John took a taxi from the station, as his uncle had told him to do in case they weren’t there to meet him. It was less than two miles to Hanshaw Chickens, Inc., as his Uncle Ernie Hanshaw now called his farm. John knew the white two-story house well, but the long gray barn was new to him. It was huge, covering the whole area where the cow barn and the pigpens had been.
“Plenty of wishbones in that place!” the taxi driver said cheerfully as John paid him.
John smiled. “Yes, and I was just thinking—not a chicken in sight!”
John carried his suitcase towards the house. “Anybody home?” he called, thinking Helen would probably be in the kitchen now, getting lunch.
Then he saw the flattened cat. No, it was a kitten. Was it real or made of paper? John set his suitcase down and bent closer. It was real. It lay on its side, flat and level with the damp reddish earth, in the wide track of a tire. Its skull had been crushed and there was blood there, but not on the rest of the body which had been enlarged by pressure, so that the tail looked absurdly short. The kitten was white with patches of orange, brindle and black.
John heard a hum of machinery from the barn. He put his suitcase on the front porch, and hearing nothing from the house, set off at a trot for the new barn. He found the big front doors locked, and went round to the back, again at a trot, because the barn seemed to be a quarter of a mile long. Besides the machine hum, John heard a high-pitched sound, a din of cries and peeps from inside.
“Ernie?” John yelled. Then he saw Helen. “Hello, Helen!”
“John! Welcome! You took a taxi? We didn’t hear any car!” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “You’ve grown another three inches!”
His uncle climbed down from a ladder and shook John’s hand. “How’re you, boy?”
“Okay, Ernie. What’s going on here?” John looked up at moving belts which disappeared somewhere inside the barn. A rectangular metal container, nearly as big as a boxcar, rested on the ground.
Ernie pulled John closer and shouted that the grain, a special mixture, had just been delivered and was being stored in the factory, as he called the barn. This afternoon a man would come to collect the container.
“Lights shouldn’t go on now, according to schedule, but we’ll make an exception so you can see. Look!” Ernie pulled a switch inside the barn door, and the semi-darkness changed to glaring light, bright as full sun.
The cackles and screams of the chickens augmented like a siren, like a thousand sirens, and John instinctively covered his ears. Ernie’s lips moved, but John could not hear him. John swung around to see Helen. She was standing farther back, and waved a hand, shook her head and smiled, as if to say she couldn’t bear the racket. Ernie drew John farther into the barn, but he had given up talking and merely pointed.
The chickens were smallish and mostly white, and they all shuffled constantly. John saw that this was because the platforms on which they stood slanted forward, inclining them towards the slowly moving feed troughs. But not all of them were eating. Some were trying to peck the chickens next to them. Each chicken had its own little wire coop. There must have been forty rows of chickens on the ground floor, and eight or ten tiers of chickens went up to the ceiling. Between the double rows of back-to-back chickens were aisles wide enough for a man to pass and sweep the floor, John supposed, and just as he thought this, Ernie turned a wheel, and water began to shoot over the floor. The floor slanted towards various drain holes.
“All automatic! Somethin’, eh?”
John recognized the words from Ernie’s lips, and nodded appreciatively. “Terrific!” But he was ready to get away from the noise.
Ernie shut off the water.
John noticed that the chickens had worn their beaks down to blunt stubs, and their white breasts dripped blood where the horizontal bar supported their weight. What else could they do but eat? John had read a little about battery chicken farming. These hens of Ernie’s, like the hens he had read about, couldn’t turn around in their coops. Much of the general flurry in the barn was caused by chickens trying to fly upward. Ernie cut the lights. The doors closed after them, apparently also automatically.
“Machine farming has really got me over the hump,” Ernie said, still talking loudly. “I’m making good money now. And just imagine, one man—me—can run the whole show!”
John grinned. “You mean you won’t have anything for me to do?”
“Oh, there’s plenty to do. You’ll see. How about some lunch first? Tell Helen I’ll be in in about fifteen minutes.”
