“I’m not much of an animal person,” I’d said once, back before the bokking. It had started quietly enough, in the background, like a creak in the bed. Little sounds pecking through: bok-bok-baak. I’d gotten under there at one point, with the spanner, and tightened all the bedframe’s bolts. Still, the boks rumbled out, their popcorn purr seeping through the floorboards and into my head.
“Can you hear that?” I asked my neighbour, Trudy.
Trudy leaned over the railing of our shared balcony, sucking the life from a cigarette. She had a tight, swollen face and a rat-like nose.
“Hear what?” she asked, blowing out smoke. “You need to get that drain fixed. I’ll call the council on you. I will do it.”
“You really don’t hear it?” I asked, but Trudy wasn’t listening.
“Still single?” Trudy had a son who was a cop. Divorced. Three kids.
“I’ll get started on that drain.”
It was a while before I started seeing things: a silhouette in the corner of my eye, a bobbing and a wiggling in the shadows, sly scratch marks on the floorboards, then, of course—
Just one: fully formed, fleshy and feathery. Its wattle hung flaccid below its beak, a stark red against its muddy down.
“Sorry if this sounds a bit ridiculous,” said Mum, “but have you thought about seeing a hypnotist?”
She had called while I was cooking dinner. I stirred the mince in with the onions, phone tucked between shoulder and ear.
“Hm, there’s an idea,” I said before the words sunk in, then: “Hypnotist?”
“I saw one a while ago for this little thing—it wasn’t a big deal. My friend suggested her, and the next day Lisa came downstairs and said she wanted to get hypnotised to stop biting her nails.”
Mum had always been more serious than sentimental. In grade three I caught the flu. Mum locked me in my room, only coming in to toss packets of paracetamol from the bedroom door. It made sense she’d choose quick-fix hypnotism over talking it out in therapy.
“Did it work?” I asked, mushing the mince apart with the spoon. “The hypnotist?”
“Well, sort of. It worked for Lisa for a while, until it didn’t. And well, it’s a silly thing—I asked her to help me stop apologising so much. I think it made a difference.”
“Send me her details. I’ll take a look.”
The mince had turned grey and ashen from the heat. Fat sizzled on the frying pan. I hung up, poured some tinned tomatoes in with the beef, put the pasta on to boil. I’d forgotten all about the hypnotist by the time dinner was done.
“It’s not my fault you’re dead, you know,” I said. I was talking to the chicken by then.
The chicken scratched its deranged claw against my smooth floorboards, leaving one crooked gash. It looked at me side-on, its eye a flat empty void. It stood from its nest between my good cushions and turned its fat little body to face the window. It didn’t look at me for the rest of the night.
I drove down to the counsellor’s office the following afternoon. It was in a grey cement building in Carlton, made duller for the beautiful terraces on either side.
I knocked on the door and a young woman with slick brown hair answered. She wore an orange blazer a size too large for her slim frame. I called her Dr. O’Bright and she said to call her Elkie, please, and that she wasn’t a psychologist.
“What’s another few years’ study and a piece of paper?” she laughed and told me to take a seat. She passed me a clipboard with a survey. On it was a scale of stick-figure faces, ranging from deep frowns to beaming smiles. Was this the entire spectrum of human emotion? I carefully circled my way down the middle.
Once inside her office, Elkie looked at the survey and made a tutting sound.
“So, what brings you here?” she asked.
“I’ve started seeing things, I guess.”
“Wonderful. Any history of schizophrenia in the family?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Can you describe what these voices are saying to you? What they sound like?”
“Oh—no voices. Um, it’s more of a manifestation, you see. There’s this chicken. She, ah, follows me.”
“And this chicken, it’s completely silent? It doesn’t speak to you. It doesn’t tell you what to do.”
“Well, she clucks, I suppose.”
Elkie scribbled a long note on her dust-pink notepad, then sat silently. She stared at me as though waiting for me to continue the thought. I did.
