My brother, Robbie, genuinely believes in my first children’s novel, Chloe Among The Clover. He was kind enough to paint the image above for the book. Since no one seems interested in it except him, and since I only ever wanted people to read it (children and adults alike) I decided to just dump the whole book here for free. It is the first in a trilogy which I have dubbed the “Lost And Found” series. The second book, Stormy Within The Strawberry Patch, is available on Amazon in kindle and paperback formats. I wrote the first book in roughly a week after my fiancee and I spent a week taking care of my grandparents’ chickens. Many of the events in this book have real-world inspirations (sadly) including the titular cat, Chloe. Of course, none of the animals could speak to each other in real life (insomuch as I was aware, anyway), but a writer is allowed a little creative license where his heart is concerned. Enjoy!
Chloe Among The Clover
The first time I saw Chloe was among the clover. The Man had just taken my brothers and sisters and I out of the box in the house, with the warm light, and put us in the yard with Black Momma. He made it rain corn and we hurried to eat it with our little beaks. While I ate, I saw big yellow eyes peering at me from the clover, glowing with an intense light. The eyes belonged to a thing that Black Momma called a Cat. It watched us as if it really wanted to meet us, so I ate and when I had finished—or when the feed was gone, for a chicken is never finished eating—I walked over to her.
Chloe was hunkering down in the clover as if she was hiding from me. I thought that silly because I could not think of a reason why she should be scared of me. She was so much bigger than me. My big sister, Sandy, was bigger than me, too, and always pushed me out of the way when we ate. Chloe was so much bigger than Sandy that she had to be stronger than Sandy. That was how the world worked, after all.
As I came closer to Chloe, she seemed to lower herself to the ground, even though I could still see her tail and her eyes. She fidgeted anxiously and I thought she was afraid. But then she leapt out and ran after me. I was so confused and frightened that I tried to run back to Black Momma. But Chloe was faster.
Before she could pounce on me, the Man’s boot caught her across the face and sent her fleeing up to the porch. She cowered behind the railing, peeking out to watch us resentfully. The Dog was barking at her, telling her she knew better.
“You know you are supposed to leave them alone, Chloe,” the Dog said.
“Shut up, Jack,” Chloe snorted, her nose crinkled up in pain.
Chloe was orange-and-cream colored, like milk and yolk swirled together and thrown on fur. Jack was brown and silver and black, his hair all curly and hanging over his eyes like the Man’s eyebrows. He was no bigger than Chloe, and he annoyed her.
“Go chase mice, Chloe,” Jack said.
“Go chase squirrels, Jack,” Chloe said.
I decided I liked Jack. He walked with the Man and the Woman just like my brothers and sisters walked with Black Momma. I knew, then, that I could trust Jack.
But not Chloe.
The Man let the corn rain again and I ran to eat some. But Red Momma jumped into the middle of my brothers and sisters and pecked at them, scaring them away from the golden little kernels.
“You greedy little brats!” she squawked. “These are not for you! They are for my babies!”
She then began to eat all of the corn herself. Unlike Black Momma, who watched all twelve of us, Red Momma only had three babies to watch. They had been out of the box for much longer than we had, but they were all smaller and did not grow much, probably because Red Momma ate all of their feed herself. I felt sorry for them. They would always stand far away from Red Momma while she was eating, and if something scared her, she would flee squawking and trying to fly while her three babies were left alone, chirping desperately for help.
But Black Momma was not like that. When the Man put us in the cage at night, she would peck at his hands to keep them away from us. She was brave and she loved us. She would have done anything for us. She was a good Momma.
While Chloe sulked on the porch, Jack walked around with the Man. His big brown eyes made me feel safe and were full of a Dog’s careless joy.
“Jack,” I said.
He looked at me as if astonished. “Yes, little Miss?”
“Are you my friend?” I asked.
He tilted his head to the side, like Dogs are sometimes wont to do. “You belong to the Master,” he said. “I belong to the Master. We both belong to the Master.”
“So we’re friends?” I asked, hopefully.
“You’re in my Pack,” he said. “That’s even better than friends.”
“Oh,” I said. “What about Chloe?”
Jack’s ears stood at attention in a funny way and he glanced over at the Cat on the porch. She pretended not to see him, licking her paws. “She is not a Pack animal,” he said. “She is what she is.”
“Oh,” I said. “Is that why she ran after me?”
“She ran after you because that is what she does,” Jack said. “She runs after smaller things, even though the Master does not want her to. That is why he kicked her.”
“You said she should go chase mice,” I said.
“They are smaller than her,” Jack said. “But you chickens are different. You will grow bigger, just like the Master wants you to. Mice don’t grow any bigger because the Master does not want them to.”
“I understand,” I said, not really understanding.
Black Momma called to me, so I went to her.
“Bye, Jack!” I chirped.
He barked goodbye to me, even though we were all still in the same yard.
Black Momma led us through the yard so we could become acquainted with it. She told us things, like where the ant hills were, and the best ticks. She also warned us about the dangers of the yard.
“Watch out for the long-tailed things in the trees,” she said. “They’re called Squirrels. They are like big Rats and you can’t trust them. And always listen for Hawks. They are Birds, like us, but they fly high in the sky and scream loudly. If you hear a scream in the sky, run under the porch or the apple tree.”
We walked around for a while, eating and listening to Black Momma teach us things. I loved the clover. I loved how thick and green it was and how I could push it aside and find bugs to eat under it. I also liked the trees. They seemed to go up forever. And the flower beds were the best. They had loose soil and smelled nice and I loved to sit there, with my brothers and sisters, and stay cool in the black dirt. Sadly, the Woman did not want us in her flower beds and would chase us out when she saw us roosting there. It was kind of fun, though; like a game. We would sneak over to the flowers and then lay down, and then she would run after us with something that shot water at us and we would all go chirping loudly and laughing to Black Momma. But the best things I saw on my first day out of the house were the butterflies. They were like flower petals in a playful breeze, never resting.
Sometimes I could hear the crowing of the Roosters near the barn, in the Pen, and I could hear their fighting. Black Momma said that Roosters did nothing all day long except fight, and so, too, did the hens. Because of this, Black Momma was glad to be with us, separated from the other Chickens and not crowded in with them at night, in the Coop.
“Roosters and hens both fight over nonsense,” she said. “That’s because most Chickens have no commonsense at all. They squawk about nothing, and peck at each other over nothing, and run around in terror over nothing. They live in misery because they like drama.”
That sounded frightening. I did not want to go to the Pen. I did not want to be in fights all day. I just wanted to eat and walk among the clover. It was bad enough that Sandy bullied us; I did not want to be around a bunch of Chickens as big as Black Momma who fought over nothing.
“Momma,” I said, “will we have to go to the Pen one day?”
Black Momma gave me a piteous look. “I’m afraid so, little one. And the Coop. We all go eventually.”
“I want to go,” Sandy said. “I will be in charge. Not even the Roosters could pick on me. I would give them all a peck on the head.”
“It’s not a pleasant place,” Black Momma said. “But there is plenty of space in the Pen where you can stay away from the others. That’s what I do when I am over there. I keep to myself. Mostly…”
I knew Black Momma was just telling us that so we wouldn’t worry. But the truth was that the Pen was a terrible place, and the Coop was even worse.
But of all the things we had to be careful about, the thing that Black Momma warned us of the most was the Big Water. It was so large and beautiful that clouds floated on its surface. Whenever I saw it I wanted to run to the edge of it and drink from it. But Black Momma wouldn’t let us. She said we had to drink out of the water bowl that the Woman set out for us.
“You must stay away from the Big Water,” she said. “It is dangerous.”
“Why is it dangerous, Momma?” we asked.
“Because of the Fish and the Turtles that live there,” she said. “And because of Fang.”
“Who is Fang, Momma?” we asked, shivering with fear and excitement.
“Fang is hunger, unending,” she said. “He is who walks without legs, who grabs without arms. He swims without fins and eats without a body. He is all head and tail and nothing else. He whispers softly and his bite stings. To be eaten by him is to live inside him. He is a white mouth with a black tongue. His body is cold, but his bite is hot. You must beware of him and his writing upon the Big Water.”
My siblings and I trembled, for Fang was frightening. We stayed away from the Big Water. We ate in the yard, digging for insects beneath the clover, and watched for Fang’s writing upon the water, always thinking we saw it in the corner of our eyes. All of us feared him; all of us except our brother, Checkers.
“Fang is nothing to be afraid of,” Checkers said. “He has no legs to run after you with. He has no wings to fly with. He has no arms or hands to grab you with. He doesn’t even have a body. He’s just a tail and a tongue and some teeth.”
Checkers was black and white and he said he did not fear anything. He was the bravest of us, and even Sandy did not bully him. I admired Checkers. He would find a big, juicy worm and he would let our smaller brothers and sisters eat it. I hoped that he would grow big and strong so that when we did finally go to the Pen he would be there to protect us from the other Chickens that wanted to fight all day long.
“I think he’s scary because he has no arms or legs or body,” I said. “He’s just a mouth and a tail. Fang’s a monster.”
“If I saw him I’d give him a good pecking,” Checkers said. “Just like I did that Squirrel that walked over Tidbit.”
Tidbit was the smallest of our siblings. She was no bigger than a Rooster’s fart, or that was what Red Momma often said. Tidbit was always getting walked on. Even the Man almost stepped on her once. He fell over when he moved his foot out of the way at the last moment, and twisted his ankle. Tidbit’s wing had been crooked ever since. This helped us tell her apart from her twin sister, Tadbit, who was a little bigger and a little browner.
“I don’t think Fang is the same as a Squirrel,” I said. “And Squirrels only run into us on accident. They don’t try to eat us. Fang would. You heard Black Momma. He wants to eat all of us.”
“So do I,” said a purring voice.
We looked up and saw Chloe sitting on the porch, watching us from among the ivy that grew like green drapes there. Her eyes glowed.
“You don’t want to eat us,” I said, quivering. “We’re…we’re part of your Pack. Just like the Man and the Woman and Jack.”
Chloe’s face widened with a smirk, or so I thought. Sometimes it seemed like she was always smirking; that her face was naturally a smirk. “A Pack, is it? You have a lot to learn.”
Checkers walked forward, staring up at Chloe defiantly— with one eye, and then the other, turning his head without blinking, for that is how Chickens glare if they must. “Go away, Cat,” he said. “I’m not afraid of you.”
I could see Chloe flexing her claws in and out of her paws. They were sharp and hooked and looked like they would never let go if they got hold of you. Her tail twitched in annoyance.
“For a mere mouthful, you sure are full of yourself,” she said. “So much puff and bluff and bluster for a feather ball with wings. I wonder how brave you would be once I’ve pounced on you…”
Chloe rose to her feet, arching her back while her tail stood straight up.
“Let’s go, Checkers,” I pleaded.
Checkers just stood there, staring at her— left eye, then right eye, left eye, right eye. Glaring at someone was exhausting for a Chicken.
Before Chloe could spring through the ivy and fall atop him from the porch, the door banged open.
“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!”
It was the Woman. She had a bowl that sloshed with milk.
Chloe sat back on her haunches and meowed innocently.
“Here, kitty, kitty!” the Woman said again.
But Chloe did not move. She just meowed.
“You lazy, spoiled cat,” the Woman complained. She walked over to Chloe and set the saucer down beside her. Chloe nudged her hand with her head. The Woman patted Chloe’s head, which I thought was strange. Why would anyone love a Cat?
“I swear you are the most rotten animal in all of creation,” said the Woman, but not unkindly.
The Woman patted Chloe’s head a while longer, then returned inside the house. Chloe sniffed at the milk, then lapped at it daintily with her pink tongue. The entire time she drank she kept her eyes on us. They glowed like the moon. I was afraid she would suddenly leap from the porch and chase me down and swallow me in one gulp. Checkers was bigger than me, but seeing him stand there, with the Cat watching him from the front porch, I realized how small he was, also. It would have taken her two bites, but she would have eaten him, too.
Suddenly, Black Momma was squawking at both of us.
“You two little fools!” she said. “Come away from there! Now!”
I hurried over to Black Momma as if a Squirrel were nipping at me. But Checkers was still staring at Chloe, daring her. He did not budge.
“Checkers!” Black Momma shouted. “Come here this instant! I swear I’ll peck your backside until it gives up worms!”
Flapping his wings and then folding them up, Checkers reluctantly turned towards Black Momma. As he turned, however, Chloe spoke to him again, mocking him from the porch.
“Yes, run along, little fairweather-feather,” she said. “It is for your own good.”
He turned back and glared at her, chirping angrily. He even used a word that chicks are not supposed to chirp. When he returned to Black Momma, she pecked him good for his foul language.
“You know better!” she said.
Checkers took his punishment silently, and did not run away. I think Black Momma gave him such a hard pecking because she was more afraid than he was, and there was no way for her to make him afraid like she thought he ought to be.
“You stay away from that Cat,” she said. “And that foul language. And you stay away from the Big Water. And the Squirrels. And the Roosters. You stay with Black Momma, where you’ll be safe, and never you mind about how brave you think you are. That’s a bunch of foolishness.”
I did not say anything, but I could see the look in Checkers’ eyes. It made me afraid. I wanted to stay with Black Momma forever. She made me feel safe. But Checkers was different. Checkers was not afraid of anything, and would not be afraid of anything.
Not until it was too late.
At twilight the shadows stretched as far as they could and clumped together thickly. We followed Black Momma into the cage within the shed and the Man closed the door to the cage, latching it shut. He then closed the door to the shed, locking it.
I found I liked being in the cage at night. It made me feel safe. Night was scary. Even when the moon was bright, and you could walk outside in the starlight and see everything, it was scary. Inside the cage we were safe. We would sleep next to Black Momma, huddled on the cardboard floor. We had water in a bowl and food in a feeder, and we did not need much else. We could have lived in the cage forever. We could have been safe forever.
But I didn’t want to live in the cage forever. I liked the morning. I liked the mists that came with the drowsy sunrise. And I liked the dreamy calm in the morning. It put me at ease, especially after the nights when I could hear things scratching at the door to the shed, and I could see things flying past the window, blacking out the moon. Night was full of strange, scary noises. We could hear things at night that yipped and yapped and howled. Black Momma said they were Coyotes. They sounded like they were laughing at us; wicked laughter that made me think of sharp teeth and glowing eyes, like Chloe’s.
“Can they get us, Momma?” we whimpered.
“Of course not,” she said. “Now hush and go to sleep.”
Red Momma was in a cage of her own, with her three little chicks. I was glad that I wasn’t in her cage. She ate all of the feed and did not leave any for her little chicks. Sometimes I hated her so much that I dreamed about talking to the wild-laughing Coyotes, or the ghost-faced Opossums, or the fire-tailed Foxes, and making a deal with them.
“Take Red Momma away,” I said in my dream. “And leave the rest of us alone forever.”
And then they took Red Momma away, in my dream, and her three chicks joined us in our cage, and grew big and strong and happy. They did not miss Red Momma whatsoever.
I didn’t know if that made me evil, dreaming that dream, but I couldn’t help but dream it. Red Momma was worse than Chloe. At least Chloe was honest about wanting to eat us. Red Momma wanted us all to “go away” and let her have all of the feed and water and leftovers that the Man and Woman threw out to us. She wanted us gone, saying we ate all of the food and didn’t leave any for her chicks. But that wasn’t true. She ate all of the feed that the Man threw out to her chicks, and if not for Black Momma, Red Momma would have eaten all of our food, too.
Maybe I was bad. Sometimes I prayed that Red Momma would eat so much that she could not move and couldn’t fit in the cage. I prayed that she would fall asleep from eating too much and get left outside at night. Sometimes I prayed that she would try to eat so much that she choked on it and died. But she knew how I felt because I told her how I felt. One night she was eating all of the feed in her cage, and her littlest chick, Itty, picked up a kernel that was near her feet. Red Momma squawked and pecked at him until Itty dropped it. Then Red Momma picked up the kernel and swallowed it. I was so mad I yelled at her.
“You’re a fat, selfish clucker!” I said. “And I hope you die!”
Red Momma squawked all night after that. She would not shut up. When she fell asleep later she was still squawking. The next morning I had to stay under Black Momma all day, otherwise Red Momma might have pecked me featherless.
I had many brothers and sisters, and Black Momma had to look after all of us. Often we could sneak away without her noticing, though she would almost always notice when we came back. One day, while Black Momma was trying to eat a fat green caterpillar up in a small tree, Checkers went off on his own. The rest of us stayed under the apple tree, watching him in awe as he went down to the Big Water. He stood there on the edge of the Big Water, among the weeds, unafraid of the dangers that Black Momma said lurked there. I was scared for him because I knew Checkers didn’t fear anything at all. I wished he wasn’t so bold, and I wished I could have been him.
Just beyond Checkers, and floating serenely upon the water, was a family of Geese. There was a Gander, a Goose, and seven goslings. I knew there were seven because I counted them. They were rough, gray little weather-beaten things. The did not look nearly so fine or refined as the Gander and Goose whose black necks arced gracefully as they swam. Seeing the Geese made me wish I could grow up to be a Goose myself. I would have liked to have their long necks and white chests and brown feathers. They were so many colors! I was only a dirty yellow with little specks of brown on my tailfeathers.
As the Geese came floating by, Checkers called out to them—bold as church bells. (I had heard the Woman say this once, and it intrigued me, though I did not know what church bells were).
“Hey!” said Checkers. “Would your goslings like to play with my brothers and sisters?”
That sounded like a very good idea to us chicks and so we hurried down to join Checkers, excited at the idea of new playmates.
The Geese, to the contrary, turned their bills up at the idea, scoffing as if Checkers asked them to swim upside down so as to drown themselves.
“How dare you address us with such familiarity,” the Goose retorted. “Moreover, why would my goslings demean themselves by playing with Chickens?”
“Might as well ask them to play with cow pies,” remarked the Gander.
The Geese laughed. Even the goslings laughed, though not as loudly. The laughter of the Geese was a lot like when a Geese honked. Hearing it was like getting a pecking from Sandy when she was in a bad mood. It hurt my head. I wanted them to stop.
My siblings and I were outraged. No Non-Chicken should have treated us that way. It was unjustified, especially since they were Geese. They should have been glad that we invited their goslings to play.
“You think you’re better than us,” Checkers said, “but you’re not!”
“Geese will always be better than Chickens,” said the Gander. “That is just how things are. And anyone with any eyes could see how obvious it is. We’re prettier, we’re smarter, and, most important of all, we’re better swimmers.”
“You are good swimmers,” Checkers said. “I’ll give you that. But I’m better.”
The Gander laughed and it sounded like chewed grass exploding from the back of his honking throat. He swerved in the water and came toward Checkers. The Goose and the goslings trailed after him perfectly, as if they were all one animal, head to tail.
“No Chicken was ever as good a swimmer as a Goose,” he said. “Nor as good as a flyer. My youngest gosling could swim faster than you. And when she grows up she will be bigger than you and a better flyer than you, too.”
“Indeed,” said the Goose, honking in laughter. “What an impudent little chick you are. Your view of the world is skewed by willful delusions.”
“And you are rude,” Checkers said. “And uppity. I only wanted to be friendly, but you have worse manners than Squirrels.”
“There are more of us, too,” said Tidbit, as if that claimed a special pride. “Black Momma watches all twelve of us, and twelve is a bigger number than seven. Right?” She looked to Tadbit to confirm what she said.
“Right,” said Tadbit.
“Well and good for Chickens, perhaps,” said the Goose, “but seven is a lucky number. Much luckier than twelve.”
“Indeed,” said the Gander. “Very much so. It bodes well for our brood, whereas twelve is such an unoriginal number, and thus given to misadventures and waywardness.”
I could see that Checkers was having as hard a time understanding what the Gander meant as I was. His black-and-white feathers were ruffled with perplexity.
“You’re so full of yourselves,” Checkers snapped, “that I wonder how you can stay afloat. You should be sinking to the bottom, along with the rest of the muck and fish poop!”
“Mind your beak,” the Gander warned. “Or you will feel my bill.”
“Your bill’s not even sharp,” Checkers retorted.
“It is sharp enough to snip pondweed in the shoals,” the Gander said. “And what are you but a little upstart weed in need of snipping?”
I started to become afraid for Checkers. The Gander was much larger than him. The Goose was larger, too.
“If you attack us,” I said, “you’ll be sorry. We belong to the Pack of the Man and the Woman.”
Again the Geese erupted into their honking laughter. It was a very demeaning sound. The Gander shook his head dismissively, his long black neck whipping left and right.
“Do you honestly believe that we fear Man or Woman?” he said. “We are not tamed like you. We are free. We are wild. We are too intelligent to care about all of that. You are trapped, not us.”
“We’re not trapped,” said Checkers, flapping his wings angrily. “We can leave any time we want.”
“Then do so,” the Goose said, just as haughty as her mate. “We fly all over the world. We see many sights. We know no bounds.”
“You’re liars,” Checkers said. “There’s nothing beyond the farm.”
