Rumpus Original Fiction: Chicken

By

On the island, the sun was a stray, limping the horizon at night; we ate chicken in the fevered light, always too late to be eating dinner, but eating dinner nonetheless. At night Sam said he was leaving, he said he was leaving every night, he was going out to find what killed the chickens in the night, but always after it was not tonight, tomorrow, until I took his words as lullaby, not tonight tomorrow, until the night he went.

Our daughter was just small; she would gather the eggs, laid into the chaff beneath the barn where she crawled on her belly, front filthy, dirty, smelling of loam. She feared the chickens, though I told her there was nothing to fear: tiny heads with reptilian brains, tiny birds who forget their heads as they step forward, skulls lagging, catching up to their raggedy feet; silly, silly birds with small, reptilian brains.

I would tell her: your brain is bigger, your body is bigger than the chickens’, even at your age, even though your bones have not yet set, jelly-like, cartilage near the joints, shark-like bones; if I pressed your skull I might be able to shape it, cone-like, aerodynamic, shark you up a little bit, your face so pert and honey-colored from the near-perpetual sun. You appear innocent but you tore me up when you came out, with your unskilled face, barely formed. I told her how she tore me up, so she knew herself a powerful thing, so she knew the destruction of which she was capable.

So Sam went to find what was killing the chickens in the night, and I stayed behind with our daughter. We cranked the monitor stove higher to fight the clammy breath of near-night, creeping in as the sun crept out. Sam didn’t like it when we used too much propane, as we were on an island and the tanks had to come by boat, all strapped together, metal soldiers shivering together in the chop, armor clanking, scared with epaulets clanking. But Sam was out in the almost-night and we were cold. Besides, he would like a warm cabin upon his return. And if he took a while, and we turned down the stove and slept, the warmth would leak out; he would never know, likely best—that he never knew—that the warmth escaped into the night, our secret.

Sam was not a kind man and that was okay; I was not kind, either—wouldn’t that be convenient if I called myself kind. The island was small and our neighbors were close, but the woods were thick, so they felt far. We came upon one another in the woods like apparitions and acted kindly, saying, Oh I didn’t see you there; how nice to see you, as if our witness made one another real, as if we had prodded each other from sleep, offering our tidy concerns before moving on: Yes, something is killing the chickens at night.

I’ll keep my eye out. Lick lips and shift feet, notice the dappling that passes over your neighbor’s face, one moment golden, one moment dark.

We will have you for dinner soon. We got a moose and the freezer is overflowing.

Thank you, how wonderful, so I heard.

 

 

We checked the fence for holes, we mended the holes we found, speculating over what might shrink itself to the size of a fist: an ermine, a fox cub; a weasel or a river otter. But three times, four times I came upon the coop to croaking fear, the chickens rambling nervously from end to end, jumping over one another to escape the smear of blood and feathers; they couldn’t escape, their small, reptilian brains demanding they run, run. So they flapped, they teemed, they puffed themselves larger and larger; they metastasized and turned on one other, pecking heads and scabbing beaks.

We shared eggs with the neighbors, I had my daughter leave them on the porch; I told her to wash the shit and the dirt from them first, to make them perfect, oval, and she did. What a strange child, what an uncanny replication of myself. What did she do when she was away from me, when I lost sight of her?

Once, I found my daughter with an egg in her mouth and I said, Silly girl, spit it out, and she did, into the cradle of my palm, as if it came from her, from her malleable head, from the maw of her skull. The egg was wet with her saliva but dried quickly; she said she had wanted to crush it with her jaws, the porcelain shell against her teeth; wanted to ruin the perfect mass of it, but she did not, and she held it in her mouth for a long time, till she birthed it in my hand. I placed it with the others and we gave it to the neighbors, eventually, though I didn’t forget which it was, cleaner than the rest and waiting, a reminder of her bizarre devotion, so tender it neared violence.

 

 

What do I do now that I’ll never be alone?

 

 

I had an affair with the neighbor, don’t tell.

