I. April 2022

I was too slow to take a picture on the first morning. I didn’t see her until I’d backed out of my spot. Seeing her alive, her neck held high, stunned me.

I lived by a traffic-congested intersection in Greenville, South Carolina, across the street from an abandoned lot, a bus stop, and a homeless shelter. Jacked-up trucks roared past my bedroom window through most hours of the day and night, so I was amazed that a chicken had decided to amble down the littered sidewalk, hang a right into the alley beside my apartment building, strut past our dumpsters, and loiter behind our parked cars.

I was poised to shift gears when I saw her illuminated in my side mirror. The fact that it was late April meant everything. Had it been two weeks earlier, it would have been too dark to see her. But six thirty on this particular Tuesday morning offered the in-between time, when darkness lifts before the sun makes its full appearance. Specks of light glinted off the chicken’s brown feathers. I scrambled for my phone and held it up to the windshield, but it was too late. She’d already rounded the hedges; she was headed south on the other side. I walked through the door of my classroom twenty minutes later and struggled to focus on lesson planning. I was excited to share what I’d seen with the ninth graders.

On the first day, they gave me bemused smiles. Flipping to the prior week’s material in their binders, they asked: “Where do you think the chicken came from?” I said, “I don’t know! I have no idea how she got downtown.”

II. October 2022

Inside Iowa City’s Trinity Episcopal Church, the altar faces south. Choirs stand perpendicular to congregations, which means I turn eastward to sing. There’s a rearview mirror mounted on the opposite wall, so we can watch our director conduct from the organ behind us.

The church itself is relatively unadorned. The floors and pews are wood, and there are no rugs or pew cushions to absorb sound. Wood continues to exhale long after it’s been cut down and repurposed, so in the quiet moments there are arresting snaps and creaks under the weight of the bodies. When you get lost in the music, it’s easy to forget that the wood is still breathing.

I’m new to Iowa City. For three years I sang in Boston, and by the end of my time there, I knew the church’s ground so well I could do the whole processional without looking up. I moved slowly, but I always knew where I was. Now my steps are hesitant, my sight-reading less assured. Today, the choir will sing for two services, the standard ten o’clock and a four o’clock Evensong to honor the year’s departed. Today there is more music and less certainty.

I’m fearful of inadvertently crossing Trinity’s rector, whose face belongs to fiction. Lauren’s countenance is one part Elizabeth II, one part Miss Havisham. In my first eight weeks of attendance, I haven’t seen her smile. I’m not sure she believes in smiles. Her mouth is a thin line, occasionally lipsticked. She’s often looking at the floor in a coldly pensive way that might suggest aloofness or hostility in a young woman but is something else entirely on a matronly priest. When she has looked at me, her eyebrows have raised over large eyes, but the corners of her mouth haven’t lifted, and I’ve wondered what I did wrong, out there, before.

Lauren is the rare older woman who keeps her hair long. Gray and white blend together, sweeping eight inches below her shoulders, parted straight down the middle. She has no bangs, no layering, no complexity in the cut. She could have been a model for expensive shampoos in the seventies. Somewhere down the road she decided to preach the gospel instead. It’s my first Evensong in Iowa City, and the first of the new church year. I knew Lauren would be preaching, so this morning I decided to wear the belted dress that hides my lazy posture and makes my spine look straighter than it really is.

III. Month Uncertain

The Tuesday morning chicken was as real as all that trash littered across my apartment building’s alley. Still, she became a ghost in my mind. Her appearance reminded me of the other chickens I’d seen on the road since my arrival.

When I left Boston, I thought I was old enough to handle going back south. I was more mature and steadier, which is another way of saying I had lived long enough to be disappointed by somewhere beyond my point of origin. As soon as I showed up in Greenville, I bought a car, counted the stoplights on three different routes to school, and committed to the way with the fewest.

After I got used to the traffic patterns, I started seeing the Tyson trucks—not the ones bringing fresh and frozen meat to the grocery stores but the ones carrying live chickens, the ones on their way to slaughter. The cages were stacked on top of one another, all the way down each twenty-foot-long truck bed. They weren’t covered or enclosed, so I could see the chickens. I could see the condemned, plain as day. They were pressed so closely together it was impossible to count how many occupied each cage, but there must have been over a hundred chickens on each truck.

I’d see them somewhere down Pleasantburg Drive, and they’d turn left on Wade Hampton Boulevard before driving out to the periphery of Greenville County. No matter what time I left my classroom at the end of each school day, I always saw the trucks ahead of me, never in my rearview mirror.

