Fiction James Cawkwell Literature

What Came First

It started when the bylaws changed, allowing anyone in the suburbs to own and raise chickens. My mom was unemployed at the time, which was common enough in our neighbourhood. She also had two thirds of an agriculture degree, which wasn’t. She worked when she felt like it and didn’t when she inevitably lost it on a coworker. I think she used all her patience in her first years as a housewife, raising me and my sister.

“You girls cost me my career,” she said once, sighing while stroking my hair when I was throwing up at two a.m. Technically, I had made myself throw up, but I didn’t want to give that away when I woke her up. “Keep it down,” she hushed, “your father has work early tomorrow.”

I couldn’t, and she sighed again, rubbing my back. “I’m not going back to work this time,” she explained. “Sister Ellen says something is coming.” I groaned, and it wasn’t just my sickness rotting me inside out. My mom was always riding the edge of the end of the world, which she believed was flat. “We’ve got to be ready for it,” she continued. “I’m going to teach you kids about responsibility if it kills me.”

I slept in the bathroom after she wrapped a blanket around me. We got up with my dad and his alarm. Instead of breakfast, I drank a litre of tea sweetened with honey. My mom explained the plan to my dad. As he drank coffee in silence, my sister and I built a coop. We attempted to build a coop, I should say—we didn’t really have the skill set, even though our mom insisted we “never rely on men.” Not that either of our parents had a lot of practical skills.  A lady at our church who lived on an acreage and owned a ton of chickens sold us five chicks, in line with the bylaw of “no less than three, no more than six.”

The fifth one died before we could name her. We had the heat light and the temperature gun, and we checked the other four every twenty minutes, sleeping in shifts, making sure the rest would live. We named them, because it felt like a good omen. We baptized each one with an eyedropper of warm water, “Mary, Alice, Judy, May,” and we tied tiny pieces of coloured yarn around every left ankle so we’d remember who was who.

When our dad, in a rare good mood, first came home to the chickens he asked, “How are the Ladies?” and my sister replied, “Four out of five are doing great.”

I helped my dad double bag the unnamed fifth chick, putting her out for the garbage man. We came in from the back alley, and my mom shouted out, “Dear, did you pick up eggs?”

I saw him grimace, then steel his spine. Fuck. “Let’s go,” he said, with a kind of wry humour.

“Did you forget? Seriously?” My mom shouted.

“It doesn’t matter,” my dad muttered to himself. “It doesn’t—”

“Some of us need to eat, you know! I try to do one nice thing for this family—”

“Don’t bother, I’m going.” I followed my dad to the car, and we drove in silence. We got eggs and flowers for my mom, tiger lilies, and then sat in that same silence in our driveway.

“I love you kids but you sure don’t make anything easy.” I just kept looking at my feet and he poked me in the belly, trying to make me smile. “Honestly, you girls could try to skip a few meals. Wouldn’t hurt.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The other ladies grew feathers that snuck in among yellow fluff. They liked us, I think. They curled into us, and we tucked them between two hands, cradling them, gently providing secure pressure. They demanded it, pressing up against our hands, squawking when we let them go too early. They had such fast little heartbeats.

My sister brought some of her friends over, because they didn’t believe we’d ever be allowed any pets, let alone four. One of them, Jane, cradled Mary with far too much force, and flinched when Mary pooped in her hands. Jane broke Mary’s little neck and some of the half-grown-in feathers. This time I made my sister double bag Mary, who we spoke our own rites over, and buried in the park in a small cluster of trees. No one could see what we were doing, even if they could see us. Privacy was a loose idea back then.

“Mary died,” I told my mom after losing to my sister at rock-paper-scissors. “It was an accident.” I wasn’t sure if she was going to yell at me. She didn’t seem to have the energy, but you could never be too careful.

“Well it’s a good thing we haven’t registered the flock yet.” She sighed and crossed herself. “Don’t tell the ladies at church that you killed the one named Mary.” We renamed May to Mary, referring to her as May-ry the Second, but only when we were both happy and alone. On the coop we painted “a cord of three strands,” which was a verse that always felt like an in-joke between my sister and me. The Ladies, as they became widely known, were a hit. Still, we didn’t let anyone else pick them up. Their feathers grew in properly, and their beaks hardened into the dangerous things that carried salmonella, passed down from the dinosaurs, if you believe in that sort of thing.

And then it started snowing.

I had seen snow before. But the first fourteen years of my life were mostly an endless summer, and now the snow wouldn’t stop.

It was pretty, at first. School was cancelled. I had Lacey over, and it ended up being a sleepover, because no one felt safe driving her home. Then she stayed for three days, because the snow just kept coming. I knew what it was. It was another flood. My stomach sank with guilt.

We went to the hen house together, and she was patient with The Ladies. She held her hand out and didn’t flinch even when May bit her, just a little.

