Today I’m thinking about chickens.
I have a checkered history with chickens, but my attention has been drawn to one of them lately, a rooster whose lunatic, flirty voice wakes me up every day at sunrise on Ridge Road. Since this is when I prefer to wake up, I feel this rooster and I are simpatico, which is awkward, like being simpatico with one of the road construction workers on Route 104, guys who hoot in exactly that rooster’s tone of voice when any woman drives by. It is not an unalloyed good.
I don’t know where this rooster lives. Somewhere to the south and west, I believe, though when the wind changes it could be south and east. One of my favorite passages from Melville, in Moby-Dick, goes: “Queequeg was from Kokovoko, an island far away to the south and west. It is not down in any map. True places never are.” The rooster is perhaps from a true place; his timing at sunrise is impeccable and his pitch is perfect. And I don’t much care where he really lives. If I had a map to him, I certainly wouldn’t use it. Many things are best loved from afar.
I had a great-aunt who lived in a house on a wooded hill in Tennessee, where I grew up. It was sort of a farm and sort of a madhouse, and in my six-year-old mind a place of many horrors. It was also a place where I investigated, intimately, all of the courage I would ever be able to muster as a child. Roosters, a dozen at least, crowed all day long. Whenever my mother dropped me off to be babysat for an extended time, which I resisted mightily and always lost, my Aunt Paul made it my exclusive chore to go get the eggs from the henhouse every morning. The henhouse was a shack, half wood and half chicken wire, with what seemed to be hundreds of deranged red eyes staring out from its dark interior. The roosters walked stiff-legged outside across a no man’s land of packed red clay dirt, blocking the way to the coop, the roosters uneasy with each other and ready to be pissed off.
I had to cross the roosters to get to the henhouse, an impossible journey unless I closed my eyes. But when I closed my eyes and made my way across the packed dirt, I worried that the roosters—I could hear them scratching, scratching—would trip me up and at once encircle me in a frenzy of pecking. Also worrying me was that if I veered much to the right, I’d miss the henhouse and, possibly, fall into a terrifying hole in the ground that used to have an outhouse positioned above it. There was, literally, a lot of shit to worry about.
For all of that many worse things waited inside. These chickens were astonishingly mean creatures. They seemed to feel enraged by secret information they’d received about each other. They turned against their relations with such sudden viciousness that very often in the morning the henhouse would contain dead hens, victims of an overnight fracas. It seemed impossible that alcohol or drugs were not involved. I had been told by Aunt Paul to throw the bodies into the ditch on the other side of the fence to the cow pasture, but I never touched the dead ones. Even at six I understood that the living did not respect the gravedigger, and these chickens watched everything, unblinking. In fact, chickens cannot blink—they have a third eyelid that they stow, like a hanging noose, in the corner of the eye nearest their beak. At the end of a relationship once, I had a girlfriend who began to blink so slowly when I was speaking that it seemed she was trying to erase me with the equivalent of a third eyelid. This is never a good thing. One has no trouble imagining row after row of chickens as enthusiastic, furious bystanders at the French Revolution guillotines.
Inside the coop the smell was harrowing, a blend of death and filth. I held my breath as long as I could. No one—certainly not I—ever mucked out the henhouse, and so generations of chicken shit had accumulated on the floor, to the point that my Aunt Paul made me go in barefoot so as not to ruin shoes my mother would then shake in front of her, asking, “Do you know what these cost?” Only I seemed to know what the cost of this place most certainly was. My bare feet would sink several inches into the muck at each step. The roosts had once probably been several feet off the ground, high enough that an adult could easily reach under the chickens without bending over. At the time I was gathering the eggs, the roosts were below my waist, requiring me to look the insanely angry creatures right in the eye.
It did not matter to the chickens that I did not throw their dead in a ditch. The chickens hated me. You had to pick them up with one hand, reach under them with the other for the egg, and meanwhile they had a go at your arm, beaks pecking up and down in a series of rat-a-tat motions of surprising speed and agility. No matter how quickly I moved, the chicken in question could dot the length of my arm with a perfectly straight row of red gashes, usually three, sometimes (if I were slow) four. I’d come out of that place with blood coming from a score of wounds, the overall effect having a kind of complicated design, as though I’d been tattooed. Sometimes the roosters paused in their restless pacing when I came out of the coop, as though alerted by the smell of blood.
“Show ‘em who’s boss,” Aunt Paul would say, but it was impossible to be the boss of them. I was henpecked. They hated me, and I hated them. Whenever possible I cursed them with the worst curse I knew: “I wish you were dead.”
In the end I never figured out how to get the eggs without harm. That blind and complicated journey was all prelude to a pecking party. In my memory—another true place that is not down in any map—that terrible henhouse is a gateway to hell and hell, I am sure, is a view of the world through the illiterate red eyes of angry chickens.
It is worth mentioning that there was a silver lining. Every Sunday Aunt Paul and Uncle Tom Sheddan sat down to an after-church lunch of chicken. You could have as much as you wanted, and I always wanted a lot. Often it was fried, sometimes boiled and made into sandwiches, less often grilled over a fire pit back of the house. Every Sunday I ate chicken until my stomach hurt and my ears rang. I’d eat so much chicken I could smell it on my skin for days. I had wished them dead and here they were.
Even now I will still tuck into a piece of chicken occasionally. It is a dish I am able to eat without the slightest sense of guilt or remorse. One could even say that I like chicken, a pleasant and mild creature, particularly when served cold.