The night before I put my mother in assisted living, I killed her pet chicken, and after years of trying not to, finally broke her heart. The chicken in question was the meanest animal I’d ever met and had been the only living thing on my family’s apple orchard besides my mother for the past fifteen years, ever since my father died of a heart attack one May afternoon. We had been packing for two weeks; now I was out of paid leave from work and we were both out of patience. It was eleven, and we were set to leave for Charlotte in the morning, but there was still the problem of the chicken.
“No. No way.” I said from my spot on the floor, my back against the cupboard.
“I think it’s a great idea,” my mother said, setting the kettle on the stovetop with a bang. I had gone through the car for thirty minutes to find the kettle, stuffed in between a box of Estée Lauder makeup and the Cabbage Patch doll that had haunted our living room since before I was born. My mother always had tea at night, even tonight.
“That— it’s not— Mom, the facility won’t let you,” I said.
“It says on the box you can use it to transport any animal under twenty pounds.”
“It’s a cat carrier.”
“Well, Natalie, what do you want me to say? They didn’t have a chicken carrier at the store.” We paused and looked at the green plastic carrier sitting in the corner.
“It’s huge.” I said. “Did you buy the most expensive one?”
“That,” my mother said, “is not important.”
“Look,” I said, trying to be delicate. “If it were up to me, you could take her. But this place has rules. Besides, where would she go? You won’t have a backyard there.”
“I’ll figure it out,” my mother said, dunking a tea bag.
“If you moved in with me—”
“I don’t want to live with you,” she said. “You’re always working. If you moved back to Asheville —”
“I can’t move back here. My job is in Charlotte. You know that.” I felt a headache coming on. “Besides, that’s not the point.”
“The point,” my mother said firmly, handing me a mug of chamomile tea, “is that I’m not leaving without my chicken. So that’s that.”
I moved to turn off the burner under the kettle.
“I was going to get that,” she said, looking flustered.
“I know,” I said. “Sorry.” There was an uncomfortable silence. I tried not to look at the new plaster on the wall behind the stove. Three months ago, my mother had left a towel on the stovetop while she waited for rice to cook. It caught fire and painted long, charred streaks up the wall. A neighbor called 911 after smelling smoke. There had been other, smaller things, forgetting to charge her cell phone so my calls went to voicemail for two weeks straight, using the GPS to get to the grocery store she’d been going to for forty years, but the fire was the last straw. I started looking at assisted living the next day, even though my mother insisted she was fine. Maybe, deep down, I hoped things would be different between us if she lived nearby. She wouldn’t be so alone. We would be better to one another. I told myself I could learn how to take care of her, even though she had always taken care of me. We wouldn’t argue just so we had something to talk about.
My mother picked up the cat carrier. “We should put her in it before we go to bed.”
I stood up hastily, slopping tea onto the floor. “Mom—”
“Please? So she can get used to it.” She stood at the backdoor, wearing one of my father’s old flannels. The April air drifted in, sticky and sweet. I thought about how many memories I had in this spot on the kitchen floor. I knew that when we left for Charlotte the next morning, they would move permanently into the past. A sadness swelled in me and broke.
“I don’t —,” I said, knowing I was going to follow her anyway. I could tell by the look on her face that she knew it too. She walked out the back door and into the darkened yard.
In the yard, my mother held the carrier open while I tried, through a combination of clucking noises and blind faith, to wrangle Alexander from the henhouse. She shouted unhelpful things like, “Angle your hands,” and “Let her know she’s safe with you,” while Alexander glared at me with evil, beady chicken eyes.
On the morning of my father’s funeral, my mother went out without a word and came back with a russet chick hopping around a cardboard box. She set the box on her lap and stared straight ahead during the service, as though daring the preacher to complain that Alexander was chirping loudly through his sermon. No one suggested that Alexander was probably not the best name for a female chicken.
“She needs to see that you’re in control,” my mother hollered, balancing the carrier on her hip. “Put your shoulders into it.” I got a chicken wing to the eye and sputtered.
When she was with my father, my mother laughed until she snorted. She let him leave his shoes all over the house and didn’t get upset. When she was with me, she told me to stop mismatching my socks and that other people would be smarter than me only if I didn’t work hard. As a child, I spent hours sitting at the wobbly card table in our living room, copying sections of Little Women to practice my cursive. I was my mother’s work, just like my father’s work was the orchard, and we regarded one another with the distant friendliness of colleagues. I graduated college two weeks before my father died. After his funeral, I didn’t even go back to the house. I didn’t know what to say. I just got in my car and drove back to Charlotte. I started an entry-level job at the bank and left my mother with eight hundred trees and a single chicken. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. She’s never even brought it up.
