By Jen Herron
Nora begged the twins to stop. Madge’s thick, yellow claw clamped down on Nora’s face, pinning her to the ground. Mabel, the larger twin, stabbed at Nora’s rump with her razor-sharp beak, plucking feathers as a butcher might from a Christmas goose. Nora had heard the horror stories of human brutality, but the cruelty of the twins would rival any bird-eater.
Behind the water trough, Goldie, Nora’s best friend, sank back. How Goldie wished she was braver! She would storm out and give those twins a good bashing; a sharp kick to the breast, a disabling peck to the neck and a particularly ghoulish pluck at the eyes for a solid finish. But it didn’t do to make waves, and it certainly wouldn’t do to wish for more than you were. As much as Goldie loved Nora, she couldn’t sit beneath her in the ranks.
“That’s enough,” said a low voice from the coop door. Black Pearl, the Silkie Queen, had spoken. Her presence at once awe-inspiring and frightening, Black Pearl had the gravitas of a sparrow-hawk, nay, a buzzard! Though she was smaller than the twins, what she lacked in stature she made up in attitude; a puffed-up breast, a high, piercing beak and a rugged, cocky swagger. Pearl strutted in, and all three hens bowed their heads. Goldie cowered behind the trough, her tail feathers quivering.
“How many times? You do not eat till I say so.” Pearl growled.
“Yes, Pearl. Sorry Pearl. But I haven’t eaten in days,” replied Nora.
A shriek of pain pierced the air as Pearl ripped a feather from Nora’s head and gobbled it down her throat.
“Not a single grain.” Pearl waited for Nora to answer back.
Only a frightened cluck passed Nora’s beak as she shook amongst the shavings. Content with Nora’s humiliation, Pearl exited the coop, her two bodyguards wobbling behind her.
The water trough clanked on the wooden floor as Goldie launched from her hiding place. Goldie unfurled her small, amber wing, placing it over Nora’s battered body. Nora rejected the wing and shook herself off.
“Bloody bitches,” said Nora, rising to her feet. “Did they get my silver tail feather?”
Goldie checked Nora’s behind. An elongated, iridescent feather peered elegantly from Nora’s plumage. “It’s still there.”
“Thank God. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.”
“Come on,” replied Goldie, “let’s dig up some worms. That always cheers you up.”
Nora sighed and ruffled her chest. “You know what would cheer me up? Those fuckin’ twins getting a fox up their hole.”
Goldie chuckled. Nora really was the most foul-mouthed fowl in the county.
They ambled into the garden, the grass already hard and crisp with evening frost. The sun was sinking behind the hills, the grey, winter sky seeping slowly into a purple haze. The sharp nip of the wind ruffled their feathers as they waddled towards the bird table.
It was time for bed, but the twins managed to knock a ball of suet from the bird feeder and were feasting heartily. The other hens watched with wide eyes, awaiting a titbit to see them through the frosty night, but the twins must have their fill first. Nora’s stomach rumbled.
“You better not…” said Goldie, sensing trouble.
“Don’t worry,” replied Nora, “I want to keep my tailfeather.”
Both birds looked back to admire said tailfeather, and as they did so, they noticed a blanket of fog rolling towards them. Soon, the wispy mist drifted over their backs, and the air at once became silent, the chirp of the wild birds disappeared. Every hen in the flock froze, something prehistoric within them forcing their hackles up. Pearl raised her neck, her nostrils sniffing the air like a hound. A soft, vibrating trill gargled in her throat, and soon it rose to a loud, alarming cackle. Pearl and her disciples turned their gaze towards Goldie and Nora. A loud, repetitive thump filled Goldie’s ears. The sound of a heartbeat threatening to explode. She turned to look at Nora, her eyes shining with terror. “It’s behind us, isn’t it?”
A hot stink of musk penetrated their nostrils.
“Run!” said Pearl, “it’s a…it’s a FOX!”
The flock of hens spread their wings wide and sprinted towards the safety of the cottage, their massive, feathery rears bobbing from side to side as they fled. Goldie was wedged between Nora and Pearl, all equal in size, all matched in pace, and they gasped as the larger hens outran them. Goldie glanced back. A blur of red and brown, a flash of white, snarling teeth, only seconds away. It was then she did the unspeakable.
