When the chicken outside starts crowing, Claire is still half-submerged in a dream in which she’s found herself in a vacant beach house. She knows it’s her beach house, though she doesn’t know why, or how she can afford it, or even what beach. There is no furniture. The floor is dusted with a faint layer of sand from wall to wall. There’s a large bay window in the empty living room that looks out on an overcast boardwalk. And there’s a man looking in at her through the window. Or, she thinks he’s looking at her. He’s standing across the boardwalk where the sand meets the pavement, facing her window, facing her. She doesn’t dare wave, or indicate in any way that she sees him. There are no blinds, no curtains. She locates doors, checks to make sure they’re all locked, then returns to the window to find the man still standing in the same spot. There are other people. An elderly couple walking a small white dog. A group of surfers in wetsuits heading for the water. She keeps thinking she needs to go out. She needs to buy furniture. Or groceries. Something. But she doesn’t have keys. Or shoes, for that matter. The man is still there, still watching her…
…and then she’s in her own bed, head cocooned in the down comforter. The chicken crows again and she’s jostled by her husband leaping out of bed and running out the back door to the yard. She pulls the comforter down, opens her eyes. It’s dawn.
There had been a good reason for getting the chickens when they were too young to be sexed by a layman. Something about “imprinting,” said the guy at the feed store who sold them. If you get them full grown, they won’t bond with you. They’ll be remote, never trust you, he said. She wasn’t sure why it was important to bond with chickens, but Jon thought it would be nice to have the chickens be real pets, for the twins. He spent four nights in the garage building a coop, which she then helped him carry to a quiet spot behind the vegetable garden. They let the twins name them, ending up with Mimi, Gigi and Rainbow, distinguishable by their slight differences in color, ranging from spotty smoke-gray to solid black. The twins delighted in rolling grapes and blueberries in front of them like marbles and watching the chickens impale them with their sharp little beaks.
Then the crowing started. Jon Googled. Hens can crow, he said, sometimes. If they’re hungry or agitated for some reason. It didn’t necessarily mean anything. He started getting up earlier to feed them, and the crowing stopped. For a while. Claire sits up on her elbows and checks her phone. Not quite 6:00. It will be at least a half-hour before the twins wake up. She rolls over, mentally fumbling for the dream. She tries to remember, but the fragments are already falling away, so all that remains is a feeling of helplessness and a whiff of salt air.
A few minutes later, Jon comes in, goose pimpled from the cold. “It’s Gigi,” he says. “You can tell if you look. Her comb is a little higher off her face so you can see the blue behind her ears, and she’s getting the spurs on her ankles. She’s the rooster.” He’s been researching the warning signs on a website called “Sexing Your Silkies.”
The twins are three, a boy and a girl. Last night, as every night, Claire sang songs they requested, ones they’d learned at pre-school.
“And on that farm he had a—”
“E-I-E-I-O, with a nay nay here and a nay nay there—”
“No, mommy,” Tim interrupted. “It’s a naaaay-ay-ay-ay-ay!” She hadn’t properly committed to the sound effect.
“Sorry, sorry—with a naaay-ay-ay-ay here and a naaay-ay-ay-ay there, here a naaay-ay-ay-ay, there a naaay-ay-ay-ay, everywhere a naaaay-ay-ay-ay naaaay-ay-ay-ay…”
The longer, vibrating nay kind of ruins the cadence of the song, and, she might add, isn’t even a more accurate approximation of a whinny than her version, but whatever.
“One more,” she told them, “and we’re done, you’ve got to go to sleep or you’ll be zombies tomorrow.”
“And on that farm he had a lion…”
This morning she peeks in their room while her husband does more image searches for silkie roosters. They’re still fast asleep in their beds, arranged in an L-shape so they lay head to head.
She makes coffee and brings a cup to Jon while he shaves.
“I’m amazed the neighbors haven’t complained,” she says.
“We can’t keep her,” he says, “city ordinance. Anyway, we knew this was a possibility. The guy said we could bring any of them back for a refund if this happened.”
“Him. We can’t keep him.”
Claire loads the twins into the back of her car and the neighbor woman peeks over the fence.
“5:57 this morning, that’s the earliest yet,” she says.
Claire cringes. Holly is resisting being buckled into her car seat and she doesn’t want the neighbor to see her pin the wailing girl to the seat.