“I can’t,” I said, sitting back on my heels. “I can’t get her out.”
“Well, she doesn’t know you, honey, she’s afraid.”
I blew my hair off my forehead.
“Grab her under the wings. She doesn’t peck, so the most she can do is holler at you.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” I closed my eyes and grabbed blindly at Alexander, clutching her feathered body tightly. She started squawking loudly. “Do you have the carrier?”
“Yes,” said my mother. “Quick, put her in!”
I pulled the chicken out of the coop, wings flapping. Suddenly, one of my fingers stung hot with pain. “She pecked me,” I shrieked, dropping the chicken. Alexander took off, running faster than I thought a chicken could, squawking all the way. In the darkness, she disappeared almost instantly into the orchard. I groaned and grabbed my smarting finger.
“You let her go,” my mother said. “You let her go!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You said she didn’t peck!”
“This is so typical. So typical. You didn’t want me to take her,” she said, stomping her foot like a child.
I sighed. “Let’s just go inside. It’s late. It’s dark. We can find her in the morning.”
“I am not. Leaving. Without. That. Chicken.”
My mother shook her head, like she did when she was too angry to speak, and barreled past me into the house. By the time I reached the back door, she was already headed back out with two flashlights. They made her face look luminescent and round, like the moon. She shone the light in my face. “You lost her, so we’re going to go look for her.”
Thirty minutes later, we had walked a mile down one of the orchard rows and were starting back up a second one. The chicken was absolutely nowhere in sight. Cicadas howled and fell silent again, in and out, like a tide. It was April, and still, the orchard smelt vaguely of apples, sticky-sweet and earthy. I got a sudden mental image of my mother sniffing a feather like a bloodhound and had to stifle my laughter.
I wondered how to get her in the car if we didn’t find the chicken. Could I get another chicken in the morning? Where did people even buy chickens? Maybe I could put a Benadryl in her tea. I missed my job at the bank, the easily solvable problems, the endless spreadsheets. I never had to drug anybody there, and there were absolutely no chickens. I hadn’t meant for all this to happen. “You know,” I said, “There’s this great coffee shop near the facility. We could go together once you move in.” A peace offering.
“I only drink tea,” my mother said, drawing her coat tighter around herself.
“They have tea, too.”
We kept going. I tripped over a wheelbarrow that one of the orchard hands left out, and it made a metallic smack that reverberated down my shin. Mom didn’t even stop to check on me.
“Can we please go back?” I said, too loudly, holding my leg.
“I would think you’d want to find her more than I do, considering that I’m not leaving if she doesn’t come.”
“Mom, it was a ton of work to get you into this place.”
“No one asked you to do it, Natalie.” She turned back around and kept walking.
“See, Mom, this is exactly why you can’t stay here alone. Because you’d do stupid stuff like running around the orchard at night. It’s not safe. You can’t take care of yourself anymore.”
She turned off her flashlight and I couldn’t see her face anymore. Her voice came out of the darkness, thin and quiet, all the anger bled out of it. “I understand that I have to leave. I understand that I have to give up my home. But I would like to find my chicken. You may go back to the house.” She paused. “I won’t go without Alexander. I don’t want to be by myself.”
I tugged at the collar of my jacket. “Mom—”
“What?” She turned the flashlight on again. Her hair was falling out of its bun on the left side, drifting around her face in waves. In the shadowed light, she looked stooped and small. I felt guilty, as if I had yelled at a child who didn’t know any better. That was worse than anything, to feel that way about her. It was so upside-down and wrong.
“Nothing.” I said. “You’re right. Let’s just keep looking.”
Somewhere around three in the morning, I was beginning to feel more asleep than awake. Even my mother looked ready to go back, and I almost pressed the issue again when I saw shapes rippling in my peripheral vision. Without thinking, I turned my flashlight, already anticipating that nothing was there. But then I saw Alexander, happily pecking around a tree.
She looked and gasped, our flashlights drawing a twin halo around the chicken. I hopped out of excitement, and Alexander looked straight at us with those creepy chicken eyes. I walked slowly toward her, arms outstretched.
“If she pecks me again,” I said, over my shoulder, “We’re not taking her.”
I was still ten feet away when I saw a streak of russet at the edge of the light. Startled, I dropped my flashlight. Scrambled around for it in the dirt. There was a rustle of feathers and a muffled crack. By the time I got the light back on, Alexander was in the fox’s mouth, and she was definitely, undeniably dead.
“No! Hey — get out of here!” I shone the flashlight in the fox’s eyes. It jumped back, Alexander still in its mouth. “Hey! Give me that!” I really shouted then, jumping up and down, slapping my hands against my thighs. My mother was shouting too. The fox, startled, dropped Alexander and leapt back into the underbrush. We rushed towards what used to be my mother’s only chicken.
