Feather Man
by Rhyll McMaster


Chapter 1

Out of the Blue 

The day before had been a day of rain and once again Lionel and I were busy in the chook yard. The summer rain started in the late afternoon. One rumble of thunder and it poured. The spears of rain fell straight down, no wind, curtain after curtain of water, as if the stage manager had overdone the effect.

The smell of damp chooks thickened the air as Lionel worked to clean up their yard. I didn’t like the smell. It was so strong that I retched behind my hand. It was the same heavy smell their dead bodies gave out when Lionel dunked them in hot water in the downstairs concrete tub.

‘Softens their quills,’ said Lionel. ‘Then they pull out nice and easy.’

He put his whole hand up their bum holes and pulled out their innards. He showed me their crops, still full of undigested grain, their tiny red hearts and brown livers and something I couldn’t identify, ribbed and hard and orange in colour. I watched, unable to turn my eyes away, as he chopped their heads off on the block in the back yard, leaving a mash of blood and neck feathers. Their heads fell to the ground, their eyelids closed and whitening, their combs fading.

On top of the smell of wet feathers was the stench of liquefied chook shit. I could bear it when it was dry, but when wet it had a slimy, gutter smell of gizzards. The yard turned to liquid mud mixed with runny shit and Lionel used a shovel to clear out the bigger pot-holes, slinging scoops of stinking gravy through the wire fence.

He worked hard, his faded white and yellowing Chesty Bond singlet spotted with manure, a bead of sweat forming at intervals and running off the end of his beaked nose. The humid air pressed down on the back of my neck, a burning clamp. Rivulets of sweat ran down my back and into the crack of my buttocks.

I stood at the doorway and watched him work. I scribbled on my note-pad what I saw through one of the six-sided holes in the wire fence, reluctant to enter this Ypres of mud and sodden birds. He worked without speaking, his lips pressed back against his china teeth. Sometimes he let out a thin whistle of exertion.

He propped his chin on his shovel handle, and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm.

‘Taking a breather.’

He pin-pointed me with his right eye, framed in a net-hole.

‘Come in and help.’

‘No, I don’t want to.’

‘What’s the matter with you? Come and help Lionel.’

‘No, I don’t want to get dirty.’

I shifted position. Now I saw both his eyes calculating. I tried to keep my distance from him, but the more I evaded and retreated the more he advanced. All of a sudden he was up close, so close I saw the freckles on his shoulders, a pattern of tawny confetti.

‘Don’t you say no to me.’

He hoisted his shorts up, put his hands on his hips and stared.

‘Come on, I’ll give you a piggy-back and you can get the eggs for me. I’ll lift you over. You won’t get dirty. Hop on.’

He bent his back and braced his hands on his knees so that the skin pushed over his knee caps in loose puppy-fat folds. He gestured for me to get on.

I thought of those times of contented indulgence when he piggy-backed me round the yard so I didn’t get bindi-eyes in my feet. It was a world free of adults up on his back. I raised my arms and brushed the soft, fishbone foliage of the giant poinciana. I grabbed a handful of leaves and shredded the leaflets off their stalks so they fell in tropical snowflakes as he jogged around.

I thought of my father shouting ‘Look out!’ as he carried me on his shoulders. He ducked under the Hills Hoist and raced down the side path at break-neck speed, the dog bouncing ahead and turning her muzzle to smile, one ear askew and turned back on itself.

I always trusted Lionel and my father to look after me, even though I knew it was my job to watch out for myself, up there in my aerial kingdom. The best part was when I got lifted down, my entire body weight held for a moment, suspended in that stopped world between earth and sky, safe within the bookends of their hands.

‘Lift me up, lift me up,’ I pleaded to my father, wanting again that ineffable sensation of weightlessness.

Now Lionel waited. His finger pointed up his curved back. He had a curious lump on the middle of his back, near the spine. I got on, tucking my spiral-bound note-pad into my waistband. He had taken off his singlet so my bare legs stuck to his skin and I felt my body heat front up to his clammy coolness. He stepped up the yard under my weight. I saw his sandalled feet land on the scraped stepping-stones.

We entered the relative dryness of the nesting boxes, but he didn’t stop to let me gather the eggs. Instead, he swung me off his back, stooped again and laid me down in the space under the ladder that gave access to the higher perches. There was a bit of straw there under the over-hang of the boxes, a few pinnacles of chook poop and some dry dirt.

My hands still gripped his shoulders. I felt the bat wings of hair that ran across his back. He pushed his face close to mine. I looked at his eyes. They were remarkable, glassy, with yellow rays, but now they had a white glare in them, as if I was looking up close into the tunnel of a turned-on torch.

‘Whose girl are you?’ He gave my shoulders a shake.

‘I’m nobody’s girl. I’m me.’

He straddled me on his hands and knees. His face showed a mixture of threatening authority and displeasure, but now the threat held a blaze of excitement that didn’t seem to have anything to do with me.

