All from an Egg
by Sarah K. Lenz
I’d been living in Bowling Green, Ohio, three weeks when the dreams started. Kent and I had rented an old cedar-shingled house on Elm Street. Our bedroom was so tiny only a three-foot walkway separated the double bed and the walls. Its sole window looked out to the backyard and the plastics factory the next block over. The factory’s smokestack exhaled fumes that smelled like melted wax. I put a heavy gray drape over the window to match the room’s carpeting.
The dreams left my T-shirt soaked with sweat and my heart pounding. Puzzling, since the images I remembered were benign, boring even. In one dream, I wandered through my former apartment on North 33rd in Omaha, where Kent and I first lived when we got married. In the dream, the rooms are stripped bare. Light bounces off eggshell walls. I stand by an upstairs window looking down at my vegetable garden. The dream consisted of nothing more.
I dreamed of other places in Omaha, too. The Idalia Street apartment, with its honeyed floorboards in the living room, hissing dining room radiator, and porcelain octagon tile in the bathroom. In my dreams, the apartments were always empty with a bare purity. The one exception was when I dreamt about the efficiency rental on Izard Street. It had a window seat overlooking a backyard of mulberry trees. Purple berries stained the sidewalk with hundreds of little bruises. The rotten fruit gave off a pungent and cloying smell. Sometimes we were lucky enough to pick the mulberries ripe from the tree before they fell. They made great pies.
“Better than sex pies,” we jokingly called them back then.
In Ohio, we hardly ever had sex anymore.
The move was hard on us. We relocated so Kent could work on his PhD. Fresh out of grad school and struggling to find work in my field, I ended up with a shit job in downtown Toledo at a restaurant called PizzaPapalis. It was a thirty-mile commute, so I tried to work as many doubles as possible to save on gas. The empty hours between my lunch and dinner shifts I spent at the public library a few blocks away. I loved the smell the stacks gave off as I wandered through them, the scent of book musk and library paste. It mingled with the pizza sauce and onion odors from my uniform—a tight baby-tee designed to show off my breasts. I missed the starched white tuxedo shirt I wore at my last job at an upscale steakhouse, but I missed school more.
It was the first fall since kindergarten that I wouldn’t be starting classes. I envied Kent, and I was frustrated by my job prospects. What had been the point of grad school when my current job didn’t even require a high school diploma? So I went to the library and roamed the stacks. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I grabbed any book out of the nonfiction stacks that caught my eye.
While reading, I dog-eared passages to copy into my notebook, a habit I’d picked up in grad school: “Marriage is like a rain forest. The story of a marriage contains all that grows in the canopy, all that is visible from an aerial, or public, view,” Vicki Covington writes. But marriage is private too. It has an understory, the place close to muck.
M.F.K. Fisher: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.”
“Through dreams, the various dwelling-places in our lives . . . retain the treasures of former days. And after we are in the new house, when memories of other places we have lived in come back to us, we travel to the land of Motionless Childhood, motionless the way all immemorial things are. We live fixations, fixations of happiness. We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection” (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space).
To get to PizzaPapalis I drove north on I-75. Before merging with downtown traffic, I crossed I-80. When I saw the westbound sign, I fantasized about taking the interchange, pointing the nose of my Geo Metro west and not stopping until I reached Nebraska. In Omaha, I had connections with people. In Bowling Green, I was isolated, a stranger.
The one person who could have assuaged that loneliness—Kent—only made it worse. He spent his late-night hours studying at the campus library or a coffee shop. One night I tracked him down. He was at Panera Bakery, studying at a table with three female classmates. When he introduced me to them, they didn’t smile or offer their hands. I got it. I was the intruder; I didn’t belong. For the first time, I wondered if Kent might be cheating on me.
The next morning on my way to work, as I passed under the green and white exit sign to I-80, I started crying. The only reason I’m in Ohio is for Kent, and he doesn’t want me here, I thought as I parked my car and walked into PizzaPapalis.
