This story was hilarious and beautiful. It captured the madness of marriage and all its flaws, of two people struggling to be themselves alongside one another, and not merging into one. What a wonderful riot ensues when a couple allows the other their own space. The world of this story is grotesque and a filthy squalid mess. Like a kitchen that just needs to be cleaned up. It’s also so original and surprising. I laughed all the way through. This is the story of a happy family. And a happy family is one that creates memories they cherish no matter how imperfect. You will want to kiss all the characters on the lips as though they were members of your own family. And the chickens! Let me just say, the chickens in this story have the personality and depth of Dickensian characters.
—Heather O’Neill, Thomas Morton Memorial Prize Judge, 2017
When Jack built that first hutch, Laurie didn’t stop him. But soon, Jack’s hobby meant that Laurie often woke to find a chicken or two or even three lying beside her on the pillow. Once, she turned on the faucet and unwittingly drenched a hen who’d fallen asleep in the tub. The chicken tangled itself in the shower curtain, and Jack came running at the sound of Laurie’s screams and the chicken’s panicked clucking.
As he struggled with the curtain, he kept asking, “Are you okay?”
Laurie repeated, “Yes,” until she realized he was talking to the bird.
In the before years—as she came to think of those times of baptisms, confirmations, spaghetti suppers, and prayer circles—she had been the one to organize the church potlucks and bake sales. She would hold Bible studies at the farmhouse where she had grown up. Her little Audrey would be passed from one lap to another. In those days, Laurie never locked the door, and the house was rarely empty.
After the parishioners drove Jack from the pulpit, after they’d given him a second chance and he’d blown it despite months of counselling, Laurie’s social life, in that respect, ended. She had gone back to her old job as a radiology technician, working three 12-hour shifts a week.
As the days grew shorter, she ventured to invite a small group of coworkers over for a soup swap, the first real party she’d thrown since before. She printed invitations explaining that each swapper should bring at least four one-quart jars of soup, plus soup to sample; for each jar, the guest received a ticket to trade for another. Worried that the samples wouldn’t be enough, Laurie prepared a slow cooker of white bean chili with Bisquick dumplings, but as the first guest pulled into the driveway she couldn’t find the ladle.
Audrey discovered it the next morning, tucked beneath a broody Mottled Java that had hidden in a cabinet. Laurie turned the water on, as hot as it would go. Audrey watched steam billow up from the sink and feared her mother would burn herself. Laurie muttered, “And what if your chicken’s up to standard? What, five dollars and a plaque?”
“You can win a real-life trophy, Mom,” Audrey retorted. “And Dad said he might get enough to cover gas, if his chickens are good enough.”
The only shortcut on Jack’s desktop went to a PDF of The American Standard of Perfection, published by the American Poultry Association in 1910. Of the PDF’s 331 pages, Jack had printed 74—the introduction and glossary, plus all descriptions and illustrations relevant to the breeds scattered across the family’s upper ten acres. He wouldn’t allow the book to be purchased online for fear that his credit card number would be stolen. Laurie called that ironic, but Audrey didn’t know why.
Jack hated to read from a screen, so would instead print multi-page forum discussions on chicken husbandry and forget to staple them. The kitchen table had become a loose-leaf library, waiting to topple into cups of coffee and cascade onto plates of spaghetti at the slightest disturbance. Once, Audrey was eating chicken noodle soup and the official score card of the American Poultry Association fell into her bowl. Her mother crossed the kitchen in a flash and pitched the soup-soaked scorecard into the burn bin. Audrey knew her father would wonder where it was, and told her so.
Three days later, Laurie came home with a weathered copy of The American Standard of Perfection. Inside was an inscription: Noel Witherspoon, 1911, Warren, Pennsylvania. The name made Audrey think of Christmas, but her father pronounced it as a single syllable, Nole. Audrey asked what was in Warren, Pennsylvania, but her parents didn’t know. She asked how the book had traveled all the way to Minnesota, and they couldn’t tell her that, either. The final question came from her father—“Where did you get this?”—to which Laurie didn’t answer. She’d gotten it from an old church friend, but he didn’t know she was still in touch with those people.