John walked towards Helen. “Fabulous.”
“Yes. Ernie’s in love with it.”
They went on towards the house, Helen looking down at her feet, because the ground was muddy in spots. She wore old tennis shoes, black corduroy pants, and a rust-colored sweater. John purposely walked between her and where the kitten lay, not wanting to mention it now.
He carried his suitcase up to the square, sunny corner room which he had slept in since he was a boy of ten, when Helen and Ernie had bought the farm. He changed into blue jeans, and went down to join Helen in the kitchen.
“Would you like an old-fashioned? We’ve got to celebrate your arrival,” Helen said. She was making two drinks at the wooden table.
“Fine.—Where’s Susan?” Susan was their eight-year-old daughter.
“She’s at a—Well, sort of summer school. They’ll bring her back around four-thirty. Helps fill in the summer holidays. They make awful clay ashtrays and fringed money-purses—you know. Then you’ve got to praise them.”
John laughed. He gazed at his aunt-by-marriage, thinking she was still very attractive at—what was it? Thirty-one, he thought. She was about five feet four, slender, with reddish blonde curly hair and eyes that sometimes looked green, sometimes blue. And she had a very pleasant voice. “Oh, thank you.” John accepted his drink. There were pineapple chunks in it, topped with a cherry.
“Awfully good to see you, John. How’s college? And how’re your folks?”
Both those items were all right. John would graduate from Ohio State next year when he would be twenty, then he was going to take a post-graduate course in government. He was an only child, and his parents lived in Dayton, a hundred and twenty miles away.
Then John mentioned the kitten. “I hope it’s not yours,” he said, and realized at once that it must be, because Helen put her glass down and stood up. Who else could the kitten have belonged to, John thought, since there was no other house around?
“Oh, Lord! Susan’s going to be—” Helen rushed out of the back door.
John ran after her, straight for the kitten which Helen had seen from a distance.
“It was that big truck this morning,” Helen said. “The driver sits so high up he can’t see what’s—”
“I’ll help you,” John said, looking around for a spade or a trowel. He found a shovel and returned, and prized the flattened body up gently, as if it were still alive. He held it in both his hands. “We ought to bury it.”
“Of course. Susan mustn’t see it, but I’ve got to tell her.—There’s a fork in back of the house.”
John dug where Helen suggested, a spot near an apple tree behind the house. He covered the grave over, and put some tufts of grass back so it would not catch the eye.
“The times I’ve brought that kitten in the house when the damned trucks came!” Helen said. “She was barely four months, wasn’t afraid of anything, just went trotting up to cars as if they were something to play with, you know?” She gave a nervous laugh. “And this morning the truck came at eleven, and I was watching a pie in the oven, just about to take it out.”
John didn’t know what to say. “Maybe you should get another kitten for Susan as soon as you can.”
“What’re you two doing?” Ernie walked towards them from the back door of the house.
“We just buried Beansy,” Helen said. “The truck got her this morning.”
“Oh.” Ernie’s smile disappeared. “That’s too bad. That’s really too bad, Helen.”
But at lunch Ernie was cheerful enough, talking of vitamins and antibiotics in his chicken feed, and his produce of one and a quarter eggs per day per hen. Though it was July, Ernie was lengthening the chicken’s ‘day’ by artificial light.
“All birds are geared to spring,” Ernie said. “They lay more when they think spring is coming. The ones I’ve got are at peak. In October they’ll be under a year old, and I’ll sell them and take on a new batch.”
John listened attentively. He was to be here a month. He wanted to be helpful. “They really do eat, don’t they? A lot of them have worn off their beaks, I noticed.”
Ernie laughed. “They’re de-beaked. They’d peck each other through the wire, if they weren’t. Two of ’em got loose in my first batch and nearly killed each other. Well, one did kill the other. Believe me, I de-beak ’em now, according to instructions.”
