That one story. Family members tell it at every family gathering and it never seems to grow old.
The story has become a tattoo that just barely peeks out past your sleeve, just when you think it won’t be noticed this year someone remembers. I always wonder what stories will become legend for my children. There is such a broad selection that I almost don’t know which one to promote.
Then I consider my own stories.
There is the classic story of my first trips to G-daddy’s and MeMe’s. The hide-and-seek where I would leap out and scream “Here I AM!” the instant that the counting stopped. It is funny because I still struggle with keeping a secret or letting people be uncomfortable. I want to be a resource, a helper. How frustrating and lonely would it be if you were “it” in hide-and-seek and everyone was too well hidden to find. Miserable. My empathy compelled me, “HERE I AM!”.
Another legend from the same location. The red wagon. Great Grandma Mersi gave me the nickname Little Britches so the name was painted on the tailgate of the wagon. Also, the wagon was pulled behind a lawnmower or three wheeler which was fun but probably some sort of illegal activity these days. I think three-wheelers were discontinued for all of the liability and lawsuits. Eh, we survived.
The real story that I remember is another tale all together. The first two make me seem a cute and loving child. The third is not so pretty.
It is a dark story about conspiracy, circumstance, and mercy killing.
Lord of the Flies meets Charlotte’s Web. No writing of inspiring phrases… just animals and unsupervised boys.
This is my offering of the events as I remember them. My cousin was my partner in crime in the summer months and he is about a year older than me so I can squarely blame him for misguiding me.
That day we were playing around the chicken pen and poking at the chickens through the wire, using drumsticks that we brought back as souvenirs from a vacation to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Chickens move erratically and if you hold a stick out near them they will peck it at least once. One crafty bird snatched my cousin’s souvenir drumstick through the wire and disappeared into the chicken crowd.
The recovery mission developed quickly. First we knew that we had to enter the pen with what seemed like thousands of dangerous chickens. Sticks would be required for protection. Second, this effort would take skilled maneuvers so we decide to do the classic “herd into one corner and the other agent will surprise attack” move. With a resolve that only elementary age children possess, we entered the chicken’s lair and readied ourselves for a life or death struggle.
As the door slammed shut on the poorly lit chicken coop we stood like Forest and Bubba waiting for our eyes to adjust. The floor was alive with feathers and a cacophony of clucking that is so constant it blends into the background like elevator music. We scanned the crowd for our target while several twitchy Rhode Island Reds clucked their way towards us expecting to be fed. Then we saw him. A cocky rooster still holding the stolen merchandise and proudly strutting the perimeter of the room. He ducked through an opening into the outer pen where the initial crime had been committed. That jerk was going down.
What happened next was a blur of ninja-like movements and cat-like reflexes. Sticks were swinging, flightless wings were flapping, and when the smoke settled there were two things I remember; the stolen drumstick lay on the ground near our feet and the offending chicken was thrashing in circles with his head hanging awkwardly off his neck and touching the ground. Suddenly, the recovered drumstick was altogether unimportant. The broken chicken was much worse.
We grew up knowing that animals were part of the circle of life and one rule was respecting the animals. Cruelty was not part of the equation and here was a poor broken-necked chicken in a fluttering death spiral in front of us. We knew exactly what had to be done. We had to hide this shit and fast.
After a few moments the fluttering had stopped and was more of a mild twitch. We grabbed the bird and exited the scene of the crime.
Standing outside of the building holding a body, I felt so exposed and guilty. Where could we hide it? What could we do? Our first attempt was to hide the body under a pile of leaves. The twitching made it difficult to be sure that he would remain hidden.
More leaves. Perfect.
Then something happened we didn’t expect. Guilt. Catholic school, polishing a rosary levels of guilt. We were murderers. Like the thumping of the Tell Tale Heart, the twitches of the dying bird pounded at our brains. God would surely punish our crimes so we had to make amends. We returned to the body to do something, anything, to make this right. A eulogy maybe? A prayer? What do you say to a dead chicken?
“Dear Mr. Clucks, I am sorry we accidentally killed you. I didn’t know your neck was so sensitive to being struck with a stick. I promise to watch over your hens and put their eggs to honorable uses.”
Some collective Amen’s and we prepared to walk away. The twitching continued. Don’t these damn things ever die? We had a sudden second wave of guilt. Maybe Mr. Clucks wasn’t dead and was simply a quadriplegic bird who was forced to watch himself die under a pile of leaves through a pair of cold unblinking eyes? Oh God, we have caused such suffering! We are going to hell. We have to make this right. Plus, my mom will be back any minute and we will be in some deep squat.
This is where manslaughter turned to an honorable mercy killing. Obviously, there is no repair for a quadriplegic chicken so we had to finish the job. We just didn’t have the gumption to kill it properly. Instead of popping its head off like proper men, we tried useless kid methods like stacking pieces of wood on the chicken or burying it in dirt. (I can’t believe we made it out of the public school system)
After about an hour of trying to “off” a half-dead chicken I can only imagine that if the chicken had hands he would have shot himself. I seem to remember some time crunch or approaching adult finally forced us to throw the battered body into a nearby ditch. Exhausted from guilt, murder, and panic we trudged into the house in the hopes that no one would ever know.
There was just one problem. The old lady next door had watched us the entire time and recounted a play by play to my mother. I can only imagine her horror. Without knowing our thoughts and misguided regrets she had to think we were like a couple of wolves in a murderous frenzy. Torturing a poor chicken within an inch of his life only to pull back and let him live a moment more. The story she shared made us seem like psychopaths who were on the fringes of childhood and headed towards serial killing sprees.
My mother waited for my step-father to get home from a second job of bailing hay. He was in no mood for reasoning. Then the real torture began. They made us choose our punishment, spankings or grounding. We reasoned that spanking would suck but ultimately would be over quickly. We had already tarnished our souls, who could hurt our backsides? The parents were listening and decided to issue a grounding.
Figures. I know who the monsters really were. Big Brother is always watching for parents. I wish I knew what dinner was that night. Probably chicken nuggets. They acted like we lured kittens behind the shed and threw them in a chipper shredder. It was an accident people!
For years we have pleaded our case of the chicken. It became a funny story and eventually family legend. Let’s ask the boys about the chicken and laugh as they claim to be innocent. Ha Ha Ha.
Well, here it is. The legend of the murdered chicken.
For all of the misunderstood children who accidentally killed an animal that was way too fragile in the first place, this post is for you. Seriously, it’s like chickens want to die with a neck like that. You’re welcome.
-Underdaddy to the rescue.