“She’s not intrusive. I just don’t think I’m meant to be seeing her. She’s not real, you see.”
She made another note.
“How do you know it’s not real?” she asked.
“Well,” I paused. “No one else can see her. I guess that’s how I know.”
“Are you more observant than other people? Smarter than them? Do you know things other people don’t? Do you find yourself manipulating friends and family in conversation?”
I said that I wasn’t, that I was really just there for the chicken. She frowned, scratched the back of her head with the back of her purple pen, then scribbled down another short note.
“Are you at risk of hurting yourself? Others?” Elkie asked again.
She scribbled a few more notes, then looked up and pursed her lips to the side.
“Is it in the room with us right now?’”
I said no and her shoulders slackened.
“Oh. That’s okay. Well if it does come into the room, let me know.”
“I will,” I said, and she perked up again.
“Can we make this a regular appointment?”
I said yes, and she relaxed into a big grin. “Great. I’m so excited to work with you.”
“I just want to put the whole thing behind me,” I told Mum over lunch.
“Did something happen?” Mum asked, to be nice. “A psychological breakdown?”
I shook my head. “I’m perfectly fine. I’m just a little less lonely now.” I’d meant it as a joke but it didn’t land.
“Oh good,” said Mum with a short outward breath. “You should see how long Lisa’s nails are getting.”
When I got home, I laid a path of cashew nuts from the kitchen to the apartment balcony. The chicken pounced on them, picking each one up with the shell of its beak. One by one, it let gravity jolt the nuts down its berserk neck. When it got to the last cashew, I slammed the balcony door on it and flicked the bolt in place.
“Ha!” I said to the chicken, through the glass.
The chicken twisted its neck sideways, pecked twice against the door. It made a bagaark that was more disappointed than angry. I tried to be satisfied. I tried to clean the kitchen, wash the dishes, get some sleep. I put on some Mozart—Eine kleine Nachtmusik—to drown out its sad pecks, its soft clucks to be let in. Still, I couldn’t sleep. I got up and unbolted the balcony door. The chicken dashed inside, its feathers stuck upright.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, peeling back my bed covers to let the chicken in. “I don’t know what came over me.”
The chicken roosted in next to me, its little body humming. We slept like dogs after that, thick and heavy. Our dreams fluttered out in clucks and snores. We could have slept for years.
On my next visit, Elkie opened the door in a rush. Come in, come in, she waved with her hand. Her hair was ruffled. She was wearing glasses this time, no blazer.
“Are you familiar with ghosts? Ghouls? Spectral beings?” she said as I sat down. “That old building you live in—I’m sure it’s haunted.”
I asked how Elkie knew where I lived. Elkie tutted, tossed her head towards a stack of papers on her desk, said they didn’t process all those forms for nothing.
“That unit you live in? The land used to be a holding paddock for a dairy. That cow you’ve been seeing—it’s a ghost with unfinished business.”
Elkie made a shushing sound. “We need to figure out what the cow wants—has it told you?”
“It’s a chicken,” I said, again.
Elkie’s shoulders dropped. “Oh, right,” she said. “Well, let me know if that changes.”
“You’ve got to be seeing someone,” said Trudy. She was smoking on the balcony again, her body hooked forward like a question. “You’ve got that—” she waved her hand up and down my body in lieu of whichever word came next.
I looked inside. The chicken was settled on the couch watching reruns of Friends. “It hasn’t aged well,” I’d said before pressing play, “but it was a cultural phenomenon. You can’t miss out on that stuff.” I’d been showing the chicken all sorts of things it would have missed: television, music, memes. Whenever I remembered something good that had happened in the last thirty years I made a note to myself. I’d played Britney’s ‘Lucky’ to the chicken the night before. It hadn’t seemed to care much for the melody but had ruffled its feathers and crooned to the high notes. The only thing I hadn’t introduced was books. I wasn’t sure if the chicken could read and it seemed insensitive to presume.