“And one chicken went on eating the other,” Helen said. “Cannibalism.” She laughed uneasily. “Ever hear of cannibalism among chickens, John?”
“Our chickens are insane,” Helen said.
Insane. John smiled a little. Maybe Helen was right. Their noises had sounded pretty crazy.
“Helen doesn’t much like battery farming,” Ernie said apologetically to John. “She’s always thinking about the old days. But we weren’t doing so well then.”
That afternoon, John helped his uncle draw the conveyor belts back into the barn. He began learning the levers and switches that worked things. Belts removed eggs and deposited them gently into plastic containers. It was nearly 5 p.m. before John could get away. He wanted to say hello to his cousin Susan, a lively little girl with hair like her mother’s.
As John crossed the front porch, he heard a child’s weeping, and he remembered the kitten. He decided to go ahead anyway and speak to Susan.
Susan and her mother were in the living room—a front room with flowered print curtains and cherrywood furniture. Some additions, such as a bigger television set, had been made since John had seen the room last. Helen was on her knees beside the sofa on which Susan lay, her face buried in one arm.
“Hello, Susan,” John said. “I’m sorry about your kitten.”
Susan lifted a round, wet face. A bubble started at her lips and broke. “Beansy—”
John embraced her impulsively. “We’ll find another kitten. I promise. Maybe tomorrow. Yes?” He looked at Helen.
Helen nodded and smiled a little. “Yes, we will.”
The next afternoon, as soon as the lunch dishes had been washed, John and Helen set out in the station wagon for a farm eight miles away belonging to some people called Ferguson. The Fergusons had two female cats that frequently had kittens, Helen said. And they were in luck this time. One of the cats had a litter of five—one black, one white, three mixed—and the other cat was pregnant.
“White?” John suggested. The Fergusons had given them a choice.
“Mixed,” Helen said. “White is all good and black is—maybe unlucky.”
They chose a black and white female with white feet.
“I can see this one being called Bootsy,” Helen said, laughing.
The Fergusons were simple people, getting on in years, and very hospitable. Mrs. Ferguson insisted they partake of a freshly baked coconut cake along with some rather powerful homemade wine. The kitten romped around the kitchen, playing with gray rolls of dust that she dragged out from under a big cupboard.
“That ain’t no battery kitten!” Frank Ferguson remarked, and drank deep.
“Can we see your chickens, Frank?” Helen asked. She slapped John’s knee suddenly. “Frank has the most wonderful chickens, almost a hundred!”
“What’s wonderful about ’em?” Frank said, getting up on a stiff leg. He opened the back screen door. “You know where they are, Helen.”
John’s head was buzzing pleasantly from the wine as he walked with Helen out to the chicken yard. Here were Rhode Island Reds, big white Leghorns, roosters strutting and tossing their combs, half-grown speckled chickens, and lots of little chicks about six inches high. The ground was covered with claw-scored watermelon rinds, tin bowls of grain and mush, and there was much chicken dung. A wheelless wreck of a car seemed to be a favorite laying spot: three hens sat on the back of the front seat with their eyes half closed, ready to drop eggs which would surely break on the floor behind them.
“It’s such a wonderful mess!” John shouted, laughing.
Helen hung by her fingers in the wire fence, rapt. “Like the chickens I knew when I was a kid. Well, Ernie and I had them too, till about—” She smiled at John. “You know—a year ago. Let’s go in!”
John found the gate, a limp thing made of wire that fastened with a wooden bar. They went in and closed it behind them.
Several hens drew back and regarded them with curiosity, making throaty, skeptical noises.
“They’re such stupid darlings!” Helen watched a hen fly up and perch herself in a peach tree. “They can see the sun! They can fly!”
“And scratch for worms—and eat watermelon!” John said.
