A Thousand Needle Stings

 

I came home from work one night and found Herrisch strutting in circles with a hair comb stuck in her feathers. She’s our alpha hen — her name means “bossy” in German — and she was kicking her raw-looking feet in fits of humiliation. There’s some irony here, the hen wearing a comb like a rooster when the rooster was dead. It took ten minutes to corner her and set her free.

As I walked back to the house, Berndt appeared at the door and asked if he should call the kids to help me.

“I got it,” I said, waving the comb.

He cupped his palm around the stub that used to be his other arm, and I turned away. “Any news?” he asked, meaning my office job at Well-Chem, which the employees called Hell-Chem, the way they used to call Miss Horace Miss Whore Ass in high school. Many of them had never left Fulton County, except for school trips to Chicago and Springfield.

“Safe for now.” I would wait until later to tell him about the twelve who got let go.

 

The next night, it was jingle bells. Someone had pulled them off the Christmas wreath and made a necklace for Komisch — German for “funny.” She sounded like a reindeer pecking in the yard.

I wouldn’t have minded or even questioned any of this — with four kids, there’s a lot you don’t question — except the elementary school had called and said Cassie was doing the same types of things to Edward Hopper, the class rabbit. Last week she’d put rubber bands on its tail, and now she’d tied a scarf around its ears. It made me uncomfortable to imagine the teachers talking about my youngest daughter. Some of them had been my teachers, too, and probably still thought of me as the dreamy, inattentive girl I’d once been.

“We think this is about Felicia,” the teacher told me on the phone. “Cassie’s strange behavior started right after she died.” The teacher was new, just out of college, and you could tell she didn’t have children of her own.

“Have any of the other kids been acting — funny?” I asked.

“No, but Cassie had a special connection with Felicia.”

I nodded as if I knew, as if the woman could see me. Cassie hadn’t mentioned Felicia until the tumor was public knowledge, and even then she didn’t talk about her much. For months the teacher forwarded health updates to the parents, and for another few weeks after Felicia stopped coming to school. The whole town attended the funeral, and it was as horrible as you’d expect, but I didn’t think Cassie had a special connection. If anyone did, it was my son, Jacob, and his connection was to the dead girl’s sister. He’d taken her to the winter formal.

The teacher kept talking. “You probably know Cassie has an imaginary friend now—”

“She’s always had one.” It was her way of compensating for the bond between her twin sisters.

“— named Felicia.” The teacher paused. “Cassie said Felicia put the scarf on the rabbit.”

 

The chickens were Berndt’s idea. He’d grown up on a farm in Germany, and said they made him feel more at home here in Crestfall, Illinois. Plus, he could feed them and collect their eggs with one hand. He said it was the only job he could manage now, and I said no, that isn’t true. He said well, this was the least he could do, and I agreed with that.

He’d turned the chicken coop into a family project. Before the accident, I would have urged him to hire someone instead. I’d always favored handymen, babysitters, and paying extra for assembly and installation. But he liked us to do things on our own, and once he mentioned something in front of the kids, there was no turning back. That’s how we ended up bringing our kids on our tenth anniversary trip to Memphis, and it’s how we ended up with mismatched legs on our brand-new dining room table — Berndt cracked the originals while screwing them in with the wrong drill bit, the kids sitting around him, helping.

Financially, do-it-yourself was our only option now, even though Berndt could do less for himself than ever before. But while sealing our own driveway and patching our own roof would save money, producing our own eggs would not. In fact, it would cost us. I didn’t realize this until after Berndt downloaded a blueprint and ordered the lumber, and by then it was too late. The twins, Rachel and Robyn, had already sketched a paint motif of ringed planets that looked like fried eggs, which I found disturbing but also clever. So, for four weekends straight last spring, Jacob and I measured and sawed and hammered, while Berndt and the three girls turned the structure into a galaxy for our back-ordered flock of Red Stars, Black Stars, and White Giants.

If I stood on Berndt’s right side while he rolled paint onto the wood, I couldn’t see his stump. I could almost forget for a while.

