“Two-Headed Chickens” by Patricia E. Fogarty

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Nobody’s expecting to meet a two-headed chicken coming down the road.  That freak’s a sign of the ultimate bad news. This proven fact had passed down through Folkestone family wisdom for generations.  Consensus was that sighting a two-headed chicken was either a family hex or blessing. Depending on your reaction possibilities. Great-uncle Edward G. Folkestone had been found dead on the ground where he’d been chopping a Christmas fir.  He wore his lifelong red and black plaid lumber jacket and old jeans. No sign of struggle, just a mean smile on his face and a yellow chicken feather on his boot. All of which proved you couldn’t fight the hex by sneering.

There were other Folkestone family folk struck down with that particular chicken alert.  A decade ago, the creature had shown itself to then family head, Elmer, when he was plowing a late spring field.  Since he’d always insisted Grams blabbed too much about hexes, he made the mistake of thinking the two-headed bird was a worry-phantom, and kept to his business.  Though the land had long been rock clear, he drove straight into a near-buried boulder. After impact, the plow kept on, hurtling Elmer five or six furrows away. When help came he offered his last breath and words.  Sounded like: “chickchickchick.” Grams and Uncle Eddie knew it meant the family affliction was still roaming the vicinity.

Dorothy learned about such unnatural facts summer evenings, while sitting in the weeds and grass along a cement basement below their country home’s rear porch. It was a cool hiding corner. In the hours when she was supposed to be asleep, she eavesdropped Grams and Uncle Eddie in their easy talk. In harmony with the creak of busy rockers on the floor boards above, they spoke of what they knew: those family tics and tales they effortlessly recalled, recounted, called up, during a back garden New England summer, when Dorothy was eight.

In later memory, that dramatic summer was also a careless space of time.  Marked by the bell-ringing van of the ice-cream man, by the volatile lacework of wisp cloud shadows striping the lawn, and the explosive flares of a few long-stemmed Lilies of the Nile in the front garden.  Eddie’s to and fro for his clerical job at Town Hall marked the calendar.

Days closed when the sun laid its last butter finger along rough bark on the resident elms, and dusk spun into dark out in the back yard.  August was its usual dry time, whose brief and lukewarm rainfalls raised a spatter of dirt that punctuated the lawn in brown exclamation marks.  The air smelt of burned paper. In the gradually cooling dusk, Grams and Uncle Eddie had a comfortable way of speaking little, and that little often repeated.  Crickets rattled in the lawn. Each overheard word stood out, crisp as crunch candy wrapped in layers of color cellophane. Crouched in the grasses, Dorothy heard the kitchen door above her head swing on its hinges, followed by the unmistakable attack of Gram’s full weight, as she brought Uncle Eddie the evening’s pewter mug of foamy beer.

Speaking for both, as she often did, and willingly, Grams’ put paid to the current idle conversation and remembering with the single phrase: “So that’s that on that!”  Another story salted away as the next flick of memory gets dusted off. To Dorothy’s chagrin the only account rarely referred, and never completed was hers. Thin hints were porch-whispered about another accident, when her mother and dad had been “taken away,” leaving infant Dorothy to Grams and Eddie forever.

These conversations flowed in rough female bass and easygoing baritone harmony.  Being all ways simple, Eddie shared with other middle-aged children in Dover a grand appetite for story-telling.  However bizarre, his hesitant accounts produced a familiar tingle down Dorothy’s backbone, whenever he linked real and unreal together, as tightly as old fairy tales.  While he spoke, you’d hear the call of destiny hurtling down generations. His own, very first two-headed chicken encounter was the newest chapter, produced in word pictures clear as freshly washed glass.

That bird was star center of the past week’s true and scary happening, in which Eddie defied death, came through unscathed, and saved the lives of countless, or at least five fellow Dover citizens.  Eddie said that driving along the A1 on a quiet, cloudless afternoon, the sight of that avian monster struck wonder. Not fifty feet ahead of him it was, smack in the middle of the highway; both beady-eyed heads were looking straight at him.  The vision had brought a dread itchy as poison ivy. Dorothy knew that in wandering the woods around Dover you needed to keep a sharp eye for poison’s three-leaf signal. Because nature could hold some bad news, even avian. Dorothy fiercely hoped she’d never run into that chicken.  And how can you be certain it won’t one day turn to the family females.

