The Outer Darkness
(For John, Dee Dee, and Ruthie Yow)
"Put out the light and then put out the light"--Othello
"On the eve of our dear
The bird of dawning singeth all night long"-Hamlet
Approaching the final Christmas of the millennium, I'm headed for north Georgia to pinch hit for Mary Hood’s creative writing class at Berry College, houseguest of the distinguished writer herself and Katherine, her mother. I've wrangled this invitation by declaring kinship on my mother's side. Family is the key to hospitality in the South, where you can still find kissing cousins who'll pucker up. I'll use blood to coerce Mary into reading, maybe endorsing, a novel I've hacked away at since puberty.
For a hostess gift I present my granddaddy's chrome plated .38 police special. An heirloom, especially a handgun, seals genealogical authenticity anywhere grits are groceries, and I already know that the Hood branch of the family tree is noted for near Biblical hospitality. I get the idea they'd wash my feet if I strolled up in sandals, but I arrive noticing tiredness around Mary’s eyes. "It's the chickens," she confesses. "They keep us awake."
“What?” demands Katherine, aiming her best ear. Mutual fatigue suggests household insomnia.
“The chickens!” Mary shouts.
“Tell him thank you, we don’t need any.”
“Mother is deaf as a turtle,” Mary explains, “But Queso Grande manages to shatter her sleep.” Queso is a blond Dorking cock of adulterated fighting stock. His main consort is Atilla the Hen, a gray bitch with a genocidal proclivity for busting eggs and smearing yolks. Even with challenged ears sandwiched between pillows, Katherine isn't immune to the raucous nocturnal trumpeting of the rooster and the squeaky mewing of horrible hens.
"Will this gun kill a chicken?" Mary asks. The inverted chrome pistol impaled on her index finger rocks on the fulcrum of the trigger guard, winking sunshine.
"If you can hit him," I assure her, "it will take him down."
"Well, there's hope, Katherine," she says, watching the rooster swagger across the yard. The gray consorts, Atilla and a lesser slattern, seem to cower at Queso's side while a small golden Sebright, Pliny the Elder, hangs back delicately pecking June bugs in driveway gravel. An owl plucked Pliny's twin, Pliny the Younger, like a Cheeto from her perch among the scarlet berries of the dogwood tree. The little Sebright, in golden mail edged in ebony, is a jewel next to the rough and bestial fowl that roam the yard.
The chickens, I discover, were acquired to wake up Mary, who has an inborn and fatal adversity to chronometry. Something in her body chemistry or electromagnetic aura is deadly to timepieces. Alarm clocks freeze in final tock when Mary is around and wristwatches backlash mainsprings as crystals shatter. The pendulums of grandfather clocks hang plumb when she enters a room while cuckoos duck peepless into wooden niches. Mary reckons the hours by holding the side of her hand against sun or moon and horizon. She steps to a fierce cosmic cadency no earthly creature but that goddamn rooster can contradict.
“When did the rooster start this nocturnal trumpeting?” I ask with professional detachment.
“Since the security light was installed.”
“The fowl are confused by the light,” I surmise. Seeking protection from nocturnal predators, they began roosting in an illuminated dogwood next to the lamppost, where bloodthirsty chicken-eaters can see them tastily limelighted as well as hear their neurotic squawks, mews, and hisses, thus compounding predation phobia with paranoia amplified by sleep deprivation. The rooster, mostly feathers and open synapse, is wired like a shorted out switchboard. When he isn’t crowing, he growls, his contagious psychopathology infecting the hens and the Hoods, who haven’t slept since the chickens have—since the installation of the security light. It's clear to me that the chickens have pecked the insulation off Mary and Katherine Hood's last bare nerve.
My grandfather’s sidearm termed in coastal Georgia a Geeche special, serves as absolute protection against barrier island blue-gums in full lunar madness. Virtually every law enforcement official with island jurisdiction totes one. Granddaddy acquired his from the widow of a Darien police chief, discharging it into the night air to disperse tomcats and Mother's suitors, thus fixing with relative surety the absence of Geeche blood in my immediate line.
