Below is Elaine Magarrell’s “Chickens” from Jerome Stern’s anthology Micro Fiction. It appears here with the permission of the author:
In the killing yard a man sharpens a razor, says a few words to God, and does a nice killing. After plucking and gutting he cooks the bird in a coat of its own beaten eggs. When he eats the flesh it is with pleasure. Every night he goes to bed satisfied. Every day he wakes up hungry. The chickens complain to heaven and a chicken angel is sent to earth. At first she helps the man dream about red meat so that he wakes up with an appetite for steak. In a meadow he stalks a cow but is intimidated by its intrepid stare, the importance of its dung. So apprehensive is he that he goes to bed hungry.
The chickens rejoice. They have an ambassador.
That night the chicken angel sits on the man’s pillow and lectures him about vegetables. At daybreak she sows for the man a garden where vegetables fairly leap from the ground. But the man finds carrots and lettuces frightening, the way they appear out of nothing. A captive of habit, he hungers for chicken.
As a last resort the chicken angel tells him how hunger cleanses the body and makes it holy. The man is intrigued by the notion of fasting. He asks God’s approval and takes distant thunder for an affirmative answer.
Only so much can be done with intervention, the chicken angel reports to heaven. Having won for the chickens a respite, she leaves. Not that the chickens expected more.
Well-written poetry transforms the mundane into something vivid and new. When written effectively, this kind of poetry depicts experiences we thought we understood and challenges our conventions. “Chickens” reminds me of how well-written flash can do the same.
- Defamiliarization. Words like “killing” and “razor,” as well as the bird being cooked “in a coat of its own beaten eggs” heighten the violence of poultry slaughter beyond providing sustenance. The meaning would be far different as “he coats and cooks the chicken in eggs.”
- Characterization. With the use of words such as “killing,” “razor,” “flesh,” and “pleasure,” the act of killing chickens is negatively dramatized. Not only is it a killing instead of butchering, but the man also takes “pleasure” in doing this.
- Sounds and Desire. The repetition of words and sounds emphasize the desire of the man. The repeating of “killing” in the first sentence emphasizes the violence. “Coat” and “own” share similar “o” sounds, emphasizing that the eggs belong to the bird. “Flesh” and “pleasure” demonstrate the grosteque nature of the man’s desire. The word “hungry” is also repeated throughout.
- Dialogue. The dialogue of the chicken and the man is woven seamlessly throughout, in a way that it doesn’t interfere with the story’s flow or length.
- Monomyth. The monomyth is the idea of the hero’s journey, three attempts to change and a return that lead the reader to believe that the story stands for something greater. In this story, the chicken angel descends, making three attempts to help the chickens—the steak, the vegetable garden and the glorification of hunger. When it doesn’t work she ascends, leaving the story.
- Metaphor. The hopelessness of the chickens as victims, the endlessness of the man’s hunger for food as predator, and the violence it takes for him to get there are all highly metaphorical for war, genocide, human selfishness, etc.
- Dichotomies. Accompanying the use of metaphor is the use of dichotomies. Although much of the story defamilarizes the familiar farmer-livestock dichotomy, it also draws upon familiar achetypes, such as the themes of life and death, war and peace, and the hunter and the hunted. The biggest dichotomy of all is that between God and violence, as both the man and chicken angel call upon God as a means to justify their ends.
- Brevity. This piece accomplished quite a lot in a short space. The reader jumps in right at the beginning with the killing, the story is void of extraneous information, full of quick characterizing words (e.g. “ambassador,” “cleansing,” “holy”), and ends without a long, drawn out resolution.
I tried to apply some of these ideas, including the monomyth, characterization and dichotomies, as demonstrated in Magarrell’s story. Here’s what happened:
A grandmother, mother and daughter went to the orchard to pick apples. They were told of the powers in the trees, to hear desires and, if fitting, grant them.
After searching for some time, the daughter found an apple on a low-hanging branch. Red, lightly pitted, bulbous, aged past its ripeness. The girl took a bite and let the juice trickle down her chin. Suddenly she choked, fell to the ground and died.
The daughter had sought maturity.
The mother, separate in her own quadrant of orchard, searched and searched, and eventually found the perfect apple at the top of a tree. It was green and small, dense and long-stemmed. The tang of it stung her tongue as she took a bite. She coughed, wheezed, knees buckled as she slumped to the earth.
The mother had sought youth.
On the other side of the orchard, the grandmother had found her apple right at eye level, clinging to the long finger of a branch. A bit of green, a bit of red — on any other day, it would not have been right. The grandmother took a bite, savoring its flavor, juice enough to fill the flesh of the apple but no more. The grandmother felt happy. She started on her way home, where she continued to live fruitfully and beyond her years.
The grandmother had sought the present.
I tried to characterize the motives of each character through their prospective apples. In a later draft, I may try to incorporate more characterization through actions, as in “Chickens.” The use of archetypes (e.g. desire v. contentment, youth v. knowledge) created a monomyth-like tone.
About the Author
Kara Cochran is in her first year of the MFA program at Rosemont College. In 2011, she received her BA in Creative Writing and German Studies from Denison University in Ohio. After graduation, she worked for a nonprofit organization and attended law school for a year before coming to her senses and applying to Rosemont. At Rosemont, she is the poetry editor for the Rathalla Review and writes poetry, flash fiction and novel-length work. Kara’s work tends to be influenced by her upbringing in a Foreign Service family, and although she spent much of her childhood overseas and in various parts of the US, she has lived in Philadelphia for two years and is proud to call it home. In her free time, she likes to read, run, drink wine, go to the movies with her husband and hang out with her orange cat, Clementine.