Chicken Feathers

Fiction
Ron Arnold


Golden neck feathers
Photo Credit: Magda Wojtyra

were suspended in midair, drifting as gracefully as butterflies, floating toward the ground, then being whisked back up again in a gentle breeze and parachuting back down, circling the little brown girl from all directions as she watched in wonderment, thrilled with a fantasy game of dodging the spritely fairies. Her mother poked her head out of the back door and screamed, “Mr. Guthrie… Mr. Guthrie…”

From the coop next door came a rotund white man outfitted in green overalls, with gray hair and mutton-chop sideburns. “Sorry about that, Mabel,” he chuckled, “but as you know they are show chickens. Best in this here county and maybe Virginia.”

Behind him roosters strutted their stuff and clucked in melodic tones—a lemony one with a black comb drooping forward Elvis Presley-style over his brow, a snow-white one with a crimson comb reminiscent of a sunrise or sunset, and others of different blends of color. About a dozen in all.

“Please clean up these feathers?”

“My boy, Luke, will be over straight away. Good day.”

“Thank you, Mr. Guthrie. Bye.”

That’s how it went day after day on this small farm next to the bigger one. Back in the day they divided up the property. The large estate with room for a pond and a pasture for horses and a dozen fields for different crops to Mr. Guthrie’s family. And the smaller plot, one-tenth the size of Guthrie’s Farm, for the family just freed from their plantation. Her great-grandfather thanked the union army every morning right after he thanked the Lord. The plot was big enough to grow vegetables for the dinner table, but not large enough to support a modern farming operation with the cost of tractors and fertilizer increasing every year. So Mabel’s husband, Josh, traveled to other places to work because he was too proud to work next door. Josh would drive down to Fayetteville, North Carolina to toil in the tobacco fields or go to a coastal town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to shuck oysters or pick crabs. He might not be home for weeks at a time. That meant Mabel was stuck with the child rearing duty, which was not easy though Raineyl was an only child.

“Mama,” asked Raineyl, “why can’t we have chickens?”

“Child, you got a rabbit and a cat to take care of. That should be enough for a six-year-old.”

“Mama, Ms. Tubbs says we’re going to hatch a batch in our class. She told me I can have a half-dozen since I live on a farm.”

“Child, you don’t have time for that with all the studying you must do. Plus, Josh won’t be wanting them around if they’re not for the dinner pot.”

“Just one, please Mama.”

Mabel saw the pout on her daughter’s cherub face and couldn’t resist. “Only one, Child.”

Raineyl spread her arms as wide as she could and spun in a circle, listening to the tinkling of beads braided in her stringy hair and watching the feathers curl round her and float up into the air again. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a stocky figure coming out of the mansion next door.

The figure moved along a cobblestone path, underneath a trellis covered with honeysuckle, and through a flower garden more lavish than a hotel’s, becoming bigger and bigger the closer it got. Luke was twice her size, ten years older, and spoke with a cocky attitude derived from a sense of privilege and entitlement. “What do you want now?”

“Luke, could you be a darling and sweep up these feathers?” asked Mabel.

“I’m on it,” he whined. “My father already told me.”

He went to the coop, got a leaf blower, and blasted the feathers out of his neighbor’s yard, undeterred by the high-pitched whining of the machine.

Raineyl watched him packing up his gear. She asked, “Is it hard to raise chickens?”

“When you got show chickens,” he boasted, “it takes a little extra effort. You got to make sure their cages are clean and they get plenty of good food and water. You also got to clip their beaks to make sure they don’t go poking each other and hurting themselves, but it’s a small price to pay when you win prizes at the county fair.”

“Can anyone enter?”

“I suppose they could, but nobody is going to beat my father. He’s been doing it for as long as I can remember.”

“How about someone like me?”

He looked down at her and sneered, “Don’t even think about it.”

But it was too late. Raineyl’s heart was smitten with the roosters. The way they heralded the dawn of each new day with a cock-a-doodle-doo, claiming dominion over their little corner of the world, performed little dances and ruffled their feathers to impress the hens, and cackled songs reminiscent of lovesick troubadours.

