Sonny ran back up the hill. The path seemed longer and steeper than ever. His legs were exhausted and the air pinched his lungs. At the top, just before the yard, he paused to catch his breath and saw nearly every chicken on the farm was gathered outside Winston’s shed. Sonny’s heart was almost beating out of his chest. One of the hens left the crowd and walked in his direction, though she didn’t see him at first. She had a bunch of curious chicks corralled in her open wings, and was directing them away from the scene. With a shaking voice she seemed to speak as much to herself as to them. “It will be okay. It will be fine. Don’t look over there—there’s nothing to worry about. Don’t look up there. Let’s see if we can find some worms down the hill. Come on, keep moving.” Catching sight of Sonny startled her. Her face was full of sorrow; she was lost for words. All she could say to him was, “Oh, Sonny. Oh, Sonny.”
The little grey rooster ran over to the crowd. A storm of confusion rumbled in his ears—sobbing, yelling, hushed murmurs and the haunting wail of one hen near the shed entrance. He pushed his way through the wall of feathers to the front of the congregation. There by the door two hens were trying to console another, who had apparently made the discovery. As he watched, Rocco the Rosecomb dashed out of the shed and vomited on the ground. He raved and swore then slumped on the dirt, shaking his head as if trying to erase what he had seen. The look on his face told the story; gasps rippled from the front of the crowd to the back. He drew an arduous breath and managed one coherent sentence of confirmation: “He’s dead.”
Death was a regular occurrence on the farm. The chickens knew it as well as anyone—as soon as a hen stopped laying she would be taken behind the farmhouse and killed for the farmer’s dinner. Roosters were not spared the chopping block either, and then of course there was always the threat of predators like snakes and foxes. Why, even Mr McGinley’s old cattle dog snapped one day and killed a chicken. (The cattle dog himself died a week later when the tractor rolled over him as he slept behind it—a popular belief claimed Winston was driving the tractor at the time.) No, death was not a strange thing to the farm animals, and while they feared it to some extent, it did not hold the shock or mystery it holds for most humans. To the chickens, death was natural. But what they found in the shed that morning was anything but natural.
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