The Gander and the Goose looked at each other, their dark eyes full of mirth. They shook their heads again.
“You foolish little clip-wing,” said the Gander. He turned toward the Goose. “But that is none of our concern. Come along, dear. Let us leave them to their ignorance.”
They floated away with the easy smugness that was rivaled only by a Cat. Watching them go, I wondered if there really truly was anything to fear in the Big Water. They seemed to fear nothing in it.
“I’ll swim across the Big Water someday,” Checkers vowed. “And I’ll fly like the Geese do. I’ll fly faster and farther than any of them.”
Black Momma was not pleased that we all ventured down to the Big Water. She gave each of us a good pecking when we came uphill again. It took a while since there were so many of us.
“Why would you do such a thing when I told you not to?!” she scolded us.
“There were Geese in the Big Water,” Tidbit said. “Checkers tried to be nice to them, to see if their goslings would want to play with us, but they made fun of us instead.”
Black Momma’s wrath was replaced with a different kind of wrath. She shivered all over with anger.
“Those snake-tongues are good for nothing,” she said. “Nothing but spite in any of them, I swear.”
“Why are they so mean, Momma?” Tadbit asked.
“Geese are the uppitiest of all creatures,” she said. “They come and go as they please and fancy themselves free. But every year they return here and try to raise them some young ones, despite what happens to them. You can try to warn them, but it does no good.”
“What happens to their young ones, Momma?” I asked.
“Fang happens to them, child,” she said. “As I warned all of you. You can’t tread that water without him knowing it.”
“Why don’t they stop coming here, then?” Sandy said. “Seems really stupid on their part.”
“It’s instinct, girl,” Black Momma said. “They can’t help it. They tell themselves all kinds of excuses as to why they do it, but in the end it is instinct whispering in their ears.”
“I won’t let instinct get the better of me,” said Checkers.
“Sometimes it’s a good thing,” Black Momma said, “and sometimes it’s a bad thing. Fear is instinct. Mothering is instinct, too. Bad and good. Good and bad.”
“Is pecking us a Mothering instinct?” Sandy said, sarcastically.
“Sure is, girl,” Black Momma said. “And so is the pecking that’ll come if you complain about it!”
Days are long when you are a chick. They seem to last forever. Even so, you don’t want them to end. That day we met the Geese for the first time lasted a very long time, and eventually we met them a second time that day. It was later in the afternoon. I was walking with Jack in the yard and saw the Geese floating along the Big Water. They seemed to prefer having the water carry them around. Maybe it was because when they walked they waddled worse than a Tractor with a missing tire. They were so herky-jerky that it looked like their heads, bodies, wings, and tailfeathers were all trying to go different directions. Such pompous sass-and-swagger made them look ridiculous.
“There go the Geese,” I said, furiously. “They’re so mean.”
“I don’t like them, either,” said Jack, “but Master likes them, so I like them.”
I eyed Jack quizzically. “How can you like them and not like them?” I asked, confused.
“Because,” he said.
“Because why?” I countered.
The Dog sat down and tilted his coppery head to the side, panting and thinking. He sat there a long time, and I had no idea if he would ever answer.
While I waited on Jack, I counted the number of goslings and was surprised to find that there were now only six. Earlier that morning there had been seven. The smallest gosling was missing. I walked to the water’s edge and called out to the Geese.
“What happened to your littlest one?” I asked.
The Gander and the Goose looked at each other and snorted.
“Why are you addressing us again?” said the Goose. “We told you to leave us be.”
“Are you too deaf or too dumb to understand?” added the Gander.
“You are missing a gosling,” I said. “I thought you might want to know so you would look for her.”
The Gander honked in my face very rudely.
“Wrooooooong!” the Gander honked. “You are as terrible at counting as you are at flying.”
“We have only ever had six goslings,” said the Goose. She turned her head around and dabbed at each gosling, one after the other. “One, two, three, four, five, six. See?”
The goslings looked behind them, shrugged their wings, then nodded in agreement. “Only six,” they said. “Stupid chick.”
“You had seven this morning,” I said. “You even said so. You said that seven was a lucky number.”
“What superstitious foolishness!” the Gander said. “Where do you get such rubbish notions?”
“From being a Chicken, naturally,” remarked the Goose, tossing her head scornfully. “It is not her fault, dear, that she is a Chicken and thus given to a Chicken’s inclination toward nonsense.”
Dismayed, I pressed them on the fact that they did, in fact, have seven goslings that morning, despite their denials. “The smallest one is missing,” I said. “You need to go look for her!”
“Come, children,” the Gander said, raising his bill up to the sky in a most arrogant manner. “Do not listen to the foolish chick. Stupidity catches, you know.”
All of them followed the Gander, both in direction and in manner, upon the water; all except the sixth gosling. She glanced behind herself, briefly, as if in confusion, and then shook her head, just like the Gander and the Goose, and mimicked their sass-and-swagger as they swam away.
When I returned to Jack’s side, he was no longer thinking about how he could both like and dislike Geese. He was nudging a Toad with his nose. The Toad hopped a little, then squatted down again in the grass. Jack nudged it some more, but the Toad was stubborn. Jack gave up and sat down beside me, staring at the Toad.
“I forgot what you asked me,” he said to me. “But look! I found a Toad!”
I nodded politely, but felt sorry for the missing gosling.
Throughout the rest of the week whenever we saw the Geese there was one less gosling trailing after them. Yet, the Gander and the Goose behaved as if nothing bad was happening. They floated serenely along the Big Water with their heads held high and their bills dabbing confidently to and fro, never once showing doubt or concern over their missing goslings.
“They’re not as smart as they think they are,” Checkers said, gloating. “They’re losing their goslings.”
“Less Geese in the world,” said Sandy. “That’s a good thing.”
I did not feel good about the disappearances. I felt sad and upset. Why did the Goose and the Gander act as if nothing evil was happening? It made no sense.
The day that I saw that they had no more goslings, I could not restrain myself. I hurried down to the water’s edge and waited until they were floating by. I called out to them.
“I’m so sorry!” I cried.
The Gander and Goose looked at me sideways, with disdain. “Sorry about what?” said the Gander. “Being a Chicken?”
“For your goslings,” I said, taken aback. “I’m sorry that they…they…”
“We never had goslings,” said the Goose, her head jerking left and right with each word. “And if we did we would never raise them around this place. It is too much beneath us. We know better. We would choose a better place than this.”
They floated away from me, toward the other side of the Big Water, where they emerged, waddling on land and eating grass. Stunned to disbelief, I watched them for a while before returning to my siblings.
I was so confused. Could they really have forgotten their goslings, or were they lying to me? Were they lying to themselves? Checkers just shrugged it off with his wings.
“Just ignore them,” he said. “Don’t feel sorry for them, either. They obviously don’t feel sorry for their goslings.”
Still, I felt horrible about the goslings. I asked Black Momma about them, telling her what I had been doing. She gave me another pecking when I told her that I had been speaking to them, but not as hard a pecking as she could have.
“It’s a lesson for you, child,” she said. “The Big Water takes from you if you don’t treat it with respect. And to respect it is to stay away from it.”
“What happened to their goslings, Momma?” I asked.
“It was Fang,” she said. “Just as I told you. You got to fear him. He’s all mouth and tail and appetite coming in on the waves. It was his hot bite that got them. It was his cold mouth that took them in.”
“Or it was a turtle,” said Chloe. She was sitting nearby, in the clover, watching the Goose and Gander like the rest of us. She was smirking. “Or it was a fish. Or even me.” She rolled her slitted eyes from me to Jack, who was also sitting nearby, enjoying the shade of the apple tree. “Or Jack.”
“Jack wouldn’t eat goslings,” I said.
“He would kill them,” she said.
I was near to tears at the thought. “That’s not true, is it, Jack?”
Jack scratched himself behind his ear with his paw. “They do not obey Master. They do not belong here because they do not obey Master. But Master says he likes them. If he did not like them then I would grab them and shake them and break their necks.”
I was horrified to hear Jack say that.
“If you could catch them,” Chloe said. “Which you can’t. But you would kill them if you could. That is the point of it all.” She smirked in Checkers’ direction. “And your brother would have killed them if he could have, too. If he was bigger. I saw it in his eyes the other day. He really, really hates geese. Don’t you, fair weather-feather?”
“That’s enough of that!” Black Momma said. She had the same look she had when she was about to give us chicks a good pecking. “You stop filling my chicks’ heads with your…your…Cat notions. You hear me? Get gone. Nobody wants you around here! And stop eyeing my chicks! You keep this up and I’ll make sure you’re housebroken!”
Chloe smirked, unimpressed, but stood up and walked toward the porch. I shuddered. Even when she walked away there was always something about how she walked that made me feel like she was hunting all of us. Like she was hunting me with her thoughts. The glow of her eyes blazed upon my mind.
“What does ‘housebroken’ mean?” Tidbit asked.
“I am housebroken,” said Jack. He pushed his shaggy chest out proudly. “It means I can sleep inside the house.”
“Why is that a bad thing, then?” Tadbit asked.
“It’s a good thing for a Dog,” Black Momma said. “But a bad thing for a Cat.”
“Because a Cat is a Cat, and a Dog is a Dog, and you should leave it at that because I am your Momma!”
At twilight the fireflies were blinking sleepily in the yard. We saw something large glide in from the sky and stand among the reeds bordering the Big Water. He was gray and white and blue and stood quite still on long, thin legs— like an elm tree on a windless day. Yet, his head lowered gradually toward the water, his long, thin beak angling at the shoals with the most subtle slowness and elegant poise.
“What is that, Momma?” I asked.
“That is a Crane, child,” Momma said.
The Crane moved so slowly, like the bud of a lily pad blooming upon the water— seemingly taking hours to move an inch. It was like watching a big cloud in the sky: at first glance seemingly still, but after a while you noticed that he was moving though you still doubted it because he was so slow and faraway.
Suddenly, the Crane lanced the water with his beak in one smooth motion, creating no ripples whatsoever. Just as quickly he withdrew and there was a fish floundering between the parted points of his beak. The Crane raised his beak in the air, letting the small fish fall down into his mouth and slip down its long neck, swallowing the fish whole. As fast was it all was, I was not startled. The way the Crane hunted seemed like a waking dream.
Checkers noticed, too. While Black Momma taught Tidbit and Tadbit how to eat fireflies, Checkers went walking toward the Crane. I followed him, despite my head being sore from the last pecking Black Momma had given me.
Walking toward the Crane was like walking in a dream. It took us only moments to reach him, but it seemed like we had been walking a long time. The moon was half-asleep itself, its eye half open in the dark blue sky. The yard was blue with calm twilight shadows.
By the time we reached the Crane, he had already stabbed the water twice and caught two more fish. He swallowed the second fish as Checkers spoke to him.
“How do you know when to stab the water?” he asked. “The fish are so fast, and its so dark out here.”
The Crane barely moved his big round eye. “I do not choose the moment,” the Crane said. “The moment chooses me.”
Checkers frowned quizzically. “Where did you come from?” he asked.
“From here,” the Crane said, “which is now there, just as there will again be here.”
Watching the Crane move so slowly was making me sleepy. My head felt full of downy feathers. The twilight murk hung on everything like a soft, heavy wing. The world seemed drowsy, and ready for bed.
“You don’t make any sense,” Checkers said.
“Sense is not made,” the Crane said, “but instead makes us.”
Checkers turned to me. “He’s crazy.”
The Crane speared the water again, and again caught another fish. He swallowed the silvery scaled thing in a dreamy motion so smooth and slow that I felt myself falling asleep just watching it happen.
Checkers took a deep breath, puffing himself up with resolve, and asked the Crane another question.
“Is there anything beyond the farm? Is there anything beyond the Big Water and the field and the trees where the sun goes down every night?”
The Crane stood still once again, his talon-beaked head pointing. Had his eye not been open I would have thought him asleep. Even so, there was a dreamy gaze in his eye that lulled me like a soft patch of clover.
“There are waters beyond the Big Water,” the Crane said. “And fields beyond the field and trees beyond the trees, and suns beyond the sun.”
“That is silly,” Checkers said. “You are a silly feather-head!” He chirped angrily and walked away, his feathers all ruffled. Checkers had been so rude that I felt that I ought to say an apology to the Crane.
“Sorry to have bothered you,” I said.
“The winds will have their say,” the Crane said. “Whichever way they blow us is the way we fly.”
“Will I be able to fly someday?” I asked.
“You are flying even now,” he said. “The winds carry you along. In circles we go. Round and round until we finally settle down and fly no more.”
“Have a nice evening,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
I walked away feeling confused. Maybe leaving the farm made you crazy. Maybe the Crane and the Geese were all crazy from flying beyond the field and the hills and the trees.
I heard barking shortly afterward and saw Jack darting through the twilight murk, heading straight toward the Crane.
“Get gone! Get gone! Get gone!” Jack barked.
The Crane flapped its wide wings and lifted into the air lazily like dandelion seeds, rising into the air and landing on the other side of the Big Water. Before I turned away I saw him standing among the reeds, as unmoving as the reeds themselves. Jack barked a while longer, then returned to the house where the Man and the Woman were snapping green beans on the porch. Jack sat down beside the Man’s chair, looking very proud. Chloe was nowhere to be found, though I felt the glow of her eyes on me as I rejoined my brothers and sisters under the apple tree.
Twilights were long in that summer. The sun took its time slipping back into its nest that the Man called the horizon. As we waited for bedtime we heard the Gander and Goose honking loudly. They were flying up from the Big Water and rose into the air, rising and rising higher over the treetops and above the farm, leaving us behind, taunting us as they went
“They’re leaving,” Sandy said. “Good.”
“But where are they going?” asked Tidbit.
“Somewhere else,” said Tadbit.
“There is no place beyond the farm,” Checkers said, resentfully. “There can’t be. They are liars. The Geese and the Crane are all liars.”
The Man and the Woman let us out of our cage the next morning and then got into their big, noisy thing that Black Momma called “the Truck” and went away almost all day. They gave us plenty of feed, and there were always bugs to eat in the clover. Jack was there to watch over us, also, but I felt like something was wrong that day. It was a pretty day. The sun shined brightly and there weren’t any clouds in the sky. It was very hot, so we stayed near the apple tree, under its blue shade. We talked as we looked for bugs. My siblings liked to chatter about everything. The sky. The trees. The clover. Jack. Chloe. Worms. Everything. I watched the butterflies, but did not talk to my siblings about them. They didn’t care about insects unless it was to eat them. And I was afraid talking about butterflies would make them want to eat them, since they never looked at any bug except in hunger.
Black Momma was on the other side of the tree, roosting in the dirt to cool off. My siblings and I were on the side facing the Big Water. We liked to be on our own, where Black Momma couldn’t see us, but we also liked having her nearby, just in case we needed her to protect us. I guess we were a little odd in that way.
Tadbit and Tidbit were talking about how big the Big Water was.
“I bet it goes on forever,” said Tidbit, wistfully. “All the way around to the other side of the world.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Tadbit, who was a few seconds older than her twin. “You can see the land on the other side. The grass and the trees and the field and the cows on the other side of the fence.”
“That is the other side of the world,” said Tidbit, never budging when she had a notion in her head. “It is actually behind us. Those trees on the hill are the trees beyond the Pen and the Coop. If you went that way far enough you would come to the other side of the Big Water.”
“That’s fluff-and-stuff,” said Tadbit.
“You are both idiots,” remarked Sandy. “You don’t know anything about anything.”
“What do you think it is, Sandy?” Tidbit and Tadbit said in unison, as they were sometimes apt to do. “Do you know?”
Sandy gave them a scowl that could have rivaled Red Momma’s. Tidbit and Tadbit tried to hide behind each other, which was useless since they kept shuffling endlessly; one behind the other, and then the other behind the other. Sandy would have given both of them a good pecking for being so loose-beaked, but Checkers was nearby and he may have given her a pecking instead.
I called to Checkers, both to settle the argument and to keep Sandy from pecking anyone.
“Checkers,” I said, “do you know about how big the Big Water is?”
Checkers turned an eye to the Big Water, and then the other one, and then the previous one. “Hard to say,” he said, “but I don’t think it is that far.”
“What do you think is on the other side of it?” asked Tidbit. “And on the other side of the field and the trees and the hill and the cows?”
Checkers shrugged his wings as if he did not care one way or the other. But I saw how angry he had been with the Geese. I knew he cared.
Sandy scoffed. “You don’t know,” she said. “None of you know.”
“You don’t know, either,” I said. I immediately clamped my beak shut and shrank behind Checkers, fearing that Sandy would hammer my head to cornmeal.
Checkers ignored the spiteful look in Sandy’s face. He was too fixated on the Big Water. The gleam in his eye was the same gleam he had when he saw a caterpillar on a high branch in a bush, just before he leapt up and caught it with his beak. It was the same gleam he had when he spotted a worm in a fallen apple near the roots of the shady tree. It was the gleam of some derring-do in his eyes.
“If Geese can swim across it,” he said, “then I can, too. Chickens are better than Geese at everything.”
“That’s right!” chimed Tadbit and Tidbit together. “Chickens are the best!”
“If a Goose can do it, it’s nothing, really.”
“Then do it,” Sandy snapped. “I dare you.”
“But what about Fang?” I said, tip-taloning anxiously in a circle. “He is in the Big Water. He’s waiting in the Big Water. Momma said we have to fear him. I think he ate the goslings.”
“I’m not afraid of Fang,” Checkers said, pruning himself absently. “I’m not afraid of anything.”
“That’s because you’re stupid,” Sandy said. She may not have ever wanted to fight him, but that did not mean she did not want to be mean to him. “You’re just a dummy who thinks he’s brave.”
“It’s not a matter of being ‘brave’,” Checkers said. He tucked his black-and-white wings behind him and stretched his neck. “It’s a matter of knowing what to fear. And Fang isn’t scary. He doesn’t have any legs or arms or wings or even a body. That’s not scary. That’s just pitiful.”
“Then go down to the Big Water and swim it,” Sandy said. “Or are you scared?”
“I’m not scared,” Checkers said. “I’ll go right now.”
“Then do it!” Sandy screamed, losing her temper because Checkers was not afraid and she was.
Checkers scratched in the dirt with his talons, ready for the challenge. “I will! I’ll swim from one side to the other! And then I’ll go beyond the field, and beyond the cows and the trees and the sun! I’m going to prove those stupid honkers wrong!”
Before I could stop him, Checkers sprinted toward the Big Water. He did not hesitate, but dropped into the lotus-padded shoals with the faintest splash and then began floating across the water, paddling his legs. My siblings and I ran out to the edge of the Big Water, watching him anxiously. Even Sandy looked nervous.
Checkers had the biggest spurs of all of my brothers. He could have gored a fully grown Banty Rooster with them, so sharp and long were they root to tip. But they were useless in the water. His bravery was useless in the water, too, and so was his strong, walnut-cracking beak. I realized, with a great sinking weight in the pit of my stomach, that all of his admirable Roosterness meant nothing in the Big Water. His weapons and his bravery were no more good than my meekness and my pitiful size. What good were talons at raking the water? What good a beak that pecks at the wide water only to be drowned by it? What is the benefit of the bravery that compels us to do foolish things if it blinds us to the question of whether we should be doing it at all?
I saw the writing on the water. It moved constantly, so I couldn’t read what it said. All I knew was that it meant that I should be afraid.
And I was afraid.
“Checkers!” I cried. “Checkers! Come back!”
He was so small on the Big Water— bigger than the rest of our brood, but small when surrounded by dazzling water on all sides. The black writing was half-hidden among the waves birthed by its wake. It slithered toward Checkers slowly at first, cutting through the bright lights that danced on the waves. What I could see of it reminded me of a worm, but bigger and faster than the juicy worms that even my tiny sister Tidbit could catch in the earth. It was not blind like worms are blind; it saw Checkers and Checkers did not see it.
“Checkers!” we all cried. “Look out, Checkers!”
Jack must have heard us. He ran to the water’s edge to join us, adding his voice to ours. Checkers heard Jack barking. He glanced back at us, frowning. Then he saw the black thing gliding toward him on the water.
I will always remember his face: the way it seemed to break and crumble. At first his frown looked as hard and defiant as it had ever been. But as he paddled harder, and the long black shadow on the Big Water neared, his eyes widened. There was no confident gleam in his gaze anymore. There was just stark terror. It was the first time I had seen fear on his face, and the last time I saw his face.
Unwilling to watch anymore, I ran to get Black Momma. I went hoarse chirping at her, and did not make a peck of sense.
“What on earth is wrong with you, girl?” she asked. “And where did your brothers and sisters go?”
“Checkers is on the Big Water!” was all I could say. I did not need to say more.
Black Momma waddled so fast down to the water’s edge that she lost some tail feathers along the way. Following behind her, I didn’t know what to expect. Jack was still barking, but I could not hear my siblings. By the time we arrived at the water’s edge, Checkers was nowhere to be seen.
