The Southern Living article on backyard chickens with its two-page spread of eggs scratches at my mind for weeks. I return every few days to the article, or rather, to the smooth stones of eggs layered atop each other like a fragile fan in muted pastels: perfectly oval, simple, adorned with just a blush of color. The soft-blue eggs bring a flush to my cheeks. Finally, I fan the pages out in front of my husband’s coffee and voice my desire: a basket brimming with blue eggs.
My husband erects a chicken coop. He strikes a deal with a chicken farmer who sells us fourteen chickens and two roosters, who points to a set of dark gray birds. “These’n’s are Olive-Eggers,” he explains and extracts the squawking hens from cramped cages only to stuff them into smaller cages for the trip home. My husband huddles with the farmer as I try to hush the hens, try to soothe their squabbling.
One of the auburn-feathered girls pecks feverishly at my fingers. This brute rebellion, so early, shocks my body; my cheeks burn and with that I begin, as always, to question everything: my motives, my desires, my abilities. Handling these hens now appears to be a terrible and intimidating task. I recognize the build up of anxiety in my gut; my hands and feet grow cold, my red-hot ears prickle with embarrassment that I had ever fantasized I could be a… that I could… ever… raise chickens.
From behind, my husband lulls me, “Look, Love, a Blue-Egger.” His right hand is folded over the Blue-Egger’s plump body; he has tucked her head beneath one of her wings. As I take my seat in the truck, he situates the Blue-Egger in the crook of my bent elbow. She remains this way—head tucked, completely yielded in my arms—the whole rickety ride home. I marvel that she can appear so serene while her heart beats against my hand like a rabbit in the mouth of a merciless dog.
It doesn’t take the chickens long to learn my presence means food—the scattering of laying crumbles, cracked corn, leftover Rice-a-Roni and, sometimes, engorged grubs I find undulating in the pulp of dead trees. When I approach, the chickens crowd the mouth of the coop with fanatical hunger. It’s not their frenzy I am afraid of, but that I will never have enough for them. That I will never be enough for them. That I will never be enough. They peck at my already bitten fingers, forcing me to goad them away roughly. To save them from themselves. To save myself. They yelp as if scalded. My stomach turns as though I have doled out unjust punishment to children starved only for my affection. Within a month both silver-laced Wyandottes are dead. A stray dog makes a hobby of digging up the birds so the entire yard is bestrewn with black-tipped white feathers. I can’t get away from the feathers. They swill into the house, carried first by the wind, then by the opening and shutting of doors. These deaths—I brood during the gray days and moan, bereft, at night.
As months pass, the eggs come in, sometimes five a day. I scrub each new egg with lukewarm water and a soft-bristled brush and lay them in the basket. We have olive eggs, brown eggs, pink eggs, white eggs but never blue ones. The Blue-Egger paces daily in front of her hen box, golden ruffles like the soft-melt of dandelions, her bock-bock-bocks so mournful, so wanting. She isolates herself from the Olive-Eggers; I imagine their ceaseless ovulation turns her stomach. I imagine her, aware of her own echo: aging, desperate, searching her hen box, even when she knows, she knows, she knows.
Michelle McMillan-Holifield has recently completed an artist’s residency at Wild Acres in North Carolina. Her work has been included in or is forthcoming in Boxcar Poetry Review, Longridge Review, PIF Magazine, poemmemoirstory, Silver Birch Press’s Nancy Drew Anthology, Stirring, and Windhover, among others. Email: mcmillanholifield[at]gmail.com