She had lived down by the river where she kept a cottage and a henhouse. Up there in Montana on the edge of the trees. The tourists called it the Great Divide but Anne had never used the term. It was there that I found her living alone, and appeared to have been doing so for some time.
There was a chicken that sat perched upon a tree not 30 feet from me. I thought I must have misidentified this bird at first glance, but stepping closer, slowly it registered fully in my mind that it was in fact a small chicken with darting eyes. I couldn’t recall ever knowing that chickens could fly, and if they couldn’t, how then did this one find itself in its current state?
“If you catch him I’ll fix you a meal.”
I turned quickly and noticed this tiny woman calling to me.
“You’ll have to climb the tree. This is the second time. I had to throw stones at him till he came down. You can probably climb up there and get him though.”
“This has happened more than once?”
“I haven’t clipped his wings yet. He was so small and I haven’t gotten around to it. He’s able to fly through a crack in the pen. I bet the others cheer him on as he goes.”
It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to climb but I had never handled a live chicken before, and the descent would be mighty difficult only using one hand. He was only about 15 feet high. I made it to the branch quickly, then grabbed the chicken by its feet and pressed him against my chest, nuzzled between my arm. I hung loosely from the branch with the other arm and dropped down to the ground with a heavy thud.
Handing her the chicken she scolded it and threw it back into the henhouse with the others. “Come inside,” she said. “This way.”
Over a meal of fresh trout and pea soup she told me she had lived here for 56 years, nine by herself.
“And that picture above the fireplace?” I asked hesitantly.
“Yeah, that’s us. Me and Jim.”
“You’ve never thought of leaving? No family anywhere else?”
“One daughter. Don’t know where. That’s it,” she said with haste.
“And if something were to happen to you here how would anybody know?”
“I don’t suspect you’re trying to threaten me are you, boy?”
“No, ma’am. Just, like an emergency or something. What if you got sick?”
“Well then I would hang on till I couldn’t hang on anymore, then I would go lay down by the river.”
“Is that what Jim did?”
“Well I had to carry him down there, but yes. It’s peaceful to die by the water. When the tide gets high enough it will carry you away with it. That’s life.”
“That’s a hell of a philosophy, Anne.”
“That’s not philosophy. There’s no time for philosophy out here in these parts,” she said looking me in the eyes.
She began coughing heavily and I noticed her brittle walk when she got up to put the dishes away. Her nose was bleeding on the left side and she quickly wiped it away.
“You alright, ma’am?”
I thanked her for the meal and set off after an hour. I told her I would be heading west. Going to cross the river first. Two days later as I sat camped on the other side of the river I was still within sight of little Anne’s cabin. I awoke early in the morning to find her walking towards the river’s edge, clutching a chicken to her side. She was dressed in a gown and her hair flew freely behind her. She dipped her bare feet into the water then laid down on the sand.
Part of me wished to retrieve her, to save her, but I knew this was her time. I turned my back and headed the other way knowing she would meet Jim down the river, her body drifting overtop the current. When I looked behind me one last time I saw her release the chicken and place her arms gently across her breast.
About the Author: Michael O'Neill is a fiction and poetry writer residing in Chicago. His work has appeared in Nanoism, Unbroken Journal, Literary Orphans and the Journal of Microliterature, among others.
Story Song: "Mutineer" by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Cox/Poppy and Pinecone