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The Hen and the Shadow of the Monstrance Street Commune

By T. K. Rex in Issue Thirteen, January 2024

I wasn’t there the day that Glenda’s daughter Misty found a stray hen wandering along the gravel edge of Monstrance Street, because I only come out at night. I heard about it through the shadows of the ivy that grew in through the cracks in Glenda’s walls and all along her ceiling, hanging in gravity curves against the plastic tarp that kept the insulation dust from falling on her bed at night. I heard about it from the hen herself, in the pen that Glenda and her boyfriend Henning made from scrap they found around the commune grounds. She clucked softly in the twilight hours and wondered where her freedom went.

Henning had a long brown ponytail and carried an aluminum flashlight every time he was alone with me. He was born in East Germany and had been to Vietnam and back, and he liked to try on women’s clothes, but not in earnest, just sometimes with Glenda when Misty wasn’t home. So the shadows of his skirts told me. He had a business poaching sage and abalone, selling them to shops all up and down the coast from his Volkswagen van, which everyone on Monstrance Street affectionately called The Gray Whale. Henning wasn’t Misty’s dad, but he was trying to be her friend.

The Gray Whale had once been two vans of different colors, but Henning had rebuilt them into one when they broke down, and painted the new van the color of pot smoke, or fog. The Gray Whale had been Henning’s home from time to time, until a gay friend of a bi friend offered him the commune’s converted garage. So I heard from the shadows of commune cats’ paws.

Glenda was, in fact, Misty’s mother and I learned through the shadow of the wrought iron bench in the part of the garden where passion flowers bloomed that most days she worked on a small gray Powerbook, writing a thesis, which I suppose is like what the crickets do when they know it’s their time to sing.

Misty’s mother Glenda liked to cook, but there was no kitchen in the garage, so she went down the garden stairs (the stairs that I lived under in the day, with the earwigs and earthworms and rolly-pollies) to the main house where there was a kitchen with a refrigerator whose door never closed all the way unless kicked. So I heard from the shadows of everybody’s shoes.

Glenda had never considered herself a baker, but when a few other parents at Misty’s school began baking pot brownies for the AIDS patients down in San Francisco, she joined in. Sometimes they baked them in the commune kitchen, sometimes somewhere else—rotating the burden of their humanitarian crime.

Sometimes Glenda listened in when Henning and Misty played the Ask-Me game. In the Ask-Me game, Misty pestered Henning to ask her questions about anything and everything, and Misty loved to have an answer and explain the things she knew. If she didn’t know the answer, she would look it up in the encyclopedias downstairs, and in that way Henning built her curiosity and confidence and knowledge all at once. Sometimes it all made Glenda wish she’d had a father of her own growing up, a real one, maybe even the one who drowned when she was 18 months old. She kept a photo of him buried in her thesis notes, because he was part of her thesis, or so I heard from the shadow of the folder that she kept him in.

I always liked the Ask-Me game. I’m a curious darkness. It’s why I collect all these stories from the shadows, and why I ate Misty’s hen.

In the other rooms and dwellings of the commune there were always five to seven men, and Drew and Kyle were the youngest, in their twenties. Kyle’s mother had disowned him when he told her he was moving here with Drew. Drew liked the color green and played Sinéad O’Connor just a little bit too loud for Glenda’s taste, but he was quiet otherwise and sometimes shared a pot of coffee with her in the gentle hours when the fog made sunrise take just long enough for me to watch. Kyle was an artist, and he made glass beads with flecks of gold in them, which Henning sometimes sold for him at hippy shops in Oregon. On the day that Glenda and Henning built the pen for Misty’s hen, Kyle finally shared his test result with Drew. The shadows didn’t have to tell me what it was—I could hear Sinéad O’Connor from the ivy on the gate to Monstrance Street that day.

Misty’s hen Billina sometimes laid two eggs a day, and Glenda saved them for the brownies. At night Billina would fluff up her feathers and cluck to herself in her sleep, and I would watch her like that, curious, and when she woke to sudden rustling or snapping twigs, I could tell she was afraid of me.

All the denizens of Monstrance Street were wary of me, save the cats. I’d never quite known why. Out of curiosity, I hid in a two-headed snake for a day so I could see the world in the light. Henning caught me, and showed me to Misty, and they put me in a jar that Misty took to school for show and tell. It was the only time I ever left the hillside neighborhood of Monstrance Street, even since before there was a street.

