I was the one who had found Dad. It was a Saturday morning, so early the sun hadn’t yet abandoned the dew drops in the grass. He died, instantly, while feeding the chickens and by the time I came across his body they’d pecked free every single seed stuck to the sweat of his palms and one had laid an egg in the curl of his elbow. His eyes were closed and around his mouth there remained the faintest trace of amusement.
It was the colour of his face, not the awkward twist of his arms or the stillness of his chest, that frightened me the most. His cheeks were a mottled red and grey, purpling around the mouth like he’d tried to fight off death with words alone. Even at sixteen I knew enough about CPR to hold my ear above his lips and check for breath. Even its absence was hot down my neck. Eventually, Ryan came looking for us, reins and saddle blankets gathered in his arms.
Those moments before we moved him, before the clicking of cicadas roused us from the shock of silence, Ryan and I both understood that something massive had shifted between us. I didn’t know how to comfort Ryan the way our father would have. He was an affectionate sort, one who communicated the smallest of thoughts through touch – a hand in our hair or arm crushing our shoulders in a swift but telling embrace. My first thought was that I would have to take the place of these touches but before I could begin to comprehend the meaning of this, Ryan took my hand and squeezed with such determination that I knew he would never let me stand in as father.
We carried him inside and lay him along the length of the kitchen bench. From the sink we brought thick, soaped sponges and wiped the dust and chicken scat and perspiration from the brown of his body. It was the first time I’d ever seen him naked and I marvelled at the tan lines across his biceps and thighs. They were like statelines on a map and the muscles under them sat in humps of earth shifted after a quake. We dressed him in an old, itchy suit once worn to the funeral of a neighbouring dairy farmer and I parted his hair straight down the middle, something he hadn’t done since his wedding day. I wanted to shave him but he was a man who could never quite escape his own five o'clock shadow and I didn’t want death to change him too much.
Ryan, just turned thirteen, cried silent and tearless, and when Mum came out of her room we were both kneeling on the counter, me by his head and Ryan by his feet, my forehead pressed so hard into Dad’s wool jacket that I could feel the chill of his skin on my skull. The floor around the bench was covered in the thin mud we’d washed from him and Mum stopped at the edge of it, unwilling to dirty her wheels. She didn’t seem surprised. She motioned us over to her. Held both our hands in one of hers. Together we stared at him, at the knobbles of his ankles where we’d forgotten to place socks. Mum did nothing but shake her head over and over again.
‘Aren’t you sad, Mum?’ Ryan asked after we’d stood for an hour without speaking.
She looked at him with such naked heartbreak that I felt a part of my body, something hidden and frightened of the light, strain in agony. 'Oh love,’ she said to him. 'Of course I am. But no one wants to see a crying woman who can’t walk away.’
On the night before my eighteenth birthday, Mum told me that her and Dad had lost their first baby. It was a girl, three months premature with a heart full of holes. They buried her, unchristened, in the graveyard of the Presbyterian church and two months later Mum was pregnant with me.
She sat in her chair at the end of my bed and showed me a photo: a bundle of white cloth and the hint of hair around a tiny red face.
‘Why didn’t you say anything before?’ I asked her.
'A lot of reasons. Guilt. I used to think the horse riding had made her come early. I fell a couple of times in the first trimester; we had that bloody draught horse and the thing hated being ridden. It ran me into the shed wall one day, almost broke my arm. I took it easy after that but it still felt like my fault.’
'What was wrong with her?’
'She was just too small. Her heart wasn’t grown properly.’
'So it had nothing to do with the horses.’
She took my hand and held it on her knee. 'I know that now, love. I probably knew it then too, deep down. We weren’t going to try again for a while and then we found out about you and it was like being given another chance. I stopped riding until you were born. It was the hardest thing I ever did, being around them and not being able to ride. But when you were born you were so perfect, I’d have given up horses for the rest of my life just to keep holding you.’
'What about Ryan?’
'What about him?’
'There’s photos of you riding while you were pregnant with him.’
'After you came okay, I gave in. Your Dad and I had a lot of fights over it.’ She squeezed my hand and laughed. 'He used to hide my saddle. Thought that would keep me off them. I just rode bareback until he gave it back. I never told him this but I always knew where he’d put it.’
'I’m not telling you. It’s where I keep your birthday and Christmas presents.’
'I know what you two are like.’
'We’re not kids any more, Mum.’
She backed away from the bed and turned her chair into the doorway. 'No way. It’s a mother’s secret.’
She stopped in the hallway and looked over her shoulder. 'Yeah?’
'Was there some other reason you came in here? Like a birthday speech?’
With a hand against my threshold she smiled. 'I wanted to tell you not to make mistakes because you’re scared. If you and Chloe get married and have kids, don’t let her hide from the horses. It’ll make her miserable and change who she is. Even this,’ she patted the arms of her chair, 'is just part of something bigger. You can’t let the little things take over.’
I remember the first time I watched my dad kill a lamb. He was in the tractor shed, behind the moulding log pile. There were sheets and paper on the ground and the lamb brayed from a tether in the corner. He took it behind the ear and dragged it close. A knife, smaller than I thought it should be, flashed once and the lamb screamed like a child. Blood hit his shins and shoes and steamed in the air though the day wasn’t cold. When he saw me in the doorway I thought he’d be angry but he motioned me in. Took my hands and put them to the cut throat. It was like touching fresh mango.