The kitchen was his Waterloo.
That damn rooster knew his place in the world – it was the yard in front of the barn, right by the well where the maids still beat dirt out of the day’s laundry the old-fashioned way, amongst the docile white hens that spent their days minding their own business. Out there in the yard, he was the king of all he surveyed. He enforced the loyalty of his dozen or so wives with a vicious beak and a loud crowing that he let loose anytime it suited him. But it wasn’t enough.
The place that rooster wanted to be most of all, was the one place where he had no business to be. The kitchen. Day in and day out, he’d watch the humans as they traipsed in and out of that mysterious room. None of the animals were allowed in there and he knew it. Yet, every single day of his life, he’d sidle his way over when his little beady eyes told him no one was looking, and attempt to sneak inside.
And every single day, one of the servants or my grand-aunt would see him stepping cautiously over the doorstep and chase him out. Out of the kitchen and off the back porch and past the servants’ quarters to the yard where he belonged.
I’d been told to stay away from him. But he was to me what the kitchen was to him. The stray cats that came to feed on fish guts every morning were interesting but they were an aloof presence, lining up silently by their dozens to nibble on the morsels my grand aunt flung out to them before leaving without so much as a meow. The cows were big and smelly, and if they ever left their barn, I never saw it. The dogs were nice but the sweet little Doberman puppy had grown up vicious and I couldn’t get near the Pomeranian or the family of Boxers without bumping into his snarl, so they were all out of the picture for now. The chickens were plain boring except for the little chicks who held some promise for entertainment but scattered too easily at the sound of my footsteps… but the rooster was another story.
Not that I knew he was a rooster back then. I thought he was just a more interesting chicken with his red and gold feathers and his aggressive defense of his territory. He was nearly as tall as I was at age three and ten times as mean. I’d been told a million times to keep away from him because I was too little, too clumsy, too tender, too slow to fight off his beak.
And then one day we bumped into each other in the kitchen. I suppose everybody was busy doing their own thing, because he made it all the way inside unmolested, and I was alone in the kitchen unsupervised even though it was well known that I was a child who liked to get into things that were rightfully none of my business.
I don’t know what I wanted with him – pet him? pull his feathers? study his military prowl around the room? What I remember is running around in circles, screaming my fool head off, once we’d been introduced so to speak, and one of the maids come flying through the pantry with her broom held aloft to chase him out. (For some reason, that’s the image that pops into my head today when I hear the phrase “the farmer had a wife”.)
I don’t think he actually got a chance to peck at me. I certainly don’t remember any injury. I don’t even know if I let him come near enough to think his actions through or if I just went off like a rocket the moment I got close enough to touch him and thus planted the idea in his head. Maybe it was a game I invented on the spot and he became my unwitting playmate.
He sure paid a price for it, if that was what happened. The next day I came out to inspect my little world as usual and there he was, most unusually, tied to one of the pillars of the back porch by a long string. Unlike all the other times I’d seen him near the porch, this time he was looking towards his harem instead of the kitchen, blissfully ignoring him as they went about their business.
From time to time he’d give a rusty little squawk and take a few tentative steps towards his family before the string brought him up short. Some trick of memory, built up over the intervening years, paints me a picture of surprise on his sharp little face. He could feel the string, but he didn’t understand the concept of it, what it was that held him back. Again and again, he’d try; again and again, he’d jerk back when the string choked him.
“What’s he doing there?” I asked the man of all trades. “Is he being punished for being naughty?”
He grinned at me, his teeth very white. “Your grandmother gave the order.”
“But what are you going to do to him?” I persisted.
He grinned again and moved his hand in a slicing motion across his neck. I didn’t understand what he meant but it boded ill for the rooster. I looked nervously at the bird, just a few feet away. It noticed me at the same time and set up a loud squawk, flying up at me in seeming indignation, feathers whistling in the air. Hurriedly I stepped back. I noticed the man was sharpening a wicked looking knife. It resembled a cross between a butcher’s knife and a scythe and was made of iron – he’d let me handle it before to test its weight, enjoying my surprise when I discovered it took both arms to hold up that which he brandished with one hand.
The next time I was out on the porch, perhaps that day, perhaps the next, the rooster was gone. The man was standing over a concrete slab sloping downward at a 45 degree angle, placed, I think, as a butcher’s block on the far side of the back porch. I peeped over the balustrade that encircled the porch but was yet too short to see properly over it. So I walked slowly to the steps, running my hand over the cool green wall with the red balustrade straddling it on top – parrot colors, my ayah called them – to look around the pillar.
I don’t remember blood, but there was a headless rooster being shorn of his feathers. I seem to remember a cloud of them, flying up in the air. And the dark face of the man bent over its lifeless body, brows knit in concentration, no white teeth flashing now.
Later that day, we had chicken curry for lunch.
“I don’t want any, thank you,” I said in a small voice.
“But it’s delicious,” my mother said, her hand hovering over the dish.
Inside I saw the rooster, his bits and pieces swimming in delicious gravy. “No,” I said. “I don’t want any.”
I’ll eat chicken fried, roasted, grilled, baked, in a salad, out of a tandoor… any way you want to serve it. But a chicken curry I will not eat. My inner three year old would rather eat something else, thank you.