“Kindness is its own reward, so the saying goes, but what the sages forget to tell us is there is always someone standing nearby with a tally sheet recording every unkind act, you betcha. And that someone is called Karma!”
Grandpa said this with a flourish. He was an ace story teller, always assured us every word was the truth. But that was hard to swallow sometimes … well, often. His stories were always way out there. He said they were based on personal experience but he never produced any proof and that is probably where he lost his audience. Others dismissed him as some sort of lunatic. Not me though. I loved to hear what he had to say.
“Yep, Karma!” he said again, watching my mind wander a tad.
“And Karma is a right bitc …”
“Dad!” my mum yelled from the kitchen.
“Your Mum’s got a bit of that karma characteristic in her,” Grandpa muttered and touched his nose.
“Dad!” She yelled again, her voice getting a bit shrilly.
“See!” he said to me. “N. E. Way … where was I?”
He thought for a moment or two and I waited patiently.
Pop’s stories were always worth the wait. They were a treat. He could only tell them when Mum was in a particularly good mood. They were always … ALWAYS … a statement of fact. He said they were more accurate than anything you would ever read in a newspaper, then added that this was not a tall order. However, you could never help but wonder how hard he was pulling your leg.
Over the years, as we grew older, family friends passed on the story session with Grandpa’s fables, dismissing him as an outrageous liar. They just did not get it at all. They preferred to play pool in the rumpus room after dinner. The oldies would wander out onto the verandah for a fag and a yarn of their own; the boring kind that had to do with jobs, gossip, sports and stuff like that.
However, as long as Grandpa wanted to tell his stories, I wanted to listen. All were entertaining and memorable for one reason or another. Often I thought I recognised some of the characters around town. Sometimes they scared me. And sometimes he would tell it with such nostalgic resonance that I wished I could build a time machine and send him back there.
The last one he told was by far the most memorable though. Not because it was his last but because it was the most disturbing. It concerned an elderly woman called Lindell Cornish.
Miss Cornish was the ‘go to woman’ for fresh eggs. This may not seem like a significant title, but living in a town where the Agricultural Show annual bake-off took on all the characteristics of a multi-million dollar prize fight (minus the cash), then she was very much a woman in demand. Well, for at least the month of August in the lead up to September’s show.
Regular customers to the Cornish farm included Pearl Litman, the long-running festive fruitcake champion. Paul Potter-Smith a firm favourite for the apple pie was another.
Of course there were new contenders every year, but most of them could not get close to Lindell Cornish or her chooks. Miss Cornish was very particular about who could purchase her eggs and what they could be used for. The locals put this eccentricity down to the fact that her chickens, each and every one of them named, had the status of ‘child’ and were treated by their benefactor as such. You could not help but wonder how anyone could look after 52 children though.
“People think chickens are stupid. They’re dead wrong about that,” Miss Cornish would tell anyone close enough to hear her. This usually meant her customers and her lectures merely part of the price they had to pay for her eggs. The more intently they appeared to listen to her tales, the more likely she would pop an extra half dozen in their shopping basket. An inadvertent bored look could have the disastrous result of them being removed from the active customer list. But what was most likely a greater disaster was that people did not listen to her stories properly, drawing the conclusion that if she had been a bigger, stronger woman, she would have been dangerous.
“I talk to them every day. I always thank them for their gifts,” she said as part of her regular pitch.
“Can I see them?” Pearl asked once. Internally, she cringed, bewildered at why she would ask such a thing.
“Oh my goodness no. They don’t like strangers … don’t like them at all, Pearl. They do act so strangely around people they don’t know,” Miss Cornish responded with a deeply worried look.
While all of this was a tad difficult to digest, it came as little surprise that the townsfolk called her the Chook Woman of Cluesford for both her eccentricity and the fact that she took on a striking resemblance to her children. The natural extension to this thought process was the question: who on earth begat all those children with Lindell Cornish?
The chook woman’s house rested between an embankment and the edge of River’s Bend, a billabong found near the end of Victoria Road; or rather the dirt track extension of Victoria Road.
It was a fair hike from town, yet the local kids made the pilgrimage regularly, especially in summer. The house lay between the public right of way and a favourite swimming hole further on into the bush. Alexander’s Quarry, dubbed Xander’s Hole, was worth the trek. The teenagers could take Victoria Road most of the way to the swimming spot, but taking an ill-advised shortcut through the Cornish farm meant cutting their journey by 40 minutes.
It was never recommended by anyone to take this shortcut. The adults respected the old woman’s rights (to a point), but while the teens did not respect her, they were wary of her strange ways. Probably more to the point, they were in possession of the knowledge, brought to them by Beasley Simpson who sticky nosed through her loungeroom window one day and saw Miss Cornish had a veritable armoury mounted above her fireplace.