“Checkers!” Black Momma cried. “Checkers!”
Jack stopped barking. His ears hung low and he whimpered sadly. My siblings were crying. Even Sandy cried. The Big Water was silent. In its center a few rings of ripples were spreading out, and a single feather floated atop the dazzling brightness, waving one last goodbye to us.
Black Momma stayed at the water’s edge for a long time, waiting for any sign of Checkers. Some of us begged her to let us walk around the Big Water and see if he was on the other side, where the reeds grew tall and thick. But she said we had to stay. Jack went, and sniffed cautiously around the reeds and pondweeds. He found nothing. When we went back to the apple tree I saw Chloe sitting on the porch. She looked at me, and looked at the water, then turned away, laying down to take a nap. I could not tell if she was smirking or not.
Under the shade of the apple tree once again, we tried to eat, but I didn’t feel like it. I saw a butterfly floating along the breeze. It had dark blue and violet colors, like the sky just before dawn, and it was very pretty. But it did not cheer me up. A whole sky full of butterflies could not have cheered me up.
Red Momma was lecturing her chicks nearby so that we could all hear her. She did it on purpose. She was happy something bad had happened to Checkers.
“That stupid child Checkers was killed because he had a disproportional sense of self,” she said. “He was uppity. He was arrogant. And what’s fair is fair in life. You act like you’re invincible and life gives you a hard lesson to the contrary.”
Black Momma was too devastated to say or do anything to Red Momma. She just laid in the clover and wept and would not get up. And Red Momma just kept on saying cruel things.
“You know better, though, don’t you?” she said. “I’ve taught you well. You don’t have any of those silly, unbecoming notions in your heads. I gave you discipline and character. But Checkers had neither. I would like to believe that had I been the one to raise him, he would not have been so unthinking and reckless. No, indeed not. He would have known how to behave and would not have committed himself to foolishness.”
I could not bear listening to her anymore. It made me so angry. What happened to Checkers made me angry, too. I was nothing but a ball of anger and feathers and talons and beak. I ran and leapt on Red Momma’s fat back and dug my talons in and pecked at her neck with my beak as if I was trying to dig up a worm from hard clay. She ran around, screaming and trying to escape, but I was on her, and so I rode her here and there, no matter where she ran or how fast or how loud she squawked, and I pecked her all the while, relentlessly.
Soon my grief wore me out, and my anger, too, and I fell off of her and plopped down in a patch of clover. It took a while for Red Momma to realize that I was not on her back anymore, and when she realized it, she looked about in wrathful confusion. When she saw me, she ran at me like I was cornfeed, her fat body wobbling side to side.
“You monstrous little devil!” she cried. “I will teach you! I will teach you dearly!”
But before she could peck me, Jack came running up and barked at her and chased her away. She did not stop running until she was at the outskirts of the woods, her dark silhouette lost among the trees. We could still hear her disdainful clucking. I hoped she would get lost in the woods and never come back. Her chicks stayed with us, eating beneath the apple tree.
Jack came to see me afterwards.
“Oh, she is a mean one,” he said. “Master would not like me to do it, but sometimes I want to grab her by the neck and shake the life out of her. But then Master would not be happy with me. And I don’t want Master not to be happy with me.”
He was panting from chasing Red Momma and went to lay down on the porch rug, in the shade. I watched him go, glad that he helped me.
Meanwhile, Chloe watched all of this with a bemused smirk on her face. I did not know who I hated more then: Fang, Red Momma, or Chloe. They were all so wicked, but in different ways. I was so upset that I just sat down and cried all day. Not even the butterflies could cheer me up.
The Man and Woman returned as the sun perched in the top of the trees. They got out of the Truck and opened its tailgate.
“I don’t know why you had to drive all the way down there,” the Woman said. “You could have gotten them somewhere closer.”
“I wanted these, though,” the Man said. “You have to be discerning when it comes to Guinea Keets, or you’ll wind up with a bad pair. And these got papers.”
“Oh, how fancy!” replied the Woman, throwing her hands up.
The Man squinted at her. “Stop your jibing. These things will earn us a fortune.”
“They sure as heck cost a fortune,” the Woman countered.
“And they’ll give back tenfold,” the Man said, sliding a cage across the truck bed and off the tail gate. He set it down on the driveway. Inside the wire mesh were two things that looked like very ugly Chickens, or perhaps very pretty Turkeys. They were dark gray and had little red flaps on their faces, hanging down on either side of their beaks. They had black scalps and blue-and-white wrinkles around their eyes. Very ugly, in other words.
They were obnoxious, too. The moment the Man set their cage down they made an awful ruckus. They began screaming like creaking metal springs with Cows jumping up and down on them. We were all sad because of what happened to Checkers, and that awful noise made us feel worse.
“We’re afraid! We’re afraid! We’re afraid!” the Guinea Keets kept screaming.
“If they don’t shut up,” said Sandy, “I am going to peck their throats open.”
But the ugly Guinea Keets kept creak-screaming. They even became louder.
“What a Godawful sound,” the Woman said.
“No honest wealth was made without a little noise,” the Man said. “We’ll leave them in the cage for a few days until they get used to the place. Then they’ll stay here for good!”
“For good?” Sandy griped. “Whose good? There’s nothing good about them!”
If the Guinea Keets were getting used to the place, they did not show it. Day and night they creak-screamed incessantly.
“We’re afraid! This is not good! We’re afraid! There’s something over there! We’re afraid!”
There was no respite for us. We could not sleep since the Man put their cage in the shed beside ours. The Keets creak-screamed as if to not do so meant not breathing. We chirped at them angrily to be quiet. Later, we begged them to be silent. But all it did was make them creak-scream more.
“We’re afraid! They are talking to us! We’re afraid! It’s dark in here! We’re afraid!”
The dumb creatures were as obnoxious as the most uppity Rooster, and twice as dumb. If they heard a leaf blowing across the roof of the shed they would panic, racing around their cage and making that awful noise. It was almost as if they wanted to panic about every paltry thing.
During the day—when the Man let us out of our cages to roam— we went as far away as we dared from the Guinea Keets. But hating their noise just made us more sensitive to it. We paid attention to it more because we resented it so much. There were butterflies everywhere, but I could not enjoy them because the Keets ruined everything with their nettlesome noise.
“We’re afraid! The sun is too bright! We’re afraid! Shadows are following us! We’re afraid!”
We were not the only ones annoyed by the Guinea Keets. Chloe tried to swat at them, but couldn’t reach between the wire mesh. She got the Broom across her backside for trying. Often, she would either go to the barn to hunt mice or go wandering to the other side of the Big Water, taking her naps in the field. That was how she escaped the noise. Poor Jack was too faithful to the Man and the Woman to leave the porch, and could do nothing but whimper and whine and lay his head on his paws, looking pitiful and wincing at their ruckus.
“I’m sure it’s for the best,” he said. “Because Master brought them here.”
Even so, he looked miserable, pawing at his ears and trying to shut them to the ruckus. Still did the Keets scream in terror.
“We’re afraid! The wind is blowing! We’re afraid! The clouds are moving! We’re afraid!”
We were all at our wit’s end, a few days later, when out of the house came the Woman. I could see by her face that she was furious. She ran at the noisy Keets with her Broom in both hands, swatting the cage and making the brainless birds creak-scream as if their heads might explode. She yelled at the Man, who was in the barn, working on the Harvester.
“If you don’t get rid of these squawkers before sunset,” she said, “then I’ll get rid of you!”
The Man came out of the barn with his hands up, covered in oil and rust. “All right, all right,” he said, testily. “I was planning to take them to the pen today anyway.”
“Do it now,” the Woman said. “We haven’t had a moment’s peace since we’ve brought them home.”
The Man walked to the Guinea Keet cage—griping as he went— and picked it up. The Keets creak-screamed even louder.
“We’re afraid! The cage is rising! We’re afraid! The wind’s blowing! We’re afraid! The clouds are moving!”
“They are some awful-sounding birds,” the Man mumbled to himself; but not loud enough so that the Woman could hear him. He carried the cage toward the Pen, and we all sighed in relief. Finally, we would have peace and quiet.
Yet, their fear and paranoia were contagious. My siblings started to believe there was danger everywhere.
“Maybe there is something to fear in the clouds moving,” Tidbit said.
“And maybe the wind blows because something big is breathing,” said Tadbit. “Something that is hunting us.”
“Stop thinking that pig slop,” Black Momma said. “That’s nothing but scuff on the eggshell. You hear me, children? It’s a nest without a Momma’s butt. It amounts to nothing.”
I wasn’t so sure, even if Black Momma’s words calmed my brothers and sisters. I went to see Jack, wanting to ask him if there was anything to fear in the clouds moving and the wind blowing. The truth was that I had never thought about any of that before.
“There’s nothing to fear,” said Jack who was blissfully happy now that the Keets were removed to the Pen. “Not with Master here. He’ll protect us. He’ll protect us against everything.”
Chloe slunk around Jack, rubbing her tail against him. “There is plenty to fear,” she said, “if you’re a chick. From the winds, from the sky, from the man. Accidents happen all of the time, and there are plenty of things that love the taste of chick meat. As for the man, he could step on you while not paying attention. Or he could snap your neck when picking you up. It is an easy thing to do.”
“Master would never do that,” Jack growled.
“Never intentionally,” Chloe remarked, rolling her bright, slitted eyes. “But there is so much distance between his eyes and the ground, and you know how bad his eyesight is at night while he is clomping around in those big boots of his.”
I wanted to believe Jack, but I was also determined to be more careful around the Man. I did not want to believe Chloe, but I was also more mindful of my surroundings as I returned to Black Momma and my siblings. They were enjoying the new peace and quiet, too, and I tried to do the same. Yet, I kept glancing up at the sky, watching the clouds, and I kept flinching at the breeze as it played in my feathers. I felt as if there were mouths opening everywhere, ready to engulf me. I wished I could be as happy as Jack always seemed to be. I wished I was a Dog.
When the Man returned, the newfound peace and quiet were overturned. He was holding a dead Momma by her legs, her heavy body limp with its wings dangling below its head. My siblings and I all ran to hide under Black Momma. She told us to look away; to look at the clover.
“Good thing I checked on them,” the Man said. “Found this one dead near the water trough.”
“What happened?” the Woman asked.
“Hawk, looks like,” he said. “Neck’s been torn open and its feathers are all out, as if it took a bad, thrashing scuffle. If I hadn’t of come along, the others may have started eating it, and that’s not a good thing. They’d be killing each other if they got the taste for it.”
“Well,” said the Woman, “can’t let it go to waste.”
The Man and the Woman went inside the house, carrying the dead Momma in with them. Her head swayed limply, and her eyes were black and empty. It scared me. My siblings and I walked out from beneath Black Momma, and were glad that she was still alive.
“Momma,” I said, “is that true? Will Chickens eat other Chickens?”
“Don’t think on it, girl,” Black Momma said. “Don’t you think on it at all.”
Sandy shook out her feathers, puffing up. “If they tried to eat me I’d give them a good pecking,” she said.
“I’m just glad the Keets are gone,” said Tidbit. “Now we can sleep.”
“Until we go to the Pen,” Tadbit said. “Then they’ll be there, being loud and obnoxious.”
“Maybe the Chickens will eat them,” I said, the Man’s words still haunting me.
“More likely to eat you, runt,” Sandy said.
“That’s enough of that!” Black Momma snapped, giving Sandy a nip on her tailfeathers. Sandy may have been the strongest, and the most defiant, but she heeded Black Momma like she would the boot of the Man.
“Why do Chickens eat other Chickens?” I asked.
“Because that’s how the world works,” said Chloe. She had crept upon us in all of our excitement and dread. “Everything eats everything else.”
Jack arrived, too, looking happier now that the Keets were gone. “Not Master,” he said. “Master does not eat anything that is part of his Pack.”
Chloe laughed as only a Cat can: by not laughing at all while somehow giving the impression that she was laughing. It was a knack most animals, and people, do not have.
“What do you think that ax on the stump means?” she said. “Why do you think the woman took that hen inside? They’re going to cook her and eat her. And if you’re lucky, Jack, you’ll get the bones.”
“Bones don’t come from Chickens,” Jack said. “They come from…from…the house. They get them from the house.”
“And where do they get the bones from inside the house?”
“From…um…plants inside the house,” Jack said. “Yes. Plants.” He nodded fervently. “They wouldn’t feed me bones from Chickens. The Chickens are part of our Pack.”
“You honestly believe that, don’t you?” the Cat said, smirking. She shook her head. “The man and the woman eat the meat from the chicken. You eat the bones. I eat the fat. Just wait and see. Tonight you’ll get some bones and you’ll eat them and you’ll say, ‘These are really tasty bones. Master is the best.’ Because you are stupid. But I am awake. I will eat my fat and drink my milk and know how things are, not how I wish them to be.”
“The Master is not like that, Chloe,” Jack said. “He looks after his Pack.”
“Believe what you want,” she said. “Don’t wake up to reality. Keep sleeping.”
I looked back and forth between the Dog and the Cat and I wanted to belive the one while, in my heart, I knew the other was right.
“But Chickens don’t really eat other Chickens,” I said, hoping it was untrue. “Do they?”
“Yes,” Chloe said.
“No,” Black Momma said.
“Bark,” Jack said.
I was so confused, and could not get the image of that dead Momma out of my head. Why would a Chicken want to eat another Chicken?
“Will a Man eat another Man?” I asked.
Chloe cleaned herself with her tongue. Casually she said, between licks, “Might as well.”
Jack barked at Chloe. “You’re a liar!”
Chloe stood and turned her back to him, sauntering away with the easy arrogance that only Cats possess. “You’re worse,” she said without glancing back. “You lie to yourself. All of you do.”
That night everyone slept soundly in our cages in the shed. Even Red Momma slept soundly, not once badmouthing anyone; she was too exhausted and too eager to sleep. I did not sleep well, though. I had dreamed of Checkers in the night. He was alive and was growing up to be the biggest, strongest, bravest Rooster the world had ever seen. He chased away all of the other Roosters, and scared the Guinea Keets up into the sky, and he went into the Big Water, found Fang, and tore him to pieces. Even Chloe was afraid of him and asked forgiveness for threatening to eat all of us. He snipped her tail and she ran up a tree, crying as she clutched to a branch that was breaking under her weight.
Checkers turned to me in my dream. He was speckled black and white and was beautiful.
“You need to wake up,” he said.
“I don’t want to,” I said.
The morning came, and with it the cold, misty-eyed fact that Checkers was nothing more than ripples on the Big Water, too soon settled to stillness. The Man opened the door and unlatched our cage. My brothers and sisters scattered across the yard, feeding and playing. I followed them, reluctantly, and thought about my dream and about Checkers.
I wondered if my siblings even felt half the sorrow I did now that Checkers was gone. They seemed to have moved on, and were no longer sad. Even Black Momma was eating with a hearty appetite, whereas I could not eat much. I wandered down to the Big Water, standing away from it, watching its surface for the black writing that I saw the day Checkers died.
The sun was behind the trees, and the milky mist rose from the Big Water. I saw Chloe in the field. She was prowling the golden stalks of wheat, hunting. I watched her for a while. She moved slowly. Then, suddenly, she crouched down, lowering herself to the ground. At first I couldn’t see what she was watching. She was too far away.
Around the house Chloe always seemed slow and lazy, unwilling to move much except to saunter. But when she hunted she was as fast as Jack; maybe even faster. When she sprang forward, it startled me. I remembered when she was watching me—and Checkers and Tidbit and Tadbit and Sandy and all of my other brothers and sisters—from in the thick sprawl of the clover. It scared me to think of her leaping out at us with her teeth and claws. If she had leapt for us, we wouldn’t have been fast enough to escape. Black Momma wouldn’t have been fast enough to save us, either. The Man saved me once, but only because he was close to me, and was watching Chloe.
Chloe was walking through the field now, something small and brown in her mouth. It could have been a Mouse, or it could have been a baby Rabbit or a Mole. Whatever it was, I felt sorry for it. And I hated Chloe for killing it. I hated her and Fang and Hawks and Chickens. I hated everything that killed anything.
Butterflies did not eat or kill anything. I saw them floating above the wheat, unaware of anything but their love for sunlight and wildflowers. No matter how bad things were below them, they fluttered and twirled as if the world was full of nothing but joy and happiness. That was why I loved butterflies so much.
Chloe watched me intensely. I knew she wanted to eat me— I could see it in her glowing yellow eyes—but she couldn’t because Jack was beside me. It was midmorning and we stood in the shadow of a tree by the Big Water, watching the waves as the wind whispered to us.
“Do you know anything about Fang?” I asked Jack.
“I know that Master hates him,” said Jack. “The Master is a good Master, so if he hates Fang, Fang must be evil.”
“He killed Checkers,” I said. “I know Fang is evil.”
Chloe yawned and then began licking her paws.
“What did you kill this morning?” I asked her, angrily. “Was it a Mouse?”
“No,” she said. “It was a chipmunk.”
“Why do you kill things?” I asked.
“That’s just how life is,” she said, eyeing me intensely. “The strong eat the weak.”
“That’s not true,” said Jack. “I do not eat Chickens. I could, but I don’t. I obey Master.”
“But you eat squirrels and chipmunks,” Chloe said, smirking. “If you could catch them. You always scare them away before you can catch them, though. You’re always too loud. You don’t know how to hunt, really. You only know how to chase.”
Jack growled at Chloe, but she just cleaned herself as if she couldn’t hear him.
“Jack,” I said, “why do you kill things?”
“Because they invade our land,” Jack said, still scowling at Chloe.
“Why don’t you…don’t you try to eat us?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
“Because he fears the Man and the Woman,” Chloe said. “Because they are stronger than him.”
“No, because I love them,” Jack said. “I want to make Master happy.”
“Don’t you love us, Jack?” I asked, feeling devastated.
Jack scratched himself behind his ear, kicking at it with his back leg. “I love what Master loves,” he said.
Chloe scoffed. “Cats only love themselves,” she said, “because we are smart.”
“I don’t understand at all,” I said. “Why do you eat things that are smaller than you?”
Chloe stared at me again, smirking. “Why do you eat things smaller than you?”
“I don’t,” I said.
“Really? But was it not you I saw this morning pecking at the ground, eating ticks and worms and other bugs that squirmed and scurried there?”
“That’s different,” I said, growing very uncomfortable.
“Why is it?”
“I don’t know!”
“Animals eat other animals that are smaller than them,” Chloe said, her yellow eyes unblinking. “Even the Man and the Woman eat things that are smaller than them. Lambs, pigs, chickens. They will eat you someday…”
Jack barked angrily. “That’s enough, Chloe,” he said. “You shouldn’t tell her that.”
Chloe smirked, then cleaned herself with her tongue once more. Her orange-and-cream fur was spotless.
“Do they eat Cats, too?” I asked, angry at Chloe and wanting to make her as scared as I felt.
Chloe stretched her back, then stood up and walked about in the shade. “They don’t eat cats or dogs. We’re useful. He chases the foxes away and I hunt and eat the mice in the barn. I don’t know why the Man and the Woman don’t eat mice. Maybe it is because they are not smart enough to catch them. I give them little pieces of the mice, every once in a while, since they give me food. It is only fair, I suppose.”
“But they give you food,” I said, my mind working hard to think through its confusion. “Milk and Catfood. Why do you need to hunt things?”
“Hunting things is fun,” she said, simply. “Sometimes when I catch a mouse I let it go so I can catch it again. It is no fun if I catch a mouse right away. I need to get my heart racing by chasing it a bit. Then, when I finally sink my claws into it, it feels so much more exciting. Nothing is better than chasing a mouse around a barn. It really makes the meat tastier. And I love hearing them squeak before I bite them.”
“You don’t really love eating things that can talk,” I said in disbelief.
“Of course I do,” she said. “Do you know how badly mannered mice are? They leave their droppings everywhere. Nasty little things.”
“But they’re on the farm,” I said. “Aren’t they part of the Pack? Why don’t the Man and Woman tell you to stop?”
“They want me to catch and eat them,” Chloe said. “They say I am a good mouser.” Her tone was teasing, but also very proud, which was normal for a Cat. “I love eating squirrels, too.” She walked around Jack, rubbing against him with her side. “All he does is run them up trees and bark at them, making noise.” Jack growled at her, but she paid him no mind. “But I actually catch them and eat them. I keep their fluffy tails in the barn, in my trophy room.”
I knew about Chloe’s trophy room. Everyone did. One of the young Roosters used to go there and dig for worms. He told us about it. We all called him Floppy since his comb was always hanging down to the side of his head. Then one day Floppy went to forage in the barn and never came back. No one knew what happened to him.
“What happened to Floppy,” I asked her suddenly.
“Floppy?” Chloe said, confused. “Oh. You mean the wattle-head with the floppy crest? I added his tail to my collection.”
“I hate you,” I said.
I went to Black Momma and cried myself sick. When she asked me what was wrong, I told her, “The whole world.”
