The Spring of the First Roo

Submitted into Contest #114 in response to: Write about a clique that dominates your story’s social scene.... view prompt

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Fiction

The slip of the door is the signal, that's when she opens her eyes. The others have been up for a while now so it's not like she hasn't been awake, she just hasn't indicated so. No movement, no looking about. As still as if she was sleeping through it all. Not until she hears the others rustle through the door does she blink and look around. She'll be the last one out, like always, no need to rush into the day. 

Lucy jumps down from her roost, the corner topmost spot, and stops by the waterer for a drink. She stretches her wings back and then forward while trying to balance on the opposite foot, stretching her other leg back. She wobbles a bit, but no one sees because they're all outside. She plans her mornings this way both because she likes to be alone and because she doesn't like anyone else to see how she is starting to fail. Her eggs stopped coming a long time ago, but she suspects she's not the only one. The farmer doesn't seem to notice, or maybe doesn't mind, that her flock number outweighs her daily egg count. Maybe she attributes this to breakage, which would explain the various shells that keep showing up in the coop in small bowls. The farmer is doing her part. The fewer chickens who are laying though, the harder it becomes to hide the dwindling numbers. And those young hens who will break and eat an egg are no help. No help to Lucy and the older ladies, and no help to the farmer’s worries about their calcium intake.

After her stretching, she walks over to the plank that leads up to the door. She walks the whole plank most mornings, rather than hopping up midpoint like everyone else. She stays unrushed, counts her steps until she gets to the guillotine-style door and then steps outside. The morning sun has settled long shadows on this side of the coop, so everyone is around the side where the first weeds are growing in the bright light. The farmer hasn't cast them any treats this morning but they can see her, through the wire fence, out in the garden, which is promising. She used to let the chickens out there to graze, but they're kept to the side yard now, and instead the farmer brings them the greens already plucked from the ground. A strange system, the chickens think, but they eat well either way.

Lucy moves further out into the yard. The ladies nod their acknowledgement of her before returning to peck at the fresh sprouts along the fence line. Alice clucks up alongside her.

“She’s in the garden,” she says. “Probably be some good snacks this morning!" 

Alice the obvious, thinks Lucy. 

Alice continues. "I hope she’s pulling them up by the roots. I like it when the worms get stuck in there.”

Lucy looks through the fence at the farmer, her brown overalls lighter at the knees where the mud has dried on. The wheelbarrow is parked within arms reach and she is bent at the waist, plucking up the handfuls of weeds before blindly tossing them into it. It's still early in the season, when the weeds are tender and small, not tall and woody. Not that the chickens are ever given the woody ones. By that time of year, the wheelbarrow will be filled with overgrown cucumbers and zucchinis, so much elongated green that the girls will eventually turn up their beaks at it. Lucy’s favorites will come after that. The cracked squash and split cabbage with the earwigs living at the base. The stretched out buds of broccoli and gigantic heads of petal-less sunflowers. She loves those chilly mornings. And the early nights when her stout legs don’t ache so much by the end of the day. When she doesn’t feel the need to stay out later than she wants to. Her top roost spot will always be there for her, no matter what time she beds down for the night, but in the fall it’s less obvious that she is often the first one in. 

Caroline pads over to the two of them, a knowing smirk narrowing her beady eyes. 

“I hear we’ve got a new one coming in,” she says. “Heard the farmer talking to the neighbour about it this morning.” Caroline loves knowing things before everyone else. But she's always sure to tell at soon as she knows, before anyone else has the chance to find out and ruin her exclusivity. 

“A new one?" says Alice, exaggerating her voice to show just how little this impresses her, Caroline’s knowing of things. “A new what?”

“A roo,” says Caroline. “From down the street.” Her feathers visibly fluff as she says it. “Apparently he’s being picked on.” Her voice emphasizes a pout that her beak cannot make.

“That seems unlikely." Alice's bored response is starting to reveal some concern. "We haven't had a roo here in years. Since before you were even born, Caroline,” she clucks. "And that did not go well. Did not go well to say the least.” Alice has been glancing at Lucy, inviting her agreement on the matter, but Lucy stays silent. 

She remembers all too well the last rooster that made a home in their coop. She was young then. And he was young too, feisty. He’d been adored by the girls. His bright red comb. His display of tail feathers glinting with green when the sun hit just right. He’d been an absolute dream. 

"Well, that's what I heard," says Caroline. "He'll be here later today." And she struts away to impress the others with her news.

