“Civilization had long cast her out even before she could make an effort to blend in.” A short story where a child of the pure wild yearns for to be free from the memories of her dark past…
by: Sarp Sozdinler
“Cock-a-doodle-doo,” she crowed, perched on the wooden fence separating her father’s barnyard from nothing. The surrounding land showed no sign of life for miles on end although it was past dawn. She cried for the second time — louder, more guttural this time around, hoping for a different outcome.
The brood of chickens she’d been looking after for the past six years clucked their way out of the barn and paraded toward her across the yard. She remained seated on the fence and greeted the fowl one by one. She’d named her chickens after the months they were born in, hoping the planets would help shape their characters in the same way August shaped hers. March, June, July, November, among others, marking a full calendar year when huddled together. Despite the occasional bumps in camaraderie, they could be called a tightly knit bunch, in which she took pride.
Sometimes, she found herself pondering on what it would feel like to be a chicken. She envied their silly nonchalance. Most days, they scratched, pecked, and sometimes even purred without seemingly the slightest care in the world. They didn’t have to worry about any of the modern-day concerns of her life, most certainly not an overdue student loan. It had been the reason why she moved out of the city in the first place and moved back to her childhood home in this middle of nowhere.
Her father shouted August’s name from across the yard. She turned around, sniffing the air like an animal alerted in the wild. The old man started limping toward her down the same path her chickens had taken only a minute prior. Even from half a yard apart, his body odor wafted out in thick threads, burning through her nostrils all the way into her brain.
“Go wash your silly face,” he said as he stopped by the fence, his face still half-asleep. On many an occasion in the past, he’d taken great offense at his daughter’s quirky habits, including her rooster-like crowings and complete abandoning of the English language. He’d threatened to take her to doctors, commit her to a hospital. This morning, he seemed more troubled than usual, eyeing her in the same way an animal would another animal in the wild. “I said git up.”
Washee-dee-do, she mumbled to herself, then hopped off the fence. She sulked toward the back of the barn where a rusty bathtub completed a crooked trinity with a broken washing machine and a bare-chested mannequin. The chickens followed after her, uncharacteristically quiet as if to try not to disturb their caretaker’s mood.
The sun glinted off the tap of the bathtub as the first jet of hot water sputtered and needled her skin. Her hair was tangled into a sticky swirl and her cheeks were sooty with the grime of a scorching hot Midwestern day. She hated bathing, more so bathing against the view of the copse of birch trees that drew an artificial horizon along the valley. It was where the men in white uniform had pinned her down in the mud following one of her father’s fits, made her swallow colorful pills. They kept her in custody for god knows how long in a place that couldn’t have looked more different from the barn, away from her chickens. Strapped to a bed, she mumbled to them stories about how she’d erected from the dirt, how she didn’t have a mother, how she was but an immaculate conception.
She was the mother of chicken after all, a child of nature.
She turned off the tap, wishing for a better start to her day. Water shot back and the pipes trembled to a howl. She would take scrunching in the shit and mud along with her chicken any day instead of this, the way she did most Tuesdays right after her father would leave for the city. She would bathe in the moonlight then, drunk on all the piss and sweat.
She flinched, almost toppling over in the tub. She folded her arms over her chest on a whim. How come she didn’t hear this strange man sneak up on her, it escaped her. She exchanged conspiratorial glances with May II, three years May I’s junior, the alpha and the bully of the pack. The animal didn’t seem to mind the intrusion, looking clueless as a duck.
“Don’t be afraid, child,” the man said to her all giddy-like. A shit-eating grin wormed into the corners of his lips. “Say, where your papa at?”
She gazed at the yard for her father, to no luck. He must have taken the truck in her absence, already made his way downtown. Since he started attending the fair in the city, he’d become obsessed with the idea of upgrading his barn to modern methods of poultry raising, despite her protests. It could even be argued that he doted upon his chicken better than he’d ever taken care of his children, having fed the domesticated beasts with a diligently curated diet of yams and North American crabapples on weekdays and marinated pumpkins on the weekend.
“Tell me, girl,” the man started again in the absence of a conversation. “Tell me where your papa at and I’ll be gone. Just like that.”
She tried to voice the last English word she could salvage from the bowels of her memory, but her lips trembled and betrayed her in forming a proper sound. She considered making a run for the woods, but she knew the sparsity of trees wouldn’t help. The fires had rendered the woods far and apart the past summer, lending it a naked and uninhabitable look. Besides, she couldn’t leave her chickens behind, definitely not to the hands of this stranger.
Abruptly, she whistled something close to a cry. The chickens fluttered their lazy wings on the cue and made a quick whirl around the man. They couldn’t look further from intimidating, but their silly little moves sufficed to break a commotion, unsettling the dust around his feet. The man cursed at the animals and kept hopping about on his axis, all too confused.
