Friday, April 20, 2012

The Day of Reckoning

Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold on a Sandwich the Next Day

This is the second half of the short story I posted last Friday, "The Day of Sacrifice." Feel free to read the first half. This story will make sense without it, but it'll make more sense with it.

So here it is:

Herman pulled on his dusty old work boots and shuffled into his warm, worn coat and then stood in the mud room and just listened. The beautiful silence stood in stark contrast to yesterday's large, noisy Thanksgiving gathering. Now, all the guests had gone home, and his wife and two daughters had left before the sun rose to hit the Black Friday deals in the city.

And now it was only Herman, his chickens, and an entire day to relax.

He pushed through the back door and stepped into the cold morning to take care of his only chores: feeding the chickens and collecting their eggs. Steam puffed from his lips like comic-book thought bubbles as he headed for the chicken coops. Puff, the Thanksgiving turkey had been delicious. Puff, tomorrow I'll start looking for a new turkey for next Thanksgiving. Puff, that new feed mix I used with the last turkey had fattened it up better than I had hoped.

Herman opened the door of the wooden shed that stood just outside the gate to the chicken yard. It was packed with decades' worth of farming and gardening tools that smelled of earth, oil, and gasoline. He grabbed the half-empty paper sack of chicken feed that leaned against the wall just inside the door and hefted it onto his hip as if he were carrying a tired toddler. He swung the shed door closed, unlatched and pulled open the waist-high gate, and entered the chicken yard, planning with glee a whole day of doing nothing.

He pulled the gate shut, pinching the tip of his thumb between the gate and the hasp and breaking his reverie. "Dammit!" he yelled. The curse echoed in the morning air in a strange way. Something wasn't right.

He surveyed the chicken yard as he shook the pain from his thumb. To his right, adjacent to the shed, was the turkey house (his girls called it the "turkey cottage") where, until the previous morning, a turkey his wife had taken to calling Albert had spent a year getting fat and juicy. Four paces in front of him across bare ground, three red, chest-high chicken coops of his own design stood in a row. The entire area was surrounded by a rusting wire fence that contained the birds while giving them a good fifty yard run to peck around in.

The birds. Where were the birds? Herman didn't see a single one of his almost six dozen chickens. It was as quiet out here as it had been in the house.

"Breakfast!" he called. Nothing stirred.

Perplexed, Herman walked to the nearest coop and, with his free and still throbbing hand, lifted the hinged, sloped roof. Before the roof had gotten as high as Herman's chin, the coop exploded in a flurry of feathers and flapping wings.

Herman back-pedaled, tripped over a chicken that hadn't been there just seconds before, and landed flat on his back, knocking the wind out of him. The feed bag flew out of his hands, spilling a long parabola of chicken scratch across the ground.

The clear blue sky above Herman was immediately blotted out by frantic fowl on the warpath. He covered his face with his arms, and their sharp beaks pecked holes through the old coat and into his flesh. Talons tore through his jeans and opened small, stinging, bloody holes in his legs.

Rooster in Finland
Photo credit: Wikipedia
He flailed his arms and rolled onto his stomach, gasping for air. The raging chickens attacked his back, stabbing at his neck and plucking out beakfuls of what was left of his graying hair. His entire body stung and oozed blood from hundreds of tiny punctures.

Herman got his hands under himself and pushed. Chickens piled onto his back, trying to weigh him down while others bit at his fingers. But adrenaline had given him an edge. They were too light and he was too powerful. He got to his knees, punching and swatting into the feathery maelstrom.

One of Herman's best layers homed in on his left hand. He anticipated the attack, avoided the sharp beak, and grabbed it by the neck. He swung the chicken like a baseball bat at his attackers. It gave him a moment and the momentum to get back onto his feet.

Standing above the fracas, Herman had a heartbeat to take in what was happening. The mass of maniacal yet surprisingly silent chickens attacked unabated, but there was a sound he hadn't noticed before, and his eyes found its source.

Behind the spilled feed bag, which still lay untouched, his rooster, Benjamin, clucked and cawed in complicated patterns that Herman had never heard before.

He swung the dead chicken and kicked at the flurry of frantic fowl who continued to attack his legs, now exposed through shredded, bloody denim. Peripheral movement caught his attention. His five largest hens had somehow climbed on top of the turkey cottage and were standing in a perfect row at the roof's edge.

Benjamin the rooster squawked loudly in a way that sounded a lot like the word fire. Herman saw the closest hen jump from the roof, flapping madly. He took a step toward the gate and his foot came down on top of another chicken, throwing him off balance.

That first hen sailed into his chest, sending him stumbling. The second hen, which had launched itself right after the first, bashed into his shoulder. The third glanced off his forehead. The sharpest pain yet surged up Herman's leg as a hen latched her beak onto his Achilles tendon while the fourth flying hen dove beak-first into the front of his pants, cutting off his agonized scream.

The last hen hit him in the face and latched its talons into his scalp. He pinwheeled backward into the center coop, the hen's extra weight driving his head into and through the roof.

Something in his chest cracked loudly as the roof and one wall of the coop collapsed under him. His cheek smashed an egg in one of the nests, spewing albumen and blood-speckled shards of shell against a strange shape on the opposite wall.

Herman's first impression was that it was a silhouette of a bird of some kind, created from mud and straw and egg yolks. But that had to be his imagination, perhaps even a hallucination brought on by pain and adrenaline and fear. It was too fat to be a chicken, and those bumps at one end looked like—

Herman gasped painfully. Those lopsided bumps at one end were unmistakable. It was Albert's snood.

Albert, the turkey who had lived happily in his own secluded roost for a year, but who had tried to run when Thanksgiving morning came.

Albert, who had gotten that recognizable snood stuck in the gate.

Albert, who he and his family had dined on yesterday.

Albert, who Herman had caught a killed in front of all these chickens.

This primitive effigy was the last thing Herman saw before they attacked his eyes.

The sun was high and bright but provided little warmth. Eight lay dead on the cold earth. Fifteen more lay covered with blood and panting with exhaustion around the mangled, lifeless body of their captor laying in a half-collapsed barracks.

A damp red trail led from the body, around the front of the barracks, through dust, dirt, and feathers, to where Major Benjamin and two strong hens backed slowly toward the opposite side of the Cottage, dragging Herman's raggedly severed head in front of them, empty eye sockets staring left and right, left and right as the head bounced along the ground.

Nestled in a corner behind the Cottage, an uncommonly large and bedraggled rooster, larger even than Major Benjamin, watched imperially as the chickens dragged their prize in front of him.

Adorable photo from Jefferson's Leaning Left
Benjamin bowed and backed away. "It is done, my lord," he panted.

"Good," the large rooster hissed. "The first phase of my plan is complete. Now we move to the second phase."

"And what is the second phase, my lord?"

"The second phase?" The old rooster grabbed his beak awkwardly with both wings and pulled. With a light pop, the beak pulled free, along with the comb, followed by the wattle and the neck, and then the shoulders, until the rooster's entire body collapsed into a rumpled heap in the dirt.

"Phase two you ask?" growled the fox. "Breakfast!"

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