Jackie pushed Clay along the footpath. She regretted now the decision to leave the car at home. Some of the rubber had come loose from the front wheel of his wheel chair, making it difficult to push. She stopped a moment to see if she could apply a quick fix, but when she saw the problem she knew that it wasn’t something a quick fix would take care of. The whole wheel needed replacing. “Bugger,” she said, but immediately felt bad that she was leaning so close to Clay’s ear when she said it. “Sorry Clay, Mum is having a bad day.” Clay looked off to the left, the way he always did, his head lolling on the headrest.
Clay was trapped inside himself somewhere. He’d been like that since birth. Jackie couldn’t see the point in labelling Clay’s condition. She’d heard so many names for it over the years and none of them mattered anyway, because it didn’t change anything for Clay. It didn’t change anything for her, or her husband, Tim either. They were never angry at Clay, but were often angry at each other. Sometimes anger was all they had.
While his mother inspected the wheel, Clay looked at the grass growing out of the cracks in the footpath. There’s a beetle in there. I can see his legs wheeling and burrowing. I wonder what he feels like? he thought. His mind-voice was loud and clear. It sounded to him as though it cut the air the same way everyone else’s real voice did. He often wondered what it was like to have the two voices: the one inside your head and the one outside. Was it hard to tell the difference?
Fighting with the wheelchair, Jackie continued pushing Clay up the hill. It wasn‘t a particularly steep slope, but the wonky wheel made the going difficult. She thought about all the things she had to do back at the house and a feeling of vast overwhelm migrated through her. Tears stung her eyes and the footpath swam in her vision. “Almost there,” she said to herself as much as to Clay. “Almost there, almost there, almost there,” she repeated. Jackie’s lips barely moved, making the sentence a string of meaningless sounds as she built a barrier out of it through repetition.
Clay hated it when his mother was upset. Mum, don’t cry. Please Mum, I love you. Everything will be ok, I just know it, his mind-voice said, and his mind’s eye saw himself smiling up at her and stroking her arm.
Tim was working on the chook pen when they got back to the house. The chooks were arriving that afternoon and Clay was looking forward to it. He’d never had a pet before. The neighbour’s cat, Rasters used to jump into the back yard sometimes and Clay’s heart would skip a beat when he saw it there, stalking through the marigolds, but his dad shooed it away with a big broom a few times and after a while Rasters never came back.
“Why are you so upset?” Tim asked Jackie, the annoyance in his voice barely disguised.
“The wheel, the front wheel is stuffed,” she replied.
“Oh, come on! We only just had that bloody thing fixed,” Tim said.
Don’t get mad Dad, please, it’s not Mum’s fault, Clay’s mind-voice pleaded. His mind’s eye saw himself crouching down by the wheel to see if it was something he could fix. When he saw it wasn’t, his mind-voice said, Dad, just call the tech shop. They’ve got one of these old wheels sitting on their shelf. I saw it last time we went past there. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than this one and it will do until we go back to Sydney.
“Don’t shout,” Jackie said. “It upsets Clay.”
“Nothing upsets Clay,” Tim replied, and stalked out to stand in the yard.
Clay’s mind-voice said, Yes it does Dad! I hate it when you and Mum argue. That makes me upset. It makes me upset that you never listen to her when she’s sad and that you are just so angry all the time. Clay couldn’t understand the point of anger. It rubbed away the goodness in everything, yet people seemed to relish the way it took control of them and made them say and do hateful things.
The chooks arrived later that afternoon. Tim’s mate, Robbo brought them around in a big cardboard box. He let them loose in the pen and they immediately set about pecking and scratching their new surroundings. Clay watched from his chair and in his mind’s eye he was holding a chook and stroking its shiny black feathers. The chook turned to look into his face and said, “Hi Clay. How’s things? We’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” Clay’s mind’s eye saw himself drop the chook and take a step back. “Don’t be scared Clay,” said the brown chook. “We’re your friends.”
“Yeah Clay,” said the white one. “Everyone knows about you.” Clay was all at once excited and alarmed. He’d never heard another mind-voice inside his head before.
“What do you mean, everyone knows about me?” Clay asked.
“The trees, the birds, the soil, the flowers. All of it. It all knows about you,” said Whitey. Clay wasn’t sure what the chook meant. “How can you talk to me like this? Animals can’t talk to humans. I’m stuck in a chair, but I’m not stupid.”
