Introduction by Halimah Marcus
“Ark” by Zoë Ballering tackles hallmarks of the professional quarterlife crisis: first “real” job, arrogant bosses, feeling listless, lacking purpose. Except the story takes place on an ark—the most famous of arks—the one built by Noah, in vaguely biblical times. Karis, the underqualified bird handler, has mixed up the chickens and brought two biologically incompatible roosters aboard. To fix her error, she must first endure a condescending lecture from Noah, whose direct line to God has made him particularly insufferable, and then she must leave the ark to find a female chicken so that, when the waters recede, it can be impregnated by one of the roosters.
Karis chose to be on the ark, has in fact taken risks and made sacrifices in order to be there, but she is skeptical of Noah’s project, and God’s before him. Through Karis’s malapert narration, Ballering slyly exposes the limitations of a personified God. Noah is ostensibly saving the planet, “but Noah has never acted altruistically,” she writes. “He has never acted for the sake of anyone but God.” God’s priority is not necessarily humanity, and the prophet is far from a savior; he is a puppet, prone to exaggeration. Accordingly, Karis knows to cut Noah’s bravado in half: “If he says God is so wrathful that He’s going to wash corruption off the face of the earth, you have to figure that God is ticked off and sending a moderate deluge.”
Meanwhile, in our own timeline, the Great Resignation is upon us. Workers everywhere have lost the motivation to perform menial tasks for a disappointing salary—in some cases, risking their lives in the process. In other cases, they aren’t risking their lives to go to work, necessarily, but there is the ambient conviction that our time has become more valuable. Because other lives have been cut short, because collective delirium has been exposed and convention punctured, because we see what really matters now. Which is? Family. Survival. The survival of the family. Noah has his family on board, but for Karis and her fellow handlers, their divine task is not to protect their own tribe or blood lineage, it’s to ensure the survival of all species. All creatures, great and small.
The most touching moment in “Ark” comes when Karis visits her mom during her mission to save the chickens. Her mother has moved to higher ground, but given what we know from the Bible, if Genesis is to be believed, it’s unlikely that anyone off the ark will survive the flood. Still, imagining her mother’s disappointment is what motivates Karis to brave the deluge to save some “feather-covered footballs”: “I thought I could bear being called a chicken extinctor for the rest of my life, but I didn’t think I could bear for her to hear it.”
Karis’s mother is her motivation, even when she isn’t her reward. And Karis’s mother has made an even greater sacrifice, encouraging her daughter to board the ark while she stays behind, under the conviction that her sacrifice will bring good. If there is something more important than one’s own mother—and even more significantly, one’s own daughter—and that thing is the survival of the humble chicken, then perhaps true world-saving altruism is possible, after all.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor of Recommended Reading
The Chickens Will Inherit the Earth
“Ark” by Zoë Ballering
On the 152nd day, after a spate of double-crowing at the crack of dawn, Naamah appeared in my doorway. Although she was a normal-sized woman, I had a shoebox-sized cabin, the smallest among any of the handlers, and I had the sense that if she took another step her bulk would pop me out into the passageway. Rain caught at the ends of her eyelashes. Her hair frizzled. She looked mad as a wet hen, which would have solved the chicken fiasco, but she remained defiantly human.
“Karis?” she asked in a tight little voice. Naamah was Noah’s wife and first lieutenant. She prowled the decks from gray dawn to gray dusk, soaked from her rounds and reliably ill-tempered. The ark carried eight Covenants—Noah, Naamah, three sons, and three wives—and five handlers tasked with overseeing each of the main animal groups. I was in charge of caring for the birds, along with handlers for mammals, amphibians, invertebrates, and reptiles. There was no one for fish, because the fish were doing fine without our help. And even though we advised the Covenants on how to properly care for all of the animals, Naamah bore us a special hatred. If God ever gifted her the right to conduct a secondary selection, she would have bagged us up and tossed us overboard in the time it took for the rain to fill a thimble.
“Is something wrong, Matriarch Naamah?” It was the honorific she preferred, a means of reminding us that she would become the progenitrix of the whole human race after God finished drowning the world. I suspected she hated the handlers because we threatened the purity of that line. Nothing would make Naamah madder than if Eliph from Invertebrates had a fling with Tersa from Reptiles and they produced an entire second lineage, so that the children of the Covenant would be forced to share the earth with a bunch of accidental boat babies. According to Noah, God had forbidden copulation during the flood, and the punishment for breaking His commandment was expulsion from the ark and the subsequent extinction of the species. So far the animals had listened, even the rabbits and a particularly randy donkey that had a reputation in antediluvian times for his readiness to stud. But humans were different—we could recognize a bluff.
