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My grand children came over and we made breakfast and did some cleaning; and the cage too.
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MUTTON by Jason Prather


A Short Story By
Jason Prather                          


     The boy was at the creek again near the edge of the village on the day of the terrible crime thinking about long-ago and the woman he knew who had once made him chicken.  Thoughts of the woman made him sad, and he poked at a spot on the ground with a stick as he crouched while his stomach growled.  He was hungry and the memory of the woman made him want chicken; so he thought long and hard about chickens and where he might find one.  Most chickens, he knew, lived on farms, and there was one farm that he knew of in particular; so the boy stood and tossed the stick into the creek and paused to watch the water carry it away, then he turned to leave.
     He walked for a long time trying to remember the way to the farm.  The sun had begun to set, and the boy began to worry.  He did not want to lose his way back to the creek, because he liked the creek and he liked the tree he had found there.  The tree was a safe place where he could get away, because most people felt uncomfortable when the boy was around and sometimes they were mean to him; so the boy kept walking and searching and as the light in the sky began to fade, he found the farm. 
     The farm was small and set back from the main wagon road, so the boy had to travel across a derelict cornfield, past a rusted plow, and over a sagging wooden fence to reach it.  The main house, an aging split-log cabin, sat adjacent a long, squat barn.  The evening was cool and the boy could smell burning firewood.  The scent reminded him of something, something from when he was younger.  He lingered and tried to let the memory take shape, but his stomach groaned and his thoughts soon returned to the hunt.  
     The boy turned away from the cabin and began to search for chickens.  He had no understanding of his trespassing.  In his mind, he was simply looking for food on a farm; so he moved about, not in stealth, but conspicuously and with little regard for what the farmer might hear or see.  He crossed the yard to search the barn, but he found no chickens.  He returned to the cabin and walked all around it stopping twice to peer through the windows, but he saw no chickens.  Perplexed, the boy stopped and stood and thought long and hard about where chickens would be on a farm.  As he was thinking, he remembered seeing a chicken coop when he was younger and realized that farm chickens must have their own houses; so he returned to the yard and surveyed the farm from his spot and there at the far end of the barn he spied an oblong wooden shelter with a gabled roof.  
     The boy squealed with excitement as he rushed to the structure.  The ridge of the shelter's roof was about chest-high and the length of the coop was roughly double the length of the boy's height.  The backward-facing slope of the roof was divided into two halves, each bearing a latch and hinges, so that either one might be raised for access to the nests inside.  The boy did not immediately recognize this convenience and spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to open the coop; but he eventually found one of the latches and thought to raise it and then he raised the section of roof and pushed it back on its hinges and let it fall to the opposite side with a bang.  The chickens were startled by the noise and began to squawk and some fluttered their wings, but the boy was pleased with his discovery and took no notice of their complaints and he squealed again with excitement and clapped his hands.
     The boy reached into the coop and grabbed a chicken, but it pecked and scratched him in its fear and the boy cried out and dropped it to the ground.  Angered, the boy rushed to recover his meal, but the chicken was too quick for him and darted away squawking as it went.  The boy moaned in frustration and returned to the coop to grab another chicken; but it, too, beat its wings in fear and it pecked and clawed at the boy and he lost his grip and the chicken fluttered away.  
     The boy wailed in outrage and he beat himself about the head with his fists.  Blood began to form in the scratches on his wrists and the sight of his blood terrified him and he flew at the coop and grabbed another chicken and practically tore it apart.  He sat heavily on the ground with the bird in his grip and the chicken beat its wings and squawked and scratched and pecked.  The boy cried out and beat the chicken with his fist and grabbed at the chicken and twisted it and he broke the bird's neck and he broke its wings and ripped handfuls of feathers from its sides.  And he squeezed the chicken hard and he shook it and he slammed it to the ground between his legs and still the chicken fought; so the boy beat the chicken in his lap to make it stop moving and he beat it and beat it and eventually it did stop. 
     The boy squeezed his fists tightly and grit his teeth and groaned in rage as he took to beating himself in the head again with his bloody fists.  When he was done, he sat for a short while breathing heavily from his mouth as tears spilled from his eyes and mucus ran from his nose.
