In a borrowed bed, in a foreign room, I woke up to a cry, raw and guttural like a baby’s first breath. My bedside lamp was still on, and the mild darkness of morning stretched outside my window. I slept on a book for a pillow, and yesterday’s jeans rutted into my waist.
On the farm in Nebraska, where I stayed as an artist-in-residence, my duties were minimal: wake the chickens up in the morning, feed them scraps from the compost, and put them to bed at night. This job had been handed down to me from a poet that used to live in my room. She guided me through each step, and told me not to feed them citrus. Birds hate citrus, she said.
It was still fall, but I could feel winter in my bones. The night before, we sat around the fire, feeding it yellow phone books and telling stories. My housemate told me his childhood friend had just returned from Iraq. After the ‘Welcome Home’ party, they went out to the local bar. With every drink the soldier downed, he described the corpse of an Iraqi he had killed. As he stood over his victims, he had the urge to taste them. He liked to lick their blood off of his fingers.
“That’s not true!” I said.
“You have no idea what it’s like,” my housemate reasoned, “humans are animals.”
I got out of bed and ran to the coop. I had left the gate open, the door unlocked, the latch unhooked. The screeching chickens were an orchestra without a conductor, a requiem for the not-yet dead. Wings beat against glass and wood. Some clung to the rafters, others crouched against the metal screen. On the ground a dark animal spun in circles, tossing up hay and litter. A chicken writhed between his teeth.
The creature jerked its head around, its nocturnal eyes squinting to make sense of my flashlight. We stared at each other, and then, deciding I was not a threat, he turned back to his victim. His tail was three times longer than his body. He looked like an obese rat. A porcupine without spines.
I called the only person I knew who would be up at 6:25 am.
“It sounds like a possum,” my father said, from his couch in Massachusetts. He is a retired psychiatrist, and has a way of diagnosing all uncertainties like he would a latent schizophrenic.
My eyes were squinty from sleep, but my ethics felt sound: kill the possum, save the chicken. My relationship with the chickens was not a close one. I called them all by the same name, Tina Turner, because of their 80’s plumes, and I kept store-bought chicken cutlets in the freezer. But protecting the chickens had been my duty, and I had failed them. I returned to the coop, this time with a brass fire poker.
I threw the poker at the possum’s back, but he didn’t flinch. I screamed at him to leave, but he didn’t speak English. I told the other chickens to flee, but they stayed to watch. I came back with a sledgehammer, but lunged it between two wooden planks. Then I gave up.
I went back to bed, using a pillow to smother the squeals of the dying chicken. Fearful of where my mind would drag me, I dreamed lucidly for the first time: I was in the pews of a church with my twin brother, laughing while others prayed.
When the sun rose, my friend lifted the dead chicken with a shovel while I held a plastic bag open. The body was almost intact, which seemed even more despicable of a crime—the possum had not killed to eat, just to kill. The other chickens crowded around a chicken leg in the dirt, pecking at the meat.
“That’s nature,” my friend reasoned, lighting the bag on fire.
At 23, I’ve lived long enough to distinguish tragedy from travail, a chasm in the earth from the smear and persistence of the every day. But I lack the stockpiled hindsight to remember that bones heal and stains come out in the wash. It’s the immediacy of youth I haven’t outgrown—the distrust of time. Every trauma feels like the end-all, until tomorrow proves me wrong.
On the farm, the days shortened. I clawed away at darkness, and prayed the days would forget to turn to night. As I put the chickens to bed each evening, I pressed my phone into my ear, listening to friends talk about their lease agreements, their hot yoga classes, anything that would distract me from what might be lurking inside the coop.
My fears expanded: a passing reflection in the mirror, the underbelly of a couch, the slow dance of tree limbs in the wind. A badger’s tail and an unplugged electrical cord are not the same thing, but fear has no taxonomy. It is undiscerning, ecumenical—a grab bag of shadows without owners and lakes with no bottoms. Long sleeve shirts on the clothing line hung like apostates, flailing in the stocks.
My room was on the second floor of the farmhouse, with cracks that grew down the sloping walls. I imagined vermin crawling out from the wooden chest, worming through my covers. I left my lamp on through the night, and wrapped my body in a quilt. Once I fell asleep, my dreams were pleasant, often mundane. It was my awakened mind that was under attack.
I was not convinced, like an evangelist heralding the apocalypse, that the world would end. I was just aware of all the ways in which it could. Before the chicken incident, I never considered that nature was capable of turning on itself. Dogs gamboled on trimmed lawns and fireflies flew free from glass jars.
“All natural” is the ethos of my generation, in reaction to commercialism and as an antidote to urban dread: free-range chickens, community gardens, weekend retreats to “be in nature.” I considered the damage wrought by natural disasters to be the result of a breakdown in government, not nature itself. Nature is good, I thought. Nature is cleansing.
I did not know “Nature, red in tooth and claw” could feel as unnatural as the partitions of a cubicle. I had always found walls to be confining, but they also serve as a buffer between ourselves and the outside world, and more urgently, from our own barbarity. If a possum could commit such fell violence, then what was I capable of?
The sky was an open window, the fresh air went down easy, and my mind inverted itself, spilling out beasts of my own invention and fears mislaid. Joseph Conrad warned “the created terror” of our imagination is far worse than reality. Breathless, I could not outrun my mind. A prehistoric nightmare—I was the predator and the prey.
Listen to Emma read her essay:
Rumpus original art by Devon Kelley-Yurdin.