Congratulations to Bonnie Olsen for winning third place for fiction in the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest!
You can read “A Calm and Rational Story about Murder, Excellent Caretaking, and One Smart Chicken” below.
A Calm and Rational Story about Murder, Excellent Caretaking, and One Smart Chicken
One member of the animal kingdom I’ve always liked is the chicken, Gallus gallus domesticus. So when the teacher at our neighborhood school needed a new home for the lone specimen in his Gallus Maturation Project, I obliged. “Cynthia,” the students had named her, and she had been a great favorite. But she developed through the fluffy-yellow-chick stage to the gangly-awkward-pullet stage and on to full, adult chickenhood. Which is why she came to me.
We built her a coop with good, taut chicken wire plus perch and nesting box, but maybe because Cynthia had always lived in a classroom, exposed to analytical thought and problem solving, she soon learned to fly her coop. She would launch herself upward in ever higher spirals until she topped the coop’s chicken wire fence; then she’d soar — I’d never seen a chicken soar — down to the driveway, the lawn, or most often, the compost heap.
There, she’d lay her egg, and having accomplished that, she’d initiate a search for pill bugs, Armadillidiidae, and earthworms, Annelida, both of which the compost heap housed in abundance. With pill bugs, like any chicken, the instant Cynthia spotted one, she’d peck it up and gobble it down, but for Cynthia, earthworms were different. Cynthia didn’t peck Annelida; she studied them.
Using her beak, she’d nudge an earthworm gently onto the lawn, then she’d stand up tall and cock her head, scrutinizing first with one eye, then the other, as the worm performed its coiling, twisting, thrashing attempt to regain darkness and safety. Once it did, she would scratch up another worm and make a second observation. She seemed to be collecting data — a predictable result of her classroom education.
Phineas, the man who “does” for me, thought so too. “Don’t never see a chicken so smart like that,” he observed. Then he went inside to put our groceries away. When he rejoined me at the compost heap, he said, “Been some time, you know,” but this time he wasn’t talking about Cynthia. This time he was referring to my seizures.
“I suppose watching Cynthia keeps them away,” I told him. Though really, aside from one specific trigger, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to what kept my seizures away or, for that matter, what brought them on. According to Phineas, what generally happened was, I’d just “thrash around some, then sleep a while,” which makes it sound harmless enough, but my seizures were unpredictable, erratic, and severe enough to keep me from attending university or holding down a job. They were, in fact, so severe as to keep me from ever leaving this house and the one-and-a-half-acre lot around it. Phineas was the best caretaker I’d ever had, and he said doing for me is the best job he’d ever had, so we figured the two of us were a pretty good match — and now with Cynthia, the three of us.
“I got you some more them ramen noodles you like,” Phineas said, his way of reminding me it’s lunch time. I can make my own ramen if Phineas pours the boiling the water.
One day Cynthia and I were out on the porch, the two of us enjoying a bowl of ramen noodles — Cynthia can tell the difference between a squirming earthworm and squirmy ramen noodles — when all in a panic, she flew squawk-squawking away to her coop.
I was still picking noodles out of my hair when my father’s big rig zoomed up the driveway and screeched to a halt. “I’ve come for my own,” he said, drawing out a pick and shovel. By “my own,” he didn’t mean me or even this house. No, lately, my father had become convinced that my mother died withholding some kind of treasure from him, which he all-of-a sudden knew to be buried deep in some previously undisclosed location behind the house.
In the old days, my mother used to refer to him as a “reformed sociologist.” He’d been an ordinary academic right up until the day his research revealed that the lowliest independent trucker out-earns any sociologist. Right then, he’d quit the university and bought himself a rig.
He must have excelled at trucking because this family’s standard of living definitely rose, including this house-plus-workshop on a one-and-a-half-acre lot. My mother liked to build furniture — kiddie stuff mostly — for the neighborhood school. She took to saying she thought she’d married a scholar and instead, got herself a plutocrat.
By “plutocrat,” she meant my father’s increasingly disagreeable approach to improving his economic condition. He might be nursing the germ of an idea when he set off on a long haul, but without benefit of research, testing, and studied observation, by the time he returned, his germ of an idea would have blossomed into some irrational conclusion, always more wacky and disagreeable than the one before it.
Phineas joined me on the porch, being near in case I seized again. My father’s abrupt appearances generally did trigger seizures, and that day’s was bound to fall into the category of a “doozy” — which, unfortunately, it did.
By the time I recovered, my father was away on another long haul, and Cynthia had resumed her study of Annelidbehavior. Her latest hypothesis seemed to be that an earthworm dropped onto a nasturtium leaf will behave differently from an earthworm dropped onto the lawn. Our nasturtium plant had gotten out of hand anyway, and its leaves could easily be plucked by a chicken.
“She been stickin’ those leaves together,” Phineas informed me one day as I was recovering from yet another seizure, and indeed Cynthia was doing just that. She would pluck a leaf, poop on it just so, then nudge another leaf partly over the moist poop so as to make a larger surface. Another dollop of poop, another leaf, and her leaf mat would grow. When she’d got her leaf mat large enough, she’d drop a worm atop it and observe intently.
“She timin’ how long it take for the worm to get hisself to safety,” Phineas said, and that did seem to be it. We watched Cynthia perform another trial. Then another. With the third, Phineas roused himself. “You want to see that hole he done dug out back?”
I supposed I should.