“When I was little, I used to dig worms for them at my grandmother’s farm. With a hoe. And sometimes I’d step on their droppings, you know—well, on purpose—and it’d go between my toes. I loved it. Grandma always made me wash my feet under the garden hydrant before I came in the house.” She laughed. A chicken evaded her outstretched hand with an “Urrr-rrk!” “Grandma’s chickens were so tame, I could touch them. All bony and warm with the sun, their feathers. Sometimes I want to open all the coops in the barn and open the doors and let ours loose, just to see them walking on the grass for a few minutes.”
“Say, Helen, want to buy one of these chickens to take home? Just for fun? A couple of ’em?”
“How much did the kitten cost? Anything?”
Susan took the kitten into her arms, and John could see that the tragedy of Beansy would soon be forgotten. To John’s disappointment, Helen lost her gaiety during dinner. Maybe it was because Ernie was droning on about his profit and loss—not loss really, but outlay. Ernie was obsessed, John realized. That was why Helen was bored. Ernie worked hard now, regardless of what he said about machinery doing everything. There were creases on either side of his mouth, and they were not from laughing. He was starting to get a paunch. Helen had told John that last year Ernie had dismissed their handyman, Sam, who’d been with them seven years.
“Say,” Ernie said, demanding John’s attention. “What d’you think of the idea? Start a battery chicken farm when you finish school, and hire one man to run it. You could take another job in Chicago or Washington or wherever, and you’d have a steady separate income for life.”
John was silent. He couldn’t imagine owning a battery chicken farm.
“Any bank would finance you—with a word from Clive, of course.”
Clive was John’s father.
Helen was looking down at her plate, perhaps thinking of something else.
“Not really my lifestyle, I think,” John answered finally. “I know it’s profitable.”
After dinner, Ernie went into the living room to do his reckoning, as he called it. He did some reckoning almost every night. John helped Helen with the dishes. She put a Mozart symphony on the record player. The music was nice, but John would have liked to talk with Helen. On the other hand, what would he have said, exactly? I understand why you’re bored. I think you’d prefer pouring slop for pigs and tossing grain to real chickens, the way you used to do. John had a desire to put his arms around Helen as she bent over the sink, to turn her face to his and kiss her. What would Helen think if he did?
That night, lying in bed, John dutifully read the brochures on battery chicken farming which Ernie had given him.
… The chickens are bred small so that they do not eat so much, and they rarely reach more than 3 1/2 pounds … Young chickens are subjected to a light routine which tricks them into thinking that a day is 6 hours long. The objective of the factory farmer is to increase the original 6-hour day by leaving the lights on for a longer period each week. Artificial Spring Period is maintained for the hen’s whole lifetime of 10 months … There is no real falling off of egg-laying in the natural sense, though the hen won’t lay quite so many eggs towards the end … [Why, John wondered. And wasn’t “not quite so many” the same as “falling off”?] At 10 months the hen is sold for about 30¢ a pound, depending on the market…
Richard K. Schultz of Poon’s Cross, Pa., writes: “I am more than pleased and so is my wife with the modernization of my farm into a battery chicken farm operated with Muskeego-Ryan Electric equipment. Profits have quadrupled in a year and a half and we have even bigger hopes for the future…”
Writes Henry Vliess of Farnham, Kentucky: “My old farm was barely breaking even. I had chickens, pigs, cows, the usual. My friends used to laugh at my hard work combined with all my tough luck. Then I…”
John had a dream. He was flying like Superman in Ernie’s chicken barn, and the lights were all blazing brightly. Many of the imprisoned chickens looked up at him, their eyes flashed silver, and they were struck blind. The noise they made was fantastic. They wanted to escape, but could no longer see, and the whole barn heaved with their efforts to fly upward. John flew about frantically, trying to find the lever to open the coops, the doors, anything, but he couldn’t. Then he woke up, startled to find himself in bed, propped on one elbow. His forehead and chest were damp with sweat. Moonlight came strong through the window. In the night’s silence, he could hear the steady high-pitched din of the hundreds of chickens in the barn, though Ernie had said the barn was absolutely soundproofed. Maybe it was ‘daytime’ for the chickens now. Ernie said they had three more months to live.