Goldie stuck out her left leg and felt Nora’s weight topple over her foot. Her friend flopped to the ground, and Goldie continued to run, her heart pounding, mind racing, too scared to look back. The Guardian came running out of the cottage with a broom in hand, ready to thwack the scarlet thief. Alas, she was too late. For the fox had gone, and Nora with her.
The flock followed the Guardian to the scene of the crime. A mound of wispy white feathers peppered the ground, stained with blood. A trail of fresh droplets led to the hole in the back yew-bush where the murderer had made off with her dinner.
Goldie was smacked by the sharp sting of guilt. Never did she think herself capable of such cowardice, but there it was, in the face of death, her true colours laid bare for all to see. How Goldie wished she had thrown herself to the jaws of the monster. Gnashing teeth tearing at her flesh would have been nothing compared to the shame eating her now.
The Guardian locked them up in their coop for the night and latched the door. The hens took their places on their tiered roosts, but Goldie could only stare at the door, waiting for the friend with whom she had always shared the bottom perch.
“You may sleep with me this evening,” said Pearl, ushering the twins to a lower tier. Madge grunted and shot Mabel a sly, disconcerting glance. The twins ruffled their feathers as they sat on the second perch, severe and sullen, their eyes drilling into Goldie.
Pearl raised her neck and plumped out her chest. “Goldie has saved us all and henceforth shall be named second hen.”
Instead of pride, Goldie’s promotion only intensified her guilt. She waited till dark and jumped off her perch, fumbling to find the bottom roost. Strangely, the scent of her friend still lingered there, the same musky sweetness she had grown to love. Falling into a fitful sleep, she dreamed of Nora and of the fox who had chased them, and she awoke with a start in the early sunrise, begging for breath.
As the gasps subsided, Goldie dropped her beak. There, embedded in the wood shavings, was a long, silver tailfeather, its tip soaked in blood. Goldie fell from the perch, squealing and squawking, waking the entire flock.
“Good god, hen!” said Pearl. “What’s wrong?”
Madge and Mabel jumped off their perch and circled defensively.
“Look, there!” said Goldie. “Nora’s feather! How did it get here?”
Pearl alighted her roost, considering the latched door and bolted window.
“It must have come in with us yesterday, and we didn’t notice.”
Goldie gulped. “I’m cursed!” she cried. “I’m cursed for what I’ve done!”
An icy draught swept through the cracks of the coop, and the hens shuddered. Goldie squawked as if she was about to meet the butcher’s knife.
A swift stab to her head brought Goldie back from the brink of terror.
“Toughen up, girl!” said Madge. “You’re second hen now. Act like it.”
Goldie gulped back the tears. “I don’t want to be a second hen! Nora was right. You’re a pack of bloody bitches. All of you!” The entire flock flustered and cackled like a coven of witches. They jumped from their roosts, surrounding Goldie, low-angry trills gargling in their throats.
“You’re going to pay for that.” Mabel’s eyes bored into Goldie as the band of blood-thirsty hens crowded closer around the frightened chicken.
The clanking of the latch. A sweep of fresh air. The Guardian opened the door. Goldie dodged the horde of sharp beaks and bounded towards the safety of the garden. The hens pursued her, but the tinkle of corn falling to the ground reassured Goldie she would be safe – for now.
Although chickens might not be known for their aviation abilities, Goldie was a pretty good flyer insofar as a chicken can be. With the added motivation of possible assassination, Goldie forced herself to scale the old oak tree at the back of the garden. She knew the twins would tear the place apart until they found her, but she also knew Madge and Mabel were far too fat to fly up to her hiding place. From the safety of her tree, she watched the flock gobble up their corn and proceed to systemically check every patch of the garden for her whereabouts.
“We’re going to rip you limb from limb!” yelled Madge as she scraped the undergrowth with her talons. “You can’t hide forever!”
Goldie cowered behind the branches, holding her breath. A deep melancholy fell upon her as she considered her fate. What would finish her first? The twins, the fox or the insurmountable guilt consuming her? Perhaps she would sit in the tree waiting for hunger to get the better of her. A slow, painful death was more than she deserved.
Finally, at dusk, the chicken-hunt abated, and the gang returned to their coop. The Guardian appeared and shut the latch of the hen house, securing the mob for the evening.
