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How came I to a place like this?

What spirit drew me here?

These and other questions perplexed my mind on that day’s ride north from town. The clouds drifted and the wind blew, as clouds and wind will do. My breath was white in the cold air, and my horse plodded, and when I threw an apple core, it made a nice arc and subsequently fell upon the earth, just as you might imagine. Why, then, if all around me was evidence of the expected natural laws, did my thoughts not remain inside the privacy of my mind, but instead spike up out of my head and my eyes into points of interrogation? Why did I have the profound conviction that I was on the very brink of some discovery of the utmost strangeness? Why did I feel that in the next moment I should find the woman with the tail of a fish, or the fountain that would give me life eternal, or the sherry that would make me sober?

My Cannibal said he did not know. Perhaps he did not care, sauntering along with his thoughts firmly packed into his skull, impenetrable beneath all the hair.

Every time I blinked my eyes, a sea of huge bodies writhed inside my eyelids. Therefore, I stared hard into the bright sharp air, tears bulging in my eyelashes.

I had seen many animals die, but never a man.

I had never wondered if a person can be measured by an absolute value, or if all our qualities, good and bad, are modulated and by degree. And to what degree I myself achieve goodness, and to what degree I fail.

These were the things I ought to have been making into questions. But the eyes with which we look back upon our lives are clearer than the eyes of the moment, I suppose.

A slow sweep of rain moved over us. Behind it, the sun was weak and distant. The season was mid-winter, they  told me, and it was indeed cold, although the month was July. All around were leaves flashing like schools of silver-green fish, on trees whose bark rushed and curled like running water.

Here is another question: can the season truly be called winter, if it is at the wrong time of the year, and the leaves have not fallen? Surely it is not winter, but some other thing entirely! It is not very Scientific to point to one thing and declare, Behold, it is cold, and then to point to another, and say, Behold, this too is cold, and conclude that these two things, which in all other respects may be entirely dissimilar, are necessarily One and the Same, based solely upon temperature! There are many things that are cold and not the same. A snowdrift, the sea, a shudder, a fish, metal, rejection. The Lieutenant- Governor ought to have thought of this, or at least have been told. He was a man of Science, I had heard, abreast with the changing times.

I put this to my Cannibal. He said the days had grown shorter, which is also a characteristic of winter. And that it was a good time to plant cabbages.

Tigris was walking dully, her head down. I had bought her before sunrise that same morning from a German man in a green gabardine coat, who conducted his business in an alleyway behind what he told me was an excellent local brothel. The mysterious light of his Argand lamp and the stench of its black oil had overpowered me, weakened as I was (for I had had no breakfast), and momentarily suspended my knowledge of the buying of horses. And whilst I do not know that any German has heretofore been called exotic, his accent in that moment had struck me as such. It was with a mind thus caught up by these various stupefying influences that I had first beheld the mare, and so she had seemed truly marvellous. She was like a horse cut out of the night sky, throwing a rippling shadow against the brothel’s brick wall, gazing beyond me to Elysium with eyes like enormous drops of ink. A Grecian beast, worthy of an Odyssey such as mine! 

‘Tigris is not a Greek word,’ the German had told me. ‘The tackle is included in the price,’ he had added, casting a searching look along the alleyway, as though he should rather be elsewhere.

I am afraid the animal had grown rather less impressive as the day wore on. There had been a distinct aroma of boot polish about her that morning in the alleyway, which the German had told me was a kind of saddle oil peculiar to the colony. This aroma had caught in my nostrils and troubled me all morning, for I slowly grew to understand it was, in fact, boot polish, as it was gradually rubbed away from certain areas where it had been smeared to hide the horse’s bald patches. Now, in the rain, a slow tide of black polish crept inevitably towards my white gaiters. These imperilled items were new; I had purchased them in Sydney-town, and I did not adore the notion that their smart martial look should be besmeared as the result of my own innocence.

For a while this brought me very low, for such deceit was nothing less than cruel Extortion, to my indignant way of thinking. I yearned for Pharaoh, my barely tamed bay stallion at Home. O, for some spirit and a tossing head! I resolved several times over to dismount and set Tigris free, leaving her to wander off into the forest and find the Fountain of Youth and live forever mediocre, locked into the attic of her own mind. For not only was she ugly, but she was also Stupid. I had tried to offer her my apple core, leaning over her neck, but she was so taken aback by my arm appearing before her that all she could manage was an ungainly shuffle in the midst of the road and then to resume her latter plod, ignoring the apple core entirely. As we trudged on, however, the extreme vicissitudes of my feeling eventually found  the  midpoint  where they habitually settle, and I kept the mare with me. She was unimpressive, it was true, but she was a tractable creature. She went forth with dumb conviction, her flanks warm, following my Cannibal along a meditative road overhung with trees.

‘Why is she called Tigris?’ I had asked the German. ‘Because,’ he had replied, ‘the sire was called Lake Hazar.’ I did not know what that meant, but I did not ask—nor, indeed, did I make any of the usual pertinent enquiries when buying a horse. I paid him the sum he asked without bargaining, although it left me with very little ready money; in short, I paid for gold and got brass.

Leaves like scimitars carpeted the road.

I clanked as I went. My Cannibal, padding along in boots so moulded to his feet he and they had surely been unearthed together at Pompeii, said I was scaring off the birds. Good! What flesh-eating avians must have been lurking in those foreign trees! Tigris had not the wit to be perturbed by  the noise. This clanking came from the damned—forgive me—harpoons.

This is an extract from A Treacherous Country by K.M. Kruimink, winner of The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award 2020. Read Jackie Tang’s review.

A Treacherous Country is available now at Readings.