MY SISTER LIKES ponies and showjumping and arenas. Sometimes I jump with her because she wants me to. I throw my head back and make the horse's sound but it is never the right sound. She corrects me with her perfect whinnying, neck exposed, knees kicking high, a canter. I am not a good horse. I have not studied them as she has, reading every book where the beasts gallop, turning the pages of photography collections thick with taut flanks and staring eyes. I jump over the obstacles that she sets for me but I never receive a ribbon for my effort. Sometimes she whips me with a hickory stick which is not made of hickory at all, but a branch fallen from the ghost gum in the corner of the yard. She tells me that I am a bad horse, a lazy horse, a slow horse, and I take the whipping silently because it is true. I am a bad horse. I am not any kind of horse at all.
After the show is over and the imaginary audience has trudged home, I check to see that no one is looking. The place I have found is secret. It is a hollow where the fence between our yard and our neighbour's yard has fallen away. My sister's world is the bright open arena, but this is the place where I like to play. The hollow smells of damp earth and honeysuckle. I have to push through a curtain of the vine to enter. I pull off the white and yellow flowers and bite their stems and suck them. I like the yellow ones best, although there is probably little difference between one flower and the next. Sometimes I have to race the bees to the nectar. I am never stung. The bees hang heavy and fat, a buzz in the air. I watch the pollen collecting on their legs. I imagine that I am becoming drunk on flowers, like the bees, although I know I would have to drink a vat of pollen to feel so heavy with juice that I would sway as they sway, and crash into the leaves as if I had lost the ability to fly.
Under the honeysuckle there is the space where the besser bricks have fallen away. There is rubble like some grand place that has gone to ruin. There are treasures here, coins and bottle tops and scraps of ribbon from Christmases past. There is a smell of mouse and possum. Snails spell out secret messages that glimmer when I lift the drape of branches and let the sunlight in. I pick the snails off the bricks and line them up on my arms. They slip stickily along my flesh and the skin prickles on the back of my neck.
It is wrong to do this, but there is no one to see, and I hike my skirt up and herd the snails across my thigh. Their tickling fingers, inching up my leg, are my secret things. More secret than the bees and the gold chain I pulled from the damp soil. The snails are the things I come for most of all.
When they hike themselves across my thigh and edge towards the elastic of my knickers, I chicken out. This time, I think, I will let them track across my pants over the private places that remain unnamed. This time I will be braver than before. I giggle as the odd top-heavy creature lumbers closer. Its shell tips to the side and it is only the suction of its wet foot that keeps it steady along the inside of my thigh. I almost let it complete its journey. My heart is pounding as the snail makes the slight transition from flesh to cotton. If I didn't have knickers on it would be there on my skin. My finger darts out to catch it. When it has climbed onto my hand there is a shining line to point out where it has been.
THE STEEPLECHASE IS dangerous. My sister outlines the difficulties to me, brow furrowed. Horses fall, she tells me, riders die. She says that sometimes a jockey will fall off on a particularly difficult hurdle. The horse will be landing, its feet chopping the soil up into clumps. The rider must not fall into the path of the hooves or his head will split.
'It happens too quickly,' she tells me. 'The cameras are all watching the jump and then the hoof clomps down on the rider's head and the brains come out and it is too quick to stop the filming.'
'They could cut it afterwards, before it goes on TV.'
'They film it live. The steeplechase is always live. But they don't replay the jump in slow motion if the rider has been trampled to death, out of respect for the family.'
I am sceptical but she is older and her description seems real enough. She describes the way the man flips up and over the front of the horse. Too quick for him to scream or register surprise of any kind. The hoof thumps down on his skull and his head snaps open like a grape when you press it between two fingers. The brain comes out and it is like grey pudding splattering up out of a dropped bowl. The other hooves tramp down onto the rider's chest and legs and stomach, and the horse falls forward, bending at its knees, its chin sliding across the choppy turf.
'They shoot the horse in the head.' She leans in conspiratorially to tell me this, eyes wide, breath sweet with the Redskin lolly she has just eaten. I can see the traces of the candy like lipstick on her mouth, and for an awful second I imagine her taking my head between her hands and kissing me firmly on the lips.
'That is the tragedy.' She leans back and grins, all blood-red teeth, my crazy demon of a sister. 'They shoot the horse. It never was the horse's fault, but they shoot it in the head, on camera, and there is no difference between the brains of a horse and the brains of a man. I've seen it. So I know.'
She has set the hurdles to reflect a great degree of difficulty. Some of them are too high. One is perched over what she calls a ditch, the edge of a garden bed with flowers spread below it. One is a sand trap, and another is a leap through the arms of the swing. Two of them are too close, only a single galloping step between them. We walk the course, which is apparently what they do in real steeplechases, bringing the horse's nose to touch each hedge and ditch and creek that they must ford. She mimes her horse, pulling the reins and gently patting the air where its nose would be. Sometimes she makes the noises of it huffing and sniffing, getting the scent of the course that it will soon tackle.
I have no such invisible horse to lead. I walk the course and imagine my own legs snapping as I trip over the swing set, falling into the pit of marigolds. When we are back at the starting line she has stepped into her horse. Her legs are high-kicking. She sidles forward, back, kicks at the ground. I imagine that it will be my fall that is televised, and my sister's hooves, shod in her black school shoes, that will be stamping on my head, popping my skull like a grape.
'Riders, mount your stallions.'
