On the morning of her 31st birthday, Julia leaves home, puts her car into gear, presses the button to open the electric gate, and drives through the quiet suburbs of Eros and Ludwigsdorf towards the mall. It’s summer, and all the leaves in Windhoek are burnt green, their shadows shallow pools of relief on bleached pavements. She thinks about never going back, but she knows, and has for a while now, that secretly, seriously, it’s them who should leave: she likes her home, why must she be the one to go?
When she arrives at the mall, everything is familiar. Heady and unremarkable, the sunlit wave of shoppers and cars and children and vendors is a perfect distraction. The mall managers tell their security guards to discourage the vendors, but they still slip between the shoppers with their wares in hand. They hang the plastic toys, their cell phone chargers and hats on chicken wire fences or otherwise spread them out on colourful cloth on the pavement. Today there’s a woman selling embe in newspaper wraps and another with a green plastic tub of glistening vetkoek. The dough balls look heavy, still crisp from the frier. There’s a van selling cooked chicken. It’s parked on the pavement just beyond the lot.
Julia’s plan is to do the weekly shopping, hand in Josh’s dry cleaning and stay out of their house for a little while, nothing more. But the chicken smells sharp, almost sweet, as she steps out of her car. She peers around for the source. The oily crisping skins beckon from inside the black and chrome van. Thirty small rotating bodies arranged in rows on long horizontal skewers. The orange light from the three vertical roasting elements makes them glisten. The van has ‘Mother In Laws Chicken – an Impala Micro-Financing Investment Strategy for Sustainable Development’ stencilled on the side.
Julia cannot buy a chicken now. Her fingers, tidy nails filed smooth but unpainted, would get greasy eating it. And she cannot take one home. Josh is a recent vegetarian—so healthy of him. He is, he tells her, doing it for the planet. There are, apparently, 25 billion chickens raised for meat each year. Twenty-five billion; that’s three or four each, she thinks. Over a year doesn’t seem so crazy. Four chickens annually for everyone in the whole world. Before the vegetarian thing, they ate more than three chickens a year, hell, maybe even three a week if she counted all the bits, wings, legs, and breast fillets. And when he was doing the keto diet, it was probably a whole chicken a day just down his gullet. Even with 25 billion chickens dying every year, there wouldn’t be enough to sustain all the lean, mean fighting machines Tim Noakes was turning the country into. Julia will buy something delicious to eat in the car on the way home. She’ll make sure to throw the evidence into the green wheelie bin at the gate before going into the house, something to lick off her fingers and wipe off her lips. She sneers a little at herself, shrinking into this as a stratagem. Why fight him when she can just avoid the conversation altogether? When did she become such a coward? She used to love fighting him, the push against his intelligence, the possibility of angry sex. When she left the house, Josh and Jules were playing in the sprinklers on the lawn, screaming as the cold water hit their hot bodies, clothes flying in every direction. Julia’s loving husband and little daughter lost in their golden world together.
Julia is not even sure they noticed her leaving. She will pick their clothes out of the mud later. On Monday, Helvi will come. She’ll wash out the stains. She’ll iron and fold then put them back in the little white cupboard in the corner of Jules’ room back into the closet in Julia and Josh’s room that Josh just had to have, mahogany detailing to house his identikit shirts and shorts. Julia will fight her daughter into the little skirt and frilly shirt on another day. Every little, little thing.
Today, she stops to draw the week’s cash before stepping into the vast air-conditioned space inside the shop. Helvi’s payday is on Tuesday, plus taxi fare. For the gardener too. She pays for her yoga in cash, and Josh likes to have a full wallet, something he can open with a generous flash. So she needs a lot, two-thousand dollars at least, another five hundred, just in case. She folds the money carefully into her wallet.
The shopping is easy; she knows this vast air-conditioned space that is Super Spar like she knows her backyard, with its lawn that she works so hard to keep green and its walls for keeping people out and in. She is safe in this shop, as she is at home. After all, she has shopped here all her life. Julia thinks the German bakery is excellent, the import aisle okay, and that the staff are well-trained. Josh’s mother told her the staff here are on long-term contracts, have health insurance and other benefits. It might even be true, although the story doesn’t relate how she knew. Josh’s mother is always telling Julia about the superior qualities of the Germans as employers, as bakers, as builders, as trainers.
