Inside the wire cage are two small rabbits, eating from a pile of picked grass. One blinks. The girl thinks it’s at her but can’t be sure as its eyes dart around a lot. The eyes are deep black, almost all pupils. Her mother flicks up the latch on the door of the cage and lets her scoop up one of the bunnies and hold it. She feels its heat through the knit of her school jumper. It scratches her hand with its claws, makes it bleed a bit, but she doesn’t mind. The cage comes home in the back of the car and they put it at the side of the house, under the apricot tree with its branches widely outstretched around itself, starting to lean closer to the ground with all the new, tight-mouthed green fruit. She gets the tin lid that’s lying among the grass left in the bottom of the cage and fills it up with water and picks more grass for them. Her mother says the grocer can give her boxes of cabbage and lettuce leaves to feed them.
The rabbits keep tipping over the lid or sitting in it and going to the toilet in the water, and she notices that the bottom of the cage is all hard wire and asks her mother if that won’t hurt their feet. ‘They’re rabbits,’ her mother says. ‘They don’t care.’ The grey-brown rabbits don’t look much different from the baby wild rabbit her father once caught in his hands and gave to her to hold, but she hadn’t held tight enough and it jumped from her arms and ran away. She found it later, by the dripping tap with mint growing around it in the garden. It looked at her, not like these rabbits, crouching still in their cage and only seeming to look at everything but not quite at anything, sort of looking at nothing. The wild rabbit had gazed at her with its deep black eyes and blinked, and she didn’t move and neither did the rabbit except for the blinking. Then it hopped off towards the fence and disappeared underneath and she let it and thought it knew she was letting it.
These two rabbits in the cage are given names and she keeps filling up the tin lid when she remembers and picking grass for them, and the boxes of cabbage and lettuce leaves come from the grocer’s a couple of times a week. She likes to watch the rabbits nibble on the large leaves that curve right around their bodies, blue-green leaves with patterns of holes made in them by moths. One day she comes out early in the morning and it’s hot already, the apricots bright orange, some tinged with deep red. She means to give the rabbits a drink. The lid’s upside down, empty. When she flicks up the latch and opens the door, the rabbits don’t scurry away as they usually do, and she hopes maybe they’re used to her at last, like her grey budgie, which will perch on her finger.
She pats the soft back of one of them. It twitches and scuttles a little but still she can reach it to pat. It turns its head and she jerks her hand away, catching her wrist painfully on a sharp piece of wire. Where a deep black eye should be, there’s a white mass, rippled and thick like the tripe in her father’s showcase at the butcher’s. She thinks its eye must have fallen out. The rabbit moves around and the other eye is gone too. The second rabbit also has no eyes. Only the thick white instead of the black that was deep like water, a mossy pond, or even like a sea somewhere she’s never been. She runs down the street to the butcher’s. ‘The rabbits,’ she cries. She tells them what she’s seen. ‘Myxo,’ her father says. ‘It’s a disease. They’ve gone blind.’
When she gets home, the girl rabbit is lying on her side, still, the thick white where the black should be facing up to the sky. The other rabbit is at the far end of the cage. She pokes in fresh grass but he doesn’t eat, and he doesn’t drink the water when she pushes the tin lid close to him. Looking out with his two thick white nothings, the rabbit stands, fur pressed against the wire. In the morning, the cage is empty, the rabbits taken away. The apricots fall and start to rot, and the rectangle marked out in the grass where the cage had been is no longer visible. ‘Serves you right for trying to keep parasites as pets,’ they say to her at school.
Aviary. That’s what they call it. But she can’t give it this name that trills over her tongue as though something is opening, an embrace of herself that turns into a spinning around and throwing out of arms into the sky, hair flying about her. That’s aviary. What’s in the backyard is a cage. A tall, rectangular box of a cage, with square-linked wire wrapped around it and a metal door at the bottom. A locked door. Her parents have given her the key to the padlock. ‘Don’t lose it.’ They’ve put the tall cage full of birds at the back of the yard, beyond the clothes line, against the corrugated tin of the shed. The budgies are to be shared with her brothers and sister, but she’s the one responsible for looking after them. They must think she wants all of these birds.
