Her mother says “niña” like she’s singing an opera. Notes burst through the Garcia family’s two-bedroom bungalow to serenade all of Havana. Camilia glances at the clock. It’s a quarter past six on a cloudless day. She trudges down the narrow hall to the kitchen table. There’s no bacalao sending whiffs of sautéed codfish out to every house on the block. No ropa vieja with its shredded meat spiced to pique the tongue. No fried steak dressed in layers of white onion. No yucca baptized in oil. No beans: red, white, or black. Her little sister, Estrella, is tracing the tablecloth’s blue gingham stripes with her index finger. Her father is spooning unadorned rice into his mouth, the rice white like his teeth. Camilia tucks a lock of chocolate hair behind the ear that’s missing the earring she lost and pulls out a chair. Wooden legs scrape against the tile floor. She slumps down, stares at the chipped bowl of rice in front of her, daydreams of leaving Cuba and finding some faraway land where chunks of rib eye grow on trees.
“Eat,” her mother says. Onto Camilia’s rice she drops a sunny side up egg and two fried plantains.
“I heard Abuelo Julio stole a pig,” Camilia says.
“Abuelo Julio did not steal a pig,” her mother says. Her father smirks.
“Don’t laugh,” her mother says. “Señor Rafael is always listening.”
“Señor Rafael can’t hear us here,” her father says.
“He can’t?” her mother says.
Eyes roll. Camilia smashes the yolk with her fork. Her mother spoons more rice from her iron pot. Everyone gobbles up the sticky clumps. Her sister wants to know when they might have beans. Her father lands his elbow on the wobbly table, curses the bouncing glassware, and reminds Estrella that there was a revolution and now there’s an embargo and Cuba really is a good place to live. Camilia looks at her family, skin sharp like unleavened bread. She pounds her knife, disrupts the table’s delicate balance. Miguel and Estrella anchor their glasses. Camilia ignores her overturned cup. She stands and flicks away a stray hair as water races to the edge of the table and flees to the floor.
“The chicken must die,” she says. She takes her knife and slides it across her throat. Her father laughs. Estrella gasps. Maria sighs, rushes to mop up the spilt water.
“We can’t kill Pica,” Estrella says.
Camilia had asked for a dog. Her father had brought home a chicken. “Pets should be useful,” he’d said, trying to keep Pica from squirming out of a brown paper bag. “A dog may fetch slippers, but a hen can lay eggs.” Camilia admits that, ever since Castro declared himself president, Pica’s yummy yolks have cascaded over clumps of rice to a chorus of little cheers. She’s been glad to have a chicken, to wake up to cluck cluck instead of woof woof. But the time has come for sacrifice.
“I’m tired of eating rice,” Camilia says. Her death wish for Pica bubbles.
“She’s mine, too,” Estrella says.
“Don’t worry. I’ll eat your half.”
Camilia rushes out to the back porch not sure whether she’ll kill the chicken this instant or wait until tomorrow. Estrella climbs over her father to chase after her sister. Miguel and Maria scurry after their daughters. Camilia hears her mother shouting, “Act like ladies.”
It’s a cool winter evening. The sun’s orange glow is butting up against the moon’s lavender sky, fireflies are just emerging to give the stars a good fight, and the mosquitoes are sharpening their silverware. Camilia finds Pica pecking at the dirt in the dried up flower garden, presumably hoping to dig up a small beetle or black ant she might suck into her beak. She is larger than most Bantam hens, with feathers that once glistened like melted milk chocolate and a comb like a red ruby brooch. But she’s scrawny. The Garcias never meant to eat her.
“Arroz con pollo,” Camilia says. Estrella crosses her arms.
“Are you going to wring her poor little neck?” she says.
“You’ll do no such thing,” her mother says. “Ladies don’t kill chickens.”
Camilia looks at her father. He throws his hands up to the sky, flings open the screen door, returns to spooning rice. Camilia follows him, grabs her bowl, and showers Pica in white rain.
“Need to fatten her up,” she says.
“You’re evil,” Estrella says.
