Chicken Feathers
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“Chicken Feathers,” Ensign, Mar. 1987, 66

Chicken Feathers

Short Story Winner

She stood, leaning just a little resentfully against the counter, watching as the enameled blue kettle of water finally began to boil. Sighing, she held her hair up off her neck, wishing for a cool breeze. Why did she have to do this today? If there was a season for every task, this one was definitely out of its season.

Hearing the back door open, she turned. Mike had suggested, hesitantly, that just this once they simply bury the chickens, but she had protested. “Bury them? No, the least we can do is make use of them. You kill them; I’ll get them into the freezer.”

Almost, she regretted that decision. Why, on a day as hot and uncomfortable as this, had he happened to catch these two hens greedily eating the still-warm eggs in their nests? Egg production had dropped suddenly, and they had suspected a couple of hens gone bad, but part of her yearned for simpler solutions—or ones more complex, but involving less work on her part. Never mind. It was done, now.

Still warm, broken necks hanging limp and guilty, the hens lay on the counter. She wondered if they had known why they had been taken so suddenly. Sighing, unhappily anticipating a task she disliked, she picked the first one up to dip it, head first, into the boiling water. “Well,” she whispered, “that’s what you get for destroying your own eggs.”

Years ago, she had quit feeling foolish about her habit of talking aloud. She spoke to herself, to the chickens, the garden, the dishes, even to the gravel paths. When you live in the country, there’s no one to hear anyway—and sometimes, no one to listen.

The practical side of her nature took over as she carried the heavy hen, smelling of wet feathers, to the sink. “Wing feathers first,” she muttered, reaching for the pliers she usually used on the most firmly attached of them. Digging her teeth into her lower lip, she tugged, turned, tugged again. Suddenly, with a grunt of surprise, she pulled the largest feather loose, then moved down the wing section. As she had known they would, the other feathers came more easily than the first.

The boys caught wind of the event and came racing into the kitchen, jogging shoes thudding across the linoleum floor, hair damp with sweat and sticky with dust.

“Can we have the feathers, Mom? Can we? I want the red ones, and Kyle wants the black and white ones. We’re gonna be Indian chiefs, okay? Can we?”

Grimly, absorbed in her task, she nodded, and continued pulling, knowing that the boys would wait, chattering of their future plans, as she finished the first hen. They would come back for the feathers from the other.

As she finished pulling the last of the large flight feathers from the second wing and watched the boys gather them eagerly into hands and pockets, a thought stopped her momentarily.

Wing feathers, flight feathers—sturdy enough to be really useful: for flight, first, but then for pens, and headdresses, and feather-sword fights. All good uses for wing feathers.

“You ladies should have been flying after bugs, or something—not your own eggs. Then you might have lasted a little longer.”

Turning once more to the hen before her, she began plucking the breast feathers. She had hoped to get this done before the baby got up from her nap, remembering the mess it had turned into the last time when they had butchered hens in the proper season. But just as she finished plucking the last of the feathers from the first hen, she heard Amy stir, turn, and begin her arduous climb out of the crib. Grunting and muttering with effort, Amy pulled herself up, over the bars, and descended. Then she padded wordlessly into the kitchen, instinct-positive of her mother’s whereabouts.

Glancing ruefully from Amy to the remaining hen, and the once-again boiling kettle, she considered the possibility of sending her outside to “help” her father with the firewood. Remembering the last time and the near disaster in the woodpile, she dismissed the idea. Sesame Street? Not on yet. Play with the boys? No, they’re too busy being Indians. She shrugged her shoulders. She would manage.

Setting Amy in her highchair with toast and milk for an after-nap snack, she turned to the second hen. Into the water. Out of the water—they got so heavy when they were wet. And the smell. She never really forgot the smell, between butchering times, and this butchering out of season was sure to destroy her appetite for chicken for months to come.

Once again, the wrestle with the wing feathers. Call the boys, give the feathers into their keeping. “Kyle, please tie your shoes. You’ll trip and hurt yourself.”

Rubbing the heel of her hand and flexing her fingers to ease the cramps such effort brought, she looked again at the hen, shaking her head silently. This one had been the best layer of the flock, too. Why had they started eating the eggs? They got plenty of food and water every day. What was it they were looking for that made them turn to the eggs?

Now she could do the smaller feathers. They came out much easier, in handfuls almost. You could move over the rest of the chicken fairly quickly, once you got those strong wing feathers out of the way.

She turned and saw Amy squeezing out of her high chair, slumping down lower and lower until only her nose showed above the tray, then turning her head, arching her back, and sliding down till her toes touched the floor. Covered with crumbs and butter, wearing a ring of milk around her mouth, she came to investigate.

