Phoenix guarded the two remaining hens while my father collected the decapitated bodies, tossing a yellow head, a bloodied wing, and the bottom half of a leg into a blue bucket. I stood outside the chicken coop in my purple rain boots, holding a slice of stale rye bread in my hands. I crumbled it to pieces before tossing it through the wire fence down to the survivors.
My father called me over, and when I was inside the coop, he handed me the bucket. I took it eagerly, following him through the wreckage, stopping whenever he stopped, holding up the bucket when he crouched down to pick up another body part.
“You see?” He was squatting down, pointing at a hole the size of a golf ball near the base of the fence. Bits of white fur clung to the torn wire, fluttering in the cold breeze. I asked him what it was, bending down to be on his level.
“Goddamn weasel of all things.” My father laughed a low, cynical chuckle before standing up, placing his hands on his knees. This was in the years before the accident left him stiff and creaky. Then, my father could still bend and borrow into low, dark spaces—crawl through areas beneath big houses that the people living in them refused to venture into.
A squawk escaped Phoenix’s throat, a deep, guttural sound that took over his entire body. His eyes were half closed, his head tilted down toward his girls that lay dying on the ground beneath him.
“He’s mourning. He lost his whole flock,” my father said, bending down to pick up a handful of feathers. “Lost them all to a weasel.”
“Will they make it?” I asked, watching Phoenix. He stood on one leg. For a moment, I thought his other leg might be gone, but then he unfolded it from his thick fluff.
“I don’t think so.” My father sighed, wiped at his forehead. “Neither of the hens have stood up this whole time I’ve been out here.” He moved towards the metal water bin, picked up the thin sheet of ice that had formed on top, and dumped it on the ground.
Phoenix’s beady eyes grew wide. He flapped his wings, squawking louder. Olive (the brown hen) who lay beneath him opened her eyes and lifted her head up off the ground. Next to her, Pepper (the black one) looked more like a pile of feathers than an actual hen. I couldn’t even see her head from where I stood. When Olive shifted her position in the mud, she happened to nudge her sister, which caused the black mound to move her left wing.
I reached inside my coat pocket for any remaining bits of bread and tossed a piece near Olive’s head. She pecked at it and then placed her head back on the ground, her beak open just a little.
“He never did like me,” my father said. “Now, when he’s hurt, he still doesn’t like me.” He laughed.
I’d just seen Where the Red Fern Grows and was convinced Phoenix would die of grief if Olive and Pepper didn’t survive. I wanted my father to have the answers. I needed his reassurance, so I asked, “What will he do without them?”
“He’ll be fine. I’m sure he’ll be trying to attack me again by morning.”
We finished picking up the carnage of hens, me holding the bucket, my father humming as he tossed in the remains. We kept our distance from Phoenix, who kept on with that low squawking sound well into the afternoon.
The two hens shocked us by pulling through to the next day. Three days after the weasel attack, Olive was standing up, pecking at the ground with slower movements, but eating nonetheless. Pepper managed to make a full recovery, although my father was convinced that she was never quite right again.
“Look at her. She doesn’t come near the door anymore,” he said, two weeks after the attack. “She remembers it all.”
Yet it was Phoenix and not his girls who underwent the most significant change. He became meaner and scarier, launching himself off the wooden roost my father had built—thick spurs ready to attack—to strike at anyone who dared to get within twelve feet of his two hens.
My mother was the first victim. She came back from feeding them one early morning—her gray sweater marked with mud and chicken shit. The skin around her collarbone spattered with blood where Phoenix’s spurs had sunk in.
“That bastard got me good,” she said, pressing a dish towel to her throat as I ate my Fruit Loops. “You don’t go back there, Ada. You hear me? Your dad will deal with this.”
Years later, I would tell the first boy I kissed how my father had killed Phoenix that night, describing—in vivid detail—how we’d eaten him for dinner. We were laying on his dorm room bed, the kind of beds with plenty of storage space underneath, making them tall and awkward to climb onto and off. I told the boy this story after he’d smiled down at me, remarked how skinny I was, and asked if I was vegetarian. I wanted to scare him, to let him know that I’d seen and done some wild shit, but when he just laughed and told me I was lying, I gathered my purse, slid my feet into my Converse, and left him there—confused and angry.
“Damn. I was just joking,” he said. I left in a hurry, imagining my life as a movie: the boy would chase me, a brooding quiet girl, and beg me to come back, realizing how stupid he’d been. But the boy never chased me, and I never saw him again.
My father didn’t kill Phoenix. The day Phoenix attacked my mother, he came home late and tired, wanting nothing more than to close his eyes and stretch out on the couch. When he saw my mother’s scratched neck, however, he flung open the backdoor and marched towards the coop, ignoring our pleas for him to be careful.
I waited on the back porch steps as Phoenix ambushed my father. I could hear the mad squawking, the terrified hens clucking, but I didn’t hear my father cursing or yelling as I’d expected. I was scared, fearful for my father, and was just about to run inside for my mother when I saw him walking towards me, head bent down. He ran a scratched, bleeding hand through his hair, smiled down at me.
