“It’s time you learn to scrub a chicken.”
Mama rarely cooked after working all day—her heart wasn’t in it.
But a daughter should know how to sterilize
that pink, ominous cavern before she flew
away to salt her own kitchens: pry its legs apart
& reach inside to scoop as if the bird was pregnant.
When I moved out that winter, pregnant
& fat like nobody’s business but still too chicken to tell
Mama, I took up with a boy who tore apart
our piss cold apartment looking for the piece of his heart he
swore I’d eaten. He claimed it flew
into my belly & before I gave it back, I’d need to sterilize
it. So I ran around that damn flat with wipes to sterilize every
counter & crevice. Not only was I pregnant &
compulsive, but news had spread that flu
had reached pandemic level—this time from swine not chickens.
I’d read that pregnant women were more susceptible to heart failure.
I figured that also meant the tiny throbbing pink part
in my belly. I never studied anatomy, apart
from an odd encounter with a college boy who tried to sterilize my body
with his tongue. It didn’t work but left heart-
shaped scars along my chest & thighs, each mark pregnant with
blood, a strawberry patch or the red wattle of a chicken.
I’d begun to waddle around in baggy sweats a few
weeks since seeing Mama. She’d suspected the “more than a few
pounds” I’d gained, flinging accusations, shredding me apart
for acting the slut I was. I’d heard it before—she’d squawk chicken
shrills until I broke down. She’d peck at me to sterilize
my body like the kitchen, the chicken, my own pink pregnant belly
ache. She’d have had me scoop out my own heart
to make a point. I don’t think I could live without a heart.
I’d lived without anyone but Mama since the summer we flew over
the Grand Canyon away from dad. Mama was pregnant
then. That didn’t last long. I was eleven when she clawed apart the
bathroom, not the kitchen, scrubbing the tub to sterilize
it for a bath, I’d guessed. I’d have asked but was too chicken.
The trick was to keep apart from her long enough for my heart to
sterilize itself & keep that pink baby from cleansers or flu
or Mama’s broken chicken heart. The trick was to stay pregnant.
From Landscape with Headless Mama (Pleiades Press, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Givhan. Used with the permission of the author.