The first morning is soaked in fog and dew collects on her bare shoulders, speckles of water crowding together in an anxious wait as Harriet stands in the middle of the crossroad. The chicken in her arms coos softly, and Harriet feels the warm, gentle rumble of his chest in the palm of her hand. She strokes the soft black feathers on the chicken’s back with trembling fingers, swallowing thickly, her eyes searching the fog, trying to pierce through the veil it has draped her in. Gravel shifts beneath her boots as she fidgets, her stomach clenching. She can feel the mountains behind her staring at her. She thinks they’re judging her, maybe even laughing at her, and she doesn’t blame them.
Harriet doesn’t remember where she heard the old wives’ tale—if she had really heard it at all. She feels foolish now that she’s here, hope swelling shamefully in her chest, a bud about to burst open, and she wants to pluck it from its stem and crush it beneath her boot. She had figured it was worth a try at the time, and someone down the road had been selling chickens as if they knew just how thin Harriet’s will had grown—as if they knew how desperate she still is, all this time later.
“You don’t have to wait long.”
Harriet jumps and looks to her right, her hair tickling the nape of her neck, to find a man standing at the stop sign with a pipe half-lifted to his face. He’s wearing a waffled shirt and his overalls are messily tucked into work boots. The smoking pipe in his weathered hands looks old, but the man looks older. He smiles wide, too wide. Harriet raises her chin, and sets her jaw. She meets his yellow eyes through the smoke snaking around him.
“A few moments is enough,” he says. He makes a motion of tipping his hat despite not wearing one and Harriet watches as he walks past her, disappearing into the fog, leaving behind a smell of burning sage and embers.
Shaken, Harriet stays put, her brows furrowed as she stares before her once more. Her arm is bleeding before she realizes that the chicken is scratching her, her grip having grown too tight without her knowledge. She shifts it in her arms and turns, walking back home.
Harriet wakes the next morning covered in sweat, quick footsteps echoing in her head, loud like shoes banging in a washing machine, and it leaves her flinching. Her arms are blanketed in goose flesh. Her palms are damp when she rubs her face, aching with the ghosts of loving touches and gentle hands. It is dark and early, and she shivers when her feet press into the freezing wood floor of her bedroom. The whole house is cold and covered in a layer of dust. It doesn’t bother Harriet anymore, has seeped into her skin and drenched her bones. It’s so much a part of her now that it has turned her skin gray, nearly translucent, and when she glares at her hazy reflection in the mirror, she can almost see the mint green tile of the wall directly behind her.
She walks to the crossroad in a daze, trying to convince herself that she doesn’t remember what she had dreamed of, trying to forget the eyes and the teeth and the nails. The chicken in her arms tucks his head into the crook of her elbow and rests peacefully there. Harriet wonders what will happen to the chicken on the ninth morning. As she listens to his snores, she wonders if she cares.
When she returns home the third morning, with the chicken secured in his cage on the back porch, she nurses a cup of coffee. The house is too big for her alone, frigid and almost completely devoid of light save for the few slivers that manage to sneak past the drawn curtains. Her sister had tried to sell the house, but Harriet hadn’t been able to sever herself from it. This house holds her entire life, the birth and death of it, and she couldn’t bear to part with it, even though it nearly kills her to inhabit it. There were days when some doors stayed closed, some things were never touched, some floorboards not even glanced at. There were days when she couldn’t bear to get out of bed, but there wasn’t nor would there ever be a day when she could stand to leave and never look back.
The fourth morning, she reaches the bottom of the stairs and sees the pool of blood and a gunshot rings in her ears. Harriet clutches the banister, her teeth clenching and her knuckles tinging white as she stares at it. She holds her breath, can’t bear the pungent smell of iron. She doesn’t move, knowing if she stands her ground it will go away. It’s waiting for her, but she won’t give it what it wants. She blinks . . . blinks again . . . and it’s gone.
A breath claws its way out of her throat and tears gather at the edge of her lash line. She pushes the heels of her hands into her eyes and takes a long breath in through her nose. She has somewhere to be. She rushes onto the back porch, slams the door, wrenches open the chicken’s cage, and pulls him gently from the warm bed of straw. Holding him to her pounding heart, she strides into the yard, past her hacked rose bushes, and toward the road. Harriet doesn’t realize that her feet are bare and wet and already starting to go numb. She can barely see in front of her as she walks the road she knows so well now, can barely see the trees on either side of the gravel reaching for each other above her, the sign for fresh eggs, or the cat that is always perched on the blue mailbox. The only things she can see are the eyes and the teeth and the nails.
