All Ye Faithful

by William Jensen

After everything fell apart in Dallas, Powell and his wife decided to retire. He had his pension, and Lucinda had her inheritance. It was good a time as any. They sold their house in the suburbs and relocated to New Mexico, just north of Santa Fe. They needed to be alone. They wanted quiet and daily routine again. In September, they settled into a manufactured home at the end of a long gravel road by the base of some hills dotted with juniper, pinyon, and sage. Trails cut into the wilderness, and Powell liked walking in the mornings when the fog strangled everything in its path. And at dusk, when the last light turned violet, Powell would listen to Lucinda read the newspaper aloud. They went into town only when they needed to, and soon the big western silence became welcome and familiar.

Lucinda had always wanted to raise chickens and have fresh eggs, so as an anniversary present, Powell built a coop with a small run enclosed with wide-spaced poultry netting. The arthritis in his hands made holding a hammer painful, but Powell thought it was worth it when he finished. He even made a sign to hang above the door that said, “Coop, Sweet Coop.”
            
It was overcast and smelled of rain when Powell drove home with five baby chicks from the feed store. All of them small, golden, and soft. That afternoon, Powell and Lucinda watched the chicks roam and chirp inside the coop. Lucinda kept her hands to her lips as she smiled and blushed. Powell smiled, too. He took deep breaths and exhaled slowly. Everything felt crisp, cool, and clean.
            
“They’ll have to stay sheltered for a while,” he said. “Once they’re big enough, we can open the run for them.”
            
“How long do we have to wait before they can wander on their own?”
            
“Don’t worry. They’ll grow up fast.”
            
Powell kneeled and reached into the coop. It hurt to be on his knees. The chicks scattered and ran toward the corners. They all squeaked as they moved. Powell scooped up the closest one and cupped his hands around the bird. He stood and brought it to Lucinda who took the animal and held it against her chest. With her pointer finger, she stroked the chick’s neck and back.
           
 “Hey,” she said. “How you doing, little-one? Welcome to your new home.”
           
Powell watched her cuddle the baby chicken. Lucinda’s hair, long and thick and gray, fluttered in the breeze. She kissed the top of the bird’s head and returned it to its sisters in the coop. Powell closed the door and locked it. His wife squealed and giggled. Powell could not remember when he last saw her do that.
            
For the next two weeks, they made it a tradition to feed the clutch in the morning and to give them dried worms at dusk. They took turns holding each baby. Lucinda tried to sing a lullaby to them one night but couldn’t finish the song without crying.
            
“It isn’t fair,” she said.
            
“It’s okay, dear. Let’s go in.”
            
“No,” she said. “It’s not okay. And it’s never going to be okay. Is it?”
Powell put the little hens away and walked with his wife back to their manufactured home.
           
The chicks grew quickly. After several weeks, Powell figured it was okay to open the run. At first the chicks didn’t want to use it, so he had to transport them by hand. Lucinda stood back and watched.
            
“I can’t believe how big they’ve gotten,” she said.
            
The chickens pecked at the dirt. Dust floated off the ground as they ran. Powell thought they looked like drops of sunshine. He stood behind Lucinda and wrapped his arms around her. The sun was going down behind the Jemez Mountains, but it sank slowly and looked like a halved and bleeding peach. That night, Powell and Lucinda drank a bottle of wine and kissed deeply. They went to bed a little drunk and quickly fell asleep.
            
In the morning, Powell awoke to wailing. The noise seemed to come from everywhere, and at first he wasn’t sure what it was. It was just sound, a sharp and constant shrieking. He got out of bed, pulled on his robe, rubbed his eyes, and was about to search the house when he saw Lucinda coming in through the back door. She was crying. Her hair stood wild and stirred from the wind. She held out her arms to him as if to receive alms.
            
“They’re gone, all gone,” she said.
            
“What?”
            
“They’re gone, Powell. The chickens. Now I have a coop without any chickens.”
           
Powell tightened the belt on his robe and walked outside. He went barefoot and winced as he stepped on the pebbles and thorns. The hills and the brush looked black and blue in the dawn. Powell rushed toward the coop, hoping his wife was wrong, wanting her to be mistaken. His breath quickened, and it felt as if his heart pounded not just in his chest but in his throat, ears, and brain. He stopped in front of the run and clenched his jaw.
            
There wasn’t much to look at. The coop and the run sat empty and quiet. A few tufts of feathers clung to the wire that fenced in the run. Powell stood and stared at it all. He felt something inside him grow tight and hard. The feathers didn’t look yellow or gold, they were more like ash. Powell kneeled and touched the feathers with the tips of his fingers before he went back inside and found his wife lying on the couch with her knees pulled up to her stomach.
            
“What do you think did it?” she said.
            
