An adolescent shriek woke her. Cockerels, she thought, cockerels, with a wry twist to the word. She lay in the dark listening. There was no use in covering her head; the screaming still came through. The soloist was suddenly submerged in the chorus. Fifty young roosters, their voices high, uncertain, breaking, guttering, and beginning again.
She heard the hiss of sheets and felt her husband’s heat moving away from her. “Christ!” came his voice in the dark. She moved an arm until it touched his back; she rubbed softly at the jutting bones of his spine.
“I’m sorry,” she said. He didn’t move.
“Do it today! I’ve had enough!”
She pulled her arm back to her side.
“I’ll have to wait until she’s gone to school.”
He was silent. The roosters crowed on, a cacophonic tremor that rang through the walls. She snatched a robe and tiptoed out of the room.
The kitchen clock said five thirty. She went to the feed sack by the door and poured a measure of grain into the plastic basin. She slid her bare feet into the rubber boots next to the sack and opened the kitchen door. Dew was falling. The chilled touch of the air wet her face and hands and her robe. She could see the faint shape of the garage where the roosters were cheering, whistling, crowing, chortling in ferocious competition.
Chickens in the dooryard. A golden-haired woman in a white apron clucking on the doorstep and scattering corn from a bowl to the plump, busy red hens who ran toward her, chuckling. The picture together with the phrase had done this to her. She grunted, the sound merely a shake in her skull bones. She was too close to the roosters now to hear anything else. She opened the garage door and the alkaline stink came out. She pulled the string and the light went on. They were all standing in the straw on the floor waiting for her. The din went up a notch. Wings beat among the reptilian heads stretching at her. She dumped the grain into the long feeding tray, spread it across the full length. The warm bodies moved softly next to her legs; the noise switched to a treble purr and an occasional squawk. She held herself tightly, deliberately not kicking her way through them. She edged back to the door and stood looking. Her gaze settled on the pale flesh showing through their feathers near their beaks and around their eyes. The roiling bulk of white bodies hid the tray with dozens of pink combs bobbing over round yellow eyes. The little yellow eyes, the slits on either side of the yellow beak, the pink, naked flesh jiggling on their necks, even the small pale membrane on either side of their heads, and the tiny bald spots that stood for ears—she could not look at them easily. They disgusted her. The feathers were still unruly, short, sticking out at odd angles.
They’re just children yet, playing cock, she told herself firmly. But their tiny heads on the turning necks, arcing and bowing, their hopping bodies as they climbed over one another to get at the tray … She put the basin on the shelf near the door and reached for the wire broom she used to sweep the perch. At least they’ll be quiet for a while. He can go back to sleep.
She was brushing at the green slime on the boards of the perch when she saw the pale bundle underneath. The bare bulb in the roof threw her shadow across it. It was scattered with straw. Dark blotches marred it. She pushed the broom down under the perch and poked at the bundle. It rolled and a hard yellow foot flopped into sight. She hooked it with the broom and raked it out. The head rolled out from under the body. Its eye was closed. A thin gray film covered it. A dead eye. The feathers were sparse around the head, torn and bloody. There were long scratches and bits of loose flesh. She bent, staring at the corpse, her mouth open. Something very small and black moved jerkily through the ragged feathers of the neck. She dropped the broom and stood back. She frowned, fumbling with a thought that would not take shape. Then the fussing at the tray broke into a squabble at one end. A bird shrieked and leaped into the air, flapping and clawing at one of the combs still bowed over the tray. She saw the long head dart down and with its closed beak strike the head below it. She closed her eyes and swallowed a trickle of her own vomit.
They pecked it to death.
She went quickly to the door and out, leaving the light on.
The clock said six when she came back into the kitchen. She turned on all the lights in the room and made a cup of instant coffee. As she sat down at the table she saw her boots. Smears of green slime on the soles and toes, straws and short white feathers stuck to them. An isolated screech from the garage signaled the others to begin.
Her daughter trailed into the room with a school workbook under her arm. The child passed coolly to the chair opposite her and put the workbook on the table.
“I thought you did all that last night, Abby.”
The child curled her legs up on the chair and tucked her bare feet elaborately under her nightie.
“I saved the arithmetic for this morning. I count better in the morning.”
The woman eyed her daughter’s stubby hand turning the colorful pages. She drank deeply from her cup. Then she spent the next forty-five minutes in the basement cleaning out the big chest freezer that had come with the house.
She buttered breakfast toast and kept it hot in the oven. She gently put clips into her daughter’s hair. When her husband came out, the eggs were at their crisis and she slid them in front of him just as a film began creeping over each yellow eye.
When his ride arrived, he swung outside with his coat half-buttoned and shouted at her through the closing door: “Today!”
She spread purple jam on her daughter’s second piece of toast and poured more coffee.
“What today?” asked Abby.
“Oh …” She sipped her coffee. “I promised your father I’d get rid of the chickens today.”