They drew open the thick wool drapes and felt for the sun through the snow dingy glass. They kept her room cool and dim, good for resting, nothing more than that. The lamps held low wattage in soft frosted bulbs. Light not bright enough to read by. They let the soft silk of her nightgown slip to the floor and swayed, rolling her neck. Xo strode to the basin next to the wardrobe and scrubbed her face with the oatmeal soap and room temperature water there.
Xo paused over the basin. Heat crawling along her jaw, springing into her cheeks. They thought of the last autumn equinox, in the stables with Fi while she soothed Micah, the skittish Arabian Omi had found while foraging. They remembered following Fi's brush strokes on the horse's coat. How she would hum during the thunder.
Xo felt the water cool her face. They blinked away droplets of water.
They pulled long underwear out of the drawer and a pair of wool socks. They heard feet touch the floor above. Sandra's slippered shuffle down the hall to the bathroom and Naomi fluttering down the main staircase. Penelope practicing her wooden flute, Allegra and Bravisima howling along. The screen door off the kitchen swinging on its taut spring. Riquia heading out to milk the cows. Brushing her teeth at the basin, they imagined Fi striding out to the stables, the way she carried her body like a torch—Xo spit and sighed.
They dipped her fingers into the jar of coconut oil atop the dresser. They warmed it in her hands and starting with her feet worked the oil up along her skin, smoothing it into her thighs, hips, elbows and shoulders. They tilted three drops of rosemary oil into her palm and massaged it into her scalp. They twisted her thick hair into a sloppy knot and thinking for a second decided to secure it with a bit of black ribbon. They dabbed peppermint oil along her temples and lavender behind her ears and at her throat. They buttoned her shirt, pushing the sleeves up to her elbows. Pulled on a pair of heavy corduroy overalls. They made her bed and lit a cone of incense on the nightstand.
Downstairs the kitchen was warm with the smell of toasting sourdough bread. Xo stood in the center of the kitchen, enjoying the comfort and stillness. Naomi bustled through the screen door with a basket of eggs and an uninterrupted stream of conversation. Riquia silently in tow.
"—never had eggs in a basket before. Oh good the toast is done, let's get the water boiling for coffee. Will you have some Ox? Nevermind—Well maybe just a glass of milk? You should have something. It has to be close to freezing out, Riqui do you think…"
In her red apron, Naomi moved about the kitchen performing one task after another, her hands in constant motion, grabbing toast, lighting the stove, cracking eggs against the cast iron griddle. She reached on tiptoe into the cupboard for a stack of small plates, tipped the whistling kettle into the french press. Riquia carried out quiet complementary tasks, grinding coffee beans, setting out butter, placing cutlery on the table. Xo walked to the row of shoes next to the door and stepped into her hiking boots. They knelt to tie the laces of the right boot first.
"I thought I might try a new recipe for the dinner but I've got to see how many mushrooms we have left from the last forage—oh! And rosemary. I guess it isn't so severely cold out and the snow stopped at least. I've got a list for you for the next market day. Please let me fix you something before you go out Ox—"
"A cup of tea then." Xo acquiesced from bended knee, hiding a slight smirk from her fretting sister. "If there's still water in the kettle."
"Yes! Just enough for a cup. How about the cinnamon and ginger, Ox? To keep you warm while you're out today?"
"Mmhmm. Thank you, Omi." Xo rose from tying her laces. Naomi pressed a hot ceramic mug into her hands, beaming. All amber irises and high cheekbones. Xo took a seat at the kitchen table, inhaling the spicy steam, waiting for the tea to cool enough to take a sip.
Octavè Xosefina (Xo, Zo, Jo) Xo to most. Ox to her sister. They stood six foot, average build. Average only to say that they held her body without flair.
Xo walked out the kitchen door into the stark windless cold with a small burlap bag of vegetable trimmings. They strode to the chicken yard, a meadow patch fifty paces east of the farmhouse. In lieu of a fence two large pine coops suggested a border along the southeast corner of the yard. Beyond that a small thicket of trees embracing a mud pot. Only the youngest chickens scattered about the yard feeling the sun on their combs and tail feathers.
Xo whistled and clicked across the yard, snapping her fingers between handfuls of parsley and cilantro stems, carrot tops. Xo listened to toes scraping against the wood of the coop, clucks, the muffle of ruffling feathers. They folded the burlap bag flat and tucked it into her inside coat pocket. They wrapped her knuckles against the pine every decade of paces.
