For Better, For Worse
By Rachel Lachmansingh
The chickens died the morning Lindy announced she was married. These two things were unrelated but I reacted in the same way: stumbling, sitting, staring, first on the balmy dirt, later on the sectional. She broke the news to me over a shared Shirley Temple, and I was so shocked, I spat in the drink. Her new husband was our neighbour, Malcolm. They were both freshly eighteen. “He’s a really good boy,” Lindy told me. “Mum, he’s really good.”
Lindy was right. Malcolm was a good boy just like my ex-husband Arnold, and that was the problem. They were basically identical: both wore coke bottle glasses and green argyle sweaters, cut their own hair with literal bowls, drank their coffee cold. The only difference between the two is that Arnold was dead.
The year prior, Arnold had been murdered, a single gunshot wound to the back of his head, and that was it, the case left unsolved. We’d been amicably divorced for nearly a decade by then, me living in a cramped Montreal duplex, him living in a remote cabin just beyond Laval. Lindy visited him every other weekend, would return home blustery and rattling tales about what she and her father had done (Mum, Dad and I snuck a whole catfish into the movie theatre—a catfish! Everyone was miserable! Ha! Or, Mum, Dad and I spoke only gibberish to the waiter at Denny’s and he nearly cried! Ha!). Lindy would call these visits her vacations, even when she and Arnold didn’t do anything spectacular. Her last visit should not have been any different.
The police told me Arnold was draped over the kitchen table, his morning coffee dribbling to the tile. My daughter, who’d just arrived at the cabin, suitcase bulging against the floor, found him like that. The pattering of his coffee and blood was nearly indistinguishable.
I recalled this as Lindy folded into the sectional next to me, blabbing about wedding plans. She and Malcolm had gone to the courthouse already, but Lindy now wanted a lavish celebration, insisting she’d pay for it with the money Arnold left her in his will. “We’re thinking cyan for the colour theme.” She now clutched Malcolm, who’d been hiding in our broom closet to surprise me when Lindy dropped the news. He was such a regular kid. Towheaded, scrawny, looking to the floor and not to me or even Lindy. His mother owned the adjacent property, had begun planting corn that year, so he also smelled like corn.
Malcolm and Lindy had spent nearly every day with each other since we’d moved to rural Ontario. Malcolm called her Crabcake (I had no idea if that was a good thing), or sometimes Jabber, and picked fresh berries for us every day that summer. A la my mother, he’d say every time, so naturally, I began sending Lindy over there every day with eggs from the coop. This was mutual, our motherly exchange, even though the woman and I hadn’t really held a conversation. Me lending Lindy Malcolm for a five-minute rendezvous on the porch, Malcolm’s mother lending him to Lindy for another five minutes. What was not mutual was shipping him my daughter for life, not because he was suspect, but because she was.
Shortly after Arnold’s death, Lindy began collecting photos of the crime scene. I thought maybe she wanted to revisit the final moment she’d been with her father, even if it was strange, so I never commented. She’d cut out headlines from the newspapers and even tracked down the autopsy photos. Soon, she began describing the crime scene in gruelling detail, especially when we did ordinary things like eat dinner. She’d compare beef taco filling to Arnold’s brain matter on the walls or a jug of pomegranate juice to his spilled blood. I thought this was just her way of coping since she was the one who discovered him, so I put her in therapy twice a week. But when she began spending her weekends re-enacting the crime while we watched TLC, I packed up our house in one afternoon and drove until we saw a for sale sign. I thought Lindy would like the fresh air. That it would do her good. That she’d like the chickens too. They’d be fine company. This would be a fresh start.
“Malcolm,” I said, interrupting Lindy’s plans to host the reception in our yard. She juddered back, and he did the opposite, nearly boomeranging into me in surprise. I licked my lips. “I’m sorry about the eggs.”
“Sorry?” he said.
“The eggs. Someone ransacked the coop this morning.” I had meant to say something but neither noticed. That morning, I’d exited our stumpy bungalow, clinging to the same basket I always used to collect morning eggs. The early sun spritzed between the clouds, dew freckling my bare feet in transparent shimmer. It was only when my skin pinkened that I noticed something was wrong. All the chickens were long dead, their heads punctured, any semblance of eggs crushed.
“Tell your mother I’m sorry.” That day, he’d brought us three skeins of blueberries, one more than usual as some sort of welcome-to-the-family present. I thought Malcolm would make a good husband. He was quiet. Only offered things in the relationship, like the berries, never took anything in return unless explicitly given something. I imagined the wedding photos. How I’d have to spend the next few days clearing out the coop so our home did not look like a slaughterhouse when the time came. How Lindy in a white dress would dazzle the cameras, her teeth pointed like knives, generally straight, just like her father’s. She actually kept one of them, Arnold’s canine, on a charm bracelet. Apparently it had come loose from the impact of his head hitting the table and she’d pocketed it as a token of remembrance.
