The Chicken Wizard
Her hands were colored bright orange from Cheetos and cheese.
by Rob Hunter
“Chickens don’t read much.”
It took him over an hour, but Lucy got the hay bales cleared away from two sides of the car and arranged in a row—facing south, dragged out of the shadow of the barn to dry in the sun. Getting the car free enough to move would take him a week, give or take. Lucy cleared the axles singlehanded, and built an inclined ramp. The car he then winched into the barn, using sixty feet of aileron cable. Lucian Hobart, known as Lucy, was 92 years old and expected to be feeble.
He lifted a corner of the tarp, “Jesus Christ.” Death billowed forth—the burial chamber smell of long-departed flesh, seasoned with damp, dark, and forgetfulness. In the car, wedged behind the steering wheel, was the carcass of a deer. In the fifty years since Elliot died, the rumble seat roadster had sunk under its own weight, now the deer’s, mud to the hubcaps. In his own private mourning for his son died young, Lucy changed the hay piled on the Chevy 6 each year in the fall, too early yet for fresh. He wished he had a cigarette.
As a boy the dead son, Elliot, learned from Lucy who taught him the life skills that had served him when he flew B-24s in the war: how to fade a low roller and shoot craps while kneeling on cement; how to shave with a straight razor on a moving train; how to shoot a .50 caliber machine gun. To this end the man and the boy retreated to the barn where Lucy would check his mouse traps, and Elliot would pore over the crates of pulp fiction with the lurid covers Lucy kept there. Together they built a machine gun that made much noise. They did this by hooking an air compressor to a modified carburetor with a trigger assembly (from a pesticide sprayer) and hoisting young Elliot high into the loft where they rigged a rope harness that hung from a loading hook attached to a high beam. Elliot was lashed to a tractor seat and swung, a turret gunner in a B-24, trailing hydraulic lines.
Elliot did not expect help from his mother, who sat in front of an always-on television set, then as now. Elliot was dead.
The deer, too, was dead. That a deer should choose a 1939 Chevrolet roadster as its final resting place seemed so natural, so right in a grander scheme of things, that it did not occur to Lucy to question it. “Hiya, deer,” he said. The deer must have tunneled in, after the hay or attracted by some redolence of sex seeped into the upholstery. Or escaping an attack by coyotes, maybe. Lucy checked the seat covers. Yep, they had been nibbled at. He looked the corpse in its face—a four-point buck, its eyes gone and flesh hanging loosely where the maggots of summers past had bred and fled.
“Say what?” Lucy cocked his head conspiratorially. “Oh, lunch? I’ll have to check my schedule.” He fumbled in the pockets of his overalls so that it looked as if he was doing something. “Sorry, I have other plans. You understand?” The deer gave silent assent. “I’ll take that as a yes, then.” He then got to work on extracting the carcass from behind the steering wheel. It would not budge. He hoisted a hammer—a two pound maul—and took a mighty swipe at the deer’s head. The deer fell sideways to loll against the driver’s side window; the antlers were still locked onto the steering wheel. One rot-inflected eye socket gave it the look of a small-town lawyer about to make a point with the jury.
“Stuck. Fuck.” Lucy breathed in, deeply, salt air from the clam flats a mile away. The car with its dead deer, frozen to the ground on this young and sunny spring day—this would be pick and shovel work. He checked to see if anyone was watching.
Some weeks later Lucy spoke to a slim girl who balanced a baby on one hip. The day was sunny with a deferred spring thaw and he had let the barn door hang open. “The car wherein your great-great-grandfather, Elliot Hobart, was conceived is the only memorial to my son, who died falling off a ladder.” The odor of decomposition now mixed with the laundry-fresh smells of ice melt and fallow fields bursting with new life. Lucy sat, legs spraddled in the dust of the barn floor, and waved away the smell of death. “People who fall off ladders are not entitled to offspring. He should have saved his acrobatics for a Kiwanis fund-raiser.” Lucy felt a yearning for a cigarette. “You wouldn’t have a...?” The girl made a face and waggled her fingers under the baby’s nose. “No, I thought not.” She was seated on an Olympic weightlifter’s bench.
“I don’t smoke. Just dope a little. Cough syrup, extasy, meth—the usual. Wine.”
“Hmmm...” Lucian Hobart farted. The child began vigorously sucking at a thumb.
