It was an icy cold morning. I struggled to wake from the blissful sleep I had enjoyed all night. I stretched luxuriously and half smiled, but then, glancing at my clock, I abruptly jumped up into the frigid air our clumsy black woodstove was desperately trying to warm.
“Oh...” I moaned, suddenly remembering it was Saturday. Oh, well, I was already up. I pulled my flannel shirt and overalls on over my long johns and tugged thick wool socks onto my bare feet. Then I trudged out into our living room. No one else was up yet, except my toddler brother, Josiah. His big, dark eyes watched me curiously as I donned my coat and snow pants.
“Hey, Jo,” I grunted as I yanked on my hot-pink winter boots.
“Hi, Becky,” Josiah yawned.
I stepped outside into the cold air, which stung my nose and bit at my ears. The sun shone dazzlingly on the crunchy snow. I grabbed an old, red Folgers can and filled it with chicken food for our three chickens, Johnny, Lacey, and Cocky, my rooster. They were the results of a homeschooling project a few years back. We had bought eight eggs and borrowed an incubator from a nearby farm. Every single day we turned the eggs over evenly, the way a hen would, and once a week we candled them. This was when we held a flashlight up to the eggs to see the chicks inside. In three of the milky brown eggs, we could actually see the chicks growing and developing. The rest were all duds.
Finally, on the twenty-first day, the chicks hatched. I could remember that morning well. We woke to a strange peeping sound, like a cuckoo clock gone wrong. There, nestled deep in the incubator, was a little chick, my Cocky. I reached my chubby six-year-old hand into the incubator and stroked him. Cocky pecked my finger. Then there was Johnny, a coal-black chicken we’d named Johnny Cash after the Man in Black. She turned out to be a hen, but the name stuck. Finally came Lacey, my mom’s chicken. In the beginning, she’d been weak and sickly, but after a short time she bounced back and grew to be a huge, fat chicken who proved to be our best layer.
Now, Cocky was a big, kingly rooster. His beautiful feathers were a mix of orange, scarlet, and auburn, his long tail feathers an iridescent green. Like a king, he herded his ladies around, showing them to the choicest bits of grain and juiciest grubs. Cocky also defended his wives from intruding humans. I smiled a little as I recalled the day Cocky had attacked my dad, who had been cutting firewood at the time. All of a sudden, Cocky came hurtling out of the brush (“Like a football,” my dad winced) and spurred my father. I was lucky Cocky hadn’t ended up in the stewpot that night, but my father took pity on me, seeing how much I loved Cocky.
There was only one person Cocky was never mean to. Me. Maybe it was because I fed him, or maybe, I liked to think, because we had a special bond, but Cocky loved me. He rode on my shoulder or in the basket on my bike and hustled me around like one of his hens. I loved him to bits.
Now, as I hurried over the short trail to the chicken coop, I noticed a small set of tracks in the thin layer of powdery snow that had descended during the night. Mouse, I thought, or maybe squirrel. Far inside my head, tiny warning bells clanged, but the thought of a cup of hot cocoa and a plate of steaming pancakes filled my mind and covered over the bells like a cloak of snow covering the ground.
The chicken coop looked strangely desolate in the frozen gray air. A few snowflakes floated lazily through the air and rested on the high banks. A soft clucking came from the chicken coop, but it was so quiet I knew it could only be one of the hens. Where was Cocky? He was normally crowing, proudly proclaiming his rule of the roost, but now he was silent.
I unconsciously began to run, tripping in the softer snow. In front of the chicken coop lay a dark lump, partly covered by frost and blood. It was Lacey, our beautiful Golden Laced Wyandotte.
“Lacey.” I half fell to my knees. “Cocky!” I ran to the chicken coop and threw open the door. Only Johnny stood there, alive. I looked quickly past her. In a corner lay Cocky. He was dead. Gone. My rooster. I took a long, hard look and, feeling weak, ran into the house screaming. My mother looked grumpily at me when I burst in the door.
“What?...” she groaned, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“Cocky,” I sobbed.
“Oh...” Mom looked upset. She reached out to me.
“Lacey, Cocky,” I sniffed. “A weasel, I think.” Tears dripped down my cold cheeks.
“Oh, sweet baby.” Mom grabbed my snowy form and held me close, the frost on my coat dripping down her robe. “Oh, Becky, I’m sorry.”
* * *
For a lot of people, it might seem, well, strange to love a chicken, but I raised Cocky. Now, I sit on our front porch. It’s May, and Mom is getting a new shipment of chicks from the Lewiston Chicken Hatchery out in Idaho. The post office called this morning to say they had a peeping parcel waiting for us. Mom was so excited that she stuffed poor little Josey in his car seat and roared off. She wanted me to come, too, but I said no. I think she’s trying to make me forget about Cocky, but I won’t, ever. And I will never get a new chicken. I gaze up at the bright, blue sky, the sun warming my back. The wind whips my hair across my face in dark, wild streaks. Suddenly, the sound of a loud horn interrupts my thoughts. Mom pulls up in our beat-up old Buick and happily jumps out. Josey carefully climbs out of the back seat, cradling a box with air holes in the sides and fragile stamped all over it. I can’t even help myself, I run to see the chicks.
They are nestled up inside the box, cheeping pitifully and looking all around, their beady eyes wide with excitement and fear. One chick is downy and yellow, one is brown and fluffy, but the last is sleek and shiny, all black except for streaks of silver on its wings. I pick it up carefully and it pecks my finger.
“Cocky pecked my finger when he was a chick, too,” I say, the words running together before I can slow them down.
Mom nods encouragingly. “That one’s yours.”
I bite my lip, hoping Mom hadn’t seen its trembling. “Just cause nobody else wants her…” I break off and look at Mom quizzically.
“Him,” she says.
“Sawyer,” I murmur. I’m good at naming things and this mischievous little chick is a Sawyer if I’ve ever seen one. He reminds me of the famous vagabond who terrorized the Mississippi River so many years ago. My Sawyer now toddles to the edge of my hand and nearly falls. I gently push him back to safety and he looks up at me and cheeps sadly.
“OK, you got me, buddy,” I say softly. “I love you.”
Mom looks up. “What?” She’s neatly arranging the wooden box in which the chicks will stay. It will keep them safe until they are old enough to live with Johnny. She stuffs in a last handful of hay and loosely pats it down, then switches on the lamp to keep the chicks warm. She gently places the chicks, now dubbed Lacey the Second and Hilda, into the box and stands, wiping her hands on the back of her grubby jeans. “What?”
“I said I think it’s getting cold,” I say loudly.
“Better put it in the box with the others.” I place Sawyer in the box gently, then clatter up the steps into the house and to the safety of my room, where I dive head first into my bed and cry.
Mom looks up when I come red-eyed out of my room. “Do you like your chicken?”
I burst into tears. “I love Sawyer, and I feel disloyal to Cocky. It’s wrong, Cocky was the best, and...” I don’t know how to explain myself. Mom grabs me in a hug, as if that will actually help. I pull away and glare meanly at her.
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“How do you think I feel about Lacey?” Mom asks. “I know Cocky was special to you, but, oh, I loved Lacey.” I don’t, can’t say anything.
“I’m sorry,” I finally sniff.
“Becky, just because you love something once doesn’t mean you can never love again. Sure, we grieve, but we move on. And no matter what, Cocky will always be your first and favorite pet.”
Mom’s right. Even though I now love Sawyer, even though I may love many animals in years to come, Cocky will always be my Scarlet King.