"You have to reach under them,"
the farmer's wife tells me, forcing her hand
beneath a hen that cries out loudly.
The hen's beady eyes look at its freshly stolen egg
shining against the flesh of her palm, bewildered,
like the egg is a fallen star or an oblong moon
that rose too soon in the peach sky
of the farmer's wife's long-fingered
spider web hands.
The hen begins to scream and peck
squawks of protest. It fights for
its treasured egg; its sharp beak
darts out and strikes
drawing a crimson line on a knuckle.
With a fierce curse,
the bird is struck down by
the farmer's wife's fist.
"Sometimes they'll fight," she says
whistling on her 's' through the black and white
piano keys that are her teeth
placing the egg in a wicker basket
at my feet, "But if you give 'em a good whack,
they'll remember who's boss."
She walks away, entering the house
the shotgun sound of the screen door slamming
and the scrambled static of the police scanner
echoing after her.
Surrounded by foul battery cages,
pebbles grinding into the bottoms of my bare feet,
I take up the basket and approach the next bird.
Sitting upon its nest as if in meditation,
the hen's eyes are serene and closed.
Its feathers are fluffed, feet tucked beneath
white plumes that are spotted with the defecation
of other birds.
So like a statue, she doesn't seem to breathe.
She sits so placidly that instead of seeing meat
and eggs, I see the figure of Mary in the
garden of the house where I used to live,
surrounded by dandelions and weeds,
her beatific face raised towards the heavens.
Her eyes were closed too.
Her marble white cloak was marked
with the drops of birds too.
She held her child in her arms,
and contemplated the wonders of maternity
that this bird meditates
upon the egg between its feet.
I hold the wicker basket,
Its gaping maw reminds me
timidly I extend my hand
toward the base of the hen.
The chicken's eyes open, angrily
and she immediately leaps to her feet
beating her wings and shrieking
defending the egg she's keeping
thrashing the air with her beak.
Determined to do my job, I reach
but she grabs my thumb
and she bites me hard.
I begin to bleed.
Now, irritated in my agony,
I knead my fingers into a fist
and draw it back, self-righteous,
behind my head.
But the chicken stops screaming.
Instead, it sits back down on its egg,
Bracing its head under its wing,
anticipating the blow, with all the grace
of a dove mid-flight in a
stained glass window
trembling with the wind.
A mass of quivering feathers.
I’m poised to deliver the hit,
My shadow covering her
Like an ominous black blanket
But there’s something familiar
In the way she’s cowering
In the fear that makes her shiver.
I’ll never strike.
I stand by the nest until
the chicken leaves of its own accord,
searching out niblets of corn peppered
across the gravel.
Then, I take the egg, gingerly
tucking it in the basket like
I’m cradling my own baby,
even singing it to sleep.
Collecting the eggs like this takes all day
with each chicken only mildly surprised
when it returns to an empty roost.
When the sky turns darker shades
I hush the screen door and creep into the house
with a basket full of tiny moons
and by the blue glow of the stove’s
pilot light, I put the eggs in the fridge.