Meanwhile, I kept dreaming of other places where I’d lived. I dreamt of the Nebraska farm where I grew up. It’s spring, almost Easter. I stand by the window in the brooder house, looking out at the tree canopy for signs of danger—coyotes, possums, raccoons. Behind me, hundreds of day-old chicks—yellow puffballs—cheep on a bed of sawdust under a heat lamp. I scoop up a chick in my hands, draw it to my face and inhale. Its golden down smells of salt and sunlight.
I awoke from that dream with a longing like a stomachache.
“Where will you be able to sink deep roots, find a friend, a family, and peace? Without money, far from home and familiar faces—how hard it is when the times are reflected so in one’s private emotions”—Alexis Romanoff, diary entry, May 1918. I feel like Romanoff, stranded. He wrote this during the Russian Civil War, before he became a famous embryologist. He couldn’t have known at this point that future happiness waited for him, a wife, a successful career. What waits for me?
“A life,” writes Bachelard, “is a series of moments anchored to a time and setting because we are each a being who does not want to melt away, and who, even when he sets out in search of things past, wants time to suspend its flight.”
After I dreamt about the chicks, I remembered other things about raising chickens as a girl. One of my chores was gathering eggs from the coop’s nesting boxes every day. Sometimes eggs went missing. I prowled around the farm to solve the mystery of rogue laying hens and found secret clutches hens had hidden in swirls of brome grass. My mom taught me that, during laying, chickens coated their eggshells with bloom, a thin cuticle designed to keep bacteria out. But bloom only lasted so long. The eggs I found looked whole and perfect but were often so old they had turned rotten. I made a ceremony of cupping those eggs one at a time in my hand before I hurled them to the ground. The rotten ones exploded in puffs of pus-colored yolk.
Remembering throwing rotten eggs made me think about when Kent and I were first dating. He had lived next door to an abandoned church. Apples from the churchyard tree fell on the ground and rotted. One October night out of boredom we threw apples at the brick wall of the church. Kent practiced his fastball, concentrating on his wind up, and flailing his leg on the follow-through, which made me laugh. His apples burst into white and red flecks against the brick. He shot me a seductive smile. I threw an apple of my own. Swarms of yellow jackets buzzed over the exploded fruit.
“If one is to hallow the diminishment of loss of persona it is necessary to build a second career or to fill one’s life with interesting, new, self-appointed work” (On Hallowing One’s Diminishments, John Yungblut). Could raising chickens be the new self-appointed work I need to feel better? Is that why I’ve been dreaming about chickens? There is a quiet satisfaction in gathering warm eggs, of tending to another creature’s needs.
Could I raise chickens in our backyard? I started research on my laptop, reading backyard chicken-raising forums and poring over chicken coop designs. I also read every book about eggs I could get my hands on.
From Alexis and Anastasia Romanoff’s The Avian Egg: “Among many groups of people, chickens are kept only for purposes of magic and divination. The Polynesians and Melanesians believe that eggs, when carefully gathered and broken ceremonially, have the power to augur future events.”
The first Fabergé egg was a gift to cheer a melancholy wife. In 1886, Russian Emperor Alexander III commissioned the “Hen Egg” for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. The trinket’s opaque white shell contained a matte gold “yolk,” which cracked open to reveal a hen with cabochon ruby eyes, holding a sapphire necklace in her beak.
Did this extravagant gift make Empress Maria happy? Was she sad because her marriage hadn’t turned out the way she intended? Her first fiancé, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, had died suddenly of meningitis. His dying wish was for Maria to marry his younger brother, Alexander, a husband as consolation prize (Fabergé, Proler, and Skurlov).
Kent and I were so poor we lived off the free pizza I brought home after my shifts and cornmeal mush topped with an egg, sunny side up. For my birthday, Kent gave me the board game Clue. He thought since I’d played it as a child, it would cheer me up. It didn’t. I thought about the object of the game: discovering who’d done it. Isn’t there always a culprit? Which one of us had failed to create a perfect, happy life?
