Midwife in the Tire Swing

Chapter 47—The Antlered God (The Chicken Wizard 1)

 

Lucian Hobart farted. “Hmmm... A dry one.” He stood to give the seat of his pants a feel; this one was a smoker. “Just tuning up in case of a recital in this afternoon,” he announced to the woman and the child. “Like a free preview. All-American, all methane, all the way. No particulate matter. Yet. But there are many hours left in the day.”

“Gross.” This visit, this time, Samantha had brought DazL. She shifted the child to the opposite hip and swiveled to accommodate the change in her center of gravity.

“You’re too young to remember real food, but the U-Needa Lunch down on Water Street—they’ve been out of business since 1963, but in the 1940s they had chicken sandwiches, half a chicken, so help me God, on a double slab of white bread baked right out back and smothered in barrel gravy. Those’d make you fart all day.”

Lucy knelt by the old Chevrolet to grope underneath for the barbells he kept hidden there. He hoped any leftover odor from stray farts and the deer carcass would keep unwanted intruders at a distance. “Got it.” His searching hand made contact with a weight bar, a 44-pound Olympic. He helped himself back to the vertical by hand-walking up the side of the old car, grabbing at the running board, door handle and rain gutter. That an old, old man might sneak away to lift weights in the barn was cool; that Lucy Hobart would lie about lifting weights was just bizarre.

Samantha was good-looking in a querulous sort of way, Lucy noted. He suppressed an urge to show off. He hefted the bar and straightened to a standing position, elbows bent. A stab of pain shot from Lucy’s hip down to his knee where it waited. Lucy adjusted his weight and the pain went away. “You find farting gross, but not the smell of death. Interesting. Or is that only something you say—a charm against mortality? Distancing yourself?” Lucy lowered the bar. As it reached his knees, he shrugged his shoulders and slipped his body underneath as he snapped it up and over his head. “Oof,” he said. His knees made a strange, desperate sound. “I thought kids rejoiced in farting. Had farting contests when I was in the war; we’d drop our pants and shoot fire. One of us would bring along kitchen matches—those wood ones with the big blue heads?—and light ’em up.”

“I saw it on TV.”

“Farting.”

“No, the war. There was a mini-series. Explosions and all.”

“TV. Huh—must have been real then.” She is of California, Samantha of the violet eyes, Lucy thinks. Farting is not special, not to her, not in the way an earthquake is special. Everyone farts. She has come to Maine in the summer when the California air has a feel to it, a kind of calmness. Earthquake weather. “Elliot’s car—not the deer’s, Herne the Hunter’s, the antlered god’s—not mine anymore—Elliot’s. Philomena wanted him cremated. Elliot’s ashes were scattered. I entertain his spirit. The ethnologists call this animism—on the solstice my mechanical knee bends before the Chevy coupe where my son was conceived in the rumble seat. I have a cigarette and go to the house for a meatloaf sandwich. Talk about your cargo cults. Now, doesn’t that fit right in with your, your... alternative lifestyle—your bohemianism? I suppose there is new name for it by now; I slept through the Beatniks and the Hippies. Each generation likes to slap fresh labels on things.”

“Then you don’t have your son buried in an old car. Too bad, I mean like that sounded nice. Thoughtful. Like where he began? There was this guy in Escondido who got buried in his Corvette with his pet Chihuahua. And his golf clubs. The car was red with chrome wheels.”

“A fiberglass car. Should be iron. An iron egg—to shelter, nurture, suck you in with invisible lines of force.”

“You were in a war. Vietnam.”

“Europe. Before your time. Everybody was in the war. That’s why they call ’em wars.” Lucy was getting signals from his knees that they were going to let go from the weight of the bar. He adjusted his stance to center it.

“You could put it down. Aren’t there supposed to be weight plates on the ends?”

“I have some tens back under the car. Can’t reach ’em any more. I get in, then can’t get back out with them. I was a strong man. I still am... considering. Geriatrics: Jerry at tricks. Except I’m Lucy. You won’t be letting any of this get out?”

“I won’t tell. I thought you used a walker. Wheelchair, cane, something.” The child she carried at her hip was sucking at a thumb.

“That’s for show, for the doctors. Ed Hobart, his kids at the Voc. Tech put in a lot of hours making the damned thing. My wife Cat, she thinks I fall over. This will be our secret, OK?”

The child, DazL, changed thumbs. Samantha shifted hips. “Well...”

“You are holding out for a bribe. Money? Information? Suppose I show you how to hypnotize a chicken.”

“Cool.”

“‘Cool.’ How old are you?”

“Sixteen,” Samantha lied.

“In my day that would be right on the money for motherhood. These days... Who’s the father?”

“Some guy.”

“Sounds pretty nebulous. You know who? Does he have a name?”

“Sort of. What about the chicken?”

Lucy had been holding the weight bar at chest height during the interchange. He let it fall with a crash to the rough-hewn planks of the barn floor.

“I’ll show you. Bring the kid, he—she’ll—get a kick out of it, too. What is that kid, anyway—a boy or a girl?”

“He’s called DazL.”

“Interesting. Come along.” Lucy led the way; Samantha, her child and the black and white spotted barn cat followed. Down the hill to a clear patch in a former pasture where, in a brush-hogged clearing in the waist-high scrub of mullein and daisy fleabane, a chicken compound had been built. The chicken run was a slapdash assemblage of wire and poles. Inside what looked to Samantha to be hundreds of bright red and green iridescent birds wandered around to no apparent purpose.

