by Gena LeBlanc
Roosters don’t crow at dawn.
They don’t stand proudly on the tops of fences and barns, hopping from foot to scaly foot, waiting for that first wash of red sun to hit just so and scrub away the night. There is no instinctive urge to awaken the surrounding neighborhood, no surge of premeditated gusto at sunrise that births in them a need to straighten out their shiny necks and lift their beaks to the heavens in a glorious cry for day. Perhaps roosters crow as a prayer that one day they will have the power to raise their wings and lift their heavy bodies off the ground in angelic flight. But it is certain that they do not crow for you.
They are birds, after all. Humanity is not often on their mind. When a rooster raises its beak into the air to release a whistling caw, it’s for the flock, a warning that predators are nearby. If a rooster crows on account of a human being, it’s because that farmer walking towards the hen house is a threat, a source of violence, and the rooster is ready for a fight. Without the disciplined, wary eye of the flightless guard, it’s never long before the blood of the whole flock is spilled and feathers are scattered.
Ramseytown, North Carolina was once home to roosters. Imperious creatures, crowing at all hours of the day and night. Infused with a sheening vanity that glistened in their sun-struck feathers, it was as if they knew just how integral they were in keeping the onslaught at bay. The truth of the matter is, they underestimated their value.
There are no more roosters in Ramseytown.
The Devil’s in the details. He’s in the cupboards too, waiting for idle hands to edge inside and prod the prince of darkness into action while groping unaware for the pie dish. He was there the day Judd killed all those roosters. Judd was convinced he was doing the Lord’s work. He believed Jesus had commanded him to wring feathered necks until all the squawking stopped—that it was just a test of faith, and didn’t he really want to pass? Unfortunately for Judd, Christ has no need for dead birds. The Devil, on the other hand, loves a good sacrifice. He’ll sit around and watch all day long until the ground is soaked through with red and six pointy, prehistoric feet have been severed. Nothing like body parts to spice up a landscape.
The Devil is servant and executioner, but he stopped answering letters from his heavenly Father a long time ago. He’s God’s hangman, the dirtiest job there ever was. His position is solidified; he is the necessary evil that cannot be scrubbed out. Someone has to appease earthly maggots who ask whywhywhy until their throats are hoarse and their skulls crack with the pressure of eternity. He brings them fire harvested from lightning and the setting sun and pricks their souls through with an inky black that spreads out like venom from a wound. They’re always looking for someone to blame, and the Devil loves being the center of attention. His job is simple enough. He excels at tragedy; he’s been perfecting the art for millennia. He has a fair amount of free time, and that’s when he plays his own games, puts on shows that are just for him. He often makes a point to visit Ramseytown. He’s a fan of the mountain flora. And, of course, the heat.
Judd’s was an easy mind for the Devil to ensnare. The ones who consult their Bible with a heated certainty always are. They cry that they would have done the same as the prophets of old, if only the Lord asked. Prayer is a dangerous thing; you never know just who’s listening in. These sorts of people, they’re so eager to do the Devil’s bidding that it’s almost no fun at all. He still manages to enjoy himself, though.
The Devil was there the night Peter Fischer couldn’t fall asleep. Peter lay in bed waiting for the wash of hypnagogic half-thought to release him from visions of black feathers made blacker with blood. Lucidity plagued his senses. His skin was pulled sensitive and tight across his face, and he felt an epileptic trembling in the long, stretched flesh of his muscles. A pungent, rotten-flower stink floated in from his grandmother’s garden, a scent he normally enjoyed that now only smelt of festering decay. It rushed into his every pore with a militant efficiency. He imagined that the blood red rhododendrons blooming just beneath his window had grown violent and greedy, had creeped over the sill to twist hauntingly above his bed in a rooted invasion. After his anxiety escalated into a deep-seated nausea that ran from his gut to his swampy mouth, he got up and walked to the bathroom to grab one of his grandmother’s sleeping pills from the cabinet.
The drug squashed out Peter’s flighty unease and wrapped him in a blanketed unconsciousness. Someone else was there though, a second pulse that beat rapid waves against taut veins. Peter’s nighttime restlessness had been observed from a pair of wide-set eyes looking out of a wider-set body standing outside the first-floor bedroom window. Judd had been skulking around the house since sundown, but once the sky swallowed the last echoes of red light and the lamp in Peter’s room clicked off, he moved closer. Often a regular at Sunday dinner, he knew exactly what window to look through to find Peter. When Judd heard Peter’s muffled snoring, a trench plunged between his eyes, a furrowed stare of reckless determination. The Devil dangled from the roof by his toes, watching.
