Upwards or downwards

By Ranee Mischlewski

I found it about five years ago on the lawn in the back yard near the lemon tree. By lawn I mean patches of dirt, grass, weeds, leaves from the silky oak – even so, all neatly mown and edged. It was a wonder I saw it, not embedded or unearthed, just resting there on top. It was a very small horseshoe only two and three quarter inches or seventy centimetres across and a quarter of an inch longer than that from the top curve to the imaginary line across the open end. I put the washing basket down and picked it up. It was a mixture of colours from burnt sienna to burnt toast. Small pieces of rust flaked or crumbled off. It was thin and despite having the colours of old boulders was frail and delicate ... and charming and wonderful in the palm of my hand.

I looked around stupidly thinking “Who put it there?” I looked at the neighbours’ fences. I even looked up at the sky. I looked across the yard to the open door of the old woodshed which led to the closed door of the old, web-draped dunny – a good peg’s throw away. The house was built in 1928. The original watercolour parchment architect’s plan shows the long straight driveway leading past the house to the large galvanized iron structure comprising ‘Fuel’, ‘Workshop’, ‘W.C.’, ‘Laundry’ and proudly ‘Garage’. There was no provision for housing a horse, not even a tiny one, in this modern residence designed for “F. Brodribb Esq. [of] Box Hill”.

I took my horseshoe inside and laid it on a tissue. What animal could have worn it on its hoof? A foal, a Shetland pony, a donkey, a cow or even a - very large - goat or sheep? I had seen cows shod on my cousin’s dairy farm in Terang with two C shaped shoes because of their cloven feet. This helped prevent them from sinking into and getting bogged in the fence-to-fence paddocks of winter mud. Humans had gumboots, chaff bags and a mudroom at the back door.

Perhaps, I thought, it was the tiny work-piece of an apprentice blacksmith or farrier. Cabinet-makers’ apprentices made small scale items of furniture. Before my speculation got any more far-fetched I rang my sister in Queensland that night to ask for her suggestions. She put forward the same list of animals. When we started on zebras and giraffes we gave up in a fit of giggles then went back to being mystified. I decided to do something very unoriginal with my little horseshoe. I hung it on a nail near the opening of the front porch. Should it be there or actually over the front door?

Time to Google.

Wikipedia informed me that if I hung my little talisman somewhere near the entrance to the house with the ends pointing upwards it would “act as a storage container for any good luck that happens to be floating by” whereas “to hang it with the ends pointing down is bad luck as all the good luck would fall out.” Damn. I liked the look of it pointing down. It sat better on the cambered slope of the weatherboard and its nail holes had long ago crumbled into rust. How can you “hang” something upwards anyway? Then I read that “Others believe that the horseshoe should be hung with the ends pointing down as it will then release its luck to the people around it.” Thank you Mr Wikipedia. That’s what I wanted to hear, and that’s what I did.

Two days later I did two other things. When I walked past an old junk-cum-hardware store near Malvern railway station I saw a huge draught horseshoe hanging on the wall amongst a collection of them. It was about eight inches both ways, rusted but quite thick and solid. It had seven small rectangular nail holes in it, three of them still plugged with the remnants of wooden nails. It had a protective lip at the inner top of the curve where the shoe was most worn down – the horse’s equivalent of a steel-capped boot. Home I took it wrapped in newspaper. How amusing it would look on the porch next to its tiny cousin, and an even greater amount of luck would be released. Whoopee!

The second thing was what I should have done in the first place in my search for its explanation. I rang my 86 year old father in Queensland – old horseman, bushie, dairy farmer, HMAS sailor, boxer, bricklayer, canecutter, master builder and lately hobby farmer and handyman again. He had been born in 1924 near Mount Tambourine, lived through: the Depression, a few years of schooling, World War II, work on farms, stations. Out west, on the coast. In one year of the building boom he had employed sixty men and when the boom bottomed, only two – a labourer and an apprentice. Over the years of my adulthood I had always rung him for advice, information and confirmation. Of course he would know.

He told me straight away: “The diggers used to wear them on the heels of their boots in the first war.” As we spoke I put the horseshoe against the heel of my shoe and was astounded to see that it fitted perfectly my shod, human foot. He added that poor people wore them to conserve the leather soles of their shoes. Boots were a prized necessity to be maintained and protected in hard times. He and his four brothers had shared the one pair of shoes in the Depression – very tight for the older ones and very loose for the younger ones. They took turns to wear them to Sunday School, or go to town on rare occasions.