Camilia doesn’t want to argue. She doesn’t know how to explain that her heart wrenches for a time when she could throw out a strainer full of beans and keep the sauce or pelt Estrella with an avocado. Fidel’s rationed everything from apples to zippers. No one else is going to help them, and they all need to eat, to feel like a family around a dinner table with forks and knives and some juicy flesh. Maybe then they’ll forget about the revolution and the rations, laugh as warm chicken breasts fill their cold bellies. She will do what has to be done. Despite Fidel, they will feast, and with every savory bite of this poor chicken, she’ll be giving Castro the bird.
For two weeks Camilia donates her rice to the chicken. Her clavicles grow razor sharp, but Pica is perky and plump. The hen no longer bothers hunting for insects. Instead she parades around the backyard, strutting her roundness for the starved neighborhood strays: the mangy cat who eyes her from the fence, little pink tongue licking his little pink lips; a cabal of grungy German shepherds in cahoots to ram through the side gate; a skinny rat waiting for an “accident.” Camilia hates to end her pet’s new life of plenty—she’s never seen Pica so happy—but it is time. The chicken must die.
She decides to work on her father after her mother forbids her from harming a feather on Pica’s head. She finds him in his blue armchair, passing the time with a newspaper. A breeze blows through the open window and ruffles the pages.
Camilia sits on one of the worn armrests, notices a bit of dandruff against the mud landscape of her father’s bus driver uniform. In preparation for his evening route, he’s greased back his hair. Once she thought his mane made him look like a stallion. Now she sees it’s more of helmet to buffer his head when life slams him into a wall.
He looks up from an article touting Fidel’s great military prowess and starts to crumple the paper. Camilia nods toward the window. Outside Señor Rafael is clipping his fat legs across the street with a bag full of groceries. Miguel carefully folds the paper, tucks it under his arm, and salutes their neighbor, the alleged Castro spy. When Señor Rafael passes, he chucks the paper on the couch, spits a glob of saliva onto Fidel’s picture.
“We should jump him,” Camilia says.
“Where does a child of mine get these ideas?” He smoothes his stiff hair. Camilia straightens her dress.
“I’m here about the chicken.”
“Don’t you remember when Pica was a little chick?” He grabs Camilia’s hand and faces her palm to heaven, uses his fingers to mimic a baby Pica pecking. “You named her,” he says.
Camilia snatches her hand from her father’s grip.
“Things have changed,” Camilia says.
Estrella interrupts their tête-à-tête with cries of “Please Papi, no.”
“Think of your sister,” he says.
“I am,” Camilia says. She grabs Estrella’s elbow. “She can’t get any skinnier.” Her father turns his head.
“You are as heartless as Fidel.” He gets up, adjusts the antenna on the TV, and finds a program with minimal snow.
“Fidel doesn’t have a heart,” Camilia says. She wants to tell him hers breaks whenever she thinks of their lives before the revolution, he spooling out riddles through a mouth full of steak, she pretending to guess the answers even though every punch line ended with a midget.
Miguel turns up the volume. He won’t show her his face. She hopes he’s not crying.
Her seventeenth birthday is approaching and she makes clear her one wish. Not a new summer dress for her cousin’s quinceañera. Not a diary with a lock so Estrella can’t make bedtime stories of her woes. She wants Pica’s head (actually, her juicy legs and thighs) on a platter. Her father is still reluctant to play executioner. Every morning she brings him coffee, asks him to do in the hen, offering suggestions: hang the chicken from the lemon tree; smash her skull with a hammer. If he’s so afraid of getting his hands dirty, he could even pelt her with rocks from the porch. It doesn’t matter how she dies as long as she’s still suitable for braising. Of course, Camilia’s only kidding. Her father should try and be humane.
Her mother does not find amusement in the many ways to kill Pica. She tucks Camilia into clean white sheets and, though it’s ninety degrees outside, wraps her in a wool blanket.
“Your great aunt was crazy. You will not be crazy,” her mother says. She checks Camilia’s forehead for fever hourly and spends her time opening and closing the window.
