Chicken Eye in the Sky
Rose and I were mucking about on the pumice. We were walking on the rocks to smooth our feet. Mum said people paid good money for pumice in the shops. I had seen small egg-shaped lumps of the stuff in the posh bathrooms of mates who lived in town. I told Rose to scrape her feet as we clambered about. It was getting pretty uncomfortable as the sun was high and the pumice was drying out my skin. Walking barefoot on the rocks didn’t hurt. We only wore shoes when absolutely necessary, so the soles of our feet were like leather. We could walk on anything, well, most things. I’d seen a documentary on the TV at my house, (Rose’s family didn’t have one), where people were doing ‘fire-walking’. Turned out they were just running across hot coals; reckoned I could do that.
“Jeez, what’s so good about smooth feet anyway?” Rose was inspecting her soles.
I didn’t really know. It was like hair, well hair on your body, you were supposed to take that off too. It was all a lot of aggro, but it was time to stop being kids; we were nearly thirteen, practically grown up. About time people started taking us seriously.
That was another reason we were dawdling along at the pumice, no little kids. There were tons at home and they never left us alone. We were staying at Rose’s at the moment, with her mum and dad, Aunty Pearl and Uncle Bill. The little kids were driving Auntie Pearl round the bend. She had been giving me dirty looks lately, like it was my job to shut them up. Yeah, they were my little brothers and sisters, but it was Aunty’s house, they didn’t listen to me anyway.
Mum was in hospital, it wasn’t a baby this time. She must have been pretty crook to be in hospital so long, but Dad and I went to visit her one time and she didn’t look too bad, she was even in her clothes. She was thinner, but she had always gone on about losing weight.
Aunty Pearl made me feel like that was my fault that Mum was in hospital. She didn’t say anything, but I could read the vibe, I was an expert at reading the vibe, I guess I got that from Mum.
Dad had to stay home at our house so he could go to work; he couldn’t do that and look after us kids too. He had come up a few days ago and we’d all gone swimming at the falls. I can’t really swim, not properly, not overarm, but I love being in the water. You can’t see the bottom at the falls. The water looks black, but when you hold it the palms of your hands it’s completely clear. The pool is full of massive boulders. It makes me dizzy to think how huge they must be, you can see the tops because they’re out of the water, but they could go down hundreds of feet. Everyone just goes from boulder to boulder, I doggy paddle, but no one notices. You get all shivery, not just because the water’s so cold, but because you don’t know what’s down there.
Dad loves mucking about with us kids, I think it was fun for him too, but I caught him talking quietly to Aunty Pearl and Uncle Bill, so we couldn’t hear. His face was sad and they were all nodding. That spoiled the feeling and I knew that the fun was all fake. Then Aunty Pearl had turned and looked at me and I knew they all thought it was my fault.
Rose and I were trying to get some money together. Rose wanted some blue eye-shadow and pink nail polish. I don’t know where she thought she was going to wear it. Aunty Pearl would tan her arse if she saw her with that muck on her.
Rose just said, “Stuff her,” when I told her this in my grown up voice.
It was neat how Rose didn’t care what Aunty Pearl said. She would cheek her in front of everyone and then say, “Come on Crystal, let’s get out of here.”
That’s what happened this morning, but we were supposed to be going over the road to collect the eggs from Ron’s chickens anyway, so Aunty Pearl wasn’t too mad. I’ve never met Ron but I’ve been in his chook shed loads. The chooks at Rose’s just scratch around in the orchard all day and we shut them up in their wooden shed at night. Ron’s chooks are like aliens in a space ship. The shed is concrete and the chooks are all stuffed into cages. They lay in the cages and the eggs roll into a metal channel. Rose and I have to collect them then clean them up with a grinder thing. Rose does the grinding mostly because I usually smash the eggs up, and we get one cent an egg. Ron counts up the boxes at the end of the day and gives Aunty Pearl the money on Saturdays.
“What if there’s a chick inside?” I ask Rose, letting the slimy mess slip through my fingers.
“You drongo, these are all hens, there won’t be any chicks.”
I nodded my head, but I didn’t really understand. Sometimes I’m pretty smart, usually smarter than Rose, but sometimes I’m really stupid.
When we’ve done the eggs we put fresh food and water in the feeders. I don’t like to look at the chooks, they have feathers missing and their feet are always pressed into the wire of the cages. If I was a chook in a cage I’d stand on another chook to give my feet a rest. They are covered in sores from where they’ve been pecking at each other or themselves. The worst thing is that they look at you. They have tiny red eyes, circled with more red, sitting in eye skin that is red. It’s not that their eyes are horrible; they are just eyes that say they know exactly what is going on, they know that you could just let them out, but you’re not going to.
Ron leaves us a bottle of lemonade to drink when we finish, we don’t tell the other kids this or they’d want to work in Ron’s chook shed too.
We could have gone back to help Aunty Pearl with the little kids, but instead we go across the field to the river. It’s only just a river because it’s near the start. The water’s not too deep, but it’s freezing cold and fast moving. We are both so hot that we go in with all our clothes on, we’ve only got our short cotton dresses and underwear on. We speed dress in the morning. I can go from just awake to completely dressed and in the kitchen in two minutes. I think there should be an Olympics for those sorts of skills, taking the washing off the line, that kind of thing.