“They’re magnificent,” she said, staring at my lips. I blushed, we went inside, and I made us scrambled eggs for breakfast, because Lacey deserved to eat, even if it was the only thing I could reliably cook.

“—And the news still talks about global warming!” my mom said over the phone to Lacey’s mom, reassuring her that yes, it’s more than okay for Lacey to stay as long as she needs.

Lacey rolled her eyes, because she knew how I felt about my mother. She whispered to me, “It’s called climate change, and this is a fucking change in the climate.” It was the first time I laughed since deciding I was the cause of God’s wrath.

So Lacey stayed, wearing my clothes and looking better than I ever did in them. She was beautiful like that. Once the snow stopped long enough for cars to make it back on the road, Lacey went home. I watched her mom’s car until it was gone for good. She forgot her hoodie, having worn my clothes home, so it seemed like an even trade if I wore hers. My sister was in the coop petting May, who curled up next to her. They looked peaceful.

Then she looked up at me with tears in her eyes and asked, “Do you think the snow was our fault? For killing Mary?”

I sat down next to her, knowing I would be picking hay out of my pants for the rest of the day. “I don’t know. But it’s stopped snowing. Maybe it’ll be over soon.”

I couldn’t look at her, so we sat in silence on opposite sides of May.

She said, “If God knows everything, he should know we didn’t mean for anything bad to happen.”

“I don’t know if it works that way.”

“That’s dumb.” Then May bit her on the hand and the look my sister gave that chicken had me laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. 

◊ ◊ ◊

Without my guilt choking me, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much better Lacey looked in my clothes than I did. I knew the cold was helping me burn more calories. I wasn’t trying to stop eating, but there was less food around with the panic around the snow, and my dad had more work now that the snow was everywhere. My mom was volunteering everyday at church trying to keep people warm. My sister and I were alone and normally, I’d get the three eggs of the day, and wash them in the special sink by the backdoor. Normally, I’d make scrambled eggs and toast for the two of us.

I started hiding the third egg. I would tuck it in the reusable egg carton in the fridge, but then my sister would complain she was hungry and get out the third egg and add it in herself. So I started dropping it on the coop floor. I tried to make it hit the really dirty parts too, with lots of wood shavings and shit stains. This one time, I threw it down, and the pieces of the eggshell went everywhere, and my sister shouted my name, complaining she was hungry, so I didn’t bother cleaning it up.

I made scrambled eggs with only two eggs, and gave her the bigger half, so really, it was like she was eating her normal egg and a half. I buttered her toast extra thick, and didn’t put any on my own. I cut up some carrots, clearly giving myself the bigger half of those. This was both a bribe and an offering of the illusion that my plate was full. I didn’t stare at the fluffy pile of eggs on her plate. She didn’t call me on it.

My mom came home late that night, after we had gone to sleep. But she was there in the morning: I woke up to her screams coming from the back door. I ran down to the hen house in my pajamas. There were three eggs, all on the floor of the coop, smashed by the hens themselves, who were pecking at them. Devouring their own eggs. The yolks ran down the slightly slanted floor of the coop.

When my mom Googled what on earth could have happened, the Internet said that once chickens got a taste of their own eggs, they just couldn’t help themselves. The Ladies saved me by eating all the remains of that first egg, even the shell. My mom couldn’t figure out what had happened, how they got that first taste.

She called the lady in our church who gave us the chicks, telling us they were demon-sent, and then put the chickens in a box, and drove out to that acreage. It was out of the city, where it’s perfectly legal to kill all the chickens you want. They killed every single chicken from that same batch of chicks: we went through our whole supply of grocery bags double bagging them.

The snow stopped falling and it didn’t come back. My stomach didn’t feel any better, it was a new pain from trying to eat enough. Our henhouse collapsed and rotted in the backyard. My mom got another job. She seemed excited about it. She always did.

I took Lacey to Mary the First’s secret grave in the park, once the last of the snow melted. She demanded we put flowers on her grave, so we went looking for dandelions and ended up stealing daisies from my neighbour’s flower box. Lacey tucked one behind my ear and then reached down to hold my hand. Her hand was warm. She was staring at my lips again. We had the most privacy I ever had back then, in those trees where no one could really see what we were doing.

I kissed her. She tasted like fruit gum and beeswax chapstick. We broke apart when Lacey shivered. She was smiling. We had been so excited that the snow was gone we had left without jackets on. We laughed about it as we walked home. I was still smiling even though Lacey had let go of my hand. Despite how I was used to feeling about hunger, wanting wasn’t entirely unpleasant. It was my first spring and I was already hungry for more—time and memories and springs and kisses.


James Cawkwell is a disabled, queer, and trans author. He is currently studying English and Psychology at the University of Alberta. Some of his other work can be found in Glass Buffalo, Half a Grapefruit, and MoonPark Review. James is passionate about gender, science fiction, and Lucky Charms. He can be found on Twitter @jelliot_ames.