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first the chicken

I move my mother into the sun, and I hear a chicken. A low chicken chuckle and a
scratching rustle. In the silence, these things shout. My mother is safely propped,
loose-mouthed on her blanket. Next to her, my little brother, Bb, stands stirring the
dirt with his big toe. I put my finger to my lips for silence and I creep around the
corner of our house, towards the busy chicken scrabbling.

There is more to this than you would think. Do I kill the chicken now? Do I catch the
chicken, keep it and search for its eggs? Obvious, you might say, but I would do
anything, now, to be invisible, to be as if we had all died, to pretend there is no one
here rather than we three. A chicken can be a dangerous thing.

My village once had chickens, and cattle, once harvested fruit and vegetables. Once
had villagers. But now they lie and rot, harvested first in a sudden day of screams and
swinging knives and blood spraying in arcs and leaps and gouts and spatters on the
dust, and now by worms under a layer of soil. We, who, along with my mother and
Bb, had been so piled with the bodies and coated with their blood as to be taken for
dead, managed later to bury my friends and my neighbours, my father and my cousins
- we five who dragged all the swollen bodies stiff as rubber tyres with a thick,
swarming, buzzing following of flies to the old clearing. That was before the others
wandered off, first one, then two, then the other, in the night, in the morning, in the
afternoon, with fly-blown wounds and faces broken and blank, shuffling towards the
trees. Slipping into the trees. Swallowed by the shadows with their heads lolling. I
saw the last of them go, and turned back into the silence and my mother, sitting loose-

first the chicken

mouthed, and my brother stick-thin and dusty, his nose running and his eyes crusted
and pink.

I kill the chicken. I take it back to my mother on the blanket, and I lay it on an old tin
plate in front of her. She doesnt move, as she hasnt moved since that day, unless I
have moved her, into the sun or into the house to sleep, or away from her mess so it
can be cleaned. Its as if I wasnt there. I murmur to her, every day, to cover the
silence here, this collection of empty spaces and the earth dark with splashes in
overlapping layers inside huts and outside at their doorways, splashes that wash
fainter with each rain.

I search for eggs, and find three. I give one to Bb, who cracks it open and sucks. I
crack one for my mother and tip her head back a little, feed it to her sip by sip until
her mouth and throat are sticky. Its hard to tell if she swallows. I wipe her with the
cloth I keep tucked at my waist. I eat my own egg.

I fetch the small carry bag from the house. I sit down and start to pluck the chicken
and put the feathers into the bag. My father used to say, watching my mother pluck
birds: Never waste, girl. Waste is a sin. Your mother would keep the birds eyelashes
if it had any, and she would giggle.

I pull at feathers. My father was a little man and it didnt take long to kill him. He ran
from the field and straight to where big men slimy and shiny with sweat and grease
and blood were using my mother one by one until she was loose and limp as my rag

first the chicken

doll. Then I saw through the old crack in our wall how the blood splashed from him to
her.

I stop pulling at feathers to breathe, my face damp and sickly cold. For days
afterwards my mother rubbed at herself, little rapid movements, washing movements
maybe. But then this passed, and the trembling, and then there was no light. Her face
was filled with darkness and there was nothing. I had nothing but a mat to lie her on,
as the stuffing and feathers from our destroyed bedding blew softly away to the forest.
I look at the feathers in my hand. I hear a sigh and my mother slides to the side to lie
still, strangely unchanged though I know shes gone at last. I look at Bb. He is
looking at her and I can see he doesnt know.

Shes dead, Bb, I say, because my mother always said that little children dont
know enough to guess. Bbs eyes fill and his face squeezes up. Its all in silence, a
little wheezy, because we have learned to make very little noise. Its better, Bb,
you know, because she was unhappy, I say, and he nods but the crying goes on like
mime. He bows his head, his shoulders shake and he looks very small. His loneliness
makes me alone, and I get up, wipe the feathers still clinging to my hands and go to
him.

