The kookaburra’s laugh signified the end of night and the beginning of morning. The earth was colorless just before the dawn, dulled by the shadows of the lingering night. Sitting on the ledge by her bedroom window, Sarah looked out over the landscape that surrounded her home.
A barbed-wire fence divided her family’s property from the dairy farm next door. Her father Phillip managed the farm for the owner. Just beyond the prickly boundary stood the milking shed, a sturdy timber building that had withstood a relentless beating from the sun and rain over many years.
Behind the house and farm the land fell sharply into a valley. Sarah watched as four dairy cows plodded their way up the path from the valley, heading for the milking shed. Charlie the cattle dog nipped at their ankles, barking and darting this way and that.
Not far behind was Sarah’s father, wrapped in a weathered trench coat and gumboots, using a crooked stick to pull his steps up the hill. Each morning Sarah’s brother Ron helped his father round up the cows up for milking. Once the cows were organized in the shed, Ron left his father and brought the first bucket of milk up to the house for breakfast. The porridge tasted better with fresh cream and milk.
Life on the land was often harsh, and a flower garden provided a colorful and fragrant oasis close to home. Amongst the other plantations, a rose bush was situated beneath Sarah’s bedroom window, and she could see a fresh bud still hidden amongst the leaves. She could hardly wait to see it in full bloom.
Sarah slid off the ledge by the window and crossed the room.
“Vivienne,” she whispered, crouching beside the bed and gently shaking her little sister.
Vivienne moaned, her arms sprouting out from underneath the covers.
“Come on, you,” Sarah chuckled. “Up you get.”
The aroma of oats warmed the hallway as the sleepy-eyed siblings dragged themselves to the kitchen table. Their mother Aileen stirred porridge in a large cast-iron pot over the wood-fired stove. She spooned a helping into five bowls, passing them along to each of her children.
She took a seat next to her youngest daughter Bridget. Clasping her hands together and closing her eyes, the children followed suit, and Aileen’s words rolled off her Scottish tongue.
“God, we thank ye for yer goodness, and yer kindness, and for this food we thank ye now. Amen.”
After they had scraped their bowls clean, Aileen fetched a bible from the side table near the doorway. Staggering under the weight of the big black book in her arms, she dropped it in front of Ron with a commanding thud.
Aileen opened the front cover and flicked through the pages until she reached the thin ribbon bookmark. She took her seat again next to Bridget.
“Alright Ron, please lead us in the mornin’ readin.”
Ron was the only son in the family, so when his father was not there, he was the man of the house. Dodging yawns as he read, he perked up in the process of sounding through tricky words in the text.
Sarah and Vivienne listened diligently to their brother, while Aileen hissed at Hilary and Bridget to sit up and pay attention. They were very little, and naturally their interest lapsed.
The bounce of Ron’s young voice paid no tribute to the weight of the message being delivered but brought an innocent touch to the complex material. He finished the passage, and looked up at Aileen with a beaming smile. He was very proud of himself and his efforts.
“Very good Ron. Very good.” Aileen nodded. “I am so pleased ter hear ye readin’ from the scriptures. Now let’s bow our heads in prayer.”
Having finished with the cows for the morning, Phillip arrived back at the house for his breakfast.
“Aileen, the other four buckets of milk are in the drip safe ready for the butter.”
“Thank you Phillip,” Aileen responded. “I’ll go and start churning. Sarah, ye can come out and help me after ye and the others have done the dishes.”
The drip safe was a frame covered in hessian bags, stored on the back verandah. Sarah dripped water over the hessian to keep it cool and save the milk from spoiling.
Sarah thoroughly enjoyed patting the butter, a job that involved using special paddles similar to square table tennis bats. The idea was to keep moving the slab of butter from one paddle to the next until no more moisture could be seen.
Once they had completed their morning chores, the three older children prepared for school. Sarah stood before her bedroom mirror. She checked her hands for milk or cream under her fingernails.
