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Hen Circle - Short Story by Augustus Sleeveen

By this point, the rest of the restaurant is watching. Several people have already left, or gone to the bathroom, from which retching can be heard several doors down. It’s all dry; nobody has been able to touch their food, because the whole place smells like rotten, coppery fish.

Paula puts her hand up. She’s always been the bravest of the group.

“What a surprise,” whispers Maeve to Mary.

Paula fixes her with a look. “What was that?” she asks.

“Nothing Paula, give em hell!” comes the sheepish reply.

“That’s what I thought,” hisses Paula, pouring the bloody liquid into her glass.

It slops in, like strawberry malt. Fleshy chunks and cotton lumps tumble like ice cubes. She pushes her breakfast back down. One by one they pass the jug, and each hen pours a little of each other. Once all glasses are full to the brim, they turn the jug upside down. Tabby licks her lips, rubbing her hands together.

“Okay girls, same rules apply as always. I want it all gone. Any comes back up, or stays in the glass, and you’re out of the group. Clear?”

They nod, trying not to think about red wine or flossing.

As one, they lift their glasses. Tabby regards Paula; first to pour gets the honours.

“What do we drink to?” she asks.

Paula smiles her secret smile. “To womanhood,” she says, the sarcasm bitter.

Tabby turns it into a social joke with her best paint-over-trouble smile. They all giggle for their lives. “To womanhood!” they say, and tilt their heads back.

The secret is to get it into the back of your throat. You don’t want it on your tongue or between your teeth. Uterine flesh is stringy and chunky, and it’s a bitch when it gets stuck anywhere. You don’t want to leave any behind, either, because then you have to scoop it into your mouth, and it gets stuck in your fingernails. Each hen is told this in private before their first meeting by the one who brings them, but it’s still a hell of a sight when you see the others doing the same damned thing, hiking it down their necks like birds. In that moment, “Hens” is an apt title for these unfortunate creatures. They don’t spill a drop, neither today nor any other day.

As each woman recycles her lining, she looks hard into the eyes of the hen sitting opposite. It’s a spiritual gaze, devoid of the malice with which they usually regard one another; in that moment, they are all victims. All except Tabby, who licks the bottom of her glass with gusto once she’s taken it all in; she doesn’t look like a victim. She even holds the meat in her cheeks like a squirrel, chewing through it like jerky.

And when they’re all finished, she’s the only one who doesn’t look dead inside. She’s the only one ordering dessert in the entire restaurant.

And at next week’s Hen Picnic, she’ll only bring jam sandwiches, because she’s the only one who can eat them anymore.

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