“Oh,” my mother said. “Oh.” She sank awkwardly to her knees.
“Mom, don’t —”, I said, but she reached out to touch the crumpled body.
I swung the beam of my flashlight towards her hand. Something in the gesture reminded me of her pressing a palm to my forehead to feel for fever. There was less blood than I thought there would be, only a mass of dampened feathers, the neck bent at a wrong angle, a tinny, raw smell in the air. Somehow, the fact that it all looked so normal made me feel sicker than if the chicken had been a tangle of pink, luminous skin.
“Mama,” I said. It had been a long time since I had called her that. “I should have—”
“Sh, Natalie.” She leaned down and whispered something over the chicken that I could not hear. I wondered how many mornings she had gone out to visit the warm coop, Alexander snuffling around in her nest, the house still and empty across the yard. My stomach churned.
“Here—” I took off my corduroy jacket and handed it to her. The jacket had been hers when I was a child. It was one of the only stylish things I ever saw her buy, but practical, too, much warmer than it looked and stitched with thick, sturdy thread. Last winter, when it came back into fashion, I snagged it from the musty closet under the stairs.
My mother bundled the body in the coat like a newborn and stood with concentrated effort, tucking wisps of hair back away from her face. I thought suddenly back to when I was a kid, and I used to go play at my friend Maggie’s house, where her father always told her mother that she looked beautiful. Back then, I thought that no one would ever call my mother beautiful. It just wasn’t something she thought about. But she did look sort of beautiful in that moment. I wanted to carry the bundle for her, but I already knew she would refuse. Instead, I trailed behind, trying to shine the flashlight out ahead so that she could see the way.
I found her sitting on the back porch steps, the house behind her like a hulking, hollow thing. It looked deflated somehow, as if it knew my mother was going away. Next to her, I suddenly wished I was a child again, so that I could put my hand in hers and let it disappear into the curve of her palm. Along with the wish came thought that I would never again be small enough to do that — let someone wrap their whole hand around mine — and I felt a deep blue sadness pass over my whole body. My mother put her head on my shoulder. The air smelled like rust. Every so often, Alexander’s feathers shuddered in the wind.
We sat for so long that my eyes were heavy and half-closed by the time she spoke.
“We should put her back.”
“Hm — back?”
“In the,” — She made a halfhearted attempt at a wave — “orchard.”
I thought about laying Alexander’s body on the leafy orchard floor. The fox, slinking back to gnaw at her. Gnats pinging off her bones. Sinking deeper and deeper into the loamy soil. The thought made me feel vaguely nauseous. “That’s — no. We should bury her or something.” She shrugged and turned away. “I’m serious, Mom. Stay here. I’ll get the shovels.”
I got the shovels. Outside, my mother was still just sitting on the edge of the porch. “Come on, Mom.” We walked to a ridge at the edge of the orchard. Her limp was more pronounced now. The tinny smell of blood on the wind made me want to gag. I looked down at the shovel, scuffed and dried over with dirt, and tried to breathe through my mouth.
We dug. The ground was tough and full of roots, and the shovels cut into it with a dull thunk. When the hole was up to my calves, my mother put a hand on my arm. There was dirt on her face.
I picked up Alexander. Her feathers were damp and cold in my hands. For some reason, I closed my eyes until she was in the hole. My mother lowered herself to her knees. We filled the grave back in with handfuls of clay. The shovel would have felt cold and impersonal. My mother patted and smoothed the dirt with her palm, like she was tucking Alexander into bed. By the time we finished, the horizon was a ring of heavy light. I held my palms up against the color of the sky, stained with blood and dirt. Same color.
“Do you want to say something?” she asked.
I almost told her then. That I was sorry she had to go, and everything else. That I wished I was different, and scared that she wished for it, too. I wanted to tell her I still wrote in cursive all the time. I knew that in the telling, the string around our memories would loosen, and they would become like stories that happened to someone else, someone very far away. I wanted to spill our memories out like marbles, as if I were reckless and grown up and couldn’t be hurt. But deep down, I knew it would be selfish. She knew all my failures. Maybe she had even forgiven me for them, in some moment of boldface grace long ago, some memory that was hers and not mine.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
My mother nodded. Her lips were set in a very straight line. She looked down at her hands, wiped them, leaving thick smears of dirt on her pants. My father’s flannel shirt flapped a little in the wind. “Goodbye, Alexander.”
The orange light turned silver in her hair. “And good morning,” I said.
“Yes.” Her face looked shiny and wet in the rising light. “Good morning.”
It seemed like enough at the time.