John became more adept with the barn’s machinery and the fast artificial clocks, but since his dream he no longer looked at the chickens as he had the first day. He did not look at them at all if he could help it. Once Ernie pointed out a dead one, and John removed it. Its breast, bloody from the coop’s barrier, was so distended, it might have eaten itself to death.
Susan had named her kitten “Bibsy,” because it had a white oval on its chest like a bib.
“Beansy and now Bibsy,” Helen said to John. “You’d think all Susan thinks about is food!”
Helen and John drove to town one Saturday morning. It was alternately sunny and showery, and they walked close together under an umbrella when the showers came. They bought meat, potatoes, washing powder, white paint for a kitchen shelf, and Helen bought a pink-and-white striped blouse for herself. At a pet shop, John acquired a basket with a pillow to give Susan for Bibsy.
When they got home, there was a long dark gray car in front of the house.
“Why, that’s the doctor’s car!” Helen said.
“Does he come by just to visit?” John asked, and at once felt stupid, because something might have happened to Ernie. A grain delivery had been due that morning, and Ernie was always climbing about to see that everything was going all right.
There was another car, dark green, which Helen didn’t recognize beside the chicken factory. Helen and John went into the house.
It was Susan. She lay on the living room floor under a plaid blanket, only one sandaled foot and yellow sock visible under the fringed edge. Dr. Geller was there, and a man Helen didn’t know. Ernie stood rigid and panicked beside his daughter.
Dr. Geller came towards Helen and said, “I’m sorry, Helen. Susan was dead by the time the ambulance got here. I sent for the coroner.”
“What happened?” Helen started to touch Susan, and instinctively John caught her.
“Honey, I didn’t see her in time,” Ernie said. “She was chasing under that damned container after the kitten just as it was lowering.”
“Yeah, it bumped her on the head,” said a husky man in tan workclothes, one of the delivery men. “She was running out from under it, Ernie said. My gosh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Hanshaw!”
Helen gasped, then she covered her face.
“You’ll need a sedative, Helen,” Dr. Geller said.
The doctor gave Helen a needle in her arm. Helen said nothing. Her mouth was slightly open, and her eyes stared straight ahead. Another car came and took the body away on a stretcher. The coroner took his leave then too.
With a shaky hand, Ernie poured whiskeys.
Bibsy leapt about the room, and sniffed at the red splotch on the carpet. John went to the kitchen to get a sponge. It was best to try to get it up, John thought, while the others were in the kitchen. He went back to the kitchen for a saucepan of water, and scrubbed again at the abundant red. His head was ringing, and he had difficulty keeping his balance. In the kitchen, he drank off his whiskey at a gulp and it at once burnt his ears.
“Ernie, I think I’d better take off,” the delivery man said solemnly. “You know where to find me.”
Helen went up to the bedroom she shared with Ernie, and did not come down when it was time for dinner. From his room, John heard floorboards creaking faintly, and knew that Helen was walking about in the room. He wanted to go in and speak to her, but he was afraid he would not be capable of saying the right thing. Ernie should be with her, John thought.
John and Ernie gloomily scrambled some eggs, and John went to ask Helen if she would come down or would prefer him to bring her something. He knocked on the door.
“Come in,” Helen said.
He loved her voice, and was somehow surprised to find that it wasn’t any different since her child had died. She was lying on the double bed, still in the same clothes, smoking a cigarette.
“I don’t care to eat, thanks, but I’d like a whiskey.”
John rushed down, eager to get something that she wanted. He brought ice, a glass, and the bottle on a tray. “Do you just want to go to sleep?” John asked.
She had not turned on a light. John kissed her cheek, and for an instant she slipped her arm around his neck and kissed his cheek also. Then he left the room.
Downstairs the eggs tasted dry, and John could hardly swallow even with sips of milk.