She has one budgerigar, a male, with pale-grey feathers tipped in white in a pattern that reminds her of the old hand-stitched lace on pillowcases her mother has stored away in the top of the linen cupboard. He’s in a cage, too, a tiny one, but she’s never thought of it that way until now. It’s kept in the kitchen, over by the back window. During the day when the budgie hops about between his perch and the swinging mirror toy, he looks out the window and chirps. At night, when he quietens and tucks his head under one wing, she puts the fabric cover over the cage and makes it dark for him. He goes to sleep at dusk, even though the family stays up and the kitchen light is kept on long after that time.
She keeps the cage clean and his water and food holders full. He is named after a river in Papua New Guinea, the river her father mentions when he shows her slides of the time he was there, helping to build a dam in the highlands, a time when he wrote letters to her. She is glad the bird is here in the house, in the cage that she can wrap her arms right around. He lets her stroke his feathers and stays still and quiet instead of what he did when she first got him, fluttering all about the cage, banging against the thin wire, shedding feathers onto the metal tray at the bottom, squawking, and, maybe, if she didn’t watch out, biting her fingers. Her father watches, one time, when he gets home from work, comes into the kitchen and takes his plate of dinner from the top of a simmering saucepan where his wife has left it to keep warm, another plate on top to keep in the heat.
She stands close to the cage, her body pressed against the side, and her whole hand inside. She strokes the bird, from just above his beak, over his head, along the slant of his back, and over the longest tail feathers. Sometimes a soft warble comes from deep in his belly. ‘He trusts you,’ her father says. ‘Only you.’ He shows her what happens when he puts his own hand into the cage, or even moves close to the cage. The flying, the banging against the wire, the falling feathers. A squawk. Then he tells her to put her hand inside again. Even though the bird is ruffled, he gets onto his perch and lets her pat him smooth again. ‘You’re the one who looks after him,’ her father says. ‘But I think he likes your quietness, too.’
The big cage of budgerigars is taller than her, but even though it’s large, it seems far too small to contain all the birds inside, more birds than she can count, especially with them flying about all the time. Her bird in the small cage in the kitchen can’t fly, can only flutter a bit in his small space. The birds in the big cage fly—they beat their wings and ascend from the ground to the roof or fly swiftly from one side to another. Somehow, it’s this that upsets her. They can fly, but they’re always stopped by the roof and the wire-bound walls. They’re almost free to fly in the sky, but they’re not free. This seems cruel to her in a way that keeping her bird in his small cage doesn’t. As soon as she steps out through the back doorway, she can hear the noise of the birds. There are so many birds in the cage that all the chirping, squawking and calling at once hurts her ears. The noise of it gets shriller when she’s unlocking the door, but she doesn’t believe it’s to do with her. It’s just the expectation of the food she’s bringing, and maybe fear of her coming close.
On the first day, encouraged by her parents, she crawls right inside, and stands up in the cage. Before entering, she’d imagined herself with the bright birds arranged all over her arms and shoulders, like she is a painted picture of a girl in a book. She scrapes her wrist and gets bird poo on her hands as she crawls through the doorway and bangs her head on a hollow branch that was strapped to a wall for nesting. A tiny speckled egg falls out and smashes and she wants to cry. The birds shriek and dart around her in a blur of colours. She hides her face, scared they’ll scratch her, and she gets down and scrambles out, tipping over the water trough and soaking her jeans on the way out. There are too many birds. It doesn’t matter to them that she is the one looking after them. They don’t notice her quietness. None of them would let her pat them any more than the crows out picking from roadkill on the highway would let her.
Her bird can go in there too, her parents say, he’ll be happier in the aviary, with space to fly and the company of other birds. She supposes he will. Her father takes the little cage, places it inside the large one and opens the door. The bird perches on the edge of his open hatch and looks out, then calls loudly, louder than she’s heard him before. He flies out. First, he flies only a little way at a time, and then he spreads out his wings and she sees all of the palest feathers that have been tucked away, and he flies up to the top of the cage. He doesn’t let her pat him again. Doesn’t even come close when she approaches the cage and talks softly to him, saying his faraway river name.
