BY LYDIA WEINTRAUB
My mother keeps chickens in the apartment. One rooster and fourteen hens. There are eggs in the incubator and eggs in the fridge. I remind her that it’s important that she purchase new roosters or new hens, even when the next batch of eggs hatch. Lack of genetic variation leads to a higher probability of mutations and genetic diseases in a population. I sound like a textbook.
I remind her of the genetics problem every few days over dinner but each time I do, she rolls her eyes and says she doesn’t think it’s a problem, anyway, do I know how long it takes to raise new birds that we can eat? Two generations at least.
That’s silly, I always say. Why would a farmer out in Austerlitz be in on it?
I don’t know my father. Not what he looks like, not even his name. It’s for your own protection; my mother always says when I ask her about him. You know The Story, isn’t that enough?
The Story goes like this: my mother, a beautiful and young woman, met an older gentleman at a benefit being held at the Museum of Modern art. He told her she had the most marvelous “lines.” Lines in the artistic way, she always adds. Bodily lines, facial symmetry lines, bone lines. He told her that he was a painter, a very famous one too, would she be willing to sit for him. No, my mother told him. She didn’t sit for painters. How about dinner, he pressed. Dinner was fine, she said.
They went out to dinner at some small place downtown, long since shuttered and renovated into one of those trendy organic coffee shops. At this point in the story she always stops and skips ahead two years, even though I’m thirteen, and have kissed three different boys on the lips and know completely well what sex is and how you have it. I have a theory that she’s trying to make up for all her youthful wildness by being boring and stiff in older age.
But anyways, two years later, and she was pregnant with me. Which sometimes wouldn’t be such a terrible thing for people in a two year relationship. Sometimes people spend two years trying to get pregnant. But for her and the famous artist it was an unplanned and unwanted event, mainly because he was married to a very rich and very jealous woman named Muriel.
I don’t actually know if her name is Muriel. It’s just a feeling I have. Just like I’m absolutely positive that she wears her silver hair short and curled around her ears. That her favorite colors are cream and dark brown. That she wears cashmere coats and suede boots in the winter. And I can only ever imagine her in the winter even when it’s hot enough to bake a chicken on the sidewalk. I also don’t think she has children. She sits alone at her vanity, pulling back the skin sagging along her jaw and creasing around her eyes, and she feels her uterus like a hollow shell inside of her.
After my birth, it was all hush hush and the famous artist bought my mother this penthouse apartment, put money in her bank account, told her to stay on the Upper East Side, and surprised Muriel with an extended trip to Paris. Did they ever come back? My mother won’t answer that question but I’d guess that they did and I’d even guess that they live fairly close by. But that’s just another feeling I get at night when shadows stretch across my walls and the twinkling lights of the city dance among them.
It wasn’t until I was five and finally thought to ask that I learned how the Story related to the chickens and how it related to the Ritual that was performed by Our Maid every Sunday and Wednesday evenings.
Muriel, my mother is convinced, knows about her. Muriel’s jealousy turns her intestines into snakes, which slither inside of her and whisper to her to do terrible things. That is why my mother has not eaten anything from outside of our apartment in years.
In the greenhouse we grow vegetables: spinach, beans, lettuce; and fruit: dwarf peaches and figs. We also grow kamut wheat, which we grind up for chicken feed and breakfast smoothies. In the kitchen we purify water twice before she deems it in drinkable. And in a room covered in newspapers at the South end of the apartment with windows overlooking the city, we raise chickens.
The white leather couches and the chickens and the girls at school telling me that sometimes they don’t invite me because of my “daddy problems” are constant reminders of The Story. Every single meal is a reminder and every single bite I swallow feels like I’m swallowing a part of The Story that will grow and divide inside of me until it overcomes me and I turn into The Story and The Story turns into me.
When I was younger I used to worry that Muriel was out to poison me too. I am the physical evidence that her husband’s sperm has fertilized someone else’s egg. I am the tangle of genes, sweating and talking and living and breathing, which leaves no room for doubt. What if I lick my lips like her husband? What if he chews his nails too? So, in fear I used to only eat what my mother packed me for lunch and at snack times I used to surreptitiously slip my graham crackers into the garbage.
Now, though, I think it’s silly. It’s been thirteen years. At this point if Muriel knows who we are, where we are, and what we’ve done, she could have just as easily kidnapped me on my way to school or hired a hitman to break into our apartment. But she hasn’t and now eggs and chickens and stunted vegetables are my dreaded and despised diet.