“What’s crazy about wanting to eat?” Camilia says, but she doesn’t mind being in her room, relieved from attending the masquerade that is dinner. Her mother can argue with herself about the benefits of fresh air and the dangers of a draft. Estrella can go door to door hunting for tea, telling the neighbors Camilia is suffering from some unidentifiable female malady. Camilia doesn’t care. The whole fiasco has garnered them much sympathy. Friends stop by with chamomile tea, extra eggs, and butter. Señor Rafael donates a can of chicken soup. Being that it’s the only can of chicken soup in a five-mile radius, Camilia takes his act of kindness as further evidence that he is indeed a friend of Fidel.
The can of soup is heated right away. Camilia can’t avoid being seduced by the aroma of celery, carrots, and white chunks of chicken. Yet she insists they all gather in the kitchen and have a proper meal. It doesn’t take much for her family to slide into their chairs. While they sip, her father tells them about the time he was in an elevator with a midget.
“How does a dwarf get to the top floor?” he says. Camilia’s giggles ripple across the room. She holds onto the happy feeling. Lets it puddle in her heart. She needs more days like this, days that end in honey. For that, she’d give up a thousand Picas.
Camilia can see no other way to get her family back than to kill the chicken. In the morning, she storms into the kitchen and resumes her demand for poached Pica.
“We were so happy when we ate the soup,” she says.
“I will not eat her,” Estrella says.
“Yes, you will.” Camilia says.
“But she gives us eggs.” Estrella runs to the bathroom and locks herself in.
“She does give us eggs, Camilia,” Miguel says from his armchair.
“We can’t be a family with just eggs,” Camilia says.
“We will always be a family, niña. We are a family.” Miguel says.
“A sad family. I want to be a happy one.” Camilia raps on the bathroom door. “I do what I have to do. And right now I have to pee.” Estrella makes her wait until she practically wets her dress.
As a show of goodwill, Camilia offers to darn her father’s socks. The ration allows him eight ounces of coffee per week, a pound of sugar per month, and one pair of new socks a year. Yesterday, his big toe poked a hole in his only black set. Camilia sits outside to get the good light. She threads the needle and pushes it through the thin fabric. Pica waddles up the porch steps and plants herself at Camilia’s feet.
“Don’t even think about clucking,” Camilia says. Pica stretches out her neck. Camilia can’t help but pat down her feathers. If her father had gotten them a dog, like she’d asked, she wouldn’t have to play tug of war with her conscience. She drops her sewing kit, storms through the yard and out the gate.
Her nose detects a bouquet of garlic and citrus blooming down the street. She follows it, finds the root of the scent emanating from Señor Rafael’s backyard. Her cousin Tonito is creeping along the side of the house, peering over the wood fence.
“Lechón,” he says. Camilia rises onto her toes, looks over the fence, and gets a glimpse of Señor Rafael turning a baby pig on a spit. The pig’s skin is the color of red brick. The pig is almost done.
“I heard Abuelo Julio had stolen a pig,” Camilia says.
“You’re looking at it,” Tonito says. “It was for your birthday. Señor Rafael threatened to report us.”
Camilia’s eyes focus on Señor Rafael’s pit, the banana leaves lining the ground, the little brush dripping with marinade.
“I hear you want to cook Pica,” Tonito says. “Be careful. Señor Rafael needs an appetizer.”
“He doesn’t care about Pica.”
“He cares about Pica if you care about Pica.” Camilia watches Señor Rafael peel off a morsel of crispy skin and pop it into his mouth.
“Hijo de puta,” she says. Señor Rafael spins around. Camilia and Tonito sprint down the street, weaving around parked cars and punching their hoods.
Her father is in his armchair when she bursts through the bungalow door. The paper is on his lap, and he is staring out the window. His hair sticks up in tiny triangles like the tips of raven wings.
She places her hand on his tanned fist. He relaxes his fingers.
“Don’t ask. Not now,” he says.
“But Señor Rafael,” she says.
“He doesn’t care about Pica.”
“He cares about Pica if we care about Pica.”
Her father pushes himself up from the chair and walks with anvils for feet. She notices he’s had to tighten his belt by making new notches.
“You understand we won’t have any more eggs,” he says.
“But we’ll eat like a happy family,” she says.
“Then I’ll kill the chicken.” Miguel rubs his forehead. “But you’re killing me.”
Camilia hugs him. She knows she’s not. She is saving them all.