“It’s new,” I told Trudy. “I don’t even know if you’d call it a thing.”
Trudy blew out a puff of smoke and winked deeply.
I’d never had a dog growing up, not even a friendly neighbourhood cat. I’d never thought I needed the company of an animal. After dinner, the chicken and I curled up on the couch, watching Jerry Maguire and eating popcorn from a bowl.
“What do you want?” I asked.
The chicken clucked once, and nothing else.
It was after ten on Friday when Elkie called again. “Can you come into the office?”
“Elkie, it’s late,” I said.
“I’ve had a cancellation.”
When I arrived, Elkie opened the door dressed in blue-striped pyjamas. Her hair was in a bun, strands frizzing out like a spider plant. The stack of plates on Elkie’s desk was nearly as tall as the paperwork. Both had started to tilt to one side.
“Ever heard of phantom limbs?” Elkie asked, then continued before I could answer. Said how when someone lost an arm, or a leg, they could still feel it, even years later.
“That’s all very interesting,” I said, “but I haven’t lost a chicken.”
Elkie took me by the shoulders and stared me down. Her breath was muggy and smelled of pretzels. She was silent, as though waiting for me to finish a thought. I didn’t.
“Are you sure about that?” asked Elkie, cheek quivering, “Are you really, truly sure?”
I said that it was late, and that I needed to be going home. Elkie let go of my shoulders then, leant back in her chair and said, “Help me help you.”
As I was leaving, Elkie handed me a bunch of brochures. The top one showed a picture of a bright white chicken prancing on a grassy farm.
“Just think about it,” she said.
When I got home, I shoved the brochures in my desk drawer before the chicken could see. It was late. The chicken was curled up on her pillow, asleep. It opened one dark eye and looked at me with a soft broody noise.
“Hey there,” I said to the chicken. “I missed you.”
I started looking forward to the weekends. I left work at the dental practice spot-on five every evening.
“In a rush?” my colleagues teased, and I felt myself grow hot. Everyone seemed to like the change in me. They smiled at me more in the office kitchen, shot me playful winks in the hallway. I was careful not to say too much about anything, aware of how quickly the mood might change if they knew the truth. I felt full to the brim. It was hard to hold everything in.
At home, I could let my guard down. The chicken and I cozied up on the couch watching re-runs of Survivor. I read out loud from old cookbooks, surreptitiously skipping any recipe that felt too vulgar. Most of all, I loved feeling the chicken’s downy body next to me. Her twitches and ruffles reminded me of my own humanity: how my body wasn’t built to sleep alone.
“I want what you’re having,” Trudy whirred. We’d bumped into each other by the letter boxes. “You’re glowing.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” I blushed. I flipped up the metal hatch: only a flyer from the local Domino’s.
“I just have to meet the young man,” Trudy said, fanning her letters to her chest. “At my age you take what you can get. What’s he do for a living?”
“They’re a bit of a homebody.”
Trudy’s smile dimmed from a seven to a four by Elkie’s scale. Her forehead squished into a wrinkle and she said, “Well, we can’t have it all.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but it didn’t seem good. I made a note not to tell anyone else about the homebody thing, then turned for the stairs.
“Don’t forget about that drain!” Trudy called as she left.
When I got back to the apartment, my limbs were buzzing. There were dishes in the sink that hadn’t been done. The pillows on the couch had compressed into the shape of bottoms. They needed to be fluffed. The carpet was ratty. I hadn’t vacuumed in months. I found the chicken in the kitchen, its head jerking in and out of an oatmeal bowl. Dust and crumbs speckled the floor around it.
“Would it kill you to help out a little?” I said, slamming the Domino’s flyer on the kitchen bench. “You’re home all day.”
The chicken jumped, knocking the oatmeal bowl with its ancient claw.
“See! This is exactly what I mean.”
The chicken clawed at the tiles, fluffed its wings. It made a long, frazzled bray. I pressed my palms to my cheeks. I felt gut-deep sickness, like shame.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“You should have gone with the hypnotist,” said Mum over lunch. Elkie had been texting non-stop.