I wanted my mother to come down the back yard and call for me. I wanted her voice to intervene and fetch me back to what I knew. Even though I’d get into trouble, I wanted her to find me. She must have been down at the shops or reading a book or having a cool shower, for she did not come to rescue me.

He sat up on his haunches and undid the buttons on his baggy khaki shorts. It was dark in there between his legs. He didn’t have underpants on the way my father would have. He forced my left hand to touch him.

‘Feel that. Nice. Tickle my willy.’

‘No, I don’t want to.’

He let go my hand and bent over me again. His face came close with its lit-up eyes. He slobbered on my mouth and nibbled my lips with his teeth, a deranged rabbit. He sucked my nose so I couldn’t breathe. He stopped and I hoped he had finished. I couldn’t stop him. In the end, I always did as I was told.

My mother’s timid politeness was my rickety refuge. If I did as he said, he would go back to being Lionel the magistrate. The universe would right itself; sense and grown-up sensibility would prevail. But it didn’t, not this time. Instead he shoved my shirt up my chest and kissed me on the stomach. ‘I don’t want you to do that.’ My voice sounded hollow.

‘Why not? It’s nice.’

He strung out the word ‘nice’ in a slur. I had never heard him speak like this. What was this thing that had climbed out of the Lionel I knew, this hairy tarantula? One of my father’s phrases came into my head. ‘Grin and bear it.’ I couldn’t grin but I hoped I could let this macabre story play itself out.

‘Nice,’ he said again and moved his head down. At the same time he pulled my Elizabethan bloomers down round my ankles.

‘Here, give me those silly scribblings,’ he said, and he threw my note-pad out of my line of vision. He bent and slobbered between my legs and my heart beat in tiny, unaccustomed patterns. I saw a pair of chook’s legs walk by my head. Even the chooks acted as if everything was normal. The wire of the chook fence to one side of me looked as usual. The bit of sky over one of Lionel’s shoulders was a disinterested blue. But my thighs looked unusual, the way Lionel had jacked them up and spread them apart. I wasn’t used to seeing them that way. They looked pale and nude, the inside of frogs’ legs, as if they were too unripe to be like that.

Lionel fiddled one hand around between his legs where he wanted me to touch him. Now his hand moved in rapid jerks. He stopped and spat on his finger. He grabbed me round the neck with his other hand, his thumb and fingers under my jaw, and squeezed. He didn’t cut off my air but I felt a sense of pressure and dizziness. He pressed and dug with his spat-upon finger in that area my mother called my bottom, pushing until his finger went right in.

I ached inside, the raw ache you get when you press your eyeballs hard. He groaned. His mouth hung open. He took his finger out and lay on top of me. Now I couldn’t breathe or move or call out for my mother as he took his hand from round my neck and pushed under my chin so my head went back as far as it would go. He tried to poke something in where his finger had been. I was dry and stinging down there. He gave up. I felt something bulky on the skin of my stomach and then he lurched up and down, his head thrown back, making more groaning noises, this time mixed with grunts of exertion. After a while he stopped. Then he got off me and started doing up the buttons of his shorts.

I stood up, cracking my forehead on one of the nesting boxes, disturbing a chook who might all that time have been laying an egg. She clucked in that astounded way chooks have of showing their displeasure. I walked past Lionel and kept walking, brushing myself clean as I went.

Lionel called after me, ‘Hey girlie,’ as if to a stranger. His voice coaxed, conciliatory, but I kept on walking until I reached the drain that divided our yards. Something shifted position out to the right. I kept my neck stiff. I didn’t look. I ran to our back door.

I had strange sensations in my knees as if they might turn to fluid and give way under my weight. The top half of our Dutch door was open as usual, but I knew by the silence and emptiness that there was no-one inside. I shut the bottom half and then in a rush snibbed the top half shut. My fingers were putty as I turned the brown key in the lock.

I walked up the hallway past the brown hall cupboards to my bedroom and stared at it. Everything the same. Figured wallpaper the same. Chenille bedspread covering the made up bed, the same. There was the lump at the bottom that was the dog.

If my mother was in a rush she made the bed with the dog in it. I lay down on the quilt, too tired to pull it back. The dog moved under the covers. My feet were cold. I rubbed them together but it didn’t help. I moved them down to the faint water-bottle warmth of the dog lump. There was grit under my waistband and as I passed my hand across my stomach I felt something slimy.

I fell asleep. When I woke up my mother was standing over me, grinding her teeth.

‘What have you been doing to yourself? You’re lying on your quilt!’

Her voice rose as the list of crimes escalated. ‘You’re filthy dirty. How dare you come into the house covered in filth?’ ‘Look!’ She slapped at my back. ‘You’ve got dirt all over you. Don’t you ever think about how hard I work to keep this place clean? You’re always making a mess. Now I’ll have to wash this quilt. Get off it. This instant! I don’t run a house for guttersnipes. You dirty girl!’