After supper we sit around the table collectively perceiving the rooster like proverbial monkeys resistant to evil. I keep my mouth shut, Catherine turns a challenged ear, and Mary gazes dimly out the window where Queso Grande squats, flanked by his threadbare harem, in the illuminated branches of the dogwood tree where a security light denounces the gathering periphery of night. The little Sebright cuddles inconspicuously in a background of sodium luminosity, like the morning star against a fierce desert sun. I realize that the sooty hens do not cower, unless rattlesnakes cower when they whip their thick bodies into coils and cock their beanbag heads.
At bedtime Mary shows me to her study. It’s lined with great books, hers and others, a bust of Beethoven wearing a Braves baseball cap rests on a shelf with rocks, some bones. A boar skull squats on the haunches of its jaw. There are snake skins and bird eggs on tables. Calligraphy and posters and Audubon prints hang where books don’t cover the walls. “Sleep here,” she says, gesturing the daybed. “If you can.”
“I’ve written this novel...” I begin.
“Later,” she says, waving me off. “Try to rest.”
I lie on the daybed. The security light casts a sharp shadow of the rooster in silhouette against the wall. Queso Grande begins his nocturnal trumpeting robustly at dusk when the security light comes on. He crows most constantly throughout the night, flinging his dark spirit in raucous discord against the surrounding gloom of the dying millennium. The hens echoing him with mew and squall. By three in the morning they all sound like rough, strangling beasts, vexing my dreams in nightmare and fixing me with their wild, tired eyes. From their mandala of luminosity, the hens drop eggs that splat sunny-side up on the asphalt, hors d'oeuvres to chum up oviparous predators including snakes and skunks.
I rise from the daybed in Mary Hood's study like a Canterbury pilgrim from a bed of nails. Mary and Katherine stalk around in somnambulant despondency. The chickens inspire hatred, and to Mary and her mother hatred of God’s creatures is unschooled sin, but the more I see and hear, the closer I come to realize that these chickens are more than just chickens. The world must be rid forever of their kith and kind by some essential exorcism to be performed mano a mano. Dark forces beyond mere powers of poultry animate these fowl. Some canker on in the very fiber of animal husbandry, a disorder in the scheme of things, some fatal flaw in man's dominion over the creatures of the air.
"I can shoot the rooster," I tell Mary, "or the light.”
"I’d rather remove them. Catch them off the roost and give them to some distant farmer. far, far away. Except for Pliny, the Sebright. Pliny stays.”
In my opinion, security lights are worthless in the first place. They cast shadows for the burglars and illuminate the loot. My sergeant the DMZ of Cold War Korea told me darkness was my best friend. “Lie still until your man shows himself. Then take him with your K-bar. A muzzle flash will give away your position,” he added. The good sergeant used to blacken his teeth with shoe polish so his grin wouldn’t give away his position after he took his man.
“Darkness is your friend,” I tell Mary. The light provides delusional safety for the chickens, illuminating them to predators local and transient, stoking their vigilance with self-fulfilling paranoia. They’re horrified by imagined creatures conjured by insomniac imagination. And as it is with its human counterpart, chicken fear is grounded in reality. Magnified and distorted by the side-show mirror of imagination. Every predator within a two mile radius, included us, is attracted in murderous pursuit of the hoarse and harried poultry in the pool of sodium light.
After sunset we try to catch them off the roost, but they can, of course, see us stalking them and, of course, we can’t blind their contracted pupils with mere flashlights. They blink warily, squawk, and flap away, returning to the limelight as soon as we repair to the house. We improvise a net from drapery on two bamboo poles, manning it together, but our unsynchronized swats eclipse our target penultimately, providing a blind opportunity for the blond son of a bitch and his harpies to squawk off into the outer dark. We chase him until I have to take a nitroglycerine and sit down. We lower our banner of defeat, torn by branch and briar, besmirched in chickenshit.
