The Neck's What Keeps Heart and Head Together
It was the nuns that gave Becky the blue chicken. It was Easter and the nuns felt that Becky and her two sisters needed something good in their lives. Their father had skipped out on the family a year and a half ago to move back to Ville Platte, Louisiana, and live with another woman. Their mother, who'd come over from Japan after marrying their father, worked as a housekeeper for the nuns, and all the late hours kept her from seeing her girls very much, left her always too tired to smile for them. The slight pay from the convent made it difficult to support the girls. It was hard enough keeping them clothed and fed. Easter gifts hurt too much to even think about. The nuns, however, felt that the deprived sisters, deprived of a father and Easter, should get something. So Sunday morning came and Becky and her sisters, Jenny and Carri, walked into the living room and saw the dyed chickens, bright puffballs of color that chirped something that sounded like a song, like something happy.
Becky loved animals, loved them perhaps more than humans, because of their need. Humans had needs too, she supposed, but humans were more difficult to satiate. Humans always needed more, seemed to have a bottomless pit of what they could take. Animals needed just enough, just the right amount. She loved coaxing animals close, closer, until they were in her hands and hers forever. She liked that you could give a dog a few scraps of food and it would come to you every time afterwards. She sat for hours in the field near their house with a piece of string tied to a stick that propped up a box. Under the box would be a carrot stolen out of the garden in their yard, and Becky would wait, wait for the movement of a rabbit through the tall grass. Once, after weeks of hoping, a rabbit inched closer to the carrot than any before it, so close that it made Becky's hands and heart ache with want. The rabbit nibbled the carrot, started to eat more, and Becky yanked the string, heard the snapping of the stick. And as the box jumped and skittered in inches across the grass, she knew that she had something beautiful. She whispered to the rabbit all the way home, "You are mine, little fella, you are all mine, all mine, all mine."
Jenny's chicken died before the pink dye had even faded from its fur. Seven days after Easter, it went to sleep alive, and somewhere in the night it stopped living so hard, so violently, that by the morning it was hard as a rock. Jenny scooped the bird into her hand, and when she felt the weight of it, the added heft that death gives a body, she screamed, high and long, and dropped the chicken on the floor. She jumped back into the bed she shared with her sisters and whispered through sobs, "Pinky feels all wrong, all wrong." Becky picked up the dead bird, and while she tried to think of a way to tell Jenny, Carri pushed her index finger into the body of the chicken and exclaimed, "Pinky's dead, dead, dead," which made Jenny wail even louder. To make it up to her, Becky told Jenny that they would take care of Pinky, give it a proper burial, which made Jenny quiet down a little. Jenny stayed in the house, drawing memorial pictures of Pinky while Becky and Carri walked over to the pond beside the railroad tracks.
When they got to the pond, before Becky could even say a prayer, Carri snatched the bird away from her. Carri tested the weight of the chicken in her hand, stared out at the unmoving, peaceful face of the pond, and sidearmed Pinky before Becky could stop her. The chicken whizzed out and onto the surface of the water, where it skipped-skipped-skipped-skipped into the middle of the pond, a bright blur of pink that ran across the water until it couldn't go anymore, remembered it was dead, and sank to the bottom. As the ripples of the water moved out in circles back to the girls, Becky imagined the bird sat amongst mudfish and dull, mossy rocks like something tropical, an exotic sea chicken.
Jenny asked her mother if the nuns would give her another chicken, if they could replace the faulty one they had given her, but Easter was over and the nuns could only dole out so much charity. If they had to give the girls a chicken for every bad thing that happened to them, the whole house would be filled with soon-to-be-dead chickens in all the colors of the rainbow. Besides, their mother did not know how to ask for more, thought it was bad luck to take anything beyond what was necessary.
Becky's mother was always tired. She worked nine hours each day at the convent, cleaning up after the nuns, no easy task. Holy people tend to leave lots of crumbs, spill a lot of juice. She would come home worn out and sit on the sofa for a few minutes, rubbing her eyes while Becky and her sisters sat around her, as if waiting for her to say something. But she never did, would only rise and go to the kitchen where she would make dinner. It was always small, rice and egg or noodles and seaweed, black paper that they crumbled over their food. Their mother served these meals with no expression. Becky asked her mother, "Is this what you ate in Japan?" Her mother would stir the egg into her rice and say only, "More. More and better eat," and they ate in silence after. She seemed to think of her children as things that somehow came to her, things she took care of but could not quite believe were hers. She could not speak English well enough to tell them the things she wanted. Becky imagined that one day her mother would tell them everything, would tell them about Japan and their father, what made him come and go the way he did, and Becky would no longer need to ask, would no longer have to decode the things her mother told her.