She pushed at me as I got up. She stripped the quilt off in one sharp movement. The pillow tumbled out of the tuck-over and landed on the floor.

‘And get that dog out of your bed. How many times have I told you not to let animals in your bed? You’ll get worms. I’ve told you that. No-one listens to me in this house. You just go your own sweet way.’

She glared at me. ‘What’s that graze on your forehead? You silly girl. You’ll get an infection going around like that. Go on, go and change and put those dirty things in the clothes-basket. And wash your hands’ she called after me.

I welcomed getting into trouble, her lack of sympathy. It was a return to normal. I knew if I was careful and kept out of her way, I would get through. I would be all right. If I just kept quiet about this, one of my mother’s constant exhortations, it would go away. I knew I had made one decision. If I was all on my own, I was never going back to Lionel, ever again.

I did get an infection but not on my forehead. My private parts stung and then itched. Small lumps formed on the raw skin inside. I stood in the shower with the water scalding hot and held a steaming flannel to myself as a poultice. I locked the bathroom door. I sat in the shower recess with a flannel blocking the drain till the hot water ran out. The room filled with steam and I imagined myself in the Land of Polar Bears from The Enchanted Wood, even though I was too old to read such baby stories.

And I got a dose of worms, that bane of my life. My mother answered my entreaties at bed-time, when the worms were at their most active. She made me prop up my bottom and searched for signs of them with a torch.

She made a tsk, tsk noise and adjusted her glasses with one finger.

‘Have you wiped your bottom properly? The eggs live under your nails.That’s why you have to wash your hands. I’ve told you and told you.’ Then a final salvo. ‘And don’t touch yourself down there!’

She had various strategies against the worms. She put sticky tape over my bum hole, the way you catch flies on fly-paper. That didn’t work. Nor did smearing my behind with Vaseline. I hated the greasy feel it made, as if I had dirtied myself. Once I saw a worm she caught and held out to me in triumph on the end of a cotton-wool-swathed matchstick. It was the glassy white of rice noodles with a pointy tail that whipped round, frenzied, as if it didn’t like the light.

I saw why it itched so much. I imagined hundreds of them inside me and it maddened me as I scratched and scratched until I was sore. One night I felt them making the trek across the little bridge of skin and I squashed them through my pyjamas in horror. I hoped Lionel had got some of my worm eggs lodged under his horny fingernails. I put my hands under my chin and prayed that he would forget to wash his hands. I wished he would get the biggest dose of writhing worms that I could bring to life in my imagination.

That is how it ended, that heavy summer day. But it had begun some time before.

Chapter 21

Ink Dog

‘Everything’s going to rack and ruin,’ says my mother, locked into her standard domestic nightmare. If she’d had a tuneful voice she might have sung Unchain My Heart, wanting to be set free. But brute forces were the only things being unchained in our house. I could see what she’d been worrying about when the fish tank cracked open.

‘Put the dog to bed, will you?’ my mother calls.

‘Please,’ I say under my breath. I coax the reluctant Sparkles with winsome noises and clicking fingers down to her cubby-hole under the house. She makes a run for it at the last moment and I have to chase her. I gather her wriggling body up in my arms, resting my lips on her silken ear as I carry her to her dungeon. She hates being put in there under the floorboards of the spare room, locked in for the night with her welcoming fleas and her sad doggy smell. She probably wonders if I will ever let her out. When I shut the barred door against her I spend minutes saying a contrite goodnight. I wonder if her heart thumps in her chest. ’Close your eyes,’ I croon. I know it’s better not to see the dark. Some nights she is inconsolable and howls until Mum stamps her feet on the spare room boards to get her to stop.

One night she stamps too hard. A sharp crack sounds and the glass front of the monolithic marine aquarium develops a rapid running thread. It spreads and widens. Then the contents gush out, all fifty gallons of it. It carries with it sea-horses, weed and coral, and the black and white striped fish called Humbugs that flit in and out among the sea anemones’ tentacles.

My mother, in an unusual effort of renovation, dyed the old carpet with Quink blue ink. She was proud of her cost-saving innovation until Dad saw it. ‘You’re bloody cuckoo, Darl,’ was all he said.

The sea water mixes with the ink to produce a soggy blue swamp. It smells of sea creatures in extremis. The fish flop in the mire, the sea-horses on their cardboard sides looking surprised as ever. Mum thrashes around to retrieve them as I hold out a bucket, but there is no sea water left for them and the chlorine in the tap water soon kills them.

Fate brings my father home early. He stands in the doorway surveying the scene.

‘I told you this would happen, Darl,’ my mother cries, as if her fears made any difference.My father turns away from the mess in his city suit and leaves her to clean it up. The next morning when I let the dog out she emerges with a guilty look on her face, ears down, tail drooped. An awful smell comes out with her, of wet and stinking doggy blanket and marine disaster. The ink has dyed her tan coat blue.