"That's enough," gasps Mary. "I'm ready for lethal measures." Mary, not one to relegate duty, vows to dispatch the chickens herself. I attempt to instruct her basic marksmanship, but her eyesight is not exceptional. Macular degeneration has caused blind spots in her central vision—“I’m a peripheral visionary,” she quips. In her hands, the Geechee gun groups random, erratic patterns, one round drilling the bull's-eye; subsequent others corkscrewing wildly through insubstantial air or, in one notable case, slamming through the door of my Izuzu pickup.
"You can kill the chickens first thing after sunup," she offers, her voice frayed by fatigue. "All but Pliny. Just don’t hurt Pliny."
The next morning I herd the erring chickens into the herb garden and blast away. Bam, bam. The bullets pass through the rooster, parting breast feathers, as my adversary glares outraged. His hunched shoulders rock beneath a steady head, but he stands his ground. I turn my pistol on his sooty consort, blasting her into a dust mop, flipping open the cylinder and reloading as I wait for the cock to fall. He wobbles, remaining upright, glaring defiantly, then rushing chauvinistically to mount that black bitch one last time. Finding her limp, he senses finality, his or hers, and faces me balefully with yellow, rattlesnake eyes. I, the killer of his main squeeze, stand even now between him and his sovereign life.
The Mexican standoff is interrupted even before the gunshots fade. Pliny squawks and cocks her wings broody, squatting as if to lay. “Watch out for the Sebright," Mary bellows through cupped palms. Blam! The outraged rooster charges, rocking from side to side. With my right foot forward, I angle my left elbow behind by back to steady my aim, standing my ground as the Geeche gun bucks two more bullets through Queso Grande. I hop sideways as he charges past my shins through the chain-link gate. "He's hit!" I cry. “He’s hit! He’s hit!”
Under a tea olive Pliny tilts, yawing off into a ruptured waddle, dragging her keel pitifully through the calligraphy of chicken tracks etched in dust, where she squats akimbo and lays a bloody egg.
Oh Jesus! A bullet has crippled Pliny, the golden seed of yin in a leaden field of yang. Unprotected by bright mail, she has been mortally struck by a ricochet. She uses her last gasp to push for chromosomal continuity. Mary rushes forward to cradle Pliny's egg in the nest of her palms, as if to incubate it. Her kind eyes melt into tears and I feel like a man carved out of a turd. Pliny the Elder is a casualty of friendly fire.
I direct my deadly ire and energy in pursuit of the winged rooster. "He's mortally wounded," Mary confirms. Recomposing herself, she quick-freezes loss into frosty vengeance, blaming Queso, I hope. "I saw him listing as he slouched toward the woods.” We march to the edge of the lawn, where Mary stands stork-like on one foot, her nose tilted into the breeze, her hands outstretched for balance. Her partial blindness has given rise to keen compensatory hearing and olfaction. "I smell blood, hot blood. He's hit, hiding somewhere in the English ivy," she says.
I reload the revolver, high stepping into the lake of tangled green that covers the woods like Kudzu, daunted slightly by the awareness that a wounded galliform may lie waiting in ambush. We trek deeper into woods. A creek, reduced to a faint trickle by the subdivision's demands on a stressed water table, provides enough moisture, according to Mary, to support one newt. “A wounded rooster will run downhill toward water,” I assert. But we find no spore or talon track in the weeping mud. We give up, returning to dress the bagged hens.
I flay the slaughtered fowl, vowing to save Pliny’s plumage for trout flies. I skin Queso’s sooty consorts unceremoniously, standing on their feet and ripping feathered hide from yellow gooseflesh. I treat the sad carcass of Pliny more respectfully, removing pelt and pinion in one piece tacking it to the garage to season. Tears form in the corners of Mary’s eyes but don’t leak over. She takes a long deep breath, averting her gaze, her hands clasped and resting against her generous bosom.