The killing hour arrives and Camilia feels the hush of impending murder. Over the past few days she has done her best to reassure her mother she’s not crazy by wearing a yellow sundress and putting pink bows in her hair. Her mother had smiled and prepped a few recipes. She caught her father humming while sharpening his axe. Only her sister refused to succumb to the inevitable. She borrowed an old black shift from her mother and proclaimed she was in mourning for Camilia’s heart.
Now the axe is a razor, and a pot of water launches bubbles at heaven. Pica is her pet. She might not fetch like a black lab or rub against her leg like a calico cat, but through the frightening gunshots of the revolution, gut-wrenching famine, and neighborhood looters looking to steal themselves a hearty meal (her father managed to protect Pica from two such incidents), the chicken has always pecked at seeds fortressed between Camilia’s toes.
“Are we ready?” Camilia says.
“Are you?” her father says.
The family gathers on the porch. Maria settles into a chair, and Estrella leans against the wall. Camilia throws Pica her last meal of white rice, wishing she had a spare banana chip. They watch as Pica picks up grain, slips it into her beak, and swallows. Camilia feels a lump growing in her throat. Her father raises his axe.
“There’ll be blood on all your hands,” Estrella says.
“Chicken blood, Estrella,” Miguel says. “Chicken blood.”
He hops off the porch onto dry grass. The blades crunch. He takes one step toward Pica, then another, until he’s standing beside her. The axe casts a shadow over her face. Pica looks up. Instinct, perhaps passed on through generations of chickens persecuted for their tasty wings, causes the bird to bolt. Miguel drops the axe and chases Pica behind the ash-covered grill, around the lemonless lemon tree. Pica is slowed by her new girth, but Miguel is hampered by middle age. And while the yard isn’t very big, it contains sufficient obstacles: an old green picnic table, the little wood doghouse Pica calls home, a scattering of buckets and thorny bushes. The shed, in particular, causes them to run in circles for half an hour. Yet only the neighbors peeking over the fence laugh at the spectacle.
Soon Miguel’s panting suggests they might need to call the paramedics. The poor bird, unfortunately, while discombobulated, is nowhere near cardiac arrest. Miguel accepts defeat with a gulp of water.
“You promised,” Camilia says.
“I am only a man.” Miguel wipes his forehead with his wife’s apron. “And she is a hen.” He lets himself back in the house. The screen door slams shut. Estrella claps.
“It’s not over,” Camilia says. She gives Estrella a small shove and locks herself in their bedroom. Camilia’s never been a big fan of fowl. Never cared to nibble on a peppery garlic leg or rip into a breaded thigh. She wants her family back. She wants to sit down to a meal and not hear Fidel and Señor Rafael laughing a hurricane of guffaws that uproots all of her sanity. She sees them rubbing their big satisfied bellies. Her eardrums reverberate with the sound of them sucking flesh from chicken leg after chicken leg. What do the gluttons care? Fidel’s island is a kingdom of chickens.The next morning begins with three taps on the front door and a face pressed up against the living-room window, nose hairs spiked like porcupine quills. The nose hairs belong to Señor Rafael. Camilia answers the door. Her father is still shellacking his mane.
“You have a chicken,” he says.
“We’ve always had a chicken,” she says.
“You had a pet. Now you have food.”
“We’re hungry, Señor.” Camilia wraps her arms around her middle.
“We’re all hungry,” Señor Rafael says. “Make sure you share.” He cha chas down the porch steps. She wishes she had a slingshot.
“I’ll call Abuelo Julio,” her father says. She turns around. She doesn’t know how long he’s been standing there with only one arm through his shirtsleeve and the other sleeve dangling as if he were an amputee.
“You don’t have to. Pica can live,” she says.
“The chicken must die,” her father says. “Before he eats her.”
Abuelo Julio arrives at nine in the morning. Despite his lame leg, he’s offered to meet the hen mano-a-claw. He’s brought Tonito with him for reinforcements. Tonito is clad in a white tank and cutoff jeans, still clutching his toothbrush, upper lip crusted with dried baking soda. They join the Garcias in the kitchen, treating them to a basket of rolls Tonito’s mother, Tia Corina, baked. Maria wants to know where she got the flour.
“Heard about a man that came into some,” Julio whispers.
