Award-winning novelist Eva Hornung’s latest book, The Last Garden is already receiving high praise from readers everywhere.
Set in a remote nineteenth-century adventist community, this powerful and moving novel tells the story of Benedict, a teenage boy whose life is shattered by his parents’ murder-suicide. Benedict is unmoored by shock, severed from his past and his future. Unable to be inside the house, unable to speak, he moves into the barn with the horses and chooks, relying on the animals’ strength and the rhythm of the working day to hold his shattered self together.
The pastor of the community watches over Benedict through the year of his crazy grief: man and boy growing, each according to his own capacity, as they come to terms with the unknowable past and the frailties of being human.
‘Eight years after the magical, Prime Minister’s Literary Award-winning Dog Boy, what a joy it is to have another beautifully-wrought novel by Adelaide author Eva Hornung.’ Adelaide Advertiser
‘Like all great literary fiction, The Last Garden provokes thought and empathy in equal measure. This visceral and utterly compelling new novel represents an ambitious new layer to Hornung’s continued investigation of the human condition, magnificently realised.’ Readings
Read on for an excerpt.
Now we have Nebelung, but what a Nebelung! The grass ripens at a marvellous height, the baby animals gambol at their mothers’ sides, the heavens are mild, the rain enriching, the sun warm. Our gardens are places of praise. Our houses are places of worship, our fields ring with the songs of scythe and reaper and our children’s songs of joy. No fog or mist darkens our world, no ice bars our labours. No snow falls. We plan marriages and we harvest as we have sown.
On a mild Nebelung’s afternoon, Matthias Orion, having lived as an exclamation mark in the Wahrheit settlement and as the capital letter at home, killed himself.
He spent a strange day in surly, secret violence, compelled to destroy anything that he considered to be part of himself, but almost unaware of where his black mood was taking him. He could find no release. He walked, reloading as he trod, crunched up his own driveway and entered his beautiful house as if blown by a harsh wind, unable to stop and remove his boots.
Ada came out of the kitchen, wiping befeathered hands on her pinafore.
Her eyes widened, travelled up and down and up with a storm brewing behind them as her mouth moved, but he heard nothing above the roar in his head. A wave swept over him, and before he had stopped to think he had shot his wife through the heart as she stood by the sideboard. She crumpled into a silence, a hush that he recognised as unique among hushes: the very end of everything.
From there, his self unravelled. He sat in the sateen armchair, red-eyed and covered in her blood (for he had cradled her in anguish, apologising for past wrongs and promising a swift reunion of his now scattered parts), waiting desperately for Benedict to arrive home from boarding school. In some other world, some other time and space, this was the day Benedict was to finish school.
He had forgotten that Ada was to collect Benedict from the Neuwittenberg station, and the minutes dragged. He could not lift his limbs to go set the barn alight or douse the homestead with kerosene. All he needed was Benedict. Beautiful Benedict. He must have said it aloud, for the parakeet in the hallway chattered and screeched now: ‘Benedict, Ach! Ach Bene…DICT!’
He had to be quick, merciful. Before his son’s eyes widened, before he saw Ada—before any shock, before any query. He was flooded with an unending and uncontainable love for innocent Benedict that poured from him as fast as he filled, like water from a colander. He was ragged and torn apart; every feeling could not hold, for he had nothing with which to contain them. The minutes dragged impossibly. The clock seemed to have stopped.
In the end, Benedict was delayed so long (he was meandering now along the dusty roads, musing as only a fifteen-year-old can about being a well-read young man about to begin life) that Matthias sobered, stared at his shaking hands, saw upon them some profound error and, as swiftly as is possible with a short body and a long rifle, ended it all.
There was a brief silence in the house.
‘Benedict,’ the bird hissed, experimental.
At that moment, Benedict, untroubled by the nonappearance of his mother and the pony trap, was diverted by a plush red dog fox with knowing eyes, a kestrel catching a mouse awfully close by, then the shiver of sunlight on late spring grasses under the giant eucalyptus at the halfway point. He had picked up a rusted hitching pin just outside Luthertown and feinted with it here and there. He carved his initials into the tree, dawdled and sang, threw rocks with unprecedented accuracy and felt himself to be filled to the brim with promise. He stopped still and let the full delight of the coming summer waft through him. He ran because his legs tingled. He was unencumbered, for he had left his heavy portmanteau and now redundant satchel at the station. He had happily left his English peers in Toggenberg; had been ignored by the Luthertown boys on the train home and had returned in kind. He expected the whirr and clippetyclop of the trap at every corner.
