A TWO FOOT HOLE IS NOT ENOUGH
For months we’ve been pecking at the loveless ground, weaving spirited straw, collecting small branches that can be thatched together. I can’t remember another time when my telescoping neck hurt more like the thumb of a clumsy man with a hammer, or when my beak seemed so traveler dulled and distant. But there, by the idly patriotic back door, we have our four by four pit: the cool dark earth of it chiseled into right angles; its thatch roof sufficient to hide the declivity, but not to sustain a man’s weight.
Long nights, with the weakest amongst us posted as the lookout, we scratched and pecked and tossed the reluctant earth out of a carelessly propped open, and mercifully wide, airway. The intense hole grew luxuriantly and each day we covered it with the bare thatch lid we were smart enough to weave first and hide weeks under the straw left to sour in the corner of the coop. Those, who then wove, now dig; and our common effort unites us into what will soon be one sustained flock, one group that will strut right together and shift to strut left together and halt glacier-still to stare up with angry eyes together at suddenly impressionable predators.
Each morning the cloth-polished boy comes out of the massive structure that roosts dimly just strategic yards away from our abode: a fabulous construction reserved, our imaginary aerial reconnaissance tells us, merely for the unburdened three members of the lone robber family which daily assaults us. Each fuming morning he makes his way, lilting like a scarecrow in a thunderstorm, down to our warren to harvest the productivity of our misogynous laying.
This morning his usual front door entry he will find perniciously blocked, a woven straw latch sealing it closed from the inside. He will pull two, three, maybe four unsulphured times against the entrance in his blind attention to routine, and then remember the antique back door: that unclaimed back door that has stood unwelcomed but richly available to any understood time; that cross barred flat of wood with its own strange hinges and a latch that would be, for such a single-larceny willed boy, a mere fairy tale lift.
Around the coop in the high grass, his pants sickening with the dew, he will slither, and with a broad unsuspecting arm open the seldom used door into a dark that is always thicker at the far end of anything. A dark that smells of small sounds, that offers the humidity of avian sex. Certainly, he will step directly forward, on his ill determined way to the nearest node ready for plunder, worried more with his reaching than with his stepping; and at the first crack of the thatch we will stand and let out the bugling sound of a grindingly contentious triumph.
Down the boy will go. Down he will go before he can reach one egg, before his expectations of plunder can be played out once again in our confinement. His will be the joy of breaking, of the snapping of bone, and we will be upon him like the fates of less common actors.
With these sounds of our commonly held successful commission of a treasured murder, my beak will snap back into its comfortable place and my neck will feel as though awakened from the block and placed back in its course as my lazy roadway between body and brain. All the scored aches of our months of effort will atomize and leave me like the dreams of foxes leaving in the cavalry of morning. In my hardening heart I will think of the scattering evil of chicken feed. And I believe I will tell my horrified poults long, long, gray-skied years hence, that this is something I could not have done alone.
* * *
THE RED EGG
The religion of the Red Egg has been with us for as long as our civilization has hoarded memory. In all our species and subspecies, our fulfilled females bring forth blue or blue speckled eggs, straying inelegantly with the occasional nearly white ovum. Each egg is marginally different from any other famously welcomed egg: but the boundaries are clear, the color combinations limited to the same preciously few common hues. No one — no matter how bizarre the pre-sex diet, no matter how strange and specific the means of fertilization, no matter how irregular the parentage nor special the dates of copulation and delivery — no one has been able to produce a red egg.
In the early years our society was enlivened by the thoughts of what would come of the seemingly foretold Red Egg. Perhaps it would deliver a nestling who could fly from the moment of cracking splendidly out of the broad billed shell. Or maybe out would come a preambleless citizen who would grow unrigidly into the greatest songstress of our, or any, time. Perhaps a nestling would emerge with a public plumage that could never be created by a mere recombination of pickabout feathers, or by a corner street-level commercial shop, or through an electronic fantasy rendering board. The nestling might have a beak that could crack the finest food sources, those that, until the fledge, would have been unknown to us: a field of sustenance that would take us octaves above where we had been at that fabled birth, and enspiral our society with new regions of workday spiritual success.
