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Just Chickens

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In the woods behind her house, Sarah ties a pair of pantyhose stuffed with dog hair to a laurel bush. She hangs five more pairs, the legs bulging with hair, to bushes and trees around the chicken coop. Satisfied, she looks in on the chickens. The rooster, black as night, is waddling in circles about the hens. Feathered in white streaked with fiery reddish orange, the hens are curled like plump peaches in the dirt. They've settled in for the evening.

Sarah is counting on the pungent odor of the dog hair to ward off the fox. He's been coming every night for a week now, his shrieks piercing her sleep, jerking her from bed and outside to the coop. So far, her frantic shouts and the beam of her flashlight have frightened him away. But this morning, she called the dog groomer in town to save her a sack of hair.

Summer smells drench the woods, sweeten the evening air. She walks back to the house and wonders, not for the first time, why she bothers to keep the chickens.

When friends ask, she shrugs. The chickens don't do much but scratch in the dirt for bits of corn, pecking at their moist green droppings. They cluck over one another. They mate at whim. The rooster crows intermittently throughout the day, starting at three in the morning. The hens lay piles of eggs that end up in a bowl in the refrigerator until Sarah has to throw them out.

"Just chickens," she says to the question of breed. "I got them after James left."

James walked out in January, four months ago. In the spring, she bought the chickens at a farmers' market outside of town. She bought them on impulse, along with a bale of straw, a roll of chicken wire, and some cracked corn. When they flapped and fluttered in the car, she imagined how James would cringe.

That first day, Sarah built a fence around the old doghouse and called it a coop. The rooster strutted circles, pausing now and then to give a lusty crow. The hens ignored him and picked through the straw as Sarah looked on.

The night is silent except for the sound of a million crickets. Sarah sleeps deeply.

She wakes to a gleaming blue sky. The sun is brilliant, the air deliciously crisp. Like a gift, the day rustles with promise. At first, Sarah does not see the litter of feathers on the ground, the walnut-sized head lying in the bloodied dirt. But the chickens are making frantic wailing sounds. One of the hens is missing. Suddenly she spots the head and lets out a cry. Then, quickly, she scoops up the head with a leaf and throws it into the woods. At once the chickens seem calmer. Just chickens, she thinks. Though for a moment, the despair in their voices sounded almost human.

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