“My God, what a day,” Ernie said. “My God.” He was evidently trying to say more, looked at John with an effort at politeness, or closeness.
And John, like Helen, found himself looking down at his plate, wordless. Finally, miserable in the silence, John got up with his plate and patted Ernie awkwardly on the shoulder. “I am sorry, Ernie.”
They opened another bottle of whiskey, one of the two bottles left in the living room cabinet.
“If I’d known this would happen, I’d never have started this damned chicken farm. You know that. I meant to earn something for my family—not go limping along year after year.”
John saw that the kitten had found the new basket and gone to sleep in it on the living room floor. “Ernie, you probably want to talk to Helen. I’ll be up at the usual time to give you a hand.” That meant 7 a.m.
“Okay. I’m in a daze tonight. Forgive me, John.”
John lay for nearly an hour in his bed without sleeping. He heard Ernie go quietly into the bedroom across the hall, but he heard no voices or even a murmur after that. Ernie was not much like Clive, John thought. John’s father might have given way to tears for a minute, might have cursed. Then with his father it would have been all over, except for comforting his wife.
A raucous noise, rising and falling, woke John up. The chickens, of course. What the hell was it now? They were louder than he’d ever heard them. He looked out of the front window. In the pre-dawn light, he could see that the barn’s front doors were open. Then the lights in the barn came on, blazing out on to the grass. John pulled on his tennis shoes without tying them, and rushed into the hall.
“Ernie!—Helen!” he yelled at their closed door.
John ran out of the house. A white tide of chickens was now oozing through the wide front doors of the barn. What on earth had happened? “Get back!” he yelled at the chickens, flailing his arms.
The little hens might have been blind or might not have heard him at all through their own squawks. They kept on flowing from the barn, some fluttering over the others, and sinking again in the white sea.
John cupped his hands to his mouth. “Ernie! The doors!” He was shouting into the barn, because Ernie must be there.
John plunged into the hens and made another effort to shoo them back. It was hopeless. Unused to walking, the chickens teetered like drunks, lurched against each other, stumbled forward, fell back on their tails, but they kept pouring out, many borne on the backs of those who walked. They were pecking at John’s ankles. John kicked some aside and moved towards the barn doors again, but the pain of the blunt beaks on his ankles and lower legs made him stop. Some chickens tried to fly up to attack him, but had no strength in their wings. They are insane, John remembered. Suddenly frightened, John ran towards the clearer area at the side of the barn, then on towards the back door. He knew how to open the back door. It had a combination lock.
Helen was standing at the corner of the barn in her bathrobe, where John had first seen her when he arrived. The back door was closed.
“What’s happening?” John shouted.
“I opened the coops,” Helen said.
“Opened them—why?—Where’s Ernie?”
“He’s in there.” Helen was oddly calm, as if she were standing and talking in her sleep.
“Well, what’s he doing? Why doesn’t he close the place?” John was shaking Helen by the shoulders, trying to wake her up. He released her and ran to the back door.
“I’ve locked it again,” Helen said.
John worked the combination as fast as he could, but he could hardly see it.
“Don’t open it! Do you want them coming this way?” Helen was suddenly alert, dragging John’s hands from the lock.
Then John understood. Ernie was being killed in there, being pecked to death. Helen wanted it. Even if Ernie was screaming, they couldn’t have heard him.
A smile came over Helen’s face. “Yes, he’s in there. I think they will finish him.”
John, not quite hearing over the noise of chickens, had read her lips. His heart was beating fast.
Then Helen slumped, and John caught her. John knew it was too late to save Ernie. He also thought that Ernie was no longer screaming.
Helen straightened up. “Come with me. Let’s watch them,” she said, and drew John feebly, yet with determination, along the side of the barn towards the front doors.
Their slow walk seemed four times as long as it should have been. He gripped Helen’s arm. “Ernie in there?” John asked, feeling as if he were dreaming, or perhaps about to faint.
