Dead Hens for Broken Eggs by Sara Baume

A holiday read - 12 Days of Stories, Day 4: A young woman lives on the edge


The girl opens her wardrobe. There are 14 coat hangers along the rail, 14 articles of clothing dangling from them. Coats but cardigans as well, cropped and cuffed trousers, combo skirts. She raises both hands, reaches inside, counts off the first seven and pushes them to the left, pushes the last seven to the right. The metal of the hangers squeals against the metal of the rail as they move into place; the squeal is unbearable in the same way as the sound of fingernails against a chalkboard is unbearable, the sound of steel prongs against an empty dinner plate. It’s a noise to set your teeth on edge; this is a thing her mother says, as if teeth aren’t already planted at a precipitous brink, that of a mouth, a face. As if they aren’t already the most likely components of a skeleton to wobble out at any moment, or to be bashed loose.

When the girl thinks of this, she pauses to run the tip of her tongue around the edges of her mouth. First the bottom row, then the top, counting her teeth from one to thirty-two. Now she starts to push the hanging clothes again, first the left side and then the right. Left then right until they aren’t even moving anymore, until it isn’t a push, just an ineffectual hand flap, until her arm aches and she is dizzy from divvying her head. Left then right until she allows her eyelids to fall, her body to drop down after them.

This is her 18th summer, only July and already the most interminable of her life, already the hottest. The days are arid, scalded; the nights are sleepless, airless. For the first time since she was four years old and stood a single metre high and still had all her baby teeth, she won’t be going back to school in autumn, unless she fails her exams. The only foreseeable end, the only prospect of release, is August 27th, the date upon which everything will be decided by a list of capital letters inside an electronic envelope, the tally of numbers they represent. This is her summer of dangling lifelessly, of listlessly wobbling, like a put-away winter coat on a wardrobe hanger, like a loose baby tooth in a five-summers-old jaw.

Downstairs at the kitchen table, the girl’s mother hears the thud. The radio is on, the oven fan whirring, and she is concentrating, murmuring as she concentrates like the oven fan whirrs, cooking her thoughts. The table top is overlaid with supplements from the morning newspaper, the ones she never reads. The Business, Money, Sport and Property are spread open, smoothed out and scattered with tens of pieces of pottery from the early medieval period. Green-glazed and chunky, crackled all over like the veins of fat in a joint of beef, like an entanglement of lesser roads on a route map. She is trying to fix the pieces together, trying to reassemble some sort of ancient vessel. A jug, a pot, a condiment dish; she doesn’t know yet. And when she hears the thud, she takes it to be a foot stamped or a book dropped, just some small, ordinary part of life.

The girl never really blacks out, only pretends to, never bangs her head or bashes her teeth loose. She ensures to fall only when she is inside the house, so the ground is always carpet and never cement. Her brain guides her closed eyes and body safely to the yielding surface and she finds the bruises only once too much time has passed to remember the precise occasion which created them. Each fall is an end she has decided upon, a small mercy she shows herself. And after each end, each mercy, she gets up and continues with all the small, ordinary parts of life, for a little while, at least.

Inside the house, for as long as the girl is able to remember, there’s been a bone room. At the far end of the landing, beside the toilet, the spare bed removed. Her mother lays down shiny tablecloths. They are water and stain resistant, patterned with flowers and fruit and farmyards, butterflies and bluebirds and birthday cake. Their patterns seem strange beneath the time-knobbled, mud-scarred artefacts which her mother arranges on top, not all bones, but bits of ceramic as well, of earth-rusted metal, solidified leather. Of those that are bone, most belonged to animals; fish and bird skeletons are too fine-spun to survive centuries squashed inside the sodden soil. Her mother knows how to identify the imprint of ancient cleavers, how to tell whether a bone broke as soon as the animal died, or if it broke in the sodden soil, centuries after. In order to earn pocket money, the girl has spent many past summers hunched over the bathtub with a frazzled toothbrush. Scrubbing, scraping, scouring out her mother’s artefacts, and once they were dry enough, inscribing numbers in special pen, painting over the pen with colourless nail varnish, shellacking number to surface for centuries more. Sometimes, during those summers, she’d recognise a human bone. Criminals and unbaptised babies and people who committed suicide weren’t allowed in the graveyards, her mother says, they were buried beyond the walls instead, exiled. Because these graves are unmarked, they’re more likely to get mingled with the animals, and to end up here, in our spare room.

The girl’s father lives in Canada. He went to find work and found, as well as work, a new wife and daughter, even a bonus boy. The girl has never been there; whenever she pictures it, she pictures sky-scraping maples in the snow. Even when she sees her father on Skype in his printed T-shirts, a scene of bridges, balconies, blinking lights behind his sun-browned face and sun-bleached hair, even though she knows Canadian summers are much hotter even than this hot summer, in her head, in Canada, beneath the maples, it is snowing, snowing always.

Both her parents have unfailing faith that the girl will pass her exams and go to college in the autumn; this is why her mother is trying to teach her how to cook. Her mother cooks basic, cooks adequate, cooks the same five nutritious dinners every week and believes it’s perfectly acceptable to have frozen pizza on a Friday night and French toast on a Sunday. Her kitchen utensil of choice is the handheld blender; every one of her dinners require its use. There’s something alchemical about the blender, her mother says, the way it transforms otherwise food-like jumbles into an unfamiliar substance, a professional slop. Now the girl hears her mother calling up the stairs, calling for her to come and help with the preparation of dinner. She straightens herself, counts the steps on her way down. There are 13, and she hates this fact, and the fact she can’t do anything about it, that she must count them anyway, that there will always be 13. In the kitchen, her mother hands her a deep bowl of diced and jumbled food. She seasons and stirs as she’s been shown, lifts the blender from the cupboard, plugs it in, presses the socket switch and then the blend button. It begins its detestable buzzing, a noise to set your teeth on edge; as well as a faint zinging up through her wrist, the same sort of sensation as biting down on tin foil. As solids begin their metamorphosis into slop, she counts the presses, beats out the rhythm of the buzzing in her head. Buzz buzz buzz. Buzz buzz buzz.

