Since he could remember, Ricardo Fernando António, the oldest man in the village, could feel the timbre of ringing church bells in his marrow before the sacristão even touched the bell ropes, which is why it fell to him so long ago to turn the chickens. Each evening, his bones a-tingle, he’d shuffle into the first coop. Once, each village household kept chickens. Now, only five coops remained, the job no longer a strain.
Bim-bum, bim-bum, bim-bum. The bells rang. Each coop’s heat-and-ammonia stench seared Ricardo’s eyes. A rooster shifted on his roost; his ladies cooed. Ricardo grasped the first hen, his hands pressing her wings to her torso in practiced, patient tenderness. No hen flapped under his touch. No hen pecked his flesh. No hen injured herself.
The job of beheading, scalding, plucking, and eviscerating the worn fowl fell to housewives or their cooks, but finding replacement hens fell to him. Roosters dropped dead. Their carcasses went into the pigpens.
Each village hen-turner had his own style. Ricardo witnessed a fellow in Alto Douro flipping his birds completely over—an astounding deftness of wrist, you can understand. Those Northerners!
(Never ask Ricardo on what business he’d traveled all that way. Please don’t ask him why he never married.)
Three Marias! How Portugal has changed since the Carnation Revolution. Up and down
the roads and rail-lines of Alentejo, the villages have bled life—and not from decapitation!
Portugal’s cities are multiplying with youths who’ve never even heard a cock crow. In too
many villages like this one, there remains not a single youth to replace the hen-turners.
Recently, a young woman, an artist, restored the cottage next door to Ricardo. She began following him as he made his rounds. “Shoo! Shoo!” he cried. “Stick to collecting eggs. Stick to making chicken broth! Go make rebuçados de ovo,” he told her, salivating at the idea of the egg-yolk sweets.
The old ways must be preserved. Ricardo Fernando António himself will be turning in his grave before a woman takes his place.
Meredith Wadley lives and works in a small medieval town on the Swiss side of the Rhine River. Her fiction has been published in Bartleby Snopes, Mash Stories, and upstreet thirteen. She has work forthcoming in Orca, A Literary Magazine.