Les Brown :: Chicken House ::


Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am a North Carolina free-range mountain farm boy. I crawled all over our Blue Ridge, swam with water snakes in the icy cold Stillhouse Branch, (that I now own). aptly named because my great grandfather operated a legal still on the creek before prohibition. My cousins and I camped in Uncle Dewey’s pasture, smoked dried grape vines and rabbit tobacco, made hunter’s stew out of everything left-over from Momma’s kitchen. I plowed rocky gardens with Daddy’s Farmall Cub, rode the combine and chased rabbits that fled the wheat field ahead of the machine. I dragged dead skunks from the henhouse after Daddy shot them when they tried to kill our chickens. I was a tourist cave guide at Linville Cavern and an Indian at Tweetsie Railroad until I jumped on the train to scare the hell out of children with a wooden tomahawk and scalped my wig off on the door frame.

Chicken House

Because they flew out of the lot,
over the chicken wire fence
and got in our yard
where they would shit,
and I would step in it,
barefoot, squishing
the stinking mush
between my toes,
tracking it into the kitchen—
my mother’s sanctuary of cleanliness—

my father and I went
to the chicken house at night,
where the silent chickens stood
grasping, with their curved scaly toes,
the smooth worn-round poles
stair-stepped up the back wall
above the row of a dozen
straw lined nesting boxes
inside the tarpaper covered shack.

With lantern hung from ceiling hook,
he’d lift the sleeping chickens
off their roosting poles,
hold them gently
under his arm
while I cropped each one’s wing feathers
with my mother’s heavy pinking shears.

A stealthy skunk sometimes
got into the lot at night,
digging its way under the wire fence,
scenting its way into the shelter.
to snatch a chicken
off a roosting pole. The hen
would squawk and squawk,
wake up my dad.

He’d grab his shotgun, put on his hat,
stick his bare feet into unlaced shoes,
run to the chicken house, a pale warrior
wearing only droopy drawers,
and shoot the skunk.
The stinking dead chicken, unfit
for Sunday dinner, was then my duty
to bury deep with the bloody skunk
and no epitaph.

I buy a carton, a dozen extra-large
Eggland’s Best from Food Lion,
eggs that never rested in warm straw
nest under mother hens,
each egg from an identical Leghorn,
one white chicken among thousands
caged in long, arched buildings,
standing on steel, not knowing of
low fences to challenge flight,
imprisoned, safe from murderous skunk.