The Hen

Elinam Agbo

The world has always been ending for the hen, who sits in her coop, waiting, watching, sleeping. Morning peeks over the horizon, and outside, the rooster jumps on the coop’s aluminum roof, his proud crowing an affront to her quiet. There he goes, testing his wings again for the new arrivals to see how he owns the waking call, how in this moment, he owns everything under the new sun. The rooster does not see the future because the rooster does not see the past. The rooster is young — in his prime, every day is golden.

The waking call opens the big house, and out the children spill, down the steps, stomping and crying against the bright light as toothbrushes are shoved into their stale mouths and drool draws webs on their cheeks and night shirts. Soon enough, the crying turns to happy squealing as any discomfort is forgotten, as their feet slap the hard earth, as they chase after the fast-running land birds.

Everyone is happy with the sun. The children collect tin cans to make soups for their doll children. The sparrows peck at the children’s abandoned meals. Even the grownup people sound jovial on their stools and armchairs, discussing news of an asteroid falling into the sea, of the boy thief next door who burned his hands, the older children who left home and no longer call — troubles now averted. Meanwhile, the butchers chase the billy goat, who swerves around the squealing children, breaking and starting like a seasoned sprinter. He is slippery prey. Now, the hen looks through her hole at the goat hoisted on a young butcher’s shoulders. The goat catches her gaze, bleating, “I am a king! I am a king!” And the hen almost agrees.

Everyone can be happy without the hen, and the hen wouldn’t mind, if the coop were not shaken every time a hand comes in with loud, bristling brooms. Of course, even that would end soon. Here, in her one-chicken-sized room, the hen can close her eyes against any unpleasantness and not fear being kicked or chased or mounted.

Soon enough, a big person’s head lowers to the hen’s level and says something like good morning, reaching out with naked hands to lift her out. The hen won’t peck. Not anymore. She likes the quiet, and the sooner this is over, the better. The naked hands drop her outside, spreading like fans to wave the hen away from the coop, shoo shoo, into the compound. The other birds pause their running and stare, almost excited, at least until the wind hits the hen’s face with every smell and sound — old and new — knives sharpening, water scalding, wings fluttering and straining against rope. Now the hen hops, frantic, sidesteps the big person’s feet, and jumps back into the coop. The big person sighs, but closes the door, until next time.

Sometimes the big person comes with a smaller version of herself, who skitters away at first, until the child learns to carry the hen, holding the still bird over her head for the big person to pluck feathers. Sometimes the child comes alone, with her mud-stained hands, and lifts the hen to show the other children, a way of saying, Look, this is my hen, isn’t she beautiful? But the children laugh at the girl and her hen, who only coos and doesn’t even flutter her feathers for the brightest colors to catch the light properly.

The hen would apologize for being a disappointment, but silence means a return to the dark, the peace. Outside always wants to creep in, and she braces herself against it. Doesn’t anyone else see the plantain branches slicing the wind with knife edges, the room with the closed windows and the loud thump, thump, thumping? Doesn’t anyone hear the boy thief crying at his forever-fisted hands, his parents mourning in their near-empty kiosk, quietly apologizing for their desperate act? The hen catches her questions and swallows them. No one ever listens, no one ever hears.

Outside the children’s play time, the hen is close to happy when customers come to shop for birds. Yes, she knows what awaits her. She has watched those before her live out their lives, dying by invisible hands, by dog, by knife. But this moment of parading, this mini-pageantry, is the only way she can dream of going to another coop in another house, far from the familiar blood that cannot be washed from this earth, away from the chicks she knows she had once, long ago, before the hawks picked them off and their yellow lights vanished like water into the air. In a faraway house, perhaps she can learn how to forget the disappointing preens of the older hens, the hammering chants of “puny brain,” the blame. Perhaps there, she can try to live like the rooster, to pretend that beginnings are real.

If she could speak to herself, she would say, quiet dear heart, the dark is a friend. But she doesn’t talk to herself anymore. In this way, she is socially acceptable, a hen in a coop waiting quietly for slaughter. In this way, she has one less thing in common with the new tenant, my mother, who talks to everything and lives in the last room on the leftmost corner of the house, the one used originally to store bags of grain, the one the previous tenants claimed gave birth to spiders and fire ants. My mother, who watches the colorful hen in the coop and imagines stepping out into the light, crouching to the level of the bird to tell her the story she will not tell me.


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