A rooster’s crow broke the pre-dawn silence. William the Conqueror. That was the name his father had given the fine black Australorp that ruled their roost. He was a head taller than their remaining eight roosters, with darts of tan and brown the only color in his otherwise ebony cape. His crowing was distinct in that it ended suddenly, as if something had caught in the rooster’s throat. He crowed again. It was soon followed by a gaggle of impatient, agitated clucking. Then nothing. The rooster crowed again. More clucking. Somewhere further away, another rooster crowed its shrill reply.
In the next room, heavy feet found their way onto the floor. The feet shuffled a short distance before there was again a brief silence. The silence broke with the sound of one boot and then a second, scraping over the floor as they were put on and laced. The footfalls resumed heavier now, louder, moving with alertness and purpose. He hated the sound of the creaking door. Yet it always came. Day after day, after day. And, he feared, always would come. The rest of his life, the door would creak. Maybe he could oil its hinges for some quiet. And for a time, it would silence the door. But that was only quieting an otherwise unsettling truth.
He’d been awake at least twenty minutes, grateful he hadn’t yet heard it and looking for some last morsel of sleep to appease his restful hunger, bitter that the creak would inevitably come. And now, as these heavy boots plodded closer, he felt his pulse race. His imagination, as it so often did when he woke early, raced with it. The door was going to open and it wasn’t going to be who he expected. No.
It would be Death. Death, and not a faceless apparition shrouded in a black cloak with a scythe. His Death would be covered in chicken filth, with maggots worming their way down what was left of a ragged, torn face. It would have the face of some rotting rooster; the comb tattered and scarred like the dead sail of a lifeless ship. The eyes black, the black of some infinite foreboding darkness and the beak a hooked, unnatural thing, with wattles that sagged in shredded streams of decaying flesh. He clenched his teeth as the footsteps stopped immediately outside his door. The latch clicked. The door groaned its agonizing note as it opened.
“Sam, time to rise,” his father said in a calm, steady tone. His voice was deep, and the words were heavy, like the sound of stone slabs scraping against one another. Without waiting for a reply, his father turned and made his way to the kitchen.
Sam Seagrim sat up in his bed, as much to show his father that he was in fact awake as to get himself moving to start the day. He ran a hand through his sandy blond hair then rubbed his eyes and looked outside. A bright moon hung just beneath the tree tops, piercing the night with vibrant blue beams. The rooster crowed again.
“Alright.” He said, waving a hand in the empty air and pushing himself off the bed.
Breakfast passed with little said between father and son. It was routine. His father cooked: the eggs, the bacon, the toast. Sam fetched the jam and the milk which, on some occasions when the seasons permitted, would be substituted with freshly squeezed orange juice.
As quickly as the food was ready, it was eaten. Sam washed the dishes and left them in the drying rack while his father brought in more wood for the fire. All the while, a chorus of rooster cries played in the background, a nagging reminder of the day’s activities.
With the sun just beginning to paint the eastern sky in soft oranges and pinks, they were outside; he would collect eggs while his father walked the fence line. The integrity of the fence confirmed, the chickens would be freed from the coop to roam and feed.
They had just over two hundred birds divided into four chicken houses. The count had been higher, but they’d lost a dozen due to a sickness that had hit the coop early in the summer. A fox had breached the perimeter and gotten one more, but not before William the Conqueror made the sly trickster pay a heavy price. Sam had gotten to the coop first. There were feathers everywhere, even some still floating in the air. William had picked up an awkward limp, and clawed at the ground in obvious irritation. Upon closer inspection, Sam saw that the remains of one of the fox’s eyes was snagged on William’s foot.
Even with the losses, it was the largest chicken farm in the county by a good eighty chickens and they made a comfortable living. Most of their hens averaged around ninety eggs a year; as the cooler months came on, they’d select three dozen or so of the younger hens to sell at the market for meat. Egg production always died off in the winter months; his father would take odd jobs around town to subsidize their income. Soon he knew, his father would tell him to do the same.
The coops smelled of straw and crap, a stench that was never quite ordinary, despite the mundane tasks associated with it. The smell was aggravated by the poor ventilation and, in the warmer months, the remains of the previous day’s baking heat.
The chickens’ frenzied exit had kicked up a thick dust, which hung in the air, sticking to him and filling his nostrils. Their curious clucks to greet the day were met by the chirping of the chicks, which were kept in a separate, smaller coop a few feet away from the main chicken-house surrounded by wire mesh and given feed to ensure their growth wasn’t left to chance.
The eggs collected and stored inside the house, Sam went to cleaning the coops. He swept the poop into a dustbin and from there into a small pail he carried with him. He moved mechanically and with the ease built of habit, the tasks a part of him now, the product of having done them almost daily for the better part of four years.
He paused, setting the pail on the top shelf in the main coop and looked at his father. The older Seagrim, having completed the perimeter walk, turned his attention to chopping wood on the side of the house, a chore he preferred to do before the sun was above the trees. That errand complete, he would take the morning’s supply of eggs into town to sell. That left Sam to gather the chopped wood and stack it, taking enough into the house to keep the stove fire burning for the day. That left laundry that needed to be taken down to the creek to be washed, brought back, and hung to dry.
