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Mary Claire was eight years old when she befriended a chicken for the first time. She didn't know this then, but it would be a friendship that foreshadowed many, many more to come.
One day, she was waiting for her father to come home from work as she played with her dolls and kept company to her mother, who was knitting a blanket. Her father owned a trucking company, something Mary Claire only understood peripherally, and he worked long hours at the office, making sure all trucks went out to their respective companies and routes on time. At the sound of a car door closing, they both looked up to see him walking down the driveway towards them.
He was carrying a cardboard box.
Mary Claire ran to him, wrapping her arms around his legs as her mother kissed him on the cheek, welcoming him home. As Mary Claire stood on her father’s feet, looking up high to her parents and wishing she was as tall as her mother, she was suddenly startled by a faint chirping that was emanating from the box. With curiosity and enormously blue eyes, she stared wildly at her father wondering what on earth could be in the box.
“What on earth is in that box?” She shrieked dramatically.
“Who, not what,” her father replied patiently, “Here, I’ll show you once we get inside the house. What is your mother making for dinner?”
They went inside, and as they got ready for dinner her father promised to show her the contents of the box after they had dinner - so long as Mary Claire promised to help her mother clean up.
Mary Claire’s parents barely sat down at the dinner table when she was already shovelling the last spoonfuls of lasagna into her mouth. The ticking of the clock was much too slow for her. She was ready to see what was in that box. After dinner, and after everything was tidy and the house quieted down, Mary Claire’s father finally opened the box. As they sat silently in the living room atop spread-out newspapers - her mother was a domestic goddess, prepared for anything - Mary Claire held her breath as a timid, chirping hen quietly tottered out of the box, her head lightly jerking this way and that as her tiny eyes observed her surroundings. Mary Claire, however, was completely silent. She watched in awe as the bird waddled around, eventually nesting next to Mary Claire’s lap, clearly ready for a nap. Mary Claire was speechless.
Never before had Mary Claire seen such a beautiful creature. Mary Claire looked at this bird, her hands in her lap, with a dignified sense of respect that shocked her parents.
“Gracie,” she said, “Her name will be Gracie.”
Her parents allowed Gracie to sleep in a basket - furnished with blankets, of course - next to Mary Claire’s bed. What they could not prevent, however, was Gracie’s decision to leave this basket to curl up next to Mary Claire in the middle of the night.
Before they went to sleep, her parents convened in the kitchen.
“That’s some bird,” Mary Claire’s mother commented, as she swept the kitchen.
“No need to fret,” her husband said gently, “It’s only for the time being; Fred said that he’ll be able to get the bird back on route promptly tomorrow. It was more practical to bring it straight here than to leave it at the office. It was already the end of the day and there was no way we could get it on route to the slaughterhouse it was heading.”
She looked up at her husband expectantly.
“I’m sure Mary Claire will understand. If it makes it easier, we can get up before her...that way she doesn’t, you know, get too upset.”
She raised her eyebrows. He looked away.
“As I said,” he replied, backing out of the kitchen, “I’m sure she will understand.”
Mary Claire’s mother, however, was far from convinced.
But her parents had no way to carry out such a plan: Mary Claire was up in the early hours of the morning, ready to spend quality time with her newfound friend.
First, she gave Gracie a huge breakfast of a variety of leafy greens (Swiss chard was clearly Gracie’s favourite). Then, Mary Claire gave Gracie a tour of the backyard, ensuring to familiarize her with her new home. Next, Mary Claire showed Gracie all her toys, introducing each and every one to her (the plush teddy bear was clearly Gracie’s favourite). Mary Claire observed that Gracie had a strong will of her own. She could not and would not do exactly what Mary Claire wanted, and this made it abundantly clear to Mary Claire that she existed for her own reasons. Her body was her own, and she would do with it as she wished. Her life was her own, and she existed with no regard for how others may want to use or control her. Mary Claire adored the fact that Gracie had her own preferences and desires and that she did not succumb to every demand that she had. Mary Claire loved how emboldened and unyielding her animal companion was. In her mind, it was no different from having a human friend.
When Mary Claire realized her parents were awake, she went into their bedroom and told them to close their eyes and wait for a surprise she had. Her parents, waiting with their eyes closed and hair messy from a night of rest, realized they failed to remove Gracie on time.
