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The Chicken's Plague

By Daniel Silliman

The chickens were all dead, by the time of the two floods and the time I was born. There were still a few scattered hens, I guess, laying eggs under bushes, and still a few roosters scratching after worms. But the chicken farms were all gone. Gone out of business with the plague.

My dad said it was…I don't remember what he said was the technical name, but it was whatever they call the chicken version of elephantitis, the human disease named after elephants. Round worms cut off the lymphoid networks and catch up the fluids in the tissues, causing swelling, causing swollen grotesqueries. I don't know how the chickens got it, but there must have been a first chicken. The first chicken swelled up and died, died and lay bloated in death in the scratched-over wood shavings, and the other chickens looked surprised.

Chickens always look surprised, big eyed, and confused, but never as surprised as when they see death. They cock their heads and blink twice, unprepared or unable to process this, this horror. They looked surprised and pecked at the swollen bird, pulling feathers off the dead bird's back down to the cold and goose-bumped flesh, and the round worms found another bird, strangling it too, strangling to swelling and dying. A dozen of them were swollen before the farmers noticed. They were bloated up like death and then they died, and the farmers had never seen it before but knew. Even without specific experience, they knew.

Farmers are the worst sort of gamblers. They're the sort of gamblers who bet everything, who need to win to break even, who never seem to get a break. They can smell bad luck though, they can smell it in the rain and the sun and the dirt and the grass, and they knew that the smell of death, here, was the smell of bad luck. They did what they do, they crossed their fingers and quarantined the elephant-legged chickens and when those chickens died and more chickens swelled they quarantined the whole flock. They hoped, and they prayed, and they crossed their fingers and felt the nervous edges of the plague.

The vets came first, with black bags and stethoscopes prodding and poking and making the incomprehensible noises that are never good, like emmmm and huh. After the vets came the government men, with boots and suits and badges and the bad news that there was no cure but death. It was the government men that killed the chickens. After all the chickens were killed, all of them dead and buried or maybe burned, came the bad news on top of bad news, that all of the coops were condemned. The worms, the farmers were told, were carried in wood, and all of the wood of the coops was contaminated and waiting for more chickens to kill. The government men came a second time, after the first time to kill the chickens, they came with torches and went from farm to farm burning down every coop in a county of chickens and coops. The smoke rose from the burning chickens and the smoke rose from the burning coops, black from the blood and the tar.

The farmers stood in their kitchens, staring unseeing at their wallpapered walls. To farm you borrow, and if everything goes like it's supposed to go, if all of your luck comes through, then you pay off the loans and break even with each batch of birds to borrow a little less for the next batch. But you can't pay off your debts with dead chickens. Some of the farmers called around, gathering to talk it out at the feed store and the hardware store and the bank, hoping if they talked enough they could talk it through. Nobody, though, had solutions. Others were silent, taciturn, knowing there was nothing to say. Bad luck doesn't have a solution. Plagues don't have solutions. They just run themselves out, burn themselves out in black smoke carrying everything in wisps rising to the sky.

But the smoke brought the realtors from the city. After the vets and the government men, the realtors came down buying, buying and building. And everyone sold. They made more money in the end than they'd ever made before. It was the only sensible move to make and they made it. They admitted they'd lost, admitted it was the end and they folded, they sold. Depressed and broke and not able to stand another string of bad luck, the farmers sold and the realtors bought, the farmers retired and the realtors built bedroom communities for commuters. Quaint streets and cul-de-sacs went up over the burned out, bad lucked, plagued-over farms.

The final fatality of the plague was the sign. Coming into the town there was the sign, on the side of the road, proclaiming Petaluma The Chicken-Plucking Capitol of the World. It was a hokey sign, the kind of sign that made people laugh and bawk like a chicken when they drove down the highway. No one but the Chamber of Commerce had ever been proud of that sign. Until now, until it came down and it felt like it was the sign of everything they'd had and everything they'd lost. That was the first of the two apocalypses that came down on the town in the few years before I was born.


Daniel Silliman was born 17 miles from the Pacific Ocean in 1982 in the middle of an overgrown Christmas tree forest. He has driven from coast to coast eight times in the last four years, has a B.A. in philosophy, and has worked as a gas station attendant, newspaper reporter, arborist, and gardener. The Chicken’s Plague is part of a series of nonfiction works on luck and failure.

Photo "Eggs Oranges 1" courtesy of Mario A. Magallanes Trejo, Saltillo, Mexico.

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