A Chicken-and-Egg Story
Melle was hatched in an incubator tray along with a few dozen other chicks, fuzzy little Nerf balls piled together. It was cramped in there—she was always being jostled, shouldered out of the way, or even trampled when some other chick got impatient of pushing through the crowd and tried to climb overtop it instead.
A day after hatching a hand reached in from the sky, took hold of her, flipped her over, and squeezed her so violently that feces ran out of her cloaca. Then the hand released her and picked up her neighbor. That chick was returned just as Melle had been, but the next three times the hand reappeared empty to pick out another in their brood.
When it was all over the chicks took stock of themselves and realized that only the girls had been spared. It left them a little more elbow room but they were still sad. If they’d known how they’d have mourned the boys, but they were so young they hadn’t yet learned. All they could do was wonder if they’d be forever separated or if someday the boys might come home to the tray.
But they didn’t stay in the tray themselves. They felt themselves lifted and carried some distance, and then they were emptied into a larger pen under an electric sun along with dozens and dozens of other chicks. The sun warmed them relentlessly and they soon grew to fill the small space. Their down stiffened into real feathers and their beaks grew heavy and strong. Just when it seemed they’d all crush each other if they grew any more, hands descended from the sky again and began to remove Melle’s sisters. When they reached for her she panicked, terrified she’d vanish like the boys. She tried to scramble over the other girls and did make it past a few, but that only brought her to the edge of the pen, where she was easily caught. The hands lifted her aloft and carried her a short way. A great force pushed her head forward so that her beak entered a kind of slot, and pain swamped her senses. It flooded her so badly that she was forced to retreat to higher ground inside herself. She hid there awhile, above all afraid of what she’d find when she had to return to inspect the damage.
When she did rejoin herself she found she was in a small wire cage with a slanted floor, along six or seven other pullets she thought she knew from the tray. It was hard to be sure at first because they’d all had the front parts of their beaks cut off. Her pain had resolved itself to the center of her face, so Melle knew that the same had happened to her. A white dropping fell through the top of the cage and struck one of the others on the wing. The hen tried to extend that wing to shake it, but couldn’t find the room no matter which way she turned. Eventually she settled down again, retracted her beakless head between her shoulders, and sat still, staring fixedly ahead.
Melle looked up to discover where the dropping had come from. Directly above their cage was another; she could see the feet and underbellies of half a dozen or so chickens shifting over its grated floor. Every so often two of them made enough space for her to see past them to what looked like yet another cage full of birds. She peered between her feet and found the heads and backs of half a dozen more hens, and a half- dozen beyond them. And there were full cages on three of her four sides. Only the fourth opened onto ten feet of empty space, across which a wall of cages, all filled with birds, extended beyond view to the left and right.
She became aware of the incredible noise, thousands of chickens squawking at once: yelling at each other, whining about their pain, begging for mercy—and much more lost to the din.
Over the next few days, as their pains began to subside, Melle started hearing other things in the mass cackle. Mostly it was news: Liza had fallen sick. Emily had died of her sickness and her cagemates were still living with her dead body three days later.
Lucia had been taken away. Ellen had been taken away. Melissa had been taken away. Rhody had been taken away. Noreen had been taken away. A whole swathe of cages had been put on the near-starvation diet.
Melle didn’t know the chickens in these accounts. She couldn’t even guess how many cages their stories had had to travel to reach her, nor how much farther they would travel after she or some other hen near her passed them on. No one around her knew either, and it would have been pointless to try to find out. Even if the question were transmitted back to the cage where the information originated, those chickens wouldn’t know any better than Melle how far they were from her. For all any of them knew, the same stories might echo around their world of cages for days or even weeks after they ceased being relevant.
At least one story definitely did reverberate like that, passing by Melle’s cage over and over in fragments until at last she was able to assemble it into a complete tale and tell it herself. Unlike all the other circulating stories it was not about hens but about their captors, the humans, who fed them, stole the unhatched babies that rolled away from them down the pitched floor day after day, and took their old and sick friends away. It contained many words and concepts unfamiliar to Melle, which she nevertheless repeated faithfully. They gave her deep feelings she couldn’t identify or explain. Supposedly it was an old, old story that hardly any humans remembered anymore, but no hen could say how they knew that, nor how the tale had entered their oral tradition.
The Story of Philomela
A king, Tereus, married a princess, Procne, and brought her home to his country. After some years the woman wanted to see her sister again, and asked her husband to fetch her. When he arrived at Procne’s original home he saw that the sister, Philomela, had grown into a beautiful woman. He convinced her to come visit Procne, but as soon as they reached his own shores he carried her to a cabin in the woods and raped her. Then he cut out her tongue so she could never tell what had happened to her, raped her again with the blood still pouring from her mouth, and left her locked in the cabin.
He told his wife that Philomela had been killed by wild animals and showed her a piece of her bloody shirt to prove it.