The morning continues much as every morning. The farmer brings them the wheelbarrow full of treats; roots, dirt, bugs, and all. Lucy is left the choicest worm, which she takes and eats with exaggerated slowness, daintily, while the youngest chickens clearly struggle among themselves. They want to challenge her for it or flat out steal it away from her. But the flock could never allow this and they are coming to terms with that fact.

When the sun almost reaches the peak of her climb, the hens learn that Caroline is right and the new addition is brought to the yard. He is placed in the separate pen, the place where the newbies start out, where they can all see each other and get accustomed before the farmer allows them to mingle directly. He is small for a roo, barely bigger than Lucy herself, probably still growing. And he is shy, clearly overwhelmed as the ladies try to glimpse him. But he struts around pretending to be wholly interested in his new surroundings, hoping to not appear intimidated.

Lucy hangs back, expressing her disinterest wordlessly. She knows that this roo is not for her. He's here for the young ones, the still laying ones. And she knows that even though her status among the flock is strong, she will need to work to keep it that way. Not many of the girls remember the tragedy of the first roo, and clearly the youngers are already enamored by this new arrival.  

Lost in her thoughts, Lucy doesn't notice that Ruth has sidled up to her, rapping the ground as she walks, periodically, casually. Lucy tries not to appear surprised, matching Ruth's aloofness.

"He's a handsome one," Ruth says. Her voice sounds as sweet as it ever did, preserved almost, not aged to cracking like some of the biddies. And again Lucy tamps down her surprise.  

"Is he?" Lucy responds, keeping her own voice soft, and trying not to recognize the feeling of self-consciousness for what it is. "I hadn't noticed."

"Hmmph," Ruth exhales. Even this sound escapes her beak softly, pummeling Lucy's ears. Ruth walks away as slowly as she arrived. Alice and the ladiess who are flocked nearby, close but until now nearly oblivious to Lucy in the distraction that is the new roo, come flapping over, full of low chatter. 

Did she speak to you? What did she want? Surprised she even remembers how to talk. 

Nice timing, jerks, Lucy thinks. What she says is, "Barely. Nothing. Ha," downplaying the moment. She suddenly becomes interested in preening her feathers as the others continue their frenzied whispers.

Like they know anything at all, Lucy thinks to herself. Of course, you can't remember something that you weren't even there for. 

But Lucy remembers. And Alice, somewhere in her simple brain, might remember. And Ruth certainly remembers. But there were very few others who would remember the spring of the first roo. Remember how it felt to be in his gaze, somehow equally spread over them all. That was part of his charm, how none of them ever felt left out.

That spring had been the best they’d ever had. Everything was still new, the egg laying hadn’t yet begun, and even the sun seemed somehow brighter in those days. The farmer was never happier. She brought them all the treats and gave them full range of the yard. And she would visit them often, just to watch, the whole flock flapping and enjoying and finding out about the world. And when the eggs started coming she was further pleased, cooing over how, at first, she could fit nearly half a dozen in her one hand. And later on, when Ruthie was taken by some strange urge to sit all day, even then, especially then, the farmer was elated. 

And the roo, too. He seemed to forget all about the others, the girls who were ready to spend the day chasing grasshoppers for him, and sharing their dust baths. He became possessed, focused on little else but Ruthie, who just sat all day. But happily! Happy to sit in the dank coop, foregoing the sunshine, leaving the others to the bugs and sumptuous weeds. He brought them to her, the bits of food. And he preened her feathers while she sat. It was bewildering.

Finally, all her sitting amounted to something and a yellow fluff ball emerged from beneath her. And the world went even crazier. The roo, Ruth, and the chick were the centre of everyone’s attentions. They would strut around the farmyard like they cared for nothing else in the world but each other. And the farmer was over the moon. 

And then, tragedy struck. The chick was found, behind a pile of scrap wood, barely alive, and nearly scalped. 

But how did this happen? And how had no one seen? How? How? How? 

The farmer came upon them all, the hens shrieking around his small shredded body, the rooster distraught. And the poor chick, utterly perplexed, repeatedly shaking his head, spraying a fine mist of blood, trying to rid himself of the flap of soft down that kept falling into his eyes. The farmer took him away. 

But where? Can she fix him? Will she bring him back? 

They didn’t see her again until very late in the day, and then only from a distance, as she walked to the woodshed. They heard a dull thwack and then another. And then another. And when she took the shovel over to the flower bed, they knew. The chick would not be returned to them. 

The rooster left a few days after that, in a small cage. 