When he finally made a break from the bullying circle, he realized the girl had long jumped over the fence to the north and made it halfway toward the copse. He ran after her, yelling unintelligibly. She plunged headlong into the woods without looking back, practically panting. The trees welcomed her with no questions asked, hiding her among the sameness of their bodies. What was one more animal amid this jumble of manmade devastation? What did purity mean at a time like this?
She ran and ran until time became one thing and her body another. The droplets of bathwater had dried to a naught and given way to beads of sweat. She reached an opening where the sun beat a squarish patch of grass dead and yellow. She could still hear the man yelling at her from a distance, at times more clearly. At one point, she even heard him shout how she was a whore like her mother, but she refused to believe him. She knew she was motherless, a product of the pure wild. It was the same wild that was now violated by the collective roar of passing cars somewhere beyond the nearest line of trees, which somehow made her more anxious than the threat of the man. Civilization had long cast her out even before she could make an effort to blend in. She didn’t stand a chance out there, not any more than where she ended up today.
She stepped out onto the road, buck naked. The cars whizzed by her, honking occasionally at the sight of this wild girl. She feared that they made her presence more visible by doing so, but she was out of options. She couldn’t risk going back to the barn, back to where various men made her suffer at various times. She just hoped her chickens were safe, counting on their at times silly defense mechanisms. Her father would eventually find a way of making life better in the barn in her absence, even maybe reproduce her chickens into endless brethren as he’d been planning to do so since the start of the fair for financial reasons.
An SUV slowed to a stop by her side. The door to the passenger side opened with a grouch. An old man with a Dodgers cap leaned over and extended her a crumpled quilt, making a visible effort to look away. In this low, grumbly voice, he told her to hop in. She stood looking at him, her nostrils flaring as if to identify the nature of this proposition. She took one hesitant step toward the truck, refusing to hold anything other than the handle of the door. She tried to prime herself to the idea of getting in at first, then of grabbing the quilt, and then finally went ahead and carried them all out in this particular order.
Soon after she stepped in, the truck coughed like a lion on its deathbed and moved on. It roared past several water towers and grain silos and other industrial structures that seemed necessary for the continuity of contemporary human life that she’d escaped from all those years ago. In utmost silence, they passed along some textures of civilization she hadn’t seen in some time, maybe other than his father’s truck. All those drivers and passengers and pedestrians, with their variety of outfits and pierced mouths curling into endless many shapes while trying to articulate themselves within the boundaries of the English language. Watching them do what they do, her head kept twitching like a nervous tic, the memories of her old life clashing with the new.
“So,” the driver said after what could be five or fifteen minutes, his eyes fixed on the road. “Where you from, kiddo?”
Squirming further into the quilt that wrapped her, she feigned an interest in the lock of the glovebox, this steel vignette of two rattlesnakes facing and hissing at each other. The man kept bobbing his head up and down as if she spoke back to him in telepathic waves.
“Would you like something to eat or drink?”
She looked out the window to her side to avoid eye contact. Cars to their left and right found their places in this mess as if in an intuitive order and those that failed got shamed with honks. At one point she considered opening the door and jumping out, but the man pulled over to the rightmost lane just in time.
He eased the truck into a gas station that looked abundantly large and white against everything else along the roadside. The vehicle lurched to a stop between two other SUVs, then hissed serenely as if it found its proper home. The man opened the door to his side and hopped out, yet she remained still in her seat. She couldn’t tell whether she would be allowed to exist outside with nothing but an old patterned quilt separating her from the rest of the world. She wouldn’t even know what to do at a place like this. The last time she was inside a diner was a little over six years ago, when her thesis counselor invited her over for lunch, only a week before her total exile from civilization. She had come on the verge of expulsion by then, desperately looking for a third job to make ends meet. The counselor sprinkled their conversation with such technical terms as repayables and disenrollment and indelible record, intimidating her further into the darkest corners of her consciousness, her loneliness. She’d broken into tears in front of him without even realizing it, feeling the warm salt on her cheeks. Other than her tears, however, she remained silent the whole time as if to test out her future speech habits, or the lack thereof.
Once inside, the driver seated himself at a windowside booth and motioned for her to sit. She could feel all the eyes inside the diner swerving to her involuntarily, which made her bury her head in the quilt like the rest of her body. When the waiter arrived, he didn’t seem to mind her presence or simply pretended not to care, which she appreciated. The truck driver ordered some poached eggs for himself and pancakes for her, without asking first. For a second, she couldn’t decide which version of herself she hated more: the girl who let all those things happen to her, or the girl who managed to escape it all.
When their orders arrived, she gazed into his plate full of delicate white cover with a razor-sharp focus and sniffed the billowing steam in. She thought of all the chickens that were hustled into producing those eggs. The yolk looked chipped around the edges, which hinted at a challenging birth. May II, when it first laid eggs, screamed so loud it made its coop-mate November faint. August felt so helpless back then, frightened to lose one of her closest friends. She was against breeding all along, but her father wouldn’t budge. He insisted they keep at it on the grounds of having a healthier financial cycle, at the cost of sounding like her thesis counselor.