I looked at Malcolm again, his Arnold glasses, his Arnold sweaters, his Arnold haircut, and I said, “Lindy, I think cyan is a good idea. I’m going to take an aspirin now,” and then I headed for my room.
I did not take an Aspirin and lie down like I planned. In the months after Arnold’s death, when Lindy began collecting those photos, my hair started falling out in clumps and migraines would bullet through my temples every other day so my physician said I needed to just lie down when this happened, take an Aspirin. But my bedroom window faced the chicken coop, so no matter how hard I tried to avoid it, to stare at the ceiling, to find a wet spot on the wall to cling to, I eventually hooked once more on the small structure.
The wound patterns on the chickens were generally similar: a clean pock through the head. I assumed it was the work of a coyote since there had been more reports to be on the lookout. It was unfortunate because I enjoyed tending to the chickens, spent most of my time with them alone because Lindy did not like them as I did. She said that they smelled, that they were loud, that they were horrific to look at. She didn’t understand why we couldn’t just go back to Montreal where she could actually talk to humans at candlelight vigils in honour of her father. At first, she and a friend rallied the events together, but then she started doing them weekly on her own. She didn’t want to be around brainless chickens. She wanted to stand in the cold clutching four separate bouquets from four separate people who all said I’m so sorry for your loss and delicately wipe a tear from her eye until people gave her more flowers. So Lindy didn’t hang out with the chickens. That was fine. Lindy was fine. She was married now. She’d made a family of her own in Malcolm and would one day mother fine children of her own and they’d all live a fine life back in Montreal because she hated the farm and maybe one day she’d tell them about their grandfather and what she saw and that would be fine. Everything would be fine.
It only took a few minutes of lying on my bed, staring at the coop, thinking about how Arnold’s head also looked like theirs after death, thinking of my daughter’s marriage, her fineness, for me to rise and dig my gumboots from the closet.
The coop looked just how I’d left it that morning. Feathers strangled the plywood floor and clung to the walls like stubborn snowflakes. Two corpses guarded the entrance, another four behind them. I hauled a tray from the coop’s perimeter and with a shovel, began moving the bodies.
I guess I should have been used to it by then, the look of death. After all, I’d nearly become desensitized to the pictures of Arnold’s cold face that Lindy had hung on her wall. The first few times, it was nauseating to look at him, and then there was a sharp moment where his deadness didn’t matter. What did matter was Lindy, and if the photos helped her, I would not say a word. Yet twice I nearly vomited while moving the chickens. My plan was to see if anything off their bodies was salvageable so they wouldn’t fully go to waste, but by the time I shovelled in a fourth chicken, I was unsure I’d want to ever look at them again, let alone eat them.
I was at work when Lindy found Arnold. Back then, I managed a corner store full-time. I was checking out a customer’s energy drink when the phone rang. It was Lindy. She said, “This isn’t going to be much of a vacation, Mum,” and explained what happened.
My first thought was not that she had done it. After all, the investigators informed me her alibi was solid, that her story was consistent. She’d spent the better half of her morning packing at the duplex while I was at work, then ate lunch at a deli in Montreal around noon, was spotted on a gas station security camera an hour later. Then she took a bus to Laval and a taxi to the cabin. She was cleared, they said, and probably traumatized.
After, I cradled her in the backseat of my car, my eyes glazed and bobbing between the gas meter and plush dice that hung from the rear-view. Her hair smelled like hibiscus. I told her, “Absolutely no one will hurt you,” and stared and stared.
As I recalled that evening, I scooped up more chickens, cringing when their necks snapped upon falling into the tray.
While investigators taped off the cabin, we set out to a fast-food restaurant for a breather. As we teemed out of the remote woodland, she pressed her nose to the window, getting increasingly close to the pane. As soon as we hit a main road, she bonked her head into the glass and laughed.
At the restaurant, she ordered fluently, laughed at the name of her burger--The Habanero Killer—and mildly flirted with the teenage boy at the counter. I sat at our booth, switching between either side to keep her seat warm. I thought, how awful is this, how awful, and she turned from the counter and asked what drink I wanted.
We ate silently at first. I tried to think of ways to calm her, even though I wasn’t certain she needed calming. I tried to recall what investigators would do on those true crime TV shows, but couldn’t fully remember what they said or did, if they hugged or didn’t hug, if they apologized or said you’re so very lucky. She stared out the window, at the blinking lights of the city not too far away. The boy brought our food to our table.