My father had dug more than a hole; he’d dug a pit. I estimated its dimensions as having a radius of five feet and a depth of nearly four, though it looked deeper, because he’d been piling the dark, clay-like dug-up earth high around his pit’s circumference. Judging by the boot marks in that heap, he’d been climbing up and over it to further his digging. I seized again, another “doozy.”
Science tells us that the human brain is equipped to withstand only so many seizures, and by my own calculations, I had to be approaching that limit. The problem was, I could collect data, plot points, and draw graphs much as I liked, but no graph on earth could predict the exact day my brain would fail to recover — only that the day was fast approaching.
This time though, I did recover, and as soon as Phineas had me “up and at ’em” again, he told me, “You got to come see our Cynthia’s mat now. I been given her Elmer’s glue, works better than poop.” It certainly did. During the days I’d been “out,” Cynthia had fashioned a sizeable carpet of nasturtium leaves. “See how she keep them leaves soft and green? I puts out a pan of water, and she dip a wing in it and flutter all aroun’.”
I told him, “You know what you two have become? Scientific collaborators, that’s what.” We had a little chuckle over that, but then I sobered. “About that hole?” I had to know.
“Six feet deep now, closer to seven. He been bringin’ a ladder, winch, and bucket, no light though. Guess he got such a clear idea in his head, he don’t need light.” Phineas chuckled again, but then he said, “He be back again pretty soon — today, maybe tonight.”
I took that as warning to stay indoors, which, given my increasingly fragile state, was a very good idea. Cynthia, however seemed to take that news another way. She stopped her worm testing and stood up tall, taut, and alert, looking hard into Phineas’s eyes, which were looking right back, equally intent. They didn’t break their gaze until I started walking alone toward the house, and Phineas had to stay beside me.
I couldn’t know how many hours remained until my father’s return, and I couldn’t tell if I’d survive the seizure it triggered. I spent all the rest of that afternoon writing my will. It wasn’t long because the only treasure I could bequeath was Cynthia, and the only heir I cared to name was Phineas. But I took my time to get the wording right.
Next morning, I woke to Phineas’s voice saying, “You got . . . you got to come out back.” I’d never seen him so shaken.
My father’s big rig was parked there in the driveway, but for some reason, it didn’t trigger a seizure. Phineas and I waited to be sure, then together, we walked around to the back. By now, my father’s mound had grown so high, we had to clamber up it just to see down into the pit. Phineas kept a tight hold of me, and frankly, I kept a tight hold of him, too.
It was good I had because way down deep at the bottom lay my father’s body, horribly contorted beneath a tangle of pick, shovel, winch, ladder, and bucket. “Dead,” Phineas said, though he didn’t have to because the buzzing flies were already telling me that: Calliphoridae, a species known to sense death within minutes so as to lay their eggs within the decomposing flesh.
And as I stood atop that mound of earth, it seemed to me that a small piece of my damaged brain fell back into place, and with it, composure, confidence, and memory.
I could now remember how my mother and I had been in the workshop, building extra-tall bookcases of fine, dense walnut. Our cases would be weighty in every sense of the word.
Then my father burst in, just returned from one of his extra-long hauls and fuming with rage. “I’ve come for my own,” he’d said, referring to my mother’s inheritance from her recently deceased Aunt Muriel. The will had read, “I bequeath my most valuable treasure to my most valued niece,” and the treasure had turned out to be a great many books, most of them about zoology, all of them deserving of extra fine, tall, weighty bookcases.
But out on the road, my father had reached the conclusion that the “valuable treasure” was gold or securities or jewels, and further, that if his spouse was heir, Muriel’s treasure was his as well. So when my mother tried to explain the true nature of her inheritance, he beat her to death with a board of fine dense walnut. And on a backswing, he’d caught me too, hard on the head.
Later, I learned that my survival was “a miracle,” and that my mother and I had been found crushed beneath two toppled, unfinished bookcases, an accident. Some accident. Some miracle.
So our new house had become my convalescent ward, and the money for my university education, wages for Phineas.
I climbed back down the mound, and Phineas allowed me to walk away alone. Somehow he knew, as did I, that there would be no seizures.
I found Cynthia at the compost heap, pecking away at pill bugs and acting far too chicken-like to display the least scientific interest in earthworm behavior, leaf mat building, or, in fact, anything beyond scratching up and gobbling down the next pill bug.
It took some time for her message to sink in: it had become my turn to engage in analytical behavior. That being the case, my first step would be to locate that leaf mat. Physically speaking, it still had to exist in some real location and in some material form. I found it — or rather pieces of it — on the far side of the compost heap, beneath dense and sticker-y brambles where few would care to look. Employing great care, I collected my many specimens and transferred them to the lawn for further study. Piece-by-piece, I re-assembled that mat, examining each component in detail.
Judging by the dark, clay-like soil clinging to my re-assembled mat’s underside, it had once been in contact with the mound of earth by the pit where someone intent on entering said pit — motivated by greed and heedless of the dark — would step on it. And where he’d stepped, boot had met earthworm — quite a number of earthworms it looked like — and had slid, leaving behind a great long smear of Annelida guts.
Phineas came up behind me. “You goin’ for that university education now?”
I didn’t see why. Once I’d got my PhD, the best any university could offer would be a professorship like Aunt Muriel’s, and I already owned all her books. “No,” I told him, “I think I’ll stay right here with you and Cynthia, maybe initiate a study of the garden snail, Cornu aspersum.”
Bonnie Olsen lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, John. She really did once have a chicken that had been raised in a classroom and could fly upward in spirals.
View the list of all of the 2020 WNBA Writing Contest winners.