"Red Feathers" by Tara White

Seventeen-year-old JD DeMondo is positively flapping with excitement, straining against the straps on his seat. He is inside a giant metal bird. This bird is way up high in the sky. The sky is the best colour. This is JD’s first time on a plane. He got the window seat. He is on his way to New York City, but he doesn’t know that. He scans non-stop for clouds and other birds and pinches at the bracelet on his right wrist, makes it go SnapSnapSnapSnapSnap. He doesn’t know speech but he’s learning about rhythm, fast. One of his aides gave him an iPod for the journey, midway through his rehab, when he’d finally stepped away from the walls and into the room. It’s loaded with Beastie Boys and Ghostface. He clucks along and bobs his head. Occasional squawks escape him.

The stylist this morning had smelled wonderful. JD wanted to touch her, really, really badly. He tried. He tried to touch her breast. Same but different. He didn’t know why or how or what it was for or what it would be like. He wanted to know. The rest of his haircut was done in handcuffs. She smelled sweet and fresh and lovely, like outside. She gave him a mohawk. The producers wanted a comb. Now he skims his newly trimmed nails through it. Soft spikes now. All different.

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The viral campaign featured eggs being catapulted out of special spring-loaded guns on the back of a truck, driving around towns and splattering people, all in good fun.

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People will pose for photographs with him on the street. He will never know why, but he very much likes to examine each one afterwards, and takes great pride in pointing out who he is in the picture.

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Street vendors will give him free hot dogs, corn dogs, pretzels and sodas. It will all taste like heaven.

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His name will be spoken at water coolers in real life and spread in virtual life like a virus, filtering past the usual talk of the NFL, the humidity, the Middle East. “How ‘bout that Chicken Boy?” It’s not his real name, though he answers to it now. Even his real name is not his real name.

“Did you hear? Somebody tried to mug Chicken Boy at knifepoint. Got shot twice by a DeMondo sniper! One in the head, one in the chest!”

He has three snipers on staff, two full-time bodyguards and a private detective in his entourage. He’s never met them. Chicken Boy is always intercepted with chloroform so as not to witness aggression incidents. Standard DeMondo damage limitation policy.

“Why did the chicken cross the road? Because DeMondo Corp paid him a million bucks” – #DeMondo #CB #chickenboyfail

JD enjoys percussion and wind instruments, his express favorite being the didgeridoo; riding the Subway; a great variety of foodstuffs, in particular Vietnamese and Cantonese cuisine; the New York Knicks and nudity when permissible. He also exhibits a confident preference for redheads.

“CB’s ideal woman? Lauren Bacawk” – #CB #KentuckyFriedKid #chickenfucker

John Doe “Chicken Boy” DeMondo has no family, not to his knowledge, to this day. He had birds. He was good with them. Some of them kept him warm at night, all curled up like cats. He was fed maize meal – rolled oats on good days – and he learned to fight for grubs, meal worms and crickets. He could use his hands to scoop the hens out of his way, but it was a struggle. There were lots of them. His hands and feet were always, inevitably, covered in open sores. Beaks are sharp. You have to be quick, in and out. On bad days he felt like something was missing, something big. Something else told him maybe the missing part was the most important one.

Chicken Boy has hair like straw and a scraggle-feathered scruff beard the colour of maize meal. He is fine-boned and small in stature with an exaggerated C-curve in his spine. In the coop, he defecated in only one corner: the top left. He didn’t know how he knew to do this; birds go everywhere. But he felt increasingly strongly with time that he was rather a different entity. The cleaners, mechanics and collectors never spoke, never touched him and always wore the full regulation garb, a shapeless full-body shroud obscuring all features. His earliest memory is of a hand reaching in from outside. If he knew the first thing about age he might attribute this memory to five. The hand came up the chute. JD watched from a safe distance. Groping, feeling, five fingers in an industrial rubber glove. Five orange, bloated fingers. The wrist caught on a barb of rusted wire. The glove peeled off. JD was momentarily horrified. He squawked and crowed and stomped his feet to sound the alarm. Something was very wrong with this. As the call went up, the hand pawed about to retrieve the glove. It wore a ring on its baby finger. A fat, gold, insignia ring. The nails were ridged and bitten way back. And. And. It had pink skin, this hand, just like JD. The call went up and kept up, a cacophony of squawking, flapping, clucking, madness. And then they left, and left the glove behind. He examined it closely, after a time, when he’d begun to believe they weren’t coming back. Its smell was overwhelming. He put it on immediately. Over the years, as he grew into it, in contact with pecking, scrapping poultry and various splintered edges, it shredded away to almost nothing, leaving him only a scraggy orange band, which he was particularly mindful of.