“Have you checked the chickens recently?” demanded Naamah.
I’d coaxed the eastern rosella to take a nut from between my teeth, I’d petted a collared dove that cooed when I rubbed the slippery feathers at the base of her neck, and I’d taught a rose-ringed parakeet to curse the downpour in language so colorful that it surpassed her plumage. In short, I had really worked my keister off, but I had not checked the chickens, no.
“Have you noticed—” began Naamah, and then the world really turned against me, what was left of it, anyway, because at that moment the two roosters crowed at the exact same time. I could almost have convinced myself that it was one rooster really cockadoodling his delight in life, but then they crowed again in quick succession—two separate, overlapping notes—and it became impossible to deny that there were two of them.
There was nothing to say. I followed Naamah out of my cabin. Everything smelled briny, dirty, dingy, full of dung. We passed the two large avian compartments that housed most of the birds, though I had chosen to cage some of the more aggressive raptors. I’ll give it to God—He had really struck fear into their fluttery avian hearts, and in addition to copulation, grounds for expulsion included feeding on one’s fellow animals. Still, I could never quite be sure. Sometimes the Cooper’s Hawks got a look in their eyes like they were willing to forfeit all future generations for the pleasure of ripping out a pigeon’s gizzard.
But the other birds—the ones who ate grasshoppers and walked on lily pads and built blue bowers to woo a mate, the ones who snuck their eggs into other birds’ nests and balanced on a single leg above the swirl of water—those birds sang.
“What a racket,” muttered Naamah, wrinkling her nose. They clucked and cooed and tweeted and shrieked and drummed their bills and clacked their beaks and the blue jays made a sound like a rusty gate swinging open. I suppose she had a point. Not every utterance could technically be called a song, but I still counted it—they sang for me, an act of celebration. I thought of my mom and how her flock of chickens always clucked when she came near, a deep and satisfied burble. Once I found her in the kitchen feeding sugar water to a weak chick. She held the spoon; he dipped his beak and drank. He had black feathers and shiny black eyes and he cheeped for his mother in the yard. “Very nice, very sticky on your beak,” my mother murmured. She taught me this—to always answer. So I sang too, a slurry of nonsense and liquid notes to greet the birds that I had chosen.
My cabin was so far from Noah’s state room that we walked for twenty minutes before Naamah led me topsides at the stern. It was 7am, the Open Air Hour for Reptiles, so snakes, crocodiles, turtles, and lizards lay strewn across the deck, attempting to warm themselves in the nonexistent sun. I spied Tersa sitting on a deckbox feeding a pair of blue-tongued skinks a scrap of dehydrated apple. I met her eyes and shrugged, trying to convey the dubiousness of the case against me, though in truth I worried that Noah might treat the rooster debacle as an expulsive offense.
I liked Tersa, but I detested snakes. My heart pounded as I walked past a clump of them, some drab, some jeweled, sliding their smooth, scaled bodies across the smooth, scaled bodies of their fellow snakes. The chill made the reptiles sluggish, and several times Naamah nearly crushed one of the smaller lizards beneath the heel of her rain boot. She didn’t seem worried, though. If she flattened the last remaining female blue anole she’d find a way to blame Tersa. Sometimes I suspected that the Covenants had brought us on to fill the quota for that final, most essential species: scapegoats. So great was our value that Noah had selected five instead of two.
Noah’s state room had a full bank of windows. He was standing when I arrived, gazing out at the invisible seam where the sky, undifferentiated, met the ocean. He had started shaving his head at the beginning of the flood and his scraped pink skin reminded me of the turkey vultures in the avian compartment. On the ark they subsisted on a diet of fish and pumpkin, but in non-flood times their bald heads kept them from dirtying their feathers as they feasted on rotting flesh. It pleased me to imagine that Noah followed the same laws of hygiene.
“The Patriarch will see you now,” said Naamah before she retired from the room.
Noah turned. His eyes passed up and down my body.
“Sit,” commanded Noah. I sat in a chair pulled up across from his desk. He was silent, glowering. I was silent, studying the room. Twenty of my shoebox-cabins could have fit inside. He was trying to convey a level of austerity appropriate to God’s most devoted servant, but certain details gleamed luxuriantly. A Cross pen shone on the raw wood of his desk; the claw foot of a bathtub peeked out from behind a curtain.
