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Short Story: Under the cover of darkness

Short Story: Under the cover of darkness

Short Story: Under the cover of darkness

They turned up unexpectedly, uninvited and unwelcome guests they were, that Sunday in June. He and his little sidekick, strutting around like they owned the place.

I had thought I had my quota worked out, what with the sheep, two goats and my four tame chickens (each with a name). It was a fine balance, one that I could manage and I was not looking to have my equilibrium disrupted. This pair were definitely not part of my equation!

I asked them to leave, nicely at first – just with a little encouragement from the broom. They took no heed. Later, I resorted to more extreme measures, chasing them and screaming like a woman who had lost her mind (maybe I had). I confess to lying awake at night turning over my options, my mind got away with me at times. I won’t go into it, but I will just say a large axe was involved in one of my more troubled moments. They had it over me though. I was an animal lover, a pacifist and a vegetarian. The chance of me murdering this pair was low, despite my misery.

Where they came from, I will never know. Certainly, no neighbours would own up to ever having seen them before. They appeared and that was it. They appeared and my harmony was gone. Some evenings, just on twilight, I would see them cross the road together (they unfortunately had great road sense) and head towards the derelict cottage. The first few times they did this, I breathed a sigh of relief only to find they were back, just like they always were, in the morning. They arrived before sunrise under the cover of darkness, ready to play havoc again. They bullied my hens and stole their food. I blamed the rooster for most of the mayhem, but over the course of some weeks, I saw that his little black hen was just as bossy and nasty. They had to go!

My nerves were shot. It was a long time ago, but somewhere along the way I lost myself. My mother had died and I’d found myself alone, not knowing how to navigate the world. I kind of gave up. Not intentionally, but more passively. I forgot to eat. Some days I would just lie in bed all day. I didn’t have the strength for much more. It was the metre reader who found me, collapsed on the floor. Apparently, I had been there for two days.

Nearly dying was the wake-up call I needed to change my life. Somewhere quiet, away from noise and people. I thought I found it. Fairview Park! Oh, how lovely to have my own little lifestyle block – no neighbours either side, the only house I could see from my window was the little cottage, long ago abandoned. Yes, I would start again with a few animals for company, and space to breathe again.

That was 10 years ago, and I was getting better. I even had a little voluntary part-time job at the nursing home nearby. It gave me the little bit of human contact that I needed. No one asked me too many questions, and I never offered too much, always keeping it superficial. They probably felt as if I was an odd ball, but they were amazingly tolerant of my reserved demeanour – in the way that elderly people are. There were a few volunteers I spoke to occasionally, elderly themselves, but not quite as forgetful as the residents.

After a couple of weeks of frustration and lack of sleep, people started to notice something and a couple of the ladies at the home asked if I was okay. At first people sympathised, but after a while they became weary. Someone even mentioned antidepressants. I had to fess up. That rooster and hen were getting to me!

Advice came thick and fast. Advertise them I was told, ‘free to good home’ – I could have got rid of her, but him? Who wants a rooster?

One of my ideas was to take them for a nice little drive, somewhere out in the country where other fowl roam free. Far enough away where I wouldn’t hear that spine-chilling crowing in the early hours. I would lie awake and fantasise about this, but concluded it was, in fact, just a fantasy of the unhinged insomniac I had become. Where was such a place? And if I found it, would the rooster be killed by another of his kind – maybe even bigger and meaner. Furthermore, the legalities of it worried me. All I needed was a criminal record on top of this.

Back to the drawing board, or the chopping block. I guessed someone would do the job for me, although I was disturbed by a childhood memory, recently resurfaced. 

For a time, I had one friend. Her name was Sharon. I would visit her sometimes after school and I loved to hang out at her place. Her parents kept a few animals, and a bunch of chickens as well.

One day Sharon told me that her dad would sometimes chop the head off a chicken and described how it would run around for a time (headless). I was horrified and thought that she was just making up a story, until one sunny afternoon when we were abruptly called inside. Sharon’s mum told us not to look out the window (her dad was up to his tricks again). To this day I don’t know if I did look out the window or if I imagined I did. But what I recall is the horrific image of a white hen dripping with blood, running around without a head. And one thing I do remember is that I never went back there again. In fact, I came back so distressed Mother forbade it!

My mother told me that I had a weak constitution. I was a fragile, premature baby and an anxious, sickly child. Mother didn’t mind, she cosseted me and if I was picked on at school, well, she would just let me stay home. I was picked on a lot, and I stayed home a lot. I saw more homely girls than me making friends so it wasn’t just my short stature. I was always way too aware of my defects – it was easy to pick on me, especially as I would cry at the drop of a hat. Yes, a nervous disposition.

