She rose out of the ratty quilts with the wan morning light and slipped her bare feet into her cold rubber boots. Meemaw had had another name for them- Shit Kickers. The hem of her nightgown was dirt stained from the early morning excursions to the hen-house, a point of contention with her husband, despite his oil slick overalls and travel weary flannels. She stopped on the way out the door to grab the metal coffee can she would fill with scratch and seed from the garbage pail beside the coop.
The hens were indignant at being locked up every night, not knowing of the dangers of foxes and weasels, but even more so at the pale, bright light rousing them in the morning. They would glance at Love askance, ruffling their feathers and clucking disapprovingly, then file out of the hen house onto the balding lawn. Her hand would fling the seed across the dirt, making sure the little bullied hen with red feathers got her share and warding off the possessive rushes of the rooster, stringy and mean. In the winter, the heat that drifted out from the coop penetrated her woolen coat, enveloped her in the mildly acrid scent of droppings and decomposing straw. She’d climb inside, Alice in Wonderland, with her hammer to break the film of ice that formed overnight on the water pails.
So it went, until her husband got rid of the hens.
Jim breathed heavily out his nose, eyes closed, clearly counting “1-2-3” in his head. He opened his eyes, unfolded his hands from where they were templed in front of his face, thumbs digging into the bridge of his nose, and looked at Love with contempt. Frazzled and unkempt with downy chicken feathers clinging to her boots. Her tiny feet swam in them, especially without socks, and he shuddered away from the cold of her feet when she returned to bed in the mornings after feeding her hens.
He cracked his shoulders and, some patience regained, stood from his seat on the porch steps and walked toward her. He enveloped her in his arms, sorry, contrite. “I’m sorry,” he said to her hair, though his eyes were looking over her shoulder at the empty chicken coop. “It wasn’t healthy,” he justified to himself. “It was an obsession.” He didn’t know the small pleasures of beady hen eyes and the warmth and weight of a speckled brown egg in a hand or a jacket pocket. She didn’t say anything but cried without fanfare on his shoulder. Jim was not a man who apologized and his apology had the patronizing air of one unaccustomed to admitting guilt.
He had been jealous of the damn chickens, she had realized, and that was why they had had to go. She cried, more for this loss of love than for the loss of the hens.
Love’s grandmother was a big, coarse, volatile woman who swung from childishness to cruelty and unreasonable tempers in one moment. Meemaw, she and her sister had called her. Bless her soul, Love thinks of her now, underground, her feet and hands returning to the earth they’d always been buried in, farming. She’d had a gnarled, root-like quality.
The seven-toed barn cat had kittens and Love remember their shut eyes in the hayloft, her private pleasure at their silent mewlings and searching for teats. They were not much older than three days when kidnapped from their musty, sweet-smelling home and drowned, her Meemaw’s crippled, twisted hands quick and efficient at tying shut the grain sack with binder twine, holding it under the surface of the pond.
‘A fact of life’, of farm life especially, this feline genocide was called. But what resources had five tiny, blind kittens used? Their mother rid the barn of mice and pigeons and stayed well out of the way, lest the toe of a boot stray into her side.
She never understood why Meemaw had done that, like she understood the chickens. Her six year old brain became a void of white noise and static, horror, pure lack of comprehension. She understood even less when Meemaw so tenderly took the soaked little corpses and buried them, one by one, in shoe boxes under the apple trees in the back forty.