“Hang on just a second!” she says brightly, then whispering through gritted teeth, “You settle down right now or I swear to god.” The girl is appropriately cowed, and wears a wounded expression as her mother buckles her in.
She turns to the neighbor, whose face she can’t see over the fence. She just sees the top of her forehead and long brown hair piled in a high, swirling bun. “I’m so sorry about that. We’re taking care of it.”
“You know you’re not allowed to keep roosters.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Yes. We’re taking care of it.”
The neighbor steps through her gate and comes down the driveway in her exercise clothes. “You know, your kids wouldn’t fight the car seat if you’d adjust the straps. They’re supposed to be higher above the shoulders. They’re probably uncomfortable.”
“I’ll look into it.”
“No, but I know, I went to a class when I was pregnant with my first.”
“Okay, we have to go,” Claire says, thinking how did this woman even see over the fence, through the car windows, through Claire’s back to assess the nuances of her fucking strap placement.
Claire waves to her neighbor as she pulls out of the driveway. The neighbor squints against the sun and gives a mouth-only smile as she zips up her hoodie.
Driving down their street—slowly, there are speed bumps—she waves at another mom pushing a stroller with a chocolate lab on a leash looped around her wrist. The other mom waves. She knows the other mom by sight but has never spoken to her. Claire and Jon moved to the neighborhood, their first house, two years earlier, when the twins were babies. While her husband threw himself into gardening and home improvement projects, she’d joined the neighborhood message board. She’d been excited about how many kids and young families there were in the neighborhood, imagining she’d make friends, moms to swap babysitting with, trade fruit from their respective trees. But it wasn’t long before it became clear that all the playdates and coffee-klatches happened on weekdays, when she was at work. She hasn’t confirmed, but feels and suspects that she is the only working mom on their street. She still checks the neighborhood posts, but approaches them as an outsider, imagining herself very small and barely solid, hidden between blades of grass on the lawn.
“Your straps feel okay back there, right?” The twins don’t answer. “Hey, you guys?” At a red light, she glances in the rearview mirror just in time to catch Holly as she reaches over and pinches Tim’s arm. The boy lets out a dramatic howl.
Claire spins around, “Hey! No pinching, how many times do I have to tell you?” The kids ignore her. They slap, pull hair, stick out tongues. “Hey!”
The car behind her honks. The light’s green. She goes, sweating in her jacket, while the war rages on.
Claire arrives at her desk to find a pile of proofs she needs to go over before sending them to print. These proofs are round 3. She went over round 2 right before leaving to pick the twins up from school the previous afternoon. She wonders how the proofreader got to them so quickly. How early did he arrive? How late, then, is she? She checks the time on her computer screen, which she apparently left on overnight. Her day ostensibly starts at 9:00, but her arrival has been trending later and later. It’s almost 9:30. She supposes she could get up earlier. But she gets up so early already. She could be more of a taskmaster with the twins, be less tolerant of their dawdling with dressing and grooming, or care less about persuading them to eat one solitary bite of their slapdash cereal breakfasts. But she doesn’t want their brief time together in the morning to become something they all dread. So really, there’s no solution. She’ll get there when she gets there.
She gets coffee from the breakroom, nodding hello to colleagues as she returns to her desk, all the while uncannily aware of her movements. She holds the coffee with both hands, maintaining a smooth, un-bouncing stride to avoid spilling, because she’s overfilled her cup as usual. She glides slightly to the left to avoid bumping into an awkwardly placed bench in the hall, a bench no one ever sits on, a bench she’s been avoiding with an identical movement several times a day for the last six years. This awareness of her body is jarring because she usually does all these things without thinking. Now she wonders if she makes all the same movements at the same times every day. Just how predictable is her body? How small is its range?
She sets her coffee down and picks up her silver sharpie, designed for circling items on dark and colorful backgrounds. She makes check marks in the appropriate margins, unnerved by this continued awareness of the flex of her fingers, now, the repeating stroke of her pen, the way her eyes scan the letters on the page. She sets the pen down, closes her eyes and rubs her temples.