“Gross,” said the young mother. Samantha Cherry Hobart, Lucy’s granddaughter by a factor of three, shifted her child to the opposite hip and swiveled to accommodate the change in her center of gravity. That an old, old man might sneak away to lift weights behind the barn was cool; that the man who said he was her great-great-great-grandfather had a workout routine was bizarre. Samantha was quite good-looking in a querulous sort of way, Lucy noted.
“You find farting gross, but not the smell of death,” said Lucy. “Interesting. Or is that only something you say—a charm of aversion? Distancing yourself from the point of ignition. I thought kids rejoiced in farting. Had farting contests when I was in the war, too. We’d drop our pants and shoot fire. One of us would bring along kitchen matches—those wood ones with the big blue heads?—and light ’em up.”
“I saw it on TV.”
“No, the war. There was a mini-series. Explosions and all.”
“TV. Huh—must be real then.” She is of California, Samantha of the violet eyes, Lucy thinks, and farting is not special, not in the way an earthquake is special. Everyone farts. She has come to Maine in the summer when the California air has a feel to it, a kind of calmness. Earthquake weather. “Elliot’s car—not the deer’s, not mine anymore—Elliot’s. Philomena wanted him cremated.”
Samantha was perhaps in her twenties, with hennaed hair, deep violet eyes, and eyebrows that did not separate but continued undiminished across the bridge of an adenoidal nose. The single russet eyebrow bounced in time with the rhythms of her speech, turning questions into exclamations. “Just a jar of ashes, then. That’s all that’s left.”
“And a cascading times table of cousins and aunts. And me, there’s me,” said Lucy. “I flew B-24s, I ever tell you that?”
Samantha’s appraising look said this was something new, a fresh face for her great-great-great-grandfather. “You were in a war. But no TV. Vietnam?”
“Europe. Before your time.”
“Yes.” She checked the behind of her shorts, and gave her buttocks a slap-slap like a hotel chambermaid fluffing up a guest’s pillow. “Then you never had your son buried in the car. Too bad, I mean it sounded nice. Thoughtful. Like where he began?” She threw an arm around the dead deer as if they were posing for a family vacation snapshot. “There was this guy in Escondido who got buried in his Corvette with his pet Chihuahua. And his golf clubs. The car was red with chrome wheels.” She then wiped off the bench’s surface with a shop towel from a big blue roll. “You said you lifted weights. You said so. To stay in shape?” the eyebrow exclaimed.
“Not so much lately. I’ve been busy. Get exercise just working on the car.”
Samantha looked from Lucy to the car. Then again, appraisingly, as if sizing up an inheritance. “The car. A classic?”
“A Chevy 6 roadster; sold for seven-hundred dollars brand spanking new. I bought it third hand for fifty bucks. Used it to pick up girls.”
“You are here.”
Samantha laughed and touched the car’s sloping shoulders and ran her fingers speculatively along the lines of the rumble seat hatch. “It doesn’t have a back seat. Does it?”
“A rumble seat. Sex in a rumble seat. It requires a certain nimbleness and dedication to the task at hand. Fancy fucking, we called it. Sort of like a jump seat in an airplane.”
“And the deer behind the steering wheel?”
“It’s OK. He’s dead—most likely last winter. He wasn’t there for the sex show.”
“Oh.” Samantha laughed. She touched her hair to see if it had come loose. It had not. She rose and circled the Chevy 6; Lucy had it jacked it up on cement blocks. Underneath oily iridescences shone. “It’s got a leak.”
“Old cars leak. I filled it up with oil—greased the transmission, gear box?—yesterday. Put in a quart of gas and cranked her. Gaskets shot. Figures—fifty years and all. Good thing I drained it first, the oil and gas would have turned to a coat of varnish. Good for nothing then.”
“Lucy. You and Cat...? In the car, really?”
“This is the car where Elliot was conceived. And it bagged a four-point buck all on its own. Versatile.”
Samantha might have laughed, seeing this gnarled man in his grease-spattered overalls recounting a youthful conquest. “Hmm... let’s see. You would have been in your thirties, forties. Not a teenager. Why the car?”
“Why not? We didn’t have any motels then. Not in Willipaq County.”
