“There’s a turkey shortage, apparently,” War said.
“Mmm?” Without taking his eyes from his newspaper, Death lifted his legs as she ran the vacuum cleaner underneath them.
“I heard. There’s a turkey shortage. So?”
“So, what about Christmas dinner?”
Death lowered his paper and looked over the headlines pronouncing Napoleon’s defeat at Toulouse, locking his glowing eye sockets with her dark lined eyes.
“What about it?”
“Well, you will be expecting one, won’t you? And turkey is traditional.”
“We are supernatural beings made of ectoplasm…”
“Don’t get all reasonable with me.”
He continued to look at her, fascinated as ever by this cross between a goth and an Egyptian pharaoh who stood before him gripping the vacuum cleaner as if it was a weapon, which, if one thought about it, it could very well be. His gaze strayed down her left arm, and he frowned. A new tattoo. At this rate, she wouldn’t have room for any more.
“Well, what, then?”
“Well,” she sighed as if on stage, “what are you going to do about it?”
“The shortage? It’s a human problem. Nothing to do with me. Besides, I suspect it’s like the petrol shortage. Not really a shortage at all, rather, the hysterical screeching of journalists who are feeling a bit left out of things. It makes them feel important.”
Death had always been bemused by human activity. How a species could survive while being so self-destructive and how so many of them could believe such utter nonsense even when their very eyes were looking at the evidence that contradicted what they were being told puzