This short story by Linley Jones won third place in the William Taylor Memorial Heartland Short Story Competition for 2018
Alice watched the chicken fall off the back of the truck. A frenzy of feathers. A dirty white duster. She touched the brake with her toe then, noting the line-up of vehicles behind her veered hard left, mounting the footpath, dismantling a school warning sign and creating a scatter of green-clad school children who with squawks and yells and the odd swear word took cover in a prickly hedge.
In the back seat of the car Alice’s six year old twins shrieked. Her teenager skulked low in the front seat. A total clump of mortification.
‘Jeeze, Mum, what the hell are you are doing?’
Kyle, all sharp elbows, knobbly knees and sticky-out ears was trying to fold himself into the most insignificant bundle possible. Dissociating himself from any connection with her. Alice climbed out of the car and approached the scraggly, little bundle. It was white with a touch of red which she was relieved to find was not blood but a tiny comb. She scooped it up and was surprised to feel a faint heartbeat.
Just like Kyle fourteen years ago.
‘There is no heart beat … you must be prepared for the worst.’
Alice had cradled the scrap of humanity close to her heart. She breathed life-giving wisps of air into him. She whispered love in his ears. When the doctor reached for him she turned away.
‘Not yet,’ she wept, clutching the tiny bundle. It was then that she felt the heart-flutter and she knew she would fight for him forever.
She grabbed a straw hat from the boot and tucked the chicken into the crown. With a single protesting ‘puck … puck’ it settled down, as if trying to hide its tattered feathers and discombobulated feelings.
‘Who will nurse it?’ Alice draped a tee-shirt over the bird.
‘Yuk, mum, that’s mine,’ squealed Sally.
‘S’not, it’s mine,’ argued Susie. ‘Gross, there’ll be chook-poo all over it.’
Alice turned to Kyle. The slouching embarrassment of body language told her everything, there would be no help there. Exasperated she shouted, ‘Out, all of you. You can walk from here.’
‘But Mum … ‘
‘I mean it. Kyle, stay with girls, especially crossing the road.’
She watched them, the girls’ oversized backpacks hanging down below their knees. They pranced around Kyle grabbing at his hands. Alice turned back to the bird. Like Kyle, in the incubator it was so helpless. Under her gentle fingers, fragile feathers unfurled then settled down in a tidier approximation of chicken plumage.
It had been the same with Kyle’s tiny fragile limbs. The gap in the incubator allowed only one hand to reach him but she knew that to keep him alive he needed the warm touch of his mother. She stayed there day and night gently stroking each limb in turn. Simon could not persuade her to leave. The nurses insisted she needed rest but each day the delicate limbs stretched out and moved more. Ignoring her tangled hair, smelly tee-shirts and husband, all her attention focussed on Kyle.
‘The baby is also Simon’s,’ her mother reminded her. But although it was unspoken, they understood that it had to be her hand that held tight.
Alice watched Sally and Susie skittering around. Kyle plodding, stiff-backed, unreadable. Suddenly he reached out and grasped a twin, one on each side and kept them close while they waited on the kerb, looking as if he were carrying two large backpacks. How she loved him.
At home she warmed a heat pack tucking it inside the hat. Momentarily startled, the chicken stretched its neck and peered around at the unaccustomed surroundings. Then with a little squawk it bum-shuffled deeper into the straw hat and relaxed.
The day when Kyle made eye contact with her a connection was made. The mother-son bond that would never be broken – although sorely tried at times.
‘He smiled at me,’ she told anyone who might be listening. ‘He knows me.’
Simon placed his arm around her shoulders. ‘He seems to be getting stronger. Perhaps you should come home for a while.’
She shrugged him away. ‘He needs me here. I mustn’t let go of him. We need him to live and know his place in the world,’ she spoke fiercely. Kyle grew into a typical tantrumming two year old, troublesome three year old, a fearsome five year old. And now a taxing teen. He knew his place in the world alright. Alice had spelled it out for him.
Alice remembered that her grandmother used to heat water and mix it into mash for the farm chooks. Perhaps she could do the same with muesli. At the sight of the bowl the chicken rose on its lanky legs and hopped out of the hat. Everything was eaten, seeds, nuts, raisins. It then swaggered around the kitchen pausing only to peck at her feet, stretch out on tippytoes towards the ceiling emitting strangled squawks.
Twenty five years had passed since Alice and her young brother were eeling. One moment they were on the slippery bank fighting over the fishing line, the next her brother was floundering in the water. Later she overheard the arguments: ‘irresponsible girl … but she’s only eight … should have known better than to take him to the river.’ Alice had never forgotten it, the moment when his tiny hand slipped from her grasp. In a heartbeat he was gone. She had not held on tight enough.
Three thirty already. Thank goodness Kate was doing the school pickup. Two bags thumped down by the front door and the twins rushed in.
‘We‘ve brought Grace to see the chicken.’
‘Meet Charlie,’ said Alice.
Plodding footsteps started up the stairs, hesitated and returned. Charlie strutted towards the clumpy school shoes, pecking at the worm-like laces. Kyle lowered his bag and crouched before the bird.
‘You saved him, mum, you saved him.’ He looked straight into her eyes and smiled.
Yes, thought Alice, yes I did.