When she rented an incubator from a local farm, Miss Ling vaguely intended to work the class towards a subtle conversation about the cycle of life and death. The mom of one of her students, Karina Lee, was dying. She was pretty sure all the other children knew about it, though she hadn’t heard anyone say so. Since Karina’s dad had told her, she’d noticed an unspoken uneasiness about the classroom. It manifested in chaos, particularly after lunch: straws were thrown, tears shed over crayons taken, and once, Shoshanna Thomas had swallowed a mouthful of thick, white glue.
Mrs. Sullivan, her teaching assistant, suggested a philosophical class discussion, but Miss Ling recoiled.
“I don’t think they’re ready for it.”
Mrs. Sullivan pursed her lips and went back to wiping down the tables with bleach. She was twice Miss Ling’s age, with many more years of teaching under her belt. She was retired, technically, but had come back to the classroom after the housing bubble burst. Miss Ling appreciated her experience, but she also sometimes felt like Mrs. Sullivan didn’t approve of her approach. She’d heard Mrs. Sullivan murmur at least twice, “new methods,” and it didn’t sound like a good thing.
Miss Ling had already tried speaking with Karina alone. Maybe it was because she was a young teacher, but she felt the conversation couldn’t have gone worse. Karina sat on her favorite beanbag picking at the seams, while Miss Ling fed her questions with increasing desperation until she felt like the only thing she was actually trying to do was make Karina cry.
She had gotten the eggs as a way to tell Karina and the others the things she didn’t know how to talk about.
They rented the hatchery from a local farm that Miss Ling heard about from another teacher, and a man came the Friday after. He looked the part completely: denim overalls, rosy cheeks, and a neatly trimmed beard. His name was Jerry. He was friendly and helpful, and in five minutes, she knew everything about him: he’d grown up in Chicago and studied agriculture at Cornell. He never wanted to live in a city again. The farm was run by renegade city slickers, like him. “You should come by and see,” he said. “Work on the farm for a week or two – like a vacation.”
“Doesn’t sound like my thing,” laughed Miss Ling.
They chatted about chick fluff and proper cleaning and facts the children would like. She was cheerful and charming, and later, when he was leaving, he asked her to dinner. She refused, out of habit. Later, she worried he thought her a snob, and then she worried that she was.
He’d set up the incubator in the back of the classroom and, next to it, the brooding box, to where the chicks, once hatched, would graduate. There were six brown eggs that looked just the same as she might have bought in a store. They sat on the metal grill over a pan of water, inert and innocent.
She supervised the children in turning the eggs and adding water to the bottom of the pan. Karina took to monitoring the temperature and humidity with enthusiasm. Time passed and the eggs seemed the same as they had been. This was supposed to be normal. Still, Miss Ling worried they were doing something wrong. She watched and watched the eggs, waiting for a change.
While the children were making collages from old magazines, she dwelt near the incubator. Sometimes, after school, she would sit and stare at the eggs through the lid. It was meditative. And then, one day, they hatched.
The cracks began in the morning. All through the day, the students watched the tiny prisoners try to break free. The end of day bell rang, though, before any further progress was made. So only Miss Ling was there to witness the first emerge slowly as she graded spelling workbooks.
She stayed late, watching rapt, as the second and then third struggled free, glistening, wet-feathered and translucent, all heart practically beating through. She thought they looked like strange, unhappy aliens. They protested in heart-tugging loud cheeps even before they had broken free. Then, after a ferocious last shimmy, they lay like death on the floor of the incubator, still attached by an umbilical cord to the slime inside their shells. If Jerry hadn’t warned them what to expect, Miss Ling might have prodded them with a pencil eraser to make sure they were still alive.
Eventually though, they began to squat on their giant feet, fluffing and flopping over.
Miss Ling put her hand to her abdomen. She was only twenty-five, but she already felt like an unlikely eggshell.
By morning, all but two had hatched. She stopped the arithmetic lesson at 11 A.M. so the children could watch one of them hatch. Just one egg remained. This remaining egg trembled and fractured, slowly during the day, but the chick remained trapped within it while its flock cheeped and hopped tentatively about the incubator.
Despite Mrs. Sullivan’s efforts to distract, it was this last one that captured the student’s attention even more than the now dry, fuzzy chicks, huddling together in a corner for warmth. When Miss Ling had them vote on names, it got the first one: Eggy, they called it.
The rest were Fluffy, Stripey, Cottonball, Q-Tip, and Truck Driver. Mrs. Sullivan helped them make a poster, with scraggly chick drawings, which they hung above the brooder. Later, neither she nor Miss Ling could remember which was which.