Her second-grade class hatched twenty-two chicks from thirty-six fertile eggs. They selected four roosters of different breeds and raised them in a pen until the last day of the school year in June.

“I want everyone to look them over,” announced her teacher, Ms. Tubbs. “Then we will select the best one for Raineyl to enter in the County Fair.”

Scratcher was all-white, but stopped every two steps to scratch himself. That was a habit Raineyl would have to break before she entered him in any contest. Pearl’s crimson comb was as large as a crown above his magnificent white feathers and his eyes glistened brighter than jewels. He must have been descended from a royal line of chickens. The yellow one was named Sunflower because of his bright feathers and outgoing personality that included a cackle as soothing as a cat’s purr. And the tan rooster was called Peanut Butter because he always flopped to the ground and stayed there like a glob of peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth.

They paraded each one back and forth in front of the class. The teacher called out, “Scratcher.”

Two students raised their hands.

“Sunflower.”

A lot of girls swooned for him—five votes. Raineyl was sure that meant the rest of her class would vote for Pearl.

Ms. Tubbs yelled, “Pearl.”

Only seven students raised their hands.

Raineyl was confused. She added up the number of votes cast and began to perform a head count of students.

The white boys were hanging out in the back of the classroom snickering to each other, “A brown bird has never won the contest before. Let’s stick Raineyl with him.”

The teacher called out, “Peanut Butter.”

They all put up their hands and hooted and hollered. Eight votes. He edged out Pearl by one vote.

Raineyl stomped her foot in disgust and raised her hand to ask for a recount.

“Why, that is as good a choice as any,” proclaimed Ms. Tubbs.

Are you kidding me, thought Raineyl. Where the other chickens had been active, this one sat in the back of the pen picking at his feathers. She would have to work hard just to get him up to grade to enter the contest.

With the help of her mother, Raineyl built a tiny chicken coop with several two-by-fours and a roll of chicken wire. The shelter was more of a lean-to than a skyscraper, but it served dandy for a space to keep her rooster. She grew fond of the bird, letting him roam free in the backyard and sometimes the house.

“Child,” her mother would yell, “that chicken better not shed any more feathers in here.”

To which Raineyl replied, “I’m watching him.” Then she would follow him around with a broom and dustpan, saying, “No… no… no… stop shedding… stop.”

After several weeks, the bird looked more scraggly than before. Her mother asked, “Child, do you still want to do this? There must be a better way for you to spend your time.”

Raineyl decided not to give up. She went to the local library and got how-to books about raising and grooming chickens: Dummies Guide to Chicken Farming, Raising Chickens from the Egg to the Broiler, Poultry Health 101, and Fowl Fan Book—Lineage and Breed. She fed Peanut Butter premium feed with marigolds sprinkled in to rejuvenate his skin. When those flowers weren’t available, she cut up roses into delicious, nutritious morsels.

She heard her mother screaming, “Raineyl, have you been in my garden again?” and hid several roses underneath a seat cushion.

Her mother found the stash and steamed, “Are these mine?” and peered into Raineyl’s eyes. Then her mother’s flabby cheeks became soft as she said, “Child, if you’re going to use all these, you should at least plant some new ones.”

One day Mabel heard some cackling coming from the living room. She hollered, “That chicken better not be losing feathers all over the furniture and rug.” When she stepped inside, she saw Raineyl prodding the rooster to step higher to reach a ruler held parallel to the floor. “What on earth are you doing, Child?”

“I’m trying to break his bad habit of pecking the ground all the time. So I’m teaching him to do the cakewalk.”

“The cakewalk?”

“Yes, Mama. I read about it in my bibliography about Johnson and Dean. They were famous dancers at the turn of the last century.”

“Is that so?” chuckled Mabel. “What did your book say about them?”

“It said that Charles Johnson and Dora Dean were known as the King and Queen of Colored Aristocracy and performed on Broadway and for royalty in Europe.”