“There’s bleedin’ everythin’. Shot guns, rifles, a pistol I reckon. A bloody Samurai sword, shiny as you like. One o’ them double header axes, and a blunder thingy.”
“Blunderbuss!” Cathryn offered.
“Nope. It’s all true. I swear it,” he replied.
“No you idiot,” said Elaine. “That’s what that sort of gun is called. A blunderbuss.”
“Oh shit, yeah. Sorry Laine.”
The trio were on their way to Xander’s Hole, looking forward to the brimful quarry’s special juice. Locals theorised that it was fed from aquifers that were in turn the result of river overflow leaching through mullock heaps left a century earlier. The old quarry was considered the best swimming hole in the land owing to the fizzy water that filled it to the brim – with little thought to the toxins that it most likely held.
On this particular day, Cat made the group late for a rendezvous with some rather hot properties down at Xander’s Hole. Elaine was fuming. Jerry Hooper said he would be there. Nosey was fuming … Jerry’s auburn-haired sister Rachel was going to be there. Cat was fuming … both Jerry and Rachel were going to be there and she had not quite made up her mind which one she wanted to see more.
Cat’s mother was watching her like a hawk, sensing something was up.
“I had to pick a fight with her so she would banish me to the dungeon,” Cat explained.
The dungeon was her bedroom, a Spartan affair inspired by her Baptist upbringing and her mother’s meagre resources. Elaine, on the other hand, was over-indulged by her parents who had tried for a child their entire fertile lives and were finally blessed at the eleventh hour.
Nosey’s parents most likely did not even notice he was gone.
“Honestly, if you can’t count over seven then you shouldn’t have more than seven kids,” he said.
As they walked from the last of the asphalt road to the ridged, dirt track the three of them gave a collective shudder. They were in Chook Woman territory once they left the ‘civilised’ road behind them. Driving them forward was the beautiful pair of people who said they would meet them at the fizzy swimming hole.
“We have to make up time. We’re so late. They’ll think we’re not coming,” Nosey said, wiping away a bead of perspiration caught in the fuzz on his upper lip.
“Got a car? Got a bicycle? Got wings” Cat asked sarcastically.
“You KNOW what I mean,” he answered.
“Through the farm? Are you serious?” Elaine piped up.
“Worth it but!”
Apart from the fact he hated birds of all types, Nosey was the one who saw proof positive why it was entirely a bad idea. Yet he would throw caution to the wind to catch a glimpse, maybe even a touch of the lovely Rachel the Red.
They saw, up ahead, the carefully trimmed juniper hedge along the front of the chook woman’s cottage. It was anyone’s guess how old the house itself was and most likely had stood on that spot since the gold rush days. Miss Cornish lived there her whole life. Some thought she was probably even born there in the front drawing room. Although old fashioned, she did allow herself one mod-con. A battered, burgundy-coloured Austin A30 which she drove into town each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons with her egg deliveries.
“What’s that noise?” Elaine said.
“It’s the crank!” Nosey answered.
“Not nice!” Cat chided.
“No, dope. It’s the crank on her pregnant bubble car,” Nosey answered.
The three of them looked for a place to hide that could accommodate all three of them.
They would be spotted easily even though the grass alongside the track was quite long. They could hear the chains on her driveway gate clinking.
“Here!” Elaine grabbed the sleeves of the other two and dragged them over to the hedge. Between two of the trees was a hole about the right size for them to squeeze through and perhaps evidence of others using the way as a shortcut.
They did not stop to think it through. Nosey pulled his foot through the hedge just as Miss Cornish drove her car past the spot.
“Do you think she saw us?” Cat giggled. Elaine joined in, her nerves raw.
“Will you two shut up,” Nosey said. “Have to make sure she’s gone. I don’t reckon she’d miss a trick. I heard she took a scythe to Brad Green last summer when she found him in her yard.”
The girls had heard the story too. On the other hand, Green was a terrible liar and liked to grand stand. More likely she took a broom to him, they decided at the time, and he fell over, or something like that.
They huddled in their possie for a bit longer, straining to hear anything even vaguely like the old car squeaking its way back over the track. Each noise identified mentally: the water pump kicking in at one stage, a generator driving it, and the audio Mexican wave of clucking from behind the cottage; but nothing that even vaguely sounding like a car.
“Well, we’re here now. Might as well cut across the farm,” Nosey declared. Cat grabbed Elaine’s arm tightly.
“Whatever you do, don’t run off and leave me behind,” she said.
“As if …” Elaine said. “I never do stuff like that. All in or all out is my motto.”
But the three were terrified. They bobbed up from their hiding place slowly, cautiously, like meerkats in the desert.
“Has she got a dog?” Elaine whispered.
“Doubt it,” Nosey said. “Would get into her chooks and tear ‘em apart.”
They edged their way around the house and through a small cottage garden on its shady side.
Cat sneezed loudly.