One afternoon, a truck broke down at Pleasantburg and Wade Hampton, in front of the Shell gas station. It must have been a mechanical issue rather than a fuel problem, because right as I was coasting toward the scene, a tow truck was pulling the tractor unit away from the trailer. I pulled up and stared at the south side of that twenty-foot-long atrocity, that mass of bulging white feathers. Sunlight danced across the cage wires. A truckload of chickens sat in the dead center of eight lanes of traffic. Countless pairs of eyes observed them, alone and unguarded.

IV. October 2022

I should have taken the Evensong music with me when I left Wednesday’s choir rehearsal. There’s so much music, and no two pieces are from the same time or place. Organ prelude, Marcel Dupré, twentieth-century France. Psalm 145, George Elvey arrangement, nineteenth-century England. Anthem, Tomás Luis de Victoria, sixteenth-century Spain, Latin text. Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, twenty-first-century USA. Preces (short petitions), Richard Sanderson, 1968 to 1985.

Since it’s not her turn to preach, Nora has joined the choir. She stands next to me in her clerical collar during Sunday’s rehearsal. I can feel her looking down at my music, Sanderson’s Preces on top of the stack. I point my index finger at his birth and death dates and glance at Nora.             She whispers: “Has anyone told you about this family?”


“Scottish. They came to Iowa in the sixties. His father was a priest here.”

“How did he die?” I ask, my finger settled on 1985. I don’t know, but I know. It feels cruel to ask, but there’s a compulsion, an impulse, a desire to hear her answer out loud.

Nora says, “Self-inflicted, I believe.”

Our director seats the sopranos and altos so she can focus on the lower voices for a bit. I flip through the morning service’s passages. Luke’s Gospel, in which the disciples whine incessantly. Increase our faith! Christ gets flustered, rolls his eyes. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.

 I turn to Francine, the stringy-haired soprano on my right. I say, “My dad called me mustard seed when I was little.” Francine smiles, hands me a copy of the afternoon’s bulletin, fans herself with a different one. I look at the passages on deck for four o’clock. Job’s story, about a man who lost all of his literal shit and still worshipped God all the time, every day, and never got more than a few long-winded conversations out of it. It’s a story that feels cruel, which may or may not be the same as saying that it is cruel. The point is that we’re supposed to remember the difference between a covenant and a transaction, even if the best we can do is fake like we know the difference.

V. April 2022

When Tuesday’s chicken appeared again on Wednesday morning, I got a photograph. I showed it to my students before the eight thirty bell rang. I didn’t want to make a spectacle of it. It wasn’t like these fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds had never seen chickens before. There were only six weeks left before these kids became sophomores. We had to get through a lot more history, and time was almost up.

VI. Month Uncertain

I can’t fully describe what occurred in my body when I pulled up to the stalled Tyson truck. Should I break it down into stages? I know I leaned forward in my seat and pushed my foot down hard on the brake. Abrupt euphoria took all the feeling out of my thighs. A heaviness evaporated from my legs, and I felt a paralyzing weightlessness. I was afraid I might float out of the seat, the car lurching forward and burying itself beneath the truck bed and all those chicken cages. The physical paralysis, however, did not sway my mind’s compulsion to get out, to run, to be somewhere else.

I gripped the wheel with my left hand and reached out with my right, slamming it down on the dashboard.

“Free the chickens!” I half-shrieked half-croaked. The sound of impassioned futility, the sound of hysteria. Traffic had slowed; nothing had changed. I bowed my head to the wheel and convulsed with laughter that vibrated under my ribs and in my throat. I stared down at my legs. They looked alien to me. It was like I’d been severed, the victim of one of those magic tricks in which the magician separates the model into distinct parts, and she stares curiously at the half of her dangling just beyond her grasp.

VII. April 2022

On the third day, she came again. This time, my students were skeptical. I told them what I’d seen. I’d taken another photograph, which I pulled up as proof. The talkers in the class wondered if I’d somehow staged the third day’s picture. It was hard for them to envision a chicken appearing at the intersection of Rutherford and Stone three mornings in a row. I furiously erased the previous day’s information off the board. “I’m not making it up!” I exclaimed, my chin pointed over my shoulder. “She was real!” The chicken’s realness came out an octave above my normal register. The pitch betrayed the absurdity. Even I was finding it hard to skirt the impossible, and I’d been there, I’d seen the chicken with my own eyes.

How could these ninth graders have shed their ingenuous skins already? You have to believe me! I thought. I gave it all up by the end of the third day, though. I was there to teach history, and I was standing in front of that dirty whiteboard without much to offer beyond a few anecdotes and some questionable evidence.