After filling her trolley with mostly Josh-approved foods—a few tiny rebellions, because Julia loves chocolate chip cookies, and Jules loves ice cream—she heads for the kitchen appliances section. Julia’s eyes flick over the shelves, dismissing each item before she even touches it. Her mother-in-law will probably buy her the purple mixing bowls, all stacked together like Russian dolls, for her birthday. Once, when trapped in her kitchen with the entire set of Josh’s women—sister, mother, aunt and daughter—while the men drank beer around the fire outside, Julia had complimented the pruned figure on an awful purple shirt she was wearing.
“Oh, this? I love purple too. Isn’t it lovely?”
Ever since, Julia has gotten purple kitchen accessories every birthday and Christmas. Julia is good at guessing what she’ll get. She is never slow to decide anything or know what needs doing. She doesn’t understand why it is taking her so long to sort out the problem of her little family.
She heads for the checkout counter, smiling at every third or fourth shopper. She knows them or knows they slept with their dentist’s daughter, or that their children won’t come home for the holidays from Cape Town anymore, or that their grandchild is struggling with making friends at kindergarten. This is her city. She grew up on a farm just half an hour from the centre of Windhoek and went to school here. She has always thought that growing up on a farm was part of why Josh loved her; she has never been squeamish. She can squash her own fucking spiders. As Julia unpacks her goods onto the counter, she thinks that she cannot remember why she loved him; of course, it’s a puzzle she has to stop trying to solve. He is so very unappealing, but she cannot quite tell what about him has changed. He wears his hair a little longer these days, sweeps it back, so the ducktail brushes up over the collar of his polo shirt and doesn’t take her side in conversations. He doesn’t seem to want her to be more yielding or demanding, shows no desire to take care of her. He used to. They used to fight about that. Now Julia tries not to fight, mostly, just hates him quietly. His diets, his environmentalism. Of course, it’s terrible that chickens get kept in cages, that their legs deform because they never run, that feeding them all that corn and soya is such an inefficient use of land. Or at least it’s terrible now he’s thin again. Now he doesn’t need the keto diet to keep him on the oily path to whole-body health.
Julia smiles faintly at the woman ringing up her shopping and then at the man packing it into plastic bags. She has his tip in her hand ready. It’s always a good idea to have the money when you get to the car. She doesn’t want him lingering. He leaves briefly to get a cardboard box for the wine she’s bought. Julia prefers Josh’s mother to Josh, she realises suddenly. At least the mother seems to have worked out that Julia doesn’t like her.
Julia is parked all the way across the car park. The nose of her car is nearly touching the chicken wire fence. The shopping trolley rattles on the paving behind her but doesn’t look back until they arrive. She presses the button to unlock the car, then she turns and says nothing but opens the back door and points at the seat. That’s when Julia spots the man with two live chickens held upside down. Their legs are fisted in one hand, heads dangling upside down. She’s never seen live chickens for sale in town before. She went down Ridley Road Market in London on her honeymoon and saw all of the cows’ heads and strange beans but has never been to the parts of Windhoek where people sell live chickens or recognisable animal parts. Julia imagines that there must be a market like that in Katutura somewhere. The man’s chickens are pale cream with the occasional brown-tipped dirty grey feather. They seem calm. Now and then, one will squawk and stretch its wings out. She watches them while she pays the man who brought her shopping, not forgetting to make sure it’s all safely stowed and the door locked before he walks away.
Julia waits next to the driver’s door until the man with the chickens is parallel to her on the road. Then she calls out to him. “Hello. Yes Tate, you.”
He stops, edges closer to the fence and threads his fingers through the mesh.
“How are you doing?” She doesn’t wait for his answer. “I want to buy your chickens. How much?”
