At around three o’clock in the afternoon, the dogs start to get antsy. Small, short yips drift up from the yard: ‘Don’t forget us.’ If you venture downstairs, paws dance expectantly at the door. The country we live in changes with the seasons, though not how most places do, with lost leaves and winter clothes. Here, the sugar cane that covers the district as proficiently as sunlight is either growing and devouring, or cut, and being devoured. But no matter how long the days are, what time of year it is, no matter that there are fewer of us to see it, there is a moment when this land takes a breath.
Marnie (Moo, Moosy, Womble, Wombat, Moudini when she escapes through a shut door) is our old girl, a thirteen-year-old cattle dog with a thick South Australian coat and a face that has long since become soft and grey and startled. She’s fallen out of one too many utes to walk without a limp, seen too many winters to be with us much longer, but still she rises from her secluded napping spots, eyes bright and snout pointed as the sun descends. She knows what time it is.
Flash, a kelpie-collie cross, who is both two-years-old and entirely insane, wanders around on his running lead; slim, clever, and bossy. Head cocked at any sound of our voices from upstairs, he is a product of a farm without sheep, hundreds of years of breeding, and men with soft hearts.
Lulu is our newest addition: four-years-old, kelpie, rehomed from a townhouse that didn’t know how to handle her. When she first arrived, she’d fought with the other two. It led to concerned phone calls: ‘We really love her, but we have to prioritise our two. We might have to find a good, single-dog home for her.’ Two weeks later though, all I heard was: ‘We really feel like she’s been our dog this whole time, and they just had her for a little while,’ and I knew that dog wasn’t going anywhere. The fighting has stopped, now, balance is restored; Lulu has learnt my parent’s affection is not a scarce commodity and that there is plenty to go around. Now she watches Flash, observing the fine clockwork of this place. The sun lowers; the heat slowly, sluggishly begins to pack up its things and this, dear reader, is what they are waiting for.
Gumboots are donned, noses twitch with the wind, phones are patted in back pockets, and Flash is off as soon as the leash is unclipped from his collar, the creek his destination. He’s well-behaved enough to wait on the bank, but if you call out to say ‘In ya get!’ before you’ve rounded the corner, you’ll hear the mighty splash of a dog obsessed. Lulu barks at him from the bank, some deep instinct of sheep + water = danger extending to all of those in her care. Marnie will lumber in for one lap and not be able to get out, which is where the gumboots—relics from the time of horses standing on toes—prove useful.
For nine years, I could stand on our verandah and call to the horses, my horses, out in the paddocks between the house yard and the road. They’d raise their heads from their grass, wander over if they thought they’d get a treat out of it, wander off if they worried my attention meant they’d soon be having to do something even closely resembling work.
When my young girl Blondie died of a panicked heart attack, it was a harsh north Queensland spring day, except that spring doesn’t exist up here. We had to bury her quickly, in the heat. I wasn’t even home when it happened. That young stock horse had waited in the paddock for Mum—chest heaving from some unknown and sudden respiratory problem—to show her something was wrong, to wait for her to help. Blondie was not a modest horse but illness humbled her, quietly confident in the hope that we could fix it. But when it became clear that neither my mum nor the vet could do anything, some ancient, instinctual switch flipped inside her. She lay down and died, her body making that final decision for her.
Crouched where she lay amongst the crackling, knee-high grass, trying to keep the ants from climbing on her, I realised this land—the land my father has worked since he was born on it, that his father worked until he died on it—is made for this. For taking us back, once we’re done with ourselves.
We threw her head collar down next to her where Dad had laid her in the grave, a blanket over her face. ‘She was loved,’ their placement says, ‘and now she is free.’ We stood together underneath that cruel, unbearable sun in that cruel, unbearable moment that must, inevitably, be borne.
But now, at dusk, the sun is kinder in the fact that it is gone. The sea almonds my mother planted in rows in front of our house a few years before stand like angels, silhouetted, ‘Do not be afraid,’ abandoned by the black cockatoos for the night. The dogs crash through the mulch that sticks to their slowly-drying coats and a simple shout of ‘well, where is it?’ sends them scurrying off to locate a throwable object. If it is the crushing, smoke from the cane fires hangs in the air, dirtying the sunset. Ash spins down from where the breeze has ferried it and sticks to anything damp.
