He reached under the warm feathered rump of the hen and lifted. She dipped her head, opening her beak bluffing to bite but he was gentle and all the birds knew him as the bringer of the morning feed. He lifted the smooth white egg from the nest of feathers and straw and put it in the basket on the ground. He gentled the bird back into place, smoothed its feathers apologetically and moved along the row.
As he turned to leave the coop several hens hopped down, milling around his legs to follow him out. He opened the coop door, moving the eager birds aside with his foot and stepped out. The misty smell of the fresh verbena cleared his senses of the ammoniac air of the coop. He latched the coop door.
Outside the fence there were bloodied white feathers scattered which he hadn’t noticed in the dawn light when he had gone in a half hour ago. Some animal, a fox or a dog was making raids once or twice a week on the coop at night. He took a moment to search himself, to see if he had changed. He wanted to change. He tried to imagine the lost bird and its last instant on earth. These fat little descendent's of the Tyrannosaur would have smelled the mammal coming, set up a fuss, looked to the rooster for protection. The last instant of the chase, the fatal defeat, the teeth and clenching, invincible jaws and then being carried off and torn to pieces. How would it feel?
Fear? There was no fear. Anger? There was no anger. Grief? There should be grief, some pity, there was none.
My heart is dead, he thought. Still as cold stone. I can’t make it move. I can’t awaken it to feel a thing.
He had the memory of feelings and he wanted them back. He was not depressed, would have been grateful to experience himself as a human being capable of depression. But there was not even that movement. Not even the experience of loss. He walked across the yard to the house, went through the back into the kitchen and put the basket of half a dozen eggs on the table. He made coffee, poured himself a cup and sat at the table looking at the eggs.
The coffee was well crafted and of a good quality but he felt no pleasure in it or peace at the mornings routine. There was the day stretching ahead of him, not bleakly or even lonely but gray.
I have lost too many people, he thought. But that’s not it. Others have lost people and have the joy of grieving. Their hearts are awake and weeping. My mother has died now. My father has died. My wife has died. My son is somewhere but I never hear from him. Where are my tears? Why have I never grieved over them? I didn’t even attend their funerals. They sent me my mother’s ashes and they’re on a shelf in the attic. My father died and I attended his grave alone even after his funeral was long gone, attended by two hundred mourners and not his son. What was I thinking? I was not. I was just not interested.
There must be some way to think about these things. To feel again.
He left his coffee on table and went outside again to the chicken coop, looking up at the sky, eying the weather clouds of the day. When he had been a hedge fund manager on Wall St, considering a job offer from K street in Washington, he had never looked up at the sky. Manhattan made you feel as though the whole world was made out of concrete. There was hardly any sky to see past the stone canyons of buildings. Now he was surrounded by open space, distant from any other person and he wanted it that way. It seemed to his suiting.
He opened the gate to the coop, closed it and went up the ramp. He opened the door of the coop wide and the dozen and half or so of hens and one watchful rooster quickly milled out into the sunshine and open air. They moved past his legs as though he were a standing rock in a stream of feathers and aggravation. The birds quickly headed for the back gate of the coop area which opened into the fenced off rows of the large vegetable garden and vineyard. The chickens would spend the day there, happily picking bugs and caterpillars off the leaves of everything in sight.
He watched them dashing, pecking, chattering, watched them without joy or wonder. He left the gate open so they could return freely to the coop after exercising and grooming his plants.
He went back into the house, back into the kitchen, picked up his coffee, now cold and drank it cold.
His mother had died alone. There were people, but she had died alone in her mind.
She had always been mentally ill, had been mentally ill when he was a child although he had never noticed it then. When he was a young adult she became restless and took off on strange fugues, off the to the Greyhound bus station, arriving penniless and scared in strange places where he would have to send her money for a ticket or maybe stop his own life long enough to go find her and scoop her up like a dog catcher. Then she simply vanished. She dropped off the face of the earth for five years. One night he had gotten a call from an obscure relative whose phone number had been found in her purse when she had been picked up in a snow storm by the Chicago police. She was in a nursing home, delirious, brainless with Alzheimers. He noted the address and put it in a drawer and left it there. After a year, the nursing home called to say she had died.
