When the man went walking in the woods the cat trailed behind him.
The man did not look back.
This is the way one must walk in such a town, in such a wood. If we hold such things as true, and also assume that no one is to blame, then it is just a walk. A day. A lichen-veined bough above. Church crumbling rye-bready to the east.
The earth a sandwich held in a broad hand.
We can assume.
I would like to say I met this man walking. But I did not. I came from a distance, met him at the train station where he kissed each cheek twice. His head bobbed, as if for apples. There was a mild aggression to the way he maneuvered my cheeks in and out of his; a tug to the shoulder, a hand grasped a little too tight at the flesh of my arm. A distain for this tradition. And my backpack was heavy; he lifted it without pause.
The light was syrupy at the cottage. The sort of light one might expect at set or rise but no, it was the center of a winter’s day. The cows gathered at the fence. There was a wide field out back, beyond the garden, and thought the eleven beasts had that whole pasture to roam they hemmed it, stuck to the edges. At my arrival they packed and, I suspect, leered. They didn’t ask me where I’d come from, or where I’d been. I told them. I said I’ve being walking, and the hessian slick of the mob’s collective lip shrugged a smile. I have, I said, I’ve been walking, and I saw the village. I saw the village from a mountain and there was something about the light.
It’s always the light though, isn’t it? Auckland: like the flesh of a fried fish. Delhi: steamed milk and bay leaves and of course the mesh of your grandfather’s beard. Sydney: the glint of a gain. The sulk of shadow.
Here: well. I suppose when I was nine years old our land went dry. There was this dehydrated heifer. She was dying.
It was the kind of drought the animals held round tables about. We all wondered if it could have been our fault. Some kind of penance. Anyway, my father hooked the big knife into his belt. Told me to meet him down the paddock.
I ran the crunch of the metal drive down for molasses, funneled it into dusted old Sprite bottles from the 200 litre drum in my grandpop’s old shed. Paid my respects to the ancestors he’d carved there and hung against the tin walls. Paua-shell eyes flushed and flashing.
Legged it to the field and raised my heifer’s slack lip and poured that molasses, one last try to save the beast, but it damned at the teeth and ran back into earth. So, that liquid amber, gold as toast. The way it met cracked ground. That’ll be the colour I’ll call the light.
My dad came, of course.
He slit her throat.
Over a week I whitewashed the man’s house and he said little. I planted garlic for him in squint rows; it bloomed within days, cloves as fists, which he quietly plucked from their asymmetry, and replanted.
Afternoons, we went walking. The cat pleated the shadows with the dart of her small self, often strung gentle as web through the trees.
I think, maybe, not one of us can be blamed for anything.
My brother is a physicist but I’m not sure it’s as grand as time and space. It’s more like this: my mother raised me to live beyond my means. Dressed in leather even as she was dying on the benefit, even as her skin grew its own hide. Kept on buying salmon, ‘til it all went green. Kept on planting saplings where she should have sewn seed.
My father raised me to be kind in his own way; to smell the rain before it comes. He raised me to worry that the rain coming would be too much, so much it’d slam hard against the earth and run off rivered. So there’s that, and the way I don’t give more than just a little.
But we were always going to do what we always would have done. You’re just evidence of a strong swimmer that always was going to win that yolky race.
Here you are.
You’ve been looking for something like an answer, so you cast the world in whatever light feels right.
Mine the strap and sag of molasses.
That kind of gold.
You thought: Buddhism. Ah yeah. Might be good to come back as a –
But what is the end of that sentence? Is it caviar-eyed and slick-of-udder? Is the end of it really the answer?
Or did you just want another go?
The man held a thick scroll of paper in his hand each time we walked. The outer sheath russet with the sweat of something held for too long.
When a tree looked thick and fine he’d peel a sheet from the scroll, duck around the back of the tree and nail it. Grabbed my shoulder, walked me on.
I saw a face. I saw hung eyes and a begging quality about a waif of a woman, marble-skinned and absent. Missing, the posters read, the milk-carton call-outs in this ill-frequented wood, and that was all I could read, in the time. Her face was so pale it read almost like lace. There was a finite and deficient look to her. Like a shadow.
One afternoon he took me walking up a mountain. He was spry and quick; his sinews long and stretched. He walked as if he mistrusted his own rhythm. I had to chase him.
At the peak we sat down for a moment, or I did, and he paced, and I used my walking stick to stare into the sun, the nub of it blocking the orb. The village was below.
For the first time I looked and saw the same gold as the rest of the country’s South. Beautiful, yes, with a single curlicue of smoke issued from a single building, the rest slouched upon the ground. Beautiful. But not troublingly so.
The man was gruff.
Thought you’d want to admire the view. You know, see things from a different perspective. They should look small to you from here. Don’t they look small?
I mean, physically, yeah. Of course. But, like, that lady’s walking like she has purpose. They’re not small people, right? Like, person-wise.
He motioned with an arm, which fell to his side like a bell ready to cease angelus. Come on.
I told him I was leaving as he burst cardamom pods in a shallow pot of butter. It splattered and he swung around the kitchen, replaced the pot on the flame; it splattered again.
Well, I’ll be off tomorrow morning I said, above the commotion. All the walls were limed with white. My job felt done.
He took the pot off the stove He placed his hands wide apart on the bench and hung his head, his back to me, his eyes out into the field of cows through the squat kitchen window.
She died, he said. Or something, I don’t know. She’s gone, anyway. It’s just that I’m sorry. And I’ve been looking.
I know, I replied. And I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t.
See, we all know our own shadows. We’ve Hansel and Gretelled our own trails and the birds aren’t even biting. We’re followed.
But if all that we hold to be true is, then no, we don’t look back.