     When he began to calm, the boy looked down at the bloody mess in his lap and he was sad.  He did not mean to hurt the chicken, certainly not as badly as he did, and he felt sorry for what he had done; but he was still hungry and after several minutes of sitting and rocking and allowing himself to calm, he thought to eat the chicken.  He raised the chicken to his mouth, but the carcass was floppy and hard for the boy to manipulate it to the right spot.  Nevertheless with effort, he managed to position the chicken at the right angle and when he did so, he bit deeply into a bloody area that had been divest of its feathers.  
     The skin of the chicken was tough and the boy had to gnaw at it and work his teeth and pull on it to tear away the chunk of flesh.  He chewed it, but discovered the taste and consistency of the skin and meat was not at all like the meat of the chicken the woman had made him, so he spit it out and tried again.  He fared no better the second time and this upset him greatly, because he was hungry and he did not know why this chicken tasted so differently or what the woman had done to make her chicken taste so good.  The boy barked in anger at the chicken and he shook the bloody corpse and then threw it against the wall of the coop and then he stood up and left the farm.
     Night and darkness were upon the boy when he eventually made it back to the creek.  The blood of the chicken was on his face and hands and on his shirt and shorts and he felt sticky and wanted to wash in the creek, but he did not because the water would make him feel cold.  He moved around to the far side of the tree and found the den he had made in the earth between two great roots that issued from the tree's base.  Stuffed into an earthen nook near the vertex of the roots was a burlap sack that had been split along either side.  The boy crawled into the den and curled up tightly and pulled the sack over him to use as a blanket.  His stomach felt sick and his head hurt and at that moment he missed the woman terribly.  The boy moaned and began to rock from side-to-side and after a long time he fell asleep.

     The farmer grumbled in his sleep and furrowed his brow and frowned deeply as his hand twitched and then something in his dream startled him and he jerked his head and woke up.  He did not know what time it was, but given the darkness and quietness he knew night had not yet progressed to morning.  His head hurt and his neck was stiff and he grunted as he swung his legs over the side of the couch.  As he righted himself, he coughed and his coughing turned into a fit and he leaned forward and coughed and coughed until he loosed a gumball-sized wad of mucus from his throat and then he spit it on the floor.  He cursed and wiped his whiskered mouth with his hand and collapsed back against the couch and closed his eyes as his head pounded more fiercely.  He felt sure he would not be able to fall back asleep, certainly not with his head pounding like it was, and he had much to do today to make up for yesterday, so he simply rested against the cushions and let his pounding headache slowly return to a steady throb.  
     Yesterday had been particularly bad.  Memories of his dead wife and son pervaded his thoughts for no discernible reason and he took to drinking heavily about midday and passed out shortly before sunset.  Now it was not quite morning and yesterday he had lost a half-day's work due to his grief and his drinking, so he stood up and walked to the kitchen and found a bottle of liquor and drank from it to remedy his headache.  He decided to start his work early and make as much of the day as he could in case he might be moved to drink again in the evening.  He set the liquor aside, fixed a meager breakfast, forced himself to eat, then smoked a cigarette afterwards, and went about the farm tending to his duties.  It was during this time that he found the chicken.
     At first, the farmer thought the chicken had been attacked by an animal, but he saw the coop had been opened and there were human footprints all around and he realized a trespasser had come in the night.  The farmer felt fear and anger well up inside him and he took the chicken's carcass and put it far away from the coop.  He then got his shotgun from the house and went about the farm looking for the malefactor and to see what other damage the intruder might have caused, but he found nothing.  Morning was approaching, so the farmer finished as much of his work as his troubled mind would allow, then he smoked another cigarette and drank some more liquor and took his shotgun and tried to follow the intruder's trail for as long as he could.  Eventually, though, he lost the tracks, so he returned home.
     Crime in the village was a rarity, so the farmer was not entirely sure how to proceed.  About midmorning he rode into the village and went to the tavern where he was known and had a drink.  He spoke to the bartender and some other men about what had happened and someone suggested a search party be formed lest the scoundrel invade someone else's farm and kill someone else's chickens; so a plan was devised and a search party was assembled and by early afternoon a group of about fifteen men moved across the village looking for the chicken killer.