At the end of the coop they reached into the bottom bunk for Luca, a Plymouth Rock rooster. They carried Luca into the thicket. They petted him cape to saddle until he emitted a tiny trill. When they were half through the thicket Xo let Luca down to strut a bit. They whistled his favorite tune, Camptown Races.
They felt the air warm and lowered to sit on a boulder near the edge of the spring. It made a smooth and still cool seat. The mud pot sighed a gauzy flume of steam. Xo sighed too. They struggled to regulate her breathing and heartrate so as not to panic Luca. They stood up suddenly, blew raspberry then began to hum one of her mother's favorite Nina Simone covers.
I take just like a woman.
Tears pressed against Xo's throat and it was hard to breathe. They stepped steadily toward the bird, reached down and scooped him up swiftly cradling him against her right hip. They grasped Luca's head in her left hand, her thumb and index finger around the base of his skull. They stretched his neck out and back. Xo hugged Luca's body to her chest. Tears poured out of her eyes. They took deep gulping breaths. They sank to her knees, setting Luca gingerly in the mud. They took the burlap bag out of her coat pocket. The bag had a soft leather strap. Xo hung the bag over her left shoulder. They took Luca in her arms and stood unsteadily in the mud. They inhaled and exhaled through quivering lips. Blinking, they touched the tip of her tongue to the inside of her bottom lip. They breathed into her diaphragm through her nose. He was still warm in her hands.
Xo cleared her throat. They filled her fist with his tail feathers
and yanked. Xo stuffed the feathers in the bag and walked back to
Luca lay on the chilled butcher block, plucked, washed and headless. Xo pulled his neck skin taut and ran her blade down the back of his neck. They separated Luca's neck from crop and windpipe with her fingers and carved them away. They sheared off his neck and set it aside in a pile for Naomi's chicken stock. They cut away his feet, peeled and set them next to the neck. They slit his body with a horizontal line and removed Luca's innards.
They pulled the bile duct from the liver and set the liver aside in a pile for the dogs. They scraped the body cavity for lungs. Moved her fingers around in the emptiness. Let her fingers linger along the ridge of his bones. Set the heart aside with the liver.
Xo sliced the gizzard open, thumbed away the grassy pulp feeling for the tiny pebbles they knew were there. They picked out fifteen tiny stones. Most of them an unremarkable dark shade, with miniscule dimples.
One was bright red, kernel shaped and size. One was almost quartz clear with flecks of smoky grey. It was sharper than the rest, the size of a green lentil. One was mauve and opaque, smooth. Xo dropped the stones into a miniature vial and stopped it with a cork. They peeled the gizzard and set it in the dog pile. With the shears they clipped his tail.
Xo stretched her hand over the cleaver. They weighed the handle in her open palm, closed her fingers around it. Tears trickled around her nose, lips and down her chin; dripped onto his sticky chicken skin. They cleaved the bird apart in eight clean chops.
They heard Sandra's soft footfalls through the pantry threshold, a slosh of water and some drips on the floor. "Naomi asked me to bring you a glass of water."
"Thank you Sandra." Xo removed the steel mesh glove from her left hand and put it in the sink with the cleaver, knife and shears. They rubbed soap into her hands, worked up a citrusy lather, scrubbed under her fingernails, and washed the tools they'd used to eviscerate the chicken. The water so hot steam billowed from the sink. They dried her hands on her overalls. Sandra pressed a mason jar into Xo's hands. They gulped the water quickly and set the jar on the butcher block.
"Xoey." Sandra put her right hand on Xo's left shoulder. Xo tutted, reached her right hand to Sandra's left shoulder. The two gave each other an emphatic squeeze. Paused to breathe with and hold each other. Sandra's hands were warm, her fingers were elegant and strong, stained with sweet smelling tobacco. "Naomi is readying the kitchen. I will—because—"
"Yes. Of course. Thank you." Her work was done, for now. They could rest for the next twentyfour hours.
Author Bio: Sade LaNay is a poet and artist from Houston, TX. Sade is the author of Dream Machine (co-im-press, 2014), I love you and I’m not dead (Argos Books, 2019) and self portrait (Birds of Lace, forthcoming) with poems featured in the Electric Gurlesque and Bettering American Poetry anthologies. They are a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing at the Pratt Institute.