Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 49—A Confederation of Adepts (The Chicken Wizard 2)

Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.

—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

“The child is a miraculous child; you at least must believe this, being its mother. It is important to the success of the experiment.”

“Every baby is a tiny miracle,” said Samantha Cherry Hobart.

“True, but that is a greeting card sentiment. The babies don’t know the difference.” The old man sat down with a crunch. “Huh... that hurt. In the old days it was thought you had to draw a line in front of the chicken with chalk, but modern masters of the art have learned you can dispense with the props.” Lucy produced a draw-string pouch from an overall pocket. “Chalk,” he said. “A fertilized egg on the rampage—grown big, is all. Tell that to the kids. Tell that to the chicken. Desdemona here will be our oracular fowl.”

“You are a sex-starved old man who sees things. You had the corpse of your son parked out behind the barn in that rotting car. Philomena says this.” The girl smiled beatifically.

“A certain level of intelligence is required to be a proper hypnotic subject. Desdemona is smarter than Philomena. Magnétisme animal is what Mesmer called it, this phenomenon about to be investigated by us.”

Samantha had been stroking the spotted hen’s throat. She rolled her eyes. “This is a chicken and the egg thing? I’d hoped for something better, Lucy. Like we care?”

“The egg is a well of magnetic fluid, the fluid which animates its soul.”

“The chicken has a soul. The soul cares. This particular chicken...?” Desdemona made a low-pitched glottal thrumming. Molly the cat was interested; she flattened herself in a lop-sided crouch and advanced on her three legs, stalking. “Listen—she’s purring, the chicken. Desdemona has a name. Do all your chickens have names?”

“Nope. It’s just part of the show; I can’t tell ’em one from another on any given day, and I come here often. We are putting on a show today—you and me—for each other. Are we not? We are testing the temperature of the possible. Shall we trust one another? Hand her over. I hope to amaze and confound you with a simple parlor trick. Desdemona is going to tell us all about the coming Messiah.” The hen’s eyes fluttered, pupils rolled as she was handed over. Lucy cooed in her ear and stroked her breastbone; the chicken clucked appreciatively and pecked at a brass rivet on his overalls. “Gum, please.”

“Daz?” Samantha held her hand under the child’s chin. “Spit it out.” DazL chewed furiously as he shook his head from side to side. “No deal. He’s not cooperating. OK, you asked for it.” She held her child’s nose, pinching it shut. “Plan B, it always works. Give it half a minute—he starts to turn blue and spits it out.”

“In the old days, all you had to do to put a chicken into a trance—and this will work with most every animal including humans—was stare it down and stick a lump of putty on the end of its beak. The only difference is people want to know why you’re wrestling them to the ground and sticking putty on their noses. They shake it off and call you a fool, the more fools they. They could’ve been Gilgamesh or Jesus for a day, Dionysus even. Mesmer strongly believed this, denial. Denial of our inner magnetic fluids. If it wasn’t for a hard-wired aversion to our own nascent divinity, there would be as many messiahs as there are citizens. Lotsa churches, saints and martyrs everywhere. There are riots and revolutions, recession, depression, the world goes all to hell because you got knocked up. Real estate values go down the toilet. Your child can not deny its destiny.”

The child, DazL, while not turning blue, had achieved a grayish pallor. He started to cough. “Don’t let him swallow it,” Lucy said. “We’ll have to start over at the beginning.”

“No problem.” Samantha pounded her choking child on the back and a pale lump of much chewed gum popped out.

“Now we apply the gum to the bird. Hold still; chicken hypnosis is a parlous affair.”

“You mean perilous. You are trying to impress me. You read a lot.”

“In the war, between high adventure and low comedy we just stood around and whacked off. Some of us were readers. Stay alive for ninety-two years and the books tend to creep in. I do it for fun, as much as an obsession can be fun. To fill the empty hours till God gives you gold watch and an expense-paid ticket to the Outer Hebrides in smolting time, then crushes you underfoot. Yes, I am trying to make an impression.”

“You are a wizard, they say.”

“They say. You say. I am good with machinery is all. I am but a humble taxpayer of Willipaq County and a care-giver when so moved. I watch as my wife tunnels backwards through her second adolescence. No one else will give me the time of day. I am transparent, yesterday’s bright star. I have to use tricks to get anyone to sit and talk. This hypnosis caper here today, for instance.”

