I tucked her wings tight against her heaving body, crouched over her, and covered her flailing head with my gloved hand. Holding her neck hard against the floor of the coop, I took a breath, set something deep and hard inside my heart, and twisted her head. I heard her neck break with a crackle. Still she fought me, struggling to be free of my weight, my gloved hands, my need to kill her. Her shiny black beak opened and closed, opened and closed silently, as she gasped for air. I didn’t know this would happen. I was undone by the flapping, the dust rising and choking me, the disbelieving little eye turned up to mine. I held her beak closed, covering that eye. Still she pushed, her reptile legs bracing against mine, her warmth, her heart beating fast with mine. I turned her head on her floppy neck again, and again, corkscrewing her breathing tube, struggling to end the gasping. The eye, turned around and around, blinked and studied me. The early spring sun flowed onto us through a silver stream of dust, like a stage light, while we fought each other. I lifted my head and saw that the other birds were eating still, pecking their way around us for stray bits of corn. This one, this twisted and broken lump of gleaming black feathers, clawed hard at the floor, like a big stretch, and then deflated like a pierced ball. I waited, holding her tiny beak and broken neck with all my might.
I was killing chickens. It was my 38th birthday. My brother had chosen that morning to tell me that he had caught his wife—my best friend, Ashley—in bed with my husband a year before. I had absorbed the rumors and suspicions about other women for 10 years, but this one, I knew, was going to break us. When I roared upstairs and confronted John, he told me to go fuck myself, ran downstairs and jumped into the truck. Our sons, Sam and Ben, were making a surprise for me at the table; they stood behind me silently in the kitchen door while John gunned the truck out of the yard. “It’s okay, guys,” I said. “Mum and Dad just had a fight. You better go finish my surprise before I come peeking.”
I carried Bertie’s warm, limp body outside and laid her on the grass. Back inside the coop, I stalked my hens and came up with Tippy-Toes. I gathered her frantic wings and crouched over her. John was supposed to kill off our beautiful but tired old hens, no longer laying, last month to make way for the new chicks that were arriving tomorrow. But he was never around, and the job had not been done. I didn’t know how to do this. But I was going to do it myself. This was just a little thing in all the things I was going to have to learn to do alone.
I had five more to go. Tippy-Toes tried to shriek behind my glove. I clamped my hand over her beak and gave her head a hard twist. I felt her body break deep inside my own chest.
Two down. I felt powerful, capable. I could handle whatever came to me.
But I needed a rest. I was tired, exhausted, with a heavy, muffled weight settling inside. ‘I’m coming in,” I called in a false, singsong voice from the kitchen door. “Better hide my surprise.” Ten and 7, the boys knew something was up, something bigger than the moody, dark days John brought home, bigger than the hushed, hissing fights we had behind our bedroom door, bigger than the days-long silent treatment John imposed on me if I asked too many questions about where he had been and why. Sam and Ben were working quietly in the kitchen, not giggling and jostling the way they usually did. Their downy blond heads touched as they leaned over their projects. I felt a crush of sadness, of defeat. We were exploding into smithereens on this pretty March day, and we all knew it.
“I have to make a cake!” I sang from the doorway. “When are you guys going to be done in there?”
“Wait! Wait!” they squealed. It was an empty protest, their cheer as hollow as mine.
Our old house smelled good, of wood and the pancakes the three of us had eaten this morning, in that other world of hope and tight determination before my brother’s phone call. We lived on a ridge high over the mouth of the Damariscotta River on the coast of Maine. From our beds, we could all see out over Pemaquid Point, over Monhegan Island, over the ocean to the edge of the Old World. The rising sun burst into our sleep each morning. At night, before bed, we lay on my bed together—three of us—naming Orion and Leo and the Pleiades in whispers. Monhegan’s distant light swept the walls of our rooms all night at 36-second intervals. Our little house creaked in the wind during February storms. Now spring had come, and the world had shifted.
“Help me make my cake,” I said to the boys. They dragged their chairs to the counter.
“Mum, will Dad be home for your birthday tonight?” Sam asked. Both boys were so contained, so taut, so helpless. They leaned against me, quiet.