“First, Karis, I want to express how much I appreciate the work you did while my sons and I were readying the ark. You were instrumental in bringing on the birds. That being said, I think we both know that my family is capable of caring for the animals ourselves. Ham and his wife could handle your job quite easily, maybe even split their time between Reptiles and Birds. So you might be asking yourself, ‘Why have God and Noah blessed me with a spot on the ark?’ Before we talk about the issue with the roosters—a very serious issue, I might add—I want you to understand that I brought you on as a favor to your mother.”
I caught myself midway through the act of rolling my eyes, right when I was looking up at the overhead compartment, and then I lowered my gaze and pretended to fan myself, hoping that Noah might believe that my immense gratefulness had almost made me faint. Certainly it’s true that my mother is Noah’s first cousin once removed, making me Noah’s second cousin, making me also distantly related to the other handlers in some complex way I can’t remember. But Noah has never acted altruistically; he has never acted for the sake of anyone but God. The birds might be tractable and eager to survive the flood, but they still needed someone sensible to care for them, not that hamhead Ham, or Shem, whom I had once caught licking a banana slug in the Invertebrate compartment, or Japheth, who looked like what would happen if God breathed the breath of life into a potato.
No—Noah picked me because I had a bachelor’s in wildlife biology and because, unlike my cousin Hiram, who holds a PhD in avian management and conservation, I had agreed to host the tapeworm. Hiram responded squeamishly when Noah raised the possibility of a human custodian serving as a secondary ark. I was more open to the idea. It seemed like a pretty good deal—tapeworms contain both male and female reproductive organs, which meant I only had to carry one.
“Karis, tell me honestly—did you even try to verify the sex?”
“I did! Patriarch Noah, I swear I did.”
How to explain? All those birds luxuriating, squawking, promenading, trying to show themselves off, and me with the power to grant passage. God had ordered them to assemble in the fields around my mother’s house, and I was given five days to pick the most ark-worthy pairs. My mom was packing up while I was conducting the selection, and every time I came inside, the house looked a little barer. And I remember feeling guilty because it was Hiram, not me, who would help her move to higher ground.
At dinner each night before I left, she asked about the birds and while I described them she closed her eyes and gave a hum of satisfaction. I didn’t always want to talk—it was hard work searching for white ibises with the bluest eyes and peep wrens with the brightest spots—but I tried to stay upbeat to please my mother.
On the morning the ark was scheduled to depart, my mom asked about the chickens. It was an innocent question—she wanted to know what breed I had chosen, because she hated those poofy-headed ones that other people seemed to like. And sitting there, with a spoonful of muesli halfway to my mouth, I felt my heart sink into my rainboots.
In truth, I’d been so caught up by the exotics that I’d barely paid attention to the ordinary species. The previous afternoon, after a final, frenzied selection, I’d sent the remaining birds home and they’d flown and hopped and harrumphed away—including all of the chickens.
“Oh, Karis,” said my mother. It was the phrase I dreaded most in all the world.
Of course she let me take her chickens. She wanted to keep the hens for their eggs and the rooster for breeding, but she let me choose two hatchlings from her flock. I did check. I tried the venting method, the one where you squeeze the feces out of a chick and then inspect the open anal vent for an “eminence”—a pimple-sized bump that indicates a male. I determined that I had one male and one female chick. Admittedly, I read all this in my mother’s poultry manual five minutes before I gave it a try. Admittedly, it did not work out.
“And you never noticed in the past, oh, one hundred days or so, that you had two coxcombed roosters wandering around?” asked Noah.
“Well, you can’t really tell the difference between a male and female till the two-month mark, and I’ve seen the adolescent rooster quite a lot lately, but I never saw both roosters at the same time. And then of course they don’t start cockadoodling till five months and I just assumed that all was well until Naamah pointed out the double-crowing.”
Noah pounded his fist on the table. The Cross pen jumped like a gleaming silver fish.
“Do you understand,” demanded Noah, “that you may wind up responsible for an extinction event?”
“Patriarch Noah,” I said in my quietest, most feminine voice, him being very into these types of distinctions, “I think this apocalypse scenario is a little overblown.”