The American Standard of Perfection was the first item Jack moved from the big house to the little house after their tenants bought a house in town.
Audrey spent most of her time with Jack, fussing over the chickens, and Laurie passed her free hours in an old shed her father had converted into a painting studio when she was just a girl. She felt close to him there, remembered painting beside him in the winter lull. When Jack began his chicken project, Laurie had tried to get involved—to help Jack find suppliers and learn about breeds and competitions—but she couldn’t maintain interest, and besides, she found herself scrolling through his browser history whenever she used the computer. She never found anything, but still, the fear was there.
Audrey was allowed in the studio, but it was a permission given grudgingly, accompanied by a long list of rules and prohibitions. Audrey was not to talk; she was to sit quietly and paint her own canvas. She was not to bring any chickens into the studio, though most of what she painted was chickens. Her canvasses were either portraits of Laura Ingalls—“Why’d you have to give that bird a name so close to mine?” her mom asked—or close-ups of combs, feathers, wings, and wattles.
Once, Jack had said, “Don’t know how she spends so much time in a 12-by-12 box.”
“What’s that mean?” Audrey had asked.
“It’s 12 feet by 12 feet, how big that studio is.”
When Audrey walked the length of the interior, heel to toe, heel to toe, she counted 17 foot-lengths, and told her mother so.
There had been a long pause as her mother’s mind unravelled itself from the happy knot of concentration in which she painted. Finally, she said, “Huh?”
Audrey continued, “Mom, Dad said this box is 12 feet, but it’s 17 of my feet.”
“He called it a box?” Laurie asked, setting her paintbrush down.
“Yeah, a 12-by-12 box, but my feet get 17.”
Laurie had sighed. “This box is my sanctuary, Audrey, like at church, almost, if you remember that. Your dad knows that. Do you like it here?”
“Yeah, I love your paintings. And I like painting.”
“What about the chickens? Do you like the chickens more than this place?”
Audrey had known, even then, that it was really a question about whether she preferred her mom or her dad, so she had said, “I can touch the chickens with Dad, and I can paint them with you.”
Laurie wiped her hands on a towel and opened her arms. Audrey rushed into her lap.
Jack would be going to the Ohio National Poultry Show alone, save for the company of 12 chickens. His Golden Sebright Bantams, despite his methodical, meticulous breeding, were smutty—the black indistinct, bleeding into the gold of the feathers’ interiors. Like melted stained glass. He was bringing one, the best one, to hear what the judges would say, to plan for next year. Four Leghorns—a hen, two cockerels, and a pullet—were nearly perfect. Three Mottled Javas, each with small, straight, upright combs with five perfect points. One was a bully, a pecker, but his tail boasted long feathers and stood at a precise 45 degree angle from the horizon. Two Silver-Pencilled Wyandottes and two Rhode Island Reds. He wouldn’t bring the Silkie; that was Audrey’s pet, and although she believed Laura Ingalls, as she’d named her, was a champion, he knew he couldn’t have a champion without careful breeding.
Early November was cold in Minnesota—always was, but this time there’d been a snap that set a sheen of ice across the roads and trees. Laurie urged Jack not to go, especially given how little he’d driven since he’d left the church. He had planned to wash the chickens in the house, but a tree fell across the power line and cut off their electric heat. Hypothermia was a threat when washing chickens, as was the possibility of their falling asleep in the water. He had to hold their heads up to keep them from drowning. He’d even heard of breeders performing mouth-to-mouth on birds whose heads lolled into the washbasin.
Laurie was at work, and after she got off she’d be going to dinner with friends. Jack couldn’t imagine socializing after a 12-hour shift, but his wife was tireless. Her studio was off the grid, powered by a generator that would still be humming and heating the small building.
But Jack rarely visited the studio, so when he decided to wash the chickens in the large washbasin Laurie used for brushes, he didn’t realize how many paintings were in there, water-based paint still tacky to the touch, or that Laurie had repainted the walls that morning.