That night Sam finally went out to find what was killing the chickens; it began that night. My daughter was sleeping, the cabin was warm—illicit warmth, the propane-guzzling warmth—and she was safe, her brain and body idling in bed. And surely she was connected to me, surely I would have felt if something went wrong; despite my unkindness she is mine, a cellular division, her face and skull still malleable, yet her hands already like mine, fingers nearly all the same length with a cliff-like drop toward the pinkie, talon-like and deft, though some of her remained Sam: a traitorous edge to her chin, eyes that teetered near brown. And the teeth. We shouldn’t speak of the teeth, they are baby teeth, they will change.

I used my fingers on the neighbor; I tried not to hurt him but it was difficult to tread violence and tenderness. When my daughter was nursing she chewed my nipples and the pain made me angry in a way I cannot describe; it would make you ill. My anger made me ill, too, and sometimes I gripped the chubby meat of her arm too hard, perhaps, in a way between firmness and harm, and I have to live with that. I never said I was kind. And Sam, what did Sam do? He ferried the shivering propane tanks from the mainland; he left all summer to fish on a commercial seiner. He brought back a boat full of junk food that our daughter pillaged, ripping open Reese’s packets with her teeth.

I used my fingers on the neighbor and he liked it. After, we came upon one another on the trail and he looked at my fingers, and I felt the inside of him on my fingers, curled at my sides, talon-like and wild; we did not speak of anything but the dead chickens, the exchange of moose meat for eggs.

 Yes, my daughter is doing well, I will tell be sure to tell her you say thank you for the eggs. No, we haven’t found what’s killing the chickens.

We ate the dead chickens, of course. We ate the dead chickens, for whatever came upon them in the night (it is never fully night this time of year, take night as a suggestion, the sun limping the horizon) had an appetite for killing, not eating. I barbecued the drumsticks on the small propane grill, a cozy trail of smoke marking our cabin, an arrow saying here is a hearth, a home; here is a family and a way to survive. This is a safe place, full of food and appetites.

I placed the roasted chicken on a platter for Sam and my daughter; they took their pieces, Sam grunted in appreciation and I guess I was grateful, not a waste of propane, I guess. And that’s when my daughter, midway through her drumstick, said, Chicken is my favorite animal, eyes full of tears, fat globule of tendon emerging from her mouth; as if the thought occurred to her, just then, teeth—we should not speak of the teeth, they will change—sunk into the meat of her favorite animal: stupid bird, reptilian brain.

I told her she was wrong. I said, It is not. This is not your favorite animal, but my daughter shook her head and kept eating, crying, as if she could not stop, tearing with the teeth, as if understanding for the first time what power she might have over the living, over the dead, her own cruelty.

I knew that chickens were not my daughter’s favorite animal. She was afraid of the chickens. She waited to gather the eggs until the fowl were out in the bight, pecking feverishly at the corn I scattered. But she constructed a lie that she had begun to believe; a small, internal lie that might germinate and grow.

She did not love the chickens. She would dream that chickens chased her and pecked her to death. Chickens were not her favorite animal. I watched her cry and eat, cry and chew. Sam became disgusted and went outside to the shop, where he banged and battered the propane tanks together. I went to the sink and washed the chicken fat from the pan. I heard false sadness flooding my daughter’s mouth. I remembered how she gathered clusters of eggs in the apron of her Minnie Mouse shirt, once white, now brown with dust; I’d watched her steal the eggs while the flock was in the bight, transporting with careful steps, shells shivering and clacking together, absconding with their young.

She only knew Minnie Mouse from her shirt; we had a television but no reception. It remained a lidless eye in the dark of the back room. She believed Minnie Mouse lived in California, at Disneyland. We owned three VCR tapes, warped from the damp that came off the bay at night: The Princess Bride, Fantasia, a recorded copy of Wayne’s World that cut off midway, the cardboard covers moldy, none of us wanting to touch them, despite their offer of some other kind of life, some portal to another plane where animals had big, calcified smiles, mitts for hands, where a plucky nature could transcend any misfortune. Instead of watching movies, my daughter gathered the chicken eggs; I watched her take them away without sadness or regret, and when the chickens returned, heads lagging, they had forgotten they ever laid them.

When I was a child we went to Disneyland on family vacation. My parents drove me in a skiff across the bay, then in a car to Anchorage where we boarded a plane. They said I cried at how fast they drove on the freeway; they said I stood in my stroller and yelled in exultation under the sun at the amusement park; they said I screamed in fear when I met Goofy. They said besides Goofy I loved everything, everything. I was only five so I don’t remember any of that love.