The sacks of birdseed are heavy to move and sometimes have mice inside. The food and water trays in the cage are heavy too and hard to clean, always thickly layered with poo. It hurts her back to bend down to the low door. She starts to hate looking after the birds. Maybe she starts to hate the birds, except for her one. And she keeps forgetting where she’s put the key to the padlock. She threads it onto a long piece of yellow wool to make it easier to find. But, like socks and library books, it keeps disappearing. A day comes when she can’t find the key before school and she tells herself she’ll feed the birds later. She forgets about it after school and then again the next morning. When she does remember, she still can’t find the key. Knowing she’ll get into trouble, she doesn’t tell anyone. Dragging the hose over to the cage, she tries to hose off the dirty troughs through the wire but most of the poo won’t come off. She fills the water trough anyway and tries to pour enough seed through the gaps in the wire. Most of it falls on the grass outside the cage. She keeps doing that for another day or two. But it’s hard. She puts it off and then she starts to forget altogether.
‘Have you fed the birds?’ her mother asks one day just before nightfall. She goes out to the shed and gets some seed and picks up the coils of the hose. When she reaches the cage, she thinks it’s quieter because it’s nearly dark and the birds will be settling in for sleep. She looks in. Three dead birds are lying in the seed trough, and another two are in the empty water trough. All around, all over the floor of the cage, are the bodies of dead birds, azure and turquoise, grass-green and orange. Grey and white. She gasps, starting to sob. She sees her bird, perched up on the wire, near the roof, head cocked to one side. About half the birds are dead.
She pours in the seed and when it falls outside the cage, she picks it up in handfuls and tries to push it through the gaps, even tries throwing it in. She gets a stick and pushes the dead birds from the water trough and scrapes off some of the poo so she can put in clean water, but when she hoses in the water, it looks filthy. Still, the birds fly down and drink it, and peck the seed away as fast as she can get it in there. She goes into the house and searches again for the key on its yellow wool, looks everywhere all over again. Her mother comes into her room and asks what’s going on and she tells her and begs her to help find the key. ‘How long has it been lost?’ her mother asks. ‘The bloody things will die.’ She sees her daughter’s face. ‘Are they dead already?’
Her parents run out to the cage and see all the dead birds. Her brother goes too, and by torchlight her father snips off the padlock with a tool and they scrub the troughs and feed and water the birds and take out the dead ones. She doesn’t help. She stays in her room and cries. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. They come back inside and everyone’s upset, and angry with her. The next morning, she tells them she doesn’t want to look after the birds any more. She doesn’t want them to be hers. She wants only her one bird, back in the little cage she can put her arms around in the kitchen. ‘You won’t look after the birds? Your birds?’ They’re not listening when she says, ‘Only one is mine.’ After school she goes out to get her bird, stooping under the clean sheets spinning on the clothes line. The door to the cage is propped open. All the birds have flown away. All of them.
He barks all the time and she likes it that way, because she’s scared of the dark and sometimes she’s scared in the daytime too. They’ve had joeys to raise, pulled out of the pouches of mothers lost to roadkill, and once there was a tiny emu chick with a dappled back, orphaned in late winter (she can’t bear to think of the mother emu dead on the road, a low hill of feathers like ferns) that cheeped quietly all day and shuffled itself closer and closer to the fire burning in the hearth and then, as the family sat around the television, her mother’s knitting needles clacking—if she listened hard and made the TV’s sound blur into a crackly hum, she could hear how the clacking of the needles made a tune with the popping of the fire as the mallee roots blazed—the emu chick had leapt into the fireplace, shrieking and running to the back, behind the flames, into the fire, and died. And there had been the budgies, but she doesn’t like to think of them. Or of the rabbits.
