Now, the chickens were happy. Happy as clams, you might say, but you would of course be wrong, because they were chickens after all. Dozens of them, running around and scratching and making noise on the wide yard, their coop behind them. Happy as chickens could be. Scratching out a living, never leaving the safety of the yard, laying an egg or maybe two a day, nothing awfully strenuous, and relying on the farmer to throw them something to eat and keep them in water every day.
Chickens have small brains. They don’t really worry much, unless they think the sky is falling or some such. They don’t really fly. They squawk when upset, and they might peck you if cornered, but that would take a lot. Now, if a whole yard full of chickens got upset, that could be exciting to watch. The feathers might fly. Otherwise, on a normal day in a normal month in a normal year, I’d most think of a coop full of chickens just sitting there brooding.
Sam the farmer loved his chickens. He was like a father, no, maybe an uncle to them, keeping them safe and warm and dry, feeding them and keeping the predators away. It was sure easy taking care of a yard full of chickens, or so Sam surmised. The problem was, you see, that Uncle Sam was a good man, a decent man, but he was dumb as a post. He could not see beyond his small white farmhouse and the yard and the chickens he loved. He never ever looked towards the dark woods, just past the open fallow field, just paces from his dirt yard. He liked to pretend that the dark woods were not there at all.
There were foxes in those dark woods. Sly, cunning, beautiful, sleek foxes. Exotic animals, they were, when compared to the chickens. Red foxes, with bottle brush tails and sly little grins on their whiskered faces. Perked ears that heard all, especially at night, under cover of darkness. Brains that never stopped thinking of chickens and dirt yards and farmhouses that didn’t belong to them.
The foxes never came out in the open during the day, not during broad daylight, because even the farmer, who was dumb as a post you might remember, could usually believe his own nearsighted eyes when something was amiss in broad daylight. No, the foxes were stealthy creatures of the night. They only came probing when it was pitch black out and the farmer was sitting in his rocker, full of supper and snoring the late evening hours away.
The foxes began to pick off the chickens one by one, so that the farmer might not notice. First, the Rhode Island Reds. Then the Guinea fowl. Then the Cubalaya. Then a Bantam breed or two. The foxes cared not a whit for different colored feathers, or top knots or wings or funny shaped beaks. They picked them off slyly, not in overtly foxy ways at all. Sam did not even notice at first, as he had a problem with numbers and counting you see.
One day, Uncle Sam decided to count all his chickens, even the ones that had not yet hatched. He enlisted his wife Libby to help him. She was older and smarter than Sam. She loved him without question, always had, but she sometimes grew tired of his simpleton ways and inability to see things as they really were. She soon realized that they were losing their prize chickens, the ones that had come to the farm from very far away and were valuable. She related this assessment to Uncle Sam, who spat loudly into the dirt and promptly denied that this was happening. An argument ensued, and Libby threatened to leave the farm, and Sam if things did not change for the better, and soon. The foxes, listening just inside the tree line in the dark woods, heard every word, and smiled.
Time went on, more chickens were lost, ones of every color and variety, prized chickens that Sam and Libby had sacrificed to bring to the farm. The borderland between the farmyard and the edge of the dark woods seemed to be blurring. Libby grew more upset, then angry, then depressed, then despondent, then lost all hope. She moved away, never to return to the white farmhouse.
One night, Sam was awakened by a clatter in the yard out by the chicken coop. He grabbed his shotgun and went outside into the darkness. Hearing commotion, not having any idea what it was, and feeling very afraid now, he fired his gun into the darkness, one time, twice, three times, until all his shells were spent. The noise continued. He reloaded and fired again, blindly responding to the threat that he did not understand but was very frightened by. The noise stopped. “There,” he said out loud to no one, “that’s better. Nothing to fear. Nothing to see.” Satisfied that he had done his duty, he went back into the white house and fell asleep.
The morning after, Uncle Sam came out of the house, got a pail of feed for the chickens and prepared to distribute it to them as he had for many years. As he approached the coop, the site of all the commotion from the night before, he saw blood and feathers everywhere. “The foxes,” he said out loud. “Libby was right, it was the foxes that did this awful thing.” Then he noticed that the dozens of chickens had not been torn apart or dragged away by foxes at all. They had all been shot. In his denial and blindness and panic, Sam had wiped out his entire chicken coop in the dead of night.
Distraught at his own foolhardiness, he returned to the farmhouse, packed a small, battered suitcase, and left the farm behind. He thought of his wife, many days gone before him now. “Liberty,” he said (he always called her Liberty when things got serious between them), “I’m coming to find you. If it takes me ten years, I swear I’m gonna find you. We need to be together. We have to be together.”
As darkness fell that night, there was no soft clucking or rustling as hens got comfortable on the roost. There was no cheery whistling or singing as Libby made an apple pie in the kitchen. There was no snoring as Sam slept through the changes that had cost him his way of life.
There was only the softest rustle of fur on fencepost and a fast-moving glint of red in the moonlight as the next occupants of the little white farm house moved through the dooryard.