I remembered the way the sun burned my arms and shoulders; how I could feel it burning for days and weeks after. I remembered Goofy’s calcified smile. They said I asked what he did at night: where did he sleep, where was his home?

They told me about how Goofy dismantled himself at night, walking out fresh and sweating; how he hung the skin of the animal up by its neck and walked clean out as the park darkened and everything was still and floating, the lipid eye of the Seven Seas Lagoon taking in light, reflecting it back.

 

On the island, we got snippets of news from town: a bombing in Oklahoma City. A building much bigger than my daughter had ever seen, face stripped away. There we were insulated from that brand of fear. We worried about who controlled the fisheries. We worried about the price per pound for salmon, how much moose we’d have for winter, and what was killing the chickens. We worried about meeting our neighbors on the path and what to do with our hands while making small talk; we feared running out of propane in a storm, no way to refill. We worried that we’d return to the neighbor’s house again and again; that our appetites might never be sated, that Sam would find out and what then?

And my daughter, she worried the chickens would kill her in the night.

The night that Sam finally went out to find what was killing the chickens, I left my daughter asleep; I used my fingers on the neighbor. Sam was out in the night. I wouldn’t let my neighbor do anything to me; I used my fingers on him. I made him lie back, naked. I was tired of things burrowing inside of me, of being walked in and out of and tried on like a second skin. First Sam, then my daughter, using me as a home before exiting, not bothering to tidy up after.

When my daughter was truly small, she found every hole in my face with her fingers as I read to her in bed. She reached idly for my nose and plunged her fingers inside, caught the edge of my lips and pulled, so my mouth was ugly and distended. She used my face as putty; she chewed my fingers and I still have marks; we will not talk about the teeth, they will change. We will not talk about how they split her gums when they came, how her gums bled and how I couldn’t explain that I was not hurting her; that it was her, that it was her all along. I gave her ice to chew and that quieted her, for a bit.

 

 

I had been inside the neighbor’s house before, stooped beneath the low ceiling and made niceties with his wife while I rubbed the downy leaves of a begonia, indoor grown. The neighbor came from the Lower 48 and had lived here only three years. The length of his torso was white and long; he shivered in anticipation and fear. His wife was away for a funeral. He stayed behind to watch the nets and to watch the sun limp the jawbone of the mountains.

I liked that he acted afraid of me, that I bent over him in the near-dark and let my hair brush his torso, that I held him by the neck and used my fingers on him; that I plumbed his mouth with my tongue, and when I left I left him shivering, sweating though his stove was off; the cabin was cold, perfumed and nervous.

I returned home from the neighbor’s just before Sam, who found me washing myself from a plastic tub filled with water which I heated on the propane stove. He held up the body of a limp ermine, the intrusive smell of the neighbor all around, mistaken for animal musk.

I went to check on my daughter; in the dusky light I brushed the hair from her face and saw the faded pink rind around her lips, as if she had been drinking Kool-Aid, her lips curled over her teeth, which we do not talk about, which will change. The backs of her hands were pink, as if she had wiped her lips of juice, and I knew the chickens were still not safe. I licked my fingers and tried to clean her hands gently, so gently as not to wake her.

Chickens were my daughter’s favorite animal, so precious she could not leave them alone, but when I returned her dreams were scrubbed of chickens, their excrement and eggs, their lagging heads and sharp beaks, the reptilian skin of their eyes. She slept soundly and without fear; she took her fear and love and doled it out, using her teeth in the night.

I stepped outside of myself and entered the body of the neighbor, hanging my skin by the neck and slipping into his, and my daughter unzipped the chickens, cleaning, making order of her dreams, ordering, asking of their little bodies; we left the warmth of the cabin and let our appetites walk us in the night. And in the morning she would cry, belly thrumming and full, and I would hold her, despite sleeping well, despite the void of her dreams, because chickens are her favorite animal, despite everything, despite everything.

 

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Rumpus original art by Ciera Dudley.


Nikki Ervice is a professional dancer and writer from Alaska. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Colorado Review, Passages North, Washington Square Review, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. She is the runner up in the 2021 Iowa Review Award for Fiction, and the recipient of the 2022 Creative Writing Award from Brooklyn College, where she is an MFA candidate. More from this author →