when nadejda dreams, it is of chickens or of fire or some strange combination of the two. and whenever she wakes, she is stricken by the tv with a magic alight in its infomercials—truly it is not yet morning. the sky still sits inside a washbasin, stale and dark with wiry curls of stars like pubic hair. it is sacred, here; impossibly cluttered and impeccably clean.
the old woman tosses her head to the side, eyes gummy and clear-sighted. her nightcap slides downward, drooping to cover the entirety of her face. she rips it off, irritated. she doesn’t remember what happened last night, but the expanse of skin where her eyebrows once lay is clean-shaven and smooth. “Come here, Mitya!"
footsteps thrum through the skeleton of the floor, jerky as guitar strings. her grandson appears in her doorway, the left half of his face covered in squished beetle carcasses. he is naked except for a parka and his church shoes.
"What happened to my eyebrows?" she fixes him under her special brand of plexiglas appraisement. mitya doesn’t respond, but bites his lip and shakes his head so vigorously that he topples backwards, landing ass-first on the cement floor.
"Answer me, boy." nadejda shows no fear in her voice, but is acutely aware of her osteoporosis and the way that this boy could snap her neck like a red crayola if he so chooses.
once again he does not respond. instead, he removes his parka, slurring lowly about the kentucky heat, and crawls headfirst under her bed sheets. his small feet kick out pockets of air from beneath the covers, the tangle and loop of jagged limbs giving way to of a sort of fantastical contortion. she places her hand on what she assumes to be his right shoulder.
he finally speaks. “You look better without them.”
“My eyebrows, you mean?”
mitya pokes his head out, his lips curled around a clump of his oily black hair. “You’re not very pretty, babushka…”
nadejda lurches out a laugh, her hand moving to clutch at the waddles of her throat. “Once you get to be my age, you stop worrying about how pretty you are for the most part. Besides, I’ve have you know your dedushka thought I was a very beautiful woman.”
mitya says nothing. a long, bony silence metastasizes over their heads. "Did you feed the chickens, Mitya?” nadejda asks suddenly.
“Aw, suck an egg, Baba …” he sneers beneath the covers.
nadedja clucks in the back of her throat, disapproving but also slightly amused. “Well I suppose there’s no reasoning with you now. It’s a shame you’d leave an old woman to do all the work herself.” she goads.
they have lived on this chicken farm for three years now—since mitya was seven or so. each morning, she would wake early to tend to the chickens and their eggs, but at 84 years old her bones had begun to web and weaken, and she’d been asking mitya to assist her more often.
instead, he raises his hand and slaps her across the eyes. breath sucked from her belly, she repeats herself.
“Go feed the chickens.”
he hits her again, harder this time—swings his little hands like cinderblocks, knocking her about the face. “Screw your chickens! Take me back to Russia!”
his grandmother’s lip is bleeding. he pleads of her once more to take him home. he aches. he weakens. he quiets. “I can’t. No more. No more chickens, Baba.”
"Mitya! Please…" she grips at his shirt, sifting the anger from his body, beginning in the gut and ceasing beneath his ears. he quiets then, slinking out of her grip and into the kitchen without a dirge or a cry.
that night, nadejda finds the chickens dead, their necks snapped. she tries not to think too much of it—her chickenheart has killed already once before, she will not allow it to take from her again. instead, she fetches a carving knife from the kitchen, using the blade’s edge and the pads of her fingers to tear away the wings and thighs from their bodies. she fashions a nice dinner for mitya and herself, but when she calls his name out the window he does not come.
the next morning, the chickenheads are strung upside-down by their necks. mitya’s clothing is gone as well, but his church shoes remain. beside them, there is a note in english:
Leave the chickenheads to dry in the sun. Roll them in your palms once a day—they will save you. This is what God told me. Believe in Him as I do, and one day you will leave this place as I have. Now, I understand that you feel that I have been an awful grandson to you. Do not think me sorry now—I do not regret this. You are foolish, and I can only hope that you learn the error of your ways before you kick the bucket.
While you were fattening the chickens, I built a boat. I collected deer corpses from the train tracks and stole planks of wood from Ms. Willis. By the time you read this I’ll have set sail. Listen Baba, I do not belong here. I want to see my old friends, I want to blacken my feet, I want to see Ozyorak before my vision fades for good.
I promise for your sake I will be okay. Here is a final word of advice: keep the chickens, burn the farm. Know your truth.
God bw’ ye.
three hours later she finds mitya dead by the shore, his left cheek pressed into a puddle of bloody vomit and chickenfeathers. the handle of a butterknife sticks out from his belly, right above the navel. grease is on his hands and in his hair. there is a small raft of wood and animal bones fastened to the dock.
she places two chickenheads in his hands, curling his small fingers around their circumference. with a rustle of boldly-patterned cloth, she binds his wrists, ankles, and abdomen to the raft. with a heave of her shoulders she buries him at sea, casting upon him the weight of his God and the seagulls.
her chickenheart has struck once more.
when nadejda returns home, she devours the wings, digging into their skin with her nails and dragging the edges of their bones across her face. she whittles a statue of a salmon from mitya’s dusty old bar of soap. when feeling particularly confrontational, she looks it in the eyes.
the next morning the old woman sleeps in—there are no more chickens to feed, after all. she plucks a rotting head from the clothesline, bouncing it from hand to hand. the sun shines down on her, and it is good. she thinks to herself that maybe now life will be simpler. she burns her grandson’s letter along with the rest of the farm—love is in the air, as is the smell of boiling chickenfat. she rinses the blood from her hands down by the creek, and there is not a cloud in the sky. she no longer aches. perhaps she will sail once more to russia before she dies—she does so miss the techa river.
the shithole prairie is wide and eager, its boiling kentucky sun gargling hymns above and below. with her back to the flames, nadejda thinks she might be able to cross it and find her way to shore, anyway.
she is wrong. dead wrong. she never sails to russia―she is old and tired, and so she sinks downward, and dies alone. in a year (or any other measure of time), flowers begin to sprout from where her throat once lay. the blackish, semifluid remains of once-vital viscera arch and breath against the grasslands and run deep below the dirt. thistle and insects tangle in her bones. soon there will nothing left to burn.
nothing sacred, nothing cluttered, nothing clean.