He had dreamed of this day. The only complaint Benedict had ever had about life was school. Now he was home for the summer but if he got things his way, he was home for good. He would work the farm like a man now—make them forget their university idea. Give his father ease from his labours. Learn blacksmithing: the farm needed that. He saw himself, godlike in leather apron, striking white-hot metal in a torrent of sparks. He would learn to break horses, too, secretly when his father was travelling, and his father would see that he was a man. He would build yards overnight, surprise them, dig the garden, hitch the team and mow the orchard, bring in the hay harvest. His father would come to rely upon him: entrust him with the running of the farm, travel without a care and leave him to it.
Maybe he would write poetry. He had an image of his mother, head bent, dashing a tear from her cheek with a brusque hand, holding a shaking sheaf of his English poems in the other. He would have to translate them for her.
Fine turns, iambs, brisk anapaests skipped through his mind and were lost before he could memorise them. Oh, fresh and new! Awfully close! Knowing eyes! Hephaestos naked at the forge!
How hungry he was. The stationmaster’s wife had given him some pumpernickel, but that was a long time ago. He imagined entering the sun-spangled kitchen, the smell of fresh bread rolls, soup simmering on the hob. Cream setting on the morning’s milk, and when his mother wasn’t looking he would scoop some out, slather it on warm bread, drizzle it with honey.
Oh, he would never leave—they would see just how easy life with him would be. His feet skipped almost unbidden in the dust. His boots were tight and that too seemed auspicious. How he had grown! Everyone would notice.
Helene, Steffi, Klaus, Hans, Gudrun, Katti and Helga would all have grown too. Helene would have her plaits wound about her head and hidden in a bonnet now, he was sure of it. He threw away the hitching pin: he didn’t need such toys. He couldn’t wait to see them at the Hall.
A faint anxiety rippled through him: he would need new boots first.
In the middle distance, the dog fox trotted parallel.
Benedict walked out of the house after the funeral and stared over the carriageway. The house paddock and the creek seemed enlarged. Beyond, the rocky escarpment and the range shone yellow in the westering sunlight. He took in this amphitheatre of distant sunlit rock as a great gash across a dimmed and altered world, an opening fast fading. The barn, off to his left, was silent, shadowed already. The sun has set upon the barn, he thought. The sun has set. Thinking one tangentially related thought let in others. His mother’s voice calling her chickens to roost; his father’s smell of earth, grease and salt after a day’s work; the gleam of polished furniture and the clink of dinner; the sound of Brahms on the pianola.
A raw and unknowable taint was splashed over every memory, indeed over everything.
No. He turned and almost ran through the throng of dismayed and helpless mourners, ran down the hallway to his room. Time could not contain his flying feet and, before he knew where he was, he was dashing back through them with some clothes in a haversack and his mother’s parakeet. It shrieked as its cage swung from his nerveless hand.
‘No. No…no,’ he stuttered, as fingers reached for him, eyes squinted, bosoms tipped, mouths moved. ‘…tending the horses!’
‘Let him be,’ a male voice said, seemingly from the ceiling. He thought for a moment it was God, but then recognised the pastor’s voice.
Then the fox called from the escarpment, seemingly from the red velvet sky.
The barn was less familiar, less dislocating. It had been built in his second-to-last term of boarding school at an impractical distance from the homestead, which suited him now. He was breathing hard from the run when he reached it. It still smelled of raw timber and his father’s New World dreams and had nothing of his childhood in it.
He looked around, filled with a vague sense of the importance of everything, as if he knew (although he did not) that his life urgently needed some impervious container of small dimensions to hold it together. A safe, cold crucible.
It was like a picture of a barn. The stone paved floor was swept, the walls and rafters oiled. A pitchfork leaned theatrically against a stable door but everything else was in place. The loft gleamed with the dim gold of new hay; the root barrels were precisely in line. The barn smelled of sweet hay, fresh dung and rotting urine. Unclean stables.
The horses. They leaned now over the half-doors, big eyes catching at his, hoping he was going to feed them. Melba and foolish Fell. New World horses, different from the usual stock or work horses: to be the source of the new money. Stylish carriage horses, man-about-town horses. Horses for the military, for some distant war.
