“The Little Chicken”
by Ellen Goff
No fewer than six chicks came into the world on Jo’s birthday.
Jo would admit she was disappointed. She was turning seven, so she should have gotten seven chickens. But then she reminded herself that hatched eggs were most definitely a gift from God and that she shouldn’t be picky. Maybe God had gotten tired when he got to seven. He had rested on the seventh day anyway.
In the middle of August, the only thing hotter than the sun was the air. But this morning on her birthday, Jo didn’t care about the heat or the sunburn or even the second and third skins of sweat stuck to her back. Because now she had chickens. She crouched further into the coop–she was still little enough to squeeze into small spaces–but stayed huddled in the corner, breathing in the earthy smell only animals seemed capable of making. The hen was at the back of the coop, her chest swelling and shrinking. Jo had forgotten that even chickens had to breathe. Was there an animal that didn’t have to breathe? Maybe fish. But fish weren’t exciting. Baby chicks were exciting, and these chicks were hers.
She counted six, and she wanted to scoot closer to make sure there wasn’t another hidden away down there under the mama, but she didn’t move. She had enough white scars on her arms and hands from mother chickens already, so she knew not to be nosy. The chicks would come out to play eventually, maybe later when the afternoon cooled off and the sun sunk behind the edge of the farm. Maybe then they would play.
“Jo Anne! Jo Anne, get out of that chicken coop.”
Jo maneuvered backwards out of the chicken coop, and slid down the small ladder until she came to a stop at her grandmother’s rubber work boots. She stood up, still caught in the hunched shadow of her grandmother, and said, “Momaw, there’s chickens.”
“I know there’s chickens, girl. Why’re you bothering them?”
“I wasn’t. I was just looking.”
Her grandmother, wrinkled hands draped over her wide hips, made a humming noise that sounded like the slow rumble of a newborn tornado swirling in from the distance. “You were looking and now you’re covered in crud,” she snapped, gesturing at the dirt on Jo’s knees and the straw in Jo’s hair. Jo had thought the straw matched her hair enough that she would be able to get away with it. But her grandmother noticed everything.
“Is this how you want to look on your birthday? Go start a bath. I’ll have to come in and clean you in a minute.”
“I’ll take a bath later,” Jo said. She wasn’t exactly sure what mothers did, but she had a sneaking suspicion her grandmother was trying to nudge her buoyant frame into a space that never quite belonged to her. And Jo didn’t appreciate it. “And I can do it myself. I’m seven now, Momaw. I don’t need help.”
“You’re seven when I say you’re seven. Seven might be too grown up for you, especially if you go ruining your nice trousers crawling around in chicken coops. Pretty is as pretty does, remember?”
Jo hummed a response that was not even close to being as strong as a tornado. “Why’re there chickens, Momaw? Why didn’t we just eat the eggs this time?”
Her grandmother grabbed her under her armpits and hauled her onto her bare feet. “Because sometimes we need more chickens.”
“More chickens make more eggs.”
“How do we choose which eggs get to be chickens?”
Her grandmother sighed. “That’s too many questions before noon. Go run your bath. And kiss your daddy good morning. He’s up now.”
With absent hands, Jo fiddled with the bottom of her grandmother’s apron. Flour came off on the tips of her fingers. “Can we name them, Momaw? For my birthday?”
Her grandmother pointed to the white farmhouse in the distance. The house itself was one story and close to the earth, but sitting on the flat plain of the farm, it was as tall as the skyscrapers Jo saw on the television. Her grandmother was always pointing back to the house.
“Go back inside,” her grandmother said. “And we don’t name the chickens.”
“Because they won’t all live. And if they do, they won’t live long.”
“You’re going to die, though, and you got a name,” Jo said.
“You’re right, I am. That’s because I’ve been around longer than you can imagine, which means I’m in charge. Now go back inside and clean up. I best not see you out here messing around in the coop again.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jo mumbled.
“What was that? I couldn’t hear you.”
But Jo was already running back to the house, her bare feet stinging where they trampled pebbles on the ground.
“She won’t let me name them,” Jo whispered to her Pa at the dinner table that evening.
Her grandmother was hunched over the oven, so Jo had seized her chance.
Her Pa smiled at her over a fork of ham. He had the same straw hair as she did, and the same tanned skin from the same work under the same sun. “She’s a tough old woman. Wouldn’t even let me name my dog.”
