Cletus Givens, an ox of a man, and hairy like a bear, credited his mighty physique to the cutting down of trees to build his home, barn, chicken coop, wood for his fireplace, and to his father and his father’s father. Dark of mind, he prayed to chickens.
And he prayed to chickens through Her, the wraith-like woman at the top of Pine Mountain. Perhaps soon she might journey down the mountain for him. Cletus prayed mightily.
Sometimes on overly warm nights Cletus slept in the chicken coop with his chickens. The stench, and his familiarity to the smell of chickens and chicken shit, did not bother him enough to interfere with the gentle cooing of his friends helping him sleep. Cletus rarely slept well, sometimes not for days, and when he slept he dreamed of foxes. He rarely wore clothing, finding it necessary only when in the company of humans.
Yesterday, while hunting for ginseng to trade for flour and other commodities in Harlan, Cletus came across a black walnut tree with a wide circular hole at the same level of his head. Understanding this as a sign, he put his ear to the hole, hoping to hear from Her — and much to his delight, he did!
In ten-days-time slaughter 216 chickens. Be certain to wear their blood and feathers and entrails and nothing else. The God of Chickens favors you. Come back tomorrow at noon.
As Cletus owned more than 1000 chickens, this did not seem overly demanding. He ate mostly chicken and fried eggs anyway, only occasionally supplementing his diet with bread or wild field garlic, mushrooms and quickweed. The weather was turning, so a lot of the dead chickens could be stored in the creek or taken into town for sell.
This night, sleeping with his chickens, he dreamed of her ethereal figure as she began her journey down Pine Mountain.
Cletus awoke, covered with chicken droppings, feathers stuck to the droppings, with a tiny erection. Normally he wouldn’t rush to the creek just to wash off, but he expected Her to pay him a visit this evening.
The sky, cloudy, dark shapes moving briskly with the strong wind, Cletus considered a friend. He loved counting chicken-shaped clouds.
He enjoyed the cold water of the creek, and the bitter breeze drying him.
Checking his traps, he found a cat, a tabby, and jumped for joy. As much as he enjoyed chicken, an occasional cat made a special breakfast.
Taking control of the cat and walking over to the huge tree stump he used as a chopping block, a rush of excitement overcoming him, causing another erection. Using his hatchet, thick with yesterday’s blood and stench, he chopped the cat’s head off. In no time at all he butchered the cat, skewered it over a pit dug for roasting, and enjoyed his breakfast. He wiped cat grease on his chest, arms and genitals to help protect against bug bites.
Looking up at the sky to check the sun’s position, he decided the time was correct to return to the tree.
This time, Cletus poked his entire head inside the hole in the black walnut.
As the time for my appearance approaches, you must prepare a special meal in tribute.
Cletus, removing his head from the tree, turned and headed south to his secret cave. Removing the brambles from the cave’s entrance, he walked in. The temperature was colder than even outside the cave. Moving in the darkness, he came across the male corpses hanging on metal hooks.
Lifting the meatiest corpse from a hook, Cyrus Sullivan, a wealthy landowner from Breathitt County, he retraced his steps back out of the cave.
He laid the corpse next to the chopping block, not bothering to look around for anyone that might be looking on because no one ever did.
Then he prepared to work on the chickens. First he started a fire in the large pit made for butchering chickens. He carried a metal pot and set it down into the fire, but only so far as the flames from the fire reached only halfway up the sides. He then filled the pot with water from the creek. Soon enough, the water boiled.
After around the twentieth chicken, their screams began to fill the air.
He paused after every ten chickens, pulling their bodies from the boiling water and removing their feathers. After removing the feathers, he gutted them, allowing their offal to pile high.
After 108 chickens, he broke a sweat. After 54 more chickens, his back began to hurt. After 215 chickens, his hand slipped in the blood and he chopped off the pinkie finger of his left hand. He swallowed it whole.
Cyrus Sullivan took no time at all, since he lacked feathers.
Cletus’ remaining chickens stopped screaming, their music becoming a calming clucking.
The approaching twilight, the buzz of flies, a slight breeze rustling the tree leaves and a stirring in the bushes alerted Cletus to Her arrival
Big Mary, a dermestid beetle, known as a skin beetle to the locals and used in its regular form to clean the skulls of deer and other kills, presented her corpus to Cletus; twenty-five feet long and as thick as the prize hog at last month’s Harlan County Fair.
Cletus observed Her surveying the hill of butchered chickens, the four feet tower of chicken offal and then the blood dripping from his finger.
Cletus heard in his mind: I’m going to miss ‘ole Cletus, but that stump on his hand . . . makes me queasy . . . and it’s so Flannery O’Connor. And saw: his ghostly dream-woman aiming her left mandible and sending him a blow toward the spot between his eyes; and his final thoughts, halfway to bulls-eye, also Big Mary’s: I must get started on the chicken. There are bones to clean.
©James W. Kirk
James Ward Kirk is a novelist and lives in Indianapolis with his wife of twenty years.