There had been a cat that had followed Becky home, an orange and black cat with soft green eyes that purred when Becky rubbed its head. Becky had been walking home, and then she turned and behind her was the cat, and though she did nothing to encourage it, she hoped the whole way home that it was still behind her, still following her. She did not turn around again, thought that the cat was just a dream and that if she looked again it would disappear, and so she kept walking. She walked with her back straight and eyes forward, hoping, hoping that something would be at her heels when she got home, and when she finally turned around on the front porch, she picked up the cat, the thing she'd wished for and received.
She kept it for a few weeks, feeding it scraps of whatever she saved from dinner, eggs and fish broth. She kept it inside the house, away from the wild dogs that walked up and down their road, turning over garbage cans and snatching up tiny things in their teeth. She kept it until her mother told her no more, that they could not afford all that a cat meant. Even though she cried, even though she begged her mother that the cat would be her responsibility and hers alone, her mother pushed the cat out the front door. Becky watched from the window as the cat meowed, rubbed its head against the doorframe. She watched as it walked around and around the house, looking for a way in. Finally, when night came, Becky looked one last time before she went to bed. The cat was gone. And that night, when she heard the high-pitched calls mixed in with the jagged, rough grunts and growls of the dogs, she tried to believe it had been dream sounds.
That morning, after breakfast, Becky went out into the front yard, and it made her smile, made her chest give up its air, when she heard the cat cry out from somewhere, somewhere close. She ran down to the edge of the yard and started walking down the dirt road until she saw it in the ditch a few feet from their mailbox. The cat had been gutted, had most of its insides pulled out and tangled up in its legs, which were chewed up and broken. Everything from the neck down was wasted, dead, but it could still cry, call out.
The sight made Becky sick, too sick to throw up or even gag. It sat heavy in her stomach, a dead weight, held her close to the ground, so that everything seemed to move in slow motion.
It took forever to find a rock, a big enough rock, to heft it over her head, to focus on the bright green of the cat's eyes, and to drop the rock down, straight down on its head. For three weeks she did not talk to her mother, could only think of that thing in the ditch, crying and waiting for the death to creep up just a little further past the neck and end it.
The bright green chick, Carri's bird, would shit everywhere. Not a day went by that the girls' mother didn't find another pile of chicken droppings somewhere. Carri said it was just a bad bird, but Becky saw how Carri treated it, let it hop around all over the house while their mother was at work. Finally, after their mother slipped on some droppings in the kitchen and spilled their dinner of egg and rice on the floor, she gave Carri an ultimatum. "Bird keep shit, then bird go." Carri promised her mother she would take care of it.
That night, Becky told Carri that she just needed to keep better track of where the chicken was, to keep it in the little pen they had built until it had gone to the bathroom. Carri had a better idea, and the next day, she took two pieces of chewed Double Bubble and affixed it to the chicken's rear, covering the place where the droppings would come out. Afterward, the bird hopped around the house as usual, and Carri ran outside to play in the creek with the Hurley kids across the way.
Becky stayed in the house, watching the chick, waiting. When it finally came time, when the bird made the motions it would make to use the bathroom, Becky watched the rear of the bird. She stared at the pinkish gum underneath the shock of green fur but nothing came, nothing pushed through the gum. And though Becky knew this wasn't the best idea, she also didn't want to have to clean up after her sister's animal. So she went back to the room they all shared and played with her blue chick, let it hop from hand to hand, like a game.
By the time night came around, their mother back from work, they were all pleased to see the clean run of the floor, the absence of chicken droppings. "Good Carri, good train the bird." Everyone was happy until after dinner, while they sat in the living room and colored and they heard their mother scream for Carri. Even though she'd called for only one, all three girls ran to the living room and saw their mother lying on the floor with a broomstick, pushing something out the other side of the bed with the handle. The girls ran to the other side and waited, watched the bed sheets rise slightly and saw the bright green fur sliding along the wood floor. The bird was twice the size that it had been that morning, with patches of rubbery skin showing in spots where the fur-like feathers had been stretched too tight. It was filled up, had probably been trying all day to release what it held inside, and though it was still breathing, just slightly, no one touched the bubble gum covering its rear. No one wanted to see what would spill out.
Carri moved to pick up the bird, but Becky intercepted it, picked it up gently and walked outside towards the oak tree behind the house. The swollen chick felt like a beanbag, little pieces pushing out against the skin. With her hands, Becky dug a small hole and placed the bird inside, thankful that it was too filled up to chirp, to ask for help. Becky cried and cried while she scooped the dirt over the green ball.