Tereus continued to visit Philomela in her cabin and rape her. She became pregnant and had a baby boy. Tereus took him away and she never saw him again. She never saw anyone but Tereus. No one came to that part of the forest.
At the end of two long years, though, an old woman did pass by the cabin, hunting for mushrooms. Although Philomela could no longer form words she could still make noise, and she moaned at the woman through the wood planks crisscrossing the window. She pointed to her mouth and then mimed writing, and the old woman nodded that she would help.
She left and returned after a while with pen and paper. Philomela wrote what had happened to her and gave the paper to the old woman to deliver. A few days later the old woman led Procne to the cabin and the sisters were tearfully reunited. Procne broke down the door with an ax, and she and Philomela hurried back to her house. When they were almost there they saw Tereus leaving the gates of the town, headed their way. They hid behind a bush and watched him disappear in the direction they’d just come, toward Philomela’s cabin prison.
Procne smuggled her sister into her rooms. She was furious. She tried to imagine a revenge upon her husband to match the suffering he’d inflicted on Philomela. Through the window she spied her young son playing in the courtyard. She called him, and when he came to her she led him to the kitchen steps, where the household did its slaughtering, and slit his throat with a sharp knife. Then she gutted him and dressed him, crying because he was her little boy. She put part of his meat into a stew and another part on a spit.
Tereus came home. He was angry that Philomela had gotten away, but of course he couldn’t tell Procne. He ate distractedly and took it at face value when Procne said she’d already had her dinner. Eventually he became sated and relaxed and asked for his son. Philomela sprang from the next room, where she’d been hiding, and threw the boy’s head into his father’s lap. Then she and Procne sprinted away.
Tereus sat frozen a few moments, as it slowly dawned on him what sort of meal he’d just eaten. When he leapt to his feet the sisters had just passed out the front door of the house. They ran up the stairs to the town walls, Tereus not far behind, and when they reached the top they threw themselves from the highest parapet. They changed in midair into robins, their throats stained with blood, and flew away.
There was another version of the story Melle sometimes heard. She didn’t like it as much, but even so she repeated it sometimes for variety. In that version, after Philomela saw the old woman in the forest she had a vision of what would happen if she were reunited with Procne, and she decided not to send the letter. She didn’t want to make Procne murder her son. She remained in the cabin a long time, so long she lost track of how long it had been, buying her sister’s peace with her suffering, until she couldn’t anymore. In the end she saw the old woman again and convinced her to bring poison mushrooms, with which she committed suicide.
Melle didn’t like this version as much at first. It was depressing to imagine Philomela sitting there year after year, alone, voiceless, and in pain. She preferred the ending where the two women were transformed, because it gave her hope that whatever power had done that could transform her too, lift her out of her cage and free her. She’d have settled for being changed into one of the innumerable mice that scurried around the lower cages at night, stealing chickenfeed.
As she told the ending she liked over and over she did notice, though, that it was mostly older birds who told the other one. In fact, when a hen began to tell that version it was a pretty good sign she’d be taken away within a few months. Sometime around the end of her first year Melle began to understand why: no power would ever come to transform and free them. They had no power on their side at all. So after a while it was only natural for fantasies about getting a terrible revenge to give way to fantasies about choosing not to exercise one’s terrible might. “If Philomela could take the abuse for her sister,” ran that train of thought, “we can do it too.”
Melle had no way to track her own time in her cage. The temperature was always the same and the lights cycled through the same artificially shortened day over and over. But the people who owned her knew how long she’d been in there, and that it would take about two years in total to use her up.
Sure enough, as her second year wound down Melle got weaker and weaker, less and less able to hold her own against the other birds in her tiny space. Sometimes her food made her feel sick, and she heard that when that happened it was because they’d mixed the ground remains of dead hens into it, or of the male chicks stolen away when they were only a few days old and shredded alive. She started to recite the second story. She could no longer sustain any hope of being free before she died, but she could still pretend her suffering had a noble purpose.
Just a few weeks shy of her second birthday she caught her foot awkwardly in the mesh of the cage bottom, and before she could extract it one of her neighbors tried to push her aside and her leg broke. At the cost of great pain she was able to free her foot, but she couldn’t fight for her place at the feeding trough anymore. She lost weight and stopped laying.
The human workers noticed pretty quickly. They opened her cage and lifted her out by her legs, not caring that her broken bone shifted inside her and made her scream. She flapped her wings frantically to get away. It was the first time she’d extended either wing fully since her babyhood and she had a brief fantasy of launching herself from a parapet and flying into the sky. But it was useless, of course.
She was crammed into an even smaller cage packed with chickens she didn’t know and loaded on a truck. At the other end of that ride she was lifted out by her legs again and hung from her feet on a conveyer belt. A moment later a man cut her throat and her blood drained into a special gutter. Her body, too old and tired to be fit for people to eat, was ground up for cat food.
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