“I guess not. You skateboard, too?” A flat-bed mechanic’s trolley stood nearby. “Uhn, you going to slide in under on that thing?”
“Yep. That’s why I asked you here. In case I can’t get out.”
“Some lunch?” Samantha reached past her knees to the floor. She held up a bag of Cheetos and a no-name brick of non-fat cheese. “Sharp cheddar. Want some? We’re eating orange today, me and the kid. You’re welcome to join us.”
Lucy knelt again by the car to grope underneath. His searching hand made contact with the weight bar, a 45-pound Olympic. He rolled it out from under the Chevy 6 and helped himself back to the vertical by hand-walking up the side of the old car, grabbing at the running board, door handle and rain gutter. In the car the deer seemed to approve.
Samantha circled the car and filled her lungs. The deer’s smell was not unpleasant. “You were in a war you said?”
Lucy lifted the empty weight bar off the ground by extending his knees and hips in a half-crouch and, being careful to keep his arms straight, lifted. A stab of pain shot from Lucy’s hip down to his shin where it paused, considering whether to go back up his leg and fester or hang quiet and wait. Lucy adjusted his balance and the pain went away. As the bar reached his knees, he shrugged his shoulders and slipped his body underneath as he snapped it up and over his head. “Arrgh,” he said. His knees made a strange, desperate sound. “Everybody was in the war. That’s why they call ’em wars. It’s a lonely parade with just one kid and a little red wagon all alone out front.” His eyes were bulging.
“You could put it down. Aren’t there supposed to be weight plates on the ends?”
“You won’t be letting any of this get out?”
“I won’t tell. I thought you used a walker. Wheelchair, cane, something.”
“That’s for show. My wife—she thinks I fall over. This will be our secret, OK?”
“You are holding out for a bribe? Money? Information? Suppose I show you and the kid how to hypnotize a chicken.”
“‘Cool.’ How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” Samantha lied.
“In my day that would be right on the money for motherhood. These days... Who’s the father?”
“Sounds pretty nebulous. You know who? Does he have a name?”
“Sort of. What about the chicken?”
“I’ll show you. Bring the kid, he—she’ll—get a kick out of it, too. What is that kid, anyway—a boy or a girl?”
“He’s called DazL.”
“After the father.”
“After a molecule, a gene—something. I was working in a fertility lab. I’m not making this up, and I’m not asking you to believe it, either. A single mom... like on reality TV—tragically lame. After all, we are adults; we know where babies come from.”
“The baby place,” said Lucy.
“Precisely. I always wanted a baby. Now I’m taking DazL to the temple for his presentation to the elders. Show and tell.”
“The semen sample’s family.”
“Nope, mine. You. His great-great-great-great-grandfather, Lucian Hobart.”
“Once one gets past the rose bowl parades, the photo ops with astronauts and a-list celebrities, I’m about what’s left, eh? You lied about your age.” Whether Lucy meant then or now didn’t seem to matter.
“Of course. Shit... I impregnated myself with a turkey baster and a stolen semen sample.”
“Interesting. Come along.” Lucy led the way; Samantha, her child and the spotted barn cat followed. Down the hill to a clear patch in a former pasture where, in a bush-hogged clearing in the waist-high scrub of mullein and daisy fleabane, a chicken compound had been built. The chicken run was a slapdash assemblage of wire and poles. Inside what looked to Samantha to be hundreds of bright red and green iridescent birds wandered around to no apparent purpose.
“They’re dumb, right?” Samantha put DazL on the ground. He crawled to the wire and reached with his free hand to grab at a chicken. He was pecked and withdrew the hand; now his mouth had two thumbs inserted. A bantam rooster crowed and strutted proudly before a throng of hens.
“No dumber than your kid. And no smarter than your run-of-the-mill citizen. They just don’t read much is all. Food, sex and blind panic are their plateaus of involvement. Molly. No.” Lucy’s cat had scrambled halfway up the wire fencing and was looking intently at the chickens below. “By dumb, you mean they will be an easy mark for any stunts I’ve got up my sleeve to astonish and confound your rational powers. Nope.”
“You were going to hypnotize a chicken.”
“Ahh, yes. First we have to have an appropriate subject. Not all of God’s creatures are properly receptive to Mesmeric vibrations.”
“You are saying you can’t do it, then.”