“You couldn’t have told us?” Maria shouts.
“If everybody told somebody, nobody would get any.” He bites into a roll. “But I brought you bread.” Maria takes the basket, tells them to turn around, and retrieves the butter from her new hiding spot in the porcelain cookie jar. They sit down to breakfast.
Through a mouth stuffed with bread, Abuelo Julio makes jokes about Pica the formidable beast and Miguel’s girly sensibilities. The word pussy is worked into a surprising number of insults. Maria shudders. The girls giggle. Tonito stuffs rolls into his cheeks.
“You are grown men,” Maria says.
“Yes. And it’s time for me to act like one.” Abuelo Julio grabs the axe from where his son left it resting against the peach wall, throws it over his shoulder, and limps out the door. The Garcias follow him out onto the porch. Estrella, who has put on her black dress, tells Julio he’s no longer her favorite grandpa.
“I thought Abuelo Tomás was your favorite?” Julio winks. Estrella glares.
“If you kill her, you’ll be my favorite grandpa,” Camilia says.
Julio stretches his arms behind his back, cracks his knuckles. He slides off the porch, careful not to put too much pressure on his bad knee. Pica, who’s been clucking at the weeds growing by the shed, looks at Julio and bolts behind the lemon tree. The chase begins again.
Unlike his son, Julio does not drop the axe. Instead, he chops at air as he hobbles, hoping to connect sharp blade to skinny throat. He misses the bird several times but manages to split a plastic bucket, dent the shed, and hack divots from the ground.
“Tonito, help,” Camilia says.
Tonito tries to corner Pica. Miguel adds to the offense. The three generations of men make figure eights around the lemon tree and the picnic bench, Julio’s long silver hair flying as wild as his swings. Between breaths, Miguel says, “See? Not so easy.” Julio gasps and grunts, curses the fowl. Maria covers Estrella’s ears. Estrella pushes away. “Go Pica. You show them,” she says. Camilia silently joins her sister in rooting for the crafty bird. After all, she and Pica, they’re both just trying to survive.
Then Julio catches the tip of a wing. The action stops. Everyone watches as the breeze floats a white feather. It remains suspended between Julio and Pica, calling for peace between man and fowl. Camilia is struck by its delicateness. She wants to freeze the moment, live in this time warp so full of laughter, so free from the gravities of life that pull her down. She wants to float.
Then the wind stops. The feather falls. Julio rushes. Pica dives under the porch, and Julio tells Tonito to crawl under the porch and fetch her.
“No,” Tonito says. He turns to leave. Julio points to the porch. Tonito shakes his head. “There are rats under there.”
“There are no rats in my house,” Maria says.
“You’re a man,” Julio says.
Tonito grumbles, surrenders the toothbrush to his grandfather. He gets down on all fours and pokes his head under the porch.
“I’ll do it,” Camilia says. This is followed by a resounding no from everyone, especially from Tonito and including the mulata woman next door, who’s been taking in the scene from her bedroom window. If only she had been born a boy, they’d already be feasting on fried pollito.
“Go,” Julio says. Tonito lies flat on his belly, using his elbows and knees to wiggle under the old wood. He tells them it smells like mildew and worms; he can feel a spider creeping up his neck. Camilia wants to call him a sissy but figures this will not help her cause. Instead she watches as he crawls further and further, complaining he can’t see. Miguel rolls him a flashlight.
At last, only Tonito’s sandaled feet stick out. He snaps on the flashlight, and a yellow beam peeks through the cracks in the planks. Pica squeaks. There’s the sound of head bumping wood followed by unintelligible shrieks. Pica bolts into the daylight and scurries behind the shed. Tonito shoots out, frantically brushing cobwebs from his hair.
“Go after her,” Camilia says.
Tonito runs, tries to tackle the hen, loses his footing, and then impales himself on the broken plastic bucket.
“Stay down, Tonito, stay down,” Estrella says.
“Please,” Camilia says.
“You’re both crazy,” Tonito says, but he picks himself up. He slaps his chest and lunges at Pica. She flies away.
“Maybe we should have clipped her wings,” Miguel says.
“Maybe,” Tonito says.