The farm and the sheds are finally quiet. The found ball is flung, caught, dropped, stolen, chewed and deposited back to us. Mum and I will keep them entertained until Dad or my brother roll in, or the wind carries their voices over from the sheds and the dogs shoot off to circle them instead. They are working dogs by breed and the heavy boots and heavy trucks of our men mean they have some priority, as much as they love us. The mozzies come in and we sit in their company, all together on the tiles of the patio.
The patio is routinely occupied during two events: these evening rituals and the occasional barbeque, when Dad sets up his humble Webber, Great Northern split evenly between him and the sausages, talking sugar prices or politics with whoever is accompanying him. This used to mostly be my Pumpa, my mum’s dad, until cancer took first his prostate and then the rest of him. I must point out, the immediate aftermath of death is not the only type of unbearable moment, but it is the most easily diagnosable. We forget, too often, what comes after, what horrific thing death is in the rear-view mirror. Like when it was both Christmas of 2019 and three months to the day since his passing. It was hot. It was always hot. It was just my brother down drinking beer with Dad, upwind of the smoke and spitting oil of the grill. Our lunch table was one of five. I will never hear Pumpa tell the story of how he and his siblings would corner and ride the half-wild horses in a paddock near the immigration camp they grew up in. How, once, a stallion jumped clean over their heads to escape. It was Christmas and he was not sitting with my father on the patio, he was not there for me to squish into the armchair with. We held hands and said grace and bore the moment, passed the veggies and poured drinks. Daniel sat next to Nana rather than at the end of the table. One of us told the story about the horses and the siblings, instead. One of us tried to replicate how Pumpa used to swear in Lithuanian. One of us slipped food to where the dogs sat under the table.
Nana stayed longer because she had no one to go home to. Their landline voicemail is still in Pumpa’s voice. I can’t remember his voice when I am not listening to it. I remember every steady walk I took with him and how they got slower; how I stood next to his bed in the hospital after they took him off oxygen; how all he wanted was to get up, to drink water, to drink a rum and coke, to go home; how I had to keep him in bed; how I could not bear it but did; how all I could do for him was dip a sponge into some lemon water I had squeezed myself, wet his mouth with it, and hold his strong, scarred hands.
My father’s hands that are, for now, strong, hurl the ball over and over again in amongst the trees. Now and then he will throw a short one for Moosy, and she will scrabble for it and might even catch it like she used to catch them all. Flash will tell him off for it with short, annoyed barks, demanding a return to the long pitches that have given all of us a good throwing arm. Lulu will just be happy to be under Dad’s feet and he lets her get away with it, being just as enamoured with her unending loyalty and penchant for pats as she is with his kind voice and over-sized tractors. They all wander in and out of the sprinkler, hungry for the cool water on their bellies. My brother’s hands that are, for now, strong, haul Flash onto his shoulders where he is content to stay, a true work dog and his master.
From where we are sitting, I can see the sapling trees as they sway over the horses’ graves, where one day they will give them shade; there are two now where my old boy, Prince, joined Blondie a few months later. All the towering leichhardts I have seen in horse paddocks have the leaves stripped off them, as high as a stretched neck can reach, and I like to think Blondie is spitting that we never planted any for her while she was alive. Like our grief, the trees are still young; still bending in the wind, which Mum says gives them stronger roots; still learning how to be alive. Unlike our grief, they will one day die.
But all unbearable moments, all moments, inevitably lead back to this. This is our dinner table, our nightly bible reading. Having a drink of whatever alcohol is in the fridge, attempting not to say the various combinations of words that the dogs have decided means they can shoot down for another swim, speaking in and around and over each other as we do. The cane is cut, or tall; the air is humid or slightly less humid; we are fighting, or not; we are happy, or not.
But the dogs are here, and so are we.
Killian MacDonald is a poetry and prose writer studying creative writing at QUT. You can find his work in the second issue of ScratchThat Magazine, on the QUT Literary Salon YouTube channel, and on his Instagram account @blinkatmepoetry