—Last minute cancellation!!! Can squeeze u in?
—Cancelled my other appts. Will come to u if u need????
I flipped my phone face-down on the table. “I’m fine, Mum, promise. Great, even.”
Earlier, when the waitress had taken our orders, Mum had gone with the chicken salad. “Mum,” I’d said, face hot. “Ah, sorry, forgot,” she said. “Turkey?” We’d been tense since.
“You can’t keep on like this forever,” said Mum.
“Like what?” I asked. “Happy?”
When I got home, tufts of white covered the couch. My good cushion had been scratched open, cotton guts spilled all over the living room floor. My chest felt like Jumanji. I called out for the chicken, heard it crow back from the kitchen. Then: a pert smash. I dashed toward the sound. The chicken stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, surrounded by fractured porcelain. The dishes, once on the bench, had been clawed and dragged towards the sink, then tumbled off. The chicken pecked up a chip of mug with its beak and tossed it to the side.
“What have you done?” I said. I heard my voice peak and waver. I sounded hysterical—too much. I waved my palm beneath my nose and told myself to keep cool. The chicken cocked its head to one side, then shimmied between my feet to roost. Its claws were bloodied. It looked up at me, its head titled at a hopeless, deranged angle. I could find anything I wanted in that sweet nothing of an eye.
That night, once the chicken was asleep, I paced the living room. I opened the desk drawer, pulled out the brochures, and read them over and over in the bathroom.
I started leaving work later and later, until it was normal that I was the last to leave.
“Boy trouble?” one of the dentists had asked. I’d simply shrugged. He’d said not to worry too much. “You’re young. Plenty more fish.”
Fish were the least of my problems. I locked up slowly, took the long way home. I got home to find the chicken staring out the window. I hadn’t put a DVD on before I left. Everything was quiet.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I was running late—I forgot—” But those were all excuses, I knew. I searched the chicken for some kind of feeling but found the same oblivion as always.
“You’re right,” I told Mum. I’d called from the bathroom with the shower on. “I can’t keep on like this.”
—I want a farm with a live-stream, I texted Elkie. So I can check in on it, okay?
Elkie replied with the heart-eyes emoji, then tried to call three times.
I had thought it would be hard to get the chicken out of the house. I hadn’t known if it could even leave at all. But it wasn’t hard, and it could leave. I’d simply plucked it up and placed it under one arm.
Outside, Trudy was standing by the letter box with a burly man holding a pet crate. I chucked up a wave.
“Ana—this is my son, Roy,” said Trudy with a wide, lackerband smile.
Roy bounced on the balls of his feet. His grey hair was pulled back in a ponytail and he wore a leather jacket. He had a wide face and Trudy’s taut, rat-like nose. The chicken wiggled in my arms. I pretended not to notice and told Roy it was nice to meet him.
“Figured Mum could use some company,” he said, lifting the crate a smidge. “I’m not much of an animal person myself.”
I smiled, felt the chicken peck at my forearm.
“They grow on you,” I said.
I made my way towards the car and heard Roy yell from over my shoulder.
“I’d be happy to fix that drain for you, y’know.”
“That’d be great,” I said, turning around, “It’s making all sorts of horrible sounds.”
Then, I got in the car and that was that.
Later, when I got home, the house was dead silent. No drips, no boks. I turned on my computer and typed in the web address for the livestream. Chickens pecked and bobbled their way across the screen. I watched and watched. I tried to make out my chicken. Thought I saw it for a moment, even. But I couldn’t. Not really. They all had the same, flat pixel eyes. They all looked like chickens. Nothing special, not to me at least, not anymore.
Emma Hardy is a writer, comedian and creative working in Naarm (Melbourne). Her writing has been published in The Monthly, The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks and more. She’s interested in feminism, animals and the environment. She sometimes tweets @emahrdy.