“What did you call him then?”
“Just Bud. Like what I called you when you were born.”
“Why didn’t I have a name?”
“Your Mama hadn’t picked one out yet. So when she was gone, it was up to me.”
“Oh.” Jo leaned back in her seat and the wood creaked under her. Everything in the house creaked, like it was screaming. Her Pa never talked much about her birth. All he ever said was that she was a difficult one, a baby that screamed as much as the house did.
“I came up with your name,” her grandmother said then, returning to the table with a steaming iron skillet of yellow cornbread. Of course she had been listening. “Jo Anne, after your great-grandmother.”
“I just like Jo,” Jo said, digging a spoonful of cornbread out of the skillet. The piece of bread crumbled before it made it to her plate, but that meant it was good, meant the bread was made full of butter.
“Jo Anne is your name,” her grandmother said. “Be proud of it.”
“I bet the chickens want names,” Jo said. “I already got ideas.”
“You can’t name the chickens.”
Jo looked to her Pa for help. But he was quiet, and stared only at the ham and gravy on his plate. He always got quiet around her grandmother, like the old woman took all the space in the room, took all the air to speak, too. Biting her lip to keep the anger in, Jo thought that maybe that was at least a small bit of the reason her mother wasn’t here now. Maybe her grandmother was so much of a person there wasn’t enough room for anyone else.
“One of them’s already dead anyhow.”
Jo abandoned the spoonful of cornbread she had poised at her mouth. “What?”
“You heard me,” her grandmother said. “I checked just this evening as I was getting eggs for morning. Your hen only has five chicks now.”
Swallowing the lump of bread already at the back of her throat, Jo almost choked. The bread tasted dry and tough as it went down, like the biscuits her Pa always tried to make for Christmas dinner after church. That was the only time her grandmother let him cook anything.
“But why did he die?” Jo asked. She didn’t even know if the chick was a he or a she. But she could picture which one it was in her mind. She had spotted the fellow as he broke through his shell. He had taken a long time to hatch, longer than the others by far. He had looked like a Paul, or maybe a Sammy. Maybe a Pa Jr. But now he wouldn’t be anything.
“Sometimes chicks just die,” her grandmother said, plopping in her seat.
When it was clear Jo wasn’t getting anything closer to a real answer out of her grandmother, her Pa leaned over and said, “Maybe she ran away, Bud. Probably got tired of the old hen’s squawking.” He winked at her.
Jo smiled at this. Five chicks was still a good birthday present. For the rest of the evening, she was so distracted with trying to find the right names she didn’t get the chance to taste the birthday cake her grandmother had left on the counter.
Yes, five baby chickens was just as impressive.
The five chicks followed their mother around the fenced-in plot of dirt next to the coop. They were the size of small hands now, and moved how chickens were supposed to move. If she stood at the far corner near the piece of fence a rabbit had chewed through once, Jo could almost block out the white farmhouse with her view of the coop. She didn’t want her grandmother to know she was out here, filling her toenails with mud, instead of doing chores. If she peeked around the coop, she could just see the old woman rocking on the back porch. Her Pa was around too, probably washing the truck or cleaning the barn.
Jo followed the line of chicks at a safe distance, not too close, not too far. She had become familiar with that kind of distance over the years. It was always, Not too close to the house that you disturb your Pa, Jo Anne; or it was, Not too far that I can’t see you, you know better than to go down by that creek, that’s the Wilsons’ land…
“Are they yours?”
Jo looked up.
A boy, his knees just as red and scraped as hers, stood outside the chicken coop fence. He traced the parallel wire lines with his pinky, his eyes on Jo.
Jo hesitated. The only boys she knew were the ones in class who liked to call her scarecrow because her hair made her look like she was stuffed with straw. Finally she said, “Of course they’re mine. The farm’s mine, too. Why are you on it?”
The boy didn’t flinch at her tone. “I live on the other side of creek. I mean, I do now. I usually live with my parents, but I’m staying with my gran for a while.”
Jo shrugged. “I don’t care about your gran.”
“You asked me.”
“I asked why you were on my farm.”
“Oh.” The boy seemed to remember his purpose and rubbed his palms on the back of his jean shorts. “I came to see your chickens. I can see your coop from across the creek. Thought you had chicks maybe.”
Jo decided she liked this boy, liked his interest in her chickens. “I have five.” She held out her hand, palm facing the boy and fingers splayed. “What’s your name?”