On the fifth morning, walking home, weary and tired, she names the chicken Ulysses. Harriet knows she shouldn’t, not with his impending fate, but she has a habit of naming things she can’t keep—her virginity, her rose bushes, her child.
It had been a morning like this, the sixth, when she had given birth, and Harriet can feel it in her bones when she wakes. She lies paralyzed beneath her sheets as she remembers the way her hair had stuck to her forehead and how the ache in her hips had given way to an ache in her heart as her child was laid upon her bare chest, wriggly and sticky with blood. She feels it now, the love and the fear and the happiness that had overwhelmed her all at once, nearly suffocating her as she looked at the small, crying thing. It makes her feel sick now, the feelings leftover with no one on which to act upon them. She would stick her fingers down her throat and throw them up if she could, but then she’d have to look at all of them while she wiped them up with a rag.
She crawls out of bed on her hands and knees to the stairs where she cries. She wails and she bawls and the mountains on the horizon hear her. Her child had been so helpless when she first held him on these steps and helpless he had remained. She thinks of all the times she could protect him and the one time she couldn’t. She thinks of herself, so young and so blind and so afraid.
When she finally gathers the energy to pull on her boots and walk to the crossroad, she pauses before taking Ulysses from his cage. He stares at her with human eyes, at her wet cheeks and her trembling lips, and she grasps the wire with her fingers. He understands her, she thinks. It’s okay, he says.
She drags herself to the crossroads the seventh morning, her heart heavy with doubt. She wonders what will happen to her if this doesn’t work. She wonders if there is a lake nearby. She wonders if she has a dress with pockets.
On the eighth morning, she can still see the moon in the distance, hesitant to leave her. It’s a small comfort as her stomach twists. Tomorrow is the day. Harriet can barely sleep that night, but she dips under with the help of a few sleeping pills and resurfaces without any expanse of time between.
The ninth morning is as foggy as the first, so much so that it makes Harriet question whether or not the last eight days had been a dream; time is wary for her now, heavy and confusing. Harriet’s stomach clenches and she cards her fingers through the black feathers on Ulysses’ back to try to calm herself. He seems perfectly content in her arms, and it almost makes her feel guilty. She remembers now where she had heard the wives’ tale: from the woman who ran the corner store and always slipped bandages and fruit snacks into Harriet’s pockets whenever she came in. The words had been low, spoken to someone else as Harriet eavesdropped from behind a shelf of flour, but she had heard enough. Black chicken. Crossroad. Nine mornings. Demon. Whatever you want to know.
Harriet begins to count the birds she hears, her stomach becoming more and more of a knotted mess as the number grows higher and higher. Moments become minutes. Nerves become dread. And before she can shrivel to her knees, one waiting at a crossroad becomes two.
The man from the first morning stands before her, having appeared while she blinked. He wears the same clothes, his pipe smoking in his hand. Being this close to him, she can see how inhuman his eyes are, goat-like but not quite. She furrows her brows as she stares at him but stays rooted in her spot.
“What do you wish to know?” he asks.
Her eyes widen and she blinks, dumbfounded. She begins to shake, thinking that she’s finally lost her mind. She knows that if she speaks her wish, she confirms it. She doesn’t care.
“I want to know how to bring my son back.” Her voice is as rough as the gravel beneath her feet. The longer she looks at him, the more her eyes sting.
“Back from the dead?”
Harriet nods, swallowing thickly. “All the way back.”
“I see,” he says sympathetically, drawing on his pipe for a moment. When he speaks, smoke funnels from his mouth. “When you return home, ask a crow where your son is—ask nicely and only once. When you find him, don’t let him open his eyes until you take him to the place he died. You must always tell him the truth if he asks. Don’t ever insist that it was only a dream. If there’s a storm in the first week he’s back, he cannot stay and someone will come for him. If a week passes with no storm your son may stay. Do you understand?”
“I do. And he’ll be the same as he was?”
The man smiles and nods. “As if he never died.”
“Thank you,” she breathes.
The man turns and begins to walk away. Harriet stops him before he fades into the fog.
“Don’t you want the chicken?” she asks, holding her breath.
The demon smiles too wide. “No, he was only to keep you company.”
On her front porch, she finds a crow waiting for her, claws dug into the wet wood of the porch banister, staring at her with a cocked head as she grinds herself to a halt. She releases Ulysses, freeing him from her ownership, but he trots up the front porch steps, flies himself into the wicker rocking chair, and sits patiently.