“Well, he sure got meaner, didn’t he?” My father grabbed my hand, led me inside. That night, over spaghetti and meatballs, my parents talked about what to do with Phoenix. I stared at my father’s hands—at the scrapes along his fingers and the dirt underneath his nails—and realized that they had once been small like mine.
“We can’t keep him,” my mother said, picking up our dirty plates and stacking them on the counter. “He’s too dangerous.”
“I know, Kate. I’ll figure it out. Trust me.”
The following weekend, my father woke me up early, asked me if I wanted to come with him to bring Phoenix to his new home. Bleary-eyed, I said yes, and ran down the stairs to scarf down breakfast. My mother sat across from me, sifting through a pile of junk mail.
“Someone is excited,” she said.
There is a certain appeal in having one parent want you to join in on an excursion that the other one is not invited to. To me, anything out of routine was magical—something to be cherished—and a secret to hold onto. My father trusted me to come with him that morning, and that was something that I took very seriously.
“Alright, let’s go!” My father lifted me up, carried me out onto the back porch, where Phoenix waited, squatting inside a plastic pet carrier. He seemed stiff, uncomfortable. A yellow eye stared out at us, unblinking.
“How did you get him in here?” I asked.
“Woke up early this morning. Got him while they were all still sleeping. Had to do it that way.” My father picked up the carrier and headed to the truck. He shoved his toolbox and work clothes out of the way, making room for the bulky crate. I slid into the front seat, buckled up, and looked back at Phoenix. He didn’t squawk or anything, just stared at me through the holes in the plastic.
We drove past the convenience center, past the Methodist church with the crowd of people milling about the parking lot, and past the “Boiled P-Nuts” stand where my father would occasionally buy a bag on Saturdays for five dollars. We drove past the buildings and landmarks I had known all my life until we were well beyond the town limits. My father drummed his fingers against the steering wheel while I gazed out the window, noticing the spaces between houses grow wider and wider.
We turned onto a gravel path and Phoenix began squawking again. I turned around to look at the rooster. His beak was parted, eyes alert.
“I think he’s thirsty.”
We parked beneath a tree with a red circle spray-painted on the bark. To the left, a dilapidated wooden fence with a “Private Property” sign hanging on a rusted chain. The gravel lot ended and the woods began a few feet away. I heard the distant sound of a gunshot. It was January and there were no leaves on the trees.
“This is where we are leaving him?” I asked my father.
“Yup. We’ll let him go at the edge of the woods.”
“Will he be okay?”
My father opened the backdoor of the truck. “He’ll be fine. Plenty of places to roost. Won’t be lacking in food out here.”
I followed him to the edge of the woods, where he placed the carrier on the cold, hard ground. We stood back, hands in our pockets, squinting our eyes in the white gray winter morning.
It took Phoenix a few minutes to realize he could walk free. He didn’t seem in any rush to run into the woods. When he finally emerged from the carrier and surveyed his new surroundings, I couldn’t help but feel as if he looked small, helpless. I stood still, thinking about the other animals out there. In the coop, he’d had his flock. Out here, he was completely alone.
“He’ll know how to use his spurs, right?” I asked.
“Of course. He won’t ever forget that. It’s part of him. He’ll kick ass if he needs to.”
Phoenix looked toward the woods then back at us—a low cluck emanating from his throat. We watched him take a few steps forward and then my father was picking up the empty carrier, walking back to the truck. I brought a packet of stale crackers from my coat pocket, crumbled them into small pieces, and tossed them near Phoenix. He blinked once at me.
As my father backed up and drove down the gravel path out of the woods, Phoenix was statue-still, cocking his head. Another gunshot in the distance. I observed Phoenix in the rearview mirror, watched him not moving and growing smaller, until my father turned out onto the main road, and the rooster was out of sight.
We stopped at a diner on the drive home. I ate a basket of chicken tenders while my father ate a Philly cheesesteak. I peered at my father, at the deep lines in his tanned face, and I saw (for the first time) a weary man, and I felt more love towards him then than I ever had before. Despite the cold outside, we ordered an ice cream sundae after lunch and split it between us.
“Do you think they’ll notice he’s gone?” I asked my father while we waited for our dessert. He was looking past me—absently gazing at the muted TV mounted on the wall above the bar.
“Hmm?” he grunted.
“The hens. Will they notice that Phoenix is gone?”
“For a while, yes,” he said, “I think they’ll notice. They have pretty damn good memories. He always remembered that he hated me.” He looked back up at the TV screen.
The waitress came to the table carrying a retro glass filled with three heaping scoops of vanilla drenched in chocolate, whipped cream, pecan chunks, and topped with a bright red cherry. We regarded the concoction, sitting in silence as the cherry sunk a little deeper into the whipped cream. Across from me, I saw my father frown at the tower of dairy, a mixture of disgust and confusion etched into the creases of his face.
“Phoenix is pecking up worms already,” I said, scooping up a heaping spoonful of vanilla ice cream.
“I’m sure he is,” my father said. He picked up his spoon, forced a smile. “That little asshole. He’s probably attacking a hunter.” He laughed then, and I did too, although neither of us really found it particularly funny.