“Bloody lavender,” she hissed. “Why are we whispering anyway?”
The others shrugged but they continued to talk in hushed tones.
The path through the garden led to a wonky verandah at the back. Amazingly, a new-looking hammock hung limply between two of its posts. They all wondered how the old lady would ever climb in it, or get out again for that matter.
The back yard was bounded by dry-stone wall made from volcanic rocks. They had tried to make something like that at school as part of a project, but it kept falling down.
“No mortar, nothing. Just expertly put together, each piece fitting perfectly,” their history teacher declared smugly.
“No bloody mortar,” Nosey whined at the memory. “I guess this old bird really is from the dark ages!”
A hot breeze kicked up and an empty Hills Hoist in dire need of oil moved its arms, splitting the soundscape with its song. A hurricane lantern hanging from the porch also began to move, clunking against the wooden boards.
“Just the wind. Just the wind,” Cat asserted. “Just the wind,” she said again as though trying to convince herself.
“Where to from here, Nosey? Do you remember from last time?” Elaine became a little more confident that they were alone and spoke in normal tones. She looked back towards the house, and the road, across to the driveway and garage, then to the back of the yard where a gate in one corner of the dry-stone wall led to large paddock surrounded by dense, shrubby acacias. They opened the rusty gate slowly and tentatively walked through. There were open-sided sheds on each side of the paddock, with the only way through, right down the middle under the gaze of the chickens. Elaine pushed the gate shut. The catch clicked into place, securing the gate firmly, but as soon as it clicked, the chickens all stopped their clucking as though a switch had been flicked. The birds turned their heads toward the intruders.
The three teens froze in place and stared back at the birds.
“Blimey. There’s more than 52 chickens here,” Nosey said, his voice cracking every so slightly.
“Guess they bred,” Cat muttered, not taking her eyes off the sheds.
“I don’t like it,” Nosey said. “This isn’t natural. Fuck, there’s hundreds of ‘em and they’re not making a sound.”
“You’re both bloody daft,” Elaine chided, annoyance creeping into her voice. “You two are falling under the spell of bloody gossip. Nothing wrong with any of this. C’mon. We’re late.”
She stepped forward confidently. The other two felt they had no option but to follow.
They stepped deliberately, carefully. Cat tore her eyes away from the sheds and looked straight ahead. Nosey followed her example, walking shoulder to shoulder with Cat, reluctantly following Elaine.
As they passed each shed, the birds began to click quietly.
“Notice something?” Nosey said, elbowing Cat.
“What?” she jumped.
“It’s not random. They’re clucking in rhythm.”
He was right. The birds were clicking their beaks rather than making any warbling noises. Cat swung around to look at the birds sitting up in the sheds they had passed. The noise immediately stopped. She glared for a moment, then began to walk again. As soon as her head was turned away, the clicking sound began. And as the three made their way along the corridor between the sheds, the noise grew as more and more birds joined in.
“They don’t sound like beaks. They sound like teeth,” Nosey said, laughing nervously.
“How far is it now?” Cat’s voice raised an octave or two. She was beyond nervous. Her fear barometer rounded the bend, passed ‘bloody shit scared’ and was heading for ‘fucking panic stricken’.
“About three hundred yards,” Nosey answered in similar tones.
“We’re not gonna make it. I’m going back,” Cat decided. But when she turned around, the way was completely blocked by a carpet of brown-feathered birds. The number on the ground was growing as they hopped off their perches and poured out the shed doors, closing the pathway behind the three kids like growing flood waters.
Elaine turned around to see what Cat was going on about.
“Run!” she yelled at Cat and Nosey.
But their way ahead was already blocked by more birds.
“On the roof,” Elaine screamed. “On the roof. They can’t fly well. We can ward them off.”
The adrenalin virtually gave her wings. She found a foot hold in a window frame, hoisting herself onto the corrugated roof of the nearest shed.
Cat was a little slower. The birds surged towards her. Nosey ran to her side, helping her climb up the side of a second shed.
She turned, fell on her knees and put her hand out to help Nosey up but by this time the birds were on him, a surging torrent of brown feathers and red combs.
The flood was already up to his waist when he began to scream. Cat yelled at him to take hold of her hand. She leaned down as far as she could. He grabbed her wrist but there were birds all over him, pecking and screeching in a way they had never heard before from chooks.
“Get me out of here,” he roared. “Get me out.”
Cat was determined not to let go, but the birds were pecking at her arms with such ferocity. She squeezed her grip as tight as she could, feeling the bones in his hand crunching. Blood poured down her forearm making it impossible for either of them to hold on.
Their hands slid apart. Nosey was completely covered by the birds. Cat watched in horror as the youth-shaped mound of birds fell backwards and onto the ground.
