The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Hen of God” by Ashley Hutson
Rituals, especially those practiced for a long time, often lose meaning for an adherer. Even those rituals that at first glance might seem strange can, over time, have their profundity sucked dry and their practices turn rote. In Ashley Hutson’s flash fiction piece, “The Hen of God,” (The Conium Review) the protagonist creates a new ritual, and in the process, explores the nature of rituals themselves, and what they can tell us about ourselves.
Hutson opens the story with a brief explanation of Sister Catherine’s new ritual.
Sister Catherine began holding an egg in her mouth during Mass to feel closer to God. Her tongue smoothed over its cool roundness before the Lord’s Prayer; she pressed it against the roof of her mouth during benediction…At the end of the third week, she felt the Holy Trinity enter her. A back molar, cracked in childhood and jagged as a pysanky needle, slit open the egg’s hard shell on a Sunday morning. God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit oozed down her throat, warmed by the heat of her mouth.
While the character’s desire is made clear immediately—she wants to grow closer to God—Hutson never fully addresses the reasoning behind putting, of all things, an egg in her mouth to solve her dilemma. Instead, we’re left to experience an evocative combination of sensual details involving the shell and its contents, the transubstantiation of the yoke into the Godhead, and a reference to an originally pre-christian practice adopted and repurposed by some churches: that of the pysanky, an egg drained of its yoke then decorated with symbols.
But still, why the egg instead of something else? I’d argue that not providing a logical explanation helps Hutson do what no logical explanation could: enter us fully into the mind of a character whose understanding doesn’t depend upon modern logic in the way that the current mode of thinking—and plot analysis, for that matter—so often do. Sister Catherine’s reasons draw their power from her religious beliefs and sensual feelings, which endow magic to objects whose power science had long since explained away.
Watch as Sister Catherine’s ritual grows both more strange, and at the same time, more familiar.
When she returned to the abbey after the service, she plucked the pierced shell from between her lips and placed it under her bed. At lunchtime, she walked through the kitchen and picked up another egg, concealing it in the folds of her sleeve.
After entering the nearest restroom and locking the door, she pulled up her underskirts, pulled out a tampon, and slipped the fresh egg inside her. All the nuns bled together, but her blood would mingle with Christ’s. The thought filled her with a swoony kind of love, the kind of love she felt when swallowed wafers became the fingers of God. She dreamed the egg would be subsumed by her body, traveling inward, upward, until it reached the heart.
Here Hutson again uses sensual details and Sister Catherine’s deep religious feelings to help the reader’s understand the inspiration and conviction behind the new revision to her ritual, but we also get more of a sense of what is driving the narrator to this new ritual in the first place. As she inserts the egg—echoing the virgin birth—the thought of her blood mingling with Christ’s gives her “a swoony kind of love, the kind of love she felt when swallowed wafers became the fingers of God.” It’s the kind of love that she felt during communion—itself a very strange ritual often never given a second look, thanks in part to how imbedded the practice has become in western culture over the centuries. Sister Catherine clearly holds the belief that the wine and wafer transform into the actual blood and body of Christ when eaten. But I suspect that experience no longer delivers same ecstatic feeling it once did. Thus, a new ritual is inspired, and formed.
It’s here that Sister Catherine’s thinking becomes more familiar. Sure, on one level she’s inserted an egg into her vagina in order to grow closer to God, which is odd. But on another level, she’s simply created a ritual based on her worldview in hopes that through it she might grow closer to something she cares deeply about. Our current thinking might lead us to more conventional, accepted rituals—dieting, exercise, mindfulness exercises—but perhaps might not be as different from Sister Catherine’s as they first appear.
I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Sister Catherine’s ritual comes to an end similar to how so many of ours do: with disappointment in her body’s inability to live up to our hopes for it. But more important—and powerful—than her failure is the humanity of her intentions behind it—something even us skeptics wouldn’t dare dismiss.