It was around lunchtime and the Woman was throwing scraps out to us to eat. My siblings and I scrambled to eat as much as we could before Red Momma stole it all for herself. Scraps were the best food; even better than golden corn and feed. It made me wonder why the Man and Woman did not eat it all themselves. Instead, the Woman spooned it out of a pot and let it fall on the ground for us to eat, plopping in a slushy, mushy mess. We ate it quickly, bobbing our heads up and down, stabbing at it with our beaks. My appetite was better now. I was still sad, but all of that crying had made me hungry.
After we ate the mush, we played. There were tiny brown toads scrambling in the clover, and we chased after them. They were smaller than crickets and more numerous than ants. Tidbit tried to eat one, but spat it out.
“Toads are gross!” said Tadbit, who had just spit one out also.
We were startled suddenly when a Banty Rooster came flying over our heads, crowing as he flew. We all ran beneath Black Momma. The Man came running after him, cursing and swiping with his net. He ran after the Banty, but the Banty was as fast on the ground as any sparrow in the air. I didn’t even think that Chloe could have caught him. He was like a brown blur through the greenery.
“What happened?” the Woman said.
“That darn Banty’s out of the pen!” the Man hollered back. He was as red in the face as a Rooster, and his brow was just as furrowed with rage. He was sweating all over his forehead and neck, as if caught in fresh-fallen rain.
“I thought you clipped his wings!” the Woman shouted, rushing to help him try to catch the rogue Rooster.
“I was going to until I forgot!”
Jack joined them in the chase, too, and the Banty led them all over the farm, from the Big Water’s edge to the barn and the tractor shed, to the wheatfield and the apple orchard and the garden. The Man and Woman were panting and raving. The Banty seemed to ricochet off of invisible walls, never running straight for long and sometimes flying low to the ground whenever any of his three pursuers came close to catching him. Several times the Man and the Woman nearly fell while changing direction, sliding on gravel and dirt and grass and moss.
“I’m gonna’ kill that bird when I get a hold of him!” the Man raged.
The Banty ran even faster. Just when the Man had his net within a chick’s hop of the Banty, the Banty flew into the woods. Jack went in after him, but the Banty perched himself atop a young sycamore tree. The short Dog could not reach him. The Banty crowed in triumph.
“What is a Man to me? I am king of all I see! See my ruby crown? I’m never coming down!”
The Man bubbled obscenities at the woods’ edge. He tried to enter the woods, but poked and scratched and tripped himself among the branches and roots and twigs.
“God bless it!” the Man yelled, followed by several cuss words. He cussed worse than a Gander with its feet stuck in pondweed. “You stupid clucker! Come down here!”
“Let him go for now,” the Woman said, breathless. “He’ll come out sooner or later.”
“I’m just so mad!” the Man said, clutching the net as if he might snap the handle.
“Which is why you need to go rest,” she said. “You’re going to have yourself a heart attack, getting all riled up like this. Or get heat stroke. It’s too hot to be running outside. Come in and get a nice glass of ice tea…”
“I don’t want tea!” the Man growled.
“Then a glass of lemonade…”
“It ain’t about a drink!” he snapped. “Or I might just have me a bourbon!”
The Woman folded her arms and gave him a look that reminded me of Black Momma’s look whenever Tidbit threatened to run away from home and become a Hawk. It was the look that said “No nonsense now or your crest will smart.”
The look must have worked because the Man reluctantly turned away from the woods and walked toward the house, following the Woman. “C’mon, Jack!” he called over his shoulder. “We’ll get him another day.”
Jack barked a few more times at the Banty, for good measure, and then followed the Man to the porch, laying down by the door as the Man and the Woman went inside. Just when the Man was about to close the door, the Banty crowed. The Man paused, scowling out into the woods with a glare so hot it could have fried an egg.
“That little clucker is mocking me,” he growled. He then slammed the door shut.
What the Man said was true: the Banty was mocking him. My siblings laughed to hear him, but Black Momma told us to hush and be mindful of the Man and the Woman. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel a lot of pride as the Banty crowed.
“What is Man to me?” he crowed, strutting on the tree branch. “I am free! I am free! What is Man but a wingless bird? He cannot fly, but drops like a turd!”
My siblings and I laughed a lot that day. The Banty crowed every other blink or so, happy to have an audience and happier still to be free. He said so many clever things. We couldn’t help but laugh and feel proud about being Chickens. Sandy laughed the loudest, and repeated whatever the Banty crowed. Only Black Momma did not laugh. She was oddly quiet. I wondered why, but I did not ask her. I was having too much fun listening to the Banty.
“What a great day! Huzzah! Hurrah! Hurray! Never again will you cut my wings. I am my own king among kings!”
We did not hear the Banty in the morning, so we just assumed that he flew away. When the Man let us out, we ate the feed he gave us and then we played in the yard. We flapped our wings and pretended we were able to fly. We strutted around with our heads held high and said our own funny things to mock the Man for not being able to catch us, even though we all knew he could.
I couldn’t wait until I had wings to fly with. I thought about how the Banty flew over us, and I thought about the butterflies I loved to watch, and how they flew everywhere, and I thought that would be a wonderful way to travel. It would mean freedom from the farm, and that was a dream come true.
The Man went to the Coop to let the Roosters and Mommas out into the Pen. The Woman was watering her flowers by the porch. The Man called to her from the Pen.
“Get the net!” he said. “He’s back!”
The Woman grabbed the net from the porch, where the Man had left it yesterday, and brought it to him.
“What is it?” she asked.
“That ornery clucker came back,” the Man said. “He must have been hiding in the corner last night when I came out here to shut the door. Thought he was being sneaky.”
I could hear the door to the barn slide open, creaking and grinding as it went.
“Close the door behind me,” the Man said. “Don’t let him escape.”
The door slid shut again, creaking and grinding. I could hear the Guinea Keets creak-screaming, and the Chickens squawking, and I could hear a great ruckus inside the barn, and the violent flapping of frantic wings, and the joyful cussing of the Man. Eventually, all became quiet.
“All right,” the Man said. “Open the door.”
The Woman slid the door open again and the Man emerged. He held the net out in front of him. Entangled in the net, upside-down, was the Banty that had flown to freedom the day before. We were all shocked.
“Why did he come back?” I asked.
“Because he knew no other home,” Black Momma said, sadly.
“Because Man made him want to come back,” Chloe said. She was crouched in the clover, her eyes glowing in the morning mists. Black Momma stepped in front of me, putting her bulk between me and Chloe. The Cat did not seem impressed. “That’s what Man does to you all. But not to me.”
“You stay, too, you uppity Cat,” said Black Momma.
“Sometimes,” Chloe said, rolling her eyes toward the field. “And sometimes I go traveling for days. I don’t need Man or Woman to live. I live fine on my own. I just like milk occasionally. That’s all.”
The Man brought the Banty to the porch. The Banty looked scared and was croaking miserably, his legs over his head inside the net. The Man fetched a milk crate while the Woman went inside the house.
Setting the long handle of the net on his lap, the Man reached in and grabbed the Banty by his legs. The Banty flapped furiously, but couldn’t get away.
“Come away, children,” Black Momma said. “Never you mind that. Look over to that apple tree.”
But we didn’t move. We stood transfixed, unable to look away.
“He’ll escape,” Sandy said. “He’s playing a trick on them. Any moment he’ll fly away.”
“Don’t hope for what won’t be, child,” Black Momma said. “It only makes life that much harder.”
The Woman came out of the house. Something gleamed in her hands. It had a long silver beak and two little looped wings.
“Hope those scissors’re sharp enough,” the Man said.
“Should be,” the Woman said. “I sharpened them just the other day.”
With one hand the Man held the Banty’s legs and with the other hand he clasped one of the Rooster’s flapping wings, spreading it out as wide as the wing would spread.
“Cut ‘em,” the Man said.
The Woman opened the beak of the thing the Man called “scissors” and let them bite the Banty’s wing, cutting the longest feathers. Tidbit and Tadbit cheeped in horror.
“That’s horrible!” I said.
Red Momma scoffed. “It’s what he deserves for being so uppity yesterday and raising such a ruckus. It’ll happen to all of you someday since you’re nothing but misbehav—”
“Hush your beak!” Black Momma said, her words cutting Red Momma off as sharply as any scissors. “Keep it shut or I’ll show you how to keep it shut.”
The Banty glanced around fearfully, searching for help. When he saw us, his eyes seemed to focus on us— on me— and he saw the hope that we all felt; the hope that he would somehow escape and prove himself to be the hero we all thought he was. Seeing our hope, he must have believed it. A bright gleam bloomed in his eye, and I felt my hope bloom with it. Flapping his wings madly, he swung himself up, head toward his feet, and bit at the Man’s hand with his sharp beak.
“Ow!” the Man cried, nearly dropping the frenzied Banty.
Sandy jumped in joy, and so did Tadbit and Tidbit and all of my brothers and sisters. But I gasped. I cowered. Black Momma often snapped at the Man’s fingers, but she never drew blood. I could see the rage in the Man’s eyes. A small gash gaped redly at the joint of his thumb and began trickling blood. Blood called to blood and the Man lost his temper. Cussing, he gripped the Banty by the chest with his other hand, clutching the bird firmly. His face became red— as red as it was yesterday when he was chasing the Rooster— and before the Woman could ask him what had happened he struck the Banty against the ground, headfirst.
It was not a hard strike— even I could see that it was not hard— and the Man did it only once. But the Banty hit the ground all wrong with his head, and his neck bent strangely to the side. I heard something crack and then the Banty went limp. He tried to squawk, but he couldn’t; he choked on it.
“God bless it!” the Man cussed. “I went and broke his neck!”
“Why’d you do that for?!” the Woman cried.
“Let my temper get the better of me,” the Man said, standing and sighing.
The Man laid the Banty on the ground. For the briefest moment I thought the little Rooster would hop up and run to the woods again, having fooled the Man and the Woman so he could flee again to freedom and sing his funny songs all day long while my brothers and sisters and I laughed. But I was only fooling myself. The Banty lay among the clover, blinking and twitching and unable to stand. He made an awful croaking noise.
“Heeeeelllllp me…” he croaked.
That was when Black Momma stood in front of us and rushed us away toward the apple tree.
“Come away, children,” she said. “Oh please just come away!”
As she rushed us away, I glanced back and saw the Man retrieving his ax from the stump near the barn. The sun was at his back and he was a dark shadow at the distance, his face unrecognizable. A few moments later I heard the dull stab of the blade into clover and clay. The croaking ceased unto a sharp silence.
I saw a butterfly toward twilight, and it flew so high that not even the ax of the Man could have touched it. It made me yearn for the day when I would be able to fly. I wanted to escape this farm; to escape the Man and the Woman and Fang and Chloe.
“I wouldn’t have let them clip my feathers, either,” said Sandy. “I would have bit the Man in the eye.”
“Shush yourself, girl,” Black Momma said. “Don’t talk on it and don’t think on it.”
“I’m not afraid of the Man or the Woman,” Sandy said, defiantly. She puffed herself up and danced around. “I could have them running for the woods if I wanted. Right?!” she said, waiting for us to cheer her on like we cheered on the Banty.
None of us believed her, and I doubt she believed herself. In the ensuing silence she became cantankerous and pecked at an apple, pretending it was the Man’s eye. I wandered around the yard to get my feet moving so my thoughts wouldn’t have anything to settle on for long. The sound of the ax echoed in my head.
I saw Red Momma nesting in the Woman’s flowers. We all knew we weren’t supposed to do that.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” I told her. “You’ll get in trouble.”
“Don’t presume to tell me what to do, you little brat,” Red Momma said. “I will nest where I please, and you will do good to keep your beak shut.”
Sure enough, the Woman came running out of the house with the Broom in hand, swatting Red Momma out of her flowers with a few whacks to her tailfeathers. Her chicks went scattering and Red Momma squawked like she was having her talons pulled.
“Savage!” Red Momma squawked. “Brute! Thief! Thief! That nest belongs to me!”
But for every squawk of outrage the Woman just gave Red Momma another smack with the Broom.
The evening darkened and the Man became impatient, shooing us toward our cage. We ran, willingly, and went inside. Sandy went, too, despite her defiant words earlier. She did attempt to run around to the side of the Man, but his boot almost stepped on her and she rethought that idea on the instant.
The cage beside ours was empty.
“Now where is that red hen at?” the Man said, latching our cage. He went walking around the house, searching for Red Momma and her chicks. As he left, we saw them running across the yard. Red Momma looked around for the Man, then hurried over.
“I will not be thrown in a cage anymore,” she vowed. “I will not let anyone tell me what I have to do anymore. My babies and I will sleep wherever I please.”
“Come now,” said Black Momma. “You don’t want to be out tonight. Things go roaming at night. There are too many dangers, and too few safe places.”
“I’ll do as I please,” snapped Red Momma. “I know what’s best for my chicks, and it is not some wire cage that hurts my rump. We will sleep in the flower bed tonight, and neither the Man nor the Woman will have it any different.”
She then hurried her chicks behind the shed, near the woods, and hunkered down. The Man returned, looking puzzled.
“Where did that bird-brain go?” he muttered. He took another lap around the house, and even went to the barn. The last embers of the day burned out and he returned, looking aggravated.
“Dumb bird can get herself killed for all I care,” he said. “I’m just glad all of you have some sense of what’s good for you.”
The Man closed the door, locked it, and left. My siblings fell asleep fast, but I couldn’t sleep. I was worried about Red Momma’s three chicks.
There was a time when Red Momma had almost as many chicks as Black Momma. There were at least ten of them. But over time most of them disappeared. Black Momma said they were fated to be not long in this world. I believed that they died because they couldn’t eat enough and because of the way Red Momma pecked at them. In my opinion, she had no business being a Momma at all. And now I feared for her last three chicks.
I did not fall asleep that night. I heard scurrying in the darkness beyond the shed, and then I heard squawking. Red Momma’s screams woke up my siblings and we all huddled closer to Black Momma.
“Do not listen to it, children,” Black Momma said. “Think on something else. Dream of something else. Dream of golden feed from horizon to horizon.”
I tried to do as Black Momma told me, but all I could hear was the scurrying of things in the dark, and Red Momma’s screaming and the flapping of her wings as she ran around, trying to get back into the shed. I also heard the cries of her chicks, all three left behind. And then I heard the worst thing of all: nothing.
The next morning we reluctantly left the cage and went foraging around the house. I could see where Red Momma had nested in the flower bed. The yellow and pink flowers were flattened and pushed apart where her fat butt had been laying. Here and there I also saw little puffs of feathers, tumbling in the morning breeze. I called out for her chicks, but none of them answered.
“Come, girl,” Black Momma said, putting her wing over me. “The Man is bringing feed and you got to eat to grow up big and strong and wise.”
I nodded and went with Black Momma. The Man made it rain golden corn, but all I could think of was last night. The sounds, and the silence, haunted me. Part of me kept thinking that I would hear a little chirp from one of Red Momma’s chicks. Yet, the silence crowed louder than anything else on the farm.
Chloe was laying in the clover while my siblings ate beneath the apple tree. I approached her cautiously, but determinedly. I was too upset to be scared.
“Did you eat Red Momma’s babies?” I asked her.
Chloe rolled lazily over, opening one eye at me. She was always languid after eating a big meal. “Why would I waste my time? Might as well eat beetles. They have more meat on them. And they’re more fun to catch.”
“What happened to them, then?”
“Don’t know,” she said, closing her eye.
“Do you know what took them?” I asked.
She opened one eye again, but only a little; just enough that I could have pecked between her eyelids if I wanted to. “All kinds of things.”
Her eye closed and she fell asleep. I watched her orange-and-cream stomach rise and fall, wondering if the chicks were in there. But I knew Chloe was not a liar; she was cruel and mean and heartless and selfish, but she did not lie.
Only later did I find out how much of a liar she was.
It was as the yolk of the sun broke over the trees that Red Momma returned. She brushed aside my siblings and ate all of the corn she could. I thought she would choke, and I hoped that she would. But she didn’t. She looked half-wild, and ruffled, and was missing her tailfeathers. She eyed us all as she ate, and I could see a baleful resentment in her face. She hated us. She hated us for being alive while her chicks were dead.
Black Momma told us to go to the other side of the yard. But before we could get far, Red Momma moved in front of us, waddling as if she were trying to pop out a giant egg and couldn’t. She stood there, twitching and turning her head this way and that, as if she feared something might leap out of the early morning shadows and attack her.
“Don’t you take my babies,” she squawked at Black Momma. “They’re my babies.”
“These are not yours,” Black Momma said, slowly and reasonably. She held her wings out to her sides. “Yours ain’t here.”
“They are mine,” Red Momma said. “All of the babies. Not yours. Mine.”
“You need to go sleep for a while,” Black Momma said. “You’re not thinking straight.”
“You’re not going to get my babies killed,” Red Momma said, clawing at the ground angrily. “You’re a terrible mother! Just because your babies were killed doesn’t mean you can take mine!”
“Red,” Black Momma said slowly, “you need to calm yourself down. Go get yourself some rest and you’ll be in your right head…”
“Liar!” Red Momma screamed. “Liar! Liar! Liar! Give me my babies!”
I was scared. My siblings were scared. Black Momma was scared, too, and that frightened me more than Red Momma. I could see it in Black Momma’s eyes, and the way she held her wings up to shield us. She was afraid Red Momma was going to take us away.
“My babies are the most beautiful,” Red Momma said, her head reeling aimlessly. “They are the smartest. They are the best behaved. That is because their Momma is the best Momma. You love your Momma, don’t you? Don’t you?!!!”
She stepped forward, toward us, and my siblings and I shrank away, clustering behind Black Momma.
“Why are you afraid?” Red Momma said. “I am your Momma. I won’t let anything happen to you. You are my life.”
She stepped closer again, but Black Momma shielded us, pushing her chest against Red Momma. Red Momma looked at her, and shivered all over with rage. I thought they were going to fight, and I was afraid for Black Momma. I didn’t want her to get hurt.
“Leave them alone,” Black Momma said.
“They are my babies!” Red Momma squawked. “Yours are dead. They deserved to die because they were brats. Mine are alive. Mine are the best babies because I’m the best Momma. I’m the best Momma!”
Black Momma and Red Momm ducked down, beak to beak, as Sandy would sometimes do with Checkers for play. But I knew this wasn’t play. This was serious. They were going to fight for real, not for fun. I couldn’t let them. I had to do something!
“I’m sorry for what happened to your babies!” I cried. “I’m so sorry!”
Red Momma looked at me, then. Her eyes were wide and black and empty. That emptiness scared me, like a black hole squirming with nameless things.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “for what happened to Peep and Puff and Fluff and Downy…”
There came a light of recognition into those dimly pitted pupils.
“For Dots and Spots, “I said, “and Itty and Bitty. I’m sorry for what happened to all of your babies.”
“My babies?” she said. “My…my babies…”
Suddenly, the crazy went out of her. She seemed to deflate and sag, as if she had a whole Coop full of chicks on her back, their dead weight heavy and burdensome.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, my eyes burning. “I know you didn’t mean for it to happen. It was just…just an accident. They were all accidents.”
Red Momma trembled. She shook so hard I thought she would shake all of her feathers out. I feared she would attack me. Instead, she turned, with a tremulous squawk, and bolted toward the woods, crying out. She disappeared into the dark shadows and the murky, crowded underbrush. A choking wail echoed after her. We never saw or heard from her again. I tried to run after her, but Black Momma held me back with her wing.
“Let her go,” she said. “Let all memory of her and hers go.”
Sometimes I could hear the Bullfrogs at night, croaking their songs. I always wondered why they sang so loudly, but would leap into the water whenever we passed by them. Did they fear us more than Fang? That didn’t make sense. I asked Black Momma about them.
“Bullfrogs are full of bull,”she said. “That’s why they call them ‘Bullfrogs’. They’re afraid of everything, but are always puffing themselves up, trying to make themselves look bigger than they are. They are always croaking loudly, but then go yeeping into the water at the slightest sound. You can’t trust what a Bullfrog says. It’s bound to be lies.”
I still wanted to know more about Bullfrogs, and Fang, so I went to Jack and asked him what he knew about Bullfrogs.
“I catch them sometimes,” Jack said. He had a little pink bow crowning his head and another one wrapped around his tail. He was very proud of them. “Bullfrogs taste awful, like Toads, so I just catch them for fun.”
Chloe was sitting nearby, waiting next to her empty bowl. She was in a peevish mood since the Woman had not brought the milk yet. She scoffed at Jack. “Sometimes you catch them,” she said. “A lot of the time you just fall in the water.”
“I do not,” Jack said, growling and baring his teeth. He looked less menacing with the pink bows on his head and tail. “Watch what you say or I’ll catch you and throw you in the water.”
“Could you catch some of the Bullfrogs for me?” I asked him. “I need to talk to them.”
Jack turned his nose up at Chloe. “Sounds like fun,” he said, turning to me. “I just hope I don’t get too dirty. Master has given me a bath once already today.”