 

When the twenty-five chicks arrived in the mail, I dug out my old German textbook and started looking for names. Chapter three was all about opposites, and the exercise at the end asked you to pick which word describes the cartoon above it. Gut oder schlecht? Glücklich oder traurig? Faul oder fleißig? The last one was my favorite because you could tell it was the Germans’ favorite, too: Lazy or industrious? They emphasized this question over all the others, giving it its own page and a larger font, as if they wanted you to consider the lifelong implications. The picture showed a fat kid slumped in a chair — definitely faul, which I spelled “foul” and sometimes “fowl,” which is why I barely passed the course. The Germans wanted you to be fleißig, a skinny kid furiously scribbling in a notebook — spelling correctly, no doubt — a word so efficient, the two S’s ran together and became one symbol.

We tried to be efficient. We reused paper towels, watered down the kids’ milk, wore our clothes a few extra times between washings. But Berndt’s disability check wasn’t enough. My paycheck wasn’t enough. And selling eggs in the break room at work wasn’t enough.

I’d killed Fleißig first, out of spite. It had taken me all of Christmas break to work up the nerve, but it wasn’t so bad once I caught her. She made a stringy divan and a gamey soup. The rooster — Schwartzie — had died next, but that was the coyote’s doing, not mine. I needed to replace him, or at least order more chicks, or we’d run out of meat before long.

Komisch would be next. I’d remove the head first, then the jingle bells.

 

I tried talking to Cassie about Felicia while the chicken pot pie cooled on the stove. I got as far as asking how she liked her teacher these days, and then the front door slammed and in walked Jacob with Felicia’s sister, Marcy. She’s one of those girls who looks like a spoon — concave and silver-plated. Jacob was a knife standing next to her.

“She’s staying for dinner,” he said, straightening his posture and daring me to fight him on it. I had a rule that the family had to eat together, and when Berndt went on disability I’d made a second rule about not inviting friends to eat with us. But Jacob didn’t have many friends, and Marcy was the first girl he’d brought home.

“You’re always welcome here,” I told her. It was something another mom would say. Jacob’s eyes narrowed. He was always calling me out on sounding fake. But I couldn’t help it. It had been a tough year. I was trying to make up for it.

“How’ve you been doing, Marcy?” I asked, the words coming slowly. “And your parents?”

“Okay, I guess.” She rested her fist on the counter, trying to look casual.

It’s strange talking to someone you met at a funeral, when her face was streaked and sallow. I’d seen pictures since then, of course, from the winter formal — Jacob in Berndt’s tweed jacket and a second-hand tie that matched his gray eyes, Marcy a foot shorter in a strapless dress the color of wasabi. I’d asked if they were dating, and he’d glared at me.

I put an extra plate on the counter for Marcy — I don’t set tables — and told her what we were having, afraid there wouldn’t be enough. I called upstairs for Berndt and the girls, feeling as I often did that he was one of them now — and that the shadow in the corner was not Jacob, but a non-load-bearing part of the architecture.

“I don’t eat meat,” Marcy said, and I felt relieved for the first time in months.

 

They say one of the most humane ways to kill a chicken is to turn it upside down and wait for it to get disoriented. Then slit its throat, let the blood drain out, and put it in ice water. I do it at night behind the shed so no one sees.

I’m holding Glücklich by her feet, waiting for the nerves to stop twitching, when Jacob comes out of the woods. He stops when he sees me there with my camping lantern and puts the joint behind his back. It’s warm for February. He’s only wearing a sweatshirt.

“I was wondering where that smell was coming from,” I say. “Must be nice to have money for that.”

“I have a job.”

I’ve gone so far as to ask Berndt if we should take a cut of Jacob’s snow-shoveling and lawn-mowing money. We could do it as a loan and pay him back when things get better. But he said no, and he’s right. I know that.

Jacob is so much like Berndt — that same cool distance — it scares me. I want him to be careful. To slow down. Take deep breaths. I will say these words if he asks about the chicken, and whether we’re going to be okay, if we’ll make it or not. But he doesn’t ask. He pinches the end of the joint and walks back to the house. He’s a man now, broad in the shoulders, yet he will eat his dinner and sleep in his bed and not think about what tomorrow will bring. I want to scream at him for taking it all for granted. For thinking I’d let him get away with the pot, but also for making me waste energy punishing him when there are bigger problems to solve.

But when he pauses at the door, I can see that he is already thinking about tomorrow, that he knows about the bigger problems, and my anger drains into this bucket of blood at my feet.

 

Marcy started showing up at dinnertime a couple nights a week. She brought her own food, in baggies — baby carrots, grapes, dried apricots — things that represent body parts in children’s Halloween games. Fingers, eyeballs, ears. I wondered if this was her lunch and what then, if anything, she ate in the middle of the day.