The thought of Fell Beast in a war made him suddenly sick, and he turned quickly to the machinery bay. Ploughshare; harrows. Hay shears, tedder and rake, well oiled and recently used. Next bay: bagged pasture seed and the new season’s oats harvest, bags stacked on raised planks. He glanced at the loft. Bound hay sheaves stacked to the ceiling, so the harvest was truly done. Two hams hung under rat braces, cured and smoked for Christmond. A barrel of oats. He rummaged in it, and yes, at least one burlap-wrapped honey ham buried in the middle. Then barrelled root vegetables, turnips, carrots, half-full; a root mill and small cider press. A phaeton he had never sat in—new from Holisham Carriages and Conveyances. To show Melba off on Sundays. A wagon. The trap. The trap that had not appeared at the station with Melba in the shafts, with…his mother.
A light harness and the two heavier work harnesses hung from sleeper nails and a beam. The saddle and bridle he’d thrown onto Melba for the nightmare ride to the Hall. He had no idea how Melba or the saddle had made their way back to the barn. Tools—seed fiddle, turnip chopper, hoes, adze, axe, saws. A vat of linseed oil; bagged linseed cake. He saw two eyes staring at him from the hayloft. A cat. Lucky the barn has a cat. He couldn’t remember her name.
He felt tired and electrified, frozen and exploding. He suddenly could not stay standing and folded as though his legs had failed. He was here; there was food. There was company. He could stay warm. He would check the cisterns and well tomorrow. He would sleep here.
He could not stay still so he got up and fed the horses carrots and oats and forked them some hay from the loft. Whoever had returned Melba must have fed them generously: they were expectant, not desperate.
Tomorrow he would bring all he needed from the house and set himself up in the hay-filled corner bay next to Fell’s stable. He dropped back down to the floor and curled up on the hay under Fell’s winter hessians. He shut everything out except the swish and stamp, the pungent smells and sounds of chewing and breathing from the stalls.
Pastor Helfgott, humming the sad strains of ‘Maria in the Thornforest’ to cheer himself up, came down to check on him. Benedict didn’t wake and the pastor’s song faded as he raised his lantern over the crumpled figure.
Lord, what are we to do? the pastor thought, troubled by Ada’s beauty, so clear in the lamplight on the sleeping boy’s face. Well, it could wait. The boy in the hay needed his sleep.
‘Such a shocking thing,’ Hannelore Helfgott said. She had said this several times. They were clear of the farm and the mare’s hooves were eating up the dark road at a brisk trot, making a sound like the rhythmic crunch of the root mill. The pastor could hear a quaver, a shudder, ripple through her voice. ‘Such a thing. The Book of Seasons says…’ Her voice faded. She looked out into the darkness and sighed. ‘What did we expect? They even have a horse named Satan.’
‘Shush, Hannelore,’ the pastor said, feeling old.
‘Oh, but who would…?’ Her voice cracked slightly.
She too is weeping, Lord. No one had liked the new horse’s name. What did we miss. That a man should…a liked and respected man…Well, almost respected. Almost liked. Travelled, and with some New World ways, but with family here. Pious enough, at least a regular at Hall service. Affable, influential even, a doting husband who bought ridiculous gifts for his wife. Although he had associated freely with Nederlanders, Romans and Wittenbergers, he had, until a few days ago, seemed truly just a colourful member of the Hall, rather than an outsider. Wealthy, but not indolent or idle. A little impulsive and hot-headed…
But a suicide? A murderer?
The boy was chosen, somehow. Something had stayed the father’s hand. Or pushed it precipitately, rather. School had ended. That very day. The boy was not yet home. Something made him leave the boy. Or leave without the boy.
Oh the cruelty, Lord, of what he left for the boy to find.
Pastor Helfgott was bone tired. Hannelore fell silent beside him as the mare trotted the long miles back to Wahrheit. Shrubs and stones jiggled in the fitful light of the chaise lamps, then the wheels seemed to whisk the light and everything in it and hurl them into the darkness behind. The reins hung loosely in his hands—the mare knew the way. Despite his tiredness he felt a deep unquiet. His little flock had changed since their settlement on this most southern continent. The people his father had led into exile had been welded together by suffering, by the One Book (and, increasingly, by the other one), by his father’s voice—and they had been satisfied with the promise in hand to the plough. That time, so starkly inscribed in the small cemetery, had given way to the plenty that their rich soil and labours provided, and to trade with outsiders. To wealth, comfort and desires. Kerosene from the Ostertal Wittenbergers. All manner of pretty cloth; Yankee Doodle; Ayer’s Sarsparilla. School in Toggenberg, far away. The Hall school taught everything, Hannelore and Elder Hufschmied saw to it. But once children were fourteen they worked the fields. And loved it! How they loved it. The laughing fields, he called them in a sermon, and everyone smiled.