It’s so lovely in the river. You lie on your back and look up at the blue, blue, sky. Then you have to close your eyes because the sun’s too bright. Everything goes orange as you look at the sun through your eyelids. Your body is icy cold and your face is burning hot. All the sound changes and you can hear the pulse in your ears. You don’t need to do anything but float, the water carries you under trees and round bends, sometime you’re floating properly and sometimes your bum drags against the gravel. Then Rose splashes and screams, “Crayfish, the river is full of crayfish.” We stood up and scrambled to the bank and pulled ourselves up onto the grass. I don’t mind crayfish, but I’m frozen and it’s lovely to lie in the sun like a gecko.
I soaked up the warm and felt my blood coming back to life. I closed my eyes and saw the chicken eyes staring at me. We had only collected thirty eggs this morning, fifteen cents each. I needed more money than that.
I wanted to get Mum a little statue. I’d seen the perfect one in Woolworths when we’d gone into town last week. I’d already got her the china kittens with real fur glued onto their heads, and a tiny brass bell, so she could ring it when she needed a nurse to bring her a cup of tea, but there was this old lady one I wanted to get her. It was old-fashioned and artistic; I knew she would like it.
It was my job to make Mum feel better. I’d managed it before when things were looking like they could turn bad. Sometimes I’d make her a cup of tea and put some gingernuts on a saucer and say, “Here you go Mum, sit down and have a cuppa.” She’d look at me all teary-eyed and say stuff like, “You’ve got more sense in your little finger…”
Sometimes I’d tell her funny stories about the kids at school. I’d make out that they were worse than us kids; I knew that always made her feel better. But now she was in hospital it was harder, I could send her stuff, but it’s important to read the vibe. If some nurse just gave her my letter or present at any old time it wouldn’t work. Thinking about this made me feel sick, so I came up with an idea.
“Let’s walk down the road to the pumice.”
I’ve always liked the look of this place when we bumped past it in Uncle Bill’s pick-up, on the metal road to their place. Someone’s been digging into the rocks and it looks like a grotto. It’s the sort of place Our Lady might come to, she generally visits kids like me and Rose. I know I’m kidding myself; Rose and I are pretty bad and Our Lady goes to the good kids. I like Our Lady best, God’s too scary, always looking at you. I’d like a statue of her, one of those huge ones like they have in the church. I don’t tell Rose any of this, she hates church.
It’s not as good at the pumice as I thought it would be, but neither of us wanted to go home. I’m so thirsty and my stomach is cramping up because it’s empty. It would be neat to live in an ad, everything clean and happy and all the peanut butter, chips and Fanta you could want. It would be even better to live in Woolworths, they have everything in there. I stop myself thinking about it and come up with a plan.
“All this pumice is worth a fortune; we could break some of it off and sell it in town.” I wasn’t quite sure how we would sell it, probably like when we walked along the road to find glass bottles, you can get two cents for each one at the dairy, only we didn’t find any bottles, well, just a few smashed up ones.
“Good idea, Crystal. There’s loads of it, it’ll be like mining. Jeez! We could be millionaires.” Rose always got carried away.
I grabbed a loose lump of pumice and started bashing at a large fixed rock. The pumice in my hand crumbled to pieces.
There were always big hard stones at the edge of the road so we both found one and started wacking the pumice. It wasn’t really working. The metal road was crunching and we could hear an engine. A pick-up truck came to a halt in a haze of dust and some bloke shouted out of its window, “Hey you little bastards, stop smashing up my pumice.”
We stopped and stared at the truck and the two blokes in it. Rose chucked her stone so it hit the tyre of the truck; I just dropped mine to the ground. I couldn’t see how it was his pumice; it was just at the side of the road. I didn’t say anything though, he looked pretty mean.
“What you girlies doing here?” The mean bloke was smiling now. I looked at Rose, her hair was all bushy from the river; she looked like a wild thing. I guessed I must have looked the same; this must be what mum meant about giving the wrong impression.
“Want a lolly?” He was holding up a bag of glassy lollies wrapped in cellophane. I couldn’t believe it. This was exactly like the film at school about stranger danger. What an idiot. Still, I imagined what the lolly would taste like, I really wanted one.
“Nah,” said Rose, “Got a ciggie?”
Who was she trying to fool? But the bloke said, “Yeah,” and tapped one out of box and passed it to her. Rose put the cigarette between her lips and drew on it as the man struck a match and lit the end. She exhaled a thread of smoke.
She passed the cigarette to me and I knew I had to act tough too, the men might be nice, but the vibe was not good. I dragged on the cigarette and blew out the smoke. Rose and I could smoke, we’d learnt behind the chook shed. We’d pinched Uncle Bill’s cigarettes and matches one night when he’d dropped off over his glass of beer.
“You girlies want a lift?”
“Nah,” I said quickly.
“Where to?” said Rose.
The man laughed and pointed to the back of the truck, “Go on, jump in.”
Rose put one foot on the tyre and hauled herself over. “Come on, Crystal.”
“Yeah, come on Crystal,” the men were laughing.
So here we are, in the back of the pick-up, lying on the burning metal and sacking, being chucked around as we go over every bump in the road. Rose is laughing her head off.
I look up and see the bright sun looking down at me, and all of the eyes: God’s, Mum’s and the chickens’, all watching and blaming me.