WHERE ALL THE CHICKENS ARE GOING

KATIE CULLIGAN

 
1. We’d lost 15 in two weeks. Every morning, the bodies laid inside the wooden door, which was wooden as in holding-smell. Sometimes they were dead already, but a few times they weren’t: once, the poor thing huddled itself by the door, its back scooped out like a Halloween pumpkin. The rest of the chickens, only five left, kept themselves gathered in the opposite corner. They stomped and pecked frantically, trying to bury themselves, to hide each other in a vulnerable range, clearly designated for them; a fence, a barbed wall, is also an outline, an assertion that there is something inside of it worth keeping in. A few times, when we found the chicken still alive, we decided to wait it out, to see if it just needed time to adequately scab; this is what we did today.
 
2. The chicken story had statistics that you could sink into, like a good local crime show or Agatha Christie novel: one chicken a day, every day. Sideswiped, two bites taken out. We found four holes in the netting, four possible points of entry. Whatever the predator was, it was breaking in, and then just grazing. Looking for tapas. The whole thing was very American, I overheard someone say; American, as in wasteful; American, as in the babies were in danger.
 
3. Earlier this summer, I was listening to a podcast about the Lipstick Murders with one earbud in, walking around the city until I got tired. I have to do this to get to sleep. This, lavender tea, two hours of Paley Media Center videos on YouTube. This particular episode wasn’t calming me down, however; not because of the gruesomeness of it (the discussion of loose six-year-old arms and nothing else), but because I hadn’t heard this one before. I had to strain to hear all the numbers, to see which details might catch. I had to take the fragments they were giving me and paste them on the wall of my head, my head which would rather have a timeline than a handful of fragments. True crime entertainment is not in the business of humanizing; it’s in the business of spreadsheets. And I listen with clipboard, with Elmer’s glue, with highlighter; I number the points, and hope for something to come out in the wash.
 
4. When we could finally assemble a big and willing enough team, we hiked up to the coop with new netting, wire cutters, a catch-and-release trap. The kill-traps weren’t working fast enough and we were getting desperate. If this kinder, roomier one got the thing tonight, we were supposed to keep it in the cage until the boss got here tomorrow. Don’t feed it. Don’t look at it. She was going to blow its brains out herself.
 
5. I check my mother’s horoscope every week to make sure she’s not going to die.
 
6. We set up the traps, ripe with frozen lamb ribs, with Skippy peanut butter. We weren’t sure what we were going to find. It could have been one big thing, or a few small things with a plan and the ability to communicate. There was a theory that it was the goat, who had sideways IMAX pupils; they look like the slits in piggybanks. This is another detail that was fit for cable television: a suspect more specific than “nature,” more specific than “the food chain.” We talked as if we had found a face, despite the fact that the goat lived within its own fences; we had a call that could be coming from inside the house. But really, it could have been a weasel. Could have been rats. It could have been a sleepwalker, and a butter knife.
 
7. The killer in this podcast episode got his name from a note he left on a victim’s mirror in her own lipstick, “For heavens Sake catch me Before I kill more I cannot control myself.” Mixed capitals, some letters backwards. I like this kind of stuff because it’s a movie. In movies, people have written in motifs and backstories and endings. I like this detail because it seems like out here, loose in the world, we’re going to get exactly this.
 
8. I live alone, second floor with all the blinds closed. I like it enough.
 
9. The hosts breezed past the sentence “She was taken from her Edgewater bedroom,” and I look up and see that I’d reached the corner of Paulina and Berwyn. Edgewater, Chicago. I don’t panic. I don’t scramble. I take a breath, pivot-turn. I change the episode, not the show.
 
10. When we finally stepped into the coop, we saw that there were feathers and slivers everywhere. Death is absolute only for those to whom it happens. But really, the body keeps going, at least for a moment. With the body, there can be degrees of death: these chickens were dead a lot.
 
11. I wipe the grocery cart, bag the apple, scrub the nails. I call my aunt, ask about her plants.
 
12. I can’t keep sense for much longer than a line these days. I’ve been reading big, ambitious nonfiction books about people in the past who made the order that we today take for granted. I am overwhelmed by the idea of creating a globe, a system of time, a boat with big sails. Once more, I lay on my couch. I listen to a nice lady talk about a gigantic problem, and I know that it will very soon be solved.
 
13. My favorite teacher from YMCA after-school childcare was named Ms. Knuckles. With her, we danced to a tiny gray-white CD player and ate Rice Krispie treats. She once told me that if you couldn’t sleep at night, it’s because god thinks there’s someone else you need to pray for. When I went to middle school, my sixth-grade English teacher used to cry in class a lot, say she was just so tired. One day, I wrote this on an index card, and slipped it on her desk. I was just moving the words that sounded the heaviest around.
 