Not Wolfram Katz, though. Not Matthias Orion. When Matthias said his little son would go to boarding school in Toggenberg, learn English and become a leader among men (and he meant outside Wahrheit), Widow Katz said her Wolfram would go too, despite his already being then fourteen. And now the Schäfers, the Holzapfels, the Jägers. Children flung afar, and for what? Book-learned until their brains fell out and they were dissatisfied in the fields.
It could never have happened in his father’s day. None of this would have happened. The old pastor would have turned the community against Matthias Orion long ago.
Lord, if only Matthias Orion had stayed in the New World. With his modern machines, his Doodle-do tobacco. His ill-named horse. His own fool name. The rough road flickered and faded, flickered and faded, and the mare’s haunches rolled rhythmically side to side.
Matthias Jäger. The boy who left, and came back a man who called himself Orion.
Changes had come to Wahrheit with the reappearance of Matthias Jäger. Orion, he said, Orion: a lucky name for a lucky man. The congregation clucked and gossiped, but Matthias Orion had style, and flighty-but-lovely Ada Amsel fell for him: flirted, danced, was courted, was married. No one knew quite how he had come by his gold watch chain, but he had a mysterious, confident Klondike air about him. He rebuilt the Gotthilf Jäger farm from the derelict place it had been and they all identified with the goodness inherent in his beautiful house and his hard labours. But he farmed horses and cattle, not berries, orchard fruit, pigs and cucumbers, and he sold his stock in Toggenberg. He spoke English more than German. He indulged Ada’s desire for foreign chickens. He named his firstborn after some unfamiliar New World hero.
Other changes came over the community under his influence. Ada’s vari-coloured egg basket encouraged others to purchase Blue Eggers, Orpingtons, even Leghorns. New cultivars of apple trees appeared in brides gardens, and a spate of creatively named babies gave the Gottlobs, Hedwigs and Waltrauts an instant sense of being an older generation. Corrupted names, corrupted fruit, Hannelore had said, but the craze didn’t settle. The rich fields gave back wealth unheard of once others began selling their fruit in Luthertown or even Toggenberg. More people changed their names than ever before, few with good reason.
He could smell a waft of Yankee Doodle and was frightened for a moment, so dark was the night and so awful his vision, but he realised it was his clothing, tainted from sitting in Matthias’s smoking chair.
Matthias would never have come back had the old pastor still been living. Gotthilf Jäger had raised his hand against the old pastor and had been cast out. He had taken his family away when Matthias was a seven-year-old chorister. So long ago.
Pastor Helfgott could see the faint lights of Wahrheit leaping with the movement of the chaise, lights as dim and insubstantial as the gnats that streamed dizzily into the swaying lanterns of the frail homebound carriage. Aletheia, his father had named it. Only Hannelore and the Book of Seasons called it that now. They would be home soon, and this most testing of days would be done. Hannelore had fallen asleep and leaned against him with more warmth than she ever showed awake; a gentle press of bosom and thigh. He didn’t disturb her yet. He could see a glimmer of her throat, vulnerable and childlike, at the fluttering crossover of her shawl. He had failed her too. She had hoped to be the helpmeet of a great leader, but they didn’t even have children.
Lord, she is a good woman, he thought tiredly, for she has made the best of it, and never speaks of her disappointment.
He wished she would, though, for everything about silent Hannelore breathed her withheld secrets.
He could smell the settlement now, on this still night. A familiar early summer’s evening smell, although he had never noticed it. Wood ovens, ordure, flowers. Wahrheit was a place of virtue, harmony and peace. It showed their spirit, their industry: a place of order and beauty. Make your dwellings ready for His coming! And they had, to the letter. They had no shit collector, for everyone took turns. The streets were made and maintained and beautified by the hands of all. One person could hum a tune as he walked, and another passing would sing the descant, and both would stop to finish the song.
Pastor Helfgott yearned for it now.
