I notice the broody hen first because I fear she’s gone missing, eviscerated stealthily in the night by some accursed varmint from among the animals I would have once considered “cute” but now consider my most deeply personal nemeses. But no, she has not been carried off in terror like the inimitable beauty of a Blue Polish rooster we once had, Fitzroy St. John, God rest his exquisitely feathered soul. After searching for her in vain, I check the laying boxes at last, and there she is, her sweet little beak peaking out from beneath the golden and black laced feathers of her crest.
My heart sinks. “There’s no way those eggs are fertile,” I tell Steven, lamenting her devotion to futility. There is something so melancholy about it, this blind desire in her to hatch chicks, a desire which inspires a kind of single-minded mania.
They say a broody hen will sit on rocks. I feel her pain.
When I return from my volleyball game that evening, Steven casually mentions that he took the eggs from under her, returning “a couple” when she protested with querulous squawks. Oh, I shrug. Well, whatever. There’s virtually no way they could be fertile, I reassure myself.
But the next morning as I lay awake when he gets up at five, awaiting sleep to envelop me again, I hear him crack an egg for his morning omelet. I hear the tap and fragile crunch of the shell on the rim of the bowl, married sounds, and I hear his “Ohhhh…” a drawn out expression of low grade shock. And I know before I leap out of bed and race into the kitchen. It (he? She?) is enwombed by the viscous clear egg whites, a blood clot in the shape of a bird, its cavernous black eye enormous, seeing but unseeing.
I start to cry and Steven gets defensive. Who can blame him? “You said they had to be infertile!” he exclaims. “I thought they were!” I moan.
I frantically begin Googling for ways to tell if the remainder of the eggs could contain this delightful (if replaced under her) or gruesome (if cruelly and unwittingly aborted, by us, for an omelet) surprise and discover candling. I immediately grab her eggs one by one and run back and forth to from the chicken pen to the house, where I retreat to the laundry room and crane my head into the dryer, which I reckon is perhaps the darkest place available, and rotate every egg in our basket this way and that above the exceedingly modest luminosity of Steven’s headlamp.
There is something… maybe… is there? I rush out to place a few back under her which I dimly perceive might possibly potentially have something embryonic within, and I ask for eggs from a friend whom I know has a cadre of majestically virile roosters.
She twitters anxiously as I scoot eggs back under her ruffled form. Does she know, I wonder? Does she know we killed her baby? I just wish I could call my dad and lament to someone who cares but instead I have to call my mom, who, God bless her, tries her best but after the third distracted “uh huh” I remember that she just doesn’t have the chicken gene, or really any remote interest in creatures of any kind. (How she and my dad ended up together is one of the enduring enigmas of the ages. I know they say that opposites attract, but when your opposite feels absolutely no trace of warmth even when confronted with, say, a Shiba Inu teacup puppy and you insist on owning a small menagerie and feeding the raccoons on the back porch bread slices by hand, making them feel so very welcome that they in turn move into the walls of your house and interrupt family movie night with violent, keening turf wars, there is some greater mystery at hand.)
My passionate venture to make things right, to undo what has been done, to put the chicken back in the egg or the egg back around the chicken, whichever comes first cause I don’t care anymore as long as Yolanda gets a baby, quickly turns obsessive. There’s going to be a baby in this household, I mutter fixedly as I shoo another chicken – Goldie - away from Yolanda’s box. There are five other boxes to choose from, I yell at her – actually, whisper-yell, so as not to disturb the brooding Yolanda. FIVE! I hiss, batting her aside. Oh, there will be a baby.
Yet the endeavor seems doomed. The morning after I randomly place several eggs from the carton my rooster-laden friend left on our porch, she messages me to tell me only to use the eggs on the left side of the carton because the rest were found in the barn and would likely be old and infertile. I have no idea whether I used eggs from the left or the right, or even which end was which after I carried the carton to the pen with no reason to be cognizant of such things.
Please, God, I pray. Please let one of these dang eggs be fertile. My prayer is edged with desperation, fringed with the mad glint of vicarious craving. It’s more telling than asking. I insist, it says.
