On the way home from school, Maxie and I pass a man with dreadlocks leaning against a parked white ute covered in ornate blooms of rust.
‘Chickens for sale or trade,’ he says as we pass, not looking up from his mobile phone. I glance over quickly and shudder as I get a glimpse of the shifting mass crammed beneath the oilcloth pinned across the ute’s tray.
Maxie squeezes my hand. ‘Please, can we get some?’ he asks. His eyes are cartoonishly large and dark. ‘It’s your birthday!’
It is too. I don’t know how a kid can remember that, when I’d completely forgotten, but of course he pays close attention to the approach of our respective birthdays – they’re two of the few days in the year when I make an effort to do something special for us both. Usually. But I’d forgotten today was my birthday, and Maxie’s probably been saving that knowledge up all day, waiting for me to announce a celebration, then realising that none was coming and choosing this moment to dump a cocktail of guilt and loneliness on me.
‘No, Max. I don’t have any money.’
‘We can trade something,’ he whispers.
‘Anything,’ he breathes.
The man is still staring at his phone, but his thumbs have stopped moving.
‘You know,’ he says, and I’m surprised by how gentle and kind his voice is, given the hundreds of live chickens crammed inside his ute. ‘I do have a special birthday offer on these beauties. Today only.’ I glare at him. ‘The only cost is a birthday secret.’
Maxie grins. ‘You want to hear my secret?’ he asks.
‘Maxie!’ I say. ‘Sorry mate, we’re in a rush. And we don’t want any chickens.’
‘Sure do,’ says the chicken man, ignoring me.
He leans down and Maxie stands on his tiptoes to whisper. I look away, embarrassed. When I look back, the man is pressing a towel-wrapped bundle into his arms. Maxie’s face is flushed with excitement and he holds it like a newborn. Further protests die in my throat.
‘Better hurry home with those cheeky girls,’ the man says. ‘They tend to flip out when they realise they’re free. Battery farm born and raised,’ he adds in response to my raised eyebrow. ‘The farm was sold yesterday. Going to become a shooting range instead.’
We put the two chooks under a large crate with wooden slats and one open side. I used it as a garden planter, back when I still hoped I could grow some fresh vegies in our tiny weed-choked backyard. We give them some water and a dish of dry cereal, which they ignore. Their new home sits in the dappled shade of the dying eucalypt. They huddle petrified inside it all afternoon, silently pushed up against the back wall and sitting right on top of each other like the stuffed toys on Maxie’s bed. Half their beaks are missing and their claws are so long they curl around themselves.
‘Why don’t they come out and eat some dandelions?’ Maxie asks sadly, holding a bouquet temptingly just outside the crate.
‘They don’t want to be free, Max. It’s been bred out of them.’
‘Everybody wants to be free,’ he says with quiet conviction.
‘Not these chooks. C’mon, we need to go to the supermarket. Help me cover this gap so foxes can’t get at them.’ But Maxie turns away and wanders back to the house. I crouch and lean a heavy wooden plank against the crate, relieved he can’t see my face. Part of me wishes a fox would take them, just so I don’t have to look at the bald patches all over their bodies, the greying bumpy skin revealed beneath.
As soon as I’ve closed them in, the chickens begin an unearthly keening. It’s an unsettling, eerily human sound I hadn’t imagined birds were capable of. The way their few remaining feathers stick up around their necks reminds me of Queen Elizabeth’s white starched ruff.
‘Happy birthday to me,’ I say under my breath.
People started leaving town a few years ago, when the factories began closing, one after the other like they’d been waiting for a signal. Those who could afford to move elsewhere did. The kids on our block told us they were going to cities full of sunshine and tall glass buildings, where the streets were so well-lit you couldn’t see the stars and there were no hoarse whispers in shadowed corners. They told us they’d think of us while they sat in chrome-clad shopping centres, sipping pressed green juices and listening to the calls of tropical birds piped through the PA system. They said the streets were clean and smooth, and the nature strips lined with soft green grass, so there was no need to wear shoes.