“No, my darling and fecund child, what I am saying is that you will go inside the wire and catch us a chicken.”
“There is a way. Get one already asleep. Here...” Lucy undid a twisted latch in the chicken wire and folded back an opening. “Get one that’s sitting on her nest.”
Samantha hiked up her skirt and slid into the chicken cage. Hens scattered. The rooster made a half-heated attack, head forward, beak open, the ruff at its neck expanded to the fullest. Then, letting its tail feathers slump in the dust, it beat a retreat to behind the brood shed that held the bantams’ nesting boxes. At a tiny runway, just chicken-sized, Samantha crouched and peered into the musty dark where round feathered forms clustered, settled in neatly shelved boxes. Above the acrid smells of straw bedding and hen-droppings was a sound of wheezings and small hiccoughs. The girl turned with a loud whisper over one shoulder, “They’re snoring.”
“They think they are asleep. Therefore, they think they are snoring. There is a difference. Grab one and bring it out. Gently, hold it under the body. And careful of the eggs.”
Samantha crept into the gloom and slipped one hand under the first chicken. It made a whiffling sound and cuddled into her hand. “Wow,” said Samantha. Whereupon thirty-two pairs of eyes popped open to stare at her. Holding the still sleeping chicken to her chest, she backed down the ramp. “Got it,” she said. The chicken’s eyes opened. There was a fleeting glaze of panic as she stroked its head.
“Whatever you do, don’t squeeze. They feel threatened.” Lucy held the wire as Samantha and the chicken exited the enclosure. “I suppose it would be too much to ask if you had some glazier’s putty on you.”
“Yep. It’s in my side pocket—left rear. And don’t go copping a feel.”
“A popular pastime. I promise to watch my step.” Lucy withdrew a stick of Wrigley’s wintergreen chewing gum and peeled back the foil wrapper. He handed it to Samantha. “Chew.”
“Try it on DazL; I don’t like the taste.”
Lucy held the unwrappered gum in the child’s face. “Chew. I don’t want her distracted by the mint,” he said, meaning the chicken. Both thumbs were removed and an animated chewing followed. “A mighty masticator, the kid,” said Lucy.
“Tell me about it. I breast fed him the first two weeks. I was sore for a month.”
“Let’s have a sit down while the kid does his stuff.” Lucy relaxed his knees and dropped in a controlled fall. He caught himself with one outstretched arm. “Umph... that hurt.” He produced a draw-string pouch from an overall pocket. “Chalk,” he said. “In the old days it was thought you had to draw a line in front of the chicken with chalk, but modern masters of the art have learned you can dispense with the props. You’re gonna have to help me back up when the time comes. I figure the kid’s got a couple of minutes even at the rate he’s going.”
“Sure.” Ankles crossed, Samantha floated to the ground with the practiced grace of a dancer.
“The child’s father. Was he called Jesse? ‘And there shall come forth a ROD out of the STEM of JESSE, and a BRANCH shall grow out of his ROOTS.’ That’s Revelation xxii. 16.”
“He was a semen sample. I never caught his name.” Samantha had been stroking the hen’s throat. She rolled her eyes. “This is a ‘chicken and the egg’ thing? I’d hoped for something better, Lucy. Like we care?”
“If you wish it so, great-great-great-granddaughter. The egg is a well of magnetic fluid, the fluid which animates its soul. Your child—the unknown father, a wisdom beyond his years. Have you ever thought DazL might be the new Messiah? That gum ought to be about ready. The child is a miraculous child; you at least must believe this, being its mother. It is important to the success of our experiment.”
“Every baby is a tiny miracle,” said Samantha Cherry Hobart.
Lucy grunted a response. “True, but that is a greeting card sentiment. For this particular child, we’d have to check with God. A fertilized egg on the rampage—grown big, is all. Tell that to the chicken. Desdemona here will be our oracular fowl.”
“The chicken has a soul. This particular chicken?” Desdemona made a low-pitched glottal thrumming. Molly the cat was interested; she flattened herself and advanced in a crouch, stalking. “Listen—she’s purring, the chicken. Desdemona has a name. Do all your chickens have names?”
