I press the warm brown egg against my ear. Nothing happens.
"Be patient,” instructs Sharron, my future mother-in-law. A second later, from within: CHIRP. I gasp, nearly drop the egg, and Sharron laughs. “Keep listening,” she says.
The chirping continues at short intervals and then, beneath the staccato of cries, I hear something else. Tap, tap, tap. Silence. Then, a few more taps.
“What is that?” I whisper.
“The chick,” Sharron says. “She’s starting to hatch.” Impressed, I return the egg to the incubator and close the lid. Nestled beside the chirping, tapping egg, eight other orbs remain warm and quiet, waiting.
When we first told Nathan’s parents we were thinking about getting chickens, Sharron was thrilled. “If you can wait a few months,” she said, “we’ll bring you some chicks when we visit.” A few years earlier, his parents had purchased ten acres of land in southern Illinois. Since then, they’d raised chickens for eggs, miniature cows for milk and meat, and Sharron’s cucumbers had snagged a first place ribbon at the county fair. “How many chickens do you want?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Four? Six?” Nathan and I are vegetarians, and I wanted chickens exclusively for eggs and friendship. Four to six seemed reasonable.
When Sharron and John pulled into our driveway a few months later, we expected them to arrive with newborn chickens. Instead, they carried a small machine the size of a breadbox into our kitchen, set it on the table, and immediately plugged it in. The machine, I quickly learned, was an incubator, black and yellow with a see-through lid. Inside, a cradle tilted hourly, turning the nine fragile eggs nestled within.
As Sharron explained all this to me, I finally understood that instead of fluffy, yellow, chirping chicks, she had brought us eggs. We’d be hatching the chickens ourselves.
For a while, I watched the incubator with rapt attention, wondering when the first crack would appear. It was exciting, and then it wasn’t, and then we went out to lunch, hoping the chick would make progress while we were gone.
I was too young to know how the reproductive system of chickens worked—I hadn’t even learned about human sex yet—so I didn’t know that I had adopted an unfertilized egg, destined for nothing greater than an omelet. I was also easily distracted, and after a few days of checking on my egg and stroking its smooth white shell, I forgot about it entirely, having moved on to more pressing matters like Saturday morning cartoons and games of hide-and-seek with my friends.
A few weeks later, my mother called me in from the front yard where I was playing.
“Chrissy,” she said, holding up the egg. “Why was this in your underwear drawer?”
“I was hatching it!” I said, remembering my plan.
“Why would you want to hatch it?”
“I wanted a pet chicken.”
“This is not how you get a pet chicken.” My mother softened. “This is the wrong kind of egg.” She placed the egg very gently in my hand and closed my fingers around it. “I want you to take this egg down the street, far away from the house, and get rid of it.” I didn’t want to do it—I wanted a chicken—but she seemed so serious. “Far, far away.”
“Okay,” I said, and ran down the street with a few other kids, who were now curious about my egg. They watched as I held the egg aloft and then heaved it forward with all my strength. The egg landed, shattered, just a few feet from us. Immediately, a terrible smell rose from the yellow yolk that spilled into the street. It smelled, well, like a rotten egg. We held our hands over our noses and ran away gagging.
I have a better understanding of eggs and chickens now, of the way things come into this world and the way they leave it. A few years ago, my friends started getting pregnant on purpose, having babies they were excited to raise with their husbands. It was hard to wrap my mind around this shift, but eventually I adapted. When yet another friend told me she was expecting, I smiled and said congratulations! instead of whispering what should we do?
Chay was first, and her pregnancy was a novelty. I’d never been to a friend’s baby shower, and it was a spectacular celebration, with mixed drinks, mod décor, and handmade fans to push away the summer heat. When her daughter was born, we oohed and ahhed over her bald little head and huge blue eyes, just as we oohed and ahhed over a new coffee maker or photos from a trip to Alaska. Chay brought Rees everywhere, and I never minded. She sat in a car seat by her mother’s feet and rarely cried. And when she started talking a year later, she proved to be an entertaining conversationalist.
The babies started rolling in shortly after Rees turned one. First Sonnie, then Mary. I got a text message from my best friend from college—a ladies' man we were sure would never settle down—letting me know his wife was pregnant. My cousin had four children in the blink of an eye. Chay had a second baby, and then everybody started having second babies. Nathan and I did the only thing that seemed natural: we adopted another dog.
I like kids and enjoy shopping for onesies, discussing the benefits of midwifery, and holding a baby in my lap. I think the sight of someone breastfeeding in public is beautiful. Yet the idea of actually becoming a mother terrifies me. I loathe the restrictions of parenthood, and the idea of a small human cradled in my flesh and fluids is nearly enough to spark a panic attack.
On the occasions when I voice these concerns, my well-meaning friends and eager parents do their best to reassure me. “It’s natural to be nervous about parenthood!” they say. “Don’t worry – your clock will start ticking soon!” And when I tell them I’m not so sure, that not all of us are meant to be parents, they scoff and turn to scare tactics. “You’re being selfish,” they say. “You’ll regret it if you don’t,” they tell me. “Who will take care of you when you get old?”
And so I celebrated each new baby my friends brought into the world, all while feeling the distance between us widen with each child’s throaty cries.
“It’s dead,” I wail. The chicken—if you can even call it that—is wet and ragged, lying on top of a broken shell, body bent at an unnatural angle. Sharron follows me into the kitchen, Nathan close behind. I step aside and she opens the incubator, quickly inspects the chick, and then shuts the lid.
“She’s not dead,” Sharron says. “She’s tired.”
Sure enough, the chick’s body is rising and falling as it breathes. Still, I’m concerned about the bedraggled state of the creature. Baby chicks are supposed to be adorable, all yellow fluff and round bodies. This thing is definitely not cute.
“She’ll get cuter,” Sharron says. “She’s been working hard to get out of the egg, she needs to rest, but she’ll dry off and fluff out soon. Do you want to hold her?”
Of course I want to hold her. She’s my first chicken, ugly or not. The chick still needs the warmth and comfort of the incubator, so I’ll have to put her back after a few minutes. As Sharron reaches in and lifts the chick out, I’m grateful for her calm presence, her vast knowledge about the world of chickens. For a moment, I wish I could repay her kindness with the thing I know she wants most. She, along with my own mother, would make an excellent grandma—wise and loving, indulgent in all the right ways. I picture a child spending summers on Long Island at the beach with my parents, springs on the farm in Illinois. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t picture me and Nathan as the parents of that imaginary baby.
The next thing I know, the chick is in my palm. She shifts slightly, searching for a warmer spot. I bring her closer to my face and carefully inspect her damp fur, her slimy head, her bony body. She is the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and I love her.
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