Ruth always wore just her robe out to the chicken coop no matter how cold it was. She would only be out for a minute, but this bitter morning the wind chilled her metal scoop even before she got to the garage, burning her hands. It had been a few weeks since the last big snow, and the ground was bare, barren. The grass had withered and dried to brown wisps, and the soil beneath it showed through like grey stone. She walked carefully, even when there was no ice on the ground. She still remembered falling one morning, almost fifteen years ago now. It was one of those winters when she was alone, the cold years of the separation. Evan was still at home back then, but sleeping in his warm bed, or maybe already off to school that day, Ruth couldn’t remember. She did remember hurrying out to the coop because it was so cold, and slamming to the ground that was like a slab of marble. She didn’t pass out, but she did see stars and lost her breath and had to lie there for a moment before she was sure she could pick herself up. In that moment she thought of the danger for a woman alone in the icy countryside. Lying there she saw the possibility of freezing to death. It could happen.
For several weeks after that fall she felt out of kilter, and the computerized balance board she stood on to do her exercises kept telling her to stand up straight, that she was very unbalanced. It was months before she felt like herself again.
After falling, she threw away her old garden clogs with the soles worn smooth, and now always made sure her shoes had good traction. But she thought about that fall when the ground was icy, or even in spring or autumn sometimes, when the path to the coop was slick with rain and mud.
Now there was no ice, but the bitter wind made her shudder and she held one scoop under her arm, trying not to spill pellets on the ground, so she could carry the jug of water, too. She hadn’t been able to let the chickens out for more than a few hours for — oh, weeks. They could do okay in normal winter weather, but when it fell below 20 degrees, they would just sit in the wind all day with their heads down, trying to keep warm in their feathers until chicken dark, and then go back into the coop. “Chicken dark” was what Ruth and David called the hour before the sun set, when the shadows got long and signaled the flock that it was time to roost. They’d make their way back to the coop, and then Ruth would close the coop door against the night prowlers: possums, coyotes, raccoons. But now, below zero, their wattles and combs could freeze just like that in this weather, and their toes could get frostbitten, too, so Ruth would just leave them in the coop. If it was sunny and got up near thirty in the afternoons, she would let them out for a few hours just to get some air, but that hadn’t happened in weeks. The worst part was that she couldn’t even clean out the coop. The poop was just frozen in a big mound. She was waiting for a spring thaw, but now it was only February.
In the dark times of the year, around the solstice especially, Ruth would hear the whisper of the idea that maybe they should move to town. The kids wanted them to. Said they would worry less. Maybe winter was just too hard. But she would flick that idea away angrily. She wanted to die on this farm, just as her grandmother had. Not slowly freezing on the icy ground, but in her bed after a long and satisfying life. Surrounded by family, her sons and granddaughters holding her hand and saying goodbye. Saying, “I love you.” Ruth teared up just thinking about it.
Or maybe in a tornado. The big wind lifting her up, up into the sky. That would be okay, too, as long as it wasn’t in winter.
Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at the University of Illinois. In 2015 she was the Jesse Stuart Fellow at Murray State University, Kentucky. Hays’ work has appeared in journals, including Quiddity, Another Chicago Magazine, Broad!, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Blue Violin. In 2007, her poem “Tippet Hill” garnered the Gwendolyn Brooks Award. She was a founding editor of New Stone Circle. She raises chickens on her grandmother’s farm.