Looking to her chickens, Jo ran her hands over her blouse, trying to smooth out the wrinkles. In church, her grandmother prayed to God to ward off two things: sin and wrinkles, which, to her, were functionally the same thing.
“I’ll be right back,” Jo said, counting her chickens again. “Watch the chickens for me?”
A grin split Emmett’s face. His teeth were the same off-white as her chickens’ eggs had been. “Sure, of course I can watch them.”
Moving with a deliberate slowness, Jo trekked back to the farmhouse. Her grandmother had risen from her rocking chair, and was waiting at the edge of the porch.
“Who’s that boy, Jo Anne?”
“That’s just Emmett.” Jo stopped at the foot of the porch but didn’t climb the steps. If she climbed the steps, she would be out of the safety of the tall grass and her grandmother would see her green and red knees.
“He’s one of the Wilsons’ kids, isn’t he?”
“A grandson or something. I don’t know.”
Her grandmother pursed her lips, but her mouth was already so sunk with age, her lips just disappeared entirely into the skin beneath her nose. “I don’t want you playing with that boy.”
“I wasn’t playing with him,” Jo said. This boy had been in her life no more than a handful of minutes and he was already getting her in trouble.
“Doesn’t matter. The Wilsons are always stepping too far into other folks’ land. Tell him to get back across the water.”
When Jo got back to the coop, Emmett and all five chickens were still stuck in the afternoon sun. Emmett was tracing the chicks’ steps as if he were the sixth missing chick.
“They like me,” he said, without looking at her.
“My Momaw doesn’t want me around you.”
Now Emmett stopped and glanced up. “Why?”
“Don’t know.” Jo looked to the ground, her face heated because she did not know why she was not allowed to spend time with boys who watched her chicks. She noticed then that his feet were bare like hers, with mud tucked between his toes. “But I don’t care,” she said. “Come visit again. We’ll stay behind the coop.”
Emmett smiled his egg-smile again. “You sure?”
“Sure. And you can have a chick if you want.” Jo didn’t know why she said it. But she felt she needed to give this boy something.
“Really?” he asked, though his hands were already reaching for a chick. He picked the largest one, and cupped it in his palms.
“Sure,” Jo said. “Just give him a good name.”
Emmett left, and Jo waited until he was a smudge of denim in the distance across the creek bed. Now she only had four chicks. But she wasn’t going to miss the fifth one.
Jo decided she needed to come up with four names and fast.
The chicks were dropping like the gnats did when her grandmother was feeling particularly powerful with the swatter.
She was sitting on the back porch, wearing nothing but her Pa’s T-shirt and her underpants. Her grandmother insisted on giving her a new set of flannel pajamas every birthday for the impending cold nights of southern Septembers, but she hated them. They had little bows, which she didn’t mind, but they were always hot. She could never sleep in the clothes her grandmother gave her. She couldn’t know for sure, but she had a feeling her mother would have picked out good pajamas.
Jo had been out here since supper, listening to the cicadas and the palpable silence that only belonged to places and people wedged miles from everything loud. It was already dusk, and her chicks were now a week old. They were summer babies, which meant they needed summer names. Something that was more than just a grandmother’s name, at the least. She didn’t appreciate hand-me-downs. On her list were three names so far, and they all started with E. Emmett would be proud. He had come over twice in the last week to play with the chicks.
A few good possibilities came to mind just as Jo heard the screaming. Not screaming, exactly, because chickens couldn’t scream. But they could holler.
She flung herself off the porch and sprinted barefoot toward the coop. Her grandmother must have seen her through the kitchen window, seen her lack of pajamas and bare legs to match bare feet, because Jo could hear her name chasing her across the farm.
“Jo Anne! Jo Anne, get back here! You’re indecent–”
Jo didn’t care, and almost relished the feeling of hundreds of nips on her legs as bugs swarmed her skin. She would wake up with more chigger bites than she could count, but she didn’t care. As she finally reached the coop, her straw hair stuck to her forehead the way hay stuck to mud after a long rain, and hairline cuts littered her legs where the tall grass had gotten greedy. But she didn’t care.
Jo entered the fenced area off the back of the coop just in time to see a hairy blur of red and hunger. The fox slunk under a gap in the wire fence and was gone, leaving the mother hen pecking at the world around her. As if she were stepping through tall grass looking for barn snakes, Jo crept one foot at a time toward the hen.