Hes quiet after a while and we sit cuddled together with my mothers shell crumpled
beside us. Far away in the trees an animal whoops, but here there is silence and it is, I
realize at last, the silence of emptiness, just as my mothers silence was of emptiness,
and emptiness has no hope and no hope has no future. I look around at all the little
houses that were my neighbours homes, and they stand like blank faces frozen in a

first the chicken

scream. Theyll stay that way because theyve lost their hope and their future. I can
feel Bbs warm skin, the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathes. I can see my
other hand where it rests on my knee. Its a little hand, but hard with work, and I held
it over Bbs mouth while I watched our father dying, and when I saw the men turn
toward the house I held him with it on my hip as we slipped through the doorway so
they wouldnt find us, and I pulled him with it into the mound of bodies that lay still
warm and dripping slowly into the earth, so that we looked like the dead.

I pick up my mothers body. Shes so light. Nearly vanished to nothing, and maybe
that was all she wanted. I take her to the clearing where the others are buried and I
give her her own private place, and later Bb and I sit with each other, think a bit,
talk about both of them, sing in nearly-tuneful whispers the songs she used to sing as
she beat the husks from the grain.

I wrap the chicken. I tie the neck of the little bag that carries the feathers. I gather up
the bits of vegetables that I can see; some are still lying in the field in the mud. There
are blankets, and my doll and Bbs doll, the matches, some clothes, there is a simple
snare my father made for catching wild birds and small animals. There is the water
bottle, and some water in it. We walk toward the trees and away from the village that
has lost all hope.

It is cooler here, but the heat still hangs heavy without a breeze. There is a body. I
know this man: he helped to bury my father and my cousins, I helped him to bury his
wife and three children. His neck is cut and its black with busy flies. Its cooler here
but very still and we are blinded by the fronds and leaves and bushes. There is no

first the chicken

seeing whats behind them. I am walking slowly because what I cant see is all around
us. Bb is on my hip and I hold him tight. Every sound makes me turn a circle. The
whole forest is whispering.

I can see the back of their heads. Theyre filthy with other peoples blood, talking,
chewing on other peoples food. Bb and I slip into a bush, breathing so small and
quiet its as if we are taking the air in through our skins. Were wrapped around each
other like leather thongs around an ankle. The men finish eating and move off, twigs
snapping under their feet, branches snapping as they swing their great stained knives
to clear their way. The silence folds over behind them. Theres a soft rustle because
Bb has started trembling and hes wetting the ground between his feet. Im
trembling too, and sickly cold with sweat once more, and suddenly theres a clutching
and a rush from my empty stomach and I retch again and again and again. It hurts
because my stomach has nothing to give.

Then Im quiet, I feel loose. Im light and loose with tiredness. I think: well stay in
this bush until dark, and walk in the night. Well drink water and eat some of this raw
chicken and a piece of gritty yam, and sleep in the shadow under this bush, listen to
the birds scratching and to the nonsense of the stream nearby. My father used to say
the stream spoke a lot of nonsense.

At dusk I fill the bottle at the edge of the stream. At night we begin our walk along it.

Its a long walk in the dark. Sometimes Bb walks with his thin fingers in mine and
sometimes hes on my hip. Once, we stop so I can find Bbs doll for him, feeling

first the chicken

for it at the bottom of the sack. I know his doll from mine because his has shorter hair
and one eye.

We dont talk much. What is there to say? I am thinking: we are walking from
nothing in the dark in the direction of nothing and I dont know why. I try to find the
reason in the feel of Bbs fingers. I try to feel I belong to the soft padding of our
feet. The night around us has become a soup of shadows the darkness that we move
through, and the deep, full lightlessness that crowds so close on either side. We are
walking because thats all that is left. I dont know what else to do, but I dont know
why we are doing it.

Sometimes Bb murmurs to me: Where are we going? Will we be long? So I say:


Were going somewhere better, and Not too long. Its a chant, a charm against the
black shapes of the night, and it has no meaning beyond that. He falls silent, and with
our feet padding and scuffing I think: This is too much for me. Too much, too much,
too much, too much but thats another chant that has no meaning.

Think about the small sounds of our feet.

Theres more air between the shapes; the trees have pulled back and there is sky. The
lighter pillows are clouds and in between are the tiny silver sparks of stars. And ahead
a mound of thick blackness that puzzles me, until I remember the hill my father and I
traveled to once long ago.

first the chicken

Bb asks: Whats over there? And I answer: A big hill, and Ive been to it with
dad. There was a strange town, strange people, and some big houses painted white. I
held tight to dads hand, because I was only little. There were many trees and ferns
and dad said that at the very top the air is sweeter and cooler. But we didnt go that
far. Bb and I peer through the night at the big black hill.