To the crow, Harriet says, “Can you please show me where my son is?”
The crow waits a moment, just long enough for Harriet’s heart to twinge, before it takes off into the sky. Harriet runs after it, blades of grass pasting to her cold feet. She follows the crow past her yard and into the seemingly endless expanse of thick tobacco fields that tickle her knees and wet the bottom of her dress. Mist sticks to her throat as she struggles to breathe, her body having grown weak from the idleness of her grief. Her lungs blaze in protest and she feels pricks in her eyes but she keeps them on the crow soaring above.
The sky turns pink, then blue; the moon wishes her good luck and dips below the mountains, and the sun rises and watches over Harriet’s shoulder. When finally the crow dives to the ground in a small clearing, Harriet falls into the soft grass as it lands, unable to hold herself up anymore. She breathes heavily. The crow stands patiently as Harriet regains her strength and slowly sits up. She looks around, seeking her son. Before her are green hills and a few deer at the edge of the woods that gaze at her and twitch their tails. Beyond them, the mountains wait for her to catch on.
Harriet, not seeing her son, looks at the crow with desperation. It shoves its beak into the dirt then looks to her. She crawls weakly and the crow hops away, glancing between her and the patch of dirt. Harriet sits beside it and the crow seems to bow. When she finally digs her fingers into the crumbling earth it flies away. She goes slowly at first, doubtful. She can feel the bud of hope in her chest begin to open its petals, stretching and crowding her chest cavity, but just as she’s about to stick her dirty hand down her throat and clutch the bud in her fist, she feels something beneath the soil.
She picks up her pace and her arms ache as she uncovers her son. She brushes dirt from his face, out of his wheat-colored hair, and she can’t stop herself from staring at him for a moment. Fearfully, she forces herself to look at the small pile of dirt that still remains on his chest. She judges it carefully, holding her breath. There is no movement, until suddenly there’s up, down, up, down, up, down.
She releases a laugh of disbelief. She brushes the earth from his chest and pulls him from the hole, cradling him in her arms. Harriet watches him, her thumbs sweeping dirt from his cherub cheeks, tears flooding her eyes at the feeling of his soft, warm skin. His eyes flit beneath the purple veins of his lids, his downy lashes kissing the tops of his cheekbones. She drinks in the sight of him, realizing only now how much she had forgotten, seven years of tiny details lost in the relentless sea of grief and shame.
“Momma?” Leon groans, shifting in her arms, breaking her from her reverie. Her chest caves in relief, and she quickly covers his eyes with her hands before he can open them.
“I’m here, baby. Just don’t open yet.”
“Okay,” he mumbles sleepily, nuzzling further into her arms. She holds him as he drifts back to sleep and, though it pains her, she lays him on the ground so she can rip off a bit of her nightgown to make a blindfold. She wraps it carefully around his head and stands, picking him up. He rouses, but simply wraps his arms securely around her and rests his head on her shoulder. His breath fans her neck and his hair tickles her cheek. He’s heavy in her aching arms and she never wants to put him down.
She feels eyes watching her as she carries her son home: from the cows in the fields, the birds in the trees, and the women in their rocking chairs whose names she’s never been told but knows, somehow, by heart. She returns home too soon, the sun in the same place it had been when she began to dig. Inside, the house is still stale and bitter, and her feet plant themselves to the floor.
She sees it there, waiting for her as it has so many times before, as it had that afternoon so long ago. She creeps forward, her hand on Leon’s back to reassure herself. Up, down. Up, down. Up, down.
She stands at the base of the stairs, clutching her boy, staring down at the pool of blood. Shaking, she lays Leon in it, and kneels beside him. She covers her mouth with her hand to stop herself from sobbing aloud. Holding her breath, Harriet watches his chest rise and fall until it stops. She reaches for her son but becomes distracted when she sees that her hands are covered in blood. She looks to Leon, her body chilling at the sight of the bullet hole in his head. She feels herself begin to shake. Her whole life lies before her, small and pale, and she struggles to breathe, struggles to believe as she desperately searches his face for any sign of vitality. His mouth is slightly open, and she sees a tooth peeking through the empty space at the front of his gums. She looks up when she hears footsteps. A gun dangles in her husband’s hand, held as if it had no weight, no power.
“When did you get a gun?” It’s a stupid question, but it’s all she can think. Tears flood her eyes and the smell of iron tickles her nose and her senses can’t make sense of anything.