A few tried to flap their way to the shed rooves, but one at a time, they were easy to swat. Elaine thought she heard one bird’s neck snapped, although once it landed on the ground it picked itself up, glared at her, then waddled off.
The cacophony eventually subsided. The birds lost interest in the girls, waddling off to their respective houses. When they cleared away, there was not a single sign of Nosey, no clothes no bones or hair … nothing.
“Where is he?” Elaine called from the opposite side of the paddock. “Where is he? Did he get up and walk away?”
“No. He didn’t. He was there. Now he’s not,” Cat called back.
The girls sat on their sheds shocked and silent for several hours. The birds fell quiet, particularly as late afternoon set in. They began their roosting ritual.
Eventually the girls heard the sound of the old Austin bouncing its squeaky way down the track, pulling up outside the driveway gate. Mentally, they both pictured Lindell Cornish hopping out of the car, opening the gate, getting back, driving through, hopping out, closing and locking the gate, then putting her car in the garage.
They had no option but to call out to her.
“Oh my goodness,” she called from the paddock gate. “Are you hurt? Are you alright? What are you doing up there?”
Rather than angry or even somewhat insane, as the girls had expected, the old woman sounded terrified.
“Wait there. Whatever you do, don’t get down. I need something from the house,” she called.
That’s it, thought Elaine. She’s going inside to get her gun. She’s going to shoot us and feed us to her lunatic chickens.
The woman dashed back out of the house and across to the chook paddock. She came through the gate carrying a large Samurai sword.
“Do exactly as I say,” she called to the girls. “Wait there for a moment.”
She stood in the middle of the yard.
“Girls, you know what happens if you cross me. Gertrude, Sarah, Natasha, Jennifer! Tell your girls to stay put.”
“She’s bloody mad,” Elaine said, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Quiet!” Lindell Cornish snapped. “Just wait a minute.”
“Remember Elizabeth. She went into my pot because she ate the dog. Don’t make me do the same to you!”
She stood in the middle of the yard for a full five minutes. Not a sound was heard.
“Right now, girls. You can come down off the roof of the shed.”
They did as they were told, but very, very slowly. They walked carefully across the yard towards the old woman, watching that keen blade for the slightest movement.
It twitched and Cat stopped dead in her tracks. She turned her head. Behind her were two chickens following in her footsteps.
“I warned you,” the chook woman yelled. She whipped a small dagger out of her coat pocked and threw it directly, it seemed, at Cat. She could almost feel its slipstream as it whizzed past her. One of the chickens fell dead. The other squawked and ran back to its shed.
“Come on, young ladies. We must go.” She ushered the two friends out of the yard, shutting the gate behind her. “They never pass this gate,” she announced.
Beasly (Nosey) Simpson was never heard from again. The local police listed him as a runaway. As he said, his parents could not count past seven so they did not miss one more, as sad as that sounds. Elaine took to swimming in the local swimming pool, as small as it was. She and Cathryn lost touch. They never spoke of the incident again. Well, one more time. Her mother passed away and it was just Cathryn and her step dad. They were great mates. One night after a particularly awful nightmare had her screaming the house down she told him the whole grisly truth. Lucky he was an understanding chap, I suppose.
Grandpa clapped me on the shoulder and sent me off to bed.
I kept telling Mum that at eleven, I was too old to be tucked in. She was undeterred and I begrudgingly gave in to her maternal instincts. Deep down though, it was more than okay on this particular night. I could hear Grandpa snoring in his chair by the fire. No doubt the book had fallen face down in his lap and occasionally he snorted and made smacking noises with his lips. Yep, I could hear all that through the closed bedroom door!
As gross as it sounds, I loved the old guy so much but his story scared the bejeebies out of me.
Mum leaned down to tuck the other side of my bed in, making it nice and tight like a cocoon. As she pushed her hands under the mattress, the sleeve of her jumper pushed up to her elbow and all along her forearm, from elbow to wrist, was a line of pitted scars. Yes, I had seen those scars before. Mum had always told me they were from falling into a heap of prickly pair her father was planning to incinerate.
Tonight I was struck by a stark realisation.
She sat on the edge of my bed and patted my fringe.
I was not really sure how to broach the subject, although I knew she had been listening in the kitchen while she did the dishes.
“Pops is your stepdad right? He married Gran when you were what, fourteen?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“So, Cathryn! Did your friends call you Cat?”
Mum laughed. She bowed her head and looked at her hands for a few seconds, then pushed her sleeves down over her arms firmly.
She grinned and looked me square in the eye.
“Yes, they did, as a matter of fact. Cheeky little bugger, aren’t you!”
“And in answer to your other question … " she said, frowning. “It’s all pretty much accurate. Now, go to sleep.” She switched off my bedside light and walked out of the darkened room.
“Good night darling,” she said, closing the door behind her.
“Fat chance,” I mumbled. I could already hear them tap-tapping on my bedroom window.