Terry Ann Thaxton
You carry a decapitated chicken by her feet, which slap against your legs. You feel her nails scratching your palm on your way to the house. You hold her away from your body so the blood coming from where her head was chopped off doesn’t drip down your legs. You carry her past the two-by-four where your dad had chopped off her head, past your brothers and sister. You will no longer smell the chicken shit once you get past the orange grove and can see the house. You carry the body into the kitchen where your mom waits to scald the chickens in pots of boiling water.
How many chickens do you carry before the killing is over? You’ll never know. Just carry them when it is your turn. Your dad likes chopping off their heads, laughing as they bounce around before they finally accept their death and splat on the ground. Line up with your four brothers and your sister, all of you watching your father chop off—what seems like—hundreds of heads because he has decided, after a year and a half, that two thousand chickens is too many to take care of. You do not question your father’s decision to do this. You do not hesitate to line up like obedient, God-the-Father-fearing children. You do this because your father tells you the only reason he must kill the chickens is because you and your siblings did not do your jobs of collecting the eggs, boxing them up, and taking care of the mounds of chicken shit you were each required to shovel into wheelbarrows and put beneath fruit trees as fertilizer.
Eighteen months earlier your dad decides to buy two thousand chickens. He tells you and your brothers that you’ve got two weeks to build the chicken house. You ride in the back of the pickup truck with your brothers to get posts, trusses, aluminum sheets for the roof, and nails. No doubt your dad recruits men from church to help, but everything is out of proportion in memory, and you can’t remember the men helping. Maybe you make that part up. How could six kids under the age of eight, and a man and a woman build an open air pavilion for two thousand chickens? You remember your dad and older brother using the post-hole diggers, and another brother and you laying out the posts where they would go. Mom pours cement in the hole around the post.
Once the trusses are up, probably by men who aren’t in your memory, you and your brothers sit on the roof and hammer aluminum sheets onto them. When you finish working, you jump off the roof. When you hit the ground, you roll—everybody knows that trick. Ricky doesn’t know that yet, and he breaks his leg. Your mother takes him to the doctor. You and Jon sit inside the chicken house listening to the pounding of Florida raindrops on the aluminum above your protected heads.
Every few feet, lengthwise, you hang strong wire from the rafters. Your father buys chicken cages and you hang four rows of them fifty feet long through the chicken house, attaching them to the wire. You separate the cages just enough so that each kid has room to walk down the rows to collect the eggs and not step on the chicken poop. Each chicken lays about an egg a day, which means that every day in the morning and evening, and then when school starts up again, before and after school, you and your brothers collect eggs. At night in your room, alone, when you try to fall asleep, you pretend you are dead and imagine famous people surrounding your bed, saying, “She was so pretty,” “She was smart,” “She was one-in-a-million.” Flowers of all colors are packed into your room. You do this for so long that most of the time you start to believe you are invisible. Soon there are so many eggs that your father buys a machine to sort the eggs by size and weight. Then, he says, we need a shed for the sorting machine.
The shed is there. Maybe more men from church come to help build it, maybe your father buys the shed, but in memory one day it is not there and the next day it is—bare wood and in need of paint. Your father tells you and your brothers to paint the shed white. Jon asks if after you paint the shed white, if you can paint words and pictures on the sides. He agrees. You run to the carport to get all the buckets of paint you can find. First you paint the entire shed white, then, using yellow, orange, purple, green, black, and pink, you spell out psychedelic, groovy, and cool, and then paint swirls around the door. It is beautiful.
In the chicken house you carry wire-covered-in-plastic baskets down the aisles between the cages, careful not to step in the shit. The chickens are separated from each other by wire, each in her own private cell. The bottom of the cage is angled so that when each chicken lays an egg it rolls away from her body through a small opening and into a tray outside the cage. This way the chicken cannot sit on the egg, and you can walk by and pick it up without getting attacked by the mother. Chickens lay deformed eggs all the time. One lays an egg four inches long. You poke a pinhole in each end of the egg, like you do for any egg you want to keep, and you blow into one pinhole and the goop comes out the other end. Your family keeps the abnormal, empty eggshells inside your house.
The egg sorter machine is a conveyer belt, and after you collect and bring the eggs into the shed, you put the eggs on one end. The eggs travel along the top belt, then fall into rivers according to their size. While you wait for the eggs to sort, stamp the empty cartons with the “T-8 Egg Ranch” stamp. “T” for Thaxton and “8” for the number in your family. You enjoy stamping the cartons. Thirty years after your parents die, you find a piece of paper that you stamp, and that’s when you remember: you love the stamp. You and your brothers stamp bedroom walls, your legs, the furniture, the terrazzo on the porch.
On Tuesdays, your mom delivers eggs to her customers. Years later, you realize that she probably doesn’t need anything else to do since she already has six children, one with a developmental disability, and a husband who leaves her on the weekends for drinking binges. You don’t know about the drinking yet, so you think a new egg delivery business is a great thing for your mother. The rule for egg delivery is the same as it is for grocery shopping: if you’re awake in time to ride with her, you can go; if not, you stay home. You can only ride with your mom during summer. During the school year, you go to school, or you’d better be dead.
Terry Ann Thaxton is the author of three poetry books, Getaway Girl, The Terrible Wife, and Mud Song, as well as a textbook, Creative Writing in the Community: A Guide. Her essays have appeared in The Missouri Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Defunct, and others journals. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida, where she also directs the MFA program.