COWBOY BUDDY by Rebecca Ryall
COWBOY BUDDY is a piece of poetic memoir and character exploration, based on a character and events in my own life. The protagonist is my youngest child who now identifies as non-binary, though the events described in the narrative occurred two years ago. COWBOY BUDDY attempts to tease out aspects of character which may traditionally be assigned to binary gender categories and explore the impacts of significant life events upon human development.
She is nine years old and thin as a reed. Her red hiking pack peeks over the top of her head and the sleeping bag strapped to the bottom slaps her on the back of her thighs as she walks. Her chin is bandaged to contain a staph infection caused by a cat encountered at a village café. She wears her hair short – shaved prior to their departure – and the people she meets call her ‘cowboy buddy’ and ‘strong little man’. She does not correct them. At restaurants she is shooed out of the women’s toilets by bustling matriarchs; she hovers by the door until they look away, and sneaks back inside to relieve herself. As she walks she talks, incessantly. She dreams up plans for a tiny house, or a mobile library, or a combination of the two.
At night time when they rest she researches online the tiny areas of land which go unclaimed – contested border areas and rugged isolated cairns – scheming the utopia she will build when she grows big enough. She insists on a diet of her own devising – the SSSS regime, consisting of a sweet breakfast, a sweet lunch and a savory dinner followed by another sweet helping – determined as she is to put on weight, to look bigger, stronger. Her days succeed or fail based on the quality of the chocolate croissants available at the village bars they pass. She secretes sugar lumps in the pocket of her raincoat, slipping them into her mouth unnoticed as she skips ahead, or behind. Bartenders, awestruck by this little person with the big smile and even bigger backpack, slip her lollipops and little crackers in plastic wrapping, which she keeps in a special pocket of her bag along with the gratis bread sticks and rolls she snaffles from restaurants, to give to beggars encountered in the larger towns and cities they pass.
Her pockets are filled each day with small coins of less than €1, known as her ‘beggar money’, as she is unable to ignore the destitute as the locals do. Her smile grows bigger as the kilometers collect beneath her feet. She is proud of herself for learning to speak to strangers, overcoming her shyness, coming to believe in herself. She keeps a journal and sketches sites of interest along the way. She begs for European Champions League trading cards on the shelves of supermarkets and devises a game to play with them, a mix of poker and Pokemon. With the constant rain the cards become damp, ragged, and she soon forgets them in the jumble of postcards, brochures, train tickets and other mementoes.
She agitates to stop at every park or playground they pass, delighting to take a load off and swing high in the air, resting her feet for a moment. With her sister she wrestles on every available patch of grass. Her sheer delight in being tackled to the ground in a snow drift brings a smile to the face of the most footsore, the most cynical passerby. Over seven weeks and 900km she is transformed. On her return home a friend says ‘Oh look at her! She has walked into her body!’ and I know this to be true.