Sonny laid the garland on the block of wood in front of the straw bed where Ivan sat.
“Ivan,” he said in a loud voice, “you are the new chief rooster—you are king of the chickens! Please lower your head so I may place the Royal Garland around your neck.”
Ivan bowed and stretched his head forward, so that his neck rested on the wooden block. The chickens clucked and stamped their feet, all leaning in to see this hallowed moment. As Sonny picked up the garland, he glanced aside and gave an almost imperceptible nod. With the flowers in his beak, he stood before Ivan and paused. Ivan, his neck stretched out, looked at Sonny; the little grey rooster stared back at him. For the first time, Sonny’s meek look was gone, and he glared at Ivan with disdain. Ivan’s head tilted slightly.
A thin tail whipped atop of the workbench; the shirt hanging from the bench corner fell. A glint of steel flashed, and Mr McGinley’s axe fell forward out of the darkness. Before the chickens knew what was happening, the axe head descended, and the blade passed with a thump through Ivan’s neck and into the chopping block. Every beak fell open. Ivan’s head rolled onto the floor and his decapitated body jerked upright, blood spurting from his open neck. The hens clucked and squawked and fled from the doorway; the little chicks cried out in fear. Ivan’s headless body leapt out of the straw bed and ran for the door, chasing the horrified roosters from the shed.
The chicken yard was mayhem: a dozen rats scurried back and forth, hissing and whipping their tails, and scaring all sense out of the chickens. Many of the hens fainted. Ivan’s crazed corpse darted around the yard, flapping and leaping and hounding the roosters, who cursed and lashed out with their claws trying to escape it. Atop of the shed stood Alfred the goose, flapping his wings in a fit of riotous honking. The chicks fled the shed and ran for their mothers, and four of the young birds were trampled in the chaos. After thirty seconds, Ivan’s zombie staggered and stumbled then flopped in the dirt; the chickens stood still, stunned. Alfred the goose ceased his honking and flapped down from the shed. He looked at the carnage and sighed, then calmly waddled off behind the henhouse and flew away across the dam.
Sonny walked out of the shed, followed by three rats, with Ivan’s head dangling from his beak. He tossed the head aside, and the rats scrambled upon it, gnawing and flicking their long tails. The little grey rooster jumped on Ivan; he ruffled his feathers then raked his claws violently across the dead body. The rats in the yard formed a guard at his side. Sonny looked about at the chickens, and then lifted his head and crowed a long, triumphant crow. All the chickens bowed to their new chief. Only the old brown hen, watching from the door of the henhouse, seemed unsurprised.
During the night, Sonny awoke with a chill in his chest and a screaming in his head. He tumbled out of his straw bed and looked around. He was alone, in the old shed. The darkness, which never bothered him before, now seemed like a suffocating weight. A face flashed before his eyes: the head of Ivan, rolling across the floor. Sonny scratched madly and jumped back, flapping his wings. He blinked, and Ivan’s face disappeared.
Sonny ran from the shed and collapsed on the grass, his head pounding. In a blind daze he got to his feet and staggered forward. A swirl of groans and clucks pierced his mind, and a string of agonized faces burned his eyes. He saw the little chick who claimed to have seen the owl; he saw her sweet, peaceful face as she slept, and her butchered features as he dragged her to the far side of the horse yard. He could smell the blood on his beak. Past the henhouse he walked, his stomach churning. In his mind he saw the face of Holly the rat as he snuck her into the henhouse to take Rosie’s eggs. He saw Holly’s greedy brothers as he promised them more eggs in exchange for their loyalty. Down the dirt path he stumbled, his breathing racing. Rosie’s face flashed before him, begging for life as the farmer’s axe fell. Sonny scratched at his own face, trying to claw the images from his head. Winston’s face appeared before him; Sonny raced across the frosty grass as though he were being chased. He saw the frail old rooster lying on his bed; he saw his own face, cold and ruthless. Sonny squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. He spun around, pecked wildly, and then leapt up with a crazed flap, onto the big red fencepost. Vivid as the night it happened, he saw Winston’s weathered face become stained red as he pecked it over and over. He heard the old rooster’s dying gasp.
A crippling pain burst from Sonny’s stomach and he doubled over. The desperate cries of every creature he had betrayed rang in his ears. An overpowering surge of guilt and secret violent pleasure hit him like a lightning bolt. The little grey rooster threw his head back and crowed louder and longer than he had ever crowed before. The pain drained from his body and his conscience drifted into numbness. The first rays of dawn shone above the trees in the east. Soon the farm animals began to stir. Sonny flapped down from the fencepost and ruffled his feathers. He had done what he had to do, he told himself. He was the chief rooster now, and he would look after the chickens.
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