The Other Side

Every road has two sides. A clearing through the trees, a bridged lake, a winding path through fields: all these roads share one thing. Trees on one side mirror those on the other, water left and water right, grass plays sweet tunes with the wind on both sides of the road. Every road has two sides, as did the road before me now… but those memories were taken, vegetation was taken, life was taken by the storm.

Once things were better: the past a dying light in the darkness of my mind. Reach through that blackness, claw through the darkness, talons reach for that speck of light – speck of hope – beyond. Dig deeper. Scratch wildly at the ground’s surface for a wriggling worm, a seed, any life, any food, any hope. All these things lie in the past. I have lost all hope, my talons cracked and broken, yet no sustenance rewarded for their effort. I see nothing but despair, feel nothing but death, wish for nothing but to reach the Other Side. You, however, may find life in this wasteland – hope in this snow-scape – if you dig deep enough.

Dig deeper now. Reach for that light dying behind me. See the past as I once did. See the grass returning, the trees filling in dark and empty spaces in the snow. See branches stretched wide, leafs blotting out the dead sky. See the black terror above fade through the seasons, through the years, back to a time when it was blue. See the purple clouds shot through with electric power fade into puffs of white. Now, see a flock of birds. See me before this time of death, before they all left me, before… too many things happened.

I huddled there, beneath a low-hanging tree branch, the heat of many bodies blocking out the chill of the night. Spring had turned to summer, and summer was loosing its grasp. The flock worked as one, slept as one, lived as one. The sun finally crested the horizon. Warmth tickled my feathers, soaking up the morning dew. I stretched out my span with a mighty yawn, wings touched lightly by morning whispers on soft breezes. The whispers turned to shrieks as the head cock shook the forest to life with his beautiful call. It shot out from yellowed beak, red wattle laughing beneath it. The comb atop his head was the envy of many in the brood. The power of his voice and commanding appearance made all listen to him, follow him, trust him.

The rooster crowed again.

Stretched wings and fluffing feathers passed from one hen to the next like a giant wave. It sloshed one way and then the next, cushion raised, fluff exposed, feet ready to take the first morning steps. Spring was gone. Summer was fading. Autumn had come and soon… winter. Death was around the corner. Two things were on my mind, on everyone’s minds: food and shelter. It was a year of peace, a year of freedom. The barn had been restricting, but it kept us safe. Kept us warm. Too warm. The rooster crowed before those flames even started, but we were a large brood. My singed tail feathers were evidence of that. The barn, our home, died. God finally heard our pain, heard the hens crying in the night. He came to free us with a mighty fire from the sky… but what of that freedom now? The farmer and his wife, they fed us well… sometimes feeding on us.

I remember the screaming, the fighting, the clucking, the biting. Feathers were in a flurry, we began to scurry… and when it was all over. One of our sisters was gone. Still, a few losses a year was better than… this. Where would we go? The barn was just a pile of ash, the feed bags therein reduced to death instead of giving us life.

The rooster crowed again.

He would protect us. He always did. He saved us from the flames, fed us in the spring, provided in the summer, and led us in the fall. Surely winter would be no challenge to him. The days passed into weeks. Red leafs turned to crusty browns beneath our feet. Nights fell colder. Food grew scarce. Still, we pressed on. We passed through the dying trees, passed over dying blades of grass. They were dry and tasteless in my mouth, but at least filled my stomach… until they disappeared.

Strange noises came from up ahead. The wind whistled sharp and intense before fading. Then it came again. Whoosh. Whoosh. The sound filled my ears with hope. Hope for change. Hope for… something. Then another sound came.

The rooster crowed again.

It was not a morning call. I knew that sound well. It was not that three-times shout that shook me from slumber, shook me from warmth, ready for a long journey ahead. It was not that call that promised my legs more fatigue and my pallet more dry, tasteless grass. It was a new call, one none of us had heard since those days of morning feedings at the barn. A cry of hope: food.

Another sound passed through the brood, from one hen to the next. We cackled with glee and clucked with pleasure, almost tasting the food… whatever it was. I grabbed at the wind and pushed it under my wings. Frantic flapping gave me a short burst of flight, a burst of speed that my sisters mimicked. We all wanted to reach the rooster first, all wanted to share in the joy he promised us with his voice.

The rooster crowed again.

Whoosh. The noises grew louder. They were closer. Whoosh. A clearing stretched between lengths of dying trees. The rooster stood atop that strange floor. The black mass broke forest in two. Atop it stood the rooster… and the food. Whoosh. Strange beasts rushed behind him, but he was not afraid. They gleamed in the dying light, hummed in the distance, and rusted his feathers in passing. He stood like an immovable God, unshaken by their presence. Bread from Heaven lay before him: a feast for the brood.

He picked a piece off one hunk and crowed again, encouraging us to approach. We gave no hesitation. My sisters rushes ahead of me with giant leaps of joy. They fell on the bread like hawks to a carcass. The scene was a mess of feathers. Whoosh. They gave a brief pause as another beast went rushing by. A few feathers blew free with the hot breath of the thing, but soon it was forgotten. I struggled forward with the remaining brood, mouth watering with the promise of life just beyond my reach… and then it happened.

Whoosh.

