N. West Moss
When I was nine years old, it was my job to lock the henhouse at night to keep the raccoons out. That spring, when the setting hen went out to scratch in the dirt, I sat cross-legged in the cedar shavings and touched her eggs, still warm from her pin-feathers, before I ran down the hill to catch the school bus.
Three weeks is all it takes, and sure enough, after 21 days, the eggs began to faintly rock, and I sat, leaning, watching the chicks use their yolk-yellow beaks to hatch themselves out, bits of wet shell stuck to their slicked-down feathers.
Not much later that day, they were all out of their shells, and their stickiness had been replaced by yellow fluff as they cheeped through the cedar chips looking for food.
That night, my mother and father went out somewhere glamorous enough that my mother wore a mini dress and smelled of sweet flowers. I watched as she put coat after coat of mascara on her lashes. She let me spray her perfume on her and we laughed.
The moon was out when my mother shook me awake. “You forgot to lock the henhouse door,” she said. “What happened? They’re gone. They’re all gone.”
I shook my head awake. “Gone?” I asked into the darkness.
“Something got them,” she said, “they’re all over the lawn, dead.” I could hear a drowned sorrow and fury in her voice, and as my eyes adjusted to the moonlight I could see that her mascara was all down her cheeks. The smell of her perfume was all over my room, ruined now.
I said, “I’m sorry,” and began to cry, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. What had happened? I couldn’t imagine how I’d forgotten those little creatures. I had been so obsessed with them for 21 days, and then, like the kid I was, I got distracted. I was filled with the stillness of knowing that it was too late to do anything, and the sorrow of their deaths. How would anything ever be any better?
My mother left and I lay back on my pillow, my heart pounding, filled with a sky’s worth of shame. And so I was nine when I first saw my mother cry, and it was also the first time I ever made her cry.
I was dimly aware that my negligence was some kind of counterpart to my intense excitement leading up to their births, as though I couldn’t see beyond their coming into the world. And I was dimly aware too, that this was not the person I wanted to be, that it hurt in some pervasive way to make my mother cry, to dread the morning when I’d have to face my mother and the mother hen, and the lawn. I thought it would be strewn with bodies, but it looked the same as it had looked the day before. I felt somewhere that to be the person I wanted to be I had to venture back out there, and the part of the lesson was the broken heart. There is no excuse to be made, even now, for not venturing out into the dark and locking their door against the night.
My wedding ring belonged to my grandmother, Rose West Hastings. When I told my mother I was getting married, she brought the ring out and gave it to us. My grandmother lived with us when I was little. She taught me to read, and helped me fall asleep at night. She listened to me and told me stories, and despite that fact that she died when I was 6 years old, she has been one of the most important people in my life.
N. West Moss has had her work published in The New York Times, Salon, The Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere. Her short story collection, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, is due out from Leapfrog Press in May of 2017. More of her work can be found via her website at: https://nwestmoss.wordpress.com/