Guilt and fear tugged me like an undertow. I started to cry.
“I don’t know, my loves. I think this is a really big one.”
Bertie and Tippy-Toes lay side by side on the brown grass, their eyes open, necks bent. I closed the coop door behind me and lunged for the next hen.
“It’s all right,” I said softly. “It’s all right. Everything’s going to be all right. Shhh, Silly, shh.” I crouched over her. Silly was the boys’ favorite because she let them carry her around the yard. I hoped they would forget her when the box of peeping balls of fluff arrived tomorrow.
“It’s okay, Silly,” I said quietly, wrapping my gloved fingers around her hard little head. She was panting, her eyes wild, frantic, betrayed. I covered them with my fingers and twisted her neck hard. Her black wings, iridescent in the dusty sunlight, beat against my legs. I held her close to me while she scrabbled against my strong hands. I started to cry again.
When I went back up to the house, Bertie and Tippy-Toes and Silly and Mother Mabel lay on the grass outside the coop.
Benjamin came into the kitchen and leaned against my legs. “What are we going to do?” he asked.
“About what, Sweetheart?” I hoped he was not asking me about tomorrow. Or the next day.
“Nothing,” he said, drifting off to play with Sam upstairs.
We frosted the cake blue, Ben’s favorite color, and put it on the table next to their presents for me, wrapped in wallpaper. I wanted to call someone, to call my mother or my sister. Yesterday I would have called Ashley, my best friend, who had listened to me cry and rail about John again and again. Instead, I brought in three loads of wood and put them in the box John had left empty.
“Sam, will you lay up a fire for tonight? And Ben, go down to the cellar and get a bunch of kindling wood.”
Like serious little men, my children did what I asked.
“What are we going to make for my birthday supper?”
“I thought we were going to Uncle Stephen’s and Aunt Ashley’s,” Sam said.
“Know what?” I said. “Know what I want to do? Let’s just stay here and have our own private little party. Just us.”
I felt marooned with my children. I sat at the table, watching while they did their chores, then headed back out to finish mine.
Minnie Hen was next. She let me catch her and kill her without much fight. I laid her next to the others in the cold grass.
Itty-Bit was last. She was my favorite. The others had chewed off her toes, one by one, when she was a chick. I had made a separate box for her, a separate feeder, separate roost, and smeared antibiotic ointment four times a day on the weeping stubs. She survived, and ate from my hand after that. She had grown to be fierce with the other hens, never letting them too close to her, able to slip in, grab the best morsels and flee before they could peck her. I had come to admire her very much, my tough little biddie.
She cowered in the corner, alone. I sat next to her, and she let me pull her up into my lap. I stroked her feathers smooth, stroke after stroke. Her comb was pale and shriveled, a sign of her age. I knew she hadn’t laid an egg for months. She was shaking. I held her warmth against me, cooing to her, “It’s all right, Itty Bit. Everything’s going to be all right. Don’t be scared.” My anger at John centered like a tornado on having to kill this hen. “You stupid, selfish son of a bitch,” I said. I got up, crying again, holding Itty-Bit tight to me. I laid her gently on the floor and crouched over her. The sun filled the coop with thick light.
That night, after eating spaghetti and making a wish and blowing out 38 candles and opening presents made by Sam and Benjamin—a mail holder made from wood slats, a sculpture of 2-by-4s and shells; after baths and reading stories in bed and our sweet, in-the-dark, whispered good nights; after saying “I don’t know what is going to happen” to my scared children; after banking the fire and turning off the lights, I sat on the porch in the cold, trying to imagine what had to happen next. I could see the outline of the coop against the dark, milky sky. I touched my fingers, my hands, so familiar to me. Tonight they felt like someone else’s. I wrapped my arms around myself— thin, tired—and wished it were yesterday.
Tomorrow morning, I thought, I have to turn over the garden and go to the dump. Tomorrow morning, I have to call a lawyer. I have to figure out what to say to Sam and Benjamin. I have to put Ben’s sculpture on the mantel and put some mail in Sam’s holder on the desk. I have to clean out the coop and spread fresh shavings.