She found a spray of feathers, one hen, and two chicks shaken but still chirping. Two was still better than none.
She looked back toward the house, back toward someone who used the named she wanted. Her Pa stood on the porch; she could just make out his silhouette in the twilight.
“Jo, come back here! I need your help, Momaw’s fallen, she’s sick–”
Jo didn’t think she heard him right, but her Pa never screamed from the back porch. He would never call her away from her chicks for no reason. So she herded the mother and the two chicks that still needed names into the coop, and sprinted back up the footpath she had made through the grass only two minutes ago.
Her grandmother was not sick.
Sick meant soup and a hot bath, and maybe a sip of her Pa’s whiskey if she had a cough. No, not sick. Her grandmother was something much worse.
Jo waited outside on the back porch, pacing up and down the length of the wide veranda. She hadn’t bathed properly for a week, not since her grandmother collapsed. Something about, It’s just old age. Or something. The adults never told her anything, even though she was practically one of them. She was raising two chicks, after all.
She heard him before she saw him.
Emmett had snuck up to the house while she was caught up in the concept of adulthood. He was still in his jean shorts, and he was just as covered in mud and grass as she was after a week spent avoiding the bathtub. They looked a pair.
Emmett poked his head through the wide slats of the porch railing. “I haven’t seen you out much with the chicks. They all right?”
“Mmhm,” Jo mumbled. “I just have two now.”
“Oh.” He thumbed a protruding nail by his head. “My gran took mine away. She wouldn’t let me keep him.”
Now it was Jo’s turn. “Oh,” she said, not surprised at all another grandmother had taken a disliking to her chicks. “That’s okay. I still have two.”
“You have any names?”
Before Jo could answer, she heard the screen door.
“Jo?” her Pa asked.
“Jo,” her Pa began, but he stopped with one boot in the house and one boot on the porch. His voice changed when he saw Emmett. “Hey, son. Aren’t your folks looking for you? Do they know you’re across the creek?”
“I live with my gran.”
“Sun’s going down; maybe you should head on back.”
“He can stay,” Jo said, turning to face her Pa. “We’re playing.”
Her Pa sighed. “Y’all can play later, Jo. I need you to come inside for a while. Bye, son.”
Emmett smiled one last time at Jo and began the hike across the farm toward the creek. Jo watched him go, like she usually did, but this time it was only because she didn’t want to look at her Pa’s face. Her Pa never talked much. All his feelings were in the lines around his mouth.
When Emmett was gone, Jo turned to her Pa. He still held the screen door wide open, and she could hear the bugs whizzing into the house. Her grandmother would have a fit with the swatter.
“Is Momaw all right?” she asked.
“Just come inside, Jo. It’s getting dark.”
The funeral was more boring than baths and early bedtimes.
And even dead, Jo’s grandmother was still making all the rules. Jo was stuck in a black dress with white ruffles. It was a dress her grandmother had probably picked out in preparation of her own funeral just because that old woman had to plan everything. But the dress was hot, which meant it was scratchy, which meant Jo would throw it to the back of her closet as soon as everyone got out of their house. The reception was even more boring than the funeral, was full of people bringing biscuits more genuine than their condolences.
Jo tugged at a rebellious thread on her collar. Maybe she would get lucky and the whole thing would unravel. The clothes weren’t the worst part of the funeral, though. What Jo couldn’t stand was that for once she almost missed someone telling her what to do. She had no idea how to act; the only funeral she had ever attended was her mother’s, and she hadn’t been old enough to even see the coffin. Was she supposed to cry for her Momaw? Somehow it felt wrong to cry for that woman when she hadn’t gotten the chance to cry for her own mother.
“Don’t pick at your dress, Jo. You look beautiful.”
Pa came up behind her and put a solid, calloused hand on her shoulder. Despite her best efforts, he had found her behind the chicken coop. She had thought no one could find her hiding places, but maybe they just all pretended they couldn’t find her to indulge her.
“I hate this dress.”
“I know. But Momaw picked it out for you. You going to argue with her now?”
Jo huffed. Her chickens were in the coop and she had just been staring at dirt for the last half hour. “No. No, I’m not.”
“Pretty is as pretty does, remember?”
Jo dropped her hands from her lacey collar and forced herself to ignore her dress.
“C’mon, Jo. I want to show you something.”