When she was pregnant, her body had been full of surprises. She never knew what food she would suddenly find revolting. By the end of her first trimester, she was eating almost nothing besides toast and yogurt. Then later, after the illness subsided, came the appearance of tiny limbs swimming through her. She thought she was imagining it at first, but it became more and more distinct, until Jon could press his hand to her belly and feel the unmistakable shape of a foot pushing back. They couldn’t stop laughing. Even when she was the size of an aircraft carrier, the tumbling bodies jockeying for space were a bizarre delight. She imagined her womb as a wilderness where anything could happen. Was that why women kept having babies, to get back that feeling of wild bodily possibility? She and Jon can’t afford to have more kids, they don’t have the room, she thinks two is perfect anyway. But it’s a sobering realization, that the wilderness inside her, that little piece of outer space, will be dormant for the rest of her life. She watches the twins grow, their pants riding up their calves, any day they’ll need new beds. Their speech is so clear now, they used to communicate in flailing cries. Every day she feels both awe and a twinge of jealousy, not of their youth, but of their mutability.
She worries about how the kids’ll take it when they have to give up Gigi. They’ll have to get another chicken. Jon says they should really get more to have a full flock, but Claire’s been resistant since day one, she doesn’t even know why. She just never thought of herself as a chicken person. She wonders how much awareness chickens have of their gender. Does Gigi know he’s male? Do the others? They’ll have to trade him in soon, before the chickens reach sexual maturity. She has a stomach-turning vision of cracking an egg for breakfast and watching a half-formed chick land in the bowl with a molten plop, the kids screaming.
Claire tries to return her attention to the task at hand, but gets distracted by email, questions she swears she’s already answered, contradictory requests, moot comments. She kicks her shoes off under her desk and stretches her toes, shifts from side to side in her chair, considers whether she’s hungry or bored, over-caffeinated or angry, whether she’d be better served by a walk around the block or a granola bar. She just got here. She’s restless. She stays where she is.
Her boss passes her office, gives a drive-by wave and a Hey Claire, and she feels herself stiffen, a practiced smile overtaking her face, an upward motion of the chin. Then she’s alone again, tapping her silver pen on the desk. All day she shifts back and forth like this, a dance of avoidance with her borders, her awareness either buried deep inside her body or hovering just beyond, marking time.
At home, she sets the twins up at the kitchen table with apple slices, paper and a tupperware full of crayons, puts water on to boil for pasta, and goes outside to collect tomatoes and basil from the garden. It’s still light out, but dusk is looming as she trades her slingbacks for the grubby sneakers she leaves on the back porch.
She steps down from the deck into the yard and stops. She can feel that something’s wrong. There’s a metallic smell, a foreboding in the sun’s position, right at eye level, a white line blinding her as she tries to get her bearings, to find the source of her unease. She waits at the bottom of the steps as the sun shifts, restoring her vision.
The coop door is open. Little black and gray feathers strewn about by the wind—too many. There’s no blood, not at first. Not until she follows the trail of feathers and finds what’s left of the three mutilated bodies laid out a few yards beyond the coop.
A stray cat. A rat. No, the chickens could chase off a rat. A pack of rats, a coyote. One could conceivably jump over the fence. An eagle, a hawk…no, there’d be nothing left. She squints up at the pink sky as if she thinks she’ll find clues there.
She kneels in front of Mimi, Gigi and Rainbow, impossible to tell apart now. Whoever leaves last is supposed to wrangle them back in after their morning pasture time and lock up. That was her today, Jon had an early meeting. She’d been in a rush to get ready and her hair wasn’t cooperating and Tim was grinding his Cheerios to a paste on the table and brushing it all to the floor, making Holly laugh so hard milk was dribbling down her chin and all down the front of her shirt so it had to be changed. Claire’s mounting a defense before an imaginary jury and hating herself. She wonders if she should ask the neighbors if they heard anything, but no, she won’t do that.
A voice calls from the doorway, “Mom! Where are you!”
“Go back inside! Don’t come out here!” She trips on the steps as she hustles Holly back inside over the girl’s protests.
She hears Jon’s car in the driveway and runs out to catch him. He climbs out of the car and leans in to kiss her but misses, catching his lips in her hair as she drags him through the gate by his elbow. She peeks in the window to make sure Holly’s gone back to the table and that the two of them aren’t doing anything destructive to themselves or the house as she leads Jon to the yard.
He stares, dumbstruck. He doesn’t get any closer. She can’t tell if the color is draining from his face or if it’s just a shadow passing over him. He mutters to himself, still holding his jacket and laptop bag.