The children watched Eggy anxiously through the day, and when they had to leave and Eggy still had not fully hatched, Seamus began to cry. Karina scolded him. “Stop being such a baby!” she said.
“All right, Karina,” said Miss Ling. “Don’t yell, please.”
“Don’t worry, Seamus,” said Mrs. Sullivan. “I’m sure Eggy will hatch after you leave. He’s just a little late!”
But the egg wasn’t moving at all anymore.
Once everyone had gone, Miss Ling gingerly opened the incubator lid, stuck the tip of a paper clip into the little hole in the eggshell and pried. When Eggy didn’t move or respond to this probe, she began to break off larger pieces until she’d made a hole large enough to see a glassy, half-shut beady eye. She finished the job anyway and called Jerry.
“His heart was – is – outside his body,” she said. “I can see it still beating.”
Jerry listened sympathetically. “It happens,” he said. “You might put it out of its misery. It’s going to die soon anyhow.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I can’t.” And she started to cry, with him still on the phone.
Somehow, he agreed to come. She watched him park his pickup truck in the parking lot. He had a little boy with him.
“My brother,” he explained.
Jerry took the chick out and dealt with it in the bathroom where she wouldn’t see while Jerry’s brother sat on a beanbag in the reading corner and stared at her.
“Why are you crying?” the boy asked after a minute. “It’s just a chicken.”
Jerry came back and looked the rest of the chicks through the glass. He congratulated her on a mostly successful hatch. “Don’t worry. It wasn’t your fault. You can’t always get a perfect score.”
So they had a class conversation about death after all. Miss Ling bit her nails to the quick while the children discussed what they thought about it, and later Mrs. Sullivan lectured her about nail biting in front of them. Karina was absent.
Jerry called her after school. “Figured I’d remind you it’s time to move them to the brooder box. I bet you haven’t done it yet, am I right?”
“I know,” said Miss Ling. “I was just about to.”
“You can keep me on the line while you do it,” he said. “I mean, if you want. You seemed kind of nervous.”
Miss Ling blushed and was glad he was not there to see it. “All right.”
“So you start by taking the lid off…”
She did. The chicks flopped about and cheeped noisily.
“Okay, now put your hands in – they’re going to be scared, but just be gentle.”
“They seem so fragile.”
“They are. But it’s fine. Just keep your hands cupped and don’t squeeze.”
She put her hands in close to one of the chicks. It flopped over and fluttered its skinny wing against her finger, and she bit her lip.
“Scoop! One scoop. Decisive action.”
She scooped it up and held it in her hands. She thought the chick was trembling, but after she’d deposited it in the brooder box, she realized it was her hands that were shaking.
“You didn’t drop it did you?”
“Of course not!”
“Jerry, thank you. I didn’t know how bad I was at this.”
“Chicks are easy. They know what to do better than we do.”
She waited for another invitation to dinner, but he said he had to go.
She was surprised by how quickly the children forgot about Eggy, while she was still having nightmares about mangled chicks.
The children debated who was cuter, Fluffy or Q-Tip. Mrs. Sullivan conducted a vote, and Fluffy was elected. The children made fun of Cottonball, who was quiet and sleepy by week two. She barely hopped about, and the children discussed her condition: she’s sad, she’s tired, she’s pregnant, she’s sick.
After Cottonball died, Jerry came and examined her: “She pasted up.” He explained how the poop had cemented her vent, a fatal situation that could have been averted with warm water and a rag.
In the face of Miss Ling’s clear devastation, though, he assumed full responsibility: “I guess I should have reminded you. Anyway, it happens.” He scratched his beard and looked at her expectantly, as if waiting for her to cry again, but she managed to keep it together this time at least.
Karina started picking fights. She was a small girl – the second smallest kid in the class – but that didn’t stop her from taking other children’s things, breaking crayons, upending the jars of finger paint on children’s artwork. Somewhere she’d picked up bad words, and it was clear timeouts were not helping anything.
“You have to talk to her,” said Mrs. Sullivan. “It’s important for her to understand what’s happening.”
Miss Ling watched Truck Driver peck at Q-Tip. Q-Tip cheeped in distress. Truck Driver pestered him. She tapped the glass.
“Stop that!” she said, like school was in session. They ignored her, and she just had to watch as Truck Driver chased poor Q-Tip around on their oversized chick feet.
“Are you listening?”
“What could I tell her?” said Miss Ling, trying not to seem petulant. Lately, her own voice grated on her. She could hear herself speak, and she sounded like another child. Too much time with children, not enough time with adults. “She completely rejected me the last time I tried.”
She kept her eyes on Q-Tip so she wouldn’t have to see the expression on the older woman’s face.
They had a graduation ceremony for the chicks. The children presented the chicks with miniature diplomas. The tiny paper mortar boards wouldn’t stay on, and the chicks trampled them into the new litter.