“We’ve still got some way to go,” the driver said as he took the first stab into his plate. The yolk squashed and spread across the white ceramic, separating the whites and yellows like territories of land.
“I guess you’re not going to open that pretty mouth of yours at all, are you?” He furrowed a brow over his next bite and laughed to himself. She abruptly got up from the table and stood there with her palms pressed against the coldness of the marble surface, which made her quilt sling low over her bare shoulders. Her lips trembled on the verge of a word but then gave into a pursed, flat grin as she turned around to head for the hallway, her hands clasped to the edges of her quilt. The woman who’d just exited the bathroom kept her distance with August as she passed by her in the hallway, careful not to engage in eye contact. August didn’t mind. Everything about her immediate surroundings felt incredibly distant as it was. Even the doorknob felt alien in the cup of her palm, making her suspect there was an element of wrongness in everything she did, from the pressure she applied to the creak of the door that just didn’t sound right.
In the dimness of the bathroom, she found solace. The walls struck an earthy green that she appreciated. A quick glance at the mirror made her stop in her tracks, let her go of the quilt. Every part of her body was betraying what little she remembered of her old self, what had remained of her sense of self-esteem. She realized she hadn’t taken a good look at herself in a long, long while. Her reflection struck different shades of dark around her cheeks even against the cleanliness of the mirror. She seemed to have forgotten altogether about those paled almond eyes of hers, which had once sufficed to make everyone stop on the campus with their glimmer. Even back then they chased after her, only in an entirely different way. She had become a monster of sorts since, as was now evident in the mirror, caked in years of hopelessness and her own shit.
Upon exiting the bathroom, she stood in the fork of hallways and gazed about the diner, naked, hopeless, cold. She took a good long look into the main area where she’d walked in through with the truck driver, now watching him wipe the grease off his lips with a balled-up napkin. She tried to see in her mind’s eye what he might have thought looking at her face when he’d first opened the door and offered her a ride. With a feeling that awfully resembled shame, she started running for the opposite direction which after a few steps blocked her passage with a steel door opening out to a backyard replete with punctured tires and industrial waste. Though neither side of the door looked especially appealing, she itched to get out, burning with a desire to scorch her skin under the skin and erase all the memories of her recent awakening.
The trees looked lonelier than ever as she trudged into the neighboring park, which shared a degree of sameness with her complexion. She walked down paths riddled with the fallout of human connection: the totaled beverage cans, retired condoms. The branches snapped and the bushes rustled all around her, each a harbinger of another potential danger. She squatted under an off-path oak tree, the veiny roots of which curved along a rim of pebble and dust, a potent hiding place that the copse of birch trees near her home couldn’t offer her back when she was still relatively close to the barn, not stuck in this nonplace. To her surprise, she yearned for her father’s voice. She wouldn’t know how to contact him even if she wanted to. She missed her chickens, too, even though only half a day had passed. Never once had she strayed this far from home since her move back six years ago, never left them to their own devices. She knew those creatures were as much a byproduct of nature as she was, grasping at the straws with nothing but survival and pure instinct.
She heard something close to a footstep somewhere behind her. Above her. Plural. She sniffed the air as if it would make any difference. A pair of giggles filled the light wind, one hoarser than the other, unmistakably a man and a woman. She held her breath until they moved near her and then away from her. In the stillness of the air, she could hear them topple over, followed by the meshed sounds of some stripped clothes and frictious body parts. She heard them moan and bounce against the firmness of the earth. Involuntarily, she thought back on her old days in the city full of boys and girls and fun. The snapshots of her own body moving through other places and other bodies crowded her mind. It surely had been a while since she’d done anything like that. Her old campus shouldn’t be too far away from —where? The woods? This neighborhood? Where she stood in the world, wherever the hell she was? Perhaps, she could pay a visit to her old department, touch the spine of books, feel their weight in her hand. Perhaps, if she was lucky enough, she could give her counselor a heart attack by simply showing up in his office, make him face the monster he helped create. Make him regret for thinking that maybe she wasn’t good enough, that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea for her to let things go anyway.
The moans had stopped.
“Cock-a-doodle-doo,” she held her head up and crowed at the sun, the shards of light piercing through the tangled branches and blinding her eyes.
The sun didn’t reply.
Sarp Sozdinler splits his time between Philadelphia and Amsterdam. His short fiction has been published in Electric Literature, Kenyon Review, Masters Review, DIAGRAM, Normal School, American Literary Review, among other places. Some of his pieces have been selected or nominated for anthologies (Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, Wigleaf Top 50), and awarded as a finalist at various literary contests, including the 2022 Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction Award. He is currently at work on his first novel. (sarpsozdinler.com | @sarpsozdinler)
Header art by Lucia Heffernan.