Somehow over the last miles he entered a waking doze, a state in which everything seemed clear: the dancing lights of Wahrheit, his wife’s unconscious softness and Matthias’s terrible act drifted into a stately harmony with each other, seemed each part of a whole. It all had meaning. But this dissolved before he could begin to say what.
He jolted awake.
Had Benedict been in the laughing fields this harvest he would have been at home with his mother and father…Oh Lord, I am Your servant, and I am very tired.
Of course he had to go to boarding school.
Benedict saw the bright feathers as soon as he opened the barn doors. The silence from the empty cage, these tatters: this could not be real. His mind could not take the full absence in. He had left the parakeet in its cage hanging forgotten on the hitching rail and had heard nothing. Oh horror that he had not! He reeled.
My mother’s going to kill me.
The three days before the funeral he had slept at the Hallehaus. His food or his drink had had something in it to make everything murky and to make him sleep. The pastor had never left his side, had accompanied him to the graveside for his father’s quick burial and, with his wife, had organised the funeral for his mother. The pastor had prayed with him and Benedict had sat with hands joined as if in prayer himself. But his head buzzed and he heard nothing. His whole being was arrested, waiting to arrive home.
Now, at home, the morning after the funeral, he was alone for the first time since he had knocked so wildly, so long ago, on the Hall door, with Melba heaving and steaming beside him.
He stood helpless, thinking through an impenetrable fog. There must be some mistake. The feathers, sharp gashes of green and yellow and blue, lay like wounds on the brown earth and hurt his eyes.
Benedict did the only wise thing that can be done after a murder-suicide and the sudden death of a mother’s parakeet. He chopped wood. And then, once his body was exhausted, with the same inner wisdom, he groomed Melba until she shone like copper-coloured silk. Then he trudged up to the house with a large hessian sack, caught his mother’s chickens and roosters in a mad and distressing flurry of feathers, trudged back down with the seventeen clucking and whooping in outrage in the sack and emptied them out, rumpled and angry, on the floor of one of the stables. Then he tidied the barn, fed the horses, forced some meat and carrots into his own body, as one must, and, finding his mind overwrought by everything under the sun, he closed his eyes to the world and slept. And so passed the first day.
On the second day peace faded as he woke. He stared up at the fresh-hewn rafters, his heart quailing. A billowing terror washed over him and then receded. After long minutes, he sat up in the straw and looked around. Shafts of light spangled with dust motes divided the interior of the barn, giving its airy breezeway a bewildering solidity. Bars of light splashed across his body too, slicing it diagonally with glaring white. Time had passed: his funeral suit was wrinkled and spiked with hayseeds, patterned with horsehair. His body stank of some unfamiliar, sickly sweat.
Now was unbearable, but there was nothing and no-time else: only now.
All things around the house and farm fell into Benedict’s eyes exactly as they once had but were altered. A sudden abandonment coloured everything. The rusted tin under the garden tap would never be emptied onto the mint. The mint was bereft, would run wild or wither unweeded. The verandah boards, smelling as always of oil and turpentine, creaked underfoot, creaked for his step alone. Every glance showed only how untenable his skin was now. Before, he had been woven seamlessly into yesterday and tomorrow. Now all warp and weft had been sliced through.
My father killed my mother. And then himself. On the day I finished school. Before I got home. The sequence, the chosen day, the timing seemed more significant than the immutable but impossible facts themselves. He strode around the barn repeating them to himself, as if some mystery could be made manifest. He stopped still. He repeated it again, but found he could not make his mind believe that any of this was true. He knew he came home, and saw, and then rode like the wind to the Hallehaus, but he could not believe. His father. His mother. The pastor had told him what his father had done, several times, and he knew he had ridden Melba in horror but his mind could not hold any of it, and his memory did not contain it.
He walked outside in the unbearable now, dazed. Nothing he saw could alleviate his pain.
Again, he was wise. The horses ached for release and the stables were rank.
All day Benedict roamed the farm like a ghost. He trailed through the house, reeling from its familiarity and its sudden malice, wandered the paddocks between the house and the creek, unable to absorb anything he saw in all that freshly harvested landscape. He could hear his mother calling him from the house in the same moment as he could hear a silence that would never be broken. An unfamiliar hand had washed and stacked the dishes: their arrangement was startling and abrasive. An unfamiliar hand had left two chickens under a tea towel on Ada’s spätzle dish. Flies buzzed as he lifted the tea towel and a faint, sweet putrefaction filled the kitchen. He wanted to fix all these small outrages, but his hands fell to his sides and stayed there. His feet marched, seeking relief, but every familiar space lulled then increased his desperation.
