Sometimes she separates her pinkie toes from all the others, making them stick out from her sandals. To her, they resemble the arms of incarcerated men reaching through their prison bars for women. She does this to shock onlookers, though usually she has to point down at her feet for them to notice. She takes comfort knowing all her toes were once webbed in amniotic water. She likes imagining when the skin between them was stitched into something seamless. Their prior wholeness inside her mother.
She eats eggs on an almost daily basis. She never scrambles them, however, because they will only scramble themselves later inside her stomach. Instead, she dangles a fork over the frying pan as if it were a lone pinky toe or finger. She touches a tine to the yolk so it thins and disperses but retains a wobbling roundness. Some people eat only the whites, but she eats the ovum. She eats the dark sun that might make her into a chicken woman.
Even those hens that do nothing all their lives except sit chaste inside some henhouse some farmer has built for them still undergo the birth-giving process. Unfertilized eggs travel the same pathway as those bearing the mark of a rooster. Unfertilized eggs are no larger or smaller than those stirring with fragile life inside them. To a hen, giving birth feels the same as what you could call chicken menstruation. Each emerging egg shimmers the same with promise, however lifeless.
None of the eggs she carries inside her have either the yellow or whiteness of those she seasons with pepper. Hers have all been scarlet, mixed with the deeper red lining her uterine cushion. Hours before another egg slips down her cervix, she is surrounded by deer women. They have antlers, are all leering and naked. They stand so close to each other their antlers gnash together. They stand on tiptoe then creep closer as she takes her underwear off to shower. She wants to break free from the membrane they have formed around her tub, around the liner grazing her shower curtain. Only she is the yolk and they the albumen. They are trying to bleed her so she disperses. They are trying to break her so she doesn’t seem so whole and circular.
Her mother once counted her toes for her. She had ten, the perfect number, porcine and foreshortened against feet that were even fatter. Having so many of them, each one separated from the one beside it, seemed then to be an accomplishment. It was as if she had cut the skin between them herself with scissors.
Her mother loved yet also seemed to want something from her. Wanted, she thinks, for her daughter to dazzle her. Only the daughter has never been a dazzler. Instead of a yolk, her mother must have mistaken her for what looks to be a purer substance. The deer women say nothing while she thinks this, while they rise from the albumen the mother once confused for the daughter. Her mother must have seen the antlers jutting from behind her and thought they signified something better to come in future, some promise. She must have had little conception how the naked women would later bleed her.
Yet from another egg she takes from the refrigerator she derives a certain pleasure. Its shell gleams so simply she hesitates to crack it open. The best way of frying an egg, she knows, is to turn on no gas fire. It is to heat herself along with all the eggs inside her.
Some days, she feels she is a chicken. Others, she is closer to an egg as she scratches against a shell she senses will easily shatter. She cannot tell who is lonelier, the egg that will never hatch into anything besides a wobbly yolk and albumen or the hen whose body houses so many eggs with no nascent life inside them.
Meanwhile the trees around her have begun to vanish. They have started disappearing from the park she walks through nearly every morning. Someone has taken an axe to them, has likely been given orders by the city. Where the trees once sprang from the earth now are only wooden shavings. Interspersed among them she has found several cards for playing blackjack or rummy. She has found one card after another—a spade, a queen of diamonds, a joker. If someone is playing with her, she has forgotten the rules along with the voice now of her mother. She never does play cards anymore, and finding them splayed among the ghosts of trees has become its own game for her. She plays alone, unsure if she is winning.
Her husband says she has started kicking her feet when she is sleeping but he isn’t. Not just kicking, he says, but swimming. He asks her where she’s going. “Where?” not “Why?” he asks gently, because he has so long known her. When she curls her fists closer to her heart and other internal organs, he knows she is traveling somewhere far beyond him.
“Back to my mother,” she acknowledges when he probes her, asking her again where she has gone without him. “To play cards with her.”
Yesterday afternoon, she walked to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Standing in line to order, she saw the man who fixed a problem with her Internet connection a couple days before this. She and her husband have recently moved apartments, and the man had to walk through a maze of boxes. She tapped him on the shoulder while he was ordering a couple legs of chicken. Neither one reminded the other of names they would only forget again. Still he seemed happy she said hello to him.