I was unplanned but not unwanted. Well, not by Mother anyway. She longed for a child to replace the son she tragically lost some years before. It was different with my father, who left before I was born. It was tough on her, and she withdrew from people, never trusting a man again. I was all she had – and she certainly wasn’t going to let anything happen to me. She kept me close because she did not want me to get hurt. Certainly, friends were not encouraged, let alone boyfriends! It was a cosy arrangement – just the two of us. I became an expert at keeping people out.

My sleep got worse, and the nights seemed endless. I would wait for the call, “you are doomed! You are doomed!” coming from the rooster just on day break. One day I did something drastic. On my way to the nursing home I got distracted and missed my turn. Instead of turning around I just kept going. I just kept driving. Driving with abandon – destination unknown. I hadn’t planned it. In fact, the day started just like any other day.

So, I got on the freeway and kept heading north – the first road trip of my life. My boring old hatchback became a sexy convertible and with the windows down, I felt my frizzy hair blowing in the wind. This was an amazing feeling of freedom, like I had never felt before. Never had I been so reckless and impulsive to take off like this. The first adventure of my life. The further I drove, the more distance I felt between me and my troubles.

I got to a beach and found a cabin. It was so easy, I paid for a week up front, and I was lucky – the proprietor did not seem in the least interested to know anything about me. What bliss!

I took off my sensible shoes and felt the sand between my toes. I even ate an ice cream. I briefly forgot my chaotic world in Fairview Park, and I was happy. Maybe I could just stay. Maybe I would never have to go back. Why did that rooster have to come and disrupt my safe little world? I hated him, and the hen, for all the misery they caused. Every day I laid eyes on them they seemed to mock me and say, “yes, you thought you had it all sorted out, didn’t you? Your life was peaceful, wonderfully predictable even. You had it all under control. Well, guess what? We’re here to remind you that you haven’t, and it’s not!”

Thinking about it all, I wondered how easy it would be to get swept out to sea. I wasn’t a good swimmer, and if I timed it well: perhaps it wouldn’t be hard at all?

The call came the next day, it snapped me back to reality. Mavis, from the nursing home, was worried. Why hadn’t I turned up yesterday. Was I okay? She knew about my situation and was sympathetic, but when I finally broke down she was more than concerned. So, I went back. I took my time, but I went back. What was I thinking? I couldn’t just leave my sheep and goats. Especially the sheep, anyone knows they always get stuck in things. And my chickens, they needed me.

I went back with my tail between my legs. Embarrassed to have caused such a fuss.

The place looked different, the overgrown lawns had been mowed and my neglected garden had been weeded. Even some of my fences, which I had been meaning to fix, but never got around to, were neatly tacked up. All my animals seemed fine, there was fresh hay out in the yards and the water was topped up. I read the note taped to the door. How kind! Mavis and her husband had a little ‘working bee’ whilst I was gone and had done a few jobs for me. Clearly they saw how things had got on top of me. It made me realise that I really did need to pull myself together – how had I let things become this bad?

The best part of it all was I never saw that rooster or black hen again. I waited for the crowing the next morning. Silence. Do roosters ever sleep in? I thought not. Maybe he started earlier and I missed it? When I got up to look around, there was no sign of them. I waited all morning for them to appear. Nothing. Nothing that day or the next or the day after. I didn’t ask Mavis as I didn’t want to know, but I can only guess that she and her husband put the pair on their list of ‘things to sort out’. And they did. She asked me if I was sleeping better. That was the only clue. And, yes I was. In fact, I was feeling a lot better too. Actually, I was almost back to my normal self.

And then it happened. How did I not see this coming? I had been so caught up in my despair I had become careless, lazy. Failing to check on my animals properly I hadn’t noticed the hen nesting out the back. Or had I? Maybe I just didn’t think.

Well, the worst happened. One fine spring morning when I opened my curtains – I saw them. No, I wasn’t mistaken, there was a tribe of baby chickens. Horrifyingly, I knew this meant only one thing – more blasted roosters!

About our Short Story author:

Julie Hayward

I have always been a storyteller, but it took an amazing adventure to Alaska in 2016 to make me realise I needed to write my first story. It was the incredible sled dogs and mushers that inspired me. All my stories have since been about animals. I love animals, and I’m particularly fascinated with the incredible bonds we share with them. This is my first ‘stab’ at fiction but, in saying that, the rooster and hen were actually real! I am privileged to work in mental health, as I am constantly reminded how really brave people are.

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