“We know you’re not stupid, Clay. That’s why we’re here. Chooks have a different way of seeing the world. You’re more than that chair, Clay. Everything is more than it seems because everything can talk to each other, it’s just that humans don’t want to hear the voices anymore. They’re no longer interested in the voice of the earth. They don’t have time for it and they think it isn’t important, but they’re wrong. They’ve forgotten what truth is,” said Browny.
“Truth?” Clay asked. “What do you mean?”
“You know what truth is, Clay. You know in a way that isn’t obvious to others.” said Blacky.
“Do you mean the way my heart feels when I hear my mum sing?”
“Yes, it’s that and a lot of other things. It’s about how you understand what is important when other people left the idea of that behind many years ago. They leave it in their childhood. They set it aside with the things that made them happy because they tell themselves that it’s time to grow up, to move on and to leave the past behind. They forget about the things that matter, but those things never leave them, not really. What matters stays there, deep inside them, nestled out of reach, existing as ghosts that are impossible to glimpse. The idea that something isn’t quite as it should be wafts and wains in the depths of their subconscious, but because they lost their truths, they are bound to a life of emptiness and longing where they never get to turn their corner,” Blacky explained.
“I know what you mean,” Clay sighed. He’d seen the emptiness in the faces of people that his mum pushed him past on the footpath; he’d heard it in other’s voices and smelled it in the air. His mind’s eye saw himself rolling down a street filled with people who all looked the same. They rushed along the footpath, all of them together, yet all of them apart, apart from each other and apart from everything else. He stretched his hand out to grasp the sleeve of a passer-by, but she wrenched it free and kept walking. Clay knew it wasn’t meant to be this way. He knew it because none of them smiled. Sadness wormed into his heart, but when he looked up and saw his new friends his melancholy was at once forgotten.
“Beer o’clock, eh Robbo?” Tim asked.
“Oh sorry, mate, not today. Gotta get going. Gotta pick the boys up from soccer and take Katie to ballet after that. It’s never bloody ending I tell ya!” Robbo smiled good naturedly.” Seeya later Tacker,” he said to Clay.
Bye Robbo. Thanks so much for the best chooks in the world, Clay’s mind-voice said and his mind’s eye saw himself smiling and shaking Robbo’s hand.
Tim went inside to get himself a beer. Jackie was standing in the kitchen where she had a good view of Clay at the chook pen. “Sorry about before, love.” Tim said. “I just get so bloody annoyed. You know, everything’s an effort. It feels like all we ever do is chase our tails.”
“I know,” Jackie responded.
“I have no idea where we’re meant to get the money to pay the rego on the car and then there’s the appointment in Sydney next month,” Tim said, “ Sometimes I wish we were just a normal family.”
“Don’t say that!” Jackie said. “We are a normal family. Clay will hear you, he’s just out there. It’s not his fault we’re like this,” she hissed.
“I know it’s not his fault, and Jackie, I wish you’d stop going on about how Clay can hear or how Clay feels. Clay isn’t there, not the way the rest of us are. You know that. There’s no point going on about some fantasy land where Clay can hear, see or feel. It’s all bullshit. We need to start living in the real world. The world where we need to man up and get on with things,” Tim said, his apologetic tone evaporating.
Jackie burst into tears. “Why are you like this?” She yelled. “Why don’t you care?”
“I do care!” Tim yelled back at her.
“It doesn’t feel like it, Tim. You don’t care about me, you never ask how I am, you barely even acknowledge Clay. All you care about is getting pissed with your stupid mates. I’m sick of it. Things are hard for me too, Tim. I know you think Clay can’t hear you, but a kind word towards your own son wouldn’t go astray occasionally. At the very least it would make me feel better. Don’t you care about that?” She cried at him, leaning forward and punching her fists into her thighs in frustration.
“Stop it Jackie!” Tim yelled at her and grabbed her arms.
“Leave me alone Tim.” She spat. Twisting out of his grip she ran into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Clay and the chooks looked at each other. I hate that. I hate it, Clay’s mind-voice said and his mind’s eye saw himself writing a note to his parents telling them that if they could just find their truth, everything would be as it should be.
“We can help them, Clay,” said Whitey.
“How? Clay asked. “They seem so hopeless, afraid and just so very sad,” he added.