“A great breeder,” the farmer said. “If you have the stomach for that kind of thing.” 

The new roo joins them after a couple of days. The younger girls, as predicted, fawn all over him.

"Could they be any more obvious?" Alice scoffs. "Like they've never seen a roo before."

"They haven't," says Lucy. 

Alice huffs. "Still."

He is a nice roo, soft spoken and polite. The girls insist he take a spot mid roost, where they can huddle around him during the night. And in the morning they usher him out the door, ready to show him their slice of the yard, the places where the best weeds grow, eager to provide him a large portion of corn when the farmer casts it to them. 

Eventually, the top roost ladies also fall under his spell. One by one, they stray a little closer to the bustling group of youngers, and swiftly, the roo invites them in. He makes them feel welcome, basks them in the glow of his attention, an attention warm enough to ward off the icy glares that Lucy tosses their way.

Finally, the day comes when Lucy, on exiting the coop, finds herself missing out on the treats the farmer had provided that morning. She overhears a snide, "You snooze, you lose," from somewhere in the cluster of feathered faces, and Alice approaches her in a timid rush.

"Oats mostly," she says. "And she didn't leave us much. They were pretty stale." She scuffs the ground with her scaly foot.

The others have gathered around now, and the flock splits into its original two, but now strained groupings, the young ones and the roo heading to the far end of the yard. Nothing else is said about it, but Lucy is offered multiple gatherings of forage throughout the day, all of which she declines. 

Night doesn't come fast enough, but Lucy is determined to be the last bird in. She stalks the yard through twilight, dismissing any of the ladies who try to engage her, humming softly to herself. When she finally enters the coop, there is silence as she purposefully makes her way through the entire flock, up to her still vacant spot in the top corner.

The next morning brings muffled chatter and subdued feather ruffles. Lucy hears the door being slid up into the open position and stays still until the last of the flock has made their way out. Or so she thinks.

“Good morning,” he says softly as her round eyes pan over him and she attempts to hide her surprise. “Did you sleep well?”

She clears her throat as delicately as she can, hoping to take any morning squawk out of her voice.

“Just fine,” she says. And she gingerly makes her way down the roost.

“I was hoping I could catch you alone,” he says. “We haven’t really gotten to know each other yet and I was just hoping to, um……do that.” 

Bold, she thinks, enjoying the stuttering sound of his confidence leaving the room.

“Well that’s awfully kind of you,” she says. “You certainly didn’t need to hang back just to chat with me. You’re probably missing out on the morning treats.” She regrets saying this last bit when she realizes why he would not be worried about that. Why she used to not worry about that.

“Well, I just don’t want things to be strained between us,” he attempts. “I know I’m the new guy here and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.” He looks at the ground and lowers his voice. “I just wanted you to know that.”

She takes a step toward him. “Oh sweetie, there’s no need to worry about such things. We are all so happy to have you here. Truly!” She emphasizes this last bit by making a nodding motion with her head. The roo releases the breath he has been holding in a display of relief.

“I’m so glad,” he says. “ I just really like all of you and I’m so happy to be here.”

“Of course, darling,” Lucy coos. “Like I said, don’t you worry about a thing! You are so very welcome here.” She lowers her beak to the nearby hanging waterer, rinsing her mouth, trying not to gag. But he seems relieved, scritching at the ground gently. Proud of himself, probably, for facing her.

“Shall we head out for breakfast?” she asks.

“Of course!” He overemphasizes. But she does a good job of keeping her smile pasted to her face. They walk over to the plank. 

“Ladies first,” he says with a slight bow. Again, her eyes threaten to roll to the back of her tiny skull.

“Why, thank you,” she flirts back.

She makes her way up with him behind her, not close enough to be uncomfortable, he gives her a respectful berth. She steps out into the daylight, scans the empty yard, hears the clucking coming from around the corner. A morning like so many others.

She turns back to the roo as he lowers his head to come through the squat opening. Wings flapping, she jumps up above him, her feet knocking loose the latch that secures the door into place, and it slams down across his finely feathered neck.

October 07, 2021 21:12

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3 comments

Mercy Ineke
21:13 Nov 18, 2021

Amazing story I am intrigued.

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Beth Jackson
08:01 Oct 10, 2021

I loved this story so much! I was absolutely hooked, totally invested in the story. You captured the essence of the hens so perfectly. Thank you for sharing! :-)

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Lins E
12:57 Oct 10, 2021

Thanks Beth, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

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