Every road has two sides: bread on one, beasts on the other; life on one, death on the other. Whoosh. The two sides matched. Screams of terror broke out. Feathers flew. The beast screeched, enraged. Wind rushed ahead. The thing slammed to a halt, but not fast enough. It took off again a moment later. The beast roared with life, leaving nothing but death behind it. Death and terror. Death and feathers. Death and the rooster. The damage was done.

I wanted to scream, but found no voice. His body lay atop Heaven’s gift, blood soaking through the food. It added a new kind of warmth to that black scar through the trees. Lights above made the tar hot to the touch, made the blood boil. It bubbled with the last remnants of life, passing from one discarded piece of bread to the next, spelling out our fate. One by one, the bread was spoiled, and one by one, the brood fled.

I know not how long it took, nor why I even stayed. Nothing remained of that host of hens… nothing but me. Nothing left of autumn’s beauty, the trees dead and shaking. Nothing left of the tired grass, dead and covered with snow. The storm hit strong, came in a flurry from above, but I couldn’t move. The only warmth I saw was in the rooster’s blood… the blood that was now cold. The storm came. I remained. Winter came. I remained. Death came. I remained.

Now I sit to one side of the road, no warmth in my bones, no warmth in my heart, no warmth in the blood… the blood of a long-dead rooster. His carcass is long discarded, and no hawks came for the kill. I can find no food beneath the snow, nor find his body buried beneath the great stormy rifts. Snow piles high to either side of that black scar through the trees.

Whoosh. The beasts come rarely now, but I hear them in my mind. I see them in my head. See them on the road. Hear them laugh. See the feathers. See the death. See the blood soaked bread. My stomach reaches for it, but I know it is not there… or do I? The storm plays tricks with my mind, playing my memories out before me like macabre entertainment. I witness the death again and again, but have nowhere to go. No food. No shelter. No life. It trickles through my veins, barely keeping me in this place: on my side of the road. The trickle does not comfort me, but laughs at my pain. I see another trickle before me, dying between breadcrumbs.

No end, no end, no end to this road. It stretches left and right, grinning at me from blackened lips, taunting me with its infinity. There is no hope there. I work that trickle of blood into my tired legs. They scream a taunt of their own with each plodding step. My wings provide no aid. No wind rushes beneath them. They are too tired to flap, too tired to live. I reach the edge of that black scar and lean over the smirking lips. Infinity: left and right. No end, no end, no end to this road. No end to those images. No end to the macabre entertainment depicted thereon. I want to lash out at the face, scratch those taunting lips with my claws, or maybe lash out at my own face, scratch those deceiving eyes from their sockets. Would the memories still play in my mind? There is no fighting this face before me, no besting the infinite smirk. I have but one hope amidst this dying world, one hope to shake the images from my head. I must leave the road behind, must leave the face with its memories, must get to the other side.

I raise one leg to place in on those blackened lips. They shout at me – whoosh – and I pull back. There is no beast, no sound, just memories of that day. Each time I lift my foot to take that first step I hear the beast, see the death, and cower back in fear. I cannot cross the road, cannot get to the other side, cannot leave this face behind.

A feather shakes free from my dying skin. The wind gusts, twisting it, twirling it, taking it. It flies with the sky’s locomotive force, taunts me with the journey, laughs at me from the other side. It lands unharmed on the snow, briefly turning back to torture me, then takes off again. The wind carries it beyond the snow cleft, beyond my sight, beyond the road before me. There is no power in my tired wings. The wind fights against me as I raise them and begin to flap: a slow and desperate plea. There is no hope in the act, just despair. I raise one foot and then the other, pleading with the sky, reaching for those heights I know it can take me to… but never will.

Finally I give up, settle back in the snow and – whoosh – the images come again. I can almost feel the hot blood as it sprays the front of the beast, shoots into the sky, filters through dying breadcrumbs. There seems to be more life in that dying replay than my own tired body. No food. No shelter. No life. No hope. Just one thing, one desire, so close yet so far… get to the other side.

I lift my foot again, forcing myself to go on. Whoosh, but I am not afraid. The black scar laughs at me again as I take that first step. Whoosh. There is no beast. Step one. Whoosh. The beast screams at me, but then is gone. Step two. Fear chases me, swirls around me with the snow. The ground seems to open up. The rooster’s blood seeps into the crack, disappearing between those smirking lips. Step three.

The other side is closer now. Whoosh. The phantom beast shrieks at me, tries to get me to stop, tries to stop itself before slamming into the carcass already on the ground. The lips open up again, a yellow line of teeth cracking them open. Dot, dot, dot, dotted with yellow. Dot, dot, dot, dotted with breadcrumbs. Dot, dot, dot, dotted with blood. Dotted with death. Whoosh.

The beast comes for me again as I cross the yellow line, as I cross to the other side. I hear the familiar sounds, see the familiar feathers, feel the familiar blood. This time I can taste it. The hot mess rushes up my throat and out my beak, landing on the smirking lips below me. It speckles those yellow teeth with the taste of death, not the rooster’s death, but my own. That phantom beast put the real thing in its place… and I didn’t notice the change.

Every road has two sides. One side black, the other a mirror, yellow teeth in between. One side a dead chicken, the other a mirror. Once the sides differed. Once a rooster lay dead, the other side still holding hope. The two sides are now one, like an inevitably cruel trick of fate. Rooster dead, hen dead: the two sides meet. However, there is some hope in this scene of death, a shred of decency in the macabre entertainment there portrayed. I passed to the Other Side.

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