Through corduroy overalls, she felt the damp warmth of the small body as Amy leaned against her leg. Seated now on a sturdy kitchen chair, she pulled handfuls of fine, soft feathers and put them quickly into the brown paper bag on the floor beside her.

A few feathers always managed to escape the bag, clinging to her hands, damp from the dipping water, or drifting on an unseen current. Even the eddies of air caused by her own movements, or her breathing, seemed enough to scatter them.

Amy knelt, trapping the feathers on the floor and playing baby games with them. Flicking her fingers, trying to detach the last clinging breast feathers, she watched Amy blow on the pile of softness she had gathered. She winced as they scattered. Six months from now, she knew, she would still be finding them in hidden corners. There would be a few behind the stove or under the refrigerator when she did her next major housecleaning.

She continued plucking, depositing feathers in the bag, flicking clean her fingers, plucking some more. These feathers. The way they cling, and blow, and hide to be found later. They reminded her, suddenly, of the whispers around the ward just lately. Nothing substantial, nothing you could grab hold of. They blew around, confusing people, clinging to their minds, messing up the community. They hid, too, but you knew you’d see them again sometime.

That’s a thought, she decided, for a sacrament meeting talk someday. Chicken feathers and rumor whispers. Funny, but when you live in the country and talk to yourself a lot, you come up with some really strange ideas. Chicken feathers and rumor whispers. She’d have to think about that sometime. When she wasn’t so hot, and sticky, and tired.

The heat of the day grew worse as she worked in the kitchen. More than just hot, it was what her mother had always called “sweatshop muggy”—the very dampness of the day seemed to trickle between her shoulder blades. A small cloud on the horizon gave her a shred of hope for an evening storm. Thunderstorms clear the air. She decided that was what she needed—a good storm to clear the air.

She finished the last of the feathers, picking at the few still clinging to her fingers, stooping to gather those that had escaped to the floor. Picking up the bag, she peered inside, considering the contents for a moment. These chicken feathers. They must be good for something! A pillow? No, they’re too prickly for that. Goose down would be different. No poking quills there. These were just ordinary chicken feathers, though. Not big enough, or strong and sturdy enough for use as the wing feathers were. Best thing would be the compost pile, she decided. Feathers were supposed to add some important nutrient to the compost pile. Nitrogen, or something. Well, at least that way they would be making a contribution. Manure would be better, but feathers added a little.

Folding the bag and setting it aside for her husband to bury in the pile by the garden, she reached for her sharpest paring knife. More bad smells were coming. Oh, how she disliked the smells! It must be done, though, so she held the chicken firmly, cutting into the skin and flesh to clean it out. The knife pierced finally, and she quickly freed the skin, reaching into the still-warm body cavity, pulling out what had only a short time before been part of a living thing.

Refusing to think about it, she groped, tugged, and removed all that was necessary. Dismay touched her as she saw the eggs, in all stages of development, that would never be laid. A good layer, this hen. If only she hadn’t turned on her own eggs. Why did she? Why did they both? They were good hens, good layers, mild tempered. One of them had even hatched out a brood of chicks last spring and had been a good mother, calm but protective. Why eat the eggs now? Just out of idleness? Hens! Why are they so much like people? Idle pecking, idle words, idle hands, idle beaks, idle minds. They all lead to mischief every time. Why didn’t the hens leave their eggs alone?

Never mind. Just get them finished. They may not have planned it this way, but they made their choice when they ate those eggs. Let’s just hope it ends, and they didn’t teach any of the others.

Egg-eating can be so contagious, somehow. One starts it, and before you know it, they’re all doing it. And no way you can stop them. It’s like the old rumor mills—once they get going, get out of the way—there’s nothing you can do. It’s too bad, though, about the results. Dead chickens whose productive time is cut short—inactive members, whose testimony-building time is ended too soon.

Finishing the second chicken quickly, she scrubbed her hands briskly, trying, however vainly, to eliminate the smell. Maybe this time she would give up eating chicken forever.

Rinsing again and a third time, scrubbing to remove any leftover scent or dirt, she watched the running water cleanse the skins. Then, with a sigh of relief, she slid the chickens into plastic bags, sealed them, and carried them out to the freezer. Dumping them unceremoniously into the wire mesh baskets reserved for stewing hens, she said aloud, “That’s what you get for destroying the fruits of your own labors.”

She turned to clean up the kitchen, gathering the debris that would be buried to enrich the garden. There would be no sign in her kitchen of two good layers who had turned on their own eggs. No sign, that is, except for a few feathers she would find, from time to time, under the couch, or behind the refrigerator.

Illustrated by David Linn