Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed — most peculiar, mama
Was I reading, meditating, or praying at that moment? I can not say. I can not recall. At the time, it did not seem especially significant.
I heard it first before, and below me. A few hundred metres distant. The clear, sharp sound of a horse’s hooves. A horse well shod — the distinct sound, one can tell. First cantering, then trotting, cantering, then trotting again, on the road’s hard-packed stony clay.
The sound came loudly on the still mountain air. I could not help but have my awareness drawn to it, for a short while. The road below, invisible from my rocky perch, screened from view by the forest of trees.
Yet my eyes turned down — and more, I shifted to the edge precarious of my rock — to track the sound. From the south east, moving westwards, on the dead end mountain road directly below the ridge line on which I sat.
I paused, pleasantly distracted, only long enough to absorb it. To appreciate, to embrace the experience of it. Such a distinct sound, rhythmic, and melodic, on a breathless day. So near, and so clear. That is, in contrast to the faint hum of traffic on the freeway, some five kilometres distant as the crow flies. Or the soft crunch of rubber on gravel, travelling over from the northeast, as and when a rare vehicle descended the main forest road. This horse and its rider — for a rider such a well shod, and deliberately paced horse must have — the nearest human contact I had sensed for some hours.
Human? I had no cause, and gave no pause, to entertain this question. Not at the first.
Very shortly after, I heard it again. Above, and behind me. Even closer this time. For now, the horse’s hooves beat out their rhythm on the same dead end road I had travelled, to reach my present place of rest. Cantering, then trotting, cantering, then trotting again. Drawing ever nearer, now from the north east westward.
I paused once more, to welcome the sound. To let it flow through me — how pleasantly — as I embraced it.
For a moment, I wondered if the horse and rider might come all the way to the very end of the road, and spy the narrow single track behind the public lookout’s safety rail, leading the hundred or so metres down along the ridge line to my hidden position.
But then, having again accepted the appearance of the horse and its rider, my attention returned again, to my former activity. Only some time later did it occur that these twin appearances were not so easily explicable.
This was not the only welcomed, and yet, in hindsight, strange, happening of the afternoon. There was also, shortly after, a gathering. A drawing extraordinarily near to me, of the birds.
It is, of course, not unusual for tiny birds to appear nearby, flitting, peeping, and chirping, chasing insects through the trees surrounding my favouritely frequented rock of seclusion. As I sit or lie reading, meditating, contemplating, or (sometimes) dozing, my stillness draws little notice, gives no cause for alarm. Birds will often alight in trees close by, to be startled sometimes by my movement in turning towards their sound; at other times, confident to return my gaze briefly, before moving on.
But never before have so many, come so near.
A mere handful of feet from where I rested, indeed, just above my head, almost within arms reach, a branch overhangs.
Presently, after the sound of hoof beats behind me again disappeared, just as suddenly as they had appeared — how, and where, questions not yet occurring — a tiny bird drew my eye, darting in for landing, in a tree just in front and to my left. No more than three or four metres away. A Scarlet Robin, I believe. Black, with white, and a bold red breast. Not unlike the colours of Psalmistice.
Shortly it departed, only to be replaced by others, of different kinds. Variously, they perched briefly to observe me, before merrily flittering from branch to branch. Perhaps, or so it seemed, sporting with each other, while occasionally performing remarkable aerobatic feats in pursuit of near-invisible black dots of flying food. And all this immediately before me; not beside, or behind. In the stillness of this day, with rarely a hint of softly disturbed air, and my senses acutely tuned, every movement I could hear.
After some time enjoying this surge of feathered activity, I felt a certain compulsion. To lay down, rest, and look up. I reclined on the rock, the back of my head nestled on the thick protective sleeve of my motorcycle jacket.
Almost immediately, a little nondescript bird alighted in the leaves just above my head.
For some time it moved about in the leaves above, looking at me, and the world around. And once again, when it moved on, others immediately came to take its place. Most spectacularly, a pair of colourful Eastern Spinebills, who darted and hovered about the foliage, so nearly within touching distance that I felt it almost possible to reach up, and gather them in hand.
Shortly after their departing, the keenness of my interest in bird appreciation beginning to wane, I turned to reading the book I had brought along. A book loaned to me, with enthusiastic endorsement, the previous day. A book about angels.
In time, I came upon a discussion of the biblical tale of Elisha’s servant. When the king of Syria sent “a great host” to capture the prophet Elisha, his servant, on seeing the army surrounding the city, was stricken with panic (2 Kings 6:8-17):
And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?