The Silkie didn’t need to be washed, since she was staying behind in Minnesota, but Audrey wanted her to feel special, like a show bird. So Jack filled a bucket and set it on the floor so Audrey could wash her chicken. She asked for detergent; Jack was using Tide with bleach alternative and scrubbing the gunk from the feathers with a toothbrush. He’d managed to find an outlet for the blow dryer so he could dry the birds quickly before putting them into their crates.
“It smells like paint in here,” Audrey said as she swirled Tide in warm water.
“Your mother paints a lot,” Jack answered.
Laura Ingalls was not an affectionate bird. When Audrey picked her up, half the time she would flap her wings to escape. She had pecked at Audrey on multiple occasions and was kept separate from the other birds so she wouldn’t pull their feathers out. Jack was so focused on cleaning his show birds, he hadn’t considered Laura Ingalls’ temperament when he allowed her into the studio. When her toes touched water, he remembered. She squawked and flapped her wings, pecked at Audrey’s fingers, and managed to fly up, onto the sink’s edge. Audrey stepped back, onto the edge of paint can, which toppled. Bright yellow paint splashed onto the wall and pooled across the floor. Jack made the mistake of flicking water at the Silkie, and soap got in her eyes. She pecked at the Rhode Island Red that Jack was washing, and that hen, in turn, beat her wings, splashing water onto Jack and Audrey and into her own eyes. She jumped out of the sink and took off running, straight into the legs of an easel, which toppled into the pen where the other birds awaited their baths.
Paint smeared the wet chickens red, black, and gold. They pecked madly at one another, shrieking as if a fox had come to steal their eggs. A few managed to hop the wall of the pen, which came up to Jack’s waist. Two huddled against the wall of the studio, smearing themselves in spilled yellow paint. When Jack went to pick them up, he slid his arm along the wall, coloring his sleeve the same garish shade. Laurie liked things “cheerful.” She’d wanted to paint the kitchen this god-awful color before Audrey was born.
Laura Ingalls perched atop a painting, and Jack approached her slowly, willing her to stay put. Audrey was still kneeling over the bucket, soaked from head to toe, and she began to cry. Laura Ingalls allowed Jack to pick her up and place her into Audrey’s arms. She didn’t fly away.
The whole scene took only a minute, maybe two, but the studio was in disarray and all the birds were splattered with paint. Jack would have to wait at least an hour to wash them, until they’d calmed down.
Audrey got up and lifted her mother’s painting from the pen. It depicted 12 chickens, those bound for Ohio. Now the colors were muddled, one chicken mingling with another.
Most nights Jack slept in the little house, the one they had rented to tenants for so many years. He would leave after Audrey had gone to sleep, and would escape to his bookcases when she thought he was out with the chickens. His birthday had come and gone without a gift from Laurie. Gifts, like weddings and funerals, were a memory of before. Still, he had brought his box of cards and letters from those days to the little house and would sometimes pull it out and place it on the bed. He had found that he couldn’t bring himself to open it, so it returned to the drawer of his bedside table, where it stayed, like a Gideon Bible, there for the wayward heart, should the wayward heart be willing.
Jack didn’t go to Ohio. The first bird he tried to clean after the incident was so coated in paint that he flattened her feathers from scrubbing too hard. Then, Laurie came home earlier than expected, before he was able to right the damage done to her studio.
On one of his first dates with Laurie, when they were both at school in the Twin Cities, he had ordered pan-fried walleye. When it arrived, he took a piece into his mouth and frowned. Laurie asked, “What’s wrong?” and wouldn’t let him brush off her question. “It’s overcooked,” he said. She picked up his plate and inspected it, then waved the waiter over. “These potatoes are some of the creamiest I’ve ever had—please give our compliments to the chef—but we thought y’all would like to know this fish is overcooked. I can tell this is fresh, and we just want it to be as good as it’s meant to be, if it’s not too much trouble.” Jack had never sent food back, and he’d never heard a Minnesotan do such a convincing southern accent. After the waiter left, Laurie looked at Jack, shrugged, and said, “When it comes to walleye, they’re eager to impress us foreigners.” She pronounced the last word faww-nuhs, like he’d heard in movies. She laughed, and so did he. She’d never been one to hide her feelings.