Jo followed her Pa. They crossed the one-lane road that ran around the farm and climbed the small hill on the other side, leaving behind the guests in black for the green of the forest that was fully in bloom. A small cemetery sat on top of the hill, but cemetery was a generous word, because it was mostly just a few forgotten headstones hiding amid the trees. She wasn’t sure which had come first, the graves or the trees, but they seemed like they were getting along.
Her Pa didn’t hold her hand as they walked like he usually did whenever they went someplace together. His attention was on the ground. He was looking for something. They climbed over headstones that didn’t have names anymore, and finally came to a stop in a small open patch of grass that was not crowded with too many graves. From their place on the hill, they had a view through the trees of the white farmhouse down below with the guests milling around the backyard like little black chickens pecking the land.
Her Pa bent down, found a rock the size of a biscuit, and handed it to her. “Throw this.”
Jo accepted the stone after a pause. “Throw it? Where?”
“Anywhere. Just toss it on into the green there.”
She tossed it. It wasn’t a very enthusiastic toss. The stone landed about six feet away next to another headstone that had given up on trying to keep itself together. “Okay,” she said, and crossed her arms. She didn’t have time for games right now. She had two chickens to mind.
“That,” her Pa began, “is where I want to be buried.”
Jo dropped her arms from her chest, her eyes on the stone where it had hit the ground. “All the way up here?” she asked.
Her father hummed his consent, just like her grandmother did. “There’s a breeze up here, the sun sets through the trees at twilight. You can’t hear anything but the woods. Here is good.”
“We didn’t bury Momaw up here, though.” Or Ma, she wanted to add but didn’t. Wasn’t her Pa supposed to be buried with her mother, weren’t they supposed to at least get time together in whatever came after if they couldn’t be together now?
“That’s all right. This is where I want to be.” Her Pa held out his hand. “Let’s get back to the reception.”
Jo took his hand and followed him back down the hillside toward the house, the entire time thinking that she should have put a bit more of herself into the toss.
One chick was waiting for her.
He wasn’t the smallest or the largest, he wasn’t the best looking of the bunch, and he might have actually been a she-chick for all Jo knew. But he was there, and that’s what counted. Jo wasn’t sure what had happened to chicken number two; maybe he had gone to keep her grandmother company, or maybe the fox had gotten hungry again. But there was still one.
Jo stared at the chick as he strutted around the fenced area, looking for his mother. The hen was probably in the coop, resting. It took a lot of energy to lose things that mattered.
“I didn’t even get to name the other one,” she told the last chicken. “Do you even want a name?”
“I think he’s earned a name,” Emmett said, appearing next to her. This time, he hadn’t come from across the creek. Instead, he had come from the farmhouse. This time, he wasn’t in his jean shorts. Instead, he was in a suit that looked like a hand-me-down. This time, he wasn’t trespassing. Instead, he was welcome. “I like your dress.”
“I don’t,” Jo said. “I only got one chick left now.”
“Well how many chicks do you even really need? Seems like one is fine.”
“What are you gonna name him?”
Jo thought. Before, thinking up six names had been stressful. How was it that coming up with just one was even more difficult? “It’s a she,” she decided. “It’s a girl chick. And I don’t think I’ll name her.”
“How are you gonna take care of her if you don’t have anything to call her?”
Jo shrugged, thinking about how her entire life she had always called her grandmother Momaw and nothing else. Had her grandmother even had a real name?
“I’m not gonna take care of her. That’s not my job,” she finally said.
“You’re leaving her? Just like that? I can help you, if you want.”
“No,” Jo said. “No, she’ll be okay.”
“And if she’s not?”
Jo shrugged again. She liked the way her shoulders moved when she did that, like with each bounce another problem, another responsibility fell right off. “Then she’s not okay. Sometimes not all the chicks make it.” Shrugging also kept her from acknowledging and putting a name to the hot pressure behind her eyes that meant tears. Her Momaw was right: it was easier to not give something a name.
“Oh,” Emmett said.
“C’mon,” Jo sighed. She hadn’t realized it took this much energy to be needed by people. Herding people was like herding little chicks. “Let’s go back up to the house. Pa will kill me if I get my dress dirty out here.”
Ellen Goff is currently a 4th year student at the University of Chicago, where she is majoring in English with a minor in Cinema and Media Studies. While passionate about all creative fiction, Ellen is currently working on a screenplay for her thesis and focuses most of her energy on writing novels