Later when I told friends of this new knowledge about my little horseshoe a few of them confirmed it – “Yes, kids used to wear them to school in the Mallee”. I even discovered a pair of modern, horse-shod Scandinavian hiking boots for sale on Ebay. Sometimes I asked visitors on my porch: “What sort of animal do you think once wore this?” They would go through the same list of creatures – pony, donkey etc, and when they gave up “The human animal!” I would say and show them. Gratifying amazement usually resulted.

That was over four years ago. Last year, at ninety, Dad went into a nursing home after a hip replacement, then a second knee replacement and after he began to show regular signs of “short term memory loss”. When I saw him recently it was for the first time in seven years. With my four brothers and sisters, a couple of partners and grandchildren, we had morning tea with him for his ninety-first birthday in the garden shelter at his Buderim nursing home. He doesn’t look frail or shrunken even though he uses a walking frame. His hair is still brown and his skin tanned and relatively smooth. His eyes are still clear blue and his voice still strong not wavering like an old person’s. But he asks questions like “What is this place?’ and “Why am I here?” and “Who are you again?” Sometimes he apprehensively asks “Have I done something wrong?” and when he sits down to his plate of steamed fish and vegetables he says “What do I do next?” and out of the blue “What’s my wife’s name?”

After several reminders he remembers who I am . “You’re Rainy Day”. He uses his childhood name for me and, slowly, word by word, “You are my first daughter.” He can still give my brothers technical advice about building and brickwork and if you ask him if he remembers being a canecutter in the 1960s he says “Of course I do!” He also says “Oh for chrissake” often. Just as usual. When we ask him if he remembers his own father he says “He was a bit of a ratbag wasn’t he?” When I ask him if he remembers my son, his grandson, he says “He was a bit of a ratbag wasn’t he?” He remembers that his mother’s name was Dorothy and looks at us as if we are idiots for asking. And he can recite “The man from Snowy River” all the way through in a strong clear voice.

The last time we visit as we leave before I fly back to Melbourne I have a lump in my throat. When I try to hold my tears as he gives me his farewell bear hug he says “Oh please don’t cry darlin’. Don’t cry Rainy Day” through his own tears. As we wave across the dining room when we leave he calls “Are you coming back?”

It takes a long time for the lump to subside as my sister drives away and she tells me he forgets as soon as you leave. She tries to cheer me up by reminding me how the nurses all love him and call him “Stan the Man” because he gives them cheek. She is matter-of-fact. She visits once a week. She demonstrates great patience when he asks the same questions over and over but I have been a bit like him. Puzzled, concerned and perplexed. What was he doing there?

When I am back in Melbourne a week later, in bed listening to Tony Delroy’s quiz sometime after midnight, I suddenly think of the horseshoes on the porch. I can’t recall seeing them in the last few days I’ve been back. Are they still there? Have they been nicked? Even though everyone’s asleep I have to check. Downstairs I go, open the front door and the sensor light goes on. There they are – huge Goliath and little David – just hanging there, releasing luck into the freezing night air, onto the pot-plants, the doormat, the damned possums and any other midnight visitors.

I won’t be able to ring my father again and ask him about old things I might find in the garden. His only access to a phone is via my sister’s mobile and his hearing aid makes a buzz. We just manage to say “Hello. Hello. Hello Dad. Is that ... Rainy Day? Hello, how are you? How are you Dad?” Then we both say “Fair to muddling.” Then my sister translates, speaking clearly and loudly. Then she murmurs “I’ll give you a ring tonight.”

“Bye Dad. Love you.”

“Love you darlin’. Love you Rainy Day.”

His mind may continue to slowly rust and crumble and flake. I am unashamed and unsubtle in cherishing my horseshoes as talismans and symbols. They will continue to release luck and love and strength every time I go out or come in. From Melbourne to Buderim, Buderim to Melbourne. From now to then, then to now – whether hung upwards or downwards.

(Postscript: Dad died, aged 92, on 4th September, 2016 - Fathers Day)

(Image by Jan Huber on Unsplash)