“You…go in,” he says. “Deal with dinner. I’ll…I’ll take care of this.” She hangs back for a moment then rushes inside to the kitchen only to find that she’s neglected to turn on the stove, and the water is just sitting there, cold and unmoving.
The kids are oblivious. They’re still coloring, ignoring their food. Claire usually clears the table so they’ll eat but she was too distracted. She didn’t even go back to the garden for the tomatoes and basil, she just found a jar of store-bought sauce in the pantry.
“Well,” Jon says flatly, “on the bright side, I guess we don’t have to do anything about the rooster.” He has a smudge of dirt on his face that Claire keeps staring at but doesn’t mention.
“I’m so, so sorry.”
His stares at his plate, says nothing. She wishes he would get angry with her.
“Where did you put them?” she whispers.
“Under the apricot tree. I was gonna dig three separate graves at first, but ended up just doing one.” He hasn’t eaten anything. He twirls his fork in the spaghetti, untwirls it.
“What are we going to tell them?”
Jon looks at the kids as if he’d momentarily forgotten about them. They don’t have any concept of death. Claire doesn’t know where to begin explaining. Some months earlier, they took the twins to a wake for a friend’s mother. The kids didn’t even notice the casket or the framed photographs on easels around the room. They ate the food, played in the coatroom. They thought it was a party. She imagines their blinking response to being told the chickens are dead. Then she or Jon will have to go in deeper, get to the heart of what “dead” means in a way that won’t scare them. She tries to remember how she first learned about death. Her father had been killed in a car accident when she was seven. She thinks she must have been old enough to understand, but it wasn’t that. It was the fact that no one thought to explain, her mother too enveloped in her own grief, leaving Claire alone with her questions. Left unanswered, she eventually forgot the questions altogether. She’s feels a grasping, desperate gratitude that she has Jon, a solid, selfless man, an intact family. Of course, her mother had been just as lucky until she wasn’t.
“Hey, guys? We need to talk to you about something.”
Jon’s just going for it, she doesn’t realize until he’s already started. She had it in her head that they’d draft something together, rehearse it before bed to get the delivery just right.
“The chickens had an accident and they died,” he says. “And we’ll miss them.”
Holly looks up from her coloring. “What accident?”
“Well…we don’t know. Sometimes things just happen and you don’t know.”
“Why?” Holly asks.
“We don’t know,” Jon says. He and Claire share a look. They both know this back-and-forth could go all night, no end to the whys and the we-don’t-knows.
“Look, why don’t we go outside,” he says.
It’s already pitch dark out, practically starless with a razor-thin moon. Without a flashlight, Claire follows the vague shape of her husband walking hand-in-hand with Holly. Claire carries Tim on her hip, his request in the form of trawling little fingers at her waistline. They stop at the tree, which has never flowered. They only know it’s an apricot tree because that’s what the realtor said. The kids call it “the branch tree,” because that’s what it is.
In the dirt beneath the tree, Jon has nestled a pale marble statue of a seated child holding a jar of fireflies. The fireflies are supposed to light up—solar powered—but they remain fireless for the time being. The statue had been a bewildering wedding gift from a distant relative, kept in a box in the garage until now. It’s never seen the sun. Claire sets Tim down on his feet.
“The chickens are gone. We won’t see them again,” Jon says. “But if you want to talk to them, they’re here, under the tree.”
“They had a accident,” Holly says.
“Right, a bad accident,” Jon says, pushing her hair behind her ear.
Tim hugs his mother’s leg. He hasn’t said anything yet, but holds her tightly, betraying some level of understanding, she thinks.
There are crickets chirping, crickets Claire’s never seen. They’re ever-present and she has no idea where they are. She gets down to the kids’ level, her knees itchy in the grass. She watches their silhouettes, their feather-soft hair ruffling in the breeze. She looks up at her husband, then beyond him. It’s so dark, she can’t even make out the fences separating their yard from their neighbors’, so this piece of earth seems to spread infinitely, with no border between her family, their own bodies, and the wild things lurking.
Anne-Marie Kinney is the author of the novel Radio Iris (Two Dollar Radio). Her work has appeared in Black Clock, The Collagist, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Rattling Wall, Entropy and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles and co-curates the Griffith Park Storytelling Series.