“Surprise!” Mary Claire said softly as she gently carried Gracie to her parents’ bedroom. Gracie donned a small knitted blanket that Mary Claire expertly wrapped around her body. She lay the chicken down in front of her parents, and they could not help but adore her in the same way that Mary Claire did. Gracie gingerly inspected her parent’s comforter, observing their faces with her black eyes right before she lay down between them and decided upon a nap.
Later on in the morning, Mary Claire found herself thoroughly confused when her parents informed her that Gracie could not stay.
“Mary Claire...she needs to go away,” Her father said, not happy with the situation. How on earth could he explain to his daughter that people eat birds? That they eat birds? Especially every Friday when they have her family’s traditional chicken casserole dish. Mary Claire would never get it.
“But where?” She demanded. “Where does Gracie need to go?”
Her father turned around and looked at her.
“Mary Claire, this chicken is not a pet. As you know, my trucking company transports products for a variety of companies. This bird is one of those products. It does not belong to us. It has to go away.” There, he thought, that’s the right way to describe it - as a product, as an it, not mentioning food or slaughter and focusing on the concept of ownership and property. That’s what this was all about; Gracie was just not Mary Claire’s property.
Mary Claire remembered the conversation they had a day before when her father explained how he found Gracie. She did not understand then, and now, she understood even less.
Pet? Trucking company? Products? Go away? She was perplexed.
“But Gracie does not belong to me and she does not belong to anyone. It’s clear to see,” Mary Claire explained, “She always does her own stuff...she is not mine. She is hers.” It was tremendously difficult for her to explain to her father the most obvious of facts. How could she get him to understand how Gracie behaves? That she is steadfast in her choices, preferences, and uses her free will without restriction. Perhaps he ought to spend some time playing with her.
Mary Claire furrowed her brows again. “Product? What’s a product? What do you mean?” She was painfully and childishly bewildered.
Her father sighed. Her mother was fed up.
“Mary Claire, honey, do you remember the casserole I always make for dinner? The one you really love? Gracie is the type of product in that food.”
Food? Mary Claire was even further from understanding.
“Mary Claire,” her mother said more boldly, “Gracie is one of the many animals that turn into food for us to eat. People need to eat to survive, and so your father’s trucking company ensures that people’s food products get to the facility where they need to be processed.”
Mary Claire thought for a few moments. She remembered all the times she ate chicken, barely understanding why that food was called the same thing that Gracie was called - or how the food she ate was similar at all to her new best friend. How could that happen? How does Gracie...turn into food?
“How does Gracie...turn into food?” She asked her mom, confused.
Her mother sighed more, absolutely incensed that she would have to explain this to her daughter. All of a sudden, there was a knock at the door.
“Look,” her mother said sweetly, “How about you bring Gracie outside one more time, play with her for a few minutes and then after, we can say goodbye to her together. Okay?”
There was another knock. Mary Claire began to understand what was happening.
Panicked, she began to cry.
“Are you going to kill Gracie?” she demanded, with tears streaming down her face. Her father gently picked up Gracie - who was sleeping contently on the dining table - and turned to answer the door. Mary Claire, with her mother holding her back, cried and screamed for her parents to stop.
She - easily - broke through her mother’s grasp and ran towards her father. Just as he put Gracie in the same cardboard box she arrived in, Mary Claire frantically pushed her father’s arms away and grabbed the box, running outside to the yard as fast as she could without disturbing the box in which Gracie sat. Gracie’s chirps intensified, and Mary Claire hoped that she didn’t know what was going on.
“Mary Claire!” Her mother yelled from the house “Get back here!”
Mary Claire sobbed and cried as she felt she was losing control. She tripped and the box fell from her reach. Her father gently picked up the box as she caught up with her. The sun shone brightly and Mary Claire was blinded as scrambled to her feet. She lurched at her father but her mother grabbed her and picked her up. With her limbs wildly jerking this way and that, her mother carried her towards the house. She wriggled out of her mother’s grasp and onto the grass but it was too late; Mary Claire’s vision blurred as she watched her father hand the box to an approaching man. Mary Claire yelled at her father to stop, pleading with her parents to let Gracie stay with her.
It was as though the man and her father couldn’t hear her at all. They moved swiftly and as they got into the strange man’s car, Mary Claire’s father couldn’t help but feel as though he was an accomplice to great evil.