Uncle Eddie’s slow baritone mourned: “When an accident’s born to happen…”  She lost the rest for those seconds Uncle Eddie’s full lips dipped past his favorite pewter mug’s cool rim, to suck the dark fluid of that evening beer.  Then his baritone declared: “When an accident’s born to happen…” After a gargantuan quaff, Eddie ended his troubled thought: “coming straight to memyself”

“Now I know the chicken’s come down the ancestor line for me.” The precise event Uncle Eddie recalled that warm evening had made front page headline in this week’s Dover Chronicle, since it concerned hometown citizenry involved in the recent six-car pile-up on the A-1.  The article was two columns long, cautiously vague about the vision that Eddie claimed “preceded it all.” To the local reporter on the scene, Uncle Eddie mentioned “a chicken sign,” which had alerted him to wheel his car across the two-lane highway. Thereby blocking that darn bird, and forcing all the other cars to tumble against each other in the emergency lane.  “I saved lives, not cars,” Eddie prided.

Drivers of the other five vehicles had long abandoned their dented vehicles when the State Trooper car arrived.  In the end, two troopers and five drivers gathered at highway edge, a full circle audience for the last male Folkestone.  He was known as not over-smart, but dependable in his fashion, despite the strange happenings that were said to mark his family history. His strong thatch of hair, shot with white, bore traces of its original brilliant flame.  The sight of him shaking his fists to the air around made an impression.

For once, the gentle baritone swelled in his throat and rang with authority: “A close call with my Maker!”

Rocking and reliving that moment, he wiped cold beads of sweat off his forehead, as he had that day.  Though this was at least his second porch repeat of all he’d said to his highway listeners, he had the usual struggle to set memory in order.

Dorothy knew she had better recall at eight than Uncle Eddie at forty-eight; and if she hadn’t been secretly hidden she’d have stepped round and described the scene for him, fast as any TV announcer.  

There’s Uncle Eddie, she’d say; he’s holding forth in center circle.  Around him stand the two troopers, and those five drivers; seven mouths hang slack; seven pairs of eyes glaze. For there’s a chicken mixed in his account.  Eddie cites it as the cause of future accident insurance claims. His thick arms swing upwards in vatic revelation. “When I saw that two-headed freak walking toward me down the lane, I swerved hard.  Saved the other drivers from its very sight. Well. Any man would have. Yellow bastard on its skinny legs sauntering down the center line, aiming for me-myself, and the whole file of cars behind.”

That’s what was walking down history and the highway to meet him.  As his words faded into the back garden, Dorothy drew her white muslin handkerchief taut across her nose and mouth.  She mumbled some curse words backwards, special precaution; for she would never take after a man who met two-headed chickens.  She was aware of tiny hairs in her nostrils twitching at the hanky’s acrid laundry soap smell. Grams’ homemade mix of lye and rosemary couldn’t be rinsed or prayed away.  Drowning in the odor of scrubbed muslin, Dorothy was certain she must be thoroughly disinfected from taking after, forever.

In a pause during the cricket squawk among the long grasses, Uncle Eddie confided, very low: “Not as young as I used to be.”  His mother’s murmured reply was lost to Dorothy as the insects picked up their scratchy tune. The hesitant voice underlined their wail: “It’s a meaningful sign I’ve seen.  I’ll know that yellow two-headed soandso anywhere anytime. Not least when it comes to take me away.” Once more Dorothy breathed through Grams’ hanky, escaping within its drastic protection of lye and rosemary.  There was taking, taking in, taking away, taking after.

And taken off.  For Uncle Eddie died that summer.  He went in an explosion of gasoline and flame, as his old Chevy expired with him.  In this, his second-ever highway event, he must’ve thought he saw another oncoming sign.  For he swung the wheel so hard his old Chevy slid into a rocky burrow siding the roadway, scattering the sky over Dover with a flight of metal shards bright as fireworks.  Everyone at the parish funeral agreed: his two car bang-ups this summer set dramatic close to his five unremarkable, peaceful decades in the township’s daily rounds.

Before anyone else could make claim, Dorothy smuggled his pewter beer mug into a back niche in her bedroom closet.  Hid it for years. It was a reminder of gentle Uncle Eddie. And she calculated that was enough: her best, her only protection, just in case.

Patricia E. Fogarty has been working with books and stories for as long as she can remember, as copy editor, English-Series Editor, translator, writer, and Content Editor.  As long-term commitment, for the past decade she’s done a monthly book review column, “Scriptorium,” for The American Mag-InItalia.

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