Jem’s job was to open and shut the gate. Because of this, even though his brother Scott was older and had longer legs and took up more space, Jem got the passenger door seat while Scott was stuck in the middle, squished between Jem and their Dad, his legs pressing against theirs.
The cabin was always full of the smell from their Dad’s first cigarette, which he smoked in the dark, the single point of red like a morning star.
Jem was quick. He’d jump down and run to the gate, gravel crunching icily under his boots while the car idled, his father and brother invisible behind the glare of the headlights. Some days, tendrils of mist rose from the ground and were caught in the beams, ghostly. In a single movement Jem would unhitch the chain that held the gate shut, then walk the gate open so the ute could get through. He’d wait until the car had passed before closing it again. After, he’d cup his hands in front of his mouth and blow on them to warm them up, and walk down the hill, following the red taillights.
Their dad never waited. Jem didn’t mind. He liked this part of the morning best – the first hint of dawn shifting the world from black to a softer grey. Things becoming visible: a familiar world of trees and stumps, a scattering of cows, an old boat upturned far from water. First there were just dark outlines, then they began taking form, becoming shapes with depth and shading to them, until, suddenly, like the sky had forgotten and then remembered, oops, the whole heavens would fill with pinks and oranges and reds, like something Jem might paint in Mr Reynold’s class, if he was allowed to just mix the colours anyhow he liked. That was the best.
That was the closest Jem got to his father, those ten minutes with Scott between them.
What kind of a thing had wings like that?
They were like lace Jem had seen in a Target underwear catalogue, the kind where too much showed through from underneath. Only the wings weren’t just one colour, they were lots of colours, like oil reflecting light, shining and changing each moment.
It shouldn’t be on the ground, he thought. It needed a tree, or a flower, or a waterlily maybe, somewhere to rest, somewhere it belonged. Ground was a place for getting stepped on.
He thought that maybe it was hurt because when he poked it with a twig it didn’t move, other than to open and re-set its wings.
When him and Scott were little they’d cared for a baby magpie that had been hurt. It had lived in a box in the laundry and they fed it with an eye dropper and eventually it had grown real feathers and they’d let it out of the box, and watched it flap around the room, scared but trying to be a proper bird, and then Dad had said it would be okay to let it go.
Jem didn’t know if it was okay or not. He didn’t think it would be, it hadn’t ever even seen any other birds, but it wasn’t up to him.
This wasn’t a bird but it did have wings and it seemed to be broken somehow.
‘Tell me a secret,’ she said. ‘Tell me something you’re scared of.’
He wanted to tell her but he didn’t.
She was soft and her hair was the colour of dry grass before a storm.
He wanted to tell her that sometimes at night in the dark the refrigerator made noises like something growling and groaning and he imagined the house was a cave with lots of different passageways and he’d be too scared to get out of bed for fear he’d be lost. And he’d lie awake and listen to the fridge noises and listen to his father’s snoring, and listen to his brother breathing in the next room. And that would be all he’d hear.
His mother used to have the quietest sleeping noises of all but he still would hear them.