The next afternoon, Becky saw that something with paws had dug up the grave. There was nothing inside the hole, and she hoped whichever of the wild dogs it was that got it had gotten a mouthful of shit when it tore into the bird.
The longer her father stayed away from them, the more it seemed to Becky that he was serious, that he was really going to stay in Ville Platte and never see them again. She'd hoped it would be like it'd always been before, with the fights and separations, always her father coming back, always her father holding her mother in his rough hands and trying to smooth the streaks on her face. But now it had almost been a year since they had last heard from him. The postcard he sent to the girls read Laissez les bon temps rouler! in bright letters and a short note on the back, I doubt you'll be seeing much of your pa anymore, with y'all up there and me deep down here, but I still love all of you. Even though Becky knew he was rotten, had promised their mother more than he could possibly give when they were in Japan, him in the navy and her just a teenager, she still wanted him back, wanted to have a mother and father in the same house. The only other families like hers, broken up and split apart, were the trash, the kids with shirts always torn and powdered milk dust on their faces. It made Becky ashamed to be one of them. She wanted her father home not because he was a good man, but because it would make them normal. There were dozens of families with bad fathers. That wasn't anything special at all.
Becky's chick grew out of the dye, the feathers coming in creamy white, and Becky was proud of it, that her bird had outlived the color. She made a leash for it out of a bent coat hanger with a rubber band attached to the end of it, which hung loosely around the chicken's neck while Becky let it walk up and down the road, careful to watch for the wild dogs. Becky liked looking into the glassy eyes of her chicken, the way they seemed to stare at everything and nothing with the same intensity. She liked to imagine what the bird was thinking, what was going on in that kernel-sized brain that lay behind those unflinching eyes, and Becky hoped that it knew something no one else did, that it held secret after secret.
Even her mother began to take a shine to the bird, letting it eat the chicken feed off the kitchen floor. The whole family would stand around and watch the bird peck at the feed, the tapping of its beak on the linoleum rapid and quick, like an urgent wire. Becky would try to soak these moments in, the family gathered around the kitchen table, feeding scraps to their pet, but it always blurred, became the image it really was: a family without a father, and with a housebroken chicken for a pet. Still, if she thought hard enough, focused on the tap-tap-tapping of the message the chicken wrote on the tile, she could make it work.
In her room, while her mother was away cleaning the convent and her sisters played outside, Becky sometimes took a pinch of chicken feed and held it in her mouth, her lips making a puckered O with the feed in the middle. She'd lean towards her chicken, close enough that she could feel its feathers tickle her nose, and the chicken would eat the feed out of her mouth. It would duck almost its entire head into her mouth to get the last pieces, and Becky wondered if this was like kissing someone, if boys only wanted something inside you and would press their mouth to yours because that was the only way to get it.
For the next few months, Becky could hear her mother's voice at night, long after they were supposed to be asleep. Becky would crawl out of bed and press her back against the wall that touched the kitchen, listening to her mother on the phone. She couldn't hear what her mother was saying, couldn't get close enough, but she knew who she was talking to, the only person she could possibly be talking to at three in the morning. She imagined her father on the other line, begging, pleading to come back, and her mother, too proud to let him, slowly dissolving, slowly loving him again. And those nights when she woke to the whispers that found their way through the thin walls of their house, Becky would press her back hard against the wall and try to hear the distinct sounds, try to uncover the words her mother was saying. And sometimes, though she couldn't be sure, she would swear to herself that she'd heard whispers that sounded like everything she wanted to hear. Lonely. Back. Maybe. Love.
When Becky took her chicken outside to let it scratch at the dirt with his beak in the backyard, Mr. Jeffries, the retired postmaster, would always be there, sitting on his back porch. This time, he was slipping toasted pumpkinseeds into his mouth then spitting them into a bowl of salt. Once they'd collected enough salt, he'd pop them back into his mouth and crunch. "Good eatin', that bird," he said. "It's big enough to be frying."
Becky frowned at the old man, the way he spit the seeds out the gap his missing front teeth made, and looked down at her chicken. "This isn't a chicken for that. This is a pet."
Mr. Jeffries laughed. "They're all pets. Still gotta eat 'em, though."
If Becky's mother was outside, Mr. Jeffries would call her over and point at the chicken, flipping his wrist as if he were using a lasso. Becky's mother would laugh politely and then shake her head. It had been so long since the family had eaten chicken, or beef, or anything like that. They ate vegetables from their garden and bowls and bowls of rice and noodles. Becky couldn't even remember what chicken tasted like, could not bring the taste back, and she liked it this way. If she knew what chicken tasted like, she would know what her chicken would taste like. The thought gave her chills.
