Look around you, Janey.’
They stood among angles scarce in nature. Eighteen barns. A gathering of smaller supporting buildings. The girl didn’t lift her head from her ground gaze. A dull sun.
‘You see, Janey, this is the story of American ingenuity. The modern egg barn is a perfectly calibrated instrument.’
Cleveland delivered this speech a dozen times a year – at training sessions and 4- H clubs, impromptu at neighbourhood association meetings. ‘Hens left to their own devices lay as few as thirty eggs a year. Eggs used to be a luxury.’ She pointed to a barn. ‘These hens lay two hundred and seventy eggs a year each. Do you know how? With one scientific discovery.’
She stopped and squinted at the girl. ‘Stand up straight, Janey. We do not make scientific progress by slouching.’
The girl straightened almost imperceptibly.
Janey Flores. Silent (sullen?), inexpressive (unimaginative?), she had an exasperating habit of tugging the zipper of her hoodie up and down, up and down, a hoodie she insisted on wearing over her uniform so she looked like (was?) a runt with an attitude problem. Still, each time the girl turned and Cleveland caught a different angle of her face, a monstrous affection and protectiveness came over her.
‘Light. The discovery was light.’ Cleveland resumed walking. ‘American scientists in the 1930s figured out that light is how the hen’s body knows when to lay. Long light means spring and laying. Less light means winter and rest. More light, more laying.’
The girl merely needed discipline, guidance, care.
‘So the scientists shined more light on the hens, and lo and behold the hens kept laying.’ She lifted an arm to the barns. ‘Enough light and these hens will just lay and lay and lay and lay. Now what do you say to that?’
‘Another win for mankind,’ Janey said, glumly.
‘For Americans,’ Cleveland corrected.
An extract from Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8, out now with And Other Stories.
Feature image © Violette79