One afternoon during my shift at PizzaPapalis, I had a panic attack. My heart raced, and stabbing pain shot from my chest down my arm to my fingers, which tingled until they went numb. The fear of losing my job was great enough that I pretended nothing was wrong. Balancing a large pepperoni pizza on my tray, I smiled and put it on the guests’ table. I felt faint, but sheer will kept me from cracking my façade. During a staff meeting, my manager, Brent, who in moments of agitation turned red-faced, told us servers, “You have to be perfect. Always.” He had held a three-inch thick stack of papers in his hands and waved it above his head. “You see this? Every sheet of paper is an application from someone who wants your job. If you’re not perfect, you don’t work here.”
“I think if required on pain of death to name the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on the bird’s egg. Egg is all” (Romanoff and Romanoff’s The Avian Egg).
Kent and I sat parked in the near-empty lot of Meijer supermarket. The wind pitched storm clouds through the sky. Tumbleweeds rolled across the blacktop. The car rocked and quivered in the gusts of wind. In the closed space of the Geo Metro, his unhappiness hovered between us. Instead of ignoring it, like I did with the panic attacks, I found the courage to speak.
“You’re not yourself. What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“I have a lot on my plate with school. What’s wrong with you?”
“I hate this place. I have nothing but you, and you’re not even here.” I began crying.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Hon.” He tried to hug me, but my seatbelt got in the way.
What I really wanted was to go home, but where was that?
That early spring, I spent my days off from PizzaPapalis reading. Cold wind rattled our poorly insulated windows. I stayed cozy, wearing my pajamas all day, brewing pots of tea, and curling up with a stack of library books. I spent hour after hour studying how to raise urban poultry, growing more excited about my project.
One day after a long day of classes, Kent came home to find me reading in the overstuffed chair in the living room, exactly where he’d left me.
“You haven’t moved,” he said. “What have you been doing?”
“This,” I said.
He rolled his eyes in disgust and stomped off to his home office, where I found him at his desk, checking email. I flopped down on the blue loveseat behind him. Kent’s office looked like a ten-year-old boy had decorated it. Plastic Superman and Batman figurines stood on the shelves next to his elaborate Lego creations. Like me, he’d been reaching for his childhood. But while Kent went for comic books and baseball cards, I needed poultry. It was the only way I knew to get back to something hard to name, back to a different time, when I wasn’t unhappy.
“I want to raise chickens,” I blurted.
He swiveled his desk chair around and faced me, incredulous.
“I need a project. You have school. What have I got?” I said. I felt like I was begging a parent for permission. He proceeded to list reasons why my request was completely unrealistic: We live in town. They have nowhere to sleep. What would they eat?
“You haven’t thought this through, Hon.”
Oh, but I had. Researching Bowling Green City Code revealed that as long as they didn’t roam free, chickens could legally be kept within city limits. Chickens also didn’t need that much space—only four square-feet per bird. I told Kent about a sixteen-square-foot rabbit hutch I had found on Craigslist for fifteen dollars that could comfortably house four birds after I converted it to a coop with a little salvaged lumber and chicken wire from Freecycle. I explained that I’d feed them table scraps and chicken kibble bought at the farm supply store. By the time I’d pled my case, he realized that I went from asking him if I could raise chickens to telling him I was going to whether he liked it or not.
Knowing he was defeated, he asked me one last question: “What if a chicken goes radioactive, grows to five feet tall, and attacks us?”
I cracked a smile and knew I’d won. In that moment, I saw a glimmer of the way Kent was before the PhD program, when he made me laugh all the time.
