One day when my dad picked me up from kindergarten he told me that he and mom had a surprise. Food minded, I asked if it was candy, when he said no my brain jittered and couldn’t figure out what it could be. A baby sibling? I didn’t ask.
I came home to chicks running all across the linoleum kitchen floor, pooping and swerving little circles around each other. Since then we’ve always had chickens: some batches of pygmy chickens, some with pompom heads, always cute when they’re little and grisly when they’re old. My brother, Avery, and I loved the chicks when they were little balls of fluff, and we would perform various forms of mind control on them to coax them into otherwise terrifying stunts, like going down a slide or taking a ride in a pocket. When they got big enough not to need a heat lamp—or was it when they were big enough not to be snatched by owls? —We’d stop touching them, their ugly teenager phase ruining their cuteness and thus dissolving our baby bond.
That’s when they’d get mean. Our adult chickens never wanted to be touched, and we weren’t exactly begging for their cuddles. There was one rooster in particular that was a big scramble of feathers and talons. He looked beautiful, like, exactly what you’d want a rooster to look like. But he was huge, and he was more of an asshole than any person or animal I’d yet met. He’d pretend to have a broken wing only to attack my mother—sending her back up to The Barn in a sprint, blood trickle tracing the veins in her shins.
My dad’s brother, Uncle Ebo, had been a recurring chaotic figure throughout my childhood, the kind of adult that acts more like a child with extreme ADD than a person who does adult things like work and go to grocery stores. His playfulness isn’t strictly physical—wrestling and jump scares aside, he never neglects to needle a waiter into a flirtatiously comped dessert. Ebo visited sometime during the summer when we had our devil rooster. By the second day he’d heard enough about its reign of terror, and he dressed up in oversized jean overalls and a well-worn straw hat to armor himself for a killing. I believe his weapon of choice was a machete, though I can’t quite remember. A machete now seems like a needlessly bloody instrument, but perhaps the choice of armament was more for show than practicality.
Avery and I were always delighted by Ebo’s intensity. We followed him around like hens after cornmeal, picking up every little joke he dropped and eating them up with clucks and giggles. The rooster killing was like the other jokes, but this time Ebo’s bit was as a hick about to rid our household of a demon chicken. I don’t remember exactly, but I like to imagine Avery and I also dressed in country clothes–oversized flannels and straw sticking out of our closed mouths.
We went down to the chicken pen in a group, Ave and I trolloping close behind Ebo, our parents in tow sipping gin and tonics, blueberries bouncing against the ice. I should add that Ebo’s original dress had changed as he thought more seriously about the awaiting claws. He adorned himself with thick elbow-high gardening gloves and snake gaiters. He held in one hand a machete and in the other one of those plastic grabber things made to help old people reach up-high things.
Ebo opened the pen and threw some feed on the far side, drawing the hens to one corner so that he could get the rooster alone. My mom went in one of the doors to chase the rooster out from behind. Grandpa had built this coop so that it was like a mini house with a mesh lean-to, with two human sized doors leading into either the egg laying part or the pooping and eating part of the coop. The rooster, shooed out into Ebo’s armed and waiting arms, immediately tried to make a run for it. Ebo barely caught it by its neck with the grabber, though a chicken neck is a lot thinner than what those things are built for, so it wiggled its way free instantaneously. Before the rooster could run very far Ebo whacked it once or twice with the machete, causing a domino-effect of screeching clucks first from the rooster and then from each hen. The bird ran into a thicket of redwood trees a little way down the hill from the coop.
Redwoods do this incredible thing—when one dies its roots become new redwoods around the dead one, forming a perfect ring called a fairy circle. Rooster boy found a great hiding spot in one of these young fairy circles, the trees just high and thick enough to block him entirely from view. We knew he was there because of the sad whimpers he made, and so our problem was how to extricate him from the circle without scaring him off into the forest. Peeking at the rooster through the sparser parts of the thicket, I began to feel bad for the poor guy. His whimpers this time were actually convincing of real pain and he was probably bleeding quite a bit. So as the rest of my family waited in formation, accessories to murder, I ran back up to The Barn, feeling sorry for the devil chicken and not really wanting to see the actual killing. His mask of meanness had fallen away and he was now just a hurt animal, fearing the blade of death.
The next day my grandpa made rooster noodle soup, a dish that I could not bring myself to try. Ebo didn’t show up for lunch, leaving Avery and me to face the boiling pot of pet by ourselves. Avery was at the age where young teens start making everything into a moral argument, so as we stood in the kitchen he said a lot of things like, “Helen, you have to eat this—otherwise the rooster died for nothing.” He struggled to finish his bowl of chicken soup, his spoon spending more time in the bowl than in his mouth. I stood near the stove, tiptoeing every few minutes to check on the tall pot of soup, feeling sick at the thought of even one bite.
* * *
 I realize that 11-year-old Helen may have had a distorted concept of size. The rooster was likely quite normal, though it was the largest one we’d ever had, and it was a monster. Imagine Foghorn Leghorn meets Popeye.
 The Barn is what we call our family home, a structure that my grandfather built in accompaniment to his house at the top of the hill when my mom was a teen. It functioned as a barn for about 15 years until my mom got pregnant and decided to move onto the property, sending the tractors out into the dirt and replacing the barn doors with floor to ceiling windows.
 The Barn is about 20 minutes out of the town of Napa, a rural retreat from the wine-themed valley vacationland that draws so many. Our property has acted as an escape for friends from the suburban or otherwise touristically oriented town, and thus has absorbed the slightly exaggerated misnomer of a “country lifestyle.”
 We’ve had many yuppy and otherwise European relatives decide when they visit us that they should dress the part. In an album somewhere, there are images of my Uncle Billy from Scotland (also known as Elvis’s biggest fan) dressed in the same pair of overalls and straw hat. I don’t ever remember seeing anyone in my nuclear family wear overalls.
 When we’ve killed other chickens in the past (because of health-related issues, we aren’t needless poultry murderers!) we’ve shot them. Mom shot one while Avery and I restlessly planted ourselves on the bank where we couldn’t quite see the coop but could still feel the goings on down there—to feel like we were a part of the farm but not active in the scary parts. Its euthanization was brought on because it had somehow shat out its guts overnight—intestines dragging around in the dusty straw.
Helen Ruby Hill is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she studies literature. You can find her recent work in Terror House.
featured photo by Duncan Hill, pictured: Cole Donaldson; 2002