     The men carried an assortment of weapons - knives, sickles, shotguns - but there was no clear plan as to what to do with the killer once he was found.  Some in the group felt immediate justice was in order, while others believed the intruder's fate should be left solely to the farmer, and still others were of the opinion the community as a whole should have the final say.  Despite this lack of agreement, the one thing each and every man did agree on was that the killer should be caught and caught soon.  Farms, houses, and the bordering forests were searched, but to no avail.  People were questioned and many told strange stories about the disappearances of their this-and-thats, or their gardens being raided, or odd disturbances among their livestock; but no one had actually seen anything or could give a description of who or what may have caused all the trouble.  By evening, the search had proved fruitless and many of the men had turned back to go home.
     Two men in particular hiked alongside one another and they chatted as they went following a creek they knew would lead them back to the village.  As they rounded a bend, one of the men spied a figure sitting on the banks of the creek several hundred yards away.  He nudged his companion and pointed the boy out and they crept closer keeping their presence a secret.  When they were within a certain distance, they crouched behind some brush and simply beheld the boy, marveling at how very peculiar he looked.
     The boy's head seemed unusually large and was covered by matted dull brown hair, except for a wide swath of baldness that travelled up the back of his head to taper off near the crown.  He had a grossly protruding brow and close set eyes and a stout neck and broad shoulders.  His back was slightly humped and his biceps were thick and muscular and he had large hands and feet and stubby hairless legs.  The boy wore no shoes and he sat with his right hand pronated while he picked from it crickets and berries that he stuffed into his oversized mouth.
     The boy was no boy the men had ever seen before and they indicted him on-the-spot.  This was the chicken killer, the faceless invader of farms and gardens, there was no doubt.  After a brief moment to work out their ambush, the men readied themselves, then dashed around the bushes and charged at the boy.  
     The boy, having a keen sense of hearing, was alerted to the presence of the men at the moment they made their attack and he squealed almost reflexively as he leapt to his feet and ran.  He did not know why he was being chased, but the men bore mean faces and he was afraid.  He was quick, despite having no shoes, and when he reached the tree, he dashed around it, leapt into his den, curled into a ball, and quickly pulled the burlap sack over him; but the men were not fooled.  They rounded the tree to find the boy had vanished.  A quick survey of the immediate area, however, revealed the den - an obvious hiding place - so they checked there first and found the boy beneath the sack.
     The men reached into the den to pull the boy out.  He kicked and fought and he was strong for a boy, so the men beat him and the boy cried out.  The sounds the boy made were like an animal's and the men were repulsed by them, so they beat him more.  They dragged him from his hiding place and as they did the boy grabbed a bunch of exposed roots and held tightly.  One man stomped hard on his hands and stomped again and again until the boy let go.  The men kicked and stomped the boy once they had him free of the den and the boy squealed and wailed and covered his head and brought his knees to his chest.  The men saw the blood on the boy's clothes, which only solidified in their minds that he was the killer, so they beat him more.  
     Eventually the boy stopped making noises, so the men stopped their beating and one man left the other with the boy and fetched a cart and they loaded the boy onto it and drove him to the village square.

     Word of the capture spread quickly and a throng of people soon formed around the cart eager to see the hideous chicken killer.  The remaining members of the search party were rounded up, including the farmer, and when all were assembled, the farmer gazed upon the boy and he was sickened by his appearance and he spit on him.  
     Talk of what to do with the boy soon followed.  He is a killer, some cried, and should be beaten and horse-dragged!  He is a monster, others shouted, and should be tied up and locked away!  Many in the group looked to the farmer for the answer, not because he was a great voice in the village, but for the simple fact that it was his chicken the boy had killed; so the farmer thought about it and thought some more and then he recalled an old custom.  We'll pigshut him! he declared, and there followed shouts of approval and shouts of protest, while others only stood in ignorance; but it was generally accepted that the farmer should have the ultimate say, so the boy was tied up and left at the square in the cart with one man to stand watch overnight.
     The next day, a variety of goods were gathered from all who were willing to contribute for use in trade for a pig from a pig farmer in a neighboring village.  An enormous hog was purchased and killed and its entrails and organs removed and the corpse was prepared and brought to the village square.  A gallows was erected and afterwards the boy was brought to the pig.  When they tried to put him in, the boy fought, but he was weak and stiff from his beating from the day before and he was easily subdued.  
     The pig had been split down the middle and lain on its side.  Two men held the pig open while two others stuffed the boy in.  One man used his boot to pack him in tightly and afterwards the pig was sown up.  A harness of rope was fashioned and the entire assembly, pig and boy, were hoisted up by the gallows and left to hang for all to see.
