There was a large, grey egg under Norma. Norma was an Araucana, her eggs had always been light blue. What’s more, the egg was almost twice the size of a regular chicken egg.
“Whatcha say, Norma,” Denise said half in jest, “you take up with an ostrich?”
Norma was their only brooding hen, the only animal left on the farm after old Hep had been hit by a passing semi. Mitch thought it would be just fine to get along without animals on a farm that didn’t grow anything.
“Talk to me, girl.”
Norma’s eyelids were rolled up over her eyes. She seemed to tremble a little with the sharp breeze that stitched through the open coop slats. Denise set her gently down over the monstrous lump, making sure it was in the gap between her wing and body.
“Wherever you found it, you can keep it,” Denise said.
Mitch had draped the kitchen table with newspaper as he disassembled a motor. Denise set the empty egg basket on top of the fridge and picked up a rag.
“Old girl not laying?” Mitch’s tone was light.
“Damndest thing. She’s got a big ol’ grey egg out there. You think it come from a pheasant?”
“No damn pheasant I know lays grey eggs. Maybe she just needs a creme rinse. What color you call that?” Mitch pointed to her hair with an oily finger.
“Barn slat brown.” Denise flicked a ragful of crumbs at him. It was their way, the shape that love took between them.
The next day, the feed lay in the same place where she had scattered it. Denise frowned and put today’s scoop back in the can.
Norma was still in her little henhouse, one little cubby out of twenty. Norma had come with the house, same as the coop and the barn and the fields that were growing a fine crop of thistles. Even the man who sold them the place didn’t know how old she was. Maybe she’d gotten something rotten inside, something twisted around wrong, and she’d laid the last egg she’d ever lay.
Denise felt her little cheek patches. Were they supposed to be warm? Norma shivered in place, not stirring when Denise checked beneath her. There was the grey oval and beside it was the blue shell and saffron yolk of a smashed egg.
“Oh, hell.” Denise picked up the remnants of the wasted egg, as if that would fix anything.
“Whatcha after?” Today Mitch was staining a tobacco box.
“I’m mixing some cornmeal with water and give it to her with an eyedropper. Poor girl’s so weak she can’t come down to feed. She’s et her own.”
Mitch snorted. “Why don’t you mix her up some formula while you’re at it?”
“Don’t make fun. She’s in a bad way. Maybe we should take her to the vet.”
“Might as well take a field mouse to the vet.” Mitch wiped his hands on an oilrag. “Or even a fly.”
“I’m serious.” Denise set her hands flat on the counter. “I can’t just let the old girl go. She’s like…”
The air between them was as familiar as the track worn in the carpet from their bedroom to the bathroom. Mitch stood up suddenly.
“Up to bed,” he said, “I want to show you something.”
From the second floor, Denise could get a good look at the corner of the coop. A large pinewood box, built for many chickens before factory farms put them out of business.
No, wait. Had it been before that? Something gone bad, left only Norma?
“I don’t know why it sticks me,” she admitted, “I just—”
He said, “hush,” and they did what many couples do when they are left to their own devices in the middle of a slow day.
Mitch’s shout brought her from the cellar the next evening. She set down a can of preserves and hiked to where Mitch had built his work bench. “Catch your finger?”
Mitch stuck his thumb in his mouth. “Damndest thing. Some little sucker stuck me. Look over there.”
Denise looked. On the windowsill lay a deflated hornworm. The corpse was wreathed by dozens of little cotton cocoons no bigger than its eyespots. Denise felt a little chill go down her spine.
“Tobacco worms.” Mitch nodded. “I remember now. The man who had this place before couldn’t make a go of it, too many of them. He imported these little cotton wasps as a last gasp, but I guess they didn’t do the job.”
“He just ordered them?” Denise frowned at the little fiber pills. There was something unwholesome about their dust-colored thread. “How’s a man do that?”
“You can order ladybirds to eat the aphids, can’t you? Don’t see why this’d be any different.” The spot on his thumb swelled, denting in the middle. “Hell, it really stuck me. Better get the baking soda.”
“Cider vinegar,” Denise called after her husband, not turning from the cocoons.
Norma had been huddled into herself that morning, not even opening her beak for an eyedropper of corn mush. The blue egg beneath her had been whole this time, but the grey behemoth retained its place of pride. Denise had taken the blue egg inside and cracked it into her enamel mixing bowl. The yolk was a black tangle and the white was brown. She’d dumped it before Mitch could see.
So Norma was going to die. Denise knew, and perhaps had known for a long time, but something about it wasn’t sitting right with her. She wanted someone else to witness it, to confirm the wrongess of it, but she didn’t have the words to make her husband understand.
“Denny, where’s the gauze?”
Denise went to make herself useful.
Denise had a nightmare. Like many of the nightmares she had, it involved her husband. They were sitting around the table like always, but everything was wrong. They were both just empty, slippery skins being manipulated by something within. It was truly terrible to see Mitch turn to her, that familiar face collapsed into a hollow mask, and drop the same wink he had honed over decades of their marriage.
There were other things, murky things she forgot the second she woke. Early pre-morning light leaked into their bedroom. Mitch lay half on his side and made a buzzing sound that wasn’t quite a snore. It reminded her so vaguely of her unpleasant dream that Denise got out of bed, bare feet cringing at every creak of the floor.
The coop was still dark. Denise shuffled inside, not knowing exactly why she’d come there, but unable to find a good enough reason to turn around and get back into bed. In what little light was available, Denise could see Norma’s silhouette as she shuddered with breath. She was close to the end.
Denise drew up close. In this meager light, Norma’s lids looked almost sunken. Her breath came erratically as if she were trying to breathe at a different speed with each lung.
Denise put her hands up to the chicken’s neck. Her stomach sank as the skin depressed without resistance, only the stiff cage of backbone held chicken’s neck upright. Her mouth ashen, her hands trembling, Denise lifted the bird.
Norma’s cloaca was gaping open and black, an evil smell drifted from within. The grey egg sat beneath her, as inscrutable as the day it had been laid. Denise put a fingertip out. The surface dented easily. The egg was not shell but a soft material, resilient enough to spring back once she removed her finger. When Denise turned the egg, she found a gaping hole at the other end of it where something had torn its way out.
The chicken still moved.
Mitch stretched as a beam of morning light roused him.
“Den?” He knew before he opened his eyes that the bed was empty.
The kitchen was cold, the fry-pans hung in their place by the stove. “Denny? Where you been, girl?”
The truck was still in the driveway. No quilted nightgown-wearing figure sat on the porch swing or reclined on the couch.
Mitch stood barefoot in the yard. He noticed the door of the coop hung open.
“Denise?” He stalked through wet grass, dismayed at the stillness within. “Denny? You ain’t still broken up about that hen, are ya?” He stood at the threshold of the door, peering into the dim interior of the coop. “Denise? Denise? Denise?”