“Just for a little while,” George says, his eyes devouring her. His face is devoid of emotion. “When I started getting suspicious.”
“What have you done?” Her voice is crushed, quiet, trembling.
“I saw you with him.”
She stares at him, dumbfounded. “What have you done? What have you done?”
“Everything I’ve done for you. And you just throw it all away. For a fucking gardener?”
Harriet tries to lift her son’s head, wincing as her hands dip into the blood on the floor. She strokes his cheeks, her tears blurring her vision. She begs him to wake up, pressing her lips to his hands, his small fingernails, her head sinking to his rigid chest.
“I’ve known you so long, Hattie. I know I’ve done you wrong, but I never thought you’d betray me.”
Her shoulders shake as she sobs. Her eyes are clenched so tight it hurts. This must be a dream this must be a dream this must be a dream.
“I hope he was worth it,” George growls, his index finger moving to nestle the smooth metal of the trigger. “This is all your fault. It’s always your fault, isn’t it? You did this to us.”
She looks up at him once more, unable to see him clearly through her tears. He stares at her with numb rage. She tries to say something, but it hurts to hold her head up, it hurts to look at George, it hurts to feel her son growing cold beneath her. Her head falls to Leon’s chest again, her body curving over his, trying too late to protect him. As his shirt becomes wet with her tears, she remembers a time when they had both been much smaller and George had stood as threateningly above them as he does now. When she had been barely a woman, already a mother, and George had been so angry he could have killed her and his child within her. When she had thought the feeling of a steel-toe boot to the spine was the worst pain she would ever feel.
Harriet lifts her head, sniffling. The soil on Leon’s shirt has turned to mud where it’s mixed with her tears and his hand reaches for her, tiny nails packed with dirt. She grabs it fervently with one of her own, wipes her tears with her other.
“Momma, are you okay?”
She sniffs and takes a deep breath. “I’m okay, hun.” She examines him—the clean floor beneath his head, the perfect skin above his light brows.
“Can I take this off yet?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
She watches him reach for the blindfold, slowly peeling it from his face. When it’s clutched in his hand, he waits a moment before finally moving. Harriet holds her breath as he sits up onto his elbows, his eyes fluttering open. He looks at her, unsure, and tears fill her eyes again, her cheeks aching at the forgotten feeling of her smile. Her heart swells at the sight of his eyes, so much so that she puts a hand on her chest to stop it from cracking open. She had forgotten his eyes, couldn’t remember their exact hue despite the endless times she tried to recall how they looked when they were the first thing she’d see in the morning.
“Hi,” she whispers. She wants to pull him to her and never let him go, but she sees how he hesitates, like a baby deer about to stand for the first time.
She wants so badly to lie to him, but she won’t risk losing him again. “Your father, he . . . he did something terrible to you but . . . he’s gone now.” She reaches out a hand and cups his cheek. Leon looks at her for a moment, his eyes shining, his eyebrows raising in question. She knows one day she’ll have to explain it to him, but she’ll soften it for as long as she can. She can teach him to be okay with the truth. “He’s never going to hurt us ever again.”
Leon nods sullenly, blinking slowly. He looks up at his mother, and when she smiles at him, her brows turned upwards and tears wobbling in her eyes, he wraps his arms around her waist, tucking his head under her chin. She tangles a hand in his hair, dipping her nose to his scalp and breathing in the scent of him, of lavender soap and dirt.
“I missed you, Momma,” he mumbles.
“I missed you too, bug.” She pulls him into her lap, rocking him and clutching him. She wants to press him into herself, into the small alcove in which he had grown, but the moon rises into the sky with a sigh of relief and Leon wishes to go to bed. She stands and takes his hand, stopping a moment to admire his toothy, sleepy grin before leading him to his room. His bed is still unmade, his toys covered in dust, but he smiles at the sight of them, still exactly where he’d left them. She sings him to sleep, holding his hand and picking dirt from under his nails, having not forgotten the words to his favorite song despite the fact that she hadn’t even dared to think them since he’d been gone. When his eyes flutter closed and his hand slackens in hers, she presses a kiss to his cheek and tears herself from his bedside.
With a heavy, anxious heart, Harriet makes a cup of coffee and sits on the front porch steps, her knees hugged to her chest. She watches the leaves for any signs of a storm—a fight—and tries to think of a gentle way to tell her son that his father murdered him.
Cover Art by Martins Deep