The phone calls at night were becoming more frequent, the voice in the kitchen humming through the wall. It was like music to Becky, a lullaby that woke her and then sent her back to sleep happier than before. She would call her chicken over with her hands and the bird would run to her, its feet clack-clacking on the floor. Becky would gather it up in her arms and rock it, let the chicken peck softly at her cheek, always searching for more food. She let it kiss her until her face glowed pink and the bird finally tired itself out, rested against her body, and Becky would wake the next morning still on the floor, her back stiff from sitting against the wall all night. It made her walk with her back straight, like royalty, like someone who had things and knew how to keep them.
The chicken was the only animal in the house now. Nothing else could stay longer than a few days. Every cat that would follow Becky home would be met by the squawking and ruffled feathers of her chicken, always running directly at the cat, striking and falling back over and over until the other animal left. The chicken would watch the animal sit for a few seconds on the side of the road just past the front yard before it started off for a kinder environment. The chicken would then turn and hop around Becky's legs until she picked it up and the chicken was still squawking, still telling her that she didn't need anything else to feed.
Their mother finally told the girls about their father. She told them how he had been calling her nearly every night, how she wrapped the phone in blankets at night to keep the ringing from waking them, and Becky realized she'd never been awakened by the ringing, only the whispering. She told them how he said he wanted to come back, to try it again. And the girls squealed, danced around the kitchen. They wondered what their father would have for them when he returned, what else he would bring to the house besides himself, though that was enough for now. And that night they ate rice and egg happily, like it would be the last time they had to mash the raw egg yolk into their rice, the last time they had to force something down simply because there wasn't anything else.
The nuns bought Becky's mother a new dress, her only dress. They were happy for her, happy that perhaps the marriage could be saved, or the sacrament of marriage, at least. It was cream white with red flowers that climbed up and down the fabric. Their mother brought it home that night from work, wrapped in tissue paper and plastic, and she laid it out on the table, smoothed the wrinkles with her hands. The four of them sat around the table and stared at the colors, the brightness of the dress, but their mother did not put it on, as if she could not quite see herself wearing something like this, as if she was only keeping this dress for someone else. "For your father, him to see." She hung the dress in the closet for when he came back to them.
Mr. Jeffries drove them to the airport two towns over in his old rusted truck, which moved slowly and with great purpose down the dirt roads, as if trying to drag out the time until they saw their father. The girls sat in the bed of the truck, and their mother, wearing the new dress, sat in the passenger seat beside Mr. Jeffries. From behind, looking through the back window at her mother, she did not seem real to Becky, the shiny black hair against her pale neck, the perfect collar of the white dress. It was as if their mother had become better, more lifelike, with their father's arrival.
They walked out onto the runway when the plane from New Orleans touched down. The hatch on the side of the plane, near the front, opened up and four men in gray uniforms pushed a set of stairs to meet the passengers getting off the plane, stepping out into the Tennessee heat and glare of the afternoon, squinting and slowly moving down the stairs until they touched ground. Mr. Jeffries waited in the truck, said family reunions made everyone but the family uncomfortable. As each new person stepped out, as the light picked up their features, the girls and their mother looked past them into the darkness of the airplane for the next face, the next body that could be their father's.
Becky counted each passenger as they came out, counted down to see which number was her father. The numbers kept rolling, each person descending from the plane and onto the runway and then gone. After a while, the numbers seemed too high, that there weren't many left to assign. She began to think that maybe their father was going to be the last one, was hanging back, nervous, but would edge up to the hatch, peer out at the light and follow it, out, down, and to them. She waited, they all waited, huddled around each other, until no one else was left, until the plane had given up everyone it held. And not one was their father. There was nothing left but people in uniforms, closing the hatch, rolling the stairs away. Carri looked at their mother. "They forgot dad, didn't they?" she said. "They left him in there." But their mother said nothing, probably could not think of the words to explain, even if she wanted to.
The other girls were crying as they went back to the truck. They held onto their mother, pressed their faces against her dress and would not let go. Mr. Jeffries said nothing, did not ask about their father. In fact, he did not look surprised at all as he helped Carri and Jenny into the truck bed, hoisted them up gently. Their mother climbed into the bed as well, pointed Becky towards the front seat beside Mr. Jeffries, who was already starting the truck to head back home. As soon as Becky settled into the seat, the landscape out the window began to move, began to pick up speed and almost blur as Mr. Jeffries drove as fast as the truck would safely allow, trying to get them all away from the place they already wanted to forget.