At which point I thought he might pick up the Cross pen and stab me in the throat. He intoned the Word of God: “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”
Whenever he quoted God he got that voice people use when they read poetry, quivery and overdramatic. I couldn’t say what I was thinking, which was, hold on, old man, calm down. Noah has always been a blowhard. Whenever he tells a story, you must prepare yourself to divide everything in half. If he says he caught a ten-pound tilapia in the Sea of Galilee, you have to assume it was a five pounder that he pulled from a tank. If he tells you that his grandfather lived for 969 years, it was more like 450. If he says God is so wrathful that He’s going to wash corruption off the face of the earth, you have to figure that God is ticked off and sending a moderate deluge.
But there was still this niggling voice in the back of my head. Plenty will remain after all this rain, but did I really have faith in the chickens? They’re like feather-covered footballs with dumb, sparkly eyes. I doubted they had the sense to survive a once-in-a-millennium flood. Suddenly I imagined all of my cousins eating quail egg omelets at a family reunion and yelling “Chicken extinctor!” as I tried to hide beneath a table. And I thought about the language that would go extinct, or, even worse, would continue on without a referent, so that no one would remember exactly what it meant to chicken out, or to run around like a chicken with its head cut off, or to choke the chicken, though I honestly wouldn’t miss that last one.
I panicked just a tiny bit and my mind raced like the female gazelle that used to gallop across the deck. Then one day she slipped and broke through the lifelines and fell overboard. That, too, was almost an extinction event, but Ophir managed to fish her from the water.
Oh God, I thought, what would my mother think? It was her cockerel that I’d mistaken for a pullet. She’d loved birds my entire growing up, always kept chickens, always given them fanciful names. She was the reason I’d majored in wildlife biology with a special focus in ornithology. She’d even encouraged me to apply for a spot on the ark. My day-to-day duties mostly involved mucking the avian compartment and scrubbing guano off the deck, but my official job title—Diluvial Bird Handler—conveyed a high level of prestige.
The truth, of course, was that I didn’t have much skill as an ornithologist. I lived at home and worked as a waitress after I got my degree. Every few months I’d shoot off an anemic application to an avian preserve, halfway wanting it, halfway not. I liked the tips. I liked being on my feet. I liked going home and not worrying about the harm that chewing lice caused to birds with damaged bills. I had no ambition other than to make ends meet. I even liked how it sounded, that phrase. Making ends meet, taking the tails of my life and lifting them up into a smooth little circle. A modicum of success seemed to me like the perfect measure. The only time I ever felt bad was thinking of my mom. She, too, had a smooth little circle of a life. She was a baker, a keeper of birds, and although the smallness of her circle never shamed me, one day I realized that I filled its center completely.
I thought I could bear being called a chicken extinctor for the rest of my life, but I didn’t think I could bear for her to hear it. And I thought of my mother high up on the side of Mount Ishtob, and I thought how much I missed her, and it was at that moment that I formed my plan.
“Patriarch Noah,” I said, “My mom has a whole flock of chickens. She took them with her when she and the rest of the settlement evacuated to higher ground. If we could circle back for a quick second, I can dash up the mountain and grab a hen, just to be sure that we can repopulate the earth if God really drowns all the chickens.”
“Karis,” he said, “when God has finished there will be no seedtime and no harvest, no hot nor cold, no summer nor winter, no day nor night, and no more chickens.”
“Very well,” he grumbled. “God commanded me to save two of every animal, a male and a female, and I shall fulfill God’s will. Bring back a hen or you lose your spot on the ark.”
Ten days later, we dropped anchor half a mile from Mount Ishtob and Tersa and Ophir lowered me down on the rowboat.
“You have until nightfall to reverse this extinction event!” screamed Naamah from above. “We’ll leave without you if you don’t come back in time!”
Either I was anxious or the tapeworm was turning somersaults inside of me. Regardless, I felt ill. I grasped the oars and rowed. I was not, however, a very good rower, having never manned a rowboat in my life, and for a while I got caught up in the current and drifted farther out to sea than the ark itself.
I glanced at the sky. The clouds made it hard to gauge the time of day, but I guessed I had four hours before sundown. I could hear Naamah shrieking, also the animals making all of their animal sounds.
“Well what do they expect?” I complained to the tapeworm. “I’m not a rower, I’m an ornithologist.” I swished my oars through the murky water. Only the sea creatures had flourished in the flood—I imagined fish flippering insensibly beneath me, one world expanding as the other shrank.