He was utterly repulsed by the thought of egg-eating. He tasted it once, the yolk, because he was too, too hungry. It was awful, the newness and the texture and NO. Sometimes an egg broke. Sometimes he stepped on one and there was chaos. He would be severely reprimanded and felt terrible, although he dimly felt a sense of ascendancy in this, obscured like some speckled perfection of shell winking out from a dusting of straw. He felt – he thought – no, he knew he could make this if he wanted to. That he could cause pain, social reshuffling, something else. He didn’t understand where the eggs came from, he tried and tried but he just couldn’t, although he knew they were special. He knew some birds tried to hide them, as if they knew they were special too. He wondered why he couldn’t produce anything like that. He wondered if that part of him was broken or dead, if his insides didn’t work. But he could make something else, and it made him feel good. He occasionally retreated into a compulsive suspension in this bliss and would emerge pained, underweight and inexplicably apologetic. He enjoyed the smell, distinctive and saline, which he would smear on himself freely. He liked it because it didn’t smell like them. It smelled like something else. That was vital.

The deep yellow of a yolk was his next favourite colour to see, after blue. He neither suspected nor proved a connection between the delicate semi-precious objects the hens expelled and the batches of fluffy pastel chicks he saw further down the line. He saw the eggs siphoned out by gravity and simple mechanics. The floor would be levered up by four of his fingers at ten, two of his fingers at fourteen, then came the thook, thook of dropping eggs, from all around like rain as they rolled into the lined rubber chutes underneath. As a young adult this process went from terrifying him to entertaining him to nothing, nothing at all of note. He saw the chicks arrive in crates once a month. He watched them grow and develop, all at a unanimously accelerated rate. He felt slow and somehow unworthy by comparison, inchoate.

In his teenage years he entered phases of an awful chronic blackness, an endless internal starless night. In these times he refused to eat. In these times, after some weeks, when his skin was a mere film over his bones and its usual translucence had dulled and soured, they took him out. They took him to the medicine room. The hands there were white. The coats blue. Fascinated by blue. He knows the silver of the surgical table from the automatic feeders, the freshly replaced sheets of metal on the roof. He knows white from lots of places. From the lights, from reflections. From the rarer birds. But blue! Blue is sky, in through the vents and the pinholes. Sky was on these creatures, these other hims. He moaned as they wiped and injected his noodly upper arm. Wept freely and delightedly as they inserted the feeding tube. And then an incredible thing. Somebody spoke. And somebody else answered. He grabbed for it, for either the noise or the place that sweet hum came from, for whatever was contained behind the mask, under the visor. He wailed and cupped his own throat, bleated a sound and felt the tremor of it shudder through his vocal chords out on to his waiting fingertips like the reverberation of a strummed guitar. Me too, he was saying. Me too! You too! You, me, us! Music! The room soon blurred, the chemicals diffused quickly and his focus left him. He went heavily under like a dropped stone.

He had figured out, after feeling, tracing, pushing, tweaking, pulling, scraping, two places where nails come loose from the galvanized iron, easily and simply. One was above the top roost, three decks up (Chicken Boy was an avid climber). He could fit neatly as a boy, but it was a tight squeeze now. Flakes of rust got in his eyes. That was the day something changed. They came in to activate the grain silos and freshen the bedding. He had spent the night on the top roost, angled poorly and quite squashed, watching the light change and the sky sift through all the different colours, in the space behind the loose nail. With the kindling dawn, he felt something bubble up inside him, some foul urge belch up as in a cesspool. His finger and thumb grasped the nail, pressing, pressing until he had milked a bead of blood from the sinews of his forearm. He let it trickle a moment, the slow red teardrop, his head, his heart, his head, everything swirling, expanding and contracting, out-in went his chest, too quickly. Out-in. He bruised the wound and drank from it, spreading the blood around his mouth and savouring the unusualness, the novelty and the dark thrill he felt deep in his churning belly, knifing through his watery insides predatory and threatening, the fin of a shark above an opaque pool. Power. Power was what he felt. The incomparable exhilaration of making something happen. He felt he had discovered and understood and was about to prove a universal truth: that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

When the hands came to turn on the lights, they heard it all before they saw it. Before they saw headless birds still flapping, turning perfect circles as if on little red tracks. Before the blood darkening the walls as if seeping in from outside. Down softly raining from the ceiling in beams of starched sunlight. Raw pink ripped flesh, cartilage, intestines and blue veins knotted like electric cabling. Before they saw JD DeMondo, almost a grown man, naked and crimson and coated in feathers, his eyes burning like charcoal, dark and too bright both at the same time, burning with something ferocious and new, the panic reached them on the wind like a bad smell. Squawks, screeches – and over the din, the low, curdling wail of a territorial lion. Change. Change was what they heard, and what awaited them in the worst way.

JD has finished his grape soda, there are no more peanuts left and both his ears have popped. His clucking is soft and worried. They are descending, wheeling, at twelve thousand, at ten thousand feet. The slow pour of a New York twilight is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. Insects on water, on fire. He knows he can’t touch them. He thinks if he touches them they might burn him and he would stub them all out. The plexiglass is cool and firm against his fingertips.


Tara White is an Irish writer with an MA and MFA in Creative Writing from UCD. She teaches Creative Writing at the Limerick Writers’ Centre.

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