VIII. Month Uncertain

I tried to come up with a liberation scheme, but even the best-case scenario wouldn’t have given Tyson’s chickens an appreciably longer lifespan, and I’m sure I’d have gotten a large fine. What could I or anyone else in that intersection really do? Were we going to pull each cage off the truck bed? Open each one on the pavement, and wait for the captives to hop out? I’d read somewhere that Tyson injects chickens with hormones to enlarge their breasts until they can no longer walk or stand properly. Was that the case here? There was no guarantee. If I saved even a few, they’d probably just get hit by the oncoming Teslas and F-150s.

If there was a split second when I might have jumped out of the car—and I’d like to think one existed—I can’t nail it down. Not then and not now. All I know now is that the physical feeling of earnest compulsion coexisted with my unassailable belief about all that was impossible. My body and my psyche fractured, or the chasm that had existed between them for years revealed itself while the sun beat down on Pleasantburg’s asphalt.

I don’t remember seeing any feathers fluttering in the rearview mirror after I made it through the light. It’s possible I never looked back. At home, I stacked what needed grading on my desk, made some tea, and sat down to write the next day’s lesson.

IX. October 2022

Episcopal congregations take silence more seriously at Evensong. Because of this, the singing is harder. The music is difficult. Sometimes it’s so hard it can make you resentful. Pitches aren’t given at the beginning of a piece. You have to hear the right notes essentially out of nowhere. The best you can do is try to locate the opening pitch of one piece from a chord in the previous piece and then keep that sound at the front of your mind during the interstitial moments. Words don’t always help. Choir members are, on occasion, advised to drown them out a little.

Lauren starts preaching. I’m trying to keep the onset of de Victoria’s D natural on repeat in my mind. Job’s passage has been read. Lauren has some explaining to do. In this particular chapter, God dangles Job on a string like a puppet, just to watch him swing, just to see if he’ll keep coming around. Basically, Job says God’s a bitch, and God tells Job he doesn’t even know where in the hell he is: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” Job doesn’t have much to say about the measurements of the earth’s foundation, but he remains unmoved. He does not abandon God, but he also refuses to put himself on mute. He plans to come again. He will make another appeal.

Lauren says something about the patriarchs having different degrees of intimacy with God. D natural. Common time. Count in four instead of two. Look up after the second measure. Lauren says something about an era that exalts individuality and fractures community. I turn the music’s pages. I look back at Sanderson’s petitions. Because there is none other that fighteth for us, O Lord. The pitch is getting lost, losing its resolve in my mind.

Lauren says belief in God means living with the reality that justice doesn’t always top the list of priorities. She’s wearing her glasses, and they lift slightly when she raises her eyebrows over her composition. Lauren is preaching, and I’m shuffling the music that isn’t music right now, just text on yellowed paper. The mustard seed line gets loud, annoyingly so, and suddenly I feel an urge to wave my arms above my head like the people on the tarmac at the airport who wave strobe lights to guide planes out from their parking spots, and I want to ask, “Didn’t Job have the faith of an infinite number of mustard seeds? Isn’t this parable a bitch slap to him, just the pettiest of the petty?”

I’m trying not to come untethered, trying to stay tied to the first verse of the last hymn we sang because its melody landed on a D, and I think I have it locked in, but Nora’s voice is still ringing in my mind—self-inflicted, I believe—and now, out of nowhere, someone’s breath catches, and Lauren’s voice stills, and a piece of that wood snaps, and its sound hits the ceiling and dissolves over the rafters. Silence resounds.

I lay the music down flat and look up at Lauren. She has paused. She’s at the top of a sob, trying to avoid her own descent. She’s trying to stay above the surface of a parted sea that might crash down if she doesn’t break from the pulpit soon. That thin line of a mouth looks more like a fish gulping at life, gasping for air that is altogether too much and not nearly enough. After the shattering, it’s too late to get the music back. De Victoria’s D major, five centuries old, has been swept away and replaced by the ragged breathing of a woman trying to make it through her own homily.

The present silence makes me want to pour whatever’s in my cup down the drain. I’m more aware of the edges of my chair, the stone floor beneath my feet. I can feel the cool of it through my shoes. It feels like there’s a finger pointed right at me, right at my face. I suppose it feels like I’m being admonished, but admonishment is a form of being seen. It’s a moment that makes me remember the difference between stillness and cowering, which I wish I could remember all the time.

A few days later, I email Nora a politer version of my question from the tarmac. She has yet to respond.