A week later, in a carton shaped like a McDonald’s Happy Meal box, I brought three chicks home from the farm supply store. A breed known as Golden Comets, their fuzzy bodies ranged in color from buttery yellow to strawberry blonde. Their chirps sounded like the shrill cries of desperate children. I put them in the laundry room, in a big cardboard box, under a heat lamp. They pecked greedily at their mash, then curled up in a downy heap no bigger than a tennis ball and fell asleep.
My favorite Fabergé egg is the “Danish Palaces Egg.” Its opalescent pink enamel shell opens to reveal miniature watercolors of Maria’s favorite places: her Danish and Russian palaces. They unfold in an accordion, little windows of homes that no longer exist. I love how her husband knew she loved these places. What a coincidence that this egg was confiscated during the Russian Revolution, the same political upheaval that cast Romanoff into exile. Maria fled Russia then and never returned to her former homes, except, perhaps, in her dreams.
That May, when the chickens had grown as big as pigeons with rough patches of pinfeathers, Kent surprised me with a gift. Because our yard had no fence, he built me a movable chicken pen from two-by-twos and chicken wire, forming an eight-foot-square fence, light enough to move to a fresh patch of grass every day.
That night, Kent and I ate dinner on the back patio, while the chickens grazed in their new pen a few feet away, scratching for bugs in the lawn. After dinner, we sat watching them for a long time, mesmerized by their simple, mindful natures.
“Thank you,” I said for the new chicken pen. Then I told Kent about the terrible dreams I’d been having and how homesick I was for Omaha.
“Why don’t you take a trip back?” he asked.
“With what money?”
“Put it on my credit card.”
I thought about it but realized my old haunts wouldn’t be the same. The memories I had were enough and would remain—fixed and perfect—of happiness, as if I could pin happiness to a map. I didn’t need to explain this to Kent. He knew homesickness too. I looked across the patio table at him. The glow from the setting sun sparkled in the gold flecks of his green eyes.
He smiled. “I want you to be happy,” he said.
He took my hand and squeezed it.
Because I was sad and lonely immediately after moving to Bowling Green, I’d gotten stuck in the past nostalgia of the happier places I’d lived. I realized I couldn’t fix happiness in place anywhere for long, or I’d run the risk of forgetting how to live in the present. Memories should be moved with care, like a fragile heirloom set of dishes, lest they crack and chip with too heavy use.
Not long after I got the chickens, the dreams stopped as abruptly as they’d started. Chicken keeping taught me things I hadn’t found in any book: that perfection is an illusion. The uniformly sized, smoothly shelled, pearly white eggs sold by the dozens in grocery stores are the result of meticulous sorting and cleaning. My chickens laid eggs of all sizes and shades: brown, tan, buff, terra-cotta. I learned that laying a good egg takes practice. My hens’ neophyte efforts yielded eggs with warty bumps on their shells and eggs with double or even triple yolks. One egg lacked a shell altogether; it lay on the nesting-box straw like a pale water balloon. Chickens don’t like change any more than we do. Moved to a new place, they’ll stop laying for a while. Then again, chickens can be a lot tougher than they look. Having escaped from her pen and been chased by the neighbor’s dog, one of my birds remained unfrazzled.
I remember the July morning when one of my chickens laid its first egg. At dawn I opened the coop to feed them, and there it lay, in the nesting box. I held it in my hand, marveling at its perfect oval, feeling its smooth weight and gentle warmth, like something full of hope and promise. Then I turned it over and was startled by the smudge of chicken shit encrusting half its shell. I heard the voice of my PizzaPapalis boss yapping, You have to be perfect. No, I said to myself, you don’t. You just have to be good.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space.
Covington, Vicki, and Dennis Covington. Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage.
Fabergé, Tatiana, Lynette G. Proler, and Valentin V. Skurlov. The Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs.
Fisher, M.F.K. The Art of Eating.
Romanoff, Alexis. Diaries through War and Peace: One Life in Two Worlds.
Romanoff, Alexis, and Anastasia Romanoff. The Avian Egg.
Yungblut, John. On Hallowing One’s Diminishments.