“I have an itchy tit. Mind if I scratch?”

“As long as you don’t frighten the livestock.”

“The chicken, you mean. Not you. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it undercover. The kid...” Samantha shifted the cooing chicken out of the way and unbuttoned her three top buttons, reached inside and scratched. DazL looked on with interest. “...he can’t wait to get his teeth into me.” She started as the hen she held made a soft cooing and thrust its head into her shirt.

“The chicken wizard. In the olden times, before the world was revealed as round and not flat—present company excepted, o miraculous child of my child of my child—there was a loose confederation of chicken adepts. Ohh...” Lucy felt a stabbing pain just below his ribs and thought about the vial of nitroglycerin pills in his pocket. He switched from sitting to reclining on an elbow. The pain went away. Referred pain—the doctors had spoken of this. His hip again. The girl had not noticed. “...confederation of adepts. This was worldwide. The adepts controlled the flight of the pollen-seeking bee, budding of the trees, a plentiful rainfall, quickening of the seed and those furrows scratched in the land which are a metaphor for the birth canal. I am one of these. Our wisdom has been passed from generation to generation, purling in the afterglow of creation.”

“I saw this movie once where...” Samantha pulled a folded-over envelope and a packet of cigarette papers from her brassiere. She rolled a cigarette with one hand. Lucy waved her away.

“Thanks. I’m making this up as I go and it requires all my concentration. To continue... the chicken-handling quickly deteriorated into mere charlatanism. For ‘quickly’ read ‘thousands of years.’ The trick is to restrain the chicken and induce a total sensory overload in its two-volt brain, putting her under for anywhere from 15 seconds to 30 minutes. Passing out is a survival ploy on the part of the chicken. They fake death in the hope that you will become bored and eventually go away, leaving them to forage for grubs and the self-same seeds made fertile by the ancient conjurors who some days got there before the bees. Alas, no longer were the gods to be placated by the blood of mere chickens or kings. They wanted souls, not a surrogate. So we ended up with a weak tea Jesus and fricassees on Sundays. Wait. You have had a course of Driver’s Ed. At your schooling? You have been to school—high school—I hope.”

“Sure.”

“Excellent. I may be needing you to help me get around.” There was a rumbling that shook the ground. Overhead the vapor trail of an intercontinental jetliner spread itself out ahead of the sound. DazL looked up. The chicken looked up, as did Lucy and Samantha. “Newfoundland,” said Lucy.

“That’s in Canada.”

“Ah, heartening—that they might teach geography even in California is such a comfort.”

“You are being snotty.”

“No more than usual. Newfoundland,” said Lucy. “...where the airplanes go, the commercial flights leaving vapor trails five miles up on the way to Labrador, then Europe. Or so they say. Could be like an airborne Roach Motel, the passengers check in but they never check out. I sometimes wonder if those folks ever leave Newfoundland or just get piled up, passengers and planes in suspended animation waiting for Judgment Day. A total load of crap, of course. Just like the Bible.”

“Cool, a kind of Bermuda Triangle.”

“Be that as it may. Yes, I am an evil wizard come to steal the souls of barnyard fowl. The Bible is supposed to be full of good stuff. Elliot’s car...”

“The car is in the Bible, the one with the dead deer?”

“Well. Something did die in it and not my son, Philomena’s late husband, and thus many decades removed, a shirt-tail relation of DazL your Miraculous Child. Cat—Catherine Armstrong Hobart, my not-quite-yet widow and therefore your ancestress—always liked to go for a ride in the rumbleseat.”

“When you were first married. Younger.”

“As of last week, I recall, I was younger than now. And Cat’s ten years older than I am. Not younger. Did you know? You mean we were married long ago—fifty, sixty, seventy years. That is so. Cat loved her Sunday drives, too. She always liked to stop at... where they sell worn out things, jelly glasses, broken rocking chairs, household stuff?”

“Yard sales.”

“Yard sales. Yes. Cat lives in her own world. Not a bad place except for the television on all the time. Now, to business. The chicken, if you please.”