They are not for sale, he tells her. These are his chickens. He’s just bought them and will have to go all the way back out of town again to Waldschmidt Farm, where they sell the old, used out chickens for cheap. Spent chickens. Now that the man is closer, the chickens look terrible. Beaks blunted and feathers missing, pink stringy necks raw in the sunlight. He tells her how he paid a hundred dollars each.
She offers him twice that, three times. He refuses and explains that he wants these because if you let them peck and feed them right, they start laying again.
She opens her purse then and offers him everything in it. He nods and offers her the smallest one.
“Wait!” She says, quickly opening the back door of her car again. She unpacks the wine and picks up the box.
She feels him watching her as she locks the car, as they walk together one on either side of the fence until they reach the entrance. She holds out the box, and he separates the chickens from each other and puts the skinny one into the box. She has the notes in her hand against the cardboard, and his fingers are dry and rough against hers as he takes them. She does not look at him again; the chicken has all of her attention. It has settled into a corner. As she walks back to her car, she imagines him walking towards the chrome roast-chicken van; he could probably buy all thirty birds now. Oh, but he wants a layer she remembers, never mind.
Julia drives her new, live, chicken home.
Her husband and daughter are still playing in the garden. They ignore her when she calls out to them. Not surprising.
She unpacks the shopping. Puts the chicken in its box on the floor, and for a moment, they regard each other. Well, she watches it anyway. It seems content to simply sit, passive.
Eventually, her daughter trots in. Five years old and beautiful, wearing absolutely nothing, her blond hair ragged and wet from the sprinklers. She looks like a garden pixie, all mischief and puppy fat. She is her father’s darling. Julia-junior—Jules—Josh decided to call her to differentiate them. Although no one in this house calls Julia-senior Julia anymore. Just “your mother” or “she” or “hey, did you get new batteries for my shaver”. Julia imagined once that they might be comrades together, the two Julias, against him, against anyone.
This is a strange phase her tiny girl is going through where she calls Josh by his real name. She won’t look at Julia or talk directly to her, or only when there is no one else in the room.
Josh assures her that it’s just a phase, that Julia is just being unnecessary.
There is a pause and then a high-pitched shriek.
“A chicken! You bought me a chicken?”
Everything that ever gets brought into this house belongs to the tiny tyrant. Another of Josh’s names for her, said with such affection when he gets home from work at bedtime when she’s demanding a story. Said as he hands her over to Julia in the mornings. He is leaving earlier than usual; conference calls to Australia need to happen before business closes on the other side of the globe. Work used to be something he talked to Julia about excitedly. Did she stop caring first, or did he stop talking? Either way, Julia can’t remember if it really is Australia.
“Daddy!” All sophistication now overtaken by excitement. The chicken tips out of its box and makes a run for the door, a small naked kid pursuing it.
“We have to be careful with her.” Julia hears her husband talking to their daughter. So gently, so seriously. She almost loves him again for this tone alone.
“She’s scared, see. Just give her time. If we wait for her, she’ll come out and peck on the lawn soon. If we chase her, she’ll get scared.”
He comes in and grabs the cardboard box and a packet of biscuits from the top of a shopping bag.
“What the fuck did you get a chicken for? It looks like it’s got scabies.” He doesn’t look at her as he talks.
She doesn’t even try to answer; and he doesn’t wait for her to.
“Here, Jules, honey, let’s make her a house. Open those and crumble some over there. She might like chocolate cookies.”
“I like chocolate cookies.” Julia waits; Josh’s ideas about how much sugar children should eat, what kind of snacks his daughter gets might derail this little moment.
“But you can share them with the chicken, can’t you? She might be hungry.”
Julia listens to them while she unpacks. They choose a spot under a bush for the cardboard box. Fill it with some newspaper and watch the chicken sitting quietly in its corner for a while. In no time at all, they’ve called it Ray.
“But it’s a girl chicken, Josh. It can’t be Raymond. All chickens are girl chickens.”
“What about Raymondina then? And Ray for short.”
After its initial wild dash for freedom, the chicken appears unafraid and unlikely to move any time soon.