“There’s a way for you to come with us,” said Browny.
“We can show you how to be free. You can be free of that chair and you can free your parents from the longing. We can let them turn their corner,” said Blacky.
“We came to bring you home, Clay,” Browny said. By virtue of evolution their gazes were piercing and unemotional, but the tones in which they spoke belied their appearance.
“What do you mean? I am home. This is my home,” Clay said.
“Do you really think this is where you belong, Clay? Stuck in this useless body? Never able to achieve a single thing? We know you can read, but do you ever get to do that? Remember War and Peace, Clay?” asked Blacky.
Clay did remember War and Peace. He remembered it too well. His mind’s eye saw himself squirm at the memory of the book sitting open on the floor by the kitchen table. It sat there everyday for a week and as Jackie ate her breakfast Clay read and reread the same two pages over and over again until he knew them off by heart . He was devastated when his mother eventually took the book up off the floor and threw it into the bin. He couldn’t imagine how she could throw Natasha and Princess Marya away like that. No Mum! I need that book! His mind-voice shouted, but of course she didn’t hear him and went about cleaning up the rest of the kitchen. The day the garbage truck came was the worst one of his life. He could almost feel the crush of the universe on his soul as the truck heaved to compress its load. He hadn’t stopped thinking about War and Peace for two years after that. It almost ate him alive.
“I don’t really like what you’re saying and I don’t really think that going away with you somewhere will change anything. Have you considered that maybe I don’t want to leave this chair, that I’m happy the way I am? This is all I’ve ever known and I don’t want to be cured. Sure, things are hard for my family, but from what I can tell, things are hard for nearly all families. It’s not my fault they’re like this,” Clay said.
“Have you ever thought about what it might feel like to be everywhere at once?” asked Browny.without acknowledging what Clay had just said.
“Chooks have that power, Clay. We can set you free. You can be with all of us and you can be all of us. You can be the beetle, the soil he digs in and the grass in the cracks. You can be the voice in your mother’s heart when she sings of compassion. You can make things better, better than they are.” Blacky said.
Clay’s mind’s eye saw himself closing his eyes. He sat that way for a long time, breathing slowly, imagining the breath coming in and going out of each part of his body. His legs could breathe, then his arms, then the top of his head. He saw the three chooks jump onto his lap and he saw himself stroke each one in turn and as he did so each chook nestled down onto his lap. Clay felt the warmth of the chooks bodies pressed into his and he felt his own warmth merging with theirs. He became aware of different sounds and smells and could hear a faint whisper of voices in the distance. He saw his body dissolve and become like a breeze that is part of all things simultaneously. Stretching across unfathomable distances he was able to see through all of time and he could see that the truths that govern existence had been unchanging since the beginning.
“This is beautiful, and I know you’re trying to help me, but I don’t want to leave. I like my life. I know I’m more than this chair. You say I can change things, and I do. I do it already, just by being who I am. Things were different in the past. People like me weren’t taken seriously. We were ignored, but things are different now, or at least they’re better and getting better all the time. Mum doesn’t know I’m in here, but one day she might. I’ll wait until then, so please take me back, take me back!”
All at once he was back, but not in his chair and he let the sensation of being so close to the earth fill him completely while his head lolled, as always to the left. Chooks scratched and pecked around Clay’s legs. Minute clouds of dust wafted around each bird as its longing to uncover tasty soil-borne morsels intensified. With the timber of the chook pen at his back and soil rising up to meet his fingertips,Clay could smell rain on the breeze, even though there wasn’t a hint of cloud in the sky.
Jackie emerged from the bathroom. “Tim, where’s Clay?” she asked with a hint of panic in her voice.
“What?” Tim responded, immediately jumping up to face the chook pen where he’d left Clay only ten minutes earlier. They both rushed outside to find Clay sitting in the chook pen with the chooks scratching and pecking around him.
“Honey! How did you get in here?” his mum cried.
One by one the chooks jumped into Clay’s lap and nestled down.
“What the…?” Tim said in a ridiculous whisper.
“Are you ok?” Jackie asked, and Clay’s head lolled.
“We’re always here if you change your mind, Clay,” the chooks said in unison.
“Thanks, but I’ll wait it out here if that’s OK. If you scratch over there in the left of the pen, there’s some big grubs just under the surface. I can hear them chewing on the roots of the grass.”