“I give myself my own baths,” Chloe said, haughtily.
Jack and I ignored her.
We walked down to the Big Water and circled slowly around it, hunting for Bullfrogs. Even in the middle of the day you could hear the Bullfrogs singing. Their throaty songs vibrated in my ears. I looked out upon the Big Water and wondered where Fang was right now. He could have been anywhere. Yet, even while I knew that the danger of him lurked everywhere, I could not deny that the Big Water was as beautiful as it was frightening. Dragonflies flitted across its shimmering surface, their iridescent bodies flashing as they hunted mosquitoes among the reeds or clasped each other in strange, acrobatic couplings. Occasionally a Catfish leapt out of the water, swallowing whatever flew above its flat, whiskered head before plunging back in. The splash it made upon the breaking surface seemed to be as loud as lightning cracking the sky. I knew that a Catfish could have eaten me in one gulp. It almost seemed silly that I was so concerned with Fang when there were dozens of other things around the farm that could have easily killed and eaten me or my siblings. But Fang was the one that killed Checkers. It could have easily been a Catfish or a Raccoon or a Hawk, but it was Fang. Fang was who I hated.
I followed Jack, and Chloe followed me. She came along because she said she was in need of a good laugh. I felt a little nervous with her walking behind me. I knew she was staring at me with her glowing eyes, and was probably hungry, or bored. She needed little for an excuse to pounce on me and eat me. As she often said, hunting was something she did as much for fun as for need.
Suddenly, Jack darted forward stabbing his snout into a wall of cattails. There was a loud plop in the Big Water and I could see ripples spreading where the Bullfrog had dived in. Jack pulled his head out of the weeds, looking scornful. Chloe was laughing.
“Shut up, Chloe,” Jack said.
“Sorry, Jack,” Chloe said, sounding as if she was not sorry at all. “It’s not your fault you’re not a proper dog.”
“What do you mean by that?” he demanded.
“You don’t have a tail,” she said. “The man lobbed it off when you were a puppy.”
Jack glanced behind him, looking at his tailless rump. “Dogs don’t have tails,” he said.
“Yes they do,” Chloe said. “Unlike you, I have spent days walking to other farms and have seen many dogs. All of them have tails, and all of them are good hunters…for dogs, anyway. Not as good as us Cats, but better than you.”
“I don’t believe you,” Jack said. “Why would Master cut off my tail?”
“Because he is jealous of our tails,” she said. “Because he doesn’t have one. Our tails have power. That’s why he took your tail and made you a gleefully ignorant idiot who is dedicated to him no matter how many times he kicks you or throws water on you.”
“Master doesn’t kick me or throw water on me,” Jack said. “He does that to you.”
Chloe rubbed up against Jack, her tail brushing his snout mockingly.
“That doesn’t change the fact that you are a terrible hunter,” she said. “And that he cut your tail off to make you a terrible hunter. And to show that he owns you.”
“I think you look fine without a tail, Jack,” I said. “And I think you are a great hunter.”
Jack was so happy with me that he licked me. His tongue was wet and hot, but I didn’t mind. It made me laugh. Chloe just rolled her eyes.
“A dog has to have a tail to be a real hunting dog,” she said. “That’s because a real hunting dog is all backward. It’s tail leads it around. True hunting dogs have their tails high in the air so a man can tell where he is while he scares prey out of a field. That’s also why real dogs chase their tails— their tails are leading them around in circles, teaching them how to hunt.”
“I’ve never chased my tail,” Jack said.
“Because you don’t have one!” Chloe said. “Because you’re not a real hunting dog!”
Jack moved on, walking with determination along the water’s edge, looking for the next Bullfrog.
“I’ll catch the next one,” he said with determination. “I’ll catch it and prove you wrong.”
The next Bullfrog was beneath the old willow, behind its low-hanging veil. Jack sprang forward and shot like a Sparrow through the willow’s tendrils into a mass of pondweed at the edge of the Big Water. His whole body dove in, as if he was going swimming. When he emerged— black mud clinging to his legs— he had a big, fat, green-backed, white-bellied Bullfrog in his mouth. He trotted about proudly for some time. If he had had a tail, it would have been wagging happily then. Chloe turned away from him, indifferently cleaning herself as if she had been muddied by simply being near Jack.
“Good job, Jack!” I exclaimed.
Jack was very pleased with himself. He kept trotting about; so much so that I was afraid he was never going to stop his one-dog parade. But the taste of the Bullfrog eventually became unbearable and he spat it out, pinning it under his paw.
The Bullfrog was on his back, his white belly up and bulging under Jack’s paw. I walked over to him and tried to be courteous as I spoke to him, especially since I was inconveniencing him. Black Momma always told us to be courteous..
“Hello, Mr. Bullfrog,” I said. “How are you today?”
“I am the best today,” the Bullfrog said, his jumping-legs kicking helplessly. “I have the best days. Beautiful days. No one has better days than me.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. Truthfully, I was dismayed to hear that. Why would today be a good day when he had been caught and was now being pressed down into the mud? “I was wondering if you could answer my questions.”
“I can answer everyone’s questions,” he said in his deep, guttural voice. “I know everything about everything, just like I know everybody and everything about everybody. I am the knowingest Bullfrog in the world.”
“Okay,” I said. “Then what do you know about Fang?”
“Fang’s afraid of me,” the Bullfrog said. “More afraid of me than anybody. Everyone’s afraid of me. I am the biggest, strongest, smartest animal in the whole world.”
I looked at Jack, and Jack’s ears shrugged.
“Do I look afraid of you?” Jack asked.
“Very afraid,” said the Bullfrog, barely able to croak under Jack’s paw. “You are shivering in your fur. Your bones are rattling because you are trembling from terror.”
I turned away, feeling hopeless. “Everything he says is a lie.”
“That’s why they call them Bullfrogs,” Jack said.
“What is Fang?” I asked the Bullfrog, trying to make him focus. “Can he be killed? Where can I find him? Does he sleep?”
The Bullfrog did not answer my questions. He only continued to extol his own merits. He tried to puff up under Jack’s paw, but it just made it more difficult for him to talk, and breathe. “Fang fears me. Everybody fears me. Except the ladies, of course. The ladies love me. They heap themselves on me, fighting for my love. I am the most beloved Bullfrog in the world…”
Chloe was sharpening her claws on the trunk of a tree, stretching her back and hooking the bark. When she had finished, she sauntered lazily past us.
“Bullfrogs are no good for anything,” she said. “They taste terrible. They talk about themselves incessantly. They live on the land and in the water. They are totally misbegotten creatures. At least fish stay to one side of the reeds, and taste good.”
I sighed. “Maybe another Bullfrog will answer my questions.”
“Doubtful,” Chloe remarked.
“I have to try,” I said.
Jack let the Bullfrog go. The Bullfrog flipped over onto his webbed hands and feet and, in a long arc, leapt into the water. We went to find another Bullfrog. The one we had just let go returned to the reeds shortly after we had left and croaked his song, singing about how afraid we were of him, and how grand he was, and how everything in the world wished it was him. Hearing him lie, I wished that Bullfrogs were tasty. Maybe there would be less of them in the world. But I guess they were just too hard to stomach.
Jack caught other Bullfrogs, though he missed a few, too. The Bullfrogs he caught told us no more than the first had. All they did was croak about how they were the strongest and biggest and smartest animals in the world, even while they sank into the mud beneath Jack’s paws. I became tired and discouraged, so we returned to the yard. Jack had muddy water all over his legs and belly. When the Woman saw this, she berated him.
“Bad dog!” she said. “Now I’ll have to give you another bath!”
She picked him up and carried him inside. Dangling from her outstretched arms, Jack had the most pitiful look on his face. I wanted to apologize to him for getting him in trouble, but I was already being scolded by Black Momma. She was so angry I thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head.
“Where have you been?” she demanded.
“I was talking to Bullfrogs,” I said, staring down at my feet in shame.
“I told you to stay away from the Big Water,” she said. Her voice was sharper than her beak. “I told you. So why did you disobey me, girl?”
“Sorry, Momma,” I said. “I had Jack with me.”
“And I saw that Cat with you, too,” she said, her dark feathers ruffling with fury. “You can’t trust a Cat, girl. They’ll snatch you up and gobble you down in one gulp! Mark my words.”
“But Jack was there…” I said, trying to defend myself.
“And you think a Cat cares about what a runty little Dog might do? A Cat is instinct, and that instinct is to kill littler things than itself. It wouldn’t matter if the Man was with you. The Cat will eat you, and if she gets a boot to the gut it won’t matter because it will already be too late for you!”
“I understand, Momma,” I said.
That evening I stayed by Black Momma until it was time to go to bed. I saw many Butterflies around the yard, all flapping their wings happily, but it did not cheer me up. I had disobeyed Black Momma, and I had nothing to show for it. I knew no more about Fang than I did before. Worse, I had gotten Jack in trouble. He was locked inside the house because I asked him to help me. He had gotten another bath because I had asked him to catch the Bullfrogs. Now he was looking out of the door’s window, his hair wet and disheveled and his brown eyes big and melancholy beneath his thick, overhanging eyebrows. Chloe, being a Cat, stood by the window and cleaned herself. She acted like she didn’t see him, but I knew she was mocking him for being stuck inside. It made me angry. If I hadn’t been afraid of disobeying Black Momma again, I would have marched up there and pecked her on her pretentious pink nose.
Or so I told myself.
“I do not need to know any of your names,” Chloe said. “That is the foolishness of the man: giving creatures names. If you name it, you give it some of your love. How can man eat what he has given a name? That is a fool’s trap. Folly’s preoccupation. I do not name, nor do I want to know the names given by others. I know my name is Chloe, and I know that I am a Cat. That is all.”
“You know Jack’s name,” I said.
Chloe regarded me impassively, betraying no emotions whatsoever in her face. Her tail twitched irritably, though, and I feared I had doomed myself.
“Jack is a dog,” Chloe said after some time. “And I do not eat dogs. They probably taste as bad as they smell. That said, I feel no attachment to him, either. He is as apart from me as the milk in the night sky and the milk in my my bowl.”
“Why do you rub against Jack if you don’t love him?” I asked.
“To show that he is mine,” she said. “Like everything on the farm. That’s why I rub against the man and the woman. They are mine. They do what I say. When I meow, they pet me. When I meow, they give me milk. All and everything is mine.”
Chloe was laying among the clover, her tail twitching as she watched us eat and play. She had an irritated look on her face, and she seemed restless. When a Grasshopper sprang up from the clover, Chloe sprang into the air, too, smashing the grasshopper down with her outstretched paw. She ate it with a soured look on her face, shaking her head now and again as if upset. I knew, then, that Chloe did not like the taste of Grasshoppers.
“Why do you eat it if you don’t like it?” I asked.
“Because I am compelled to,” she said. She spat out most of it, and the rest of it she swallowed with a shiver quivering throughout her cream-and-orange body. “Why do you stay here when you fear the Man and the Woman?”
“Because Black Momma is here,” I said, “and my siblings. It is my home.”
“No,” Chloe said. “Because you are compelled to.”
Clouds floated in the sky, huge and shaped like fluffy nests full of chicks. There was no wind blowing, and the stagnant air was so hot that it felt like a fat-butt Momma was sitting on me. It was hard to breathe. Chloe was angry because she couldn’t go hunting in the wheatfield. The Man was over there, driving the Harvester to cut down the crop. Jack was out there, too, running around and barking in excitement at all of the Rabbits and the Chipmunks that were scattering out of the way of the Harvester. Every once in a while I could hear the Man yelling at Jack, telling him to “Get home!” But Jack wasn’t listening. He was having too much fun.
“That stupid dog,” Chloe remarked. “He is giving me a headache.” She laid down, her chin resting on her forepaws. She yawned, spreading her mouth wide. I saw her tongue, strained in the air, and I saw her teeth, each bright white tip as sharper than a Rooster’s spur. “Only a matter of time,” she said, “before he gets chopped up into fertilizer.”
“Don’t say that!” I said.
“It’s true,” she said, opening her eyes only slightly. “That overexcited idiot will trip in a rut, or run without paying attention to where he is going, and will find himself chopped up, ground down, and spat out by those tires and blades.”
“Stop it!” I cried. “That’s too horrible to think of!”
“No, it’s not,” she said. “You just thought of it now as I was saying it.”
Her smile was so toothy that it could have sawed wood.
Black Momma stepped between us, then, puffed up and angry. Her tone was cold and direct. “Leave her alone, Cat,” she said. “I don’t want you talking to her and putting ideas into her head.”
Chloe’s smile curdled into a smirk. “So you’re more afraid of my ideas than of me eating her? Says a lot about your view of the world, doesn’t it?”
Black Momma dug her talons in to the dirt, raking it angrily. “Just leave her alone. Don’t talk to her. Don’t follow her.”
“Are you going to give Jack the same warning?” Chloe asked. “Dogs eat Chickens, too. Worse, they can give them ideas. Dangerous ideas. Like trusting the Man and the Woman. Like thinking that all of you are equal on this farm. Like you are all part of a ‘pack’.”
“We are all part of the same Pact,” Tidbit said, defiantly.
“Not Pact,” Tadbit said. “It’s Pack.”
“You’re both wrong,” Chloe said, silencing the twins with a flash of her teeth. “There is no such thing as a pack between animals, including man and woman. There is only eat and be eaten.”
“Enough!” Black Momma said. “I don’t want you saying no more! You will keep silent about it, now. You hear me, Cat? You keep silent around my chicks from now on!”
Chloe smirked. “I keep myself silent around all of my prey.” She turned her tail to us and started to saunter away. “That’s why they don’t know I’m there until it’s too late.”
Black Momma was on Chloe’s back in a blinding instant. She dug her talons into the Cat’s back, hanging on tightly as she pecked at the top of the Cat’s head like a stubborn Woodpecker on an old oak tree.
Chloe ran about the yard like a wild thing, yowling. Her orange-and-cream body whip-dashed in a zig-zag chaos as Black Momma’s bulk clung on, spurring Chloe faster along her frenetic sprint. All of the chicks huddled together instinctively, except for me. I was too shocked to move. My feelings were contradictory. I rejoiced in Black Momma’s attack, wanting to cheer her on, and yet I also felt afraid for her safety. There was a third feeling, too. It was guilt. I felt like it was all my fault; that this fight came about because I did not listen to her, and would not stop listening to Chloe.
The Woman came running out of the house with the Broom. Seeing her running at Black Momma and Chloe made my heart stop. What had I done? The Woman swatted Black Momma off of Chloe, and then swatted Chloe when she sprang toward Black Momma with her claws out.
“What on earth is wrong with you two?!” the Woman yelled. “Get yourself over there, and you get yourself over there!” She swept Chloe toward the porch, and Black Momma retreated to the apple tree.
My siblings and I ran to Black Momma to make sure she was not hurt. She was still ruffled, and had some of Chloe’s hair in her beak, but she spat that out and then laid down. We huddled around her, cuddling with her for fear she might go mad like Red Momma and disappear into the woods.
“Don’t trust Cats,” she said, her body expanding and contracting with her labored breath. “Don’t ever trust Cats.”
Chloe was on the porch, sulking. She scowled at Black Momma with hatred in her yellow, slitted eyes. Seeing the hate in her eyes, I worried that she would spring from the porch at any moment and come running after Black Momma, ready to bite her with her sharp white teeth.
Suddenly, I noticed something else that was wrong. At first I didn’t know what it was. It was hard to concentrate on it after all the harrowing excitement. As I listened I realized that there was something missing in the noises of the farm. The Harvester was not running, and I couldn’t hear Jack barking. I strained to listen for them, but the field was silent.
The Woman must have noticed it, too, because she muttered to herself. “Did that rusty piece of junk break down again?”
It was very quiet, except for the crowing of the Roosters in the Pen. As I strained to hear, I realized that one of the sounds I thought was a Rooster crowing was something else. It sounded like sad whimpering.
The Man was walking toward the house from the field. He was carrying something in his arms; something coppery and silvery and black and red. I could hear Jack whimper some more, and I knew something bad happened to him.
“What happened?!” cried the Woman, rushing forward
“He ran under one of the wheels,” the Man said. “He’s still alive, but his backlegs aren’t working. We got to get him to town.”
The Woman started crying, which made Jack whimper more loudly.
“Get a hold of yourself,” said the Man. “There’s no good in that. We’ll just get him to the Vet and he’ll be all right.”
But I could see how pale and sweaty the Man was, and I could see how his upper lip trembled as he spoke. He didn’t believe what he was saying. He handed Jack over to the Woman, then went inside to get his keys. Chloe came down from the porch and meowed up at the Woman. I thought she was jealous of all of the attention they were giving to poor Jack, and that made me hate her.
“Not now, Chloe!” the Woman shrieked.
The Man came out of the house with the keys jangling and he and the Woman got into the Truck. They drove off, fast as a Fox on the run from the Coop.
“Is Jack going to be okay?” I asked Black Momma.
“Don’t know, girl,” she said, sadly. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“I hope he’s okay,” said Tadbit. “He’s my favorite Non-Chicken.”
“That’s right,” said Tidbit. “The best Non-Chicken.”
“Don’t you think on it,” Black Momma said. “Don’t none of you think on it. What will be, will be.”
But despite Black Momma’s admonishments, my brothers and sisters talked about nothing but Jack. They talked about the way he would chase Squirrels, and how he would guard the chicks against Chloe, and the times he warned the Man about the Foxes in the yard that were trying to dig into the shed at night. Only I was quiet. I watched Chloe as she walked over to the porch and laid back down. I could not read her face. She looked neither pleased nor saddened. Her smirk was gone, but replacing it was nothing.
The Man and Woman did not arrive home until later, just before sundown. They did not have Jack with them, and that scared me. Chloe came running up to them and rubbed against the Woman’s leg.
“Oh Chloe,” said the Woman, “are you worried about your brother?” She bent down and picked Chloe up, stroking her with her hand. “Are you worried about your brother, Chloe?” She set Chloe down. The Man and Woman then walked to the house The Woman looked at the porch where Jack usually sat and I could see tears in her eyes as she went inside.
Tidbit frowned, her little brown head twisting this way and that to look to each of us for answers. “Chloe has a brother?”
“She’s talking about Jack,” Sandy snapped. “Don’t be a stupid clucker.”
“Watch your language!” Black Momma said. “Don’t you ever say that around me or any of your brothers and sisters again.
Sandy wobbled her head with sass.
“But Jack is a Dog and Chloe is a Cat,” Tidbit said. “How can they be brother and sister?”
“The Man and the Woman are both stupid,” Sandy said. “That’s why they believe Chloe and Jack are brother and sister. They probably think all of us are brothers and sisters.”
“But we are,” Tidbit said, confused.
“That’s right,” said Tadbit. “Some of us are even twins.”
“They don’t just mean Chickens, you idiots,” Sandy retorted. “All of the animals together. The Squirrels and the Cows and the Chickens and the Dog and the Cat. They think all of us are part of the same family. And they probably think they’re the real Mommas here.” Sandy shook her light brown feathers. “But they killed the Banty, didn’t they? No Momma would do that. Right, Momma?”
“Hush yourself, girl,” Black Momma said. “It ain’t the time and place to be talking about that. Just get yourselves into the cage. The Man will be closing the shed soon.”
We all followed Black Momma to the shed. I looked for Chloe on the porch as we passed by, but she wasn’t there. I thought I saw her tail out in the field, where the Harvester still sat. Half of the wheat was cut down and the other half was still standing. Chloe disappeared into the billowing stalks.
The moon hung low through the window of the shed. It was full and round and white like Chloe’s bowl of milk. Its glow brightened the cage and I could see my brothers and sisters sleeping, their little bodies tinted blue by the shadows that the moonlight could not wash away. I was drowsy and felt like I was still dreaming. Then I heard rustling outside the shed and rose to my feet. I listened.
It sounded like something big walking around outside. From the back of the shed it moved around to the front. Then it scratched at the door. The door moved, slightly, and I stood as still as I could, watching. The door then rattled, and rattled again, but would not open. Whatever it was, it banged against the door. My siblings woke up, chirping frantically.
“Hush, children,” Black Momma whispered. “Hush now!”
But it was too late. The thing outside the door knew we were there, and it wanted to get to us. It walked around the shed again, its body brushing against the shed walls as it prowled, hurried by the excitement of knowing where we were.
“Don’t worry, children,” Black Momma whispered. “It can’t get in here. Not past the shed or the cage. We don’t have anything to fear.”
“And even if it could get in the shed,” said Sandy loudly, “I’ll make it regret trying to get into the cage. I’ll stand watch tonight. Nothing will get past me.”
“Hush, girl, and come away from the walls of the cage.”
“What is it, Momma?” Tidbit asked, trembling.
“I don’t know girl,” Black Momma said, “which is why you got to do as I say and come close to your Momma. Always stay close to your Momma.”