They are always stallions. My sister rides a black one, or perhaps inhabits is a better word for what is happening beside me. Head lowered, pawing the thirsty yellow lawn, she snorts and stamps and grunts. More like a pig than a horse, it seems – but she would know, she has watched enough documentaries for any method actor.
'Ready, mark, go.'
We are off. I run towards the first hurdle, a chair upended. I have to jump far enough to clear the back of it, which is lying flat on the ground. I run and leap and I have passed the first test, but I am already a good three metres behind.
I want to play her games. I want to love horses with the same simple passion. I try to mimic her drawings, but my horse's legs are never sturdy enough, the elbows of a horse seem to bend at an uncomfortable angle. My horse always looks as if it is broken, fallen from her steeplechase and waiting on the page for that fateful bullet in the head.
I clear the second jump and the third, but the leap through the swing seems quite impossible, even as I watch my sister grab the chains and swing herself up and through, pulling her knees up tight against her chest. I stop at the base of the swing and step through, one foot after another. And this is the end of the race for me. I bypass the marigold trap and climb over the ladder instead of jumping it. She stands panting at the finish line and she is still a horse, sweating, panting, nostrils flared, eyes too wide for a human stare. And as she watches me walking, bypassing the last few hurdles, there is all the animal derision she can muster in that one look. I am not good enough. I am not fast enough. I am a slow and ugly disappointment. Horse becomes rider as she turns and flicks her ponytail in my direction, and steps gracefully in her jodhpurs towards home.
I LINE THE snails up at the starting line. I have given the course a high degree of difficulty. I have stolen a string of my mother's pearls, clipped them around my knee. The beasts will have to climb this, vault over the sharp edge of rusted beer bottle tops. Around my thigh I have made a mudslide, which has begun to dry and crack at the edges. There is a chain of flowers threaded one through another.
I hold the delicate shells between my fingers, bend and whisper to them, feeling the tug as they struggle forward, eager to begin the steeplechase.
'It is very dangerous,' I tell them. 'One of you may fall and die. They film it and we'll watch it back in slow motion on the TV.'
The horses inch forward on their slippery sucker feet and I release them. I hold my leg still. There are enough obstacles to hurdle without the quaking of the earth. There is the insect rattle as cicadas shriek in the summer heat. My skin is all sweat and prickle from the other race that I ran only minutes ago. There are beads of sweat growing heavy beneath the bend in my knee. I feel one slide discreetly down the fat curve of my thigh, pooling in the crease where my bottom begins.
The pearl necklace diverts one of the snails. I feel the slow slide of the beads against my flesh as it is diverted from its path. The other snail climbs over and it is on track. Fast horse. Good horse. I feel a sudden sense of sadness for the snail that has been led astray. I pick it off the beads. Its stalk eyes snap closed. It lifts its slippery foot into its shell. I lift it over the next hurdle and the next, making the shell canter, tapping it against the exposed skin of my leg. I have hiked my dress up to my waist and removed my knickers. This time it is the most dangerous path for the horses in my race. This time they will traverse uncharted terrain. I settle the snapped-shut shell into the hollow where my leg becomes my body. I hold it gently there and in a moment there is the tentative unfurling of the eyes, the head slides out, the long slip of the foot.
Someone might see me. There is a dark coolness in my hiding spot where outside it is bright and hot and dry. Pinpricks of light settle on the place where my skirt is hiked up. You should never sit like this without your knickers on, with your legs wide and the place between your legs marked out by specks of light, like pointers.
Suddenly my breath is shallow. My heart goes faster. I might be found like this. I might be whipped for it. If my sister found me she would whip me with a ghost gum crop and drag me by the sleeve to Mother. I have overstepped some line but I am not sure what it is.
The snail trail is wetter than a finger. There is the tiny weight, the almost imperceptible contractions of the muscular foot. It is easy to see its path. The sticky line dries quickly to a translucent ribbon of silver. The second snail is way behind, only halfway up my thigh and struggling over a line of flowers. The losing horse will win, is winning. And suddenly, at the finish line, it is not about winning and losing at all. The snail has found the little lips. I call them lips but they cannot speak. They smile silently, pushed mutely shut as if over a secret. The little foot of the snail tracks across the smile, silver lipstick, dipping into the space where the lips gently part under the slippery probing. The winning snail. It slips off course, makes its slow, sure way towards my other leg. The race is run. I could wait till the other horse completes the smile, two silver lips. Two horses, one grin, and the awful secret of this day throbbing low in my belly.
Suddenly I am frightened. What if my sister knows about this place? What if she has followed me, is crouching low, watching from the safety of the safe white glare outside?
I struggle to a crouch. The pearls slip from my knee and form a circle around my ankle, a loose shackle. I slap at the steeplechase course, the hills and hurdles, the mud slick and the snails. Snails that aren't horses. Snails that would never win against a sleek black stallion. My foot finds one and then the other. The horrible crack of their skulls as one hoof then another tramples them. Brains in the damp dirt, split like grapes. A bullet in each brain.
'Lazy!' Just a whisper. 'Slow! Bad horse! Bad horse!' They must be trampled for the sake of my sister. Because my snails will never be as good as any horse. My snails, her stallions.
My knickers are covered in dust but I pull them on anyway. There are arrows marked out on my thighs, half a silver smile. I slip out of my secret place and I will never be back.
Next time we race I will be a better horse. I will be braver, faster. I pick up a branch fallen from the ghost gum and I hit my flank twice, sharply, and I whinny suddenly, kicking my legs high in a canter.
And I, good horse, set a pace for home.