“Nope. It’s just part of the show; I can’t tell ’em one from another on any given day, and I come here often. We are putting on a show today—you and me—for each other. Are we not? We are testing the water temperature of the possible. Shall we trust one another? Cat lives in her own world. Not a bad place except for the TV game shows. Now, let’s do business. The chicken, if you please. Desdemona is going to tell us all about the coming Messiah.” The hen’s eyes fluttered, pupils rolled as she was handed over. Lucy cooed in her ear and stroked her breastbone; she clucked appreciatively and pecked at a brass rivet on his overalls. “Gum, please.”
“Daz?” Samantha held her hand under the child’s chin. “Spit it out.” DazL chewed furiously as he shook his head from side to side. “No deal. He’s not cooperating. OK, you asked for it.” She held her child’s nose, pinching it below the septum. “Plan B, it always works. Give it half a minute—he starts to turn blue and spits it out.”
The child, DazL, while not turning blue, had achieved a grayish pallor. He started to cough. “Don’t let him swallow it,” Lucy said. “We’ll have to start over at the beginning.”
“No problem.” Samantha pounded her choking child on the back and a pale lump of much chewed gum popped out.
Lucy rolled his sleeves up to the elbow demonstrating he had nothing to hide. Desdemona cooed and snuggled against Samantha. “Now we apply the gum to the bird. Hold still.” Lucy molded the still-warm wad around the bird’s beak. Desdemona’s chest heaved; her tiny heart pounded. Her eyes crossed as she concentrated on the gum. Her breathing slowed.
“Wow. If you are trying to impress me, you’ve succeeded.”
“In the war, between high adventure and low comedy we just stood around and whacked off. Now I am a chicken wizard. In the olden times, before the world was revealed as round and not flat, there was a loose confederation of chicken adepts. Their trick was to restrain the chicken and induce a total sensory overload in its two-volt brain, putting her under for anywhere from 15 seconds to 30 minutes. It is a survival ploy on the part of the chicken. They fake death in the hope that you will become bored and eventually go away, leaving them to forage for grubs. Alas, no longer were the gods to be placated by the blood of mere chickens or kings. They wanted souls, not a surrogate. So we ended up with a weak tea Jesus and fricassees on Sundays. I digress. You have had a course of Driver’s Ed. At your schooling? You have been to school?—high school—I hope.”
“Excellent. I may be needing you to help me get around. My license...” A lightly sketched shrug indicated Lucy’s license—like his stories?—was a fiction.
In the grass at their feet the newly-dead corpse of a cricket twitched as a foraging party of ants dismembered it. The ants had formed up into two parallel lines—the returning line was weighted down with gobbets of cricket flesh. “Motor memory,” said Lucy. “The twitching. The cricket is dead. It has sung its song; it has procreated. Sex then death—this is the way of things.” Lucy felt the corners of his mouth twist upward. He had a private joke and Samantha Cherry Hobart would not suffer being made a fool gladly.
“Your wife isn’t all that far gone,” said Samantha, misunderstanding. “She always has a cheery word for me when I look in; usually after DazL—you know. The old lady likes him. And he likes her.”
“Cat is crazy. The Mormons, Scientologists, whoever, are tying her shoelaces together while she sleeps. Wait till she gets to know you better. Her anecdotes are endless.”
“She always has the TV on,” said Samantha.
“Always,” said Lucy. Between them, the chicken snored softly where it sat, a gentle purring interrupted by hiccoughs, a chicken snore. It was staring straight ahead, wide-eyed and glassy. “Out like a light,” Lucy said. He picked up the chicken and set it on its legs. When he removed his hands, the chicken fell over. “Classic case.”
“You have my undying respect, Chicken-wizard. How may the Empress of Tarot serve you?” Samantha was plaiting a wreath of daisy fleabane intertwined with blue asters drying on the stalk.
“Empress of Tarot? Is the wreath to be a crown? For you? Me?”
“For me. Empress of Tarot was my spirit-name; did I tell you that? I mean, back when I used to believe in that stuff; I used to do readings in LA. I will make you a wreath, too.”
“After this day’s good work—Desdemona and all—I will deserve a wreath, a bit of premature funerary greenery, Empress of Tarot. That is your magical name, then—a secret name that only we two shall know. Good. As Chicken-wizard is mine. I shall tell you a Cat’s-tale, O Empress. My wife. I misstated: she is not crazy. She has been blessed. While the world plummets along beside her, sure of its own destiny, she waffles in the gardens of oblivion.”