And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.
And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.
And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man and he saw: and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.
Earlier in his life, Elisha had experienced something very similar, when his own master, the prophet Elijah, had been taken up into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-12):
And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.
Now, shortly after the event where Elisha’s panic-stricken servant was enabled to see the “horses and chariots of fire round about”, who were there waiting to protect them, these strange horses make yet another appearance. The Syrian army had moved on to lay siege to the city of Samaria. Eventually, four lepers decided it would be better to go to the Syrians and hope for mercy, than to remain in the city and surely die of hunger (2 Kings 7:3-7):
And they rose up in the twilight, to go unto the camp of the Syrians: and when they were come to the uttermost part of the camp of Syria, behold, there was no man there.
For the Lord had made the host of the Syrians to hear a noise of chariots, and a noise of horses, even the noise of a great host: and they said one to another, Lo, the king of Israel hath hired against us the kings of the Hittites, and the kings of the Egyptians, to come upon us.
Wherefore they arose and fled in the twilight, and left their tents, and their horses, and their asses, even the camp as it was, and fled for their life.
These accounts call to mind another, from the visions of St. John (Revelation 19:14):
And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.
Later in the afternoon, while meditating peacefully, all of a sudden, a number of questions began to dawn on me, concerning the hoof beats heard previously. Not only questions, but also, observations.
I know every road in this neck of the woods.
When I first heard the horse, it was moving towards the dead end of the road below the ridge line. But I never heard it returning again. Rather, the sound had stopped somewhere immediately in front, perhaps slightly to the right of and below my position. At the time, I did not really think anything of it, perhaps assuming it had simply stopped somewhere to rest.
Did the horse remain somewhere down there all afternoon? If it moved on, how could I not have heard it?
I could clearly, though faintly hear the hum of freeway traffic some five kilometres away.
And yet, the sound of those hoof beats had appeared quite suddenly to my awareness, ringing out loud and clear, only when it was, to my best estimate, no more than 500 metres distant, at about the near 180* turn in the lower road, where it rounds the end of the ridge line. If it had come along that road, then how could I not have heard it to my left as well, as it travelled along the other side of the same ridge line, no further distant than when I heard it so clearly?
Then too, what of the horse behind me? Its sound had also appeared very suddenly to my awareness; loud and clear, and very near. At other times, I could hear the sound of tyres crunching on gravel on the main forest road, perhaps a full kilometre away, from which both the lower ridge line road and the upper road both diverge. So, how could I not hear the horse approaching from behind, on the upper road, until it was, again, within no more than 500 metres of where I sat?
Moreover, I did not hear the horse below departing. And the time interval between hearing both sounds, was, I am sure, much too short for even a galloping horse to traverse all the way back along the lower road, ascend the main forest road, and then traverse in along the upper road behind me. Much less, do so silently.
Was there a second horse, then?
I have visited this place countless times, and never seen nor heard a horse there before. It was a Wednesday, not a weekend. What odds an equestrian, much less two, separately, choosing to ride way out here in the middle of the week?
And if, by some chance, there were two horses, then why did each of them — or their riders — just happen to alternate between a near identically-sequenced canter, then trot, canter, then trot, and this only upon reaching a position that, again, just happened to be so nearly equidistant from my position, and nearing the dead end of each road?
I know this place, this area, much too well to be easily self-deceived.
Indeed, so intrigued was I, as to just how these events might be rationally explained, on the way home that evening I used my motorcycle’s trip meter to go out of my way, and confirm the distance between where I had been sitting, and the approximate position on the low road where I first heard the sound of hoof beats approaching. Some four point five kilometres.
No lone horse that I know of could have travelled that distance, in that time interval. Much less in silence, for most of its journey.
There are no alternate roads, or trails. Certainly, none that a horse could travel over — and up — more quickly, and silently.
And if two horses, then why did I not hear either of them depart? Indeed, when these thoughts began to dawn on me, I left my rock for a time, to walk back up the ridge line to the upper road, just to see if a horse was there. Later, on departing, I spent some time riding around looking for any horses or equestrians who may have been about.
I was alone.
There is no doubt that I was fully awake, at all times, throughout the afternoon.
I did not begin to read about angels and “horses of fire” until after hearing these sounds, and in the moment, thinking nothing of them.
What did I hear?
And what of all those birds, gathering so near?
I cannot say.