Pica runs inside the doghouse. Tonito takes hold of its tiny roof and rips the shelter from the ground. Pica freezes while Julio limps towards her with a raised axe. Estrella then darts off the porch, sprints across the yard, and throws herself over the bird.
Julio slams the weapon down.
Estrella’s eyes are closed. The blade is an inch from her head, where it has sliced off a lock of black hair. Camilia can’t tell if there is skin attached. She runs to her sister and flings the axe away, hunting for blood.
"I could have killed you,” Julio says.
Estrella opens her eyes and smiles. Julio hugs his granddaughter. Camilia looks up to heaven and mouths “thank you.” “Let’s go, Tonito. You’re right. They’re all crazy,” Julio says. Grandfather and grandson march through the side gate.
Camilia’s father helps her mother up from the ground, where she had fainted. Then he lifts Estrella. Camilia sees that she is trembling and brushes dirt from her sister’s cheek.
“Let’s go fix your hair,” Camilia says. She hadn’t thought her sister had that much fight in her. She rubs her back, kisses her forehead. Skinny Estrella is too young for this world.
Pica follows them into the house. Camilia turns around and kneels next to her pet. “I’m proud of you, Pica,” she says. Pica clucks. “But I still have to kill you.” Pica clucks twice. Camilia figures one cluck must mean yes, two mean no. Smart bird. It will be a shame.
Camilia peeks out her bedroom window. The moon is playing hide and seek with the earth. She can’t see the tiled rooftops of her neighbor’s houses. She can’t make out the howling mutt. For all she knows, it is her father lamenting life’s injustices. Or her sister crying over a pet hen she once claimed to have given her the evil eye. Still, Señor Rafael has ensured the chicken must die. Her mother’s insistence on ladylike behavior aside, she will have to take on the distasteful task.
She tiptoes down the hall into the kitchen. It is well past midnight and everyone is asleep. In the dark, she finds a piece of bread, slathers it with butter from the cookie jar. Pica never turns down food.
The axe is against the wall, dirt on its blade. She picks it up. It is heavy. She slips through the screen door, grateful the hinges keep her secret.
The warm air whips through her white nightgown as she tiptoes about the yard looking for Pica. The flashlight is still under the porch, and since there are rats, she decides not to retrieve it. Instead, she relies on the stars for sight, looks behind the shed, and finds a rusty rake. Underneath the bushes there’s nothing but dirt and pebbles. Finally, she ducks her head into the doghouse. The hen opens an eye.
“You know why I’m here.” Camilia bites her lip. “It’s the only way.”
She lures Pica out with the buttered bread and leads her to a tree stump by the back fence, keeping the weapon from Pica’s view. She places the bait in the center of the stump. Pica cranes her neck to peck. Camilia lifts the axe.
She’s never killed anything larger than a cockroach, but holding the axe above her head sends lightning crackling through her veins. She shudders. Pica is her hen, the yellow chick that used to eat rice from her hand, who still greets Camilia with a bob of her head. Maybe she should let her live. Maybe Fidel isn’t worth it.
Camilia drops onto the cold ground. Resting her back against the tree stump, she watches a cat walk along the top of the fence. He is perfectly balanced, knowing nothing good awaits him on either side.
The bird continues to peck at the buttered bread. It’s almost all gone. There’s not much time.
Camilia pulls herself up. Others will say she killed for one feast, shake their heads, and say, “Tsk, tsk.” Camilia will know differently. She is sacrificing her Pica so that her family might gather around the kitchen table with cares as light as the batter covering Pica’s wings. They’ll joke. They’ll laugh. And Camilia will savor that happiness more than a plateful of crispy chicken. Fidel can’t always win. Sometimes they need to win.
Once more she strokes Pica’s chocolate feathers. She raises the red axe and scrounges for courage, telling herself Pica is just a chicken. She’s just a chicken.
When Pica cranes her neck to reach a last buttered crumb, Camilia slams down the blade. Blood splatters onto her white nightgown. Its sweet scent—like sweat and babies and daffodils—reaches her nose, and her stomach jumps into her throat. She drops the axe and listens as it thumps to the ground. She covers her mouth with pale hands, swallows. Pica’s body jerks away from the stump, running in tiny circles. To the tune of crickets chirping, it does a final headless dance.