Schools of philosophy were planted around the entangling phalanges of speculation. Those who held similar beliefs about what the Red Egg would bring all joyously flocked together, roiled themselves in the cavernous glory that would come into being if they were correct. And, over time, they began to think that they had to be unwaveringly correct – each separate school sure of its own bootstrap science, the method it used to make meticulous matter out of the homely unsure, to hammer and nail establish a certainty where before only sodden speculation lay waiting for the uninitiated. We were proud of our schools: flocks pitted against one another, carrying the gospel of what the Red Egg would crack into, what the signs and results would be, how our sorrows and long migrations would fade and some wanton new order harvest our irrefutable cores as though that glorious gatherer might be a banned predator, escaped.
These musings, like dreams of the mythological unchanging season, did not last. A flock must nudge itself out of comfortable adolescence. Looking only to the magic of outcomes, to the gift at the end of the Pollyanna, leaves no room for development, progress, industrialization, the modern. Our forefathers had a progressive foundation to establish, an avian order to create. Expecting a nestling to come and shoulder our sorrows, fill all of our individual and aggregate needs, is looking only in the horizontal. By our very design we are a species that is both vertical and horizontal. Ours was not the fundamental future of anticipation alone.
A few generations along, we stopped worrying what the Red Egg would produce, what luminous being would come from it, and began to worry how the Red Egg would appear: who would be the engine of its arrival? Such a stupendous event in the history of as broad and varied a species as we have become would naturally devolve of strapped exalted rigging. Would the Red Egg be deposited by the lowliest of Olomong; or would it be delivered of the most serene union of idle officials from the Red-Ferin? Would the parentage be common, or as spectacular as only being at one end of the economic scale, or the other, can be?
Admittedly, some few still pondered the spine harvesting restructuring of our natural physics that would come of the rearing of the nestling from the Red Egg; but, for most of us, the coming of the Red Egg itself became the center of our yearning, the lanyard of our self definition. New couples would wish to be distinguished in their first laying with the Red Egg; at the announcement of season, those past fertility would visit first nesters and perform quasi-religious rituals designed to encourage the arrival of the Red Egg. Each sect and subspecies would have its own sacredness, do its own dances, hold its own glistening throat cache of warbling. After a while, no one believed these machinations would have any effort on calling forth the overdue Red Egg; but the wallowing parties themselves were cherished as a time of community, an opportunity to precisely overindulge, a reason for squandering our excess production.
Not everyone participates. There are those who have given up hope, or whose belief perhaps was never nailed entirely shut, who ignore the militarism of our collective hope and anticipated joy. No one can account for the lack of certainty in some of us; the defect defines the true depth of the perfection of others. These soulless squab squat on their nests, joyous certainly at the extension of family, but not imbued with the stabilizing ebullience of anticipating the Red Egg. For them, no Red Egg is coming. No grand meeting of the profane and the divine is going to issue from their rock certain union. There is in their hearts no hope that this most ordinary of occurrences will actually be redolently more than the ordinary result of the common, individualized expression of species members routinely making replacements for themselves. To them, out will pop the product of so much gestation, to be kept warm until the end of further gestation: at which point a merciless copy of one of them will peck its way sullenly out into a world that already has a place for it, and an order of events that it must match itself to: with more or less clueless individual joy, measure itself wing cropped against.
And those of us who convivially party and stagger happily about, praising the Red Egg and imagining that this couple we now celebrate, or the one we celebrate next, or the one the most distinguished of Red-Ferin serenely serenade from more expensive perches, or the one the most base of Olomong savagely enthrone, will, with a shriek and a push and the wide eyes of a necromancer’s handmaiden, thrust into our collective expectations the Red Egg: well, a little at the edge of our revelry, we worry. We worry that two nests over, or a continent away, some unbelieving clutch of feathers and desire, mating in season only by the barest glint of the calendar, perched in the cheapest of bedding and feathered still in nodding adolescent fuzz, will roll forward off angle and tilt laughably in typical pain, and spit out one luminous Red Egg. A smooth coven of private joy perfectly red and perfectly disharmonious in its oval shroud of the heartbeat within. And then we would have to find it, and hide it, or grind the accusing shell back to an atomizing gray, then perilously peck the unblessed parents to oblivion; and the next morning we would need to look to all classes and species as though nothing in the least, in our world of hope and need and happiness, had less than evenly happened. More celebration, more hope, more reason to wait evermore.
Ken Poyner is appearing in 2012/2013 in Eclectica, Cream City Review, Dark Sky, Menacing Hedge, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Illumen, Cafe Irreal, and several other places. Most of the rest of the year he will be following his wife about watching her try to break her own world power lifting records. He and his wife live with five rescue cats and one combative fish in the lower right hand corner of Virginia.