She brushed her hands over her uniform blouse and skirt, then used bobby pins to secure her waves of lovely thick brown hair back off her face, shaping her bob cut.
Sarah’s family cut their own hair, as did everyone in the country. Her glasses were oval shaped with fashionable pointed flecks in the top outer corners. She pushed them up the slant of her nose, and nodded with satisfaction.
Ron, Vivienne and Sarah slung their hessian satchels over their shoulders and were ready to leave for school. With Bridget and Hilary by her side, Aileen saw them out the door.
The school was a twenty-minute walk down the road. As they passed the dairy farm and approached the property that bordered on the other side, Sarah was distracted from her sibling’s chatter by old Mr. Gibson, their neighbor and friend of their father. Mr. Gibson was attempting to approach a lean dark horse, but the animal shied and backed away every time he got close.
More children from the neighborhood joined their group as they walked along. Finally they arrived in the Maleny township, and split up as they entered the schoolyard.
“Ron, don’t forget I have Basketball practice this afternoon,” Sarah called. “You’ll be walking Vivienne home on your own!”
“Okay,” Ron responded, waving back at her.
Between classes, Sarah attended school committee meetings and spent the lunch breaks with her friends. That afternoon the bell clanged, signaling the end of the school day. Sarah walked to the oval on the edge of the school grounds with her teammates.
Their Basketball Coach, Mrs. O’Connell, split the girls into two teams, one side acting as defense and the other as offense.
“Sarah, will you captain the defense for me?” Mrs. O’Connell requested.
“Yes, Miss,” replied an excited Sarah. This was the first time she had been asked to captain a side.
Sarah huddled with her teammates and they planned their strategy. They were determined to win this time. Passing the ball from one to another, they weaved and dodged the opposing players heading for the opposition goal post. The goalie leapt from the ground and put the ball through the hoop to score the winning points.
Mrs. O’Connell blew her whistle, and Sarah’s team jumped up and down triumphantly. They were delighted that their strategy had worked so well.
Walking home after practice, Sarah saw Mr. Gibson in his yard once again.
“Hello, Mr. Gibson,” Sarah replied, approaching the fence and dropping her bag.
“How’s life been treatin’ you then?”
“Been at practice this arvo?”
“Yes,” Sarah replied.
She climbed up onto the fence.
“What is that horse’s name, Mr. Gibson?”
“Dawn,” he groaned.
Folding her arms, Sarah sighed.
“I walk past here every morning and afternoon and I just can’t help but watch her. She is so beautiful.”
“Ha!” Mr. Gibson scoffed. “Beautiful is the last way I’d think of describin’ her. Such a fiery nature that one, I can’t get near her. Got her from another farmer a while ago. Dunno what caused the bad temper. Lack of discipline, I’d say.”
“I still think she’s beautiful,” Sarah said gently.
“I’ve been tryin’ to break her in for months,” Mr. Gibson continued. “I’m starting to doubt I’ll ever have any luck.”
Sarah lifted her head. “I’d like to try.”
“Ha!” Mr. Gibson grunted. “How old are you girl, eleven?”
“Yes, I am. But I know I’d be safe if you helped me. I’d really like to try if you’d let me.”
“I like your spirit, girl.” Mr. Gibson sighed loudly in submission. “Okay, how does this sound? If you believe that horse is meant for you, you can have her if you can ride her. And that’s only with you father’s say so.”
“Really, Mr. Gibson?”
“Oh, Mr. Gibson, thank you!” Sarah squealed, jumping down from the fence. “I can’t wait to tell my parents! I’m so excited!”
“Come by in the afternoons and we’ll spend some time with ‘er and see how she likes you.”
Sarah snatched up her bag and took off toward home. She still had her afternoon chores to do, and her mother would be upset if she delayed.
“I’ll see you tomorrow!” she called over her shoulder.
“Alright then,” Mr. Gibson chuckled.
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