Eventually, I righted myself and developed a rhythm, a way of throwing my shoulders into the oars. Naamah’s shrieking died away. It took maybe forty minutes to reach the flank of Mount Ishtob. When the boat finally scraped against the shore, it made the sound of pebbles pouring from a pitcher. I was hungry. My stomach and my tapeworm clamored for food. It was that time on the ark when Shem’s wife summoned the Covenants and handlers for an afternoon snack—hardtack with a dollop of honey. I thought of my mother waiting at the apex of Mount Ishtob. She didn’t have much, but she was still my mother. She always fed me when I came home.
I jumped out and dragged the boat inland, well past the edges of the makeshift beach. I wanted to make sure that the waves couldn’t steal it away, because although I didn’t believe that God would wipe all life off the face of the earth, the worst-case scenario that Noah had depicted—a chicken-less, Karis-less world—struck me as unspeakably sad. I gazed at the ark. It was long and dark against the gray. I saluted, blew a kiss, made a face, turned my back. I had to bushwhack, but after a while I came to a path I recognized that wound up the side of the mountain.
Was path the right word? Once it had been a hard pack of dirt, but now it channeled excess water. Except that all water had become excessive—it washed over my rain boots in a muddy swirl, moving downward. My mother had lost her home in the first forty days of the flood. The old settlement was somewhere close, east and below, but it unnerved me to see so little debris. I spied a door that had washed up with the skeleton of a dog on top of it, a stroller, a washboard, even, in the midst of ruin, an intact light bulb on a heap of netting. For the most part, though, the world had resolved into water: everything soggy, swallowed, sunk.
The trees that still stood had died in the first rounds of rain. Perhaps they lost their leaves reluctantly, one by one, or all at once in a great denuding. However it happened, those leaves had sunk or disintegrated or swirled into the ocean, so that an angel who only visited the earth in flood would form such false opinions: that trees had no leaves, that gray was the only color, that humans were subordinate to mold. It bloomed all across the land but also up, so that it climbed tree trunks and telephone poles and barbed wire fences, so dense on the barbs that they became like cotton balls and I could have swabbed my face without a scratch.
I was forced to admit that this was more than a moderate deluge. Not that we were being wiped off the face of the Earth, but that God had decided to make his point more pointed, us heathens being so obtuse.
“God,” I cried, looking up at the heavens so that the rain needled into my eyes, “I get your point.”
Not that I was planning to stop eating meat or rest on the seventh day, but I promised to be kinder to my mother. She drove me crazy—how she scrunched up her face when she couldn’t think of an answer or half-finished one story and started on another without any indication of the switch. When she cooked she touched every knob, appliance, and serving utensil with soiled fingers, so that after the production of a meatloaf or a pork chop the kitchen looked like a crime scene, and I would follow her huffing with a wet paper towel and take her hands in mine and firmly clean them. I found her even more exasperating than Noah, if I’m being honest, but she was also the person I loved most in the world. Sometimes when I was doing something mindless, lying in bed or scattering birdseed, shame would wash over me, and I would vow to be a better daughter—more loving, more ambitious, more sincere.
The path curved around a patch of bare pines and then the new settlement stretched out before me, a scattering of tiny, tin-roofed cabins. By the quality of the light I guessed I had two hours before sunset. The air was thin here, but thick with rain, and the moisture stuck in my throat like a velvet sock, half soft, half suffocating. Mount Ararat was technically a few hundred cubits taller, but the original settlement had existed at Ishtob’s base and no one wanted to schlep to the top of a whole other mountain. I could see my mother’s cabin down the puddled path. Hers looked just the same as all the others, except for the chicken coop that leaned against its side.
I marched up to her door and knocked and knocked. It occurred to me that she might not be home, and for a moment I felt my heart skitter in my chest. But then—where else could she be? There was nowhere to work, nowhere to walk, and I was sure she was sick of her neighbors. I could feel myself on the edge of tears—that itchy, hysterical feeling that struck me whenever I came home. So I pushed open the door in a fit of panic and there she sat, playing a game of solitaire at her kitchen table.
“Karis,” said my mother, so composed that she took another sip from the glass by her elbow. “I thought I imagined the knocking.”
“Mom,” I said.
“Are you real?”
“Of course I’m real.”
“Last week the rain delirium convinced your Uncle Talmin that his drowned dog Dodo had shown up with a tennis ball.”
