Online Fiction Exclusive: To Kill a Mad, Red Hen

Mad Red Hen

By Emi Benn

The other day my mother showed up at my house as a chicken. We hadn’t talked for over three years but there she was, pecking on the front window with that expression chickens have of permanent constipation. I knew that look immediately from years of seeing her wear it in the kitchen.

I’d been imagining the day I’d find her at my doorstep ever since I told her not to call me anymore. My mother is persistent and not the type to respect boundaries. I knew that sooner or later she’d turn up and that would be the end of my years of tranquility.

Even seeing her in her new form as a chicken, I wasn’t surprised. She was clucking incessantly, complaining about how hard it was to be her.

“You haven’t changed much, have you?” I said and slammed the blinds shut.

Her angry beak banged the glass. That was my mother: insistent and always determined to get her way. If she didn’t, everyone had to suffer.

I didn’t want to let her in. I was afraid that she’d peck out my little dog’s eyes. In the three years since I saw her, she’d let the resentment grow, stacking up all the things I’d done in the past and all the things I should’ve known to do and hadn’t. It’s a long catalogue of wrongs starting with me ruining her life by being born, being a girl, and ending with what she would see as my greatest betrayal—the fact that I’d rather start my own family than stay with her.

“You just want to go off and be happy,” she said, as if it were the most shallow, awful thing I could do. “I know you always wanted to leave me.”

In the past, I would placate her by telling her things I would say as a child that used to comfort her. I repeated them over the years because for some reason she liked me best when I was young. It sounded ridiculous saying “I love you, Mommy” in front of my husband and two young daughters, but it came out automatically when I had to calm her down while she screamed about what a disappointment I was and how I still couldn’t cook.

When I hung up the phone after telling her that I didn’t want to see her or talk to her anymore, I said I was never going to do that again.

Now an irate chicken was throwing itself against my house. I could hear it thudding at the window, even from where I sat in the bathroom on the closed toilet lid, the door shut and my fingers plugged in my ears.

The doorbell rang.

My legs shook.

After checking that it wasn’t a trick of my mother’s, I opened the front door. The screen door stayed shut—just in case.

It was the old lady from down the street. She stood there, representing a small crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk and was watching us.

“You,” she said. “You’re going to have to take care of that chicken of yours or we’re calling the city.”

“But it’s not mine!” I protested.

She shrugged. Having delivered the message, she turned and walked back to the group.

“I don’t have anything to do with it!” I screamed at my neighbors.

They assumed that just because a chicken was attacking my house, it was my fault.

That was so typical: blame the victim and excuse the perpetrator.

As always, I would have to take care of it. It always fell to me to handle my mother.

I sighed.

I grabbed my daughter’s butterfly net and shoved my feet into running shoes.

#

There was my mother, standing on my lawn, staring at me through her beady chicken eyes.

I chased the fat bird around the front garden. I tried to hit her with the net. But I knew my mother really wanted me to catch her. She’d been waiting for years to see what I’d left her for. Once she got inside, she’d delight in criticizing the furnishings, the expensive brand of hand soap I proudly place in the bathroom, my impractical little dog.

She parried me, waiting for me to give in. I used to let her have her way, thinking it wasn’t worth a fight. All I had to do was say was “I’m sorry” and open the front door wide, inviting her into the house. Then it would be over.

But I didn’t. We made a scene. She wanted to embarrass me.

My mother has always been over the top. When she has an audience, she’ll put on a good show.

She flapped her wings and squawked for the crowd. Her feathers were a deep red.

The sunlight hit her wings; the neighbors gasped. She was magnificent.

She was also tired. She already had started to show signs of her age when she tried to guilt trip me as I was leaving for good. Getting to my house took days by car. I wasn’t sure how far she could fly. However she got here must have taken its toll.

When she ran across my front lawn, showing off for the neighbors, I got her with my net. Then I grabbed her by the legs. She was heavy, hanging upside down from where I clutched her rough, scaly legs in my left fist. My dog watched through the window.

“That’s a beautiful chicken,” my next-door neighbor mused.

People always said that kind of thing about my mother. They were amazed that such a youthful, good-looking woman would have children. Are you sisters? they would ask, and my mother would giggle and tell them very solemnly that no, she was my mother.

Aren’t you a lucky girl? they would say to me.

Yes, I would say. Yes, I would always agree.

“You want it?” I asked the neighbor, pushing the chicken toward him.

Something about my manner made him back away.

“Easy now, girl,” he said.

My husband wasn’t home from work. My daughters were at their friends’ houses. I had time.

I took her inside.

She kept still while I tied up her feet with a shoelace pulled from my husband’s boot.

She stared at me through the calculating, reptilian eye on the side of her head.