Judd’s entry inside was clumsy. His two large, dirtied hands slid the window open with a jerk. Judd was a huge breed of person, and it took several attempts for him to fit through the window. He paid special care to his forearms and held them out gingerly, like easily bruised fruit. Bare, calloused feet scraped across wooden floors that squeaked with each step, but Peter breathed evenly. Judd’s thick hands wrapped a blindfold awkwardly across Peter’s thinly veiled eyes, knotting the fabric with clumsy uncertainty. Coarse rope bound his ankles and wrists. Once the binding was complete, Judd flung Peter over his shoulder. He exited through the front door.
Peter did not wake up when his eyes opened. It’s difficult to wake up when one is drugged, blindfolded and hanging upside down. The blindfold was loosely tied, which allowed Peter’s eyes to cautiously widen, but his sight was such that he thought they might still be closed. Everything was dark, just as it had been before. The blindfold was unnecessary, given the impenetrable blackness of the woods, but Judd had romantic notions about kidnapping in the name of the Lord. Peter realized something was wrong when he tried to move and began swinging about in nothingness. His arms stretched out beneath him like laundry hanging on a line. The pill slowed the rise of panic in his chest, but the beginnings of a hazy, dreamworld fear crawled up and around his spine, settling in the concave spaces of his collar bones.
Sticky mid-summer vapor hung in the air, and Peter couldn’t to breathe properly, as if oxygen was incapable of traveling backwards up into his lungs. Blood that did not belong there made a home in the base of his skull and pulsed in the hollows of his face. All he heard was his own ragged breath and the raucous nighttime sounds of the woods. He needed to listen, to start making sense of the nightmare. He smelled honeysuckles and moss and wetness, heard water dribbling sluggishly nearby. But there was something else, something hidden by the booming voice of the woods. Peter struggled to focus on it. A breathing too close to him that stank of tobacco and liquor and livestock. There was one more stink that Peter couldn’t identify that made his eyes water beneath the blindfold. That was the Devil. If Peter could see, he would have seen Judd, crouched by his head with a wily brightness in his eyes, and the Devil leaning casually against a tree behind him, smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke that went nowhere.
The Devil had been hanging around Judd for the past few weeks, following him around, eavesdropping on his one-sided conversations with the Lord. Judd’s prayers had begun to take on a desperate tone. Summer always made him angry and brooding, made him remember how wretched and pitiable his life really was. Instead of going to barbecues or picnics like Judd was sure other people did, he was either keeping an eye on his roosters, at church, or with Peter. Peter, especially, had started to bother him.
Judd blamed Peter for keeping him in Ramseytown. Peter was handsome and quiet, where Judd was big and loud. Peter didn’t believe, didn’t love, didn’t fear his heavenly Father like he was supposed to. And yet, he seemed happier than Judd. He was happier than Judd. Judd didn’t understand why God would let Peter go on enjoying a life entirely void of His teachings. So Judd prayed for intervention, for God to harden Peter’s heart and engulf him with His beautiful, terrible wonders.
The Devil found this hilarious: the desperation, the frenzied heedlessness, the raw hurt of an unfulfilled soul. He decided to intervene; he had the time, and God was probably busy anyway. The Devil held Judd’s mind in his hands and squeezed until the juices ran sticky and depraved. That’s when Judd began remembering things wrong, and when Peter became the culprit for a crime that Judd committed.
But now, surrounded on all sides by the overgrown woods of the Appalachian Mountains with his culprit hanging before him, Judd didn’t know what he was supposed to do. He had Peter, he knew he had to make him hurt for what he had done to the roosters, but his will was failing him. It was a test and he wanted to pass. But where was God with his reward? Wasn’t this as far as Abraham had gone? Hadn’t he done everything just right? No, Peter hadn’t repented yet. Judd knew what Peter had done, even if Peter didn’t. They were Judd’s roosters, after all. Judd would never hurt his own roosters. That’s what he kept telling himself, anyway. The blood and feathers that littered the sloping land by the river, the bodies nailed to trees, his stained hands—it was all a great misunderstanding. Part of the test. He had tried to stop Peter, to save the birds, but he had failed. Judd had punished himself, of course, for the failure: the bloodied bandages around his forearms testified to that. But Peter deserved more. It’s what Judd had been praying for all along. The Devil nodded and blew smoke in Judd’s dumb, animal eyes.