He thought of her. The very last time he saw her in this world was in Newark, heading down the sidewalk where he had dropped her off with her suitcase, almost skipping to the bus station. And that was that.
He poured himself some more coffee, thought of his father. His father had died a relatively good death. A death he might wish for himself. He had died with knowledge of his coming doom, sentenced by his oncologist. He had taken up cigars and scotch again. This doomed yoga student and vegetarian said “fuck it” and took up smoking again gleefully along with hot dogs with the works and thick steaks. He did not have a Bucket List, so much as a Fuckit List. There may have been prostitutes, elephants and acrobats in his scene for all he knew.
Somehow that was when he said “Fuckit” too. He’d moved out here with his savings and sank without a bubble.
He sipped his coffee thinking. Stories. Life was about stories, not facts. Five thousand people in some woe begone dump of a nation die of Ebola, is a fact, is a third world body count, not much different from a stock exchange Standard and Poors figure. A mother wailing over her dead baby, holding its little deadly disease bomb of a corpse in her arms because she no longer fears death, that’s a story.
Where’s my story?
He poured more coffee. Then he heard the commotion outside. He went to the window and something red was running through the rows and the hens scattered screaming from it. Another flash of red, that would be the rooster. It was there in the rows.
He went to the hall closet, fumbled behind the ironing board and took the narrow gauge Henry rifle there. He checked the breech, took off the safety and went outside.
A flash of red leaping the fence, poised in air like a splash of blood.
He raised the gun, sighted and fired. The red thing spun and dropped behind the fence. There was a high shriek and then only the sound of the hens.
His heart was pounding. Was it pleasure? Yes. Should it be? Was that right? But oh - by god, something. Even blood lust was better than that painless silence.
He cocked the rifle, the casing flew and he ran for the garden fence. He circled expecting to see the animal on the ground but there was nothing. He went up to the spot, examined it and it was there - a pool of hot blood. And then another, and then another. A small tuft of red fur. A fox, probably gut shot, running into the trees on silk feet.
He glanced over the fence. The rooster, mortally wounded defending his hens, was thrashing on the ground. He ran towards the line of trees, glancing down to pick but the direction of the blood. He stopped and realized - His heart was pounding. He felt joy. He had hurt this animal that was hurting his own and his heart was awakening.
He followed the blood over the sand and pine needles of the tree and saw the thick red tail standing out carelessly from behind a bush. It was a beautiful red fox, the size of a medium dog. The fur of the cheeks and whiskers was fluffed like a cats with teh muzzle of a dog. The eyes were half closed and the animals flanks were wet with blood behind the shoulder where the bullet had hit.
It was a good shot. A fine shot for a city kid living in the country. Fucking animal had attacked his hens - his hens! Maybe killed the rooster he wasn't sure. He raised the rifle to his shoulder for a head shot, hesitated. It was a beautiful creature, languid with pain, fading fast. Maybe a taxidermist could have it stuffed. He could look at it always and remember.
The fox jumped, curled, cramped its legs in gripping at the air, showed its its sharp killing teeth once in a grin of defiance and sagged into stillness.
He kneeled down. It was still and vacant, this beautiful thing he had killed. And he realized it was beautiful, it was even in death a pleasure to look at. And he felt pleasure, the discovery of pleasure and an odd feeling of gratitude to the animal.
And then there was a movement, soft and small in the saddle of thick white belly fur below. He put his hand on the belly touching the hot blood and felt the gentle movement within, here, then here, then here. Pups. Fox pups, doomed, tiny silk feet running in a world of warmth in motion, now violently stilled and cooling around their tiny blind bodies, the steady heartbeat falling into silence as their nourishing world died around them without their knowing. They would not be born. They would die soon within the universe of their mother.
He put the gun down and was unable to lift his hand from the animals side and blood dampened his fingers. He felt the pups, felt their bewilderment through the cooling skin and fur. Their world now snatched from them without a chance.
Wall street. K Street. His father’s disappointment. He had exiled himself here - the middle of nowhere and nothing. He understood their fate because it was his own. Until now.
His heart swelled, blossomed, and he began to weep with dark and unearthly joy.