A Tale of Two Chickens
By Neil O. Jones
If you were raised in the south and in the country or got to visit a relative in the country now and then, I bet you have a chicken story of some kind. For example, if you were, say, ten years old or younger and you ever saw your mother or grandmother go to the chicken yard to start preparing for dinner-you'd remember. One never forgets the chicken being chased, caught, choke-held by the neck and rung around and around until the gullet stretched and snapped from the weight of the orbbed-bodied hen. Many a barefoot, big-eyed, slackjawed young-un stood incredulous as the Headless Chicken ran helter skelter through the bunched luckier ones who half-flew-half-ran out of the way. Squawking cacophony, flying feathers and thick-in-the-air chicken dust added to what was hell-in-the-chicken-yard. The decapitated Thing ran and ran it seemed, bouncing off every inanimate obstruction it encountered in its path because every animate thing it neared high stepped out of its way. It ran, and ran slower, walked three or four steps, fell over, kicked a few times horizontally as if in a dream-then gave up its search and crossed over to the other side through St. Peter's chicken door, without ducking to get in, I suppose.
See, chicken stories stay with you.
When I was five, I had my biggest chicken challenge. I was staying with a neighbor during the day until my mother got off work and came to get me. Mrs. Cullum was a thin, middle-aged-woman who was nice enough to me. She had had polio as a girl and she had learned to get around the best she could with the aid of a cane. As a supplement to the family income, she took in laundry and ironing, as well as the babysitting work with me. I was fascinated to hear the clunk-and-slide as she sprinkled and ironed most of the day. Her house was like most in that area in that it had an outhouse. Inside facilities were beginning to be built as people could afford them. Her outhouse stood fifty feet from the house in the back of the chicken yard. In order to get there, I went out the back door of the house, about twenty feet to the chicken yard gate, unlatched it, went in, latched it, and then parted through chickens to the privy, unlatched it, went inside, latched it, then reversed the process until I was back to the back door of the house. Sounds easy enough. Is anything ever really easy for a five-year-old?
In this chicken yard were about fifteen laying hens and the king himself, Billy-Bob the rooster. The old bird was about as old as I was, which is dang old for a chicken.
Billy-Bob was an ugly old cuss. His spurs were longer than the gap between his stance. With an outward half-circular motion of each step in order to avoid dragging a spur against the opposite leg, he even walked ugly. I guess he got used to it, because he could move fast. I know that. He had a blind eye, evident in the left glazey-blue one. He could see all right. I know that too. His comb, once a bright red, now was duller, red-orange and it was half its original size because the top part frostbit one bad winter night, turned black and just fell off. He looked kind of like a rooster with a flat top. That half comb made him look mean. And he was a mean bird. I know that too.
There is something in rooster genes that makes them unafraid of anything under 200 pounds-at least until the bird's target earned respect by letting him have it squarely. I am sure Mrs. Cullum creased his comb with her cane a time or two, as he stayed clean away when she entered. Not so with me. At about three feet tall and average build, I must have been sighted-in with that good eye and sized-up as prime for a whooping.
Still, nature called and I'd have to brave another run. With my slowest, easy and quiet walk, I'd make it to the gate. I tried to time my entrances in the chicken yard when he was on the far side. I'd sneak in through the gate unobserved if possible, and then run like hell when he saw me. When he caught up to me he'd scratch, peck, flail and flap a trail up my back to about the back of my head then hit the ground on a bounce and climb up again. I never slowed my all-out run nor varied from an absolute straight line to the outhouse and temporary safety.
The attacks were really more flap than scratch but you couldn't convince me of that at the time. I just knew I would never live to see six because I would be pecked and clawed to death by a chicken. Peeking through a crack in the outhouse door at my avian adversary, I studied on his every move. He would look sideways at the door with his good eye aimed squarely at my sanctuary, scratching the ground four or five times, then walking over his marked line in the sand and stepping back again, challenging me.
My plans for a return run through the gauntlet were limited. I could wait him out, or I could fling the door open and run my little hiney off. Considering where I was, the first option was not in the choosing. As a runner, I could start off the line quick and I could get up to full speed in no time. It was the stopping and the reaching through the wire to unlock the gate where Billy-Bob always wore me out.
Mrs. Cullum and I needed to talk. Something had to give. I explained and she offered some good advice. She picked up my official-Flash-Gordon-Ray-Gun-Rifle with two hands on the end of the barrel and swung it back and forth like a batter warming up. She said "Listen here, you take this gun like this and when that old rooster comes at you, you just rare back far as you can and knock him a winding," adding with a smile, "then ol' Billy Bob rooster won't bother you no more."
Yeah. Why didn't I think of it? My official-Flash-Gordon-Ray-Gun-Rifle was made of metal, not heavy stuff, just that tinny, thin metal. But it had plenty enough heft to brain a chicken. Now I felt confident. Billy-Bob would get his. That night in my bed I thought of how good it would feel on the morrow when I vanquished my foe. Yeah. I could do it. I would do it. A chicken-thumping was in the offing.
The next day my test of manhood came and I was ready. When I approached the gate and worked the latch I could see he was in the middle of the chicken yard. He stopped his scratching, stood erect and motionless, then turned his head slightly to give that askance stare. Cyclops espied an intruder approaching. I entered the arena, latched the gate, turned and took three steps forward. I grinned and glared back, eyes to eye. I raised my weapon straight-on, high, like an executioner. And I waited.
But not for long. Billy-Bob let fly, doing that wibble-wobble funny run straight for me. Oh Lord help me. This was all too familiar. Terror struck.
I dropped my piece and ran flat out for the gate. While I reached through the wire to unlatch it, the old man taught me again who was the boss cock of that chicken yard, using his spurs and flap to climb up and down my legs and back. No grace under pressure for me, it was all I could do to fall through the gate and shut it before he could whip me again on the outside of the chicken yard. As I entered the house I looked back to see Billy-Bob astride my ray-gun, with his head to one side and his good eye close to it, examining his prize.
Not long after that day, Mrs. Cullum axed Billy-Bob. "He was too old anyway," she told me, "and if all he could do was jump you, then he wasn't worth his share of scraps no more. Good riddance, I say. What about you?" I told her that no, I wouldn't miss him none and I reckon I could make it all right without Billy Bob around-or something like that.
I liked Mrs. Cullum even more after our talk. I looked up to her over that ironing board with what I figured to be respect. Even though I was yet to understand the term, I felt it, I think, for the first time. I would liked to have followed through on that swing, but I didn't. She did.
Chicken stories stay with you.
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I write about two things mainly, southern culture/characters and humor. The two always seemed to blend well. My first thirty years were spend in Texas and my 27 years since have been in Tennessee (Columbia since '85). I make my living during the day working with kids in the Dept. of Children's Services, and I work nights teaching English courses at Columbia State Community College. I have taught college English courses for the last 30 years. Words have always been magical to me and I enjoy either teaching language or stirring around the words myself until they please me. I have a book-length group of stories about growing up in Texas in the 50's and 60's. It is my pleasure to belong to two local writing groups, where I enjoy doing what writers do: write, read, listen. critique. Occasionally, I am invited to read a work or two at coffee shops, bookstore, etc. I write stories I hope southern readers can identify with. Any comments are welcome at [email protected]
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