Chicken Saint

by Mary E. Casey

I've been asking Mother for a chicken.

"Do I look like a farmer to you?" Standing in the living room in a leopard-print nightie and flip-flops, she does not.

I quote from the book I found in the reject bin at the Reno public library three Saturdays ago, The Little Book of Saints:

"St. Bridget protects chickens and the people who raise them."

The label pasted inside the front cover reads, Out of circulation: subject matter lacking in interest to children.

"Well, you're not St. Bridget and we're not getting a chicken. You're named after your grandma Bridget and she was no saint."

I appeal to her love of money.

"We could sell the eggs, Mother."

"Muh-ther. Why can't you call me Amber like everyone else?"

"Money and eggs. We'd be doubly blessed."

Mother laughs, waving her arms and swaying her hips as she turns in a circle.

"We're doubly blessed all right, baby girl! I'm a drunk and you're a head case. Thank you, Jesus!"

She claps for Jesus and dances into the kitchen. She comes back holding a juice glass filled with a clear liquid that has no smell and seems harmless until she drinks it and turns into someone else, a good queen under a bad spell.

Like my patron saint, I pray silently for a chicken and the promise of protection.

When Brandon comes out of the bedroom, he plops onto the couch like a man-sized toad landing on a lily pad. His belly anchors him to the cushion and he rests his feet on the glass-topped coffee table, his stick legs bent. He shakes a cigarette from the pack and motions to Mother to give him a drink from her glass.

"Hard night?" She hands him the glass and he drains it in one gulp.

"Hey! I had a hard night, too."

He turns the glass upside down on the coffee table.

"Sorry, Bridge, none left for you. I hope you didn't have a hard night praying." He presses his palms together, eyes heavenward, and draws on the cigarette until it flares orange. He reaches his bare leg across the coffee table to poke me with his toe, aiming for, and hitting, my almost-breast.

I move out of his reach and stand by the window in what I hope is a perpetual sunbeam like the one that followed St. Bridget around. The warmth feels good on my sore nipple. If I forgive Brandon, it's only because I want God's grace for bigger things.

"Praying isn't hard. See?" I close my eyes and let the sunbeam carry my prayer. Mother and Brandon laugh.

"Your daughter's a freak, Amber. A pretty little freak."

* * *

"What's with the eye patch?" Mother stops twisting the bow tie around her neck.

"My prayer's been answered: I'm deformed." That means ugly. Like, invisible.

"Shit. Don't make things hard for me, Bridget. I have to be at the casino in thirty minutes."

I let her remove the patch and inspect my face. She does it gently and her fingers feel nice.

"There's a farmers' market across from the library on Saturdays. A lady there raises chickens. She'll sell us a chick."

I appeal to her maternal instinct.

"I'll take care of it, I promise."

"You're fine." She pushes my face away but I hear the relief in her voice. "Stay out of trouble. Brandon should be home by 4:00."

I won't be here but I don't say so. When she leaves I go to their bedroom—her bedroom—though his smell claims one of the pillows and most of the dirty clothes on the floor. I pick through the pile for Brandon's jeans and collect the money from his pockets. Six dollars and change.

The woman at the farmers' market remembers me and shows me her chicks. We choose one that's only three days old.

"She needs plenty of mash and water. But not too much water, not too deep that is, or she'll try to drown herself."

"Why?" I stroke the chick's downy head with my pinkie.

"Baby chicks miss their cozy eggs. If she sees a container of water, she'll dive right in thinking she can go back where it's safe and warm. That urge wears off after a week, though, so just keep an eye on her until she's old enough to survive."

I bless the chicken lady: may she never run out of butter. She nestles my chick in a shoebox filled with shredded paper. I buy some mash from her and take my chick for her first bus ride.

* * *

Brandon's car is parked in front of the apartment building. He's belly up on the couch, but doesn't ask where I've been or what I have in the box.

"Stealing's a sin, Saint Freak."

I hear the drink in his voice and head to my room without answering. He leaps from the couch nicking his shin on the edge of the coffee table, which makes him madder but doesn't slow him down. He corners me in the hallway.

"I want my money, Bridget. Now." He holds out his hand.

"I confess: I took it for the good of us all. Mother will pay you back."

"Mother already owes me money, stupid. And what's good for me is what's good for us all. If I'm not happy no one's happy, and I am very unhappy right now."

He waggles the fingers of his outstretched hand. "My money."

I appeal to his laziness and his appetite.

"I'll make you breakfast for a week. One breakfast for each dollar I took."

"Right," he says with a sound like a laugh but isn't a laugh. "And who's buying the groceries? Huh, Bridget?" He squeezes my shoulder to make sure I'm paying attention, that I'm following his logic.

I understand but I won't follow. It's Brandon who has to follow me now, for the good of us all.

"St. Bridget protects chickens and the people who raise them."

"You crazy bitch."

Brandon hits me. His fist lands in my deformed eye and I think maybe this is how it's meant to be, that my prayers are being answered and the protection is working. But Brandon's next punch knocks the shoebox out of my hands and my chick falls to the floor with a peep.

"What's that?"

I scramble to reach her before Brandon does. I pick her up and run to the bathroom, the only room in the apartment with a lock. Brandon curses me from the other side of the door while I plug the sink and fill it with warm water. My chick quivers. I can feel her heart through my fingers but I don't know if she's afraid or ecstatic. When I hold her over the sink, she sees the water and strains toward it.

"Goddam you, Bridget," Brandon hollers and beats the door.

I let go. I pray to St. Bridget for all she protects—poultry farmers, milkmaids, fugitives, bastards—and for my chick, gulping her way back to the egg. I pray for the good of us all.

BIO: Mary E. Casey's stories have appeared in Minerva Rising and Bad Jobs: My Last Shift at Albert Wong's Pagoda and Other Ugly Tales of the Workplace. She lives in Seattle and is working on a novel about two women, a man, and a telescope set in Ireland in 1845.