So when she came home early, having agreed to cover a friend’s half-shift later in the week, and found her family covered in water and paint, with a pen full of chickens in her quiet sanctuary, Jack knew how upset she was when she looked around, silently bit her lip, and left, shutting the door gently behind her. He couldn’t continue washing chickens after that.
The work didn’t stop for winter. On Christmas morning, as soon as gifts were opened, Jack said he needed to check on the birds, clean their coops, and collect eggs. Audrey ran after him, without her coat on, and one of many visiting aunts called her back. Bundled by this matronly southern woman who underestimated the child’s tolerance for cold, she could scarcely put her arms down, but took off across the snow-covered yard, checking each building where chickens were kept. Her dad wasn’t in any of them, but she saw smoke coming from the chimney of the little house.
The door was locked, so she went around to each of the windows. She found a gap in the curtains of the first-floor bedroom window and saw that both her parents were inside. She raised her fist to knock, but stopped when she realized they weren’t dressed. Her mother was naked, leaning forward on the edge of the bed. Her father was wearing the green sweater he had received that morning. His legs were bare, and his private part poked through the front of his boxers. She saw that he was holding a small, flat square of shiny foil or plastic, with jagged edges, and thought it was a candy of some sort. He went to open it, but her mother took it from him, and held it in her clenched fist. She spoke to him, and he looked at her for a long time before leaning over her. She knew, suddenly, what was happening—something she wasn’t supposed to see, something she’d only known roosters and hens to do, and only when Jack wanted more birds.
Jack bred his birds in early February, and Audrey watched as he labelled the eggs that he collected from beneath his hens. Each chicken had a number, and by this point, Jack had bred five generations of some varieties. He selected cocks and hens to breed together based on the family tree he kept posted on each bird’s cage. He could even picture the features of birds that had died in previous years. He would mutter to himself as he surveyed his flock—“Number 48, he was a small one,” “Number 62, a beauty. Nice taper on the rose comb, well-conformed to the skull, short wattle. Just a bit short. Could breed with 70 to correct for that,” “Broad breast on her, stubby toes, though.”
Audrey wondered how he kept all that straight; she could hardly recount the day’s events when her mother asked, “What’d you learn in school today?” Besides, she found that each time she looked at her mother, she remembered how her eyes had shut as she lay back on the bed on Christmas morning; how even through the window, Audrey swore she could hear the long sigh that escaped her as she opened her fist and dropped the condom to the floor.
The rooster gave Audrey her favorite story of that fateful winter. She heard him crowing one morning, just beneath her window. He sounded as if he needed a lozenge. When the rooster went silent, she ran downstairs, put on her coat, and slipped into her mother’s shoes, too big for her, but she didn’t have to trouble herself with tying them.
The rooster had burrowed into the snow, made a little nest for himself, and was shivering. Audrey didn’t know birds could shiver. She reached a hand toward him, mindful that he might be aggressive. She should’ve worn gloves, she thought, but the rooster just looked at her and let loose its gravel-throated cock-a-doodle-doo once more. She noticed the points of his comb were black. He rocked back and forth, trying to stand, but couldn’t seem to use his legs. She placed another hand against him and, after a moment’s warm contact, lifted him. His toes were also black.
Audrey set him on the kitchen floor and knelt beside him. He was so cold to the touch, she thought she ought to warm him up, so she took him to her bed and wrapped him in blankets. He fought her, feebly, but she swaddled him like she’d seen aunts do with baby cousins, then fell asleep beside him. When Laurie came to wake her for breakfast, she thought at first that Audrey had brought in a rooster from one of the coops, until she noticed the black comb.
“What’s wrong with him?” was the first thing Audrey said when she opened her eyes.
“Looks like frostbite, hon,” Laurie answered. “Let’s unwrap him, get a better look.”
His feet were giant bruises, his feathers dull. He didn’t look like any of Jack’s roosters. He was a mutt, it turned out, a bird without a pedigree. Laurie and Audrey didn’t care. They ran his feet under warm water in the kitchen sink. Laurie rubbed Vaseline onto his comb. They stacked towels in a box, built him a nest.