It wasn’t long after that she noticed the wrappers in the trash near the brooder. Then she found bits of the colored foil in a corner of the litter.
She explained to the children the difference between chocolate eggs and real eggs. She explained that chocolate was not good for baby chicks, even if it were shaped like eggs. She thought she sounded as unconvincing as a mother on Halloween.
She found chocolate crumbs on Stripey’s beak.
She sat the children down and repeated again in stronger language that chocolate was poison. That poison meant death. That someone in the class was killing the chicks. She raised her voice and they shrank from her – Miss Ling never raised her voice.
Jessica started to cry, and Miss Ling excused herself. She went into the hallway and leaned against the bulletin board to compose herself.
She continued to find the chocolate wrappers in the litter.
A few days later, when Stripey died, she told the children he was just asleep. After they’d filed out, she removed him quickly and wrapped his poor fluffy body in a paper towel as respectfully as she could. She put the bundle in an empty tissue box, and poor Stripey’s little body rattled around in the emptiness.
She stuck the box in the bottom of her desk drawer.
Karina started hitting Jimmy during reading circle. It wasn’t entirely clear why. They were bopping each other with tiny fists. Miss Ling put herself between them, and she had Jimmy screaming in one ear when Karina bopped her on the nose. The stillness was instant. Everyone wanted to see what would happen next. Karina rolled herself up very small like a pill bug.
Mrs. Sullivan swooped in and made Karina sit in a corner while they finished reading circle.
Miss Ling’s nose started bleeding as she read. It wasn’t much, but a drop of blood dripped right onto Tamira’s hand, as she turned a page for Miss Ling. Tamira froze and stared at the drop.
“Oh,” said Miss Ling. Blood dripped on the page of the book she was holding. “Whoopsidaisy. Would you grab me the tissue box please, Thomas?”
Thomas sprung up and grabbed the tissue box and brought it to her.
She quickly cleaned her face, and Tamira. She closed the book and called Karina back even though her time out wasn’t up. Mrs. Sullivan was frowning and full of judgment.
Miss Ling proposed they go around and say something they noticed about the chicks that day: that Q-Tip was brown and that Truck Driver cheeped loudest and that Fluffy was the fluffiest.
Karina’s turn came and she said: “There used to be six. Now there are only three.”
“That’s right!” said Miss Ling, and she congratulated Karina on her counting skills, but Karina didn’t smile, she just went right on picking at the seams of her beanbag.
After school, Thomas hugged her around the thighs, and then all the kids wanted hugs, too. They piled on around her like puppies, and they smelled like shampoo and mud pies and peanut butter sandwiches.
Karina was last to leave. She looked up at Miss Ling suspiciously.
Miss Ling put her arms out, but Karina wouldn’t come any closer. She looked down at her neon orange shoelaces.
“I killed Stripey,” Karina said and flinched.
Miss Ling thought, Mrs. Sullivan would tell me to punish her. Mrs. Sullivan would say: there are no take backs in life.
Miss Ling went to Karina and knelt down and held her close. “Oh, sweetheart,” she said. “Never mind.”
Jerry came to take back the chicks. The survivors were in excellent health, he said. She told him about poor Stripey, and he shook his head. “Poor bird. Still – death by chocolate is not a bad way to go, eh?”
She thought: I should ask him to dinner. But she didn’t.
And then he left, and she went to the desk drawer and took out the tissue box with poor Stripey still inside. She opened the tissue and stared down at the stiff but still fluffy yellow form.
“Oh, Stripey,” she said. She waited for a lump to form in her throat, for tears to well. Death, in her desk drawer, but all she could think of was Karina, and the things she couldn’t teach her. Miss Ling wondered how she had wasted so much time on words.
“It happens,” she told Stripey.
Then she wrapped him up again and took him home.
Miss Ling lived in a small white house on a quiet street. She shared it with a Russian family who had a separate entrance. Her rooms were small and clean. There was a bookshelf, and it was full of books, and they were organized by color like a rainbow.
She had the top floor and from the window she could look down over the backyard, which was filled with wildflowers. She had a flowerbox in her window, planted with zinnias.
It was in this flowerbox that she buried Stripey, and she marked the spot with a little stone.
Then she sat down and wrote Jerry an email.
He came in a pickup truck. “I knew I’d hear from you again,” he said. He’d brought the things she’d need to start.
The box was in the back. She went to it and lifted the lid, and while Jerry recited instructions she didn’t hear, she stuck her fingers in front of the three little beaks and just let them peck peck peck peck peck peck – even though it hurt, just a little.
© Yume Kitasei
[This piece was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy. Read Yume’s interview]