It makes no difference where we walk. I look up at the hill only because its there in
front of us. Its dense and black but I know its only a hill. Its so black I cant focus,
so I stare unfocussed and my feet move on, one after another. Bbs head bobs
against my shoulder, though I know hes not asleep. I stop and squint there is a
light, I can see a light, so faint it makes my eyes hurt to see it and I wonder if its
really there. A steady yellow light, close to the top of the hill. A quiet yellow light, far
away.

People, maybe, who arent afraid to show light.

Because I have stopped walking Bb lifts his head. Whats wrong? he asks, but I
say: Nothings wrong. You see that light? I can feel him searching the night. Yes,
he says. Well go there, to that light, I say. Thats where were going? I nod. Yes.
He is sitting straighter now, his head forward, and I am walking again, and theres a
strength to it because this is what we are doing: we are walking that way.

As I walk through the darkness, I think about the light. There is nothing to say if its a
good light or a bad light, but it has a story, it is a story, and everyone needs a story as

first the chicken

they travel through the night. My feet have a place to go to, and we have a story to
take us there.

Birds are talking, and though its dark I can see leaves and the outline of trees against
the sky. The night is graying and things have edges. The sky is mauve and then a
watery blue and I feel tired, tired and heavy, weighted all in a moment. Its all I can
do to find a bush for us, thick and shadowy and safe, where we eat our raw chicken
and drink our water and lie back against the sack and drop like stones into sleep.

When we wake up its that thick colour of late afternoon. We drink water and I
unwrap the chicken, but it smells now and ants have found it. I throw it off into the
bushes and find Bb a chunk of root to chew while I climb a tree for fruit. Theyre
ready and sweet and I am shaking because I need it so much, as the juice runs down
my chin. There are some in the sack for later; we wash ourselves in the stream as the
sky streaks like flame and night washes everything in violet.

I stand with my feet in the water and watch the hill through the trees turning from
wooly green to black, my stomach frightened tight, my eyes watering with the search.
I will not move until I know. The birds have stopped their goodnights; all colour has
gone and night has come, but I cant look away from there. That blank space, just
there, before the top of the hill meets the sky. Until the light flicks into life, suddenly,
warm and yellow, and I take a breath, realise I havent been breathing, and all my
muscles sing with the relief.

first the chicken

We walk and we walk, but I can see the light and my thoughts are more steady. When
we stop to eat and drink I promise to search later for meat, other fruits, maybe catch a
fish. I wonder if I can catch a wild bird. I think: If I do this in the gray of dawn or
evening, the smoke from a fire might go unnoticed. But thinking this clenches my
stomach again with fear. I have never felt so alone as now. I look up at the light. I
squeeze my eyes up there are more lights, two, maybe three: weak, winking cousins
to the stronger yellow light that has let me use it, so far, to bring us this far.

The air is cooler and sweeter, the dark is graying into dawn. We finish the fruit and
drink water. When I wake up Ill catch a bird and well wait for the gray of evening to
light a fire while I pluck the feathers and save them in the little bag, and then well
cook our food.

I catch myself thinking: one day well have a pillow.

We sleep on a mat of old leaves and moss in the shadows of ferns, with a blanket. I
hold Bb and my doll, he holds his doll and I can hear his quiet breathing.

Evening is falling and were eating. I close my eyes because there has never been
anything like this. Bb is licking every part of his fingers, and I do too, and I run my
tongue around my mouth and when we finish I stop a moment, eyes closed again to
catch that pleasure in my mouth before its washed away. I glance up at the tiny lights
twinkling up on the hill. I am fed and I exist, my brother exists, there, with his little
greasy face nearly smiling. What next? What happens after we reach the lights?

first the chicken 10

Im thinking as the night spreads around us. Im thinking what we will need to go on.
The lights have been good to us because were here now, and stronger. But this much
is clear: its not good to hope for too much, and its not good to hope for too little.

First, well see whose lights these are. I take a breath and I get to my feet.
J. Crozier 2004

2897 words

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