I’d started skipping lunch myself because they’d cut my hours at work. They only needed someone to answer phones in the mornings now. When I left each day at noon, I recorded an outgoing message with the date and our signature sign-off: “Keeping you well at Well-Chem.” The first day they told me to do it again and try to sound cheerful. So I did. Good enough, they said.

At dinnertime, Rachel and Robyn sat with me at the table, scribbling notes to each other on a napkin, and Cassie and Jacob ate next to Marcy on the floor by the TV. I used to have a rule about not watching it during meals, but I’d stopped caring. Eating was easier with a laugh track. Jacob and Berndt stared at the screen, opposing forces in the room — the boy steady as a stone while his father wobbled through dinner, cutting his meat with a fork on a rickety tray table. Cassie moved closer to Marcy to get out of his way.

“Maybe Marcy doesn’t want you leaning on her while she eats,” I said. Cassie turned her wide eyes up to me. She was wearing one of my old Save the Ales T-shirts, only slightly too big on her.

“It’s all right,” Marcy said, and Cassie pressed against her. Cassie had never acted like this with anyone else, not even her sisters. I worried that Cassie would say something about Felicia, or start talking to the air, but she kept quiet, aside from complimenting Marcy’s chain-link earrings and wire shoelaces. I watched Cassie, and Cassie watched Marcy, and an amazing thing happened — Marcy put her arm around my daughter and squeezed. Marcy’s sleeve lifted along her onion-thin skin, and there it was — a mottled bruise. A shadow of a hand. You could see the marks where fingers had dug into her bicep. My heart skipped a beat. No wonder she’d rather eat old grapes on our living room floor than go home to her family.

 

On Saturday morning I watched Berndt feed the chickens. He looked like an old man, bending to the bucket in his faded trench coat, slinging corn and leftover spaghetti across the dead grass. Like the men in the park he never wanted to become — the ones who fed pigeons outside his old apartment in Chicago. We used to sit on his balcony with mugs of coffee and watch them, wondering what it would be like to live your whole life in one city block. I was the one who made him move to Crestfall and build this house. It was either that or give up my parents’ land. He said he didn’t mind, said it was like the place he’d grown up, but he didn’t have to tell me he wasn’t ready to go back to that. He was a man who needed his circle to swing wide for decades before returning to the point where it had begun.

Looking back, the accident seemed inevitable. He hadn’t known how to live with two arms in this town. He’d kept as busy as possible with car repairs, poker, fishing, shuffleboard, and hunting, but he was always looking for more to do. Once he lost his right arm, he let the left one hang at his side. If I’d known that was the way to keep him home, I would have bought my butcher knife years ago.

 

We had three hundred dollars and three chickens. Schlecht, Faul, and Traurig. Bad, Lazy, and Sad. So it all came down to this. Would things have been better if I’d saved Happy for last? Was it any surprise that Sad always cowered in the corner, out of my reach?

“Does it seem like we have fewer chickens?” I asked Berndt one morning. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t figured out where his meat coming from, what I went through to keep this family going.

“Jacob told me you’re killing them.” He was trying to separate a coffee filter from the stack. He didn’t look at me.

I would not be denied. “Does it seem like fewer?”

He threw the crown of filters across the room. I should have picked them up. He should have let me make the coffee in the first place.

“Felicia is sick of chicken,” Cassie said from the living room. She was forcing a piece into place on Berndt’s jigsaw puzzle. Rachel and Robyn were doing homework on the couch, each wearing one earbud, an iPod between them on the cushion.

“I didn’t know Felicia was still with us,” I said.

“She wants you to paint her nails.”

I studied the flat plane of Cassie’s face. Then I found my little case of years-old, gloppy polish and let her pick colors for the three of us. She lined them up along the knobby edge of partially constructed sky. It was going to be a picture of the sandhill crane migration. I’d seen it in person once, in some marsh in Indiana, many years ago — all those hollow-boned creatures, knowing exactly what to do to survive.

I looked up halfway through Cassie’s second hand and saw Marcy standing in the doorway. She seemed to live here now.

“How’ve you been doing, Marcy?” I asked. “And your parents?” I was incapable of real conversation.

“Pick a color,” Cassie said. I expected Marcy to make an excuse and disappear, but she came and sat with us. She rooted around in the case and set a bottle of steely gray on the wing of a crane.