Through the glass of the jar and the glass of The Gray Whale’s windshield, I saw the redwoods and the bay trees flying by as fast as cars. I saw the Russian River, and I saw the sunlight glinting off of it. I remembered that the people who were here before the roads would call it Ashokawna, and I remembered their fires in the dark and their songs, and for the rest of the drive I was very wistful, but I was a two-headed garter snake in a cheesecloth-covered jar, so no one knew, and no one asked. Misty did hold the jar up to her small, sun-darkened face and whisper, “It’s OK, we’re almost there.” And I felt better.

Some of the children saw me and made grossed-out faces, and some leaned in with wide eyes, and some asked if they could touch me, and I was relieved when Misty told them no.

When the day was done, Henning and Misty and Glenda all gathered to let me go, back into the ivy at the edge of my stairs, to live out my two-headed garter snake life.

My true form had no heads, no tails, only parts that can’t be seen. Misty was terrified of it. At night, if she had to go to the bathroom or was late to dinner, all of those things happened down in the main house, so she would step out of the garage Henning had made into a home, onto the root-cracked concrete of Monstrance Street, and open the garden gate to my stairs. From the top of my stairs she would take a deep breath and then run, like a deer, two or three steps at a time, down through the garden to the patio in front of the main house, where the light from inside poured through the sliding glass doors and kept me away.

In her fear I saw myself as a monster. As a whole garden stairway of monsters. I was only darkness but I thought, if I can be a two-headed snake, perhaps I can be a monster as well.

I have always been a curious darkness, but I am not the kind of darkness that makes others curious, and I do not know why. I have never known. To Misty maybe I was just the darkness children fear, the gap imagination fills, the ancient instinct to not stray too far from camp. To Henning I was something else, I think, a silent garden strewn with shells, an ambush where, in daylight, roses grew. For Kyle, I was Drew, alone, and for Drew I was the appointment he kept pushing back, and pushing back, and pushing back. Glenda was the least afraid because she knew that there were darker places at the bottom of the sea.

I tried on the shape of a monster to see what it felt like to be what they saw. I startled the two-headed snake where it slept in the nook of a rock, but I still didn’t feel scary enough to warrant aluminum flashlights and running like deer.

Billina’s pen was crafted from stray wood and salvaged chicken wire with a simple latch found in the discount pile at the hardware store in Guerneville, so said the shadow of the nail I pried loose with my long, black, dripping teeth.

Billina thrashed and fought, scratched at my tentacles with her dinosaur claws and pecked at my segmented eyes with her beak. She was brave and angry, and when it was over, and I had tried on monster for a night, I felt weak, and ugly, and monstrous.

I heard from the shadows of Billina’s scattered feathers that Misty didn’t cry when Henning told her what had happened to her hen. She didn’t yet know how. Crying for the lost and dead takes time to learn for some. So I heard from the shadows that pooled with the commune cats under The Gray Whale in the heat of the day.

Misty feared me even more from then on, and even in the shower or when she was brushing her teeth she didn’t like to be alone too long at night.

So I heard from the shadows that lived under her tongue.

Glenda came out to the part of the garden where Billina had lived with a bundle of sage and an abalone shell that Henning had poached, and she sang and took down the broken remains of the coop, and her song was filled with deities of far off lands, but I remembered how the people who were here before had abalone shells and sang, and I wondered if anyone still called the river Ashokawna anymore. The people who had named the street had driven them away, long before it was paved.

It was nearly dusk and so I lurked in the blackberry bushes, waiting for night, while I watched and listened and smelled the sage smoke wafting through the last bright rays of sun still reaching through the redwood trees, grasping gold at Glenda’s hair.

I heard from the shadow under the trackball of her gray Powerbook that Glenda had lost a brother to the tide that took her dad, and uncles and aunts to bottles and smoke, and a favorite cousin to the shells that Henning stepped over in Vietnam. She’d placed all her Beatles albums in the ground with him, one by one, when he came home.

What was one more hen?

What was one more friend to an epidemic all the brownies in the world couldn’t end?

What was one more monster, in the final decade of a century of fangs?

© 2024 T. K. Rex

T. K. Rex

T. K. Rex is a science fiction and fantasy author from the western states, whose short stories and poems can be found in roughly thirty publications, including Asimov's, Escape Pod and Strange Horizons. Raised by Wiccan parents of mostly British and Ashkenazi descent, who joined the fights for whales, redwoods, gay rights and medical marijuana during her formative years, T. K. now resides in San Francisco, California. They're a member of the Writers Grotto and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association; and an alumni of the Futurescapes, Taos Toolbox and Clarion workshops.

Fiction by T. K. Rex
  • The Hen and the Shadow of the Monstrance Street Commune