“I brought you a feather,” I said. I held out the only gift I had—a green iridescent tail feather that I had plucked from the golden-headed quetzal.
“That is so much better than a tennis ball.”
She came around the table and hugged me and I felt how small she was, like a doll with two enormous breasts. I was taller but equally endowed, so that the shelf of her chest ended right below where mine began and we fit together like two buxom pieces of a puzzle.
When I tried to break free, she pushed me away but didn’t let go. Her hands clamped down on my shoulders.
“Did Noah kick you off?” she asked in her sternest mother voice.
“It’s a long story. I have to get back before sundown.”
“Thank God,” she said, and we both winced at the phrase. It was one of God’s most successful ploys: language so ingrained that it betrayed us into gratitude.
Then she released me, stuck the feather in an empty jar, and puttered around in the kitchen. I sat down at the table. Her cabin was maybe 10 by 16 cubits, with a cooking area in one end and a cot in the other. There were various vessels spaced across the room to catch leaks from the roof. She hadn’t brought much in the way of decorations, and I guess as a workaround for loneliness she had started doodling on napkins and taping the napkins to the walls. The one closest to me showed a wiener dog standing on top of an overturned canoe and baying at the sky with a little speech bubble that read, “I miss you, moon.”
“Are you hungry, Karis?”
“Yeah, a little bit.” I knew I didn’t have time to linger, but what I wanted most was for my mom to spoil me like she used to do when I came back from college.
“I’m sorry I don’t have anything special to give you. I just used my last tin of meat.”
“Aw, too bad,” I said. “We’re vegetarian on the boat. I guess God forbade us from eating meat. That’s what the Covenants say—it’s one of the reasons He’s supposed to be so mad.”
She filled a pot with water, laid a single, speckled egg inside, and lit the stove. Then she came over and sat across from me. It was such a tiny table that our knees touched.
“You’ve been okay?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” she said, right as a drop of water plinked into the glass that was sitting on the table. “A lot of solitaire. A lot of solitude. I guess I didn’t think it would go on for quite so long.”
“No one did. Folks were guessing forty days at first.”
“Well, Noah did try to set us straight.” We rolled our eyes in unison.
“He’s really very pompous,” I said.
“All the men in this family. You never even knew Methuselah.”
I grinned. Nothing felt better than shit-talking the Patriarchs at my mother’s kitchen table. It distracted me from how the Covenants were almost certainly shit-talking me on the ark.
Outside the window, I could perceive a slight change in the quality of light, luminous grey shading towards a greater darkness.
“How are the chickens?” I asked.
“Gone. A few of them drowned. A few of them stopped eating. The rooster got an infection on his comb and died.”
I felt like I was about to choke. “But there must be some left,” I stammered, and I reached out and took a gulp from her glass of endlessly replenishing water. A black circle Sharpied on the wood marked the place to put it back.
“Just my favorite hen, Mizzy. That’s her egg you’re about to eat. You remember her, the buff-colored orpington with the—”
“Mom, listen, I know this is a huge favor to ask, but I need to borrow Mizzy till the end of the rain.” I explained the chicken sexing disaster and how Noah claimed he would throw me off the ark, and the more I talked the more my mother seemed to crumple, till she was resting her face in her hands. I knew that I was asking too much—that I was leaving my mom with nothing but a wiener dog baying soundlessly on a scrap of napkin. The Covenants weren’t much company, but I had Tersa and Ophir and the other handlers, not to mention 10,000 mating pairs who sang when I passed by. There was no one to sing to my mother. She was alone in a leaky cabin with a passel of irritating neighbors and only the sound of the rain.
“Oh, Karis,” she said.
“I can stay if you want,” I blurted. I meant it. I would stay, if she asked. “We can forget about the chickens.”
She shook her head. “You have to take Mizzy. You have to go back to the ark.”
“The birds would be fine without me. Ham’s a dummy, but he can keep them alive for a while on his own.”
“Karis, I’m asking you to take things seriously, for once. The rain isn’t stopping. The water keeps rising. Folks are saying God really means to drown us.”
She had started believing her pessimist neighbors, but I knew it didn’t make sense. How was it possible? How could God make the world and then just wash it away?
The egg timer beeped and my mom stood up and went to the stove. She returned with the egg, peeled and steaming and slick.
“Eat,” she said.
I grabbed a knife and cut the egg down the middle. It fell open on the plate. The yolk looked as orange as the missing sun, nestled tightly in the saucer of the white. It was perfect, creamy and hot, with just a hint of jelly at the center. I handed half to my mother.