He hid himself in the barn again. The barn alone gave him peace, for it was clean of memory. The barn was filled with the breathing of horses. He groomed Melba again in the evening, letting the sheet of her long mane soothe his unsteady hands. He stayed away from Fell, other than opening the stable and letting him in from the yard. Matthias’s voice was in his ears—Stay away from the colt if you’re feeling jumpy: Fell’s anxious enough as it is.
From the barn he watched the governess carts, gigs, a landau, arrive. Watched as people he recognised and people he didn’t trotted their horses up the long drive to the house, watched as they alighted and hovered on the porch, peered in windows, rattled doorknobs and window panes. Some called. He felt nothing. No compulsion to answer, to show himself, welcome them, pour apple juice, perry or cider. He watched them step back up into their carriages and carts and trot down the drive again and away.
But Pastor Helfgott’s fat mare made straight for the barn.
‘Eaten today?’ the pastor asked, rocking in the chaise as the mare turned at the barn doors. ‘Prayed?’
Benedict shook his head.
‘We’ll pray together then, and eat after.’
The pastor’s eyes glimmered under his brows, giving a kindly, searching glance, and Benedict swayed as if in a high wind. The pastor stomped his boots before he marched in, conceding that this was both barn and now dwelling. Every action asserted what had happened as fact and as past and done with.
Benedict writhed in both torment and relief.
He felt a deep reluctance to pray: he could barely raise his hands and, when he did, he felt a solidifying heaviness between his nose and steepled fingers.
Prayer was upon him, swift and to the point. Words assuredly buried his mother and father, sent one to Heaven, and left the other’s destination unmentioned but equally remote. He shut his ears. But the pastor’s gruff voice was soothing in its tones, and Benedict stopped listening to words. He listened rather as a horse might, feeling the calm that the pastor’s voice could conjure, riding the rise and fall and rhythm of the heart-homely syllables, sounds shorn of all meaning but invested with comfort and love. His own voice faded, expelled at the end like a sigh. He felt wrung out but quiet.
He watched without thought as the pastor wiped the anvil with his handkerchief, set out the food then tore apart the loaf and broke the cheese.
They sat together in the sunshine outside the barn, staring out over the creek, eating chunks of bread, cheese and wurst. The pastor asked him what he had been doing and nodded at each quiet response, as if Benedict were doing everything that a boy in his situation should.
‘Eat, and pray, and I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.’ The pastor flicked two fingers up, glanced keenly at Benedict, tapped out a little cadenza on the carriage wheel while he stared at the weathervane, then swung himself into the chaise and trotted away.
Fell Beast screamed in disappointment but the pastor’s mare didn’t turn back.
Benedict stood by the cistern long after the pastor’s chaise had vanished and all sound of hoof beats had faded. A pressure pulsed in the hot sun around him, mounting, battering at his ears, his mouth, his eyes. A thin wail escaped him and the farm rushed into the breach, overwhelming him.
The farm was alive as it had never been. It was sinister, sentient. Demanding. The blue shadows lengthened, marching towards him. The sun lit the stubble orange and flamed off the distant cliff of the escarpment. The water in the creek whispered through reed beds and gurgled over rocks, as it always had, but now there were words in it: sad, harsh, almost distinguishable. The grass rustled with quick lives and a secret knowledge; the air was filled with buzz and sizzle, deep-toned frogs, an owl—all were shouting, scraping at him, asking some response from him.
Benedict fled back inside the barn. Each unbearable moment had piled upon the last, pressing time ever on and evening was come nonetheless. He could hear the chickens complaining in muted outrage about the loss of their familiar roost. He opened the doors and let Melba and Fell into stables for the night and curled up in his corner. He fell asleep to the oddly comforting sounds of the chickens in the stall next to him, ruffling feathers and making do with a bad lot.