Judd shoved the body suspended before him. Peter swung chaotically while Judd delivered blow after blow to his chest and belly. The pummeling rocketed Peter into a more alert consciousness. His terror was the kind that blocks up the throat and tightens the muscles until they feel like they’re going to snap all at once with a great big twang. Peter shouted, pain squeezing his insides into a vice and then ripping them out of it again. The blows stopped. Judd’s breathing moved away and turned into heaving, primal sobs. It was the kind of crying with out any tears. He fingered something sharp in his pocket.
“Who are you?”
Peter already knew who it was.
There was a choking sound as Judd quelled his howling, then only breathing. Heavier now, less human. Judd’s black and clouded perception had cleared for a brief flash of painful lucidity between heartbeats, and he was disgusted. He saw the blood on his hands for what it was, realized the depravity that hung from him and tore it off like a burning coat. But the Devil wasn’t done with him yet. Judd’s jealousy of Peter had waned and now his self-loathing, his regret, urged the Devil forward. There were still landscapes that needed spicing up.
Peter continued to swing, like some sort of macabre, broken pendulum. He heard footsteps come close to him and stop, then the back and forth of knife on rope. His captor was cutting him down. The thought of freedom overrode the fact that he was about to fall unheeded to the ground from an unknown height. When his stomach leapt hysterically to his toes, however, he realized what was happening. He didn’t have time to shout before he struck the earth, and was, for the second time that night, dragged viciously into unconsciousness.
Judd ran, and the Devil ran with him.
Ramseytown died a little bit more each day. Soon there would be no one around to grieve the cracked streets and viney storefronts. Neighbors drifted apart as long, unkempt grasses and wild raspberry bushes overtook the paths between houses. Conversation was held at either the bar or the church, and even that was dwindling. Families moved, eager to accept any offer on houses that slowly slid down slick, mossy mountainsides, succumbing to gravity’s pull. The Devil pulled a bit, too, but that was small game, and he only helped when he had time. He was in Ramseytown to relax, after all.
Judd knew he deserved more than the town had to offer. He went to church weekly and to the bar more than that, but it wasn’t enough. Peter was a sort of solace, a body and face that responded to Judd’s, but the roosters were his real joy. They strutted around, looking so impressed with everything he said. They cared about Judd. He was part of their flock, another delicate hen to be watched over. Another simple mind. He talked to them like he couldn’t talk to Peter.
“Evil shall not sift me as wheat, no, not me, you know that,”
The roosters scratched at dry ground.
“I shall not deny Him, not before you crow my angels, no, not before you crow.”
Some kids hanging out by Cane River were the first to find them. The Devil saw. They spotted a head first. Then another, and then two bloodied feet, with jagged strings of meaty tendons still attached, as if they’d been ripped off by a giant. It was a decapitated scavenger hunt, a massacre of flightless guards. Two of the bodies had been nailed to trees with their wings spread wide. The weight of their breasts hung limp and heavy against the metal. The third body was in pieces beneath them. Judd had cried about it all day, clutching the last rooster to his chest, twisting its feathers between his fingers like prayer beads. He couldn’t remember the way the birds’ throats had felt in his hands.
Judd had dragged Peter to see. Peter didn’t think he’d be so offended by the sight, but even after they left he couldn’t scrub his mind of the horrific layout. The heads and scraps were gone by the time they got there, eaten by foxes or pocketed by morbidly-minded children. But the bodies remained. The busty chests of the prideful birds had begun to fall and sink, like slowly deflating balloons. The fleshy red crowns atop the birds’ heads, once so adamant in their royal stature, now stretched to the ground like pieces of chewed gum that had been pulled as far as they would go. The beaks were opened slightly, and they looked like they were crying out. When Judd saw the demented crucifixion, he dropped straight to his knees, a broken giant. Peter stood next to him, feeling sick. Judd whispered the Lord ’s Prayer with an intensity that unnerved Peter, the words overlapping and shattered of meaning. They didn’t talk the whole way home. Peter tried to rationalize the darkly deliberate violence. It was probably a couple of teenagers or something. It was the something, the way his thought trailed off into indefinites, that worried him. That and Judd.
Peter and Judd had been friends of convenience for a long time—their whole lives, practically. They were around the same age and were some of the only people under fifty left in Ramseytown. It had been a goal of most of their high school class to abandon the wrecked, rural town as soon as they could. Judd and Peter were two of only a handful of stragglers that remained.