For three long weeks I candle the eggs, turning them again this way and that, contorting my body at odd angles to get maximum darkness in the hushed chamber of our dryer. I think I see something in one egg. No, I’m sure, I tell Steven. There’s a chick! I’m sure! I am elated.
But quickly I turn from a doting nana into a cruel mistress. When I see Yolanda in the yard I allow her only a brief respite – a few minutes of pecking at the grain trough, a few hurried sips at the waterer, and then back to the incubating grindstone as I anxiously usher her back to her nest. “You get back on those eggs, girl,” I scold, shooing her the last few steps up the ramp into the coop.
Day 21 arrives and as much as I know I should leave her alone, I am utterly unable. I’ve morphed into a ganglion of neurosis, checking compulsively to see if I hear any chirps yet, if The Egg is “pipped”, as they say. Yet afternoon arrives, then evening, and nothing. I scurry out to the coop at dawn, and still the surface of The Egg remains smooth and gentle tapping elicits no sound. My heart fills with dread as I carry it to my viewing chamber. Perhaps my eyes were too eager, too rose-tinted, and saw what they wanted to see. Because now as I turn it this way and that over the meager light, the pocket that I was so sure was an air sac moves as I twist the egg, swirling freely under its surface.
There is no chick.
I go behind the pen and dash it to the ground, an act of angry defiance. The shell is hard, which explains its opacity, and it takes two tries before it splits and the rotten yolk spatters on my legs and oozes into the earth. I feel like I should cry but the disillusionment has been so swift that numbness prevails, a colorless blot of anti-emotion bleeding outward from the center of things. I’m so sorry, girl, I whisper to her as I take the other eggs and smash them in rapid succession. They are less rancid than The Promised Egg, but still, they contain nothing but yellow yolks and clear whites, not so much as a bloodied hint of new life.
Jeremiah’s words reverberate painfully through me and the sharp acrid sting of tears finally arrives:
“You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails.”
Why must everything end in barrenness?! I cry, through gritted teeth and balled fists and a heart clenched tight, the stony encrustations of bitterness blooming on it like monstrous barnacles. Why do I even bother hoping things will turn out differently? I spit out, words so hopeless and acid that I don’t even want them to linger on my tongue. Yet I know it is out of the overflow of the heart that my mouth speaks. Another verse arises, from Isaiah: “We were with child, we writhed in labor, but we gave birth to wind.”
Instead of new life, flatulence. Instead of a downy chick, so fresh and soft and innocent, the avatar of secular Easter, instead of that and all it portends – rottenness.
But after my initial tantrum, after this stricken barrenness that seems to echo my own condition, that seems to have defined the entire past year of my life, yet another verse arises, and Job himself, my pal, my chum, my commiserator in misery, my wrestling buddy, scolds me as he scolds his wife: “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” But it all seems like such a cruel parody. Just when I hoped for life, death comes in triplicate: barrenness, my sister, my dad.
Jesus came to bring life, and life to the full. I remember a line I jotted down from our pastor’s sermon years ago: “Resurrection is always stalking you in ways you have yet to detect.” The entire cosmos, created through Jesus and for Jesus and in whom all things hold together, according to Colossians, thrums with the promise of resurrection, of new life, germinating unseen in secret places beneath the soil. It seems that life finds a way, a reality I cursed nastily several weeks before the egg incident as I hacked with a machete at the mound of aggressively invasive flowering Japanese honeysuckle which threatened to swallow my rosebushes, an evil I did indeed resist to the point of shedding blood. Life finds a way, I know. Resurrection finds a way.
But as I stripped off my rotten-egg pants and threw them desultorily into the washer, another sentiment prevailed in my heart: death finds a way. Oh death, where is thy sting? It is here, now. So it feels.
But I know: there is no soil without death. There is no nourishment without death. The Apostle Paul says we always carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in them. A few mornings later I am struck by a verse in Colossians, where Paul says “but now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight…” I box the phrase through death several times with my pen. There is no life without death, and yet in Christ it isn’t a vaguely Eastern new-agey ying-yang duality of opposing but equal forces as I once believed in my LSD-saturated lost years. Life and death are not equal. God didn’t honor death, he siphoned it of its power. He removed its sting, filed its cruel barbs to nothingness just as he will one day make the valleys raised up and the mountains low and the rough places smooth, as Isaiah prophesies. He will make the bitter sweet forever.
