand out here with me, or he didn’t complain about it at least, but he never really came near Rain. Eyed her as warily as if I’d entered a tiger cage and might have my arm ripped off any minute.
“My Aunt wants me to stop seeing you,” I said, looking over at him. I didn’t feel bad telling him. This was a small town; he was marked from the day he was born and he knew it.
“I never even met your Aunt,” he said.
“She saw your name in the paper. She knows what they all say about you.”
He leaned forward on the fence, gave me that careless grin he had. “Don’t listen to what they say. You know I’m getting out of this place soon anyway. You should come.”
He talked about leaving a lot, some job lined up in the city with a cousin. I let it wash over. He wasn’t the sort of person who would ever leave this town. He was born here, his family born here, their roots deep in this place which hated and feared them.
Rain lifted her head up, her eyes huge and luminous. I ran my hand down her neck. “My dad’s coming back soon,” I said.
“For how long?” he asked. I didn’t answer him.
My mother had cancer for two years, but the end still came fast. Breast to bone to brain. Like that. A train that gathered speed as it ran through her body.
From her hospital room you could see a glimpse of the sea. A flat blue line at the horizon melding into the sky. When she was admitted to hospital for the last time, I walked down the corridor to the pay phone and called the number my father had left and relayed a message to be passed on to him.
Then I stood at the window a long time, picturing the tiny boat out there in the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. My father on it, coming back from so far away.
Eventually I walked back over to my mother, although it hurt to look at her. An IV line dripped a steady flow of morphine into her arm.
“Dad’s coming home soon,” I told her. Her half open eyes stared at the ceiling. Her lips made no attempt to speak. The real mother fled someplace else and the ragdoll flesh of her left behind. I wasn’t enough to call her back and he wasn’t either.
The day she died I tried the last thing of all. I told her; Rain won’t eat since you’ve been in here. It wasn’t true. It didn’t work anyway. I told myself she already couldn’t hear me. That’s what I tell myself.
My mother said Rain understood everything. She said she went to the doctor because one day Rain nuzzled her left breast, and she knew she was telling her something was wrong. She never said we understood Rain too. But we did. I did.
Johnny pulled into my driveway and the gravel crunched under the tires, a sound which felt like home, which made me feel for a minute like everything would be alright.
We’d been out driving past the edge of town, down the back roads where there were no cars and no police, just the wire fencing lining the fields and the sun sinking behind hills. Johnny had bought out a bottle of his fathers homebrew and we were drinking as he drove.
“I could probably use it to unlock the drains at home,” I had said, coughing, grimacing.
“It’s shit, right,” he said, taking it back. Drinking again. “My old man says he gonna get some business going selling it. I reckon any normal person would die from drinking this.”
He laughed, drank again. He didn’t mean us. We weren’t the normal ones; we were something better than that. That's how he made it feel.
But then he stopped outside my house and I looked toward the paddock to see Rain and didn’t see Rain. Even now in her oldest ancient age she came to the fence when I got home. And I knew.
I was out the car, running. My shoes sliding on the grass, scrambling over the gate without stopping to open it. I could see her then, the great shape of her, on the ground.
I stopped before I reached her and forced myself to take a deep breath and then step forward slowly. To be calm. My mother said Rain could feel what we felt. I wouldn’t be scared. I wasn’t scared.
I knelt down beside her, ran my hands over her sides. Watched her eye blink slowly, staring toward the sky.
“Do you remember?” I whispered to her. Meaning the photo at the house, her and my mother back when they were young and the end coming for them was still so far away. It was just the two of them and the shows and the ribbons and the applause.
“She’ll be waiting for you," I told her. "Go.”
I leaned down to press my cheek against her neck and feel the last life of her. Joy and pain lancing through me. I let myself imagine it, Rain rising up into the sky. Free of her failing body. And for that moment it filled me up.
Johnny told me we were having a leaving party. I packed my bag and left a note on the table for my dad when he got back. If he wanted, he could come looking.
I locked up the house and walked down the driveway to wait for him out by the road. Smiled when I saw him coming, driving too fast, music too loud. He really was leaving after all, and when he asked me again to go with him, I said yes. I didn’t know what awaited me there, but it would be something, which was more than nothing.
“Where’s the party?” I asked, getting in.
“We’re the party,” he said, passing me a bottle of Jack Daniels. “Drink up. I took all my old man’s best stuff. Be long gone by the time he finds out.”
As he headed into town, I felt the mix of nerves and excitement which beat in me every time we were together. I never knew what would happen. Every cop in town knew Johnny by sight. Knew the Holden he drove with its dented side from the last time he was pulled over. Knew he had a suspended license and shouldn’t be driving at all.
He turned the music up louder and cruised right down the main street, and then as we approached the police station he slowed even more. Stopped and turned off the music.
“What are you doing?”
He grinned. Pulled the handbrake on. Started revving the engine but the car didn’t move, only got louder and louder. The smell of rubber and heat.
“Don’t blow a tire or we’re not going anywhere,” I said. I watched the street through the haze of smoke rising around the car. People turned toward the noise and the fumes.
Then he dropped the handbrake and the car skidded forward before pulling away, the scream of tires and the engine filling up my head. I turned to see behind us the black tracks snaking up the road and the black smoke hung in the air. All the normal people standing around staring.
“Oh my God, look at that,” I said. Laughing at the burnout and the smoke filling the street and the whole stupid town. Laughing at everything. It was better than crying.