“They’re dumb, right?” Samantha put DazL on the ground. He crawled to the wire and reached with his free hand to grab at a chicken. He was pecked and withdrew the hand; now his mouth had two thumbs inserted. A bantam rooster crowed and strutted proudly before a throng of hens.

“No dumber than your kid. And no smarter than your run-of-the-mill citizen. They just don’t read much is all. Food, sex and blind panic are their plateaus of involvement. They have limited experience of the wider world outside their wire. Molly. No.” Lucy’s cat had scrambled halfway up the wire fencing and was looking intently at the chickens below. “By dumb, you mean they will be an easy mark for any stunts I’ve got up my sleeve to astonish and confound your rational powers. Nope.”

“You were going to hypnotize a chicken.”

“Ahh, yes. First we have to have an appropriate subject. Not all of God’s creatures are properly receptive to Mesmeric forces.”

“You are saying you can’t do it, then.”

“No, my darling and fecund child, what I am saying is that you will go inside the wire and catch us a chicken.”

“No way.”

“There is a way. Get one already asleep. Here...” Lucy undid a twisted latch in the chicken wire and folded back an opening. “Get one that’s sitting on her nest.”

Samantha hiked up her skirt and slid into the chicken cage. The hens scattered. The rooster made a half-heated attack, head forward, beak open, the ruff at its neck expanded to the fullest. Then—letting its tail feathers slump in the dust—it, too, beat a retreat behind the brood shed that held the bantams’ nesting boxes. At a tiny runway, just chicken-sized, Samantha crouched and peered into the musty dark where round feathered forms clustered, settled in neatly shelved boxes. Above the acrid smells of straw bedding and hen-droppings was a sound of wheezings and small hiccoughs. The girl turned with a loud whisper over one shoulder, “They’re snoring.”

“They think they are asleep. Therefore, they think they are snoring. There is a difference. Grab one and bring it out. Gently, hold it under the body. And careful of the eggs.”

Samantha crept into the gloom and slipped one hand under the first chicken. It made a lackadaisical whiffling sound and cuddled into her hand. “Wow,” said Samantha. Whereupon thirty-two pairs of eyes popped open to stare at her. Holding the still sleeping chicken to her chest, she backed down the ramp. “Got it,” she said. The chicken’s eyes opened. There was a fleeting glaze of panic as she stroked its head.

“Whatever you do don’t squeeze. They feel threatened.” Lucy was fumbling through the pockets of his overalls. “I suppose it would be too much to ask if you had some glazier’s putty on you.”

“Nope.”

“Chewing gum?”

“Yep. It’s in my side pocket—left rear. And don’t go copping a feel.”

“A popular pastime. I promise to watch my step.” Lucy withdrew a stick of Wrigley’s wintergreen chewing gum and peeled back the foil wrapper. He handed it to Samantha. “Chew.”

“Try it on DazL; I don’t like the taste.”

Lucy held the unwrappered gum in the child’s face. “Chew. I don’t want her distracted by the mint,” he said, meaning the chicken. Both thumbs were removed and an animated chewing followed. “A mighty masticator, the kid,” said Lucy.

“Tell me about it. I breast fed him the first two weeks. I was sore for a month.”

“It’s beautiful here. Let’s have a sit down while the kid does his stuff.” Lucy relaxed his knees and folded down in a controlled fall. He caught himself with one outstretched arm just before impact. “Looks easier than it is. You’re gonna have to help me back up when the time comes. I figure the kid’s got a couple of minutes even at the rate he’s going.”

“Sure.” Ankles crossed, Samantha sank to the ground with the practiced grace of a dancer.

“The child’s father...?”

“I was raped. In the bathroom. I never caught his name.”

“Most likely a man of the cloth to produce such a prodigy. They say that Jesus as a child—in the temple with the elders of Judah—confounded their accumulated wisdom by His mighty ability with chewing gum. No,” Lucy reached out a hand to pacify her as Samantha rolled her eyes. “‘For thou wilt surely find the Centurion amongst the Bishops,’—that’s from Joanna Southcott’s Book of Wonders. Joanna was an 18th Century whack job, a prophetess.”

“They said you were into the oogum-boogum, all that religious stuff. You really believe that shit?”

“Not a bit. However, it has been a great comfort to me in my declining years. It’s good clean fun and tends to make people want to leave me alone. My daughter-in-law, there is friction there. You hate her. Philomena?”

“No more than I hate anybody. No, wait. I could hate her if she would let me. She’s so, so... watertight, whatever. I can’t get through to her. She’s three times my age. That helps. Or hinders. We do not communicate.”

“As I am five times your age. And yet you are happy enough.”

“Enough. Happy, well. Who’s ever really happy?” Samantha, still cradling the chicken which was making contented mutterings at her breast, helped Lucy to his feet.

“Chewing gum in the Temple. Wonder what those old Jews made of that. The kid is marked: the mysterious father, the mighty chewing. Here are signs and portents. Recall the story of Jesus in the Temple? No. When the Marked Child—that one, not yours—was twelve years old, his parents took him to Jerusalem, to the Temple, for Passover. The Marked Child there confounded the elders of the temple with his knowledge of sacred lore. Your child—the unknown father, a wisdom beyond his years. Have you ever thought DazL might be the new Messiah? That gum ought to be about ready.”

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