Judd was a big guy. That was his descriptor. “Large and in charge,” was the way he put it. He had a wide face that might have suited a more athletically inclined body, but Judd had always scoffed at sports, expending energy elsewhere, like at the bar. The minute he turned fourteen and his dad gave him his first beer, Judd’s physique began to fall apart. His jawline hid beneath a layer of saggy, pockmarked skin, and his gut had outgrown each and every one of his shirts. Peter always found himself staring at the bulging stretch of skin between the hem of Judd’s shirt and his pants, discolored by the sun and long, spindly lengths of purple that traveled across his belly and down his hips. When his body began to abandon and spread out beyond its youthful, sober form, Judd compensated with aggressive loudness and a religious fervor that Peter hadn’t encountered in anyone besides his grandmother. Judd carried two things with him when he went out: a stained, bent Bible, and a handgun he used to shoot at foxes that came skulking around his roosters. After Judd had gotten himself good and liquored up, he would take the book out and read abrasively about the trials of Job and Abraham. If he got drunker still, he’d move on to Revelations. Peter blocked out the rambling, but there were usually some bar patrons who were enthralled with the giant, drunken preacher Judd became. He roared about the fires of hell, the burning punishment awaiting impure souls, and the Devil sat in the corner, laughing the whole time.
But Peter knew he was just as pathetic. He’d stayed in Ramseytown after all, hadn’t he? Even when his mother moved out to California, Peter had stayed behind to live with his grandmother. He liked Ramseytown in a way; he liked the quiet. He liked how the brightness of day and the blackness of night were so different, like living on two separate planets. Peter did like to think he was better-looking than Judd, or at least not as frightening. His only physical transformation since high school had been his beard, something that Judd had tried and failed to grow. Peter was tan and had good hands, big enough to work a field but gentle enough to hold something precious. Mediocrity aside, he thought life was going pretty well. The extent of Peter’s religious life stopped after the daily “Amen” that followed his grandmother’s prayer before dinner. She and Judd were always inviting him to church, but he politely declined each time. The Ramseytown Baptist Church was the only church in town. Every Sunday—and most days of the week—the pews were full of old ladies in white gloves and their disgruntled, graying husbands toeing the ground with pinched faces. The Devil attended the morning service, too. Crowds of people bothered Peter, and in the summer the Church was always the most suffocating building in town, everyone breathing and singing, sweating as one throbbing mass. He figured listening to Judd and his grandmother talk about God and Jesus all the time was enough.
Peter liked a lot of things. He loved less. The feeling had never been something that he embraced. He loved his grandmother, but that was more a love of familial obligation. He loved Ramseytown with a sadness and pity, the way you love an animal dying on the side of the road. Perhaps more than anything though, he loved sitting on his grandmother’s porch and looking at the garden. He sat there through all seasons, watching the rhododendrons bloom and wilt and bloom again. There was something about the eternal nature of plants: they blossomed, then died, and instead of that being that, instead of succumbing to being trampled on for the rest of time, they came back. Peter hated to think that death was the end. At the same time though, he hoped that maybe he would be a better person the next time around, maybe he would do better things. Flowers always got a second chance. Peter wasn’t sure if he would.
The rhododendrons were a source of pride for Peter’s grandmother. Other flowers grew in the garden, but the rhododendrons were the best of all. They weren’t particularly large, the shrubs running only a few feet tall along the side of the house. It was the color. The petals were a bright red that verged on orange depending on the light, with gauzy, undulating edges like a woman’s dress. Groups of three slender, supernaturally delicate hair-like structures sprouted from their centers, and they tilted and weaved in an eternal dance with the burning petals. No matter how stagnant and deadened the North Carolina air hung, Peter never failed to notice movement within the rhododendrons. They were especially exciting at sunset and dusk, when the fantastic variety of color within a single flower was revealed, when the petals seemed to flicker between dark, bloodied ruby and soft, blushing peach with each breath. Some evenings, the Devil himself would stop by and pick a few petals. It wasn’t a malicious act; he just liked the color.
The bar was crowded.
“But aren’t you excited?”
Judd was drunk and adamant. Peter took a purposeful swig of his drink. He tried to look interested.
“How can I be excited for nothing? Or something that I don’t understand? Can’t understand?”
“You really don’t get it. You don’t get any of it. I feel bad for you.”
Peter didn’t care about this—Judd had to know that. They’d had the same conversation countless times. Judd berated Peter for being unsure, Peter nodded and thought about how the rhododendrons would look in the fading light when he walked home. The Devil was busy trying to play a song on the broken jukebox.
“I’d be happy to go. Who wouldn’t be happy to suffer for God? It’s like . . . it’s like going home.”
