NEA Literature Fellowships

William Lychack

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from "Chickens"

Next morning became next week became end of June became a dozen roosters, one hen, and a sharp shining hatchet in our future. What started as two dozen of my sweetest little whims, all sunny and cartoon-cute -- peep, peep -- soon became a nightmare of roosters all mottled and nasty and mean. Roosters crowing from dawn to dark, roosters crowing from the street, roosters crowing from the nearby yards and fences and tops of cars. Chased them home with a rake. Sprayed them from shrubs with a hose. Promised vast harm upon the birds. Swore to chop off their ugly little heads.

Went from fragile and breathless if a single chick turned up missing -- God forbid a clump of feathers by the side of the house, a string of blood in the grass -- and a few short weeks later I have gone from maternal and happy to whatever is the opposite of maternal and happy. Paternal and miserable, according to the dictionary, Bob laughing at the kind of luck I seemed to have, all but one of my chicks turning into roosters -- hardy, har, har -- glad to give him something to joke about down at the Elks.

Wasn't funny, of course, but got me thinking, and I drove myself back to the farm the next day for some clarification. Same sign on side of the road, baby angoras and leghorns for sale, huge pen filled with chicks under heat lamps -- peep, peep, all over again -- me asking, What were the chances of someone getting so many roosters anyway? Woman looked at me -- little air pocket of quiet between us -- and she asked when was my baby due?

I put my hands to the small basketball of my stomach -- easy to forget sometimes -- baby, pregnant, fact of it not always real to me either. Still, I was not about to let myself be distracted now. MISSION: CHICKENS.

Told her few months until the baby, end of September, and I shook off the idea of the baby and looked at the pen, the lamps, the chicks, breathed deep the noise and stink, and then I asked if it was even possible? I mean, all but one of my chicks turning into roosters?

She smiled in a doomed sort of way and said she was sorry. Really no way to tell with hatchlings, she said. Supposed to startle them, and then watch what they do by instinct, cockerels clucking and standing upright, pullets silent and crouching down. Nothing too very scientific about it, she was afraid. And again that smile of hers, that good-witch tilt of her voice, woman saying she didn't know what else to tell me, asking if I played the lottery, because my luck was bound to change.

She gave me a carton of eggs as a gift, and I stopped at the library on the way home. Returned Common-Sense Poultry and Barnyard in the Backyard (All You Need to Know About Raising Chickens). Took out One Hundred Chicken Recipes for Summer, The Creative Chicken Cookbook, and Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game. Stopped at the hardware store and asked where might their ax department be? Bought the sharpest hatchet, the heaviest trash bags, the deepest aluminum baking pans they had. Rode through town looking for Bob, wanting that big white Impala around every corner, hoping to find him at the shopping center, at the diner, at who knows wherever he was, doing whatever he did, me just wanting to be with him. Rehearsed how I'd ask if he happened to be in the mood for some poultry tonight? Had the hatchet ready to make him laugh. Had the recipe books to show him. Wanted to ask if he felt like baked chicken or fried chicken or chicken salad? What kind of chicken would he like for dinner this fine evening, Bob? Barbecue chicken? Parmesan chicken? Want to let's pick some new surprise
of chicken together, honey?

Sometimes I'd drive the whole town like this and find him at those huge supermarket windows, Bob and his father on opposite sides of the glass like mimes, both with the same long pulls of blade, the same quick swipes of chamois. Most of the time, I'd go all the streets and never find him anywhere, my last hope that he'd be in the yard as I pulled in, his car waiting at home all along, hood cool, joke on me. I'd sink a little inside, driveway always empty when I arrived, rooster on the steps of the patio, another running out of the flowerbed, another crowing as I started into the house.

("The Chicken" was originally published in The Architect of Flowers.)

William Lychack is the author of a novel, The Wasp Eater (Mariner, 2005), and a collection of stories, The Architect of Flowers (Mariner, 2011). His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and on public radio's This American Life. He currently teaches creative writing in the low-residency master of fine arts program at Lesley University and lives in Stamford, Vermont, with his wife and three children.

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Author's Statement

The NEA has always stood as a signal validation to me, and now it stands as a confirmation of two core faiths that I've practiced for as long as I've been writing. As an article of faith, I believe that my main task as a writer is to care -- and to keep caring -- to find ways to care so much about my work that I don't care if anyone else cares. This loop feeds into my second article of faith, the belief that my real job as a writer is to send energy out into the world -- to not limit myself about my work -- to let the world say no, which it will, but not to deny myself the permission to say what I feel. The NEA arrives to me as one of the most welcome and happy affirmations of these two articles of faith, and I'm grateful for the support.