“In there.” Helen smiled at him again, with her eyes half closed. “I came down and opened the back door, you see—and I went up and woke Ernie. I said, ‘Ernie, something’s wrong in the factory, you’d better come down.’” He came down and went in the back door—and I opened the coops with the lever. And then—I pulled the lever that opens the front door. He was—in the middle of the barn then, because I started a fire on the floor.”
“A fire?” Then John noticed a pale curl of smoke rising over the front door.
“Not much to burn in there—just the grain,” Helen said. “And there’s enough for them to eat outdoors, don’t you think?” She gave a laugh.
John pulled her faster towards the front of the barn. There seemed to be not much smoke. Now the whole lawn was covered with chickens, and they were spreading through the white rail fence on to the road, pecking, cackling, screaming, a slow army without direction. It looked as if snow had fallen on the land.
“Head for the house!” John said, kicking at some chickens that were attacking Helen’s ankles.
They went up to John’s room. Helen knelt at the front window, watching. The sun was rising on their left, and now it touched the reddish roof of the metal barn. Gray smoke was curling upward from the horizontal lintel of the front doors. Chickens paused, stood stupidly in the doorway until they were bumped by others from behind. The chickens seemed not so much dazzled by the rising sun—the light was brighter in the barn—as by the openness around them and above them. John had never before seen chickens stretch their necks just to look up at the sky. He knelt beside Helen, his arm around her waist.
“They’re all going to—go away,” John said. He felt curiously paralyzed.
The fire would not spread to the house. There was no wind, and the barn was a good thirty yards away. John felt quite mad, like Helen, or the chickens, and was astonished by the reasonableness of his thought about the fire’s not spreading.
“It’s all over,” Helen said, as the last, not quite the last chickens wobbled out of the barn. She drew John closer by the front of his pajama jacket.
John kissed her gently, then more firmly on the lips. It was strange, stronger than any kiss he had ever known with a girl, yet curiously without further desire. The kiss seemed only an affirmation that they were both alive. They knelt facing each other, tightly embracing. The cries of the hens ceased to sound ugly, and sounded only excited and puzzled. It was like an orchestra playing, some members stopping, others resuming instruments, making a continuous chord without a tempo. John did not know how long they knelt like that, but at last his knees hurt, and he stood up, pulling Helen up, too. He looked out of the window and said:
“They must be all out. And the fire isn’t any bigger. Shouldn’t we—” But the obligation to look for Ernie seemed far away, not at all pressing on him. It was as if he dreamed this night or this dawn, and Helen’s kiss, the way he had dreamed about flying like Superman in the barn. Were they really Helen’s hands in his now?
She slumped again, and plainly she wanted to sit on the carpet, so he left her and pulled on his blue jeans over his pajama pants. He went down and entered the barn cautiously by the front door. The smoke made the interior hazy, but when he bent low, he could see fifty or more chickens pecking at what he knew must be Ernie on the floor. Bodies of chickens overcome by smoke lay on the floor, like little white puffs of smoke themselves, and some live chickens were pecking at these, going for the eyes. John moved towards Ernie. He thought he had braced himself, but he hadn’t braced himself enough for what he saw: a fallen column of blood and bone to which a few tatters of pajama cloth still clung. John ran out again, very fast, because he had breathed once, and the smoke had nearly got him.
In his room, Helen was humming and drumming on the windowsill, gazing out at the chickens left on the lawn. The hens were trying to scratch in the grass, and were staggering, falling on their sides, but mostly falling backwards, because they were used to shuffling to prevent themselves from falling forward.
“Look!” Helen said, laughing so, there were tears in her eyes. “They don’t know what grass is! But they like it!”
John cleared his throat and said, “What’re you going to say?—What’ll we say?”
“Oh—say.” Helen seemed not at all disturbed by the question. “Well—that Ernie heard something and went down and—he wasn’t completely sober, you know. And—maybe he pulled a couple of wrong levers.—Don’t you think so?”
from The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder,
New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002