We all huddled around Black Momma in the center of the cage; all of us except Sandy. She walked around us, her sharp eye searching every square in the metal netting for any sign of an intruder. I fell asleep shortly thereafter, Tidbit and Tadbit snuggling around me for warmth.
I woke once more that night. I thought it was a dream, but later I came to find that it was real. I blinked into the moonlight and saw Sandy patrolling the cage walls. The moon was suddenly blackened by a big bulky shape that was climbing up the window. I told myself I was dreaming. I was about to close my eyes when I saw the shadow stretch its hands on the windowpane. Its hands looked like the Man’s hands, but smaller and hairier and blacker. I was afraid, but I told myself it was a dream and that I should go back to sleep. Closing my eyes, I rested my head on Tadbit’s back. I thought I heard the window slide open, but I told myself it was just the wind.
I dreamed of Checkers that night. I dreamed of others, too. I saw Checkers and the Banty Rooster and Red Momma and all of her chicks, and the seven goslings. They told me to wake up. They kept telling me, “You have to wake up!”
But I didn’t want to wake up. I was too scared.
The next morning Sandy was laying near the cage wall. I thought she had fallen asleep. It was natural for her to have fallen asleep. She had vowed to stay up all night and protect us, and so she would have been exhausted in the morning.
But then I saw something tumbling around in a breeze. There should have been no wind in the shed. It never blew there, and yet a breeze was rolling something wispy across the cage floor. I looked at the window and saw that it was open. I remembered the small hands pressed against the glass; the hands I thought I had dreamt.
I rushed over to Sandy’s body while more wispy things blew toward me. They were her feathers, I realized, as the sun shone through the window, nearly blinding me. Her feathers were strewn everywhere. And the cage wires near her were bent inward. The metal wires were not broken or torn open or disentangled; they were simply bent inward as if something strong had struck at them. There were feathers on the bent wire, and they were brown, like Sandy’s feathers.
“Sandy?” I said. “Sandy, wake up.”
She looked like she was sleeping. More feathers rolled across the cardboard floor of the cage. A breeze was blowing through the open window.
Scared, I nudged Sandy with my beak, expecting her to hop up in a foul mood and peck me half to death. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t even move. Her leg was twisted all wrong and covered in cuts.
I was horrified. I let out a choked chirp and shivered all over. I never liked Sandy— she was a bully, and she was mean, and she was like Chloe in so many ways— but I never wanted her to be hurt. My head was filled with crowding questions that would not be silenced. How did this happen? What hurt her? What should I do? What will Black Momma and my siblings do when they see what has happened?
Walking past Sandy, I peered through the wires that were still flat beside the mangled ones. Looking over the edge of the shelf, I saw two black eyes staring up at me from a black-masked face. For a moment I just stared. Then the face sprang up at me, its mouth opening with blood-tipped teeth. I fell back just in time to avoid its grasping little hands that plunged through the wire, clutching onto my tailfeathers. I felt what seemed to be a hundred sharp little stings on my rump as my feathers were plucked free, allowing me to escape the gnashing mouth that waited on the other side of the cage.
The Raccoon bent the cage with its snout, snarling and slavering and pushing into the wire, forcing his way toward me. I retreated, shoving Sandy’s limp body with my head. I pushed her until she was beneath Black Momma, who was by now wide awake. Everyone was wide awake, and screamed as the frenzied Raccoon gnarled the cage wall, reshaping it with every snarl and bite and rake of his teeth.
“Stay close to me, children!” Black Momma screamed, covering us with her wings. “Stay close to Momma!”
The Raccoon gnawed at the wires, but they did not yield. The black-eyed beast paused for a moment, then climbed up the side of the cage, crawling on top, right above us, and trying to reach through to us from the ceiling. The cage was not so tall as it was wide, and his hand nearly grazed Black Momma’s head. She ducked down as low as she could, and we all ducked down as low as we could beneath her. The Raccoon retracted his hands and stood up, not unlike a Man. He stared down at the cage, thinking about how he could get us. I could see some of Sandy’s feathers dangling from his chin.
There came a scrambling at the shed door again, and I feared that it would burst open to let hundreds of Raccoons in, and that, together, they would pry the cage’s latch open and eat every one of us. Instead, the door was yanked open and there stood, in morning light, the Man. He looked at the Raccoon and the whites of his eyes became bigger than Banty eggs.
“Coon!” he cried.
The Raccoon hissed, leaping down from the cage and coming after the Man. The Man fled, running toward the house. The Raccoon chased after him, his big striped tail bouncing like the fastest, biggest caterpillar I had ever seen. I heard the opening and slamming of the house door. A few moments later the Raccoon was walking back to the shed, eyeing us hungrily. Suddenly I heard a boom that echoed across the farm. It was louder than thunder and sounded like it could knock down a whole forest of trees. The Raccoon’s neck ruptured and spouted blood as it collapsed to the ground, kicking and hissing and biting the air. Its legs tightened and its hands stopped moving. It laid on its back, frozen in a spasm of death.
We did not want to leave the cage. The cage had protected us, even as it imprisoned us. We were at the mercy of the cage, but it, at least, had mercy, unlike the world beyond it.
“Stay in here, children,” Black Momma said. “Stay in here with me forever.”
The Man grew impatient with us. He carried the cage out into the yard and shook it, tumbling us all out into the clover. We crowded close together, expecting the Raccoon to come running towards us with his grabby hands and his gnashing teeth. But he was gone, removed from the yard and thrown into the shadowy woods. We could smell his body when the wind swelled, and we heard the flies buzzing in the shade. There was no mercy for the merciless in this world, either.
Sandy was not the same after that. Her leg did not heal right and did not work. She had to hop on her good leg wherever she went, if she went anywhere at all. Mostly, she stayed near Black Momma, and treated every unexpected noise by jolting and scrambling beneath Black Momma. She did not eat much, either. I brought her food. I brought corn and worms and whatever insects I could find, including her favorite insects— ticks— but she ate little, and she ate quietly. She did not brag anymore. She did not talk about the future and being the ruler of the Pen and Coop. She was always twitchy and jittery. It seemed that the Raccoon had crippled her heart as much as her leg. A grasshopper suddenly jumping caused her, in turn, to jump, too, and fall down, trembling in terror, her bad leg quivering beneath her.
“Why do you bring her food?” Chloe asked me one day, while I was searching for food to give to Sandy.
“Because she can’t do it for herself,” I said.
“Would she do the same for you if you were crippled?”
I did not answer that question.
Chloe smirked. “The best she would have done for you would be to peck you out of your misery. Perhaps I could be as merciful toward her…”
“No!” I said. “She will be okay. She will be fine. She will grow up big and strong and…and…”
“She will grow up strong,” I said. “She will recover.”
“She better,” said the Cat, seeing through to my doubts with the glow of her eyes. “The chickens in the pen will not treat her like you do. They will treat her…well, they will treat her like all chickens treat each other. It will be a miserable life for her. I promise you.”
“Then I’ll just have to help her make the most of it!” I screamed. I ran to Black Momma and told her how much I hated that Cat.
Later that week the Man and the Woman returned with Jack in the Truck. The Woman carried him out in her arms. He had a sad look on his face, but he was alive. Both of his hind legs were wrapped in white bandages. The Woman carried him like he was as delicate as an egg and put him inside the house. Chloe meowed at her, but the Woman shooed her away.
“Go away, Chloe!” she said. “Stop being jealous!”
The door slammed shut and Chloe walked out into the yard, looking very irritated.
“I’m not jealous,” I heard her say. “I just want milk.”
A few minutes later, the Man and the Woman came out of the house and stood on the porch together.
“He’s a real miracle, isn’t he?” said the Woman.
“He’s something, all right,” said the Man.
“Do you think he’ll be able to run and play fetch again?”
“Don’t know,” said the Man. “The Vet said he probably wouldn’t. But then again, he also said it would be better to put Jack down. Good thing you’re such a stubborn woman.”
“I’d have to be stubborn,” the Woman said, “to still be married to you.”
They pecked their lips together and then went about their day, like normal. I was curious about Jack, and we were all happy to see him come home, especially after what happened to Sandy. But I couldn’t go see him. Tidbit and Tadbit still huddled around me. I couldn’t get a moment’s peace by myself. The shock of what happened in the shed had done something to them. It had done something to all of us.
Chloe came to the clover, laid down on her belly and fell asleep, her head resting on the bunches of green, heart-shaped petals. Black Momma eyed her closely.
“They called Jack a ‘miracle’,” I said. “What’s a ‘miracle’?”
“I want to know what a mirror-call is, too,” said Tidbit.
“She said miracle,” said Tadbit.
Black Momma kept her eyes on Chloe as she spoke to us. “A miracle,” she said, “is when something unexpected happens that’s good.”
“But there’s nothing good about Jack being ran over!” I said.
“That’s not what I meant, child,” Black Momma said. “What I mean is that it’s a miracle he survived after being run over like he was.”
“A better miracle would have been him not getting run over at all,” I said.
Chloe chuckled. So she was not sleeping after all. She was just pretending.
“Maybe,” said Black Momma, frowning at Chloe. “But sometimes we got to be grateful for whatever we can be.”
“Have you ever seen a miracle, Momma?” I asked.
“Course I have,” she said. “And you have, too. There are two miracles right here as we speak.”
“Where?!” I looked around everywhere, expecting something amazing. Instead, Black Momma pointed toward Tidbit and Tadbit. I was very disappointed. There was nothing special about them so far as I could see. They were just annoying. “What do you mean, Momma?”
“They are twins, aren’t they?”
“Yeah,” I said. “So? You said all kinds of animals have twins. Even the Man and the Woman could, if they tried.”
“Yes,” she said, “but it’s much more special for a Chicken to have twins.”
“Yay!”chirped Tidbit and Tadbit together. “We’re special!”
They ran around me, chirping with joy.
I frowned at them, and wished they would be quiet. “Why are they special?” I asked.
“Because that means twice as much food,” said Chloe, rolling over on her back and stretching her legs and paws and claws. “That’s very good for me.”
Tidbit and Tadbit shrank under my wings, trembling.
“Shut up, you loathsome Cat,” Black Momma said, “or I’ll take the rest of the hair out of your head.” She shook her feathers in a fury. “As I was saying, girl, it’s special for Chickens to have twins. And it’s a miracle if the twins survive.”
“Think on it,” she said. “Do you remember what it was like, all cramped in that egg of yours? Now imagine sharing that space with another you who is almost the same size. That’d be a mighty hard fit, wouldn’t it?”
I thought about it: about being squished by another version of me crammed in my egg. It sounded horrible. Just being crammed between the Tadbit and Tidbit right now was unbearable, and we were out in the open, not in an egg.
“But here you have two miracle babies,” Black Momma said, “smaller than any Banty chick, yet still alive and still growing. That’s a miracle to be grateful for.”
“That’s right!” said Tidbit, trying to sound fierce. “We’re special mirror-call chicks. That means you’re not supposed to eat us, you lonesome Cat!”
“It’s loathsome Cat,” Tadbit said, “not lonesome Cat.”
The two chicks chased each other around the apple tree, forgetting all about their fear of Chloe and the Raccoon as their tempers carried them away. Black Momma smiled, watching them with one eye and watching Chloe with the other. That is one of the good things about being a Chicken: you can see in two opposite directions at the same time.
“So,” I said, glad to be rid of the twins, “Jack is a miracle because the thing that is called the ‘Vet’ said he wouldn’t survive, but he did?”
“Sure as day,” concluded Black Momma. “He is a miracle because he did a good thing that no one expected. He lived when no one thought he would.”
Chloe snorted. “The real miracle about that dog,” she said, “is that anybody would care about him at all. All he does is bark all day and pee all over the yard. He can’t even catch a chipmunk without running his nose into a tree.”
“I like him a lot,” I said. “He’s my favorite Non-Chicken. You’re just jealous!”
Chloe smirked, then rolled over onto her paws and stood up, stretching. Turning her pink nose up, she walked away with her tail swaying haughtily in the air; left and right, left and right, dismissing the whole world with her arrogant swagger. It made me mad. She was so mean and cruel to us, and yet nothing bad ever happened to her. Bad things happend to Checkers and Sandy and Jack and Red Momma’s chicks and the goslings, but not to Chloe. It was not fair.
“Momma,” I said, “what is it called when something bad happens that no one expects?”
Black Momma thought for a long time, saying nothing. When she did speak, she sounded very sad and was watching Sandy cowering in the roots of the apple tree, trembling like a dandelion in a rough wind. “I don’t know, child. I don’t know what that word is.”
The next day promised to be beautiful. The sky was clear, the sun was shining brightly, and a cool breeze was blowing so that it was warm and cool at the same time. I felt joy in every feather. I felt it lift me up, as if I needed only flap my wings and I would fly high above the trees, from one end of the farm to the other, landing on the silo where all of my siblings would have to squint to see me, if they could see me at all.
And why not? There were butterflies all over the yard that day, like an airborne garden of petals always fluttering and changing and rotating around in endless combinations of colors. They could fly, and one day I would fly. I would fly off this farm and never look back.
Then I saw something wonderful. It was the most beautiful butterfly I had ever seen. It was fluttering near the tulips of the Woman’s flower bed. I watched it go from one flower to the next and it seemed to me that it was prettier than all of the flowers and butterflies combined. Its wings were yellow, orange and red, like a sun rising on the horizon. Watching it as if mesmerized, I walked closer to it. I hoped that it would talk to me.
“Would you be my friend, butterfly?” I asked it.
The butterfly said nothing, but fluttered off of the tulips, and floated in a gentle tumble slowly across the yard. It could not speak, but I understood that it liked me and wanted me to follow it. So I did. I ran after it. It flew this way and it flew that way, making a fun game of Chase. I was so excited. I was happier than I had been in a long time. I forgot about Sandy and the Raccoon and Chloe and Fang and the Banty and Red Momma and her chicks and the goslings. It was the prettiest butterfly in the world, and it liked me. I was so happy that I ran after it to give it a kiss. I wanted to show it the love that was bubbling inside of me: how much I loved all of its colors and its freedom and its gracefulness. When I overtook it I opened my beak to give it a big kiss.
Then the most horrible thing happened. I got so carried away that I clamped down on its body with my beak and ate it.
“Oh no!” I cried.
I tried to spit it out, but I couldn’t. All that came out of my beak were a few scraps of sunrise. Or was it a sunset? I cried out in horror at myself and wanted to throw myself into the Big Water. Let Fang have me; let the Raccoons and the Coyotes and the Opossums all have me.
“What have I done?!” I cried.
“What we all must do,” said a familiar voice.
Chloe was standing over me. I was too upset with myself to be afraid.
“It is what this world wants from us,” she said. “It wants us to devour each other.”
I stared into her glowing yellow eyes, and though I heard her harsh words I could not read the expression in her face. Her smirk was gone. There was some other emotion on her face; not amusement or triumph, but…something else. Something I had never seen there before.
“I wish I had never broken out of my egg,” I said, sobbing with guilt. “I wish I had been dropped and cracked.”
“That’s not very sunny-side up, is it?” said Chloe.
Looking at Chloe, I did not know if she was making fun of me or trying to make me feel better. Such things are impossible to tell with a Cat. In fact, she could have been doing both.
“I am a monster,” I said. “I am no better than Fang!”
Chloe said nothing for a long time. Her face was unreadable. “Fang is not so bad as you presume,” she said. “He kills to eat, as do you. But what of me? I kill for sport, and for fun, and because I am bored. Who, then, is the true monster of the three of us?”
“Then why don’t you just kill me?” I said, too carried away with my own sorrow to know my own foolishness. “I won’t try to escape. I won’t run away.”
Chloe seemed to smirk, then. She turned and walked away from me.
“What fun is there in that?” she said.
Cats never have been straightforward animals. They came at things in skewed ways. That was why they walked sideways. They ran and leapt in straight lines only when their prey led them to do so. And I doubted they even knew themselves why they did things. Their reasons were always hidden, much as they hid themselves when hunting. A Cat was as likely to be ambushed by her own motivations as any prey she might be stalking.
“Come along, fair-weather feather,” she said. “It is as much a new world as it is a new day.”
I followed Chloe, hoping Black Momma would not see us walking together. I did not know where the Cat was going. I did not know what she had in mind. But I followed, hoping she would tell me what was wrong with me.
We passed the house and came to the shed. We then came to the edge of the woods that Black Momma always warned us about; the woods that were always dark, even at noon when the day was its brightest and its hottest.
“Come with me,” she said. “Come on. Don’t dawdle.”
“I’m not supposed to go in there,” I said.
“You’re also not supposed to be talking to me,” Chloe said. “But you are.”
I looked up at the tall trees, and the shadows stretched beneath them like black feathers on a Crow’s wing. I listened to the strange sounds that echoed around those cluttered trunks and clustered underbrush. I hesitated. It was as frightening in its mysterious depths as the Big Water. To venture inside was to drown in fear.
Chloe sauntered into the woods with all of the calm assurance with which she sauntered everywhere else. She glanced back at me, her tail twitching.
“Hurry up,” she said.
“I can’t go in there,” I said.
“Then you’ll never understand why things are the way they are.”
That made me angry, and my anger carried me into the woods just as it had carried Checkers out onto the Big Water. Even as I went in I wondered if I was ever going to come out again. It could have been Chloe’s plan to lure me in where no one could see her eat me. But my stubbornness won against what little wisdom I had and I clung to her as if she was my Momma, too; a dreadful Momma I feared even as I followed her into the darkness.
I had never been in the woods before. It was overwhelming, both because there was so much happening and because there was so little happening. That may sound odd, but when so much was happening around me, it was hard to notice any one thing, and so it seemed like nothing was happening. That was a woods, though. Everything happened at once, and so nothing happened, not unlike the Big Water where the waves all collided together constantly so that it seemed like nothing was happening upon its surface.
“Why did you bring me in here?” I demanded.
“To teach you a lesson,” Chloe said. “A lesson your Momma is too afraid to teach you, and Jack is too stupid to teach you.”
I didn’t say anything. I just glared at her, with one eye and then the other.
“All around you,” Chloe said, “things are eating other things. Behind the bushes, among the insect-clutter. Above, in the treetops, where branches battle for sunlight. Within the trunks, in riddled termite tunnels. Beneath your feet, in the rotten leaves of last year’s foliage. Everywhere everything is eating everything else.”
I opened my beak to deny it, but couldn’t. Even the plants looked vicious and hungry, their branches toothed with threatening thorns.
“This is a scary place,” I cheeped.
“You should see it at night,” Chloe said. “But you wouldn’t see it for long. Something would snatch you up within moments. Opossums. Owls. Skunks. Raccoons. Coyotes. So many hungry mouths here to feed.”
A silence followed, and that silence was not a silence that I had heard on the farm. It was a silence that said too much. It was a silence that gloated and glutted, and so I spoke to distract myself from what it said.
“Do you come here at night?” I asked.
“Of course,” Chloe said. “That is the best time to hunt. The night and I are one.”
“That’s why you take so many naps during the day,” I said.
“Daylight is a waste of time,” she said. “Cats don’t need light. We have our own light in our eyes. We have Catlight. That is why we are good hunters. If the sun should fall from the sky, we would not mind. We would live in eternal darkness, unopposed.”
I thought about there never being daylight again, and it frightened me. The whole world would be like this woods: dark, cold, confusing, menacing, hungry. It would be like living in the mouth of a giant beast, unable to escape as it closed.
“I wish I was a Rooster,” I said.
Chloe looked at me askance. “Why?”
“Because they crow to make the sun rise,” I said.
Chloe laughed. “Those Roosters really have Bullfrogs beat with that lie.”
Something scurried in the underbrush. I trembled to think what it might have been.
“I know you do not like it here,” Chloe said, smiling wryly. “You are a child of the light. You are even colored like light.”
“You are, too,” I said. “You are orange and white. You’re no different than me.”
“Are my eyes the same as yours?” she asked. She looked at me with her slitted eyes— the pupils sharp like teeth. My eyes were like other chick eyes: round and brown and soft. Her eyes stabbed mine with their gaze, and I blinked. I was terrified.
“Why are you so mean to me?” I asked, trembling.
“Because Life is mean, little chick,” she said. “Life pushes you out of a warm, happy place where you and your siblings exist peacefully, sleeping in a contented heap together, and drops you into the cold, blinding light of a world with sharp edges, and sharper teeth, and gives you sharp fangs and claws— or, in your case, talons and beaks— and then Life tells you to wake up, to dream no more, but fight and kill and eat, all so you can fight and kill and eat another day. That is the way of things. All you can do is look after yourself. The only person you can care about is yourself.”
“That’s not true!” I said, my voice louder than I meant it to be. I squeezed my head down inside my puffy feathers and glanced around in the dark overlap of trees and bushes, worried that a beast would leap out at any moment. I cheeped as quietly as I could. “Black Momma cares about us. She looks after us.”
Chloe gave me a sly smirk. “Because the man and the woman want her to look after you. Because if she does not look after you she will have to go back to the pen and the coop. Yes, even that fat feather-duster is concerned only with herself.”