The foliage around Goldie began to glaze with frost. Perhaps the cold would finish her off. The full moon rose high, illuminating the garden with its sickly-yellow glow. A fat plop of snow drifted down, landing on the end of Goldie’s beak. Soon, she was covered in a flurry of flakes, her amber feathers now downy white, her body quivering with the relentless chill of the wind. Her body went limp. “This is the end,” she whispered to herself. “I’m going to end my days as a frozen chicken.”
A shadow emerged at the back of the garden. Was the cold bringing on hallucinations? But then, as the shadow came closer, terror overwhelmed her. This was no hallucination.
A bloody, half-feathered figure stumbled wraith-like down the lawn. It limped towards the chicken run; its left-wing was almost hanging off, the creature’s right eye gauged out. It raised its beak to the moon and let out a blood-curdling cluck echoing through the night.
Nora! Back from the dead! And she was a ghost chicken!
Goldie had heard of such spirits from old fowl-lore, but she never thought she would actually see one. Though filled with fear, Goldie immediately recognised the opportunity of this second chance. If Goldie were to end her days as a frozen chicken, she would make sure she had done at least one good thing in her useless life, to say sorry to the friend she had wronged. She threw herself from the tree, bouncing off every branch on the way down, till she rolled, inelegantly, to the feet of the ghost chicken.
“Nora!” she cried. “Nora! I am so sorry for what I did!”
The ghost chicken stood unmoving as stone, her good eye glaring at the prostrate Goldie.
“Please go into the light!” said Goldie, “you’re too good of a soul to walk the earth forever like this!” She spread her wings and bowed. “Ghost chicken! I am truly sorry for what I did. Please rest in peace.”
The ghost chicken opened its battered, crooked beak. “If you are sorry,” it replied in a low, shaky tone, “fly up and unlatch the door of the chicken coop. Let me roost one last time.”
Goldie frowned, her mind a mist of confusion. “You want to sleep with the other hens?”
The ghost chicken straightened her twisted neck. “Do this for me, and I will forgive you.”
Goldie forced herself forward and trudged through the snow. With her remaining strength, she flapped her wings with all her might, flying up till her beak met with the latch. Then she fell to the ground, her energy spent. The coop door cracked open.
“Do you forgive me now, ghost chicken?”
Nora shook with laughter.
“I’m not a ghost, you fuckin’ idiot. You always were as thick as two short planks, Goldie.”
Nora raised her beak and let out three large clucks. The bushes around them began to quiver, the foliage alive with glowing eyes staring from the undergrowth. The air hummed with the familiar stench of musk.
Nora snapped her wing into place and cracked her back. “There I was, literally in the jaws of death,” said Nora calmly, “when I began to reason with the fox. I told her I would help her if she helped me – I would deliver the entire flock if she would let me go.”
Goldie stared at her friend, beak-smacked.
“She’s a decent fox really, the lowliest member of her pack, a bit like me. But not anymore,” continued Nora. “Here she comes now, with the rest of her gang. They’ve been trying to get in here for ages, apparently.”
The fox skulked across the grass, then darted towards them, placing itself at the door of the coop. She eyed Goldie, teeth bared, body sunk, ready to pounce.
“What about this one. Can I eat her?”
Nora tilted her head and considered her friend. “That’s a good question.”
Shaking with fear, Goldie couldn’t heave any words into her mouth, not even to beg for her life.
But Nora turned, wedging her body within the crack of the coop door, pushing it open. She ushered the fox inside with her wing. “There are fatter ones inside. Leave this one…for now. Have at it!”
A whirlwind of musk and fur threw Goldie to the ground as a troop of foxes filed into the hen house. The squawks and squeals of the doomed hens cut through the air, shaking the very ground with their fright.
As she pulls open her thick, tartan curtains, the Guardian is delighted to see the heavy blanket of snow covering the ground. She pulls on her duffle coat and wellingtons, then lifts the bucket of corn sitting at the back door. Most of what follows is a blur, but the very worst of it is forever etched in her mind.
Crimson puddles seeping through the snow, scarlet trails of bodies dragged to the back bushes, the severed heads of her prize-winning buff Orpingtons floating in the water trough. And there, in the midst of it all, sits the one-eyed, blood-stained white Silkie on the top roost, its breast puffed out and proud, as the little Goldstar hen quakes on the perch below.
Jen Herron is a writer and teacher from Larne, Northern Ireland. She also narrates The Spooky Women Podcast.