John had great big waterproof boots on. Rubbery, thick, just like his tongue that curled out of his mouth now, pink, saliva sheened. It was a pig of a job repairing the irrigation drain; the cruel sun beat down, but, still, he refused to take off his jersey. A vain man, even in the garden, he preferred to swelter and sweat, rather than his wife seeing his white flabby rolls like pale pastry dough. Every few minutes he stood, arched his aching back, rubbed miserably at the pain that gnawed. He cursed at the hard, unrelenting ground, the stupidity of the previous property owner who had laid down such a half-assed tangled mess of pipes, his old sunhat that insisted on flopping down over his eyes, making everything almost impossible, the hens that pecked underfoot.
They were his wife’s hens, not his, he would tell anyone who listened. She was far too soft, mollycoddling any that became ill, lame, out-of-sorts. It made him jolly angry, if he ever thought about it too deeply or for too long, this attention that she gave them but not him. He thought of this now as he sliced hard earth viciously; the way that she had started so loving, but now left him cold. Caring about others, mainly herself. Never him, her husband. Heartless Bitch, he thought. Useless. Miserable. Selfish. Stupid. With each word, he stamped brutally on his spade, enjoyed it biting hard into the skin of the lawn, ripping out the muddied flesh where worms writhed.
The hens were delighted at the gourmet treasure unearthed. The swaggering rooster, feet ridiculously feathered, called over his hens, postured at the worms stretched thin in the sun like strained nerves, frayed ropes. “Look,” he seemed to say, “at this feast I have found, just for you. What a man I am,” he crowed, again and again, lifting skyward his scrawny neck. An anthem of abundance, praise to his own tawny golden magnificence.
Eyes squinted against the sun, John turned his head, saw his wife laughing at the window. Ungrateful cow, inside while he slaved away outside on a day hot enough to fry an egg on the concrete. “30 degrees,” he muttered to himself, “probably more.” He thought of asking his wife to check the temperature on the weather gauge in the lounge, swallowed down his words. After all, she would be too stupid to read it right, would most likely tell him the wind speed, anything but what he wanted to know. He wondered what she was doing, except for making the kitchen a mess, an untidy pigsty. It was beyond him why she could not tidy as she went.
To begin with, he had thought her haphazard, flurried, floury style of cooking to be endearing, something to be tolerated at least. Then, he had begun following her around, standing in her space, shrinking her: “Use the bowl and then wash it immediately. Put away the flour, sugar, baking powder, the butter and milk” he would demand, ticking off the chores on fat fingers. Thick muscled arms would scrub industrially at the benches, cloths swept over stray globs of batter, a spilt teaspoon of salt. He knew that she was baking now, shuddered inwardly at the thought of the tsunami of disarray in their cluttered kitchen. All of her own making. She needed to do better. He kept telling her. She never listened, thought herself better.
John humped his back away from her, shouldered his bitterness, grasped again his spade, cursed with a sudden splinter stab. He was, at least, making good progress with repairing the irrigation ditch and had finally found the leaking pipe. Stuck through with a tree root, it mouthed, gaping, water leaking into the earth. He heaved at the tree root, struck violently with his axe, twisted it free, then stood triumphantly, satisfied with the axe’s thud, the root’s twang, the frenzied fleeing of the chickens, cackling like old women, into the undergrowth.
He began to work quicker now, old piping wrenched out, replaced with a thick black coil that snaked into the ditch, laid flat, a few clods thrown over to keep it in place. John began to relax, his thick red neck sunburnt, bent low to the task; digging the trench wider, pinning down the piping, extending it so it would reach his new vegetable garden. He was proud of his gardens and worked hard at straight lines, drawn out with twine, secured fast to sticks. Each vegetable had its place, companion garden at its finest, a Victory Garden just as his grandmother had grown. Tall corns stood sentry against squabbling sparrows, cabbages squatted in tight regiments next to a tepee of vigorous beans, flourishing beets. He had tried to keep his wife out of the garden, determined not to have it spoiled by her notions of borage for bees, calendulas’ fierce fiery manes warding off marauding bugs, flowers frolicking amongst the carrots just because they were pretty. No. That was all just another example of her nonsense, something that he would not tolerate.
As he widened his ditch, methodically straightening the edges, tidying away the soil crumbs at which the chickens, all returned now, began to worry at, he thought how easy it was to be by himself. Away from the squabbling of indoors, the incessant clamoring for attention, titbits of love, the constant need to set her straight, he could think for himself. Of himself. He pushed back his scrappy hat and flung himself into the task; flinging dirt into piles, shoveling it back as he reached the end of his ditch close to the vegetables. Next, he began thwacking back the dirt, spade raised shoulder high and brought down hard onto the dirt. With each thwack, the force of it, the power of him, tingled his hand, reverberated up his strong arms. He felt invincible, hoped that bitch noticed his efforts, though she never did. Always complaining, that’s all she was good at, he thought morosely. He whacked hard at the soft dirt, thought of her soft flesh clamped shut. Well not today, he thought, not after all this bloody hard work. He would get what he wanted, what he deserved.
Seeding the area with grass would be his next job, but not today. He had done enough and not with the hens’ furious pecking, sifting through the dirt for the worms, unseen goodness. The hens, excited by the searing sun, the prancing rooster high-stepping around them, toes splayed, clucked, and chattered, tittered their gossip, gabbled and chortled higher and higher until he felt overwhelmed by the dissonant cacophony. They ran over his waterproof boots after chirping chicks; the rooster seized the day, fluttered fancy feathers at coy hens, who sat, beady-eyed, judging. As women always did, he thought, making a mockery of all a chap had to offer.
The rooster stood on a fence post now, gazed at him balefully, lifted his full-throated voice to the sky and sang falsetto to his harem.
John’s arm shot out. Even he was surprised by the speed, the force, the rooster’s powerful feet kicking in one hand, long neck struggling upside down in his other. It screamed, setting loose waves of panic; hens screeched, ran from him with babies bumbling after them, ducks quacked fearfully, wings beating on pond water, feathers flying.
His wife rapped on the window, sharp bony knuckles against the bleary glass, shrieking over and over, like a demented banshee. She ran outside, floured apron flapping strings that whipped at John as she struggled to release his fingers, vice-like on the rooster’s leg. The bird fought hard, and he dropped it. It lay, momentarily stunned in the ditch, plumage tattered, bloodied, torn, breath coming fast, loud, ragged, its pain the only sound now.
John straddled the ditch, face pressed up against his wife’s so he could taste her fear, the tang of her tears that rolled down her face, her breasts. She too was gasping for air, caught in his anger. He let her go, noticed the raw red rings around her wrist, his marks on her. For a moment, they both stood facing one another, she not wanting to turn her back while his blue eyes bore down on her. Wild. Unpredictable. He bent, rubbed at his aching back. He picked up his spade, ran his hands up and down its smooth shaft, the sharp edge of it. Lifting it high over his shoulder, he angled it down hard on her head. Split it open like the ripe windblown apples under the tree. She shuddered, but not much. She was not so much surprised as pained that this was how it was going to end. She did not struggle when he kicked her into the ditch with his waterproof boots, gasped her final goodbyes as he filled her mouth with dirt, dripped her memories of lost love into the dirt for the chickens to forage at later.
His rage dissipated, John covered his wife gently, kept her apron on her for the afterlife, where she might need it after all, and finished the ditch just in time for the evening news. Bending again, he took a clean cloth to his boots, wiped them carefully, put them away. He looked at his repaired and extended irrigation ditch, pleased with its lines, its regularity. The chickens looked on.
“And that,” said John, “is that.”