His hair was tangled and clung to his skull’s surface as if frightened to leave it. She prefers men’s hair that seems friendly, hair that waves to strangers freely in the wind. While walking through the city, she likes gazing at the heads of those men taller than she is then following their hair moving through air like music. She likes to listen.
The hair of those men who have started balding does the most flowing, she has noticed. An egg begins revealing itself behind thinning hair that moves independently of any air current. It is as if the little hair remaining is reaching for something. Yet she can come only so close, cannot seem to stare at an egg emerging from beneath that which is disappearing. Something that might be hatching deserves privacy.
These men have no eggs inside them, no ovaries hanging below their bellies. Still if you look closely, you will see their hair’s ends are stuck with albumen. The men too are sometimes surrounded by women with antlers sprouting from their heads. All their world is an eroticism.
The men hardly care whether the women speak to them, whether they ever attempt making cordial conversation. She guesses they enjoy the antlers’ poking, the prods and pinches. As for the deer women, she knows why they surround her during ovulation, why they don’t bother wearing any clothing as she showers. They too are motherless. Nothing in her experience makes a woman more shameless.
Women who nourish no new life grown inside them, who flush all their eggs down a toilet on a monthly basis, must grow antlers then dance and poke at something. They must shake their breasts at someone who cannot help staring, at the balding men with the last of their hair lightened with eggs’ whiteness. Their yolk must be broken by someone.
After she ate her sandwich at Kentucky Fried Chicken, she walked inside a store selling used clothing then tried on several pairs of sandals. She stuck her pinkies out of none of them, because there was no one there to stare and be disgusted. One pair of espadrilles with satin straps she particularly coveted. Looking at them, she thought they might fit. Only her feet, already small for her person, have shrunken. By the time she was an adolescent, they were a size seven and a half. Yet a pair labeled size six in the thrift store was too loose to walk in. Years after she was supposed to stop growing, she is growing out of all proportion.
The number of her toes remains unimportant. No manufacturer ever considers that humans might grow an eleventh. Shoemakers also fail to realize some of us may have lost one or more of them—through injury, through sex play, through motorcycle accidents. Still it is the only fact her mother ever told her. Ten toes, she lilted, over and over, as if this could make any difference. What am I supposed to do with them? she sometimes still asks herself in private, becoming angry all over again for having been told nothing that matters.
The only picture she has framed of her mother is of her holding herself as a baby beneath a magnolia tree that blossomed outside their kitchen. Her mother looks impossibly slender, as if she never did anything besides feed a daughter who looks to have been an enormous baby in comparison. Less than a year old then, she looks as if she has spent all her life doing nothing more than taking the meat off her mother. She looks already as if she would do better to eat more salads and less chicken. Her mother is smiling at the camera while she, wearing a white dress and bonnet, looks down while twisting her fingers, wondering about their purpose, deciding there may not be any. Her lips are wet and pouting.
Were she only born with six toes or even nine instead of the ten expected, she might have looked outside herself for wholeness. She might have made more friends, taken lovers. But her mother counted her toes for her, all ten of them, saying she was perfection. Nothing needed to be altered.
Her mother’s favorite restaurant served fried chicken. The cook sprinkled the skin with pepper—that was the secret, her mother whispered. While her parents drank beer and waited for the chicken’s skin to darken, she made a ritual of leaving the table to hang on the stairs’ railing at the entrance. The railing was only two iron rods whose paint was flaking, but when she was five and six and seven, she used to wrap her limbs around them with love bordering on possessive. She used to sigh and roll her eyes when older people needed to lean on them.
Once the waitress brought their platter, her mother came and fetched her, saying let’s eat the chicken while it’s still hot from the oven. She said this as if the chicken and egg question were then decided. The chicken came from the oven, and the egg came from the chicken. The oven was only another womb inside some kitchen hidden behind a door with wooden slats, some of which were broken.
The toes of a typical human form at nine weeks old, when the fetus measures little more than an inch in length. By this time, the developing male or female has an upper lip as well as a larynx. Emerging from the womb several months later, the person is complete in miniature. It is only as life goes on she realizes she is still hatching, long after her mother has birthed and left her. She notices the end of balding men’s hair looks sticky. She looks at them walking, wondering.