“So you just wanna die, or—”
Judd cut Peter off. He was on a roll now. He shouted about St. Stephen, the first to die for the cause, “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God!”
He shouted about the end of the world.
“And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony! And they loved not their lives unto death!”
Judd yelled at Peter. He yelled at him almost every night, leaning on crumbling bar stools, gesturing violently into the unknown as if he knew what was to come.
The hurt and heat woke Peter up before daybreak. His hands and feet had been cut loose, but there was a trail of raised, reddened skin around each wrist and ankle. He stretched out his aching limbs as well as he could. The woods were quiet in the pre-dawn fogginess, as if all of the animals had finally gone to sleep or been frightened off by the Devil’s antics. Peter leaned against the tree he’d woken up beneath and tried to make sense of his jumbled memory. He knew now that what had happened was not a dream, but his thoughts lacked any defining images, like a watercolor painting that had been left out in the rain.
Looking up, he noticed a piece of rope hanging from a tree branch. Yes, he’d been hung upside-down, like a pig, and someone had beaten him tender. Peter lifted up his shirt and found bruises the size and color of plums scattered all across the upper half of his body. Knowing better than to prod one with his finger, he lowered his shirt and stood up slowly.
Peter recognized where he was the moment he woke up. He probably would have figured it out last night if he hadn’t taken that damn pill. There were still feathers on the ground, but the bodies were gone. The Cane River slithered by on his left. Peter looked at the tree he’d been hanging from and saw the discolored roofing nail that had pierced a bird’s breast only the day before. It was sticking out, meatless and without use.
The roaring speeches that filled his nights now made a sort of terrible sense. Peter knew this: his drinking buddy, the body on the stool beside him, had been smothered out. He began walking.
Peter came upon Judd’s house in the early morning half-light. The fog was lifting from the ground. It dissipated above his head like forlorn ghosts abandoning this world. Judd sat on the front steps. The Devil gently stroked the rooster that Judd gripped with one arm. In his other arm, Judd held three branches of rhododendrons. Some of the petals had been carelessly torn off, and the remaining few blushed in the semidarkness, embarrassed and no longer whole.
Judd was mad. His mind was no more than a sticky pulp staining the Devil’s palm. Judd’s memory had been ripped apart in fleshy, blackened shards, impossible to to piece together again. Since he had cut Peter down, he had been frantically searching for his roosters. He ran into the river and called out for them, called out for God’s help. When he couldn’t find them he went to Peter’s house, and the rhododendrons reminded him of his roosters’ red breasts—and something more slippery. While walking home, clutching and tearing at the flowers, he reached into his pocket for his key and pulled out a rotten claw. The foot was black and had curled in on itself like a dead spider.
Peter didn’t want to believe that his friend was capable of such awfulness. He strained to stop the barrage of images in his head that revealed Judd as the kind of fanatic capable of wringing and cracking necks. The kind who steals people away and dangles them upside down with violence in mind. The Devil sniggered and the show pressed on.
“The flowers. They mean beware.”
“Judd, come here.”
“Peter, Peter. I wish you understood.”
“I wish that too.”
The sight of this big man, this giant huddled and desperately grasping at his last bird and a broken bouquet emanated a wrongness that Peter could almost taste. A blood vessel had burst in Judd’s eye, and when Peter came closer he noticed that the white of the eye was red, filled to the brim with the blood of a frantic man: a tainted sclera. A mania mated with the stickiness of the air. The Devil breathed deeply.
The rooster’s neck lunged and stretched in every possible direction, its eyes black and panicked. It crowed loudly, like the ungodly shriek of frightened children. Judd dug his fingers into the bird’s feathers and, as it cawed, he squeezed tighter, while the Devil cooed and petted it. The cock crowed again. The Devil spat on the ground, and the dirt sizzled. Judd’s eyes were bright and wide. His nose leaked a gooey, black blood. He stood up and the bird screamed.
“How long will ye vex my soul?”
The rhododendrons fell to the ground. Judd cracked the rooster’s neck and reached for something behind his back. The crowing stopped. The bird hit the ground with a flop, body first and then, in a graceful arc, the head swooped down after it. It gazed at Peter with dead eyes. Peter gazed back, and was looking into those eyes when his old friend Judd shot himself in the face.
The Devil walked Peter home that morning.
Gena LeBlanc is a senior and student of literature and religious history at Bennington College where she is working on her senior thesis, a collection of short stories and biblical exegeses about the Judeo-Christian Devil. She has been published in Microfiction Monday Magazine and ElectricCereal.