Lindy unwrapped her burger, and then dissected it. It was so strange. She doubled the buns, piled all the lettuce, clumped all the cheese, settled the beefy puck of patty onto a napkin. Then she ate each pile separately, her teeth drooling with oil.
“Dad and I do this,” she said once she noticed me staring, a glob of meat glistening on her tongue. I wiped my mouth. She chewed two more times, staring at me like she was trying to unbuild whatever was behind my eyes, pull me apart like she did the burger. I thought of poor Arnold. His body probably having the same thing done to it at the coroner’s office. Poked. Struck. Squished. We were married long enough for Lindy to remember us together, but split as friends, albeit friends who only really communicated over our daughter. After our breakup, we’d interact in manufactured ways: a quick Hi Arnold, how are you, Hi Janie how are you at birthday parties, or when we’d swap Lindy on holidays. That was just fine with us. Arnold and I were a simple couple, which is why we divorced.
I touched my throat, knowing I shouldn’t cry, that I’d need to be the pillar for Lindy, focused on a crinkle in my napkin. I wanted to ask, how are you feeling, Linds? How are you feeling? But then she spit the wad of meat into the napkin and put the burger back together.
When I finished loading all the chickens into the tray, I turned to see Arnold staring at me. Or at least I thought it was Arnold. Arnold if he was alive and thirty years younger.
“Oh,” I said, stepping in front of the chicken bodies like I needed to protect him from them. “Hi Malcolm.”
Malcolm held a flashlight, the light singeing my eyes. It flailed from his fingers. He said, “Lindy thought you might need this,” and set the flashlight on the ground, just a few feet from the chicken carcasses.
He looked so much like Arnold. I couldn’t remember if he always looked this way, his boyish nerdiness, or if he began looking like this the longer he and Lindy hung out. I sucked on my lip and nudged the tray of chickens backward.
“See?” I said. “Well, don’t look. It’s scary. Don’t look. But see? I told you about the chickens earlier. Hope your mother didn’t miss the eggs.” I shouldn’t have said it was scary. Malcolm was a farm boy and was definitely used to the sight of dead animals. Living at the farmhouse was such a shift to me—the deadest animal I’d seen before was a squashed raccoon on the road and then Arnold at his funeral, if he counted as a dead animal. I guess he might’ve because he didn’t really even look human anymore. The mortician built up the places he lost too much face, but he looked more like a melted wax figure. I had been crying, so I couldn’t exactly see properly.
“It’s fine,” Malcolm said.
I stared at him for a second, tried to implant Arnold’s wax face onto his, just to see if I could handle looking again, but Malcolm was just so pristine that I couldn’t. I brushed my palms onto my jeans, shovelled another chicken into the tray and said, “Some coyote probably came in here and really messed them up, don’t you think? They get hungry, you know. Coyotes.”
I set the chicken shovel against a shelf, then burrowed my hands in my pockets. It wasn’t necessarily cold but I needed to do something with my body.
Malcolm shifted, and then pulled a flask from the inside of his jacket. He looked nervous. “Do you want to talk?” he asked.
We sat on overturned buckets, in front of the chickens. There wasn’t really any place else to go in the tiny coop so they bordered between us. I fiddled with my fingers like a schoolgirl, and Malcolm stared somewhere between my boots and the lip of the chicken tray.
“Lindy wants a big party,” Malcolm said. He held the flask clumsily, like I expected a toddler would, but took a big gulp. “Is that okay?”
I didn’t know why he wanted my permission—it’s not like he’d asked to propose in the first place. His politeness felt violating in some way. Arnold was like that too. He was so quiet, it felt like a lightning strike hit when he spoke, gutted you right in the abdomen.
“Couldn’t you have waited a few years?” I asked and accepted the flask. I couldn’t even place what he’d filled it with. It could’ve been root beer or whiskey. I didn’t care. “Why marriage, anyway? That’s a commitment.”
“Lindy says it’s better to follow your instinct. Really pounce.”
“Pounce on what?”
From the look on his face I figured he didn’t know the answer to my question but just said the phrase because it’s something Lindy said. Malcolm crossed his pinkie over his ring finger and then his ring finger over his middle finger, repeating until the entirety of his right hand was tangled on a tilt. Arnold used to do the same thing when he was nervous. Tangling his fingers, untangling.
“Has Lindy told you about her father?” I asked. Malcolm’s head shot up. He stared at me for a good three seconds, and then lowered his face back to the spot where it was before.
“It’s very sad,” Malcolm said. He was so young. Did his mother approve of the marriage? Did I? Did we even have a right to say anything about it? “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“It’s more Lindy’s loss,” I said. “Has she mentioned that to you? How she coped?” I don’t know if I was telling the truth about Arnold, if I only cared about him in proximity to Lindy, if I cared more, if I just wanted to know things Lindy would not tell me.