Finished with her wreath-making, Samantha had pulled a folded-over envelope and a package of cigarette papers from her brassiere. “Want a toke?” She rolled a lumpy brown cigarette and lit up.
Lucy laughed and leaned back on the grass, absently stroking the mesmerized chicken. “So young, so lovely. Youth betrayed by ignorance. You figure I don’t know what this is.” He accepted the smoldering joint and inhaled deeply. He held it in for a long deliberative time, then let the smoke go slowly, choking out words between exhalations. “When I was your age, this was legal.” Gasp. “Or not illegal. Pick one.” Gasp. A series of short hot puffs. Gasp, a long, last exhalation then a grateful intake of cool air.
DazL, the miraculous child, awakened and let out a furious howl. He was being ignored and this was not to be allowed. He crawled through the stubble of flattened pasture to the chicken and put its head in his mouth. The chicken was still out cold. “He wants to nurse,” said Samantha. At the words, the child released the hypnotized hen and eyed his mother’s breasts. Samantha passed the child the remains of the marijuana cigarette. The toddler swallowed it.
Lucy reclined on his back watching high clouds reshape themselves. There was a rumbling that shook the ground. Overhead the vapor trail of an intercontinental jetliner spread itself out ahead of the sound. DazL looked up. The chicken looked up, as did Lucy and Samantha. “Next stop Newfoundland,” said Lucy. “I sometimes wonder if those folks ever leave Newfoundland or just get piled up, passengers and planes in a kind of suspended animation—frozen and waiting for Judgment Day.” The vapor trail of the passing jetliner had dissipated. “Less scientifically advanced peoples, less Christian folk than the Newfies, ascribe the deaths to night-marauding sacred trees which feed on human essence in sleep. Sometimes a person will awake during the trees’ feeding, resulting in paralysis.”
“I have panic attacks,” Samantha nodded. “When I wake up suddenly, in the bathroom usually. On the toilet a spiritual dread. But I can’t remember any of it.”
“You just said that you did,” said Lucy.
Samantha looked guarded. “But your wife, I mean all those painkillers, sleeping pills, waker-uppers, happy pills, pills for depression. Trees, Rotarians, al Qaeda are coming to steal her soul, right? How could she sleep, anyway?—paregoric, codeine, they make you see things, have nightmares. Is that why she has the TV on all the time?”
“TV is otherworldly—night fright all the time, and in living color. Terror comes from losing control. TV offers a rudimentary kind of control—the remote control, in Cat’s case. Spectatrix ab Extra. Sit in front of a TV long enough and you can’t move; TV stimulates the fear centers of the brain; all her darkest fears will be realized if she can make it through the next commercial break. She keeps on coming back for more. I suppose trees don’t need a whole lot of essence and their human host’s daily routines aren’t affected.”
“Elliot was good around the house,” said Lucy, “a putterer. He mowed the lawn, planted hollyhocks and kept the gutters cleaned out. It was the gutters that finished him.”
Lucy’s eyes stared blankly; his head lolled back. “Lucy. Lucy? Snap out of it.” Samantha.
“Where am I?” Jesus Christ, thought Lucy. Here we go again.
“You are here.” Samantha.
“So I am. How nice of me to come.” Yes, I have not died, thinks Lucy Hobart. “Did I say anything... anything improper while I was unconscious? How long was I gone?”
“Just for a minute, a couple of seconds.”
“Not long enough for an out-of-body experience. I have so hoped for one of those.”
“I know.” Her hands were colored bright orange from Cheetos and cheese.
“Now I have you,” he said to Samantha. “My son is dead. Nobody noticed. His wife called the police; they took the body. Like the picnic ants did with the cricket. Elliot’s toy machine gun made a marvelous noise; I pretended not to hear. Bradda-bradda-bradda, just like Sgt. Fury in the comics.”
“I have a contrapuntal mind,” said Samantha, licking her orange fingertips. “Just like you, Lucy.”
“‘Whoever battles monsters should take care not to become a monster too, for if you stare long enough into the Abyss, the Abyss stares also into you.’ That’s Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.” Lucy rolled over next to the chicken and fell asleep. “Time for a nap.”
copyright 2013, 2015 Rob Hunter
based on characters and situations in Midwife in the Tire Swing, a novel.