“Did it describe the cakewalk?”

“It goes something like this.” Raineyl leaned backwards as far as she could and high-stepped across the room—lifting her knee up to her chest, kicking out, and moving forward by planting each foot in turn. When she got to the wall, she pirouetted as smoothly as a ballerina and pranced back.

“You know how to do the dance, but do you know what it means?”

“I’m not sure, Mama?”

“Back in the day the cakewalk was performed on plantations by folks like us. Sometimes we would be celebrating someone’s wedding and at other times we would be glad just to be alive. The couple that performed the best dance received a giant cake as a prize, but that wasn’t all. You see, white folks were always telling us to do this and do that. The dance means we bend in the wind like a willow tree, but never break. Remember that, Child, when people go bothering you.”

Raineyl kept putting flowers in Peanut Butter’s food and giving him dance lessons. By the end of the summer the rooster’s feathers glowed like caramel and his comb looked as luscious as dark chocolate. He could have been put on an advertising poster for a candy maker.

One afternoon Mr. Taylor stopped by from a neighboring farm. The skin on his hands and face had been wrinkled with age and his Afro was tinged with gray. He placed his muddy boots on the back porch and straddled a chair in the kitchen. Mabel served him angel food cake and coffee. He spoke carefully as though his words were ingredients measured out for a recipe, “I’ve come to give Raineyl this brush for grooming her rooster’s feathers.”

“For me?”

“Yes, for you.”

Raineyl hopped up from the floor where she was playing and took it. She examined the gift while he sipped his coffee.

“According to Ecclesiastes,” he explained, “a person can obtain things in two ways. One is by being wealthy. The other is by being wise. Your daughter has chosen to be wise.”

“Amen, ain’t that the truth,” replied her mother. “She’s making all of us wiser.”

That Saturday Josh came home reeking of fish. He settled into his La-Z-Boy recliner in the living room, stretched out his sore arms and legs, and clicked on the TV. While he flipped the channels to a baseball game, he breathed a sigh of relief. All he wanted to do was lounge there until dinner time. The announcers were chatting about a hitter leaning over home plate with a corkscrew stance.

Mabel sashayed in from the kitchen and turned down the sound.

“Why you be foolin’ with that?” snapped her husband.

“I need to talk to you about Raineyl.”

“Raineyl? Is she sick or in trouble?”

“I wouldn’t say trouble,” drawled Mabel. “She needs twenty-five dollars to enter Peanut Butter in a contest at the County Fair.”

“Peanut Butter?’

“You know, her bird.”

“I’ve been workin’ for three weeks straight at a stinkin’ wharf in Wachapreague, and all you want to do is pick my wallet. Woman, don’t you know we got bills to pay?”

“Josh, this is important to her. She has her heart set on entering that contest and competing with Mr. Guthrie.”

“A six-year-old girl competin’ with a sixty-year-old man? He’s got dirt under his fingernails that is six years old. What kind of competition is that?”

“Please let her try.”

He pulled out his wallet and counted out twenty-five dollars. “You women like to bend the world.”

Mabel snatched the wad of cash and replied, “It seems like you men bend it a lot more than we do.”

“Umph!”

 

The aroma of caramel popcorn and cotton candy filled the air and the clacking of a roller coaster and screams of passengers could be heard all over the fairgrounds. Crowds gathered around the midway which featured exhibits such as trained tigers, packs of acrobatic monkeys, a strong man capable of lifting a motorcycle or overturning a car, and a fire-eating gypsy woman. A Ferris wheel spun to a serenade of string music, sailboats glided across a pond, and go-carts zoomed around an oval track. Tents were set up for farm exhibits ranging from dairy cows to horses to hogs to chickens. The tent Raineyl stood in had a partition separating the pens from the judges and grandstands.

Several white boys gathered at the entrance and begged, “Please let us in.”

“I can’t do it,” she said. “We only got fifteen minutes before the contest starts.”

“That’s why we need to come in. We want to see if Peanut Butter can win before we place our bets.”