Mr. Jeffries did not speak for a long time, though Becky knew he was going to, could feel the air inside the truck heavy with what he wanted to tell her but wouldn't. Finally, when they crossed back over into their town, he spoke, still staring straight ahead. "Your momma told me about all this you know. She told me about your pa and what he was going to do. You don't know, I'd wager, what she just did, do you?"
Becky shook her head, felt something making her sick in her stomach.
"She sent that poor excuse all the money she'd been saving, ever last bit for a ticket to fly him back here and he's taken it and I know he's keeping it and not thinking a thing about paying it back. Now, I offered to loan your momma a little something to help y'all out, but she isn't hearing me, doesn't want to take it. You, though, you're smart. You need to take this money and it'll keep y'all going for a while until she gets back on her feet."
He held out a wad of bills for her, all creased and faded, like he'd dug it up out of the yard this morning from some sealed jar. She looked at his hand, the money, how he still stared straight ahead, his other hand steady on the wheel. She did not take it, though, looked back into the bed where her mother held Carri and Jenny as they cried. "Don't think about that, Becky, you take what's right." But she wouldn't take it, stared ahead at whatever it was that Mr. Jeffries was staring at. He would not put the money back, kept holding it out, but he said nothing more, and they spent the rest of the drive like that, both staring ahead, ignoring everything else.
Their mother didn't say anything for days afterward, as if she'd given up on words being able to do things, as if she'd wasted them all on the phone for the past few months and there was nothing else. She fixed only rice now for them to eat, rice with thin carrots chopped up from the garden. There wasn't much else to eat, and the girls knew not to say anything about the food, about the same starchy, sticky rice every night. Their mother would hardly even eat, would only push her food around and then clear the table. One night, Becky saw her standing in the back yard, burning her dress, small, pathetic flames jumping around her feet. Becky hoped they would spark and catch the yard on fire, spread through the neighborhood and just keep going, but it sputtered itself out, burned itself into ashes and smoke.
On the fifth day of rice and carrots, Becky's mother went into the yard, then over to Mr. Jeffries's. Becky thought that maybe she was going to take his money after all. She watched them through the screen door, the grim look on her mother's face, something more than the haggard and tired that always crept around her eyes and mouth. Mr. Jeffries shook his head a few times, looked into the house and then looked away. Then Becky saw his arm, the wrist swinging around slowly and then suddenly quick, as if with a purpose, and she knew what was going on, what was going to happen.
Becky's mother came into the house and walked to the girls' room, where the chicken was. Becky saw her step into the room, and all she could say was "Don't, don't." Her mother stooped down anyways, scooped the chicken into her arms. Becky swung her fists into her mother, slapping at her legs and back, but her mother kept walking. And then Becky stopped, just gave up, as if finally realizing what could and what could not be stopped, what you had control over and what you did not. She walked outside with her mother, as close as possible without touching, and she watched her mother take the bird gently by the neck, almost like love. She watched her mother swing, watched the chicken circle around and around and then become a blur.
Her mother had never done this before, did not have the quickness of wrist to do it right. Mr. Jeffries could have done it better, a few twists and done, but he was not outside, had probably gone inside just for this reason. Becky closed her eyes finally, but not before she saw her chicken, its neck stretching past the point it should have already snapped loose, but it would not separate. Becky could see, even with her eyes shut tight, the bird hang on for those few seconds, try to stay connected, to hold on, before finally breaking free.
This is what they ate the next night, what they sat around the table and ate without speaking. The rice was smothered with a brown juice that soaked into each grain, made it taste like perfect flakes of butter and grease. The carrots were bright orange and soft, could be cut with a fork. The chicken was browned to the point that the thin layer of skin evaporated in your mouth, leaving a trace of salt and butter. It was smothered with wild onions, little green rings that decorated the meat. They all ate slowly, small bites. Becky sat in her chair, staring at her mother, who this time did not just move her food around but actually ate, getting rice and carrot and chicken with each bite. And Becky ate, too, ate because she knew she would have to, because she could not be expected to explain what she was feeling. She took bite after bite, took sips of powdered milk to wash it down, and after a while it was gone, there was nothing left. Becky went to her room and cried all that night, cried until she was empty and full and the rest of the house was quiet, only the sound of their mother washing the dishes, scrubbing each plate clean.
What Becky could not tell her mother, though sometimes she wanted to, sometimes she almost needed to, was that she ate her chicken and felt horrible because she loved it. She wanted to tell her mother how good it tasted, perfectly salted and cooked, with a glaze of butter. How she took small bites because she wanted it to last, because she could not imagine the next night, when it would be rice and carrots or rice and egg or rice and seaweed again. But she would not tell her mother this, though she thought perhaps her mother already knew, knew the minute she carried the chicken into the back yard, that things only ever happen the way they have to.