Malcolm twisted his fingers the same way on his left hand. “We all have our own way.”
I nodded, clutched his flask to my mouth. From the slat between the door, I stared at our house, hoping I’d catch a glimpse of Lindy. She’d have to walk through my bedroom and I knew she wouldn’t do that. Lindy and I did not spend time with each other as we used to, and even that ‘as we used to’ was rare. Lindy spent most of her time with Arnold, even though I had her for more days of the week.
As I searched for her in my bedroom window, I recalled for a short moment the two of us at the diner. The stripe of ketchup underneath her fingernail that almost looked like blood. The way she ate, stuffing her face as she would at a party or holiday dinner—celebrating. She seemed unfazed with me but got all sobby around the investigators. I did not question her. My daughter was grieving. From a young age, she grieved this way, in two different faces. Laughing about the dead bird we found while raking the leaves and sobbing about it the minute she stepped into the schoolyard where her friends congregated. This was Lindy. I would protect her from anyone who tried to tamper with her because of that.
I crossed my legs, and then uncrossed them, kept doing that until Malcolm reached over the chicken tray for the flask. The moment he pulled it, it glided from my hand, and toppled onto the bodies, the sound of its impact a damp squelch. The brown liquid spurted from the opening, glugging all over the birds like blood. We both stared at it, how it filled the cracks between them, glug, glug, glug. I looked at Malcolm, who’d gone green in the face. He looked very dead. And then someone asked, “Does she seem ravenous to you?” and I still can’t remember who.
After that, Malcolm headed back to the house. I watched Lindy walk him out to the porch and kiss him right on the mouth. Husband and wife.
When Lindy was three, she constantly dreamt of marriage, blabbing to me about what her dress would look like. Arnold and I both ignored this, told her she was too young, but after weeks when she kept insisting, he and I stepped back into our old wedding attire and repeated our vows in the living room, hoping this would satiate her. She sat on the sidelines, glaring at me until I asked if she wanted to have the first dance with her father. When it was just her and him, her face illuminated by the incoming sunshine, she beamed, the only bride. I took pictures with a point-and-shoot and she kept the ones where her face inflated the paper. Later I looked up what it meant that Lindy wanted to be her father’s bride and concluded she didn’t understand the weight of the term “marriage.” Some girls were just like this.
Still, after the marriage stint, Arnold and I bought Lindy a hamster to hopefully quell her search for company. It had a brindled coat and black eyes and she loved it very much. She even saved up her weekly allowance until she could afford a little wheel for it to spin on and for hours she’d watch it running like that. She wouldn’t interfere. Just watch. Sometimes Arnold would have to lift her from her room and bring her to the dining room because otherwise she would not eat. And even then, as he tried to spoon airplanes of meat-sauce into her mouth, she’d stare at her bedroom door until we eventually let her go back. One evening, when I entered her room to return her laundry, I found the hamster smashed in her sock drawer. When Lindy found out, she cried a little, and then Arnold dug a hole in the backyard saying, “In memory of Otter who is survived by his good friend Lindy,” and Lindy glowed at the sound of her name and loomed over that dead animal.
From over the bin of chickens, I pressed a hand to my throat, afraid I might vomit. I got onto my knees, blinking away the image of the flattened hamster, the smell of the rotting chickens, the look of dead Arnold’s face. Then I squinted toward the house. Malcolm disappeared through the trees on his bicycle. Lindy went back inside. She turned off the porchlight.
Right before I headed back to the house, I ran into the coyote I’d suspected killed the chickens. She was about twenty feet away, standing in a patch of dirt. In the moonlight, the arc of her pregnant stomach gleamed. In her eyes I saw something feral but also something soft, and I was probably delirious from the chicken smell but I swear it was fear. Behind her, three cubs stood. I wondered if one day, she knew what they’d grow into.
I stepped a little closer. I could not see her teeth but knew her bite wouldn’t make a clean poke like the chickens’ entry wounds, knew she would not just leave the birds when she had young to feed. In that moment I thought of the night Arnold was found dead again. What the police said about Lindy’s alibi. That her debit card was used at a deli in Montreal around noon, and the ridge of her face caught on a gas station security camera shortly after. That I had eaten at a deli in Montreal at noon, that she’d left her card in my purse the day previous when we were out at the shopping mall. That I had driven to a gas station shortly after, wearing one of Lindy’s jean jackets. I looked at the coyote. She looked at me. We both understood.
Rachel Lachmansingh is a Guyanese-Canadian writer from Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Minola Review, Grain Magazine, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, The Fiddlehead, and The Ex-Puritan, among others. She was a finalist for the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize and longlisted for the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize. She is currently pursuing her BA in creative writing.