her middle years my sister began collecting chickens. She picked them
up here and there, flea markets, yard sales. Woolworth's, the five
and dime. It was charming at first. Kitchen knickknacks: a harmless
How could one know
the descent toward madness had begun?
Bit by bit the poultry
population in our cozy home grew. You'd be surprised how many household
items can be fashioned in the image of a chicken. How utilitarian
an object of the fowl persuasion can be. Salt and pepper shakers to
soup tureens. Bookends to planters. Picture frames. Potholders. Pens.
Why, she even had a tasteful little terra cotta urn into which she'd
deposited Mother's last remains. Perched on the mantelpiece above
our bricked-in fireplace, head high, one foot raised as if perpetually
on the verge of stepping off, the hen fixed its inscrutable gaze into
Or so Lydia claimed
when I complained. "That chicken is not looking at you, Priscilla."
Shaking her head, smiling fondly. But it was. Night and day. Staring
straight at me, no matter which way I moved. "Oh Priss,"
Lydia laughed. "It's only a piece of clay, for heaven's sake.
Honestly, you're just spooking yourself. You've always been such a
silly goose." Eventually, later, I decided to just stay out of
the front room. Out of Mother's way.
to call Lydia's chicken collecting obsessive behavior. At the time,
though, how could one have known? It developed step by step, as these
things do, and not until each individual step had combined to pave
a whole horrid highway could one look back and see how this had come
to be. It's an accumulation, I now know. A state of affairs one creates
in all innocence, with not a whit of malevolent intent. Then suddenly
one reaches the end of the road and finds oneself in hell.
And perhaps it's not
the chickens' fault, not the cookie jar's or the refrigerator magnets',
surely not the lovely ceramic creamer she used to bring out for our
afternoon tea, no, these poor dumb clucking creatures with their primitive
little three-toed feet and their insipid coxcombed heads are certainly
not to be blamed, but the fact remains: Lydia let her life be taken
over by our fine-feathered friends. She tended them too much. She
fussed. She dusted. Arranged farmyard tableaux--like her pride and
joy, which she dubbed "Hanging Around the Coop" and which
grew until it monopolized the kitchen table to the point that we had
to eat every meal, even breakfast, in the dining room. And she kept
bringing in more. "Priscilla," she'd trill, bustling in
the front door handling a tissue-paper-wrapped package with the kind
of care sane people reserve for china heirlooms, "come see my
new chickens!" And I'd have to coo over them too, oh yes I would,
or she'd collapse on the rocker in a pout, refuse to review my crossword
puzzle or recite poetry with me or even start dinner until I relented
and allowed as how these latest acquisitions were the most magnificent
chickens yet. "Yes, they are quite fine," she'd say, "aren't
they?" Then she'd waste more of our precious time--for by now
we were not, as they say, spring chickens, and I for one did not care
to fritter away my remaining days on such frippery--flitting about
deciding where to place the new pieces. Kitchen to front parlor to
bedroom to dining room, alighting here and there then returning to
her first choice, humming, murmuring, "Where shall we put you,
Running around, that's
right, like a chicken with her head cut off.
It went on for years.
Such a sorry turn. You, from your vantage point, might suppose one
could have predicted it would end badly. In the midst of it, though
one grew increasingly uneasy, one simply did not know what was in
Lydia was quite a
good cook. Mother saw to that. She liked to have us working with our
hands. Set me to needlework--it's how I developed this squint--but
for her favorite it was the fine art of food.
And a culinary artist
my sister was, at least until this chicken business spun out of control.
She used to make a heavenly pot roast, tender, flavorful but not too
rich for my delicate digestive system. Leg of lamb with rosemary from
the big garden she tended with loving care until she forgot about
it, let it go to rack and ruin when the chickens moved in. She wasn't
a half bad pastry chef, either: peach pie, apple brown betty, an absolutely
divine German chocolate cake every year on my birthday.
Then one week I realized
we had eaten chicken for supper every single night. Chicken Kiev.
Chicken Cordon Bleu. Lemon chicken. Chicken and dumplings. Fried chicken.
Unfried chicken, from the Oprah cookbook. Chicken paprikash. Desserts
were slapdash. Store-bought cookies, tossed onto the red and green
chicken napkins. When the next night we sat down to chicken pot pie
it hit me that I had tasted the last of my sister's sweets. I shuddered
at the Faustian bargain she had struck, offering up, if not her soul,
her considerable skill at creating light, flaky crusts to Beelzebub.
For the devil, I now
knew, sports a beak, not horns. A wattle, not unlike Mother's in her
final years. He struts like a rooster. He had stolen my sister. He
was a cock-o'-the-walk Svengali, and she was under his control.
One went on. One does,
you know. One might be persevering still, if only--why, yes, officer,
that's right. That was Lydia's book. Extraordinary Chickens.
Photographs and commentary by a Mr. Stephen Green-Armytage. I see
you've been in the parlor. I haven't set foot there in ages myself,
but I know she kept it on display. A coffee table book, of all things.
Pictures of extravagantly plumed, lavishly colored chickens of unusual
breeds. She brought it home some weeks ago. She was so pleased. Couldn't
wait to show it off. I was mortified at the idea. We had so few visitors.
The church ladies. Reverend Mortimer stopped by occasionally, kind
young man, checking in. Can you imagine what they would think? The
prospect of Lydia exposed like that, her
revealed to the outside world--well, it horrified
This chicken situation
could not go on. The final indignity arrived soon enough.
There came days when
one had difficulty distinguishing between crockery chickens and the
real thing. One often detected an unsavory barnyard smell. In the
small hours of night, one lay awake as some .. thing
pecked at one's brain. At the edge of dawn a distinct crowing could
be heard. It came from everywhere, as if a brood were roosting all
about. One would sit up, instantly alert, determined to protect one's
sister snoring softly in the next bed from whatever cackling demons
One morning when I
rose and sheathed my feet in bedroom slippers, they seemed to slide
on the floor as though skimming along on a layer of sawdust. As I
passed into the hallway gritty stuff crunched underneath. It had the
consistency of chicken feed.
this way comes.
No, officer, we did
not grow up on a farm. Lydia and I have lived here in town our entire
lives. How then? Why, I learned it from Mother, of course. She used
to buy her chickens live--in those days you still could, old Mr. Krueger
the butcher brought in a batch every Friday and Mother would pick
one for Sunday dinner--she'd walk home with it fluttering in a sack,
flapping its wings, my how those chickens could carry on, it was almost
as though they knew what was to come. When she got to the house she'd
call my name, head out back and wring its neck. She always had me
watch. I was considered of a nervous disposition and she believed
a weekly dose of reality would do me good. It was my job to clean
up the blood and pluck the feathers. Ghastly task. Sometimes I retched.
But I guess I never forgot Mother's technique, and really, some of
those chickens, young and plump, put up a much tougher fight than
a scrawny, skinny soundly sleeping old woman deep in the grip of free
Shelley Ettinger's work has been published or
is forthcoming in the Mississippi
Lodestar Quarterly, Snow
Monkey and other journals. She is currently completing her first