Unimelb Field Guide

The Clocktower Crossbreed

16 October 2017

There is an animal who lives on top of the Old Arts clocktower and looks like a horse, but isn’t, because he has leather wings. He also cannot be a horse because he is too skeletal. His legs look like they are too brittle to stand on, and he has no flesh or muscle, just skin that is stretched over his spine, his hipbones. Hunger makes his breathing sore. It makes his lungs feel tight, and metal.

The problem is not that the animal cannot eat, or that he doesn’t want to. It is just that he has forgotten what sort of food he needs. He hopes he is supposed to graze on South Lawn – like a horse would – but worries his teeth are too sharp?  If they are for tearing small mammals, he could not forgive himself.

Sometimes, while trying to sleep, he wishes his wings were feathered. He would like to have the plump, cushiony sort of feathers that people put into pillows – the sort that you see on swans, and sometimes Renaissance cherubs – but he has wished hard, and his wings are still leather.

Years ago, when he still came down from the clocktower, he moved around swift-footed, his knees springing, his mane floating, and he collected the books that people had left around campus. His favourite was a cloth edition of the Iliad he once found in the Old Quad, on account of the horses.

In the Iliad, there are two immortal horses owned by the warrior Achilleus, who lends them to his Patroklos (his darling) and – even though they are swift and try to protect him – Patroklos is speared and falls limp into the battle-dust. When Achilleus’ horses see this, they stand apart from the fighting and, like gravestones, turn colourless. But their weeping is ‘warm’.

Therma is the adjective that Homer uses, and it is a word often used to describe water boiling, blood, meals, and wood burning. You could translate it as ‘hot’, or as ‘glowing’, (glowing weeping), and somehow it still feels warm amid English. The animal who lives on the clock-tower collects words, and he whispers therma often. It can help when there is sharp wind or if it’s raining. Or when he is trying hard to become better.

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