I walked out of the house at 7am for my morning walk to find a chicken in my front yard, staring at me with a plaintive look. She was a Rhode Island chook, with red glossy feathers and looked well cared for. “What are you doing out here?” I asked her. She cocked her head and walked to me, brushing herself against my legs. “You poor love, the wind must have taken you away.” The day before had been humid and windy, houses rattling from the wind, trees bent and broken. I patted the chicken’s soft, glossy feathers. I called out to my husband and he opened the door to our courtyard. The chicken followed me. We watered her, and fed her, and then I took a photo and posted on social media about our visitor. I went to work.
It was a Friday, my busiest teaching day, where I bounce from class to class like a pin-ball, gulping down my yoghurt at recess standing up, sitting down for 20 minutes at lunchtime. As I scrolled through my phone I saw a photo of a peacock and was reminded of my mother because of the peacock ring she wore nearly every day.
I hadn’t visited her the night before. Thursday was our designated night, we’d stay at her house lying on the couch and watching Bosnian music clips on YouTube, me critiquing the fashion choices while Mum nodded and smiled with the music. Or we would go to the shopping centre for dinner and we’d visit our favourite clothes shop, walking out with handfuls of bargains. Since my stepfather, who was my mother’s full time carer as she was a bipolar sufferer, had died eleven months before I had stepped in as defacto carer: paying her bills, coordinating her doctor’s appointments, managing her NDIS plan, running errands. There were weeks I visited her every day after work, one memorable month when I took her to the GP every Sunday, and I had been feeling the wear and tear.
As I picked my daughter up from school I called my mother at 3.06pm. She didn’t answer her mobile so I left a message on her answering machine. She didn’t call me back that night as she had her regular Friday night social group. My daughter and I went home and door-knocked our neighbours, trying to find the chicken’s home. A neighbour in the street behind us had chickens, but she wasn’t his. A co-worker had seen my post and offered to take the chicken in. As night descended, I fretted about the chicken being outside, prey to foxes that could slink into the yard. I called my co-worker and she came. We found the chicken in my garden bed, she had just laid an egg. As they took her home in a box I took a photo of my daughter with the egg and we good naturally argued about who would get to eat it the next morning.
When the phone rang at midday on Saturday I assumed it was my mother returning my call, but then I saw my brother’s name on caller ID. He asked me to sit down. And then he told me our mother was gone. Joan Didion wrote in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking about the death of her husband and daughter “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”
I had already experienced this once before less than a year ago when I was at the hairdresser with my daughter. She was getting pink tips in her hair, a birthday present for her 10th birthday party in a few days, when my husband called me. My mother had come to our house looking for spare keys. My stepfather had driven her to the swimming pool for her weekly swim and didn’t pick her up at the designated time. As my husband drove my mother to her house I imagined my stepfather had forgotten, since he’d had a second heart attack a few months before he had become frail and forgetful. My mother had speculated he might have dementia and I thought this might be proof she was right. My husband found his body in the bungalow at the back. He had suicided, leaving a note on the kitchen table for her.
Now, I drove to my mother’s house in a wild panic, trembling, shaking and crying. A sense of unreality descending. She hadn’t been sick. There was no medical condition that would explain her sudden death. This wasn’t really happening. This wasn’t really my life, but I knew that it was. Once you experience that life changing instant, you can never rest easy. When I arrived the paramedics were there, soon after the police, and then the coroner, taking my mother out on a gurney in a body bag. I thought I had more time with her, but the clock was up. The police surveyed the house. They found her Webster pack, she had taken her medication Thursday morning, but hadn’t taken her night dose. We checked her phone. Her last outgoing call was Thursday evening. She had died that night as she prepared for bed.
I visited my mother’s house the day before her funeral, lying in her bed, touching her jewellery and her clothes, trying to feel her around me. As a teenager living in my mother’s house I believed I had been haunted by a poltergeist that moved my belongings and held me down in my sleep. One day I was brushing my hair in front of my vanity. I had blu-tacked my birthday cards to the glass mirror to keep them upright. As I brushed my hair they had suddenly fallen face down. I had flicked them once with my finger and they dropped again. I concluded that the blu-tack must have lost its stickiness from the heat. I turned away from the mirror to get my hair-tie on the bed. When I turned back the cards were leaning against the vanity again. I ran out of the room and to school, telling all my friends I was haunted by a ghost. Soon after the presence dissipated, or my imagination faded.
Now as I lay in my mother’s bed I attempted to feel her presence. I sat in the place where she had died, wanting her to haunt me, but the house felt empty, void of anything except her fragrance. I found her favourite ring, a large intricate golden peacock with its feathers forming a fan that covered half my finger, and put it on. It fit perfectly. We had the same hands. When I was young I used to hold my palm against hers and measure my growth. I took the dressing gown that had been my grandmother’s and then my mother’s and wore it, caressing the velvet. My mother was Muslim and so women wear a headscarf and cover their arms and legs at the funeral. I saw a photo of her wearing a brown embroidered Abaya dress with a mustard headscarf and took it from her wardrobe to wear to her funeral.
At the funeral I was surrounded by believers. They told me that my mother was with my stepfather, that she was not suffering, that she was at peace. I thanked them, but I received no solace. I envied them their faith and their acceptance. I did not believe in an afterlife, but I wanted to believe in something. When I had attended Madrasa, Muslim religious school, as a child the Imam had said that there were two worlds: the one we could see and the one that we couldn’t. I held fast to this, slotting my ghostly presence into the realm of the world we couldn’t see.
My husband called his mother overseas and bounded into my room afterwards. “I have to tell you something freaky,” he said. His mother told him she had dreamt about him the day before and he was dressed in black. That it was a sign of mourning to come. He told her that he worked as an usher at a theatre and had to wear black as his uniform. “We wondered if the chicken was a sign too?” he told her. The previous night as I cried and my husband had comforted me I had wondered aloud. There had seemed something odd and yet magical about the way that she came to me, that she looked at me. It was as if she’d been waiting. “I thought that too,” he told me, but it was ludicrous. A chicken escaped during a windy day, became lost on the streets. I just happened to find her.
“How do you know about the chicken?” his mother asked him.
“What do you mean, the chicken came to us?” he told her.
My mother-in-law told him that on the Thursday of the same day they had woken to find a chicken in their front yard. The chicken was lost and did not belong to any of the neighbours. They kept her for the day until they found her a new home, and just before she was re-homed she lay them an egg.
After I told my sister she sent me a screen shot. She had googled and found that a chicken is an archetype of mother and child, or a symbol of parental and spiritual love in the literature of the West. Joan Didion wrote in her memoir “It occurs to me that we allow ourselves to imagine only such messages as we need to survive.” I need to believe that my mother had come to me after her death. That she had wanted to give me a sign to make my grief more bearable. The more rational part of my brain accepts that I am clinging to a coincidence, but the orphaned child in me needs to believe.
“But why a chicken?” my husband wondered.
I looked down at the peacock ring that I was caressing on my finger. “Because she couldn’t find a peacock.”
Amra Pajalic is an award winning author and editor. Her debut novel The Good Daughter won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature's Civic Choice Award. She was also co-editor of the anthology Growing up Muslim in Australia , shortlisted for the 2015 Children's Book Council of the year awards. She works as a high school teacher and is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at La Trobe University. Her latest book is a family memoirThings Nobody Knows But Me.