     The boy did not understand why the people had beaten him and put him in the pig.  He often did not know why people were mean to him.  In fact, the woman was the only one who had ever treated him with any sort of memorable kindness; but he did not want to think about the woman now.  He hurt too much and the pig was slimy and stank and at some point while he was being beaten he must have thrown up, because he could smell vomitus on his clothes.  No, the memories of the woman only made him hurt worse, so he shut her out of his thoughts and closed his eyes and tried his best to fall asleep.
     But sleep would not come and the boy moaned and cried out of frustration.  His arms were flexed and crowded against his body and when he tried to straighten them he could only get them as far as his forehead.  His legs were bent and his feet were pushed up and he could feel the pig's ribcage against his shoulders.  His limbs and body ached and he was terribly thirsty.  He tried to rock his body in the manner that soothed him when he was afraid, but his angle and the confines of the pig would not allow it.  He whimpered as he began to pat and rub his cheek.  At one point, he had to urinate, so he did and felt the warm piss wet his crotch and run down his thigh and at first it felt good, but after a moment the wetness turned cold, which made him cry more.
     The boy was not a hateful person.  He liked people and longed for a companion and he would have given anything to be back with the woman.  Oh, how she had loved him!  This time, despite the pain and the longing, he let his mind receive her.  He remembered being held by her once.  Something bad had happened; a dog had attacked him after he tried to pet it.  He remembered the dog, how it had turned on him and the terror he felt as it growled and barked and snapped its jaws.  He had screamed and tried to get away, but the dog was relentless.  He remembered the hair and the teeth and the saliva, but he could not remember how he had gotten away, only that he had gotten away and had somehow ended up in the woman's arms.  She allowed him to curl up in her lap while she wrapped her arms around him and she rocked him silently, for the woman never spoke, and occasionally stroked his hair.  Her embrace comforted him through his pain and he felt protected and loved and the woman was all he had ever wanted at that moment and in the moment of her memory she was all he ever wanted again.
     As he thought about the woman and her embrace, he tried to imagine that the pig was her and its carcass was her soothing arms surrounding him and keeping him safe from the dogs who had attacked him.  His anxiety released its hold just a bit and he thought about her hair and how soft it was and her smile and her gentleness and he soon lost track of the little sense of time he had and fell asleep.
     The villagers kept the boy in the pig for three days.  On the third day the farmer and some men came to free him.  Many of the villagers gathered to watch and they wore scarves or bandanas over their mouths and noses, because the stench from the pig was considerable.  The men lowered the hog to the ground and removed the harness and clipped the sutures that bound the pig's belly.  When they opened it, the malodor - a noxious mix of decaying pig, ammonia, sweat, and feces - practically overwhelmed the men and they turned away quickly to catch their breaths.  The farmer, covering his nose and mouth with a handkerchief, kicked the pig and ordered the boy to come out, but the boy would not come out and no one was willing to reach in to recover him.  Sticks were used and rakes and brooms to jab and poke the boy, but he merely squealed and rolled over and turned his back to the crowd.
     The farmer and the others stood in amazement.  A boy who would live in a pig is a boy who cannot be reformed, said the farmer; and so they left the boy inside and sutured the pig back up and bound it with rope.  The pig was then hoisted onto a cart and afterwards the farmer and a man of his choosing drove the boy in the pig to the far side of the bordering forest and dumped them in a clearing near a running brook.
     The villagers never saw the boy again, which is how they preferred it.  As far as they knew, the pig and the boy had been claimed by the buzzards and weasels; but the boy, at the same time, never left the village.  He became a story told over and over again in homes and in the fields and in the tavern.  His legend grew and as the years went by, he became a permanent fixture of their culture.  A council that had formed to govern the village declared a particular day in spring to be Pigshut's Day in which children would dress as pigs or hideous boys and go about from cottage to cottage begging for food.  Unruly children would often hear their mothers warn that if they did not behave, the boy in the pig would creep in during the night and steal them away.  
     One such child, who had been especially naughty and had received the story and had been amazed by it, asked her mother for the name of the boy.  The mother thought for a moment and realized she had never known the boy's name and so she told her daughter he did not have one.  The girl refused to accept such a preposterous notion.  Every boy has a name and she demanded to know his.  The mother, who by this point was thoroughly exhausted at having to deal with the importunate child, gave the boy a name.  "Mutton," she said in an exasperated tone.  "His name was Mutton."




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