The child, DazL, had fallen asleep. His mother put him on the ground, rose to her feet and handed Desdemona to Lucy, whereupon she launched into a vigorous set of stretching exercises and jumping jacks. “Huh. Look at that.” A questing bee circled the sleeping child and, sensing the minty aromatics of the Wrigley’s gum, settled on his nose. “The bee. Is it going to put the baby to sleep? Strange...” she answered her own question. “He’s already asleep. What else, then?”

Lucy scratched at his ribs, just below the sternum where the pain had been. This seemed to please Desdemona the hen as she cooed romantically from an armpit where he held her securely with one big hand. The pain had gone as quickly as it had come, leaving a marker—an IOU for forgiveness should it want to return. “Could be he’ll die—the child. And the bee. Then, too, the bee might just go to sleep.”

The bee curled up on the child’s nose and went to sleep.

“I was a Boy Scout once. Boy Scouts know the woods. Trust me.”

“If I trusted you I would have taken my tits out to be scratched. By me,” Samantha added.

Lucy held a hand out for the wad of thoroughly gnawed Wrigley’s. “Can’t rightly say if putting a bird into a trance state can be rightly be called hypnosis, but she will be going somewhere: ‘Now my sweet fawn is vanished to / Whither the swans and turtles go.’ ...that’s Andrew Marvell,” Lucy said. “‘The Nymph complaining for the Death of her Fawn.’”

“Where chickens go when they’re in a trance...” Samantha got a dreamy look about the eyes and reclined facing Lucy. “Andrew Marvell. Here is where I should ask if he has an album, isn’t it? I know of Marvell: ‘Had we but world enough, and time...’” She plucked a head of daisy fleabane and sniffed at it.

“My head is bigger than yours, girl. Mine has had time to mulch. But to quote Marvell back at me. I am truly impressed,” said Lucy as he applied the wad of Wrigley’s gum to the beak of the chicken.

Samantha bit a blossom from her garland, chewed it and swallowed. “There is never enough time, is there? No matter how much time you’ve had?”

“You have swallowed your blossom. Is this a symbol?”

“Only if I have fleas. You don’t mind my calling you my Lucy, do you great-grandfather? I do believe that you are mine. Mine truly and mine only, despite the hundreds of generations that separate us in our previous incarnations. I am an enchantress, the Empress of Tarot, come to winkle you off to Neverland. I will make you young again. The Greek name for daisy fleabane is Erigeron, two words meaning spring and old man. Because it goes to seed quickly. And, then of course, there’s the incest thing—supposed to be nasty.”

“Neverland. Peter Pan in perpetuity. Abide with me, child, and I’ll take you to Newfoundland where the airplanes go. The world of faerie and folklore. That is where my Cat dwells,” said Lucy, changing the subject. “Newfoundland is Catherine’s Avalon.”

*  *  *

“Lucy...” the words had not been spoken, not out loud, but Lucy heard them well enough.

“Cat.” He dropped his cane and sprinted to the door of his wife’s room. It had been locked from the inside. Catherine Armstrong Hobart had thrown the deadbolt. “Shit. CAT! Open the door. I can’t help you if I’m stuck in the hall.” She was visiting Newfoundland again, riding the hag.

Lucy pondered his own helplessness and leaned against the locked door to wait out his wife’s nightmare. After a half an hour there was a light scuffling from the other side as Cat came to let him in. “The same one, Lucy—the same dream. They’re waiting for me. I have friends in England, you know.” The door opened the scant inches allowed by a chain latch. His wife’s face appeared at the crack. “They’ll be waiting for me at the out-ports.”

This seemed to mean something to Cat. She came from Newfoundland stock, always a consideration when weighing the sanity of a demented old lady. Cat had never been to England and had no friends.

Cat sits alone in the dark, playing out her endless reel of dementia, all Cat all the time, endless sitcoms with bewildered fathers all of whom looked like her father, Gladstone Armstrong. Endless game shows. That the Cat of her mind movies was on some days Scarlett O’Hara of the sixteen-inch waist romancing a Clark Gable who might resemble Lucy, Lucy finds pleasing. He leans forward into the mirror for a closer look—yes, the shape of an ear lobe, the way the actor turns his head three-quarters front when asked a question he was not prepared to answer. While Lucy could eavesdrop on Cat’s movies by the emotions that flitted over her face, this was new—his being in them.

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