He would make lunch, eat, then clean the house. As the sun burned its arc across the sky, he would have an hour or two to himself. In the past, he might have gone to the Flannery house, ten minutes’ walk across farmland and pasture to see his friend Sean. But the youngest Flannery would be joining his two older brothers at university. He had other friends, further away in both distance and association. Some, like Sean, would be headed to school. Others found themselves treading on similar ground as he; angling themselves into the family business.
He loved his father; they’d grown closer in the years since his mother had died. He’d briefly explored the idea that his father would remarry. It wouldn’t have sat well with him and he was ready to protest though the subject never came up in conversation and, after two years, seemed less and less likely with each passing month as his father found solace at home, and in the company of his only son.
Instead, his father threw himself into work. Errands and odd jobs around the home-front that had languished for months, years even, were addressed. One day the roof leaked, the next day it didn’t. There was a draft from a poorly sealed window, and then there wasn’t. With methodical precision, his father tackled tasks that had stacked up like unkempt cords of wood, until they were all neatly addressed.
After that, he turned his attention to their family business; within a year they’d doubled the number of chickens they had.
None of this was lost on Sam. And he sensed the tug no, the burden, of taking over the family business encroaching on the fabric of his life. Had felt it, even tasted it in the air. Maybe it had always been there.
He withdrew a game from his back pocket. It was a simple stick, with a small cup attached to one end. On the other end, a long thin rope connected to a wooden ball; the object was to get the ball into the cup. He’d picked it up a few months back when the circus rolled through town. He looped the ball upward and managed to bounce it off the cup rim. He tried again. Success. He’d made a game within the game, seeing how many consecutive times he could land the ball inside the cup. His high score was twenty- seven, but he hadn’t been spending much time on it.
The ball caught the attention of William the Conqueror, who had wandered back into the coop, vigilantly patrolling his domain. He paused, eyeing Sam and his little game before bobbing and strutting to the coop’s top shelf. As roosters go, he moved stealthily, quietly clucking under his breath as he carefully walked closer to Sam, who was lost in the game.
When he had drawn close enough, William struck, reaching out for the ball. The commotion surprised Sam, who dropped the cup game on the floor.
“William, you idiot.” Sam exclaimed, bending down to pick up the game.
William too was agitated, fanning his wings and hopping back. As he did so, he knocked against the pail. It rocked from one side to the other, but instead of finding the edge of the shelf, found only open air, and fell. The pail crashed on top of Sam, spilling its contents.
He stood, covered in feces, urine, and straw, his face a red mask of anger.
His father was late getting back from town, but having sold all the eggs, called the day a success. Sam had spent the afternoon finishing his chores and then stayed outside, drawing trees and birds, and occasionally pulling out his ball-cup game. Now, as they ate, Sam wrestled with his thoughts.
“Something on your mind?” his father asked in between bites of food.
Sam pushed his fork around his plate, plowing indifferently through his mashed potatoes. Before he spoke, he felt the tremble in his throat rise. “I don’t want this.”
“It’s what’s for supper.”
Sam pushed his plate away from him. “No, not this. I want to leave. Leave here. Find my own way.”
His father stopped eating and set his fork on the plate. “What about the farm? I need you here.”
“But you don’t need me. You just need a body. You can find someone local to help out.” It was a truth, neither damning nor invigorating, but like a truth once spoken, it couldn’t be taken back. A spider of panic scurried up his spine. He looked at his father, assessing whether or not the words had delivered a sting.
Sam’s father wiped his mouth with his napkin and pushed back from the table. His tongue made a circle behind closed lips, tasting the words, ingesting them. He stood and walked to the window looking out on the chicken houses. When he spoke again, his voice was soft. Soft, as gravel goes. Soft in a way that reminded Sam of when his mother died, but now that voice lacked the fragility, the weakness, that he had heard back then.
“I’m surprised it’s taken you this long.” His father said, without turning back to look at him. “I figured you’d have gotten sick of this place two seasons ago. Was surprised when you stayed on. Happy of course, but surprised.”
Sam looked at his father, then looked away. He had been wanting to leave. Had played out the conversation in his head so many times, but always met resistance. His reasoning always fell flat, in the best cases, met with bitter anger, and in the worst cases, with the searing brand of shame. Like there was some invisible barrier he always ran into that kept him silent. And now the words having come out he found...there was no barrier at all.
“What will you do?” His father continued, his eyes fixed on something in the yard. Or perhaps not fixed on anything at all.
Sam started to speak then cleared his throat. “I know there isn’t enough money for me to attend university. I- I thought I would head to the coast.”
“To be a fisherman?” His father turned, unable to restrain the blossom of surprise across his brow. “That’s a hard life.”
“No,” Sam stood up now, “I don’t want to fish. I want to go to the lighthouse at Black Eagle.”
As quickly as the surprise appeared, it was gone. In its place, a flash of something rippled across his father’s brow. Was it disappointment?
“Sam,” his voice had lost its softness, “that man...what have you heard about him?”
“The keeper? Sean’s older brother worked under him. He’s working Hook Head now. Will probably be the head keeper in a few years. He’s engaged to be married.”
“What do you want Sam?”
Sam couldn’t stop the words from coming. “I don’t know. I know I don’t want this. I want to find my own way.”
Sam’s father sighed. He sat down in a heap and reached for a water, finishing it in one giant gulp.
“Alright. Let me see what I can do.”