“Weasel,” said Powell. “Maybe raccoons. I must have used the wrong sized fencing. Some critter was able to reach in and grab them and—”
            
“Don’t, just don’t. I don’t want to know.”
            
“I’m going to take care of it.”
            
“We’re cursed, aren’t we?” she said. “How else can you explain all of it? How did we become this? Weird loners. Drifters. We don’t have people.”
            
“I said I’m going to take care of it.”
           
 Lucinda moved her head to see him. Her gray hair fell over her face and across her eyes. Powell expected her to say something. But she didn’t. She just looked at him and nodded.
            
Powell drove into town that afternoon. He bought some sleeping pills and a can of dog food. After he left the grocery, Powell headed toward the pawn shop and bought a cheap .22 lever-action rifle and a box of ammunition. He left the gun in the cab of the truck when he got home.
            
That night they watched television and ate grilled cheese sandwiches. There was a bit of ice cream left in the fridge, and Powell scooped it into two bowls. From the kitchen he could see Lucinda in glow of the television. He mashed up two sleeping pills into Lucinda’s rocky road and stirred until it dissolved. Lucinda cocooned herself in an afghan on the couch and stared at the screen. Powell brought her the ice cream and sat beside her. They watched another sitcom but didn’t laugh. Before the episode finished, Lucinda was having trouble staying awake, so she went to bed, and Powell waited in the living room with the volume turned low.
            
When he was sure his wife was asleep, Powell buttoned his coat and stepped outside with the can of dog food. He felt cold and stiff in the dark, and his eyes couldn’t see that well, so he made his steps deliberate and careful. He came to the chicken run, popped the can’s top, and emptied it onto the ground along the fence. Powell tossed the can into the wilderness when he was done. He glanced around, but all he saw was darkness, shadow, and stars.
            
He went to his pick-up for the weapon. He knew he was breathing heavy as he walked. When he returned, he sat in a plastic chair by the back door, loaded the rifle, and waited.
            
At first the time passed easily. Powell enjoyed the dry air, the silence. But the longer he waited, the more restless he became. He shifted in his seat. He tried to watch the coop but it was difficult to see in the dark.
            
He leaned back in his chair. He patted the rifle that rested across his lap. He didn’t want to think about Dallas or anything else. His eyelids felt heavy. The hills and the brush and the vastness of the West were all around him, and he felt as if he were being transported through the night, past the blackness of the evening and toward some place new and undiscovered.
            
He saw something move and his body jolted. He wasn’t sure if he’d fallen asleep, but now he was awake and alert.
            
A strange and murky blur lurched in the distance. It stalked through the weeds and out of the sage and towards the coop. Powell tried to stay still as possible. He watched. The shape was long and low to the ground. It sniffed where he’d left the dog food. Powell raised the .22 to his shoulder and put a bead on the target.
            
Powell couldn’t hear anything that night but the sound of his own breathing. Oxygen sucked down his windpipe and into his lungs and out again like rattled sheets of ice.             
            
He wanted to recite a prayer, something to wish the bullet good luck and set it on the right path, but all Powell muttered was a curt and unintelligent grunt before he pulled the trigger.
            
The back of the shape exploded into a black mist. Powell stood with the rifle in his hands and tried to see what he’d hit. He didn’t see anything stir. He glanced back to make sure Lucinda had slept through the gunfire. No lights turned on, so he assumed the pills did the trick. He lumbered towards the coop and kept the gun close to him like a talisman.
            
He expected a weasel, some stretched out pest with tiny legs and needle type fangs. Or maybe a raccoon hunched over like an old woman. Powell came closer to the coop and stepped into the light of the moonbeam where everything was the color of bone. A coyote lay on the ground. It pawed at the earth and snarled. The animal’s pelvis was shattered. Powell could see part of the creature’s spine, and he realized the coyote couldn’t move its hind legs. Powell leaned the rifle against the coop. He started to unbutton his shirt.
           
 “I don’t know if you were the one responsible,” he said. “But you’re going to be the one that answers for it. You’re going to answer for everything.”
He removed his shirt and tossed it onto the top of the run. He tilted his head to crack his neck. He tilted it the other way and then popped his knuckles.
            
“I hope it was you,” he said as he finished undressing. “I want it to be you. I want this.”
            
And then, with the vigor of a man half his age, Powell pounced onto the coyote and grabbed its throat. He punched its muzzle, he punched its ribs. Together, the man and beast wrestled in the dark, their bodies pressed together with limbs wrapping around limbs, their breaths drifting past each other’s mouths. The coyote clawed and snapped at Powell’s face, and Powell leaned in like a lover and bit the animal’s ear until he tasted blood.
William Jensen is the author of the novel Cities of Men. His other stories have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, The Texas Review, Tinge Magazine, and elsewhere. Mr. Jensen now lives in Texas. You can learn more about him at http://www.williamjensenwrites.com