14. On a farm, there is so much motion, so much revolving need; it can sometimes feel like all the good you do is swallowed up, absorbed only temporarily, like hot dogs, like white bread.
 
15. I feed the donkey his peppermint nuggets, pat his neck with the ointment. He is in pain. It is so hot, and the flies are wrecking him this summer. I make a mental note to refrigerate the ointment next time, just for a second.
 
16. There are days when I think anything that looks like a narrative has been represented wrong. You can take your picks, you can braid the wild branches together for a moment, but that is you. That is not the branches. This is not a productive or interesting thought. I chop the apple with cinnamon, the cubes for me, because of me. I eat. I scrub the knife. I go to work.
 
17. I think the biggest of these sense-victories was the creation of longitude. Latitude means awareness of space, but longitude has to do with the cohesion of time. We spent hundreds of years trying to find a way to divide the world vertically, as to ensure that the rotation of the Earth would occur uniformly. Some thought that we should station boats at “constant” points in the ocean, to set off cannonballs at certain times; this would model time after thunder, our light and sound torn apart. Some thought that wounded dogs aboard ships would be able to feel pain inflicted superstitiously from land, every hour, on the hour. Some thought we should map out all of the stars and planets at every point in the month; others said we should just fix our analog clocks. I think the most amazing thing about the longitude discussion was that we really wanted to have it: to solve for x, x being exactly when and where we are.
 
18. Sense feels to me like a nucleus; I can only keep it in my hands if I can squish it down. But doing this multiplies its energy, makes it harder to see, more fatal to touch. I am so confused these days that I am turning to science. Looking for patterns in the coldness, I’m just finding the scary things again.
 
19. It’s 2:45 am on a Monday morning and I hear a girl scream outside my window. It’s young and scared. I hear this and my brain thinks it’s all finally beginning.
 
20. Last October, we accidentally bought a rooster. The breeder claimed they were sex-linked; the white ones were ladies. When we brought him back to the coop, he brought all his male-ness with him, screaming to no one all day. After a few weeks, one of our hens jumped into the water dispenser and didn’t come back up.
 
21. Everything that changes does so within the confines of some day, and it’s not necessary that anyone know why. The same teacher stopped crying for four class periods, and then: Thursday.
 
22. Right after the scream, I see a laser pointer flash on my dresser, trembling just like a fist. I hear an unmoving gargle, deep in the walls. I begin to think that my ceiling fan is spinning the other direction. If praying is giving something its full moment of focus, letting one thing fully dam up your head, then I will die tonight, in sin. Worse; sin with flitting eyes, without communication.
 
23. There was a stark divide with regards to the longitude debate: it was a race between the craftsmen, the technical artisans and those Oxford-educated star-men. Without even realizing it, I was rooting for the craftsmen, really hard. No way Galileo was going to find a new constellation spelling out “HERE ARE THE STEPS, GET A PEN.”
 
24. The wall noise was my toilet. I wasn’t mad, but I wasn’t relieved either.
 
25. Up at the coop, my humid sweat catches the flying dirt, an exfoliant baking on. I rip out tree limbs that had grown into the netting, weaving in and out. It was the kind of work that created a smell immediately. Leaning on a garden hoe, squinting at the sun, the mess of chicken and skin, I have thoughts only in commands: The holes still need to be closed. They still need to be closed today.
 
26. In actuality, I was mostly rooting against these educated men of the 1600s because I thought they might have called me mouthy or trite. In practice, though, this looked like rooting for the people, rooting against some kind of necessary stitching. Rooting for a chaos that may or may not show up, people who may or may not be able to stop it.
 
27. True crime is probably for white ladies who don’t want to know about really true crimes. But deciding the right stories to hear and fully hearing them is only the beginning; the middle is to find a group, cut the netting, and tie. I am unqualified to speak about the end.
 
28. There’s no way this ceiling fan is doing what it is doing. I didn’t pull any strings, flip any switches. I stare and stare, squint into the moving dark, and with this only, a prayer.
 
29. As we sit drinking Miller Lites on the porch, I think that there’s probably not a question at the end of this that will create an ample sigh of relief. If there is, it’s not to ask where are all the chickens going? (an inversion of the request may I please have them back?) They’ve gone to the ground, the black Glad bag. It may not even be Who did this? Were they caught and taken? It may just be Are the holes patched?
 
30. This essay only includes one ending: The star-men lost. We made longitude with wooden clocks; wooden as in Earth-oriented.
 
31. In the coop, we laid underneath the three-foot netting ceiling like mechanics whose project was the underbelly of the clouds. From down here, and down here only, the world looked gridded. The latitude and longitude visible, our selves sliced and grounded underneath. This act of zip tying, stapling, protecting our farm from outside hunger—this is the only order we got.

 

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