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Excerpt from Brood by Jackie Polzin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Jackie Polzin

Brood by Jackie Polzin X
Brood by Jackie Polzin
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  • Published:
    Mar 2021, 240 pages


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Rebecca Foster
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The timer ticks away in the chicken shed. Each tick is bound to a counter-tick, like the one-two of a maraca, and behind that noise and counter-noise exists a faint buzzing of the electronics. The timer is programmed to turn on the heat lamp at 06:00, 12:00, 18:00, and 24:00. The coldest hour of the night is the last hour of complete darkness, but the lamp does not turn on at that hour. By six o'clock in the morning, the temperature has already begun to creep upward to its still frozen high. The chickens get by on thirty minutes of warm light every sixth hour because every moment of light increases the risk of fire in the coop. Helen has asked how we keep the chickens warm and I told her, "We have a heat lamp in the winter." I did not tell her the light shines for only one half hour every sixth hour and the first ten minutes of that warmth in the form of infrared light is absorbed by the frost caked on the hanging bulb. I do not want Helen to lose sleep over our chickens.

Do the chickens think of warmer times? They do not. By the time a snowflake has landed, snowflakes are all a chicken has ever known. Theirs is a world of only snow-flakes or only not.

At minus twenty degrees, the chickens refuse to leave the roost to eat the pellet blend I pour into the tin box feeder. The box hangs from chicken wire on two slim metal hooks extending up and back, attached to the sides of the metal box by a rivet that allows the hooks to swivel, but in the cold the hooks are frozen and the rivets are frozen and the box is frozen in an unnatural position, as if a spell has been suddenly cast upon it. In the spring I move the feed box to the outdoor run connected to the coop, but in the winter months, when a cold snap settles in, the chickens do not leave the coop for days on end.

Inside the coop, the temperature hovers between five and twenty degrees, but the water in the plastic jug exists as water, not ice, because of the small boost of heat pro-vided by a sturdy jug-heating plate purchased for fifteen dollars at Farm and Fleet four years ago. Simple truths govern the care of chickens. Food and water must be clean and plentiful. Also, the chickens must not freeze to death, though it is unclear at what temperature this would occur.

Gloria sits in the nest box, unmoving, as the other chickens busy themselves around her. For two days she has not strayed from the stagnant whorl of straw and dust and feathers tacked together here and there with bits of manure hardened into mortar. The last two mornings, she has made no motion toward the food or water as the other chickens gathered round in the usual melee, announcing themselves and jockeying for the choicest morsels. Unless she has eaten at night in the dark, she has not eaten. Chickens do not eat or drink at night because they cannot see well in the dark and the night is full of predators. The coop houses no predators, but the chickens do not know this. A chicken knows only what it can see. A chicken's life is full of magic. Lo and behold.

In the kitchen, the bottom drawer holds the most obscure utensils. Taking up a great volume of space inside the drawer is a device to core and peel apples: a three-pronged spire that holds the apple centered in a sharp-edged metal ring to extract the core, alongside a blade positioned at an angle to peel the skin from the curved surface. The machine functions exactly as intended, a perfect machine, if only a paring knife did not execute the same task with such grace and simplicity. The entire drawer is populated as such, by some false sense of necessity, though offhand I cannot think of a simpler tool than a turkey baster for watering a broody hen.

A chicken needs water, is like every other living thing in this respect, cannot live two days without it. In addition to a hen's need for water, the egg inside her needs water. Without water, an egg is just a piece of chalk.

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Excerpted from Brood by Jackie Polzin. Copyright © 2021 by Jackie Polzin. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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