Mr. Tatum had seventeen chickens spread between two enclosures. Each morning at seven and then again at three, he tossed them handfuls of bread, leftover vegetables and stray bits of meat. While he sat smoking his pipe, sometimes he would catch grasshoppers for them by quick dipping his hand off the porch and into the tall grass. He kept them in a jar and when he had a few to merit the effort, would get up off his old bones and totter to the barnyard.
The chickens grew to love grasshopper time and lined up by the tarp eying him through the holes when he began his slow ascent to the hill where they lived. There was a creek just below and they were up hill as much for sanitary reasons as to prevent them being flooded out on a bad day.
A young girl had moved next door and wold watch him through the fence, feeding the chickens. She saw him toss trash on the ground and the poor starving birds ran for it willynilly. She saw he did not even bother to put their food properly in a dish. She saw that he drew their water from the mudhole in a dirty old bucket and laid it before them as if it were a splendid feast. She saw them so desperate for food, they ate bugs as their only alternative.
When he went into town, the girl, Matilda, would hop the fence and sit in the long grass to watch the birds. It was her hobby, that and plaiting her hair into long braids. She tried to sneak them food, but only got in trouble as her own family didn’t have enough to be sharing with strangers, much less chickens.
She saw them eating rocks and sand and bits of dust and tree bark and sticks and odd blades of grass or weeds. Her mother’s chickens came under plastic and rested on styrofoam so she had never studied one up close. She had been to school, was in fact quite wise for fourteen, but her learning had never taught her much about chickens.
Chickens relish tiny bits of grit and peck the dirt all day long. The crunchy, indigestible bits of hardness grind the food up in their gullet. At slaughter time, a happy chicken (well, no one is happy at slaughter time not even the slaughterer) has a belly full of sand and tiny pebbles. Without them, the food would pile up and suffocate them from the inside out.
But there was no textbook meant for a bright fourteen year old that told such tales. And, she was not one to ask questions. She preferred gathering her own information, silently. Her judgments were swift and universal. Bad or Good. She, by the way, was good.
Mr. Tatum had seen the poor family move in next door. He had hoped one of the children would show an interest in the chickens so that maybe for daily eggs, their mother would send one over to do a bit of the chores. But, they did not seem to need eggs, or did not realize he had chickens. Ten years before, he had gotten his yard mowed plus fresh tomatoes during the season for his lovely brown and sometime blue-green speckled eggs.
But, he had done nothing more than wave hi to the young family as they drove into the driveway and maybe that wasn’t invitation enough to drop on by as it had been once.
It was getting time to cull for the season. Weed out the one or two he would keep for eggs, maybe an old favorite, and then the rest, would depend. His freezer, or a neighbor’s. A chicken in the soup pot for Sunday, or Saturday, depending. Maybe some young child who wanted a pet and whose parents weren’t astute enough to know what that would mean over the winter. Trudging out through the snow to feed, knocking ice out of water buckets, the rest. He had a niece who traded the feet to her Asian neighbor in exchange for babysitting on the weekend. So, they would wind up with good homes, in one way or another.
This was not his favorite time of year. But it was a necessary time. It would be like leaving a crop in the field because you could not bear to cut the wheat with a scythe. Wheat might not like to be cut, but humans had stomachs. And stomach aches.
Mr. Tatum took his hat down off the post and got ready for the drive into town. He had considered replacing the tarp but it was so late in the season. Biddy and the one or two others he might keep would go into a smaller enclosure anyway to keep them warm during the coming season.
He thought of picking up ice cream for them next door, but again. Was that too forward? He jingled his keys in his pants pocket as he hopped down the last step. He took the other ones slow to save up the extra oomph for that last signature step of his. It was important to go forth into the world proudly, he felt.
Matilda was eating a bread sandwich when he pulled out of the driveway. She put down the crust. Her mother was not watching, so she hid it in her palm and then in the pocket of her shorts. It was a chilly day, but shorts it was until the next paycheck came through.
She took her book and sidled outside near the fence. No one else in the neighborhood could keep chickens except Mr. Tatum. The rules had changed long ago, but he had been there so long, it didn’t matter. Her mother complained of the noise in the mornings when they laid. She didn’t know it was their prideful, little look at me dance. She took it to be their I don’t belong here and you can’t do anything about it dance.
Matilda found her mother’s good scissors, the one she used for cutting out patterns. She cut windows for the chickens in the tarp so they could see the day and the sunshine as she did. First one chicken and then another began to perch on the tarp. They clucked at her, unsure of who the stranger was. But, enjoying their fancy new holes, nonetheless. Biddy, and a small, red unnamed one jumped down at once. Perhaps having given each other some secret it’s okay chicken signal. Long ago, Biddy had been in the coop up near the house. And also one down by the creek. She had even spent a night or two inside when she was healing up from a dog bite from a long ago (and now dispatched) neighbor’s dog.
She had had a long, if small life on this quarter acre. She had survived the butchering of the hogs, the coming and going of the seasons and now she saw the bushes she used to peck by the street the first few years of her life. She was till a bit lame from the dog, so was not allowed out as she used to be to roam here and there. She was more pet than product at this point as she had produced no eggs in nearly three seasons. She was like the auntie you kept propped in the livingroom who woke occasionally to say hi to guests or eat her jello after Wheel Of Fortune. You couldn’t bear to part with her, but you didn’t really expect too much from her either.
She set off at a trot for the berry bushes, drawn by the color or the shape or perhaps if chickens can remember that long, a memory. She scooted underneath it to get out of the wind that was picking up and began to snack. The red chicken had given up after a few steps and gone back under the tarp. She didn’t like the looks of the girl with the scissors. They were sharp and shiny like a hatchet and she figured she would take her chances with the old man.
Biddy, though, was in her element. Dirt and worms and dried berries littered the ground under the bush. After a bit, she heard Mr. Tatum’s standard BEEPBEEP BEEPBEEP though there had long ceased being anyone at home to greet him. She knew beepbeep beepbeep meant food.
She sailed out from under the bush right under Mr. Tatum’s tire. There was a bump, ugly, but not to Mr. Tatum who had merely hit a rock in his driveway. He rolled further up by the porch and unloaded his packages.
Matilda had watched all this, including his early return from next to the blue tarp. She stared at the scissors and tossed them back over the fence suddenly fearing her mother far more than she did Mr. Tatum. She picked up the largest rock she could find and heaved it again the side of his house. When something fell out of the sky and hit his home, Mr. Tatum went to go see what in tarnation had happened and Matilda slipped back over to her side of the fence.
When he came back, still puzzled, Mr. Tatum noticed the blood on the front left tire of his car. He was startled the way only an old man can be who has killed enough things on purpose to dread killing something on accident can be. He paced back down his driveway expecting the carcass of a raccoon, certainly no skunk as there was no smell. What he saw was Biddy, but not Biddy. It was not even a chicken anymore. More of a blob and ants were already starting to form. He vomited on the white gravel like he had never done when processing her sisters for food. He shouted in the language of his German grandparents, not even sure what the words meant himself anymore.
He took the handkerchief from his pocket and laid it over her, then went to go get his shovel. As he walked past their fence, he saw Matilda doing homework back there. Hey, he said to the girl. I’m thinking of getting rid of these chickens. Ask your ma if she wants ’em. Either that or they’re going in the freezer by tonight. And he went back to bury his friend, not by the bushes as he did not have a long memory and had no idea this was her favorite spot, but over by the lilacs, which to his eye, seemed just fine.
Meriwether O’Connor is a farmer, short story writer and columnist.
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