Still, here, now: it wasn’t sweet to realize the egg I’d been coddling for three weeks was actually slowly morphing into a stink bomb of putrefaction. I feel the whole creation groaning in my bones, the depth of brokenness dragging me down like a leaden weight into the dead zone of despair. But the Spirit in me balks, sounds a note of defiance: no. It doesn’t end this way. And I think of Him.
There’s such good reason Paul tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus. When I do, questions which once seemed urgent recede. There are no canned answers, no platitudes, no easy corollaries that bind the world in black and white. But there is something so much sweeter, something which elicits such profound relief that peals of laughter escape me like confetti and cleansing tears tumble down like a fresh baptism. Here is LOVE. Here is love that is unafraid of my darkness and in fact took it upon Himself and paid the price, love in which I am utterly and wholly known and still loved perfectly.
Yet after my quivering, desperation-laced prayers for Yolanda to have chicks go unanswered, along with my own prayers for a baby, I sulk for a solid week. The enemy intonates his sibilant lies, barely audible hisses skulking on the periphery of my consciousness. How do you know prayer does anything? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s all just random chaos; sometimes prayers get answered and sometimes they don’t, not because he is working all things for your good and he knows better but because there is a vacuum rather than a fullness at the center of things. Maybe he’s not even there. Maybe it’s all just random bilge colliding, or not colliding, driven by base hunger and blind bestial appetites.
But my soul balks at these unctuous perfidies. My soul balks at the very idea of chaos, the idea that meaning does not inhere in every little thing, the idea that endings are just that – endings – a gut punch of finality. Even in my seasons of doubt, I can never slip back into the prideful atheistic materialism of my pre-Jesus life.
So I persist. I pray. I start to pray profligately, promiscuously, everywhere over everything. I mutter entreaties to God under my breath over the most trivial of matters, as I pace the house searching for my keys or a book. And what do you know, he answers everything without fail and with remarkable alacrity. Things I didn’t even know I’d lost are found. It’s like my birthday! Who can this be, that even things lost for months to the abyss of our overcluttered home obey him?!
One day we are running late, again, when I realize we need to raid the house for an overdue library book. When Izzy exclaims “but I haven’t seen that one in weeks!” I simply say “Pray. Pray about it. I will, too, right now.” He sets out to search for it and a few short seconds later I hear a cry of triumph from the “third bedroom”, a room perpetually in progress, which progress consists mostly of long periods of inactivity and thus it has become a repository for various things we don’t quite want to get rid of but also don’t want to behold on a daily basis. He rushes back in to the kitchen.
“It was in the third bedroom! I found it right after I prayed about it! God led me to it! And right under it was this other book we already paid for!” he yells in awe. I’m not quite as impressed with his secondary find, as, yes, I already paid for it. The loss of library books was never an affliction I suffered prior to having children. As he gesticulates an object flies out of the book and he quickly bends down to pick it up.
“My lost library card!” he shrieks in amazement. I already paid for a new one of those, too, but I let him have his moment. “God is answering all our prayers!” he exclaims, with his signature guileless wonder.
Arrow, not content to allow such trusting awe to go unchallenged, also a signature personality trait of her own, spits out in the venomously cute way that only she can: “IZZY! It just fell out of the book on its own. That wasn’t God!”
“Arrow!” I am aghast, though suppressing a laugh at her typical intransigent certainty. “How do you know that?” I shake my head. “You don’t know that!”
“It just fell out. It wasn’t God,” she repeats, though this time with less volume and less vehemence. Now my heart sinks. Is this what I believe, too? It just happened, or didn’t happen. That wasn’t God.
“Arrow,” I begin. “Jesus said that not even a sparrow falls to the ground outside of the Father’s care.” I try to sound authoritative. But do I believe it? Still, I say it. I will let Jesus be Jesus, even when I doubt.