Three days ago after school I went to my friend, Kate’s house. We played Mario Karts and did our math homework. Her mother made us peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiches. I ate two. When I got home my mother took her finger and dragged it across my cheek. I hadn’t wiped away a peanut butter smear.
For punishment I have to perform the Ritual today.
A couple years ago we had a tiny guillotine made. We ordered it online from a website we found when we plugged “make guillotine” into the search engine. The website said that because of high demand it would be at least two years before new orders would be processed. But my mother called and talked about her platinum credit card and before you could say “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” our doorman rang up to say that a cardboard box with a Kentucky return address was waiting for us downstairs.
We placed the miniature guillotine in the corner of the kitchen and to use it all you have to do is pull a lever and whoosh the blade goes down and cleanly decapitates the chicken. Our Maid broke it last Wednesday. The lever fell off and the blade jammed. My mother sent it to Chinatown to get fixed but in the meantime we have to go back to our older techniques. Strangulation is neat but hard to do, and using the cleaver is messier but requires less strength.
Today I’ve chosen the cleaver. My mother goes with Our Maid to the Chicken Room to pick out the bird. I lean against the kitchen counter. The silver blade of the cleaver glints in the overhead light and as I run my finger along the edge I can’t help but think about how easy it would be to cut off a finger. Will I bleed quickly or slowly? I know from science class that I have type O blood, which makes me think of my father, whoever he is. My mother has type A blood and she couldn’t give blood to me if I got into an accident but could he?
My mother and Our Maid come hurrying back with a flapping, squawking, chicken stretched out by its wings between them. I feel a little squirm in my stomach because I’ve never performed the Ritual. I’ve only ever watched. Our Maid pins the chicken down on the cutting board and my mother shouts to me to come over and do it fast. I raise the cleaver up high, and bring it down on the chicken’s neck with a crack. The chicken stops making noise but it doesn’t stop moving. Its headless body, slippery with blood, wriggles from Our Maid’s hands and thuds onto the floor.
We all scream as it stands up on its scrawny feet and takes two staggering steps towards the living room.
“Grab it!” my mother shouts. Our Maid lunges forward, arms outstretched. The chicken takes another step before it collapses, feathers a multihued pink, red and white like a Valentines Day piñata.
Our Maid grasps the chicken in her hands and dumps it next to its glassy eyed head. I stare at it, trickling blood down the side of the counter, and I feel an electrical shiver tickle me from my head to my toes. The air in front of my nose seems to shimmer slightly and I hear hissing in my ears. I feel flicking snake tongues traveling down my neck. I hurry to my bathroom and gag over the sink.
I’ve never killed something before, sure maybe a fly, or a spider, but never something bigger than my thumb. It’s a strange feeling, almost empowering, yet at the same time frightening because it makes me think about death. The scientific meaning of life is to reproduce. But what if you don’t do that? Most likely we’ll eat this chicken’s eggs and the specific order of an entire double helix of DNA will be wiped out. You have half of your parent’s DNA, and certainly even then you don’t express it all, but you have it in the nucleus of each and every microscopic cell.
I wash my hands with soap and hot water and go back to the kitchen. The phone rings and Our Maid answers it.
“Ok,” she says, and hangs up.
“Who was it?” my mother asks.
“The doorman. He said that the interior decorator is coming up.”
My mother stops plucking the chicken and stares at Our Maid. She pushes her hair back and a feather gets stuck behind her ear.
“The interior decorator?” she says slowly. “Who is that?”
“Oh,” Our Maid says.
“You’ll need to disinfect the floor as well as the countertop today,” my mother says. I watch Our Maid, in her starched black dress, throw out a wad of blood soaked paper towels. It’s strange, I realize, in the nine years she’s worked for us, never has she not known something. Never has she let me leave my English book at home, never has she not purified the water twice, never has she not brought the mail up from downstairs exactly at 4:35 pm, never has she left a spot of dust on the marble fireplace in the master bedroom.
There is a knock at the door.
“Do you want me to tell her that she has the wrong apartment number?” Our Maid asks.
“No, I’ll do it,” My mother walks over and peers through the eyehole. She steps back and puts one of her hands against the wall. When she takes it off there is a red handprint.
“Who is it?” I ask, going over to her.
She shakes her head and I move to the door.
“No!” my mother grabs my shoulder but I’ve already turned the lock. The door opens and a tall woman with a cream colored scarf wrapped around her silver hair steps into our foyer. She looks at my mother and at the handprint on the wall. She looks at the blood streaked down my jeans. She bends slightly in her high heels and looks at me.
“Hello, darling,” she says. “I’m Muriel.”