Elizabeth Bishop pecked delicately around the wild onion, her feathers sleek and warm in the sun. “You didn’t even notice,” repeated Pushkin, a dark-winged Wyandot.
“I did, I did,” Bishop murmured, fluffing her gray feathers. The only Marans of the flock, she was reticent, thoughtful, and somewhat vain.
“Did not,” Pushkin insisted.
“Did too, did too.”
E.B., the white-tipped Wyandot, stepped calmly in between the two. “So if she’s back, where is she?” She scratched the earth with a craggy toe, pecked at the unpromising clay.
The chickens looked at each other quickly, and then, as if something had been resolved, hurried to the side yard, joining Emily Dickenson. “Where is she, she?” Bishop cried. “Where is she?”
“Who? When?” Emily asked.
“Anna! Anna Akhmatova!” they cried, all together, until Emily, too, was shrieking “Anna! Anna Akhmatova!”
Then they saw, like a shimmering mirage, that golden-feathered bird. She was in the lower yard, a yard so thorny with privet that they often forgot about it altogether for days or hours, for long stretches of sunlight. “Anna! Anna!” the hens cried.
But it was not she. It was merely Marianne Moore, the Aracauna, darker twin of Anna, who moved so dimly among the weeds. Moore sighed. No one would call her name if she vanished. They barely knew she existed now, and only as the dull reproduction of her lost twin.
A crow, watching the commotion in the yard, called down, “No, you idiot hens. That’s not the chicken you’re looking for. That’s the other one.”
“The other one?” E.B. tilted her sleek head.
“The other one! The other one!” Emily cried. Then, “Oh.”
“No, not her, not her,” said Bishop, dropping to dust herself in a fine dry hollow of earth.
“Not her,” agreed Pushkin. His tone was thoughtful.
Moore busied herself within the privet, believing, as usual, that no one would see her there. The privet hedge grew only as high as her wings, but covered her feet so that she seemed invisible to herself as she walked. And, indeed, no one called to her as she moved away from the flock. Dimwits, she thought to herself.
Pushkin felt the newly familiar ache settle fixedly in his hollow bones. The quick wriggle of a beetle beneath a rotten log caught in his beak, but that satisfaction was gone before he’d even noticed it. It had been Anna who’d allowed a kind of delight in things, Pushkin thought dully. Anna Akhmatova.
Anna Akhmatova had been a rather unremarkable bird, save for her teal-colored eggs that seemed to always clutter the very nest box in which you wanted to settle, and her golden feathers, strewn about within the straw. Though she might have been a pretty bird, most of the time she was disheveled, with bare pimpled patches of skin where feathers should have been.
It had been this rather forlorn quality that had initially attracted Pushkin’s attention. At first, it was a kind of fascination with how extensive the damage would become, as one after another of the chickens distanced herself, leaving Anna the damp corner in which to settle, snatching from her even mediocre stems of violets or leftover husks of pine. If it were raining, it was Anna who’d be pushed from the dry dirt beneath the house to take shelter beneath the pokeberry’s leaves. At night, it was Anna who somehow couldn’t find a place upon the roost. They all knew it, but no one said it aloud.
Would it have been different if they had? This was a question, in Pushkin’s mind.
Now Anna had simply turned her back, gone her own way. Pushkin believed she’d gone before. But never for a night. Now it had been a night. Or three nights. Time for a chicken is measured, not remembered. Each night falls, sudden and distinct as any other. Each night rises, sensational in its every singular aspect. Night, by night, by night, each night a mysterious perfection, each morning a visitation of unknowable light. Memory-less, Pushkin couldn’t, beyond a clarion brightness of wings, call to mind a vision of the departed Anna. Her absence, filling the yard like sunlight, was everywhere.
Sudden squawking from the upper corner of the yard filled his heart with terror, and his voice rose with the rest as they hurried down the slope, where they gathered, trembling, upon a bald shade-covered mound. Instantly, their cries ceased, and their spiny toes once again began to work the ground. Pushkin found himself beside Emily Dickenson, who turned excitedly towards him, but then seemed at a loss of what, exactly, she might say. The air filled with ellipses.
“What was up there?” Pushkin heard himself ask, knowing already the answer.
Emily looked grateful. “Nothing,” she said proudly. “Nothing at all. Better safe.
“Yes,” replied Pushkin. He plucked a mite from beneath her wing. “Better safe.”
“I always say so,” Emily said. “Anna wasn’t. Look what happened.”
“What did happen?”
“Well, of course we’ll never know. Of course not. But isn’t it awful? I think it’s awful. Better safe. She left. It’s been nights and nights. Longer. She left.”
A yellow swallowtail flitted across the yard, so close Pushkin could almost taste it. A small streak of pollen flowed in its wake, scattering brightly through the thin morning air. The heady scent of grass from the away place, beyond the yard, came with the breeze, and the chickens, all of them at once, paused, their heads fixed in rapt attention, their eyes unseeing. And then the breeze shifted, and they returned as they had always been.
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she does any number of things for love and for money. Her work has recently been published or is forthcoming at The Missouri Review, Poetry International Online, Empty Mirror, Ploughshares online, and more. She has an MFA from VCFA, and has been awarded fellowships through Ragdale Foundation, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and others.