“You’re sure you’ll be okay?” I asked when we had finished eating.
And she smiled at me so that her eyes crinkled and I could see her crow’s feet.
“I’m sure,” she said. “I gave you life. I can give you Mizzy.”
Mizzy was so used to being touched that my mom didn’t even have to chase her. She just gave her a few caresses and scooped up the hen into her arms. Buff-colored orpingtons are famed for their plumpness, but Mizzy had shrunk and some of her buffness had faded to a sickish cream. She was missing a good chunk of feathers and I could see her goosepimple flesh peeking out, angry and pink, revealing the thinness of her neck.
“Shhh,” said my mom as she rubbed Mizzy’s head with her thumb. “Mizzy’s a good girl.”
We were huddled in the covered part of the coop. The floor was a mess of mud and straw. Months of rain had softened the wood so that it felt like standing on a biscuit. My mother showed me how to zip Mizzy up so that her body pressed against my chest and her head stuck out from the top of my raincoat. I supported Mizzy’s weight with one arm and hugged my mother with the other—an awkward hug, our shoulders touching and our bellies angled out so that we didn’t crush the chicken between us. Our raincoats rubbed together with a plasticky swish.
“Be good, Karis.”
“Do as Noah asks.”
“Most of the time.”
“And make sure to eat enough. You look so thin and pale.”
I bobbed my head. I had never told my mother about the tapeworm and I never would. I wanted her to keep believing that I had been chosen for the ark because of something exceptional inside of me—something unrelated to the worm.
“I love you,” she said. She looked at me with the biggest, saddest eyes. My mom always hated goodbyes.
“I love you,” I answered. “And I’ll see you on the other side of all this rain.”
Then I ran down the hill, following the stream of water and trying not to slip. I dragged the boat into the ever-rising ocean and hopped aboard and rowed like a maniac, till I could make out the corkscrew of Naamah’s curls as she marched around keeping order on deck. I had a few minutes to spare before the sun sank below the horizon, and for a moment I just sat there, resting my hands on the oars. I looked down at Mizzy’s amber eyes, the flag of her comb like a red flare in the grayness, a sign that the gray had not won. She chortled, then made a sound like a koo koo koo. I revised my estimation of her intellect. She didn’t look dumb. She looked infinitely wise, a feathered football with dinosaur feet, having taken the form of a bird to survive that first extinction.
She was, I decided, the most beautiful chicken I had ever seen. I wondered if this was what God intended all along—partial terracide to shift our love to the leftover bits. Maybe He wanted the same: to start again, loving deeply what remained. I thought He was wrong, a big God baby who knocked down the blocks when He noticed an error in the stacking, but I couldn’t deny that I felt different now. Once I loved cypresses. Now I poured that love into any tree that still existed. Once I found Gold Laced Wyandottes the most pleasing breed of chicken. Now I loved Mizzy. And my mom, I had always loved her more than all the trees and chickens, but the end of the earth made that clear.
“Is that what you’re up to, God?” I demanded, but God, of course, did not answer.
Then Naamah’s head poked over the side of the ark and I raised up the chicken as proof that I had carried out my mission.
“Bring her up,” Naamah ordered.
I lashed the rowboat to the lifts and Tersa and Ophir hauled me back aboard the ark. The boat jerked upward. Mizzy clucked and shook her head.
“Wait till you meet the roosters,” I whispered to Mizzy, trying to calm her down, and I explained how they showboated along the taffrail and put the peacocks to shame with their confidence.
The tapeworm twisted in my intestine and Mizzy pressed against my chest. I imagined all my cousins in the gazebo at the family reunion, dragging their forks through piles of scrambled eggs so fluffy they seemed like they might rise up from the plate. Trees rustled above our heads and the poppies bloomed with tissue-paper redness. The sun was shining and the moon would return in the night. Everything gray had taken life and God saw, again, that it was good. Far away, a tame sea broke quietly against the rocks and the passerines sang from the trees, the thrushes especially for us, song and countersong, a net of notes falling from the sky, but not like rain. I thought of my mother and how everything that was good in me had come from her, and how someday, when we gathered once again, I would not have to hide my face. We would sit side by side at the table, and when my cousins came up to greet us they would call me the Savior of Chickens, and my mother’s cheeks would pink with the pleasure of my name.