“That’s…that’s not true,” I said.
Chloe circled around me as she spoke, and it made me uncomfortable. “What is mine is mine,” she said. “What is good for me is good for me. That is how the world works. Even Jack obeys this instinct, though being a dog needlessly complicates him toward stupidity. He pleases the master because the master can take care of him. That is all. There is nothing more to it than that. There is nothing more to Life than that.”
“Jack loves the Man and the Woman,” I said. “He would do anything for them.”
“Are you sure?” Chloe asked, her whiskers twitching sardonically. “Most dogs are fools, but I have seen a few who woke up to the abuse they were given. They bit back after one too many boots to the ribs. They ran away and made little Packs of their own. True, they have tried to hunt me, but I cannot hold a grudge when they are trying to live their lives for their own good, claiming what is theirs without apologizing for it. Jack would be the same…if the man treated him with less kindness, and if Jack wasn’t such an awful hunter.”
“You’re wrong,” was all I could say.
Chloe was brushing up against me now, as she did with Jack and the Woman when she was gloating. It was odd and unsettling and I wondered if she even realized that she was doing it. She seemed too caught in her own thoughts to notice anything else.
“What is wrong,” she said, “is thinking the world is not selfish. That is a grave mistake. That is how you allow others to dominate you and take advantage of you. That is how you do yourself wrong. To give of yourself to others, unconditionally…that is the greatest folly.”
I remembered Red Momma and how she treated her chicks; how she ate all of their food and let them be eaten, one by one, until she abandoned the remaining three in the night. I remembered how ruffled her mind was the next day; how the guilt of the deaths of her chicks had caused her to fling herself into these woods. I wondered if she was in the woods right now. Perhaps there was only part of her. Somewhere above the trees. Somewhere below the earth.
“Why do you even care?” I said. “I’m not important. I’m just a dumb little chick that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t help you at all to tell me what you think.”
The Cat glared at me, her yellow eyes glowing in the murk of the woods. She was right: a Cat had light in its eyes, always. It was her Catlight. They did not need the sun like us Chickens did. They did not crow to raise the sun or to celebrate a new day. They were always awake, even when they slept. The Catlight glowed inside of them. Having that Catlight upon me scared me more than anything in the woods. It transfixed me. I could not move. Fear was like a stone-skinned egg from which I could not break free.
The woods became very quiet. The silence began talking to me again, telling me that I would be eaten now; that the Cat would swallow me whole and no one would care, just like when Sandy was killed and the Man threw her body out here with an indifferent, unfeeling flick of the wrist. I would be dead and forgotten and no one would remember me. Even Black Momma would forget, being given another brood of chicks to watch over in a few months.
But time passed and Chloe turned away, disinterested.
“You’re right,” she said. “Why should I care? I don’t know why I am wasting my time when you won’t learn and it doesn’t benefit me at all.” She started walking out of the woods. I followed after her quickly, snagging myself on thorns and branches and leaving a trail of little yellow fluff in the woods.
“Things like you,” she said, “you won’t learn until it’s too late. And even then you may not learn. Your virtue is ignorance, and your vice is ignorance. Born to it, you cling to it, like a teat. It nourishes you even as it starves you. You live while asleep, even as you hail the morning with your eyes open.”
When we emerged out of the woods I felt only a little relief. It seemed like the woods was following me around now, in my own shadow. I saw its darkness everywhere: in the corners of the shed, in the windows of the house, in the hayloft of the barn. I knew that its shadows were also in the Big Water, just below the dazzling surface. When I closed my eyes the shadows were there, too, in my own head.
I returned to Black Momma and stayed with her for a while, watching my siblings play. I also watched them eat. Every worm, every ant, every bug that they ate made me ill. I realized, then, that I was so concerned with learning about all of the evil things in the world that I didn’t stop to question the wickedness in my own Chickenness.
I wanted to know more about my own inheritance. I wanted to know what it meant for my future. So I went to the Pen and watched the Roosters and the Mommas for the first time in my short life.
There was no clover in the Pen. There was only dirt and mud where the Roosters and Mommas had raked away all greenery, leaving it an ugly, barren stretch of brown. It seemed that the older Chickens had no appreciation of pretty things. They squawked and squabbled over nothing. They laid in the ugly dirt and fanned it atop their backsides. They ran in terror of their own shadows, and nipped each other vengefully for what another Chicken did to them. They were petty and spiteful and blind to the beauty of the farm. They plucked flowers from the ground and butterflies from the air. They ate and they hated and they did little else. A few tried to stay away from the others— like Black Momma said I could if I wanted to— but these lonely Chickens were soon pestered and pecked and panicked by the others. They had only moments of respite to enjoy. Nothing more.
I saw a Chipmunk running across the Pen, seeking some acorns that had fallen from a tree. I was always fond of Chipmunks— their brown eyes, their bushy little tails, their black-striped backs— and seeing this one sprint over and shove acorns into his mouth made me laugh. His cheeks were stretched bigger than his head, and he looked so pleased with himself as he scampered away with his treasures. He was the only animal that looked happy in the Pen.
But when the Roosters and the Mommas saw the Chipmunk, they didn’t think he was cute. They squawked and ran after him, chasing him around the Pen and stabbing at him with their beaks. They hungered for his meat. They thirsted for his blood. They did not see his cuteness. They did not see the light in his eyes. They saw something and they wanted to eat it, so they ran after it, wing to wing, waddling pathetically in a maddened sprint to get at the harmless Chipmunk. They shouldered into each other, and clambered over each other. It was as if they were all beaks without brains, and breasts without hearts. Wings without wonder. Feathers without gentleness.
The largest Rooster— orange headed and white-bodied— claimed the Chipmunk while the others looked on, clucking and squawking in disappointment. The biggest Momma struck at the other Mommas, exercising her frustration on their heads and backs. The other Roosters also fought with each other, jumping into the air and kicking for dominance. It was a nightmare in my wakeful eyes.
Once the largest Rooster finished eating, he crowed. His crow was loud and proud and frightening, his black eyes as hostile and pitiless as any Raccoon’s. He was not awake, or he would have been horrified at himself. Instead, he attacked a smaller Rooster with puffy feathers. The smaller Rooster was a Silkie, and he did not try to fight back. He just let the bigger Rooster peck and spur him. When the bigger Rooster finished, the other Roosters beat on the Silkie, too, in turns. I looked on, horrified by the senseless violence, wishing to never grow up. The little Silkie screamed in fright as they tore his feathers out of his back and cut his comb with their beaks. His comb was scarred and notched badly. They must have pecked on him every day.
I looked at all of the Mommas and realized that the Roosters also hurt them. Their backs were scraped clean of feathers and the napes of their necks were bleeding. It was all just so senseless. Why did they peck each other so much? Why did they hate each other so much?
I could not understand it. I never wanted to hurt anyone unless they were being mean to someone else. But these Chickens hurt each other for no good reason. Why? Was it the Pen and the Coop that made Chickens cruel, or was it growing larger that made them cruel? For the first time I was grateful that Checkers did not grow up to be put in the Pen. To have seen him become like that orange-headed Rooster would have been too much to bear.
The biggest Rooster crowed, praising himself.
“I am the King!” he said.
I shouted at him.
“The sun does not rise at your say-so!”
But my shout was nothing but a little chirp which no one heard under the Rooster’s crow. I then thought of Sandy having to go in the Pen with them, hopping along piteously, and how they would see her hopping and how they would not pity her; how they would see how weak she was and they would probably try to eat her, just like Chloe said Chickens sometimes did. It made me wish I was as big as a Goose, or better yet, a Crane, so I could peck them all to death if they tried to peck Sandy. I would kill the King Rooster. He would never crow in praise of himself again.
I heard some clatter and cussing from within the barn. A few moments later the Man emerged, holding a bucket of feed in his hand. When the other Chickens saw him, they came running. Even the Chickens that wanted to stay by themselves came running. I suddenly wondered how I looked when the Man made it rain feed in the clover. Did I look that desperate and wild-eyed for feed?
The Man flung the feed with a lazy hand. There was plenty for all, but that did not stop the King Rooster from attacking the others and driving them off so that only the Mommas he liked could eat. In frustration, the other Chickens turned against each other and chased each other around the Pen, blaming each other for not getting any food. The King Rooster crowed again, louder than before, as if he was laughing at them and the pettiness of the world he enjoyed so much.
The Man stood near the gate, watching the Chickens eat and fight and be Chickens. He looked pleased, too.
“That one’s fattening up nicely,” he said to himself. “Make a good soup this weekend.”
It occurred to me, then, that the Chickens were all fighting each other for the sake of becoming someone else’s dinner. King or Queen, they were all eating well to feed someone else. It was a terrible nightmare to awaken to! Not only were they mean to each other, but their cruelty was completely pointless. It gained them nothing in the end. The whole world was pointlessly cruel. Meaninglessly savage. Futilely heartless.
I saw Chloe coming out of the barn where her trophy room was. She looked at me and seemed to want to say something. But she lost interest and went to the clover to lay down instead. I knew she had just eaten. There was a little blood on her white chin, just like there was a little blood on the orange-headed Rooster’s beak. They had both eaten well, so they would both remain strong and unchallenged in the world.
It was then that I realized something profound: I hated the world. I hated Chickens. I hated myself for being a Chicken. I hated the world for making me a Chicken. I hated the world for the way Chickens behaved and how Chickens were treated and how Chickens treated each other. I hated everything. I didn’t want to be a Chicken and I didn’t want to be a Goose. I didn’t want to be a butterfly or a Crane or a Dog, like Jack. I didn’t want to be anything. The world I thought I knew and loved was a lie. In every dazzling expanse of water, in every bright blue patch of Summer sky, within every golden wave of wheat in a field, there was always a black word stalking through that radiance; there was always a black wave slithering through the water, a black shadow soaring overhead, a black figure wading through the stalks of wheat. And I had a shadow of my own; a shadow that fell on crickets and worms and butterflies alike. I could not escape my own shadow. I could not pluck it and toss it aside like unwanted feathers.
I walked over to Chloe. She was laying on her back, her legs spread out as she stretched her belly. It looked like she was pawing at the clouds in the sky.
“I want to change into something else,” I said. “I feel like a caterpillar stuck on the end of a branch, unable to change and fly away.”
“That’s just Life,” she said.
“I don’t want to kill and eat things,” I said. “I don’t want to become big and go into the Pen and the Coop. I don’t want to live here, on the farm. I want to go live in the fields beyond the field. Beneath the suns beyond this sun.”
“You’d have to kill bugs,” she said. “Otherwise you’d starve.”
“I’d rather starve than kill another thing,” I said.
Chloe affixed a lazy eye on me, the slitted pit complacent and smug. “Your stomach will win out over your heart in the end. It always does.”
“It will not!” I cried.
She ignored me, taking a nap.
When I returned to the apple tree, Black Momma was threatening Tadbit and Tidbit for fighting again.
“You came into the world together,” she was squawking, “and I’ll make sure you leave it together if you don’t stop your bickering!”
I lingered a while, watching my siblings and listening to Black Momma. They were living as they did the day before, and the day before that. They did not sense the changes coming, and they did not even really understand the pointlessness of everything; all of their squabbles and their eating and their digging and their chirping. All was meaningless. When they grew up, later, they would be doing the same things, only more fiercely, more violently, and they might even kill each other to gain the slightest power in the pecking order in the Coop and Pen. Tadbit and Tidbit could kill each other, and that summed up all that I hated about everything. Even yolk-folk could turn against each other. The twins could possibly even eat one another. What good would their “miracle” be then?
And then I saw Sandy nestled in the roots of the apple tree. Little ants were crawling over her head and stomach, and she did not seem to care. She looked at the world with faded eyes. It was like she wanted to die, and I felt that she was not wrong in wanting to. When I had tried to ask her how she felt after the Raccoon attack, she only said one thing.
All she thought of was pain.
I was feeling awful— awful about everything, including myself— and I didn’t know what to do. My eyes were too full of tears to see anything but a blurring waterfall, the colors of Summer mingling together and sloshing like the refuse that the Woman threw out to us; that disgusting refuse which we thought such a heavenly slaw, but which was really only the food the Man and the Woman would not eat.
“What’s the point?” I said. “What’s the point of anything?”
The Big Water sparkled from across the clover. It seemed to call to me.
I went down to the water’s edge and stood there, waiting in the weedy mud. The sun danced and dazzled on the Big Water like a Rooster with spurs made of blinding light. I thought about Checkers, and I thought about the goslings, and I thought about all of Red Momma’s chicks that were gone. I tried to think about anything except the shadowy word I saw on the Big Water, slithering toward me. I remembered the Raccoon’s eyes, and the Rooster’s eyes, and Red Momma’s eyes, and I wondered if my eyes looked the same now, here, at the end of the clover. Was the light gone from my eyes, too?
The shoals near me erupted into whitewater violence. I did not react as the water rained upon me, and waves struck at my body. I just clasped my eyes shut, and clutched myself still against instinct’s wild drive to flee from Fang as he sprang from the water. A mouth clamped down upon me and lifted me up and away.
In sharp teeth I was carried, drenched with what I assumed to be blood. I expected the cold plunge into water, but felt instead the wind blowing drily on my wet feathers. I did not open my eyes until I was dropped beneath the apple tree moments later. Black Momma came running, squawking my name, and so, too, did my siblings. But the danger for me had passed. Fang had not sunk his burning teeth into me.
Standing beside me was Chloe. She had an odd look in her yellow eyes that I had never seen before, like she was falling asleep while awake. She started to walk away, but she was wobbling. I saw blood trickling down one of her legs. That leg gave out, and so did all of the others. She collapsed hard upon the ground. A fallen apple rolled away from her body. I saw a worm squirming in its rotten core.
Distantly, I could hear Jack barking in the house. Black Momma tried to pull me away, but I ran around her and faced Chloe. Chloe’s eyes were closed and she was not breathing very well.
I did not know if I was grateful or angry. Mostly, I felt the world sinking in on my heart and my heart was drowning.
“Why did you save me?” I asked her. “Why?”
She opened her eyes, partially, and I saw them loll beneath her heavy eyelids. The light was fading in them. The Catlight was fading. She had given it for me— she given her Catlight to the darkness so I could live.
“I remembered when I was a little kitten,” she said. “Without teeth or claws. My brothers and sisters and I would suckle at my mother’s teats. I was so happy then, my belly full with my mother’s love.” Her eyes focused on me, briefly, and then closed. “But our teeth grew. We found our claws. Life changed because we changed. We fought for milk. We fought for Life. You have what I lost back then…lost to that selfish fight between brothers and sisters…”
I trembled, unable to hold back my tears. “What is it? What do I have?”
“When you know,” she said, “you will no longer have it…”
The Man and the Woman rushed over, scattering my brothers and sisters before them. The Woman stooped over Chloe.
“Hey, kitty, kitty,” she said, petting her. “Are you okay?”
Chloe mewled, but it sounded weak and breathless. The Woman gently took hold of the Cat in both hands and lifted her up. Chloe groaned and then vomited. The Man stepped back, almost stepping on me, and then inspected Chloe’s hindleg. When I looked at it I saw that it was swollen and black.
“That’s not good,” he said.
“What’s wrong with her?” the Woman said, her voice quavering. “Snakebit?”
“I’d say so,” he said. “She’s wet all over. That cottonmouth, most likely. I have been trying to trap that snake for months now.”
“Why was she tangling with it?”
“She’s a cat,” the Man said. “You know how they are.”
“We got to take her to the Vet,” the Woman said, her voice almost shrill.
The Man rubbed the back of his neck, considering. “Don’t have the money for it,” he said. “And she’s old as it is. Can’t have but a couple more years for her at the most.”
The Woman gave him a hard look full of anger and tears and the Man sighed.
“Maybe they’ll let us pay a little each month,” he said, reluctantly.
“I know they will,” the Woman said.
They hurried to the Truck and took off down the road, going wherever lay beyond the farm.
“What happened?” Black Momma asked me.
“I was…I was by the Big Water,” I sobbed. “Fang came after me. Chloe got bitten saving me.”
I thought Black Momma would give me a good pecking, and I knew I deserved it, but instead she drew me into her feathers and hugged me tightly.
“Don’t you worry, girl,” she said. “They will take care of her. She’ll come back and be her old smug, belligerent self again. You hear me? Everything will turn out fine.”
Hearing Black Momma speaking so hopefully about it made me lose hope. She was lying to me again. I had seen the truth of the matter in Chloe’s eyes. Chloe’s eyes had never lied to me. She was dying.
“It’ll be another mirror-call,” said Tidbit, cheerfully. “The Vet will save Chloe just like he saved Jack!”
“It’ll be another miracle,” Tadbit said. “How many times do I have to tell you? It’s miracle, not mirror-call.”
There were no more miracles that day. The Man and the Woman returned later in the evening with a cardboard box. The Man went to the shed and the Woman stood by, holding the box and crying. Black Momma told me to come away, but I refused. The Man came back with a thing he called a “Shovel”.
“Where?” asked the Man.
“Near the house,” the Woman said, wiping at her eyes. “Right here, I guess. In the clover. They look like little hearts, you know…?”
The Man seemed like he was going to say something contrary, but thought better of it and just started digging where he stood, in the heart-shaped clover. It took a while, for the earth was dry and hard beneath the soft clover, like bone beneath skin. After much toiling and sweating, though, the Man had dug a hole that was big enough for the box.
Tears on her cheeks, the Woman knelt down and lowered the box into the hole.
“Goodbye, Chloe,” she said.
I finally understood what was in the box, and so I ran toward it. I didn’t want them to bury Chloe in the earth where it was silent and lonely and dark. That scared me. She didn’t deserve that. She was mean, but she didn’t deserve that. No one deserved to be left in the dark all alone, asleep and dreamless.
As I ran forward the Woman saw me and picked me up. I thought she would strike me on the ground and cut off my head, like the Man did to the Banty. Instead she held me against her chest and she caressed my head with her fingertips. All I could do was sit there and weep as the Man threw dirt on top of the box. All I could do was watch as Chloe, my miracle, was buried in the lonely, dark silence of the earth.
Weeks passed and I grew bigger. Though I grew bigger, I lived reluctantly. I could no longer enjoy watching the butterflies flutter. I did not like the taste of golden corn as the Man made it rain down among us. I took no pleasure in the Summer breeze, or the scent of honeysuckle and fresh cut grass. Every morning I would look for Chloe among the clover and would find only a dirt mound that was slowly flattening with each rainfall.
Tidbit and Tadbit grew bigger. Black Momma said they might be as big as her someday. I hoped so. She said I might be even bigger than her, but that brought me no joy. The sun and the moon rose and fell for me without much distinction. I knew neither joy nor sorrow. I became indifference made flesh.
Seeing Jack limp around the house made me feel some relief, if only a little. He had recovered mostly from his accident, though one of his legs was slower and stiffer than the other. He often stayed with my siblings outside, chasing them playfully around the yard. When he could not run anymore, because his leg was hurting him, he laid down and all of my siblings would climb on top of him, tickling his fur with their feet. The only time he was not happy was when he passed Chloe’s mound. He would sniff at the dirt and look lost and forlorn. She was his sister, after all, and he missed arguing with her.
The day darkened and the fireflies blinked in the yard and around the Big Water. We were in the cage, waiting for the Man to latch the cage and lock the shed door. The moon rose over the trees, reminding me of Chloe’s bowl of milk and how she would never drink milk again.
It had been a long summer day and my brothers and sisters were already falling asleep. I could not sleep. I tried, but whenever I fell asleep, Checkers would tell me I had to wake up. Black Momma touched me with her wing.
“I know it’s all been bothering you, girl,” she said.
I looked up at her in the moonlight, then looked down at my shadow. My shadow seemed larger than Black Momma. It seemed like it would roost over the world.
“I just…I just don’t understand,” I said. “Why did Chloe save me? She shouldn’t have done it. I wasn’t worth it!”
Black Momma put her wing over me and pulled me close to her soft black feathers. “Now, now, girl. Let me tell you something. I never trusted that Cat. More than once I’d had to give her a good pecking for her wickedness. But there was some good in her after all, I suppose, and that good was like a seed that grew. You grew it. You watered it and it grew in her and it blossomed inside her. And she thought you were worth dying for. Isn’t that something? A Cat thinking a chick is worth dying for? Isn’t that a miracle?”
“I don’t think I want to live this way,” I said. “I don’t want to live knowing a good Cat died so I could live. She was the miracle, Momma. Not me.”
“She was, she was,” she said. “But so are you, child. Your sisters Tidbit and Tadbit aren’t the only miracles of the egg. All of you are. Mommas like me pass hundreds of eggs each year, most of which amount to nothing. But your egg became you. While the others were cold and lifeless, yours was warm and hopeful and you somehow stirred inside it and broke free to bless the world with your light.”
“My light?” I said, remembering Chloe’s Catlight and how bright it was in the darkness of the woods.
