There once was a woman named Andrea whose family kept four chickens in a small coop in their backyard. Andrea’s wife Stephanie had convinced the family that keeping chickens was a good idea, and it had been good, by and large. The eggs were delicious, and the children loved watching the birds peck and scratch.
The family took turns feeding and watering the chickens, spreading diatomaceous earth to keep the smell down, and replacing the straw. Andrea hated taking her turn with the chickens: their beady eyes, so vacant and yet so expectant; their sharp claws, ever scratching at the dirt; the pungent tang of their droppings. She always tried to trade chores with the other members of the family. Most of the time she was able to avoid chicken duty, but not always, and so it was that one morning her alarm clock went off before the sun came up and she had to rise for chicken-tending.
Andrea sighed and went out into the dewy dark backyard to feed and water the chickens and gather eggs. She put the eggs (only two this morning) into her little basket and squatted down to fill the chickens’ water. As she was bent down, Doris– a beautiful black-and-white Barred Plymouth Rock hen– hopped up onto the shoulder of her purple robe.
“Bok buk bugok,” said Doris.
“Agh shit,” said Andrea, and quickly stood up. Doris came up with her, and shifted her head to look Andrea right in the eye.
“Bok,” said the chicken.
“Uh, hello, Doris,” said Andrea. She regarded the chicken on her shoulder, and Doris regarded her right back.
Slowly, Andrea reached into her robe pocket and pulled out her phone. She opened the camera and lifted it up, taking a few selfies in quick succession, while thinking about potential captions for the internet. Tough-guy face for the first one, maybe with the caption “Who you callin’ chicken?” For the second, Doris looked kind of sad, so Andrea grinned big; “The Egg-ony and the Egg-stasy.” For the third, Andrea licked her lips and stared wide-eyed at Doris. Caption: “My Dinner With Andrea.” She could look at the selfies again inside, and post the best one. As she slipped the phone back into her robe pocket, Doris darted forward and buried her entire head in Andrea’s ear.
Andrea screamed and fell backwards into the straw. Doris scrabbled for purchase and maintained a grip on the robe, but let out a startled “BUK BOK BUGOK!” The clucking echoed, unbearably loud, inside Andrea’s head. Immediately, a horrible burning and itching started; Doris pecked around inside Andrea’s cranium, and little neck feathers brushed maddeningly against Andrea’s inner ear. Doris, in all the thrashing, yanked down the collar of the robe and buried a set of talons into Andrea’s bare shoulder. Andrea screamed again and reached up and around, wrapping her hands around the bird’s neck and midsection, lifting it away.
The head stayed put, and Doris’ body stopped short. “BUK BUGOK,” Doris hollered into Andrea’s head, and shat all over the robe. Andrea closed her eyes and tried not to panic. If she freaked out and yanked too hard, she could kill the chicken, and then she’d have a dead hen wedged headfirst in her ear. Worst of all, if she pulled hard enough, the chicken head might actually detach, tick-like, and remain buried, dripping its own thick blood down Andrea’s neck.
The other three birds watched calmly from the yard.
Andrea reached up with the arm closest to Doris and held the bird’s body down tight against her shoulder, preventing further clawing and scrabbling. With the other hand, she reached up and followed the chicken’s neck as far as she could, until she hit her own ear. The entire skull was inside her head. The clucking continued unabated. Andrea carefully folded her fingers over the top of the chicken’s neck and pressed the meat of her thumb against her temple, applying gentle but steady pressure out and away.
After thirty seconds of itching and crowing, there was a loud popping sound, almost exactly like squeezed bubblewrap, and Doris’ head came loose. Andrea threw the chicken onto the ground, where it looked at her with an expression as close to surprise as a chicken’s face can muster. Doris’ head was caked with viscous yellow earwax.
Immediately, Andrea decided that she could tell no one. She wiped Doris’ head off with a paper towel as best she could and went about her business. She brought in the eggs. She put the robe, bloody and spattered with Doris droppings, into the washer. She showered, spending a lot of extra time with a Q-Tip, and pulled out three large feathers and five small ones. She deleted all of the chicken-selfies. She vomited and got dressed; got the children up, fed, and clothed; dropped them off at school, and went to work.
While listening to a PowerPoint presentation that morning, Andrea heard a single muted cluck. She yelped and shoved her chair back from the table, scuffling backwards and drawing glances. After coming to her senses, she played it off as an insect crawling up her ankle. She tried to resume learning about the benefits of a particular bookkeeping software, but her mind was elsewhere.
The clucks kept coming, each one slightly different; there were long pauses between them at first, but the intervals grew shorter and shorter until they rang through her head every few seconds. Andrea left work at noon. The closer she got to her home, the louder they became, until she found herself in the backyard staring at Doris.
“What did you do to me, Doris?”
The chicken looked at her, then pecked at the ground.
“How do I stop this, Doris?” asked Andrea.
“Bugok,” said Doris, and the sound echoed like a fart in a cathedral, resonating and filling Andrea’s entire awareness. She fell to her knees.
Something needed to be done. As soon as she could stand, Andrea got a hatchet out of the shed. She carried Doris, seemingly-unconcerned, over to a stump, and braced her with one hand. With the other, she quickly brought down the blade. Doris’ head flopped onto the grass, and her thin little legs kicked and flailed in the air. The clucking in Andrea’s head stopped immediately.
“Oh, thank goodness,” said Andrea. She couldn’t bring herself to pluck Doris– just the thought of eating her caused an awful bout of heartburn– so she gently placed the corpse in the garbage on the curb, and went inside for a bubble bath and two bottles of wine. She was pretty well recovered by the time Stephanie and the kids came home. No one had yet noticed Doris’ absence.
Andrea couldn’t even look at the beef in the fridge, and so she and Stephanie made vegetarian dinner: quinoa and lentils in spicy red sauce, with broccoli on the side. The family watched an animated movie, by the end of which Andrea felt almost normal (despite finding a feather in her hair). The kids went to bed. Shortly thereafter, Andrea and Stephanie did too.
Andrea half-woke in a sweat at two-thirty in the morning. The bottoms of her feet itched and burned red-hot, as though she’d walked through poison ivy barefoot. Under the covers, she reached down and scratched, her long nails digging at her soles, trying to find some relief but not wanting to enter full wakefulness. God, it felt good. She scratched and scratched, the relief intensely satisfying, until her fingers slid under the calloused flesh of her soles and touched the dozens of scaly chicken feet beneath.
Illustrations by the lovely and talented Bill Latham. Special thanks to Grace C. R. and DW Fitzgerald, and their bizarre dreams.