“Oh, okay, just for a minute.”

The boys rushed in and gathered around the pen, but were holding their hands behind their backs. Raineyl thought they were afraid of getting pecked. “Don’t worry. He won’t poke you.”

They snickered and shoveled handfuls of dirt at the bird who flapped his wings to try to get away.

“No… no… no… What are you doing?” screamed Raineyl.

“We want to see if he can dance.”

Raineyl stomped on the boys’ boots.

They did a jig and cried out, “What’s wrong with you?” “Hey, that hurts.”

“Get out of here!”

“We were just having a little fun.” They skedaddled toward the exit. One quipped, “Nah, stinky isn’t going to win.” And they all chuckled.

Raineyl heard her mother’s dress rustling behind her. She turned around, “I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to cause a ruckus.”

“Ain’t no need to be sorry. You should have broken every bone in their feet.”

Raineyl went over to the pen and saw the sorry condition of her bird and sobbed, “What am I going to do?”

“Child, you go get a bucket of warm water.”

Raineyl ran outside and filled a plastic bucket from a pump. “This was the best I could do.”

“It’ll be good enough.” Her mother squirted Dawn dishwashing detergent into the water and stirred it up until it became sudsy.

“Will this work?”

“It was good enough for you when you was a baby.”

They set about scrubbing the bird from beak to toe with a dishrag. Mabel patted him dry with a towel and Raineyl brushed his feathers with the comb that Farmer Taylor had given her. When they were done, Peanut Butter looked shinier than a new mint penny coming off the printing press.

The roosters disappeared one after another into the exhibition hall and returned. Now a man in a suit came over and motioned toward a tent flap, “Miss Raineyl, be ready in thirty seconds.”

“Oh, Lord,” cried her mother. “Look at your blouse.”

Chicken feathers covered Raineyl’s blouse from her waist to her neck as though she had lost a pillow fight at a slumber party. “Mama,” she pleaded, “please help me.”

“You get that rooster ready. I’ll take care of your clothes.”

As Raineyl prompted the bird out of his cage and encouraged him to move toward the runway in the exhibition hall, Mabel picked feathers off of her daughter’s blouse. The last few floated to the ground as she lifted the partition flap.

Straw covered the floor of the exhibition area and the pungent odor of chicken droppings lingered everywhere. Even so, at least a hundred people sat in the wood stands or stood near the runway. Mr. Guthrie was already accepting congratulations from a bunch of good old boys. He had won the contest two years running and now only one rooster remained. An announcement came over the intercom, “Next we have the contestant from Raineyl Farm… Peanut Butter.”

“Come on, Peanut Butter,” said Raineyl. “Let’s show them how we do it. Hold your head high and lift up those feet. Be proud of yourself.”

Peanut Butter cackled and lifted his head straight up and paraded forward with each foot being held in the air for an extra second or two. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before. A bird strutting down the runway like the President walking down the red carpet from Air Force One or barging through the doors of the Oval Office. The woman judge’s mouth dropped open in wonderment. Another judge compared his checklist for this bird to the one from Guthrie Farms, shaking his head in disbelief.

After the rooster finished, he held his head in a dignified way, basking in the looks of astonished fans and making a fantastic portrait for those snapping photos. The lead judge came forward and gushed, “We have a new champion… Peanut Butter from Raineyl Farm. Here is a trophy from the County Commissioners and a check for five hundred dollars.”

Mabel clapped with joy and Josh hollered to several spectators seated near him, “That’s my girl. I knew she could beat that old man.”

Raineyl smiled brighter than a sunbeam. She finally realized you don’t have to be snow white to be a winner. No… no… no…

pencil

Ron Arnold is a freelance writer of fiction and poetry. His short stories have been published in The Binnacle, Creative With Words Publications, The Funny Paper, Joyful!, Northwoods Journal, Penny-A-Liner, The Pink Chameleon, Tale Spinners, and Toasted Cheese. He is also a member of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Email: Rraflw[at]aol.com

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