“The purple is for Felicia,” Cassie said, and I held my breath.

“She liked blue better,” Marcy said.

 

Midnight. I sit in the corner of the kitchen with a bottle of cheap wine, a stack of bills, and the checkbook, balancing. Teetering. The stove light my only hint that I’m awake, and not sure I believe it. I pinch my arm and my arm pinches back. Even this has become a fight.

Footsteps fall on the stairs leading from the basement. Two sets. A new nightmare. But no one would want to break into our house. No flat screens. No jewelry. No.

Door opens and it’s a spoon and a knife. Scoop and slice. She shouldn’t be here this late. Shouldn’t be doing what she must be doing with my son. Flash of Marcy bringing home a baby, more people with nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing but time. It’s heavy, the weight of so much absence. Missing money, missing arm, missing chickens, rabbit, girl. Teacher said Edward Hopper’s old and might die and he did, and now Cassie wears her scarf every day at school, at home, in bed. She is doing whatever she can to hold on to the pieces of her life, but life keeps prying back her fingers, and this is the cruelest of cruel. But there is no humane way to survive.

He is touching her.

I should tell them I’m here so they know, but it’s too late, too weird. I look away.

“Stop it,” she says. I’ve never heard her say anything but a verbal shrug.

His hand is under her shirt now, and she says stop again. She cannot raise her voice without getting them both in trouble. She will protect him, and he knows this. I can see it in his profile, the way his mouth opens and his lip trembles and he catches it in his teeth. He grabs her arm above the elbow. He twists the skin. He shakes his wrist and she gasps and I am her and he is Berndt with two arms and we are standing in the back of Jimmy’s Tavern and I’m already thinking of ways to cover up the bruise so my mother won’t see.

He never hit me. That was the thing. It was always a squeeze, both of his hands on both of my arms. A hug gone hard. It started with a story or a joke and he’d laugh, but I’d take it too far and the anger exploded like bang snaps on the sidewalk of my skin.

Some kid threw those at Jacob in elementary school one time. As proof, Jacob brought home the spent explosives and held them out to us like popcorn.

“So I gave him a snakebite,” he said.

“I don’t know what that is,” Berndt said.

Jacob shoved the snaps back in his pocket and put both hands on his father’s arm — the one he would later lose — and twisted in opposite directions, just enough to show what it could do.

“Where I come from, that’s called a thousand needle stings, and it hurts worse than any snakebite. The key is what you call it,” Berndt said. “Next time, give him one of those and he’ll leave you alone for good.”

 

I made chicken teriyaki with rice. No vegetables. No appetite. I cut up the chicken that was on my plate and divided it between Rachel and Robyn.

Marcy was in her usual spot on the floor in front of the TV, hiding behind her bent knees. Cassie leaned against Marcy, and their closeness made me sweat in spite of the snow swirling outside the window behind them. I didn’t know what I’d do if Cassie ended up like this girl, quiet and sitting on someone’s dirty carpet, picking room-temperature carrots out of a wet baggie. I wanted to roll up her sleeves and put my hands over her bruises, like cupping fireflies in the yard. I wanted to twist the skin on Jacob’s arm, break the bone, bring him to weakness like his father. The urge was more than I could stand.

I pushed my chair back and stood up. “Marcy, I think it would be better if you ate dinner at your house from now on,” I said.

“What?” Jacob asked, twisting against the couch. “Why?”

“Your family must miss you.”

“What are you doing?” Berndt asked. I was surprised to hear his voice.

“Fine,” Jacob said. “We’ll both leave.” He stood up, slid his empty plate on the coffee table and pulled Marcy out of the room. Cassie looked like she’d been pushed down. The door slammed.

“Don’t you like her?” Berndt asked.

“I do, I just —” Cassie glared at me, and the lie took shape as I said it. “Her mom called and said she wants her to come home. It must be lonely there.” I sat back down.

“Well, you got what you wanted,” Berndt said. “One less mouth to feed.”

I started to protest — no, it’s not that, she doesn’t even eat our food — but I stopped short. He meant Jacob.