Eventually, Josh walks over to it and picks it up. Jules strokes it; it is soft, apparently, and makes nice noises. They put it in its box and make sure that there is water nearby and chocolate biscuit crumbs. It takes them a long time, but the chatter never lets up. Jules sounds so happy.
When they finally come in, Julia has started sorting out cutlery—getting out silver for polishing and carving knives for sharpening. It is a regular Sunday routine that everyone is used to, and, wonderfully, Jules smiles up at Julia, very briefly, and Josh withholds his usual snide rhetorical question: “Who polishes silver these days anyway?” It’s there in his eyes, but for the moment, the chicken has calmed something.
It was her grandmother’s silver, and Julia loves it, remembers sitting at a different counter and watching the sure scrape of the knife against the wet stone on a Sunday morning, readying for the roast, the smell of Silvo and the feel of the oily rags in her hands. Julia has a small tabletop sharpener now. It is cute, with a pink suction cup on the bottom to anchor it to any kitchen surface. Six small grinding wheels interlocked so that the slightest movement of a blade through them sharpens it perfectly.
Josh takes Jules into the sitting room, and they argue over what cartoon film to put on. Josh will watch sport on his iPhone the whole time anyway, but Jules either never notices or doesn’t care. It bothers Julia.
Julia heads outside with the large carving knife in her hand. She looks down at the chicken, sitting there so stupidly in its cardboard box. It twitches its wings, and she catches the cold glint in its eyes under pale, wrinkled eyelids.
She reaches down and picks it up, being careful. There is a wooden bench outside the kitchen door; she has sat there often in the morning with tea. She thinks she once had sex there with Josh late one night after a party. She puts the knife down for a moment. She turns the chicken over, holding it by the legs the way she remembers the old kitchen servant doing on the farm when she was younger, precisely the way that man held it outside the mall this morning. It is so passive, was it deadened by its life in the factory, an egg-laying machine, or was it born this way, a gentle, watching kind of a chicken? It squawks once and screeches, stretches out its wings, and then seems to reconcile itself to being upside down. She rests its head on one of the wide wooden slats.
“What’s she doing?” Jules is standing, still naked, in the doorway.
Julia picks up the knife again.
“What are you doing!” The little voice is high pitched, worried now.
Julia places the knife against the chicken’s neck and, as her daughter starts screaming, cuts down cleanly. There is so little resistance to the sharp edge as it pushes through, barely catching on the soft chicken bones.
“Josh. Josh. Daddy! Josh.” The shouts bounce through the kitchen.
The chicken’s beak opens in a death-throe croak. Its neck muscles convulse, and Julia, remembering the servants at the farm again, lets the body drop to the floor but not before the writhing has flicked blood toward the open door. The wings flap out, and in. It falls over, blood squeezing out of the severed neck.
“Jesus.” Josh has rushed out and grabbed Jules, who is by now hysterical. Her back arches in his arms, and she screams and screams. The chicken flops some more on the paving stones. The pale white head rolls off the bench.
There are drops of chicken blood on her daughter’s face, but Julia is clean. She will not be for long. She is going to gut this chicken, pluck it, and roast it. Just as soon as it has stopped flopping about, Julia watches both the head and body intently. By the time she looks up, Josh has taken Jules upstairs, but Jules is still screaming.
“I’m taking her to my mother.” Josh stands at the kitchen door. He has washed Jules and dressed her, but she is still sobbing quietly. Julia barely hears them. She is holding the now still chicken over the sink, letting it bleed out. She is imagining the sweet, hot oil-drenched smell of it roasting. She will eat it here. On her 31st birthday, she will be all by herself, at the kitchen table in the quiet of an empty house.
Tessa Harris is a Namibian writer and poet currently studying in the Center for New Writing at the University of Manchester in the UK. She was born and raised in Windhoek and has previously published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in Namibia, South Africa, and the UK in Prufrock, Some Roast Poets, The Manchester Anthology, My Heart in Your Hand, ArtWolf, and others.