Out the back of the new house, between the picket fence and a sheet of tin, Kylie found an egg. Her mother and Philip were inside. She heard them arguing and wished she still lived with her father. The yard was long and excitingly littered with fallen grapevines, a shed, lengths of timber and wire and twitching shadows from big trees. It wasn’t a new house, but it was new to her. She had been exploring the yard. The egg was white and warm-looking in its nest of dirt and down. Reaching in, she picked it up and found that it was warm, and something rose in her chest: now she knew what it was to have a secret.
At dinner her mother and Philip spoke quietly to one another and drank from the bottle she was only allowed to look at. Her mother was a tall woman with short hair like a boy. One of her front teeth had gone brown and it made Kylie wonder about her. She knew that Philip was Mum’s new husband, only they weren’t married. He smelt of cigarettes and moustache hairs. Kylie thought his feet were the shape of pasties.
When everything on her plate was gone, Kylie left the table. Because the loungeroom was a jungle of boxes and crates inside one of which was the T.V., she went straight to her new room. She thought about the egg as she lay in bed. She was thinking about it when she fell asleep.
Next day, Kylie got up onto the fence and crabbed all around it looking into the neighbours’ yards. The people behind had a little tin shed and a wired-up run against the fence in which hens and a puff-chested little rooster pecked and picked and scruffled. So, she thought, balanced on the splintery grey fence, that’s where the egg comes from. She climbed down and checked behind the sheet of tin and found the egg safe but cold.
Later, she climbed one of the big trees in the yard, right up, from where she could observe the hens and the rooster next door. They were fat, white birds with big red combs and bright eyes. They clucked and preened and ruffled and Kylie grew to like them. She was angry when the piebald rooster beat them down to the ground and jumped on their backs, pecking and twisting their necks. All his colours were angry colours; he looked mean.
Inside the house Mum and Philip laughed or shouted and reminded her that Dad didn’t live with them any more. It was good to have a secret from them, good to be the owner of something precious. Philip laughed at the things she said. Her mother only listened to her with a smile that said you don’t know a single true thing.
Sometime in the afternoon, after shopping with her mother, Kylie found a second egg in the place between the fence and the tin. She saw, too, a flash of white beneath a mound of vine cuttings in the corner of the yard. She climbed her tree and waited. A hen, thinner and more raggedy than the others, emerged. She had a bloody comb and a furtive way of pecking the ground alertly and moving in nervous bursts. For some time, she poked and scratched about, fossicking snails and slugs out of the long grass, until Kylie saw her move across to the piece of tin and disappear.
Each day Kylie saw another egg added to the nest up the back. She saw the raggedy hen pecked and chased and kicked by the others next door, saw her slip between the pickets to escape. The secret became bigger every day. The holidays stretched on. Philip and her mother left her alone. She was happy. She sat on the fence, sharing the secret with the hen.
When they had first moved into this house on the leafy, quiet street, Philip had shown Kylie and her mother the round, galvanized tin cover of the bore well in the back of the yard. The sun winked off it in the mornings. Philip said it was thirty-six feet deep and very dangerous. Kylie was forbidden to lift the lid. It was off-limits. She was fascinated by it. Some afternoons she sat out under the grapevines with her photo album, turning pages and looking across every now and then at that glinting lid. It couldn’t be seen from the back verandah; it was obscured by a banana tree and a leaning brick wall.
In all her photographs, there was not one of her father. He had been the photographer in the family; he took photos of Kylie and her mother, Kylie and her friends, but he was always out of the picture, behind the camera. Sometimes she found herself looking for him in the pictures. Sometimes it was a game for her; at others she didn’t realise she was doing it.
Two weeks passed. It was a sunny, quiet time. Ten eggs came to be secreted behind the piece of tin against the back fence. The hen began sitting on them. Kylie suspected something new would happen. She visited the scraggy, white hen every day to see her bright eyes, to smell her musty warmth. It was an important secret now. She sneaked kitchen scraps and canary food up the back each evening and lay awake in bed wondering what would happen.
It was at this time that Kylie began to lift the lid off the well. Surprisingly, it was not heavy and it was easy to move. Carefully, those mornings, shielded by the banana tree, she peered down into the cylindrical pit which smelt sweaty and dank. Right down at the bottom was something that looked like an engine with pipes leading from it. A narrow, rusty ladder went down the wall of the well. Slugs and spiderwebs clung to it.
One afternoon when Philip and her mother were locked in the big bedroom, laughing and making the bed bark on the boards, Kylie took her photo album outside to the well, opened the lid and, with the book stuffed into the waistband of her shorts, went down the ladder with slow, deliberate movements. Flecks of rust came away under her hands and fell whispering a long way down. The steel ladder quivered. The sky was a blue disc above growing smaller and paler. She climbed down past the engine to the moist sand and sat with her back to the curving wall. She looked up. It was like being a drop of water in a straw or a piece of rice in a blowpipe — the kind boys stung her with at school. She heard the neighbours’ rooster crowing, and the sound of the wind. She looked through her album. Some pictures of her mother showed her looking away into the distance. Her long, wheaten hair blew in the wind or hung still and beautiful. It had been so long. She never looked at the camera. Kylie saw herself, ugly and short and dark beside her mother. She grew cold and climbed out of the well.
It seemed a bit of an ordinary thing when she got out. Nevertheless, she went down every day to sit and think or to flick through the album.
The hen sat on her eggs for three weeks. Kylie sat on the fence and gloated, looking into the chookhouse next door at the rooster and his scrabbling hens who did not know what was happening her side of the fence. She knew now that there would be chicks. The encyclopaedia said so.
On nights when Philip and her mother had friends over, Kylie listened from the darkened hallway to their jokes that made no sense. Through the crack between door and jamb she saw them touching each other beneath the table, and she wanted to know — right then — why her father and mother did not live together with her. It was something she was not allowed to know. She went back to her room and looked at the only picture in her album that let her look like she knew things. It was a shot from way back in kindergarten. She was small, dark-haired, with her hands propping up her face. Her smile told her that there was something she knew that the photographer didn’t. She couldn’t remember what it was; it was a whole year ago. She held the picture close to her face. It made her confident. It made her think Philip and her mother were stupid people. It stopped her from feeling lonely.
Philip caught her down the well on a Sunday afternoon. He had decided to weed the garden at last; she wasn’t prepared for it. One moment she was alone with the must, the next, the well was full of Philip’s shout. He came down and dragged her out. He shouted. He told her he was buying a padlock in the morning.
That evening the chicks hatched in the space between the sheet of tin and the back fence — ten of them. At dusk, Kylie put them into a cardboard box and dropped them down the well. The hen squawked insanely around the yard, throwing itself about, knocking things over, creating such a frightening noise that Kylie chased it and hit it with a piece of wood and, while it was still stunned, dropped it, too, down the dry well. She slumped down on the lid and began to cry. The back light came on. Philip came out to get her.
Before bed, Kylie took her photograph — the knowing one — from its place in the album, and with a pair of scissors, cut off her head and poked it through a hole in the flyscreen of the window. The neighbours’ rooster crowed. She knew then that she was as stupid as Philip and her mother.
In the morning, Philip bought a big, golden padlock and snapped it on the well lid. Kylie stayed indoors.