Pastor Helfgott was a simple man. He was not stupid, nor selfish, nor incapable. But he saw things in a simple way, and for this his flock both loved and despised him. His simplicity, however, grounded them. The soil and their labour, the one given by God, and the other enjoined upon them by God and the Book of Seasons, had made them increasingly well-to-do, and surely this was good. But the community Old Pastor Helfgott had led had been predicated upon hardship and struggle and a simple life of relatively short duration before the Aeon of Glory. These days the good people of Wahrheit were forced to reconsider hardship, to extol it in smaller and smaller matters, for their land was rich indeed. Their harvests never failed completely. No pestilence swept their plants or animals entirely away. These days, their children grew healthy and strong. Their young pastor, who lived a truly simple life, and believed that they could too, anchored them. Oh, well, he is the pastor…As Young Pastor Helfgott would say…Now if we did it Pastor Helfgott’s way (with laughter): these were common exchanges, and common ground. If they could still posit Pastor Helfgott’s way as an alternative, then they were not too remote from goodness.
Pastor Helfgott, although simple, was no fool. He knew his role, knew his way. He worried about the rising wealth in the community and reminded his flock of the ephemeral nature of worldly things and the destiny for which they had been chosen. But he believed too in people’s goodness, so much so that he was occasionally uncomfortable with the exclusive nature of Wahrheit. He loved his flock dearly, perhaps more collectively than individually. Sometimes he saw the faults of one compensated for by the strengths shown by another. Even if they derided him behind his back, as he knew they did, he had to live as an example to them. When guidance was needed, they looked to him. He was a quiet rock in times of trouble, for he carried on exactly as always and didn’t make a fuss.
But there were things Pastor Helfgott himself had never imagined, let alone spoken of in his sermons on hardship and struggle. Matthias’s act had no counterweight in goodness, and his vision of his flock listed with the burden of it. He was shaken, and could steady neither people’s hearts nor his own.
Wahrheit was not only shocked. Wahrheit was frightened in the weeks following Matthias’s unimaginable act. People gathered and talked. The Hall was full. It was too simple a place for gossip so soon after a disaster—that would come later. For now, people needed ease from their troubled thoughts, solace for their imprecise grief. A pall hung over the town, an invisible blight over its lovely gardens. Pastor Helfgott was very busy. Everyone, man or woman, wanted to talk, it seemed. The words would meander around what had happened, would fade, conversation would trail away. He offered what reassurance he could, his phrases sounding inadequate.
The year previously, a baby had been born with no ears. Little Elsa Hirsch. She lived just three months. This earless baby came up several times in the enervated conversations of his flock.
He could feel their doubt, in that first month. Terrible, soul-searing doubt. He read some of his father’s sermons in the Hall, and the raw wound slowly healed over, bandaged by the passionate certainty of those loved words.
‘You should write your own sermons,’ Hannelore said as she served his dinner. He saw her pinch her mouth shut, the way she always did when she had a lot more to say. More often than not she restrained this hidden deluge of words, and he had to wander alone through bafflement, irritation and resignation none the wiser.
‘My father’s are much loved,’ he said tiredly. Then, feeling uncharacteristic anger: ‘And, were I to write mine down, you would have me say exactly what my father said.’
She sat down in silence and ate her food in measured movements. Then she placed her knife and fork on the napkin. She sighed and seemed to shrink a little.
She stared at him a moment, almost spoke, then gathered the dishes, brusque now. He noticed only then that they had eaten from the good plates.
Fell paced and called and made the ground shake whenever he saw Benedict approaching the yards. Fell trampled rather than ate his fodder. Benedict watched him from the rail, helpless. The rail was not the only barrier between them. But Fell was desperate for freedom and frantic when Melba headed out to pasture.
Benedict had been around horses all his life. He had watched his father master horses, had been yelled at for his own attempts with youngsters, his falls, his riding faults, his hands, his seat. He had craved praise but had become clearly not a horseman-born. The horses liked him, even when he fumbled, but his father insisted they did not respect him, and he fumbled all the more, imagining what his father was thinking. His father had once sent him to get a mare from the herd. Benedict had brought the wrong mare, one that had a foal at foot. He had been unsure, but his father had said Ulla, so Benedict coaxed the foal into a brace of rope, and gently brought both; it was the kind of test his father might have set. But Matthias was enraged and disgusted.
After that he had retreated from his father’s disappointment and had handled horses in recent years only when Matthias was not around.
He was afraid. His father was right. He didn’t have real guts, his father said. Matthias had ridden in exhibitions, shows, performing daring feats for loose women across the Wild West of the New World, or at least that was how Ada saw it. Matthias definitely had real guts.