I feel terrible, but I'm determined that Pliny not die in vain. We’ll boil the chickens for supper and tie trout flies or fashion other memento mori from Pliny’s golden hide. I’m winded by the time I finish dressing the chickens. I feel my carotid pulsing, my lungs sucking like bellows. I’ve skinned easier beavers than Mary’s yardbirds, easier gators. I tuck nitroglycerine under my tongue, swigging wine after it dissolves. I scrub my hands with soap, baking soda, lemon juice, and finally rosemary, but the perfumes of Arabia wouldn't sweeten the odiferous guilt of hot blood and slaughtered innocence.
We decide to pressure cook the murdered fowl in white wine until tender. Into the concoction Mary sprinkles herbs and spices from the garden where Pliny scratched and dwelled. Late into the evening I check the cauldron. A porcelain splinter of bone protrudes from Pliny's purple drumstick. "They're ready," I announce. “The meat is falling off the bone.”
We reflect for a moment on our herb-garnished fare before we assault impotently with knife, fork and incisor a flesh that is incomestible by even the lowest standards of discrimination. The bare ankle steaming in the pot resulted from contracting, not the tenderizing, of muscle that bunched high upon the fractured femur. The pressure cooker had served only to cramp our coq au vin into a rigor mortis the color of a bruise and toughness of a motor mount. In resolve, however, we are as sinewed as the poultry, deploring the needless slaughter of livestock, even in self defense. Our jaws work. Few words interrupt the hard won and relished quiet. Sad silence is better than none.
“To sleep well, we need only eat the right thing," Katherine observes brightly as she ruminates, her stressed mastoids rippling her jaw. Mary, masticating earnestly, raises a finger, her acute hearing detecting outside the human range the first faint buzz and desultory rasp, a stubborn tractor’s er, er, ah, ah, ah, that intensifies steadily to apocalyptic crescendo into an eschatological denunciation of all that was ever holy, clashing our shattered sensibilities like saw blade into railroad spikes, a howling condemnation of violated innocence, besmirched trust and unnatural murder that tears into our culpable hearts. ER, ER, AH, AH, AH, AH, ERRRRRR.
The next morning I awaken to a distant cock, real or imagined, fading plaintively past Lake Allatoona, over near glades, up far meadows and into the distant hills. I shuffle out in my socks to find Mary, a plastic pan on her hip, scrubbing love bugs from the seal beams and windshield of the Izuzu, biblical hospitality mandating eminent departure. "Leave your manuscript," she mumbles through tender jaws. "I'll read it, but nobody prints much besides mystery."
“There is mystery enough in everyday life,” I attempt.
She sighs. “I hope it isn’t overwritten.” She adds.
When I return to Woodstock to fetch my novel, the Hoods have replaced the offending poultry with three new silver Sebrights--- two hens, Goodness and Mercy and a cock, Surely, as in Surely that sumbitch won't roost under the security light---lunar silver replacing solar gold. Mary has cuckolded Pliny's fatal egg into the nest of Goodness, so there's every chance that Pliny's petigree will survive into the next millennium. The rub, however, is that Queso's woodpile blood, disguised in golden plumage, will also resurrect into inevitable continuity. Who knows what roughneck slouches toward Bethlehem with one parent missing or dead and the other's gilded hide nailed to the garage wall. Still, word has gotten into the intuitive rumor mill of fowl that the Hood home is an unfriendly zone, and Surely’s vespers are softened by discretion. Driven by the integrity of his galliform blood, he starts his matin call as heartily as any cock--- ER--- suddenly checking and restraining himself, stifling the initial blast into a muted whine, hum and cackle. Ah, hmm, he begins, clearing his throat politely, then nodding with sidelong self-conscious glance, he continues his perfunctory song if to say: ER, heh, heh, heh, exscuuuuse meeee.