“Where should we put him?” Audrey asked.
“I’d like to keep him here in the kitchen, to keep an eye on him,” Laurie said. “If he gets unruly, I’ll put him in the mud room. It’s colder out there, though.”
After the rooster had rested for a couple hours, Laurie washed his feet with Epsom salt and rubbed more Vaseline onto his comb. A few days later, when his toes began to fall off, Laurie stopped the bleeding with witch hazel and rubbed what remained with aloe and vitamin E. Audrey and Laurie took turns massaging Blue-Kote onto his frozen skin. Jack didn’t approve of this sickly new pet. He felt they ought to cook him, put him out of his misery.
“Besides, I don’t want him going near my girls,” he said, referring to the birds. “He’d make an ugly chick.”
Audrey didn’t know, of course, that she might have expected greater warmth between her parents following their tryst in the little house, but she noticed they seemed to vacillate from one extreme to the other, now. Where before, they would fight and then separate, she noticed that now their fights often ended in embraces that seemed more desperate than tender—something in the way her father’s hands would knot themselves into her mother’s hair. When Jack wrapped his arms around Laurie, now, tears would sometimes well up in her mother’s eyes. Audrey didn’t understand it. She assumed it was something to do with the rooster. Her mother hadn’t started to show yet; Audrey wouldn’t know until much later how acute the fear of losing something invisible could be.
One night, the family was eating dinner together in the big house—tuna-noodle hot dish with green beans and mashed potatoes—when the rooster’s left foot fell off, right in the middle of the kitchen.
He didn’t make a sound, just sat down next to it and looked at the shocked faces around the table. The casserole went cold as Audrey and Laurie rushed to the rooster and, taking him into the bathroom, tried to ease some imaginary pain that he didn’t actually seem to be experiencing. Jack finished his dinner and went to the bathroom door. “How’s he doing?” he asked, too quiet to be heard. He returned to the kitchen and nearly stepped on the foot. He washed it in the sink and wrapped it in a towel. Laurie, he thought, might want to keep it.
When Laurie came into the kitchen, the rooster had acquired a name.
“Roo can’t walk,” she said, “but he’ll learn. I’ve seen birds run on their little stumps, once they harden up.”
“I washed the foot for you. I didn’t know if you’d want it,” he said, pointing to the towel.
She walked over to it, unwrapped the foot to take a look.
“The hot dish was good. I put your plate in the microwave, set the timer. All you have to do is push start.” He wrapped his arms around her, this wife who lived next door, and inhaled her scent of antibiotic cream, salt, and, when he pressed his nose into her hair, lavender.
The following week, the other foot would fall off. They never would find it. Theirs was a house no one had ever moved out of; it had passed from generation to generation as the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family died and their children moved in. Audrey would go treasure hunting in the attic and closets, opening boxes to find black-and-white photographs of unsmiling ancestors, letters written in fancy cursive, yellowed and brittle with age. In later years, when she came to understand what had transpired that winter, she would tell her little brother, born as the leaves turned to gold, that one day, when they were all dead and gone, some descendant would find that foot.
When Roo lost his second foot, Jack helped to bandage him and care for the stump. The eggs had hatched as he’d anticipated—22 in total. From 22 chicks, 21 grew up to be beautiful birds; five would go on to win medals, plaques, or trophies—never enough money to cover gas, despite his promises. But one was the ugliest chick he’d ever seen. It had the fluffy feathers of a Silkie with the comb of a Leghorn, and a mess of colors that reminded him of that day in the studio, when his prized chickens were covered in paint from a gift he hadn’t been expecting. It was a mutt, something born of a rooster that had wandered onto the farm in the bleak mid-winter, and a Silkie that had kept Jack at home one weekend, when instead of going to Ohio he had helped Laurie finally paint the kitchen a garish yellow, a color he hated but would soon come to love.
Kate Finegan’s prose has been published by Midwestern Gothic, The Fiddlehead, Halo Lit Mag, and The Sun Magazine. She won first place in the 2017 Fiddlehead Short Fiction Contest. She is currently working on a historical novel, which was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. She lives in Toronto.