GLORIA SITS IN THE NEST BOX, unmoving, as the other chickens busy themselves around her. For two days she has not strayed from the stagnant whorl of straw and dust and feathers tacked together here and there with bits of manure hardened into mortar. The last two mornings, she has made no motion toward the food or water as the other chickens gathered round in the usual melee, announcing themselves and jockeying for the choicest morsels. Unless she has eaten at night in the dark, she has not eaten. Chickens do not eat or drink at night because they cannot see well in the dark and the night is full of predators. The coop houses no predators, but the chickens do not know this. A chicken knows only what it can see. A chicken's life is full of magic. Lo and behold.
In the kitchen, the bottom drawer holds the most obscure utensils. Taking up a great volume of space inside the drawer is a device to core and peel apples: a three-pronged spire that holds the apple centered in a sharp-edged metal ring to extract the core, alongside a blade positioned at an angle to peel the skin from the curved surface. The machine functions exactly as intended, a perfect machine, if only a paring knife did not execute the same task with such grace and simplicity. The entire drawer is populated as such, by some false sense of necessity, though offhand I cannot think of a simpler tool than a turkey baster for watering a broody hen.
A chicken needs water, is like every other living thing in this respect, cannot live two days without it. In addition to a hen's need for water, the egg inside her needs water. Without water, an egg is just a piece of chalk.
Gloria's whole body bristles with the approach of the baster full of water. Her wings beat a dry knock against the walls of the nest box. She hisses the hoarse, pressed air of a snake and drinks one quivering drop.
BENEATH GLORIA IS AN EGG, large and cocoa brown. She does not lay eggs of this color. She lays eggs the color of a peach crayon and much smaller in size. Gloria has taken to sitting on all the eggs as if they were her own. Gloria sits with a crazy gleam in her eye, but that is just a chicken's eye. The eye of a chicken is all that's left of the dinosaurs, a little portal into the era of nut-size brains. Meaning cannot be derived from a chicken's eye because meaning does not exist there. But, also, the craziness of the eye obscures everything.
I shield my hand with a dustpan as I grope beneath her tail for the egg. She cracks at the aluminum with her beak. Crack, crack
, despite no visible return. Who knows what she is feeling? A beak is not the same as a tooth, but I have several times chimed my tooth with a metal spoon and cannot imagine the aluminum, vibrating in my hand as it does, punctuated by sharp thwacks of her beak, is not sending an unpleasant message in the opposite direction, from beak to bone to bone, rattling the small cage that is a chicken.
Gloria triples in size when I reach in close, the way a pillow expands when you plump its sides. She executes the maneuver without thought. The movement of her feathers—the contraction of her skin and the corresponding bulk—precedes thought or takes the place of thought altogether. Gloria is wedded to the egg, not the idea of the egg. If the egg is removed, her memory of the egg goes with it.
The warmth of the egg is an original warmth and never fails to surprise me. Until we had chickens I never marveled at an egg, though I would expect it to have been the other way around: the incredible edible egg wooing me in the direction of chickens. Now that I have held this small warm place in the palm of my hand, I cannot help but wonder.
Gloria is curious about me. On an ordinary day, I don't dally. I pour the food, check for dead mice in the traps—the mice are too smart for this now, but I keep checking in the hopes of, I don't know what, a simple mouse—and make sure the jug of water isn't dry or tainted. But today I linger in the coop, tending to my tasks in the slowest possible manner. I miss the chickens now, even as they are still here.
I SHOULD HAVE SEEN this coming: missing the chickens. The same thing happened to our neighbor girl, Katherine, last year. She moved away and proceeded to miss the chickens in excess of caring about them in the first place, which is to say, she had taken them for granted.
Katherine was five then and still white-haired, and has always been a clumsy girl, prone to slow, premeditated movements. She had spent countless hours of her childhood lumbering after the chickens with her arms open wide. Chickens don't take lightly to broad wingspans. Whatever they saw in Katherine, they were right to flee her outstretched arms, held such for the very purpose of alighting on a chicken. I would have been so happy for them all, for the long-lasting diversion, if not for the chickens' abject terror.
Perhaps inevitably, Katherine's gait resembled a chicken's as much as possible. The running of the chickens was likely the only running she had ever seen, her mother being too big to run and her father too serious. Of course it isn't practical to move like a chicken. To move like a chicken benefits no one, least of all chickens, whose movement is a byproduct of breast-heavy breeding and can be neatly summed up as a failure to fly. Katherine must have been mercilessly teased by her classmates. The family up and left without warning six months ago, after school let out for summer.