“Course, child,” she said. “There’s light in everything living. From the smallest chick to the biggest Cow, there’s a light. Think of them fireflies out there right now. You can see their light, can’t you? Well, you’ve got that light, too, and it shines brighter than any sun that ever shined in a summer sky.”
“Where did it come from?” I asked.
“Your Momma gave it to you, just as her Momma gave it to her. In the shadows of your egg that light grew, fighting against the darkness until a miracle happened: the light broke free from the shell to join with the other light in the world. You got to join with the other light in the world, girl, and not let the shadows overtake you. Don’t burden yourself with shadows. Carry the light of those who love you. Carry that Cat’s light with you. It’s in you, just as your light was in her. Even when you’re asleep that light’s awake, like the sun behind dark clouds. It never stops its shining.”
Jack was beginning to play Fetch again with the Woman. She would throw the ball into the clover and Jack would go bounding after it— not as quickly as he once did, but fast enough to make him happy. After a while, though, the Woman had to see to her chores and so Jack came and rested beside us, laying in the clover and panting. I went to him. I needed to talk to someone other than a Chicken.
“Jack,” I said, “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“I am glad I am feeling better too,” Jack said. “I can help Master again. I can play Fetch and chase Squirrels and watch over Master’s things.”
“Do you…do you miss Chloe?” I asked.
“Chloe is here,” he said. “I can smell her. She is still with us.”
“But she’s…she’s not able to talk to us or be with us.”
“She talks to me all of the time,” Jack said. “I just remember and then she is there, talking to me. Telling me I am a bad hunter and stupid and I don’t have a tail.”
“But it’s not the same,” I said, remembering all of the things about Chloe that I could. “Remembering just makes me sad. I…I don’t want to remember. I want to forget. But I can’t.”
The Dog laid his head down in the clover, sniffing and then sighing out of his nose. His ears were tucked back and his dark brown eyes glistened.
“I know,” he said. “It’s not the same. I tell myself it is because I miss her. I tell myself that she is here, hiding like she used to, to prove that she was a better hunter than me by sneaking up on me. But she’s here, and she’s not here, and that makes me sad.”
“She said…she said that Life wants us to eat each other,” I said.
“I don’t know how a chick could eat a Dog,” Jack said. “It would take a very long time.”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” I said. “She said that we have to be selfish and have to watch out for ourselves and be greedy and not care about how we hurt others. That Life is mean and makes us mean, too.”
Jack scratched himself behind his ear with his paw. Scratching behind his ear was what a Dog did to help him think.
“That’s not true,” said Jack. “Master is not mean. You’re not mean. Chloe was mean, yes, but she was a Cat. Of course she was mean. That’s what Cats are, is mean.”
“She made me mean,” I said. “Why would she do that? I ate a butterfly! I wish the Roosters were all dead! I wish Fang was dead! She made me this way!”
Jack rolled over onto his back, staring up at the sky. The sky was a stark, cloudless blue. “You think she only changed your mind about things. But you changed Chloe, too. She was always a Cat, and Cat’s are good hunters because they hunt alone, and because they hunt alone they are bad at being in a Pack. You made her not want to be alone. You made her want to be part of your Pack. Our Pack. You made her think about others. You made a Cat think about something other than herself.”
“How?” I wept. “I don’t understand. She said I was just ignorant. She didn’t like me. She didn’t think I was anything at all but a stupid chick.”
“She thought I was a stupid Dog,” Jack said. “But I was her stupid Dog, wasn’t I? And you were her chick. She was your Momma, too, even if she didn’t know it. Cats don’t love like Dogs do. Dogs don’t love like Chickens do. But we all love. And she loved you in her own Cat way.”
Later that week the Man came out of the house carrying a strange stick in his hands. It was black and perfectly round at one end, but fat like an oar at the other end. Jack was following him.
“It’s high time I killed that snake,” the Man said, stomping down toward the Big Water.
“Master will kill him,” Jack told me as he passed me, limping. “He has his THUNDER STICK. It kills everything. Turtles with hard shells. Deer, big and tall. Opossums. Racoons. Squirrels high in the trees. Everything. It’s a magical stick.”
I followed them, eager to see Fang die.
The Man came to the edge of the Big Water and squinted at its indecipherable depths. The wind was blowing and there were waves upon the water. The Man raised the THUNDER STICK up to his eye, the rounded end pointing toward something on the other side of the Big Water. Looking where he pointed it, I saw Fang. He was swimming across the water, his body writing the word DEATH in the waves. He had a fish clenched in his white mouth.
“I got you now,” the Man said, his face a black shadow. He moved his finger in the loop of the THUNDER STICK, pulling it toward him. The THUNDER STICK boomed as if struck by lightning. The noise deafened me and rattled my skull. It sounded like an acorn the size of a barn falling on a tin roof. Smoke rose from the end of the THUNDER STICK. I guess the lightning caught it on fire a little. More surprising than that, though, was that the Big Water exploded all around Fang, as if a horse had fallen into it from high up in a cloud. The noise and the raining water startled me, but I kept my talons planted into the soil. I wanted to see the end of Fang, no matter how frightening it might be.
And sure enough there was blood spreading in the water.
“That’ll do him in,” the Man said, lowering the THUNDER STICK. “Buckshot in his black head will do him right.” He walked back to the house and Jack followed him, trotting proudly. Or limping proudly, as it were.
“I told you Master would kill him,” Jack said. “Master can do anything.”
I did not follow them. I stood by the Big Water for a long time, watching the waves become wavelets, and the wavelets become ripples, the ripples settle to stillness. Pieces of scaled meat rose to the surface of the water amid the red cloud. I was ready to turn away when I saw the black word upon the water again. It was curving slowly toward me. Fang called to me from the shoals in his whispery song.
“I can never die,” he said. “I will never die.”
Whatever fear I might have felt was burned away by my rage. I was so angry at him for what he did to Checkers and to Chloe. With a tremor of anger in my voice, I spoke to him. Mocked him.
“You’ve lost your lunch,” I said.
“There is always more where that came from,” he said in his whispery voice. “The world gives me whatever I desire. I am a king here. The world is my garden and you are all my bounty.” He had eyes like Chloe’s: slitted and yellow. His scales glistened darkly. He was a cold creature. There was no warmth in the light of his eyes.
“Why do you hate so much?” I asked. “Why do you kill everything you can?”
Fang’s long, lithe body bobbed on the waves. “Hunger,” he said. “And because I can.”
My hatred for him was like a food-frenzied flock of Chickens, and they wanted to have their fill.
“One day I will see you dead,” I said. “One day you will be eaten or the Man will shoot you and you will rot beneath the sun. And no one will care. No one will remember you. They’ll toss you into the woods and you will be forgotten, like a bad dream in the shadows.”
“Not me,” he said, his voice sibilant and quiet. “I do not die. I will live forever. Like night itself.”
I had gotten carried away with my anger, and was not minding the Snake like I should have. Fang was coming closer. He was nearly upon me.
“I will eat you all,” he said. “You will become a part of me and I will live forever.”
“No, you won’t!” I screamed.
I fled from the water’s edge, but he followed after me, his coils fast through the clover. Fear overtook my anger. Black Momma’s words echoed in my head:
“He whispers softly and his bite stings. To be eaten by him is to live inside him. He is a white mouth with a black tongue. His body is cold, but his bite is hot.”
I could not let him get me: not because I was afraid of dying, but because it would have made Chloe’s death meaningless. I still carried her light inside me, and I could not let her die a second time.
I heard the shriek before I saw the shadow. It pierced me to my heart and I ran for cover among the clover, crouching down in its heart-shaped greenery. Fang did not see the black word written in the sky. He slithered after me as if blind to all else, his white mouth opening and widening into a wicked smile. I fled toward the trees, zig-zagging from one clump of clover to another, trying to remain hidden even as I frantically raced. I glanced back and saw Fang moving like a rope tied to my tailfeathers, unshakable as my own shadow.
It was just as Fang sprang towards me that the Hawk swooped down and tore up the earth around him, clasping the Snake in his sharp talons. The Snake writhed as he was lifted into the air. Seeing him dangle helplessly should have made me happy. I should have been glad that Fang was going to die, just like Checkers died. But I wasn’t glad. Seeing the Snake dangling reminded me of Checkers flailing in the water. Even the fearsome Fang was powerless in this cruel world. Checkers had been right after all: Fang was pitiful, too.
I watched the Hawk hoist itself higher and higher into the air with each flap of its powerful wings. I watched as Fang dangled without purchase, like an earthworm upon a fishing hook. The shadow receded into the bright blue sky, and Fang Disappeared with it.
And then the Man came running out of the house, carrying his THUNDERSTICK.
“Thought I heard a hawk,” he said. He peered out into the great blue yonder. “There he is.” He cussed. “Guess I’ll get him next time. Doesn’t look like he got one of the chickens, so that’s a blessing.”
He looked down and saw me among the clover.
“You’re one lucky chick,” he said. “Now get on back to your Momma.”
He shooed me toward the apple tree. I went willingly. I had had enough excitement that day. As I went, I thought about the Hawk’s hooked beak tearing into Fang, ripping him apart like the Woman shucking a cob of corn. Part of me rejoiced, vengefully, at the idea, and the other part of me was appalled.
I stopped by the mound where Chloe was buried. A single clover was growing up from the clay, its four hearts arrayed like a cross. It made me think of Chloe’s death— of her sacrifice so that I could live. Maybe her sacrifice had given my life meaning. Maybe I shouldn’t have been ungratefulf for the life I had. She would have probably smirked at that, but I didn’t want to think she died for nothing. Such a thought hurt more than Life itself ever could.
Toward the end of Summer a new Cat came to the farm. He was small and gray with black stripes. The Woman named him Stormy because he was colored like a dark thunderhead brooding in the sky. But unlike a thunderhead that boomed and bellowed and flashed with lightning, Stormy was playful and did not flash his claws at us at all. He did not smirk like most Cats do, either, nor did he like hunting in the dark. He slept in the house at night. He was housebroken, or at least as much as a Cat might be. The Woman carried Stormy around, too, and played games with him. The Man disapproved.
“What are you doing?” he said. “Spending so much time with that cat?”
“I never played games with Chloe,” the Woman said. “I worry that maybe Chloe would have been happier if I had. She was always so aloof. I worry that…maybe…Chloe was lonely.”
“You’re just going to ruin that cat,” the Man said. “Too many games and he’ll make a terrible mouser.”
“He’ll catch mice, too,” the Woman would say. “But he will be happier.” She stroked Stormy’s head, and the Kitten purred. “Do you remember the night we found Chloe? Crying in the rain? I thought she was a lost child crying for help. And then she came onto the porch and I gave her some milk. She drank it and then ran off. And then she came back.” The Woman laughed, and wiped at her eyes. “It took a whole month before she let me pet her.”
“You get too attached to them animals,” the Man said. “You know that’ll lead to nothing but heartache and tears later.”
“And I’ll gladly pay in heartache and tears later,” the Woman said. “Just like I’ll gladly pay when you kick the bucket, you old short-sighted fool.”
Fall came and the leaves reddened and fell from the trees. My siblings and I rejoiced in the season, despite the chilly winds at night. It was a happy time to be alive, even as we grew bigger and started pecking at each other more and more every day. Stormy and Jack would go chasing leaves together. It was fun to watch them run around and kick up the leaves. Sometimes Jack would slip on acorns and go rolling into the piles of leaves the Man had raked together. Stormy would pounce on Jack, then, and then leap off, running to hide in another pile of leaves. Sometimes he hid in the leaves and surprised Jack by leaping out. Jack barked at Stormy, not unkindly, and chased him through the colorful leaves.
Stormy loved Jack and followed him around like his tail— if he had had a tail. The kitten would lay on him when he was napping in the yard, kneading his paws into his back before laying himself down near Jack’s head in a coiled heap. Jack didn’t seem to mind. He promised to teach Stormy how to hunt if Stormy promised to do as he was told.
“That’s a mighty relief,” remarked Black Momma. “Why, I bet that Cat won’t even be able to hunt an egg once Jack has taught him all he knows.”
Eventually Stormy grew to be as big as Chloe was, and I grew up to be bigger than Black Momma. Unlike Chloe, Stormy was a very happy Cat. He liked being a part of our Pack. He liked belonging with us. I did, too, I realized. That was probably why I never left like I had wanted to when I was a chick. I belonged here with them.
Nearly a year later and I still missed Chloe. I never got to tell her how much she helped me to understand: not by what she said, but what she did for me. Perhaps she would have been aghast that I learned the wrong lesson, but it’s not my fault that actions speak louder than words. She lied about everything, including herself, to the very end, but she behaved according to the Truth.
At the coming of Summer the Geese returned. They had eight goslings and each of them survived the farm, growing to be just as arrogant as their parents. They all mocked us and I hated them for it, if only because they still had not shown any regret or guilt for losing their seven goslings the year before. Had I been a Cat, and not a Chicken, I would have probably stolen a gosling and pretended to eat it to teach them a lesson. Everybody needed a Cat lesson now and again to remind them what’s important in life, just like everyone needed a Dog lesson to remind them what’s important.
Still, there was a part of me that was envious of the Geese. When I saw them leave together, flying into the sky, I wondered once again what was beyond the farm and the Big Water and the fields and the woods. My wings were bigger and I could flap myself up into the branches of the shorter trees. I kept telling myself that I would fly away someday. I told myself I would do it for Checkers since he never had the chance to.
But when I saw the Crane return that year—standing in the gray murk of twilight—I went to talk to him. The same sleepiness that he brought with him last year came this year. Or perhaps the sleepiness lured the Crane down? It was hard to think clearly of such things when you were drowsy.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” he said.
“You know what is beyond the Big Water, and the fields, and the cows, and the hills,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Do you remember what I said?”
“Yes, I said. “More of the same.”
I fidgeted anxiously. “But do you know what is beyond Death? Do you know what happens when you die?”
He stared at me for a while with his big eye. It was a golden eye full of a sleepy light quite unlike the intense light that was in Chloe’s eyes. His long, willowy body stood motionless, like a tree.
“No,” he said, after a while. “I have never died.”
“Oh,” I said.
“And yet,” he said, “we all die as we live. Moment to moment unto endless moments we are dying so we may live, moving from one moment’s space in time to another. Dream to dream. And we live on long after we die. Like ripples on the Big Water.”
I stared at my feet, confused. “But when you stab the water,” I said, “you make no ripples.”
“No,” he said, “for I have a subtle beak. But the fish make ripples. Some make waves. They splash and fight and make the Big Water remember them. It is the fight of their lives.”
I looked up at him again. His beak was long and sharp, like that bladed thing the Man used in the fields. A scythe.
“Do you…do you know of any place where there isn’t Death? Where someone could live forever?”
The Crane did not blink. The Crane did not move. When he spoke, his sickle beak stayed together, tight as a door that cannot be opened once closed.
“No,” he said again. “Or I would live there, and if I lived there, it would not be Deathless.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, are there better places than here?”
“Yes,” he said, “and there are worse places.”
“How do I know which is a better place?”
“You do not know,” he said, “until you know.”
I sighed. “I guess I might as well stay where I am, then.”
“You will always be where you are,” he said, “even when you are somewhere else.”
“Is there anything that doesn’t die in this world?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Even the stars in the sky die. But you are living now. So live.”
Just then Jack came running through the twilight, scattering fireflies and barking. Stormy came running, too, and barking—barking as well as any Cat might. The Crane calmly flapped his wings and rose from the shoals— up, up, up into the air. He flew with the stars and the moon behind him, becoming a gray shadow gliding across the sky. His silhouette was a word I could not read, but whose meaning I understood. I wondered if he could fly to those stars behind him and pluck them out, one by one, from that purple evening sky like fish from the water.
“Get gone!” Jack and Stormy barked. “Get gone! Get gone! Get gone!”
“He is gone,” I said quietly. “And yet…he’s still here, all around us.”
Jack and Stormy were not listening to me. They were strutting around me, prouder than a bellowing Banty Roosters just out of arm’s reach.
“This is Master’s land,” Jack said.
“And we protect Master’s land,” Stormy said.
A Bullfrog began croaking at the edge of the Big Water.
“I scared the Crane away because I’m the biggest and the strongest!” he said.
Jack and Stormy immediately stopped parading about and glared at the Bullfrog.
“You did not,” said Stormy.
“I scared him away,” said the Bullfrog. “I’m the biggest, the strongest, the scariest animal in the world!”
“No you’re not!” Stormy hissed. “Jack and I scared him away.”
“You are both afraid of me,” said the Bullfrog in his deep voice. “Everyone is afraid of me. Except the ladies. They love me. I’m the biggest, loudest, strongest, smartest—”
Stormy lost his temper and went sprinting into the pondweed after the Bullfrog. The Bullfrog yeeped, leaping out into the Big Water. Stormy plunged headlong into the shoals after him. The Cat immediately shrieked and fought to get out. Coming back ashore, he was soaked head to tail, and kicked off the water desperately.
“I’m all wet!” he cried.
“That’s not how you swim,” said Jack. “This is how you swim.” He sprang into the Big Water and started paddling around in circles, smiling ear to ear. “See?”
He emerged from the water and shook himself off, splashing Stormy. Stormy looked miserable, but Jack looked very happy, his curly hair all dripping and hanging heavy with water. Then his ears shot up straight in the air, startled.
“Oh no!” he exclaimed. “Master will have to give me another bath! I hate baths!”
“Will I have to have a bath, too?” Stormy asked, looking horrified.
“Both of us will!” he said, pacing nervously.
“Let’s just run away,” Stormy said. “Then we wouldn’t get a bath.”
“But we would never play games with Master again, and she would miss us.”
“I would miss her, too,” Stormy confessed, sadly. “She is part of my Pack, just like you, Jack.”
“Yes,” Jack said. “We are all each other’s Pack.”
They both looked at the house, then each other, and then the house. Heads hanging low, they started walking toward the house.
“I hate wet ears,” Stormy said.
“I hate soapy water,” Jack said.
“I hate being scrubbed,” Stormy said.
“I hate having to roll around on the towels,” Jack said.
“I hate baths!” Stormy said.
“I hate baths, too!” Jack said.
They walked farther away, but I could still hear them. Stormy raised his head a little, and his tail lifted hopefully.
“Maybe I will get some milk after my bath,” he said, walking a little faster. “And then I can sit in Master’s warm lap and go to sleep.”
“And I will get my nice bows,” Jack said. “I love wearing my bows. They make me feel proud.”
“You do look nice with your bows, Jack,” Stormy said. “I wish I could wear a bow.”
“You will, someday,” Jack said. “But first you must earn it. You have to be a good hunter.”
“Will I be as good of a hunter as you, Jack?”
“Maybe,” he said. “With more lessons.”
Their hesitant walk became a happy trot, and then an eager sprint as they thought of milk and bows and warm laps. I watched them race up to the porch and paw at the door. The Woman opened the door and let them in.
“You two are getting baths,” she said. “Jack, you should really know better than teaching your brother your bad habits…”
She picked both of them up, one in each hand, and carried them inside.
Dog lessons. Cat lessons. The dream was broken. I was now wide awake.
I returned to Black Momma just before the Man came to put us up in the shed. Sandy was hopping around, trying to find her own food and fend for herself.
“You keep it up, girl,” Black Momma told her, “and you’ll grow big and strong like you always wanted.”
“Yes, momma,” Sandy said. She hopped forward, landing on her one good leg while her bad leg was tucked up beneath her. She tipped over and fell down in the clover. But the hearts of the clover were soft and gentle and cushioned her from the hard clay beneath them.
“Use your wings for balance,” Black Momma told her. “Spread them out wide, girl, so you won’t land all wobbly.”
“Yes, momma,” Sandy said. She did as she was told, and hopped three times before falling down. She sighed. Her feathers were ruffled and she looked angry. But there was no emptiness in her eyes anymore. Her eyes were full of light: angry, determined Chickenlight.
“You can do it, Sandy!” I said.
“Yeah!” shouted Tidbit and Tadbit. “You can do it!”
“Sandy! Sandy! Sandy!” we all chanted.
She bobbed up and down with our voices: Sandy! Sandy! Sandy! Then she hopped, and she hopped, and she hopped; she hopped without stopping, flapping her wings and bouncing in circles all around us and the apple tree. I almost thought she might fly, she was rising so high in the air. Eventually she tired and landed, without falling, next to Black Momma. We all rushed forward and cuddled around her, laughing and crying in joy. We were all so happy. I was so happy. I had not been so happy in a very, very long time.
And though I know she would never have admitted it, I think Chloe would have been happy, too, despite whatever Cat thing she might have said.
About the Author:
Stephen Marshall is an author and illustrator living in Kentucky. Chloe Among The Clover is his first published Children’s novel, (though there should be several more forthcoming). It was written in memory of two beloved pets who passed away too soon. The chickens of the novel are real, also, as are the geese and the bullfrogs. Additionally, the bullfrogs would like that everyone know how big and smart and strong they are, if only for everyone’s safety.