This, her 18th summer, has supplied no particular subjects to study, no excavated detritus to clean, to codify. This, her 18th, is, instead, a summer of pushing, pulling, touching, tapping, counting and keeling over, irrationally yet methodically. Sometimes she feels submerged by stupid thoughts; other times she is cast adrift by a great nothingness. In the evenings, she sits on the living room sofa instead of on the upright chair where she sat all year long, in front of the television instead of in front of her bedroom desk, her open textbooks. She watches the news, watches how, on any given day, people fall prey to catastrophic ill luck. People are starved, drowned, injured, exiled; people lose limbs, lose loved ones, lose their lives. And even though she knows it’s stupid, these past few weeks, she’s come to think, to believe, that their ill-luck has something to do with her. With pushing, pulling, touching, tapping, counting, keeling over. And that she possesses a mysterious ability to prevent it.

The summer after her father left, her mother bought a dome-shaped tent, as if a camping trip might compensate for a father, as if experiences can replace people, simple as that. They drove until the fields stretched up into mountains, until her mother started to sing: I can see the sea! They stopped off to look at stones: standing ones, carved ones, ones stacked up into burial tombs. They erected the tent in a campsite attached to a farmyard which twitched with loose hens, pecking and parading, jabbering to themselves, worriedly. The farmer told her how the fox came every couple of nights and stole one, then he gave them a huge box of free eggs and her mother made French toast every evening over several stones set into a circle for lighting camp fires. They stayed four nights, and on the last one, the girl dropped an egg while she was helping to prepare dinner. It smashed against the fire stones, and the next morning the farmer told her how the fox had come and taken a hen, his favourite, one of the speckled ones. In a sunless corner of the girl’s mind, she formed the idea that every time an egg was broken, a hen would die, that the previous night’s dead hen had been her fault. And over the years, this idea distended and deviated, until she believed completely that every blunder, howsoever small, resulted in an act of retribution, even if she didn’t witness it for herself, even if it happened very far away, in a country she’d never even heard of, exacted against a total stranger.

As soon as dinner is ready, her mother shifts the outspread newspaper down the kitchen table, clearing just enough space for two plates and two water glasses, for two sets of elbows to manoeuvre a knife and fork alongside one another. Then she serves the vegetables and chickpea burgers, and as they eat, she talks about bones and ruins and people who’ve been dead for such an incredibly long time there’s nothing but a single charred scrap to show they existed at all. The girl sees how her mother’s attention wavers back to the pieces of pottery as she talks; she sees how her mother’s mind is still trying to fit them together, to fix whatever the broken thing was. The girl chews, and suddenly starts to count the chews, to co-ordinate them. First one side, then the other. Left, right, swallow, and again. She tells herself she can’t start doing this, that if she starts doing this, every meal will be 10 hours long. But still she counts, co-ordinates. Left, right, swallow, and again. Because this is how it works: as soon as the thought evolves, occurs, attacks, she has to execute it. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think, she thinks. But it’s already too late.

When she wakes up in the morning, she wakes up tired, and doesn’t understand why, when all she’s done all summer long is think, and try not to think. She doesn’t understand how a busy brain can wear legs out, and yet this is what it feels like, as she lifts one after the other out of her pyjama bottoms, into her socks, her jeans. She crosses the carpet, opens the door of her wardrobe. There are 14 coat hangers along the rail, 14 articles of clothing dangling from them, but she won’t be wearing any one of these articles today, nor any day. These clothes are only for dangling, for counting, for pushing to the left and right. She raises both hands, reaches inside.

Across the hallway, in the bathroom, this time, her mother doesn’t hear the thud. The shower is roaring; the wall-mounted fan heater is burring, and she is singing. First a line or two, followed by some words which are not the real words, followed by some sounds which are not words at all; now her mother is singing the part which is only music. Up again the girl gets, lifts one cumbrous leg after another into her slippers, propels them down the staircase. The pottery is still laid out across the kitchen table, but the glaze seems to her somehow less green than it did last night, as though the second they were pulled from the medieval earth, they began to fade, as though the 21st century has already started to erase them. Her mother has succeeded in sticking only three together, and there’s still no telling what sort of vessel it was. A jug, a pot, a condiment dish.

The thought of breakfast makes the girl run the tip of her tongue around the edges of her mouth. First the bottom row, then the top, counting her teeth from one to thirty-two. A smoothie, she thinks, so that I don’t have to chew. She gathers fruit, yoghurt, juice all together in the deep bowl. The blender is still lying on the draining board from last night. She pokes out the crusted residue ringing the stem of the blade with a different blade, a paring knife. She plugs it in. Buzz buzz buzz. Buzz buzz buzz. The banana pulps; the yoghurt bubbles; the nectarine’s skin is clawed to pieces, disseminated into tincture. The colour of their alchemy is pinkish orange, like a clement sunset. Now a strand of the girl’s hair falls from behind her ear where it had been tucked, hangs over the countertop, swings. It makes her wonder what would happen if it got caught up by the blender, drawing her face down into the deep bowl, the spinning blade. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think, she thinks. But it’s already too late. This is just how it works.

She flicks her hair into the clement sunset. Dead hens for broken eggs.

Sara Baume is the author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Tramp Press) and winner of the Hennessy New Irish Writing and Davy Byrnes Short Story awards

Morten Morland is a Norwegian political cartoonist and illustrator whose work is regularly featured in The Times and the Spectator.

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