#

When I was a child, I had a mad chicken called Pia Pia. My mother said she was a practical pet (unlike the kitty I really wanted) because she could lay eggs so we wouldn’t have to buy them from the supermarket. There are photographs of me smiling and holding Pia Pia filling my arms. I would chase her around the garden and watch her as she flew up to roost in the chicken coop my father built in an old shed.

One day I was alone with my chicken and put my face close to hers. She tilted her head, her red comb flopping over to one side. I wanted to give her a kiss, the same way you’d show affection to a furry animal.

Pia Pia leaned in and pecked me in the eyeball.

I clutched my eye and ran into the house. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw it was still there.

I was glad I had Pia Pia now that my mother was here. Had I not had that experience as a child, I probably would have taken my mother for a nice animal. Anyone could see she made a wonderful looking bird.

Beauty often makes people stupid.

I used to be so soft.

If I didn’t know about chickens maybe I would have opened the window wide and let her fly in and shit throughout my beautiful house. I would like to think that I would know better. But you just don’t know what would happen if some part of your history wasn’t there. You don’t know what painful things from before keep you from doing stupid things now.

#

“Go away,” I said to Margot, who came to sniff my mother. I was still holding her by the legs, upside down. Her small bird’s head hung just at Margot’s level.

Margot wagged her tail back and forth. Her pink tongue lolled out of her panting mouth.

“This is not a toy. No, Margot.”

Just like my children, Margot never listens to me when I need her to. She jumped up and balanced her front paws on my legs so that she could sniff my mother, who started flapping her wings and trying to peck at her.

“No, Margot. No.”

I tried to remain calm and keep my voice low and assertive while holding onto my mother’s feet and pushing my dog away. In the tussle, my hand came down and there was a loud smack. Margot ran out of the hallway to the bedroom where I knew she would hide.

#

I shook and shook the chicken in my hands.

I found a big paper bag in the kitchen and stuffed my mother into it, stapling the top. The bag shuddered in the living room while I Googled pages on chickens.

The easiest way to kill one is to break its neck.

I made a list and wrote down instructions. I started collecting things in preparation. I set a pile of old newspapers on the kitchen floor. I laid out the cutting board. I put a big pot of water on the stove to boil. I filled a bucket with cold water. I found a sledgehammer in the workroom that my husband had used to knock down a wall. I practiced aiming it at the bag.

I think she knew.

Once the water on the stove was boiling, I carried the bag into the kitchen. I pulled my mother out and grabbed the bottom of her wings and feet with one hand and pushed her head against the chopping board. She wasn’t struggling and seemed resigned, almost happy that I was proving her point by doing this, showing myself to be the horrible daughter that she knew I was.

“It’s not my fault,” I said.

In one quick stroke, I crushed her head. It wasn’t that hard. Her shoulders drooped. Then I cut it off neatly with a knife. I tossed that quickly back into the bag and put everything in the trash.

Without her head, she shook, laughing at me to show me that she was still there, even after death. I turned her body upside-down over the sink and let the blood pour out of her. She flopped about, spraying my new, white cashmere sweater.

I dipped my mother carefully into the pot of boiling water and counted slowly backward from fifty. I drained her again in the sink, then dropped the heavy mass onto the pile of newspapers and set the kitchen timer for five minutes while I watched her steam.

My top was ruined because of her. It was a gift from my husband and that made me sentimental. I pulled it off and pressed it gently into the trash so it concealed the bag with her head in it.

I washed my hands.

I sat in just my jeans and bra. I pulled out her feathers in handfuls. Some of them were tricky. I attacked those one by one. They started to stiffen. I laughed as I did this. It reminded me of talking to her.

I carried her outside and lit a piece of newspaper that I held close to her body to singe off her feather debris. I watched as they burned and the flame grew.

The fire hurt. I dropped everything in the dirt and kicked her carcass around a bit with my shoe before the light was out.

I bent back her clawed feet and chopped them off clean with a knife. I pulled out her entrails. I searched and grabbed. I tried not to breathe. The smell was thick—pure, unadulterated memory, the kind I try to keep myself from remembering or ever feeling.

Anything that looked nasty I just took out.

There wasn’t that much left when I’d washed off the pieces.

I made quinoa.

“I’m sorry Mommy,” I whispered to the oven. I could say that now that it was all done.

#

My husband came home with the children and kissed me.

“Smells good,” he said.

I waited for him to notice that something was wrong. But he didn’t. I watched the back of his head as he whistled and walked to his office where he would sit and check his e-mail again, even though he had just left work. My girls brought back gold stars on their homework and papers for me to sign. “Look, Mommy!” they said, clamoring for my attention.

They found Margot hiding under our bed and fed her. They cuddled her and asked me why she was acting strange.

I served dinner.

Emi Benn

 

 

 

Emi Benn lives in Hamilton, Ontario. Her fiction is published in apt, Descant, Qwerty, and in translation.

 

 

 

 

 

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