by Joseph Nieves
Benny was a child of the suburbs, and he had never seen a chicken in real life. He liked the taste of chicken, especially when his dad fried it and served it with mashed potatoes loaded with butter. His dad was good at making the simple stuff. Sometimes Benny would add a bit of ketchup to his potatoes, even though his dad said he was ruining it. It was his second favorite dish. He had never considered chickens as living things, though. Never thought about where they come from. When his dad said they were going to visit the old farm house where he had grown up, interrupting afternoon cartoons, Benny wasn’t sure he wanted to go. Grampa’s got chickens, his dad had told him. Benny could probably even feed them.
On the drive out, Benny wondered about the chickens—how big they were, what kind of stuff they liked to do. As they pulled up to the old farm house, he noticed the old weather vane, in the shape of a rooster, spinning lazily on the roof, as if confused. The house was small and white and it looked harsh, bashed by decades of seasonal storms followed by clear skies, direct sunlight beating down on it. Chips of old paint laid all around the place. Benny thought it looked different from the pictures of farms he’d seen on milk cartons. For one thing, there were no chickens wandering all around. Were they napping somewhere? Where did they sleep? He bounced in his seat as he looked around out the window for a sign of them. He could sense his father was not as excited, though, and tried to keep his questions about chickens to a minimum.
His grandfather met them on the front patio, offered a curt greeting. Benny felt his father’s hand tighten on his shoulder. He had seen this man one other time, at his dad’s place, and only said hello to him before being sent to bed. That night he heard his dad shouting. Now, his grandfather was wearing the same denim jacket with the cotton-lined collar, and he held out a hand that looked as old and worn as the house. As Benny shook it, the old man’s hand felts like it was made of tree bark. Inside, his grandfather made a pot of strong-smelling coffee, and he was dismissed to play in the backyard.
He saw them immediately, beyond his grandfather’s garden. The chickens. Brown and white ones pecking around in the grass in front of a coop. The door hung ajar. Benny ran toward them as fast as he could until he heard a loud, sharp cry that crackled in the air like tires squealing. Another chicken had appeared, larger than then the others. It was half as big as Benny with deep black feathers. It paced, agitated, looking right at him.
“Dad?” Benny called out. He turned to run back to the house when the rooster charged. Flashes of black enveloped him like smoke from the oven the time his dad tried to make lasagna like mom’s. The rooster leapt onto his back, and he fell to the ground. Talons sliced at his back like razors. He covered his head, feeling the pinch of the rooster’s beak on his hands. He felt the same sharp pain of his dad’s hand across his face after Benny refused to eat any of the chicken, even with the blackened layer peeled off. His eyes were shut, the fevered beating of wings all he could hear as he tried to crawl away.
The weight lifted. Benny opened his eyes and his father was holding the rooster by the throat. He slammed it down by its neck into the dirt, its body thudding against the ground. It kept flailing. Benny watched his father lift the bird up and slam it down again and again, his soft face turned red and twisted in a terrible rage that Benny had seen only once before. The rooster had stopped flailing. Bloody bits of feather were strewn across the ground like spent ketchup packets.
His grandfather shouted. His dad shouted back. All Benny could do was stare at the dead rooster in the dirt until his father noticed. Benny looked up at him and saw the knot of fury untangle itself into shame, the same way it did on lasagna night, and a cold shudder ran down the length of his arms to his burning, pecked fingers. That was when he first heard his dad talk about the farm house, after he had calmed down and made Benny mashed potatoes, and let him put ketchup on it without saying anything. His father looked to him, then down at the bird, and up at his own father. Without saying a word he gestured to the car and Benny knew they were leaving. He never saw the farm house again.