Aunty Mary’s Farm
Aunty Mary had a chook farm and cancer.
The farm was south-bound from the Warburton highway, south-bound on the Healesville-Koo-Wee-Rup, Woori-Yallock-Road, just a little way off the junction where the Old-Beenak-Road meandered throughout the state forest stately with ghost white gums and game trails leading deep into the scrub.
Aunty Mary’s cancer was in her blood. Her lymph nodes were studded with cancers like townships on a map; joined and linked by bustling back roads and byways of infection. She was weak from the chemo and needed help with the farm as her hair fell out and she was confined to sitting and smiling like a saint with a beatific ‘Thank You’ written upon her face like the very touch of the Lord himself. She was the centre of a prayer cell that believed God, once sufficiently badgered, would heal her and they had organized a roster of soups and prayers in the meantime as they awaited His final pleasure.
Every weekend, for what seemed like years, we would converge en-convoy at Aunty Mary’s to help out, do chores, clean eggs, be Christians. She wasn’t even a ‘real’ Aunty if the truth be told, more a prick relative having married an in-law’s brother but we called her Aunty anyway. As such, our duty of care and charity was ensured and we worked gladly, assured of our salvation. Aunty Mary had never asked for help but even sick as she was, she always came and sat in the packing shed with my cousins and sisters and me as we cleaned eggs and packed egg cartons and joked and laughed and sang old-time Gospel favourites –‘Old Rugged Cross’, ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder’, ‘Oh For a Thousand Tongues to Sing’. Mothers and other Aunties made tea and cleaned, and changed linen and cleaned, and brought cake; and made tea and soup, always chicken for the healing therein; and cleaned and prayed and made tea; and all the while my cousins and sisters and I would clean eggs and pack and sing. Aunty Mary confined to sitting and smiling like a saint beatific with the very touch of the Lord himself.
Baiting the Traps
But first things first. There are obligations to be fulfilled well before eggs are cleaned, hymns sung, before mothers and aunties can don the cover-all of large floral aprons and begin the killing and hanging, the plucking and gutting; chicken after chicken, for the soup and the feeding of the gathered clan.
The traps must be baited.
Liver had been brought in from the local butchers. Large and bullocky liver, it filled a five gallon bucket and then some; all full of red-lead blood and gleaming wetly with the freshness of the kill. An onion bag had been purloined special and Frog, Duck, Stork and myself argued as to whose turn it was to pack the liver into the onion bag, to poke the required gaps and tears and rends into both the bag and the liver so the blowflies could get right in and lay fat maggots for our bait. Each week we placed fresh bait over the honey-hole in the creek. Deep and jammed with logs, nooks and crannies it never failed to produce a cornucopia of sweet meat in Eel, Yabby and Black-fish. Each week someone had to make the new bait, carry it to the honey-hole shake out the old bait for grubs so the pool berleyed up with fat wrigglers and hang the new one. It was my turn.
I walked the gravel drive-way and crossed the Healesville-Koo-Wee-Rup, Woori-Yallock-Road. I crossed into scrublands and gums white like ghosts and followed cattle trails alongside the creek. I looked for the trail my cousins and I had hacked out over an old game trail and followed it to where the honey-hole lay secreted. As I approached there was the drone of bush flies and blowflies. The old bag was swarming; a writhing pulsation of infestation and rot. It looks g-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-d! I cut down the old bait bag. The drone rose in pitch. I shook the old bag out over the bucket for the bait then over the honey hole white wrigglers were quickly snatched from the surface by Black-fish sleek and fat. I re-baited the bag with the remains of the old bait and hung it back.
There is a time, between fishing and feeding where the wildlings are set loose; the rats are hunted. It must be done. We had fished Eel, Yabby and Black fish. We cleaned and gutted. Now we hunted rats with batons studded with six-inch-nails. Hunted rats through the chook sheds.
“I got three.” Duck said.
“Four.” Dog and Frog said.
“These rats is thick! Five.” Stork said.
“There is hundreds of ‘em’” Duck said.
“How many you got Podge?” Frog asked.
“Huh! I’ll get ’em all!” I said.
My cousins all laughed and continued hunting rats, clubbing them with the nail studded batons in the dark chook sheds, with only spotlights and Tilly Lamps to see by. They don’t see me leave. Or return laden with jerry-can. I begin pouring small amounts of diesel. The chooks flap and crow. Then larger amounts into the burrows, into the mounds of built-up chook-shit riddled with rat runs.
“Can you smell diesel?” Duck said.
“Huh! Wouldn’t smell a fart in here anyway!” Frog said.
“No. I am serious! Duck said, “Can anyone else smell it?”
“Oh shit! What have you fucking done Porridge-guts?” Dog Said.
“I’m telling mum!” Duck said.
“Shutup Duck! Where Is The Little Shit?” Dog said.
They trained their spotlights on me as I dramatically flourished a box of matches and an empty jerry-can at them.
“Ten,” I said. And counted down to one quickly. I lit a match and dropped it.
Flames! Like a gas oven on high!
Dog screamed “You-Little-Shit-quick-fucking open the big gates. Get the fuck out………Its gunna go….”
The diesel had heated the manure and released methane burning like gas jets, spreading through-out the sheds. We ran for it as burning rats clawed at us and flights of chickens some singed and others flying for the first time burst forth from the opened gates in a shower of smoke and flames and ash. We clubbed rats with abandon lest they spread fire. Dog and Stork got the water pump running but the shed was well and truly blazing. They could do nought more than lay down a perimeter and douse spot-fires. Hundreds of rats lay singed and battered
“Looks like all of ‘em!” I said.
“Shutup,” Dog said.
“The chooks seemed to have gotten away clean” I said.
They roost in gum trees and wattles, they flap and crow.
“Shutup. You’re in SOOOOOO much trouble!” Dog said.
My cousins took me and by then joined by my Aunts, Mother and sisters, all of them brandishing switches, to Aunty Mary for her to delegate a switching commensurate to the transgression. Punishment seemed to be inevitable. Aunty Mary, confined to sitting, smiling like a saint, beatific with the very touch of the Lord Himself!
“Tell me what you did boy,” Aunty Mary said.
I told her -the fishing and the hunting and the rats and the taunting and the diesel and the fire and all.
“Did the chickens get out? What of the sheds?” She asked:
I told her – the buckled tin roof, the embered ruins, the chickens singed and roosting in the gum tree. She smiled like a saint and said thank you, she had never really wanted the chickens. Her husband had left her. She said she had always wanted to grow flowers in the nitrate enriched soil [years of chicken shit and feed] and watch as they blossom. She told me that I had set her free and the stock and sheds were insured against fire. She said she would grow flowers at last.
Aunty Mary no longer had a chook farm. After the fire, she grew flowers and supplied local florists with Sweet Williams and Calla Lilies for weddings and funerals. She called this a blessing. She no longer had cancer. This she called a miracle. When she died she left me the farm. I have a flower farm.