But they haven’t had a dog since the pug died, the pug that had been given to her brother for Christmas just before she was born and had lived out her life with them, she and her brother barely differentiating her from each other. The pug liked to chase cars and was hit several times, once left unconscious, spread out nearly flat on the bitumen, back legs sticking straight out behind her, forelegs out front, and her pink tongue poking out, as though time had stopped for her in mid run. But after a few minutes she woke up, stood and stretched, and waddled, curled tail like a pig’s wagging, to her and her brother, wobbling on her legs just a bit. It wasn’t chasing the cars that killed her. At 13, the pug’s heart gave out.
Now there’s the German Shepherd. It arrives as a small, warm pup, fur fluffed out around itself like a bird’s plumage when her brother takes it for rides on his new racing bike. Quickly, the pup grows into a big dog with a loud bark. He doesn’t bite. She tells everyone that. But still they yell at her since her family bought a dog that barks at every-one who walks past her house. ‘Your dog needs a bullet.’ She’s never noticed many people walking by. The house is not so much on the main street as on the highway, right at the edge of town. There’s nowhere to go for someone walking out of town and nobody much would want to be walking from there into town. It’s not the kind of place or time where people take walks for the fun of it.
But he barks, she knows that. He barks at passing cars and at any noise and at magpies and sparrows. She’s seen him barking at the moon, but only once. Usually at night, when it’s cold, he’s inside, sleeping by the fire. Or, if it’s summer, he’ll lay himself out on the cool concrete in front of the house or he’ll go under the house. She likes his barking. If he barks at a sound like a twig being stepped on or at a creaking sound she doesn’t recognise, her heartbeat settles. He’s out there. When she can’t sleep, alert to every noise and movement out in the dark, she knows that he too hears what she does.
One hot Sunday, it’s nearly getting on to dusk when she gets home from swimming at the pool. She passes through the gateway with the high, decorative wire arch above her, the threshold that’s unattached to any fence. She hears her name being called. It’s the man from next door, the one who is older than her parents and lives with his mother. He always smells of drink. Often, he watches her when she jumps on the trampoline and if she goes out to jump at night when her mind is full of hard knots, he comes out onto his sagging verandah and peers over the fence and asks if she’ll be finished up soon. The noise keeps him awake, but he never tells her to stop.
This afternoon he asks, ‘What happened to your dog? Where is he?’
‘Probably under the house,’ she answers. ‘He likes to sleep there when it’s hot.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Someone shot him, love. They’re all talking about it down at the pub. Is he dead?’
‘No,’ she says, ‘he’s under the house.’
‘I think he might be dead, love.’
She goes inside. All the family is there, with the blinds and the front door shut, and the air conditioner blasting on high, the television screen hurting her eyes with its white glow through the dark. ‘Where’s the dog?’ Nobody looks up. She asks again and her father says, ‘He must be under the house.’ Still, nobody looks at her. She goes back outside and calls him. ‘Come in,’ her father says from behind her. ‘He’s under the house. Leave him alone.’ At school they know all about it. It was the farmer from over the back, a fat man with white hair and beard and eyebrows, whose face always looks burned red, the one who drives his ute with big tyres fast around the corner next to the house. He drove her home once when she’d fallen off her bike and her shins were grazed red and bleeding and she’d bumped her head on the edge of a stormwater gutter.
‘I put a bullet in the fucken cunt,’ he’d told them all at the pub. Pissed, he’d driven past, stuck his gun out the window of his ute and shot the dog on their front lawn. He’d left their dog to drag itself under the house and bleed out into the dirt. They all say the farmer had a right because her dog was killing his sheep. She doesn’t know if the dog killed any sheep. She’s never even seen him leave the yard except in their car or on a leash. But she knows nobody has a right to stick a gun out of a car window and shoot a family’s dog on the front lawn of the house where they live. She asks her parents if they’ve told the police. ‘Just leave it alone.’ When the farmer drives past in his ute, he stares at her legs, tanned under the skirt of her school uniform. She takes to looking right at him all the time it takes him to go by. He never looks back at her eyes for long, but he drives the ute even faster around the corner when she does it. •
Indigo Perry lives in the Yarra Valley. Her memoir, Midnight Water,was shortlisted for the National Biography Award. Recent work has appeared in Australian Poetry Anthology and Verity La.