 

Everyone said there would be another round of layoffs at Well-Chem, but no one guessed it would happen the way it did. There was a small crowd outside when I showed up for work one morning, their chatter making clouds in the cold. I figured the fire alarm had gone off, or the accounting clerk was showing the smokers more pictures of her grandbaby. When they told me the news, I had to see for myself. I recognized my boss’ handwriting on the cardboard taped to the door. Notice: We have closed for business. That was it. There had been rumors that Dow might buy us, or some of us might have to go work for Chapman in Peoria, but that’s an hour away and no one wanted to work in a plant that smelled like a hog farm.

I didn’t wait to hear more. I drove home the long way, past empty storefronts, foreclosures, Cassie’s elementary school, the twins’ middle school, and the high school where I pictured Jacob sulking at a desk. He came home late every night now and went straight to his room in the basement, even when I called him. He wouldn’t speak to me. The one time I put my hand on his arm, he jerked away. Don’t touch me, he said, gritting his teeth, and I let go. He’d been gone for years.

I drove through the neighborhood behind the school, past the little gray house where I took singing lessons from a lady at our church when I was a teenager. An older couple lived there now. I’d seen them once, reading the paper on the porch. Today it looked like no one was home. I wanted to sit in that wicker rocker by the door and wait for them, ask if I could have a piece of cake or a slice of pie. I would have killed for some decadence, or even just a song.

 

I woke up with something pinching the skin under my eye. I had slept on the couch again, waiting up for Jacob, but either I missed him or he never came home. The knot in my back felt like a hot saucepan. I rubbed my face and my fingers came away with stickers. Red and yellow stars that smelled like bubble gum.

The next morning it was a macaroni necklace, the one Cassie had made in preschool, sagging on my head like a halo. I felt like a dead chicken. Or a dead rabbit.

She was alone in the living room, between the ghosts of Marcy and Felicia, watching someone redecorate a million-dollar house on TV. I knelt beside her and pulled her close and sat with her for a long time.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I told her.

 

I kill fowl.

I kill Faul on a Friday. The end of laziness. The last of my excuses. It would be easy to keep blaming someone else, or the whole situation, and to point to all the ways I stay busy. But the real problem is, I don’t know how to be the strong one. And I don’t know how to let Berndt be the strong one, either. Somehow, we have to learn to take turns, to find balance between extremes.

He’s dozing on the couch, and I shake his stump to wake him. It’s the first time I’ve touched it since it healed, since I removed the last bandage, and it’s embarrassing.

“Come help,” I say.

He doesn’t ask with what. He just follows me into the kitchen. I pull Faul’s body from the sink and offer her up. He takes the carcass by the feet, and I show him how to scald it in the pot of boiling water on the stove. Up and down to loosen the feathers. Then he puts it back in the sink and we pluck. It’s like the old days when we bathed our babies here. The fatty white skin feels clammy but also warm to the touch. Like diaper rash.

“We need to order more chicks,” I say. “We can afford it with my last paycheck.”

“We shouldn’t name them,” he says. He studies the reddish brown feathers between his fingers. They’re the color of Cassie’s hair.

It’s a quiet night. The girls have gone to bed. Their Kit-Cat clock ticks away the seconds.

Berndt holds the chicken steady on the cutting board while I remove the feet, head, and oil gland. I want him to be impressed, and he is. He steps back, holding his hand away from his clothes, and watches while I pull out the guts, careful not to rupture the gall bladder or intestines. I put the bloody parts in a garbage bag, tie it shut, and lower Faul into a pot of ice water.

“What are we going to do?” I ask, looking from the bird to Berndt. Outside, the spotlight casts a blue light on the empty chicken coop.

“Place the order,” he says.

“I will,” I say. “If you talk to Jacob.”

Berndt shrugs and shakes his head. He’s afraid he’s forgotten how to be a father.

“No, really,” I say, and I take his fouled hand between mine. “He’ll only listen to you. He’s just like you were at that age.”

His reflex, even now, is to pull away. But I hold on, and he relaxes. I can see he knows exactly what I’m talking about, and his face fogs over.

I run warm water in the sink. I rub soap into his knuckles and around and under his nails where a year’s worth of dirt has collected. His skin feels dead. This palm, a wing. These fingers, legs. This act, not a kindness, but another necessity for survival, and part of me hopes the girls wake up and wander in here to see. We stand there together until the water turns cold.

 

 


Jenn Hollmeyer is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Her stories have appeared in AGNI Online, Shenandoah, Post Road, Salamander, Free State Review, Meridian, and other journals. Jenn lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two daughters. Read more at jennhollmeyer.com

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