Now the school feels hollow. All of the teachers have fled too, and so few students remain that Maxie and I are now together in the last remaining class, taught by the school librarian. We spend almost every minute of the day together, every subject given over to silent reading time. No wonder the few kids still left in town mostly don’t bother coming in. Lots of people have become nocturnal, as if they expect things will seem better if they’re only viewed in half-light and obscured by shadows.
The supermarket is half-empty, use-by dates long past and unfilled shelves labelled 50% off. There are no staff, but the self-checkout still works. Since it’s just Maxie and me, I cut corners. I’ve become an expert in weighing and classifying everything we buy as whatever the cheapest product is that week, trying to frame it as a game rather than theft (one of the grey lies I tell to protect Maxie’s conscience). I force myself to breathe evenly and act bored with the proceedings, fooling the surveillance cameras by projecting a level of confidence that would beat a lie detector.
A while ago there was a cyclone up north, and for a week the supermarket was filled with crates of green bananas. They were so cheap we drank smoothies for breakfast and ate banana bread for every meal. When the streets gushed with hot fat drops of rain, we hunkered down inside and bit into frozen bananas like they were treats from an ice-cream van. Then, as harvest season approached, a new strand of locust flew in and coated the potato fields. Everything had to be dug up at once, and I could choose from overflowing buckets of buttery kipflers and floury colibans as the too-loud supermarket muzak piped through the speakers. We ate hot salty chips and mash and sad potato salads made with oily margarine until we were sick of the taste of potatoes. I still have a bag under the kitchen sink, but it’s a last resort. I think of the chickens. If they laid eggs, we could make frittata! I don’t think Maxie would even remember what frittata is; I’m not sure I can recall the taste properly. I think of the chickens’ terrified black eyes, and push the thought away.
There is no consistency, no predictability, just one or two varieties of edible fresh produce each week which appear and vanish without warning. Later this week there will probably be an influx of scrawny chicken carcasses. Tonight, there are a few trays of small, stringy snow peas, but not much else. I’ll have to dig deep into the pantry to keep us going this week.
Later, after a dinner of baked beans on stale toast and a big snow pea salad, Maxie sits on my lap on the porch. He can’t imagine the shining world the kids at school described as they departed, but he understands that their boasts excluded us. It’s become a daily torment, night terrors that leak out into our pre-bedtime ritual, damp sheets that need changing in the dark hours. We stare at the stars, their brilliant halos untainted by light pollution, and he cries quietly, without conviction.
‘Why do we have to have the stars?’ he asks me. ‘I want lights instead. And not just the stupid MOON.’ He points at its round, silvery face, and I quickly pull his hand down.
‘It’s bad luck to point at the moon, Max,’ I whisper, ‘and also you might hurt its feelings.’ He laughs, tears glistening on his round cheeks, and I bury my face in the musky oiliness of his hair.
Minutes later, we are still silent. There are just the stars and the moon and us.
‘What’s that?’ asks Maxie, and his voice is muffled by the wind.
I strain my ears, and at first hear nothing. Then a gentle scratching sound rises up from under the eucalypt. We sit still, frozen to the spot, watching in the moonlight as one of the chickens gingerly squeezes itself between the slats of its box. Its foot catches for a moment on the lip of the crate, but it manages to right itself and stands still, turning its head in jerky movements to take in the sparse ground around it. The other follows it, slowly and arthritically. Max’s shoulders are tense, and he takes very small, quick breaths.
We watch as the chickens take their first tentative steps in the open air. They keep close together, and jostle each other gently as they move forward, pecking at bare patches of dirt and brushing past dandelion flowers.
‘Do you know something?’ he says.
‘What’s that, Max?’
‘It’s a secret. The secret I told the chicken man.’
‘Careful,’ I say. ‘If you tell everyone, it won’t come true.’
‘It’s already true!’
‘What was it, then?’
‘Okay, but don’t tell anyone else. Promise?’
‘Promise.’ He’s close enough that I can hear the slight catch in his breathing where his winter cough hasn’t quite gone away, and feel his hot breath tickling my ear. He cups his hands around my face and looks me seriously in the eye. The chickens are close now, clucking at our feet.
‘I love our stars.’
Veronica Sullivan is Online Editor of Kill Your Darlings and Assistant Manager of the Stella Prize. She tweets at @veronicaahhh.