Ride Melba—she’s as steady as a palfrey. She’s a ladies carriage horse: can’t even think for herself if you park her out. Matthias talked of Melba as though she too didn’t have guts. If Fell was the pride of the farm, Melba was its disappointment. Very expensive horsemeat, Matthias said sometimes. She had never carried another foal.
It was Fell that Benedict had loved at first sight, not Melba.
Fell arrived when Benedict was thirteen, and at that point Benedict had been unafraid. He saw grandeur and innocence and was charmed and seduced. And how exciting it all was! He barely had eyes for Melba, who had travelled far less well than her yearling companion.
Strangers in hats, Matthias with them, rode around the causeway corner, leading the black colt between them. Fell screamed and pranced, lifting knees and hocks as no horse even in Luthertown did. He glanced at everything, as if recognising a home and an end to his journey, and he twisted between the horsemen to try to see Melba, who trailed, dull coated, behind. All Benedict could see was how young and beautiful the horse was, how alert and invigorated.
The cream of cavalry horses, that’s what they’ll be. You know how many horses a war needs? The officers will be tripping over each other for Orion’s.
Benedict could tell Ada was impressed, now, when she had been so doubtful before. She couldn’t understand as it was all in English, but she too was seduced by the colt, and the wonder of horses arriving from half the world away.
The New World men laughed and told tales of farms so large you had to ride a fortnight to find the herds. They talked with Matthias in such a way as to make his father seem one of them, but Benedict could tell they were not friends. They were impressed with Matthias’s horse Helmo and all the things Matthias had trained him to do, and agreed the cavalry horses were a grand idea. They had delivered the mare and colt (Melba’s unborn foal was lost at sea), and the fee had to be haggled. The talk was of the lost foal, the cramped conditions on ship, and the final miraculous delivery of two fine horses neither glandered nor farcied by the journey. They would stay some days, they said, recuperate, go try the goldfields (laughter). Matthias spoke with them as though he had forgotten that Benedict understood English, and laughed about what seemed to be crudities almost at Ada’s expense. Ada cooked in silence, preparing the guest meal. Benedict became discomfited by his father’s banter and wandered back down to the yards. Melba slept, bedraggled, in one yard, and Fell stared at him over the top rail of the other. That bright face invited him in.
Matthias was furious. He hauled Benedict out of the yard by his arm, yelling, startling the colt and rousing Melba to a ragged prancing. Benedict stood by and rubbed his arm, smarting from having been manhandled, as his father soothed the colt and felt each leg in turn.
Benedict was forbidden and, as Fell grew, his own apprehension increased and he forgot the time when the young horse had relaxed under his touch, had pressed that black head to his chest.
He took the stallion headstall from its hook and approached the yard, his heart beating fast. Stay away, he’s unpredictable… he’s a colt, not a pet…I’ll lead him: you take Melba…Are you up to feeding the Black?…Have a care, the Beast’s in the yards…get out of the way, the Black’s coming through…Fell’s not a child’s horse.His hands shook as he tried to drive his father’s words away, but the words, loving, worried for his safety, were bleeding him out, and his resolve to help Fell was failing.
The only way to run from the voice and all it threatened was to bowl into the stallion yard and halter that horse now; without thought, now.
Fell spun and careened towards him when the bolt latch clanged. The voice fled as Benedict’s skull crawled with dizzy fear. He raised his hands, shouted shakily, ‘Fell, old son!’ He forced his unsteady feet to stride towards the horse. Fell pounded the earth to dust, loomed, compound and unstoppable, then slid, giving Benedict an image of huge knees and hooves raised; then the great feet struck the dust at his toes, and the horse halted, hot breath on Benedict’s forehead. Benedict flinched and thrust the halter and rope at him as an explanation and a shield, but Fell whickered, lowered his head and buried his face in Benedict’s chest.
Benedict could feel his heart hammer against the horse’s skull, and then steady to a gentle beat. He stroked the black ears at his chin and then softly haltered the lonely creature.
Once free, Fell was off in a mad gallop, harassed Melba until she pummelled him, bucked and farted, flattened his ears and wheeled past Benedict at the gate, then tore away again, but Benedict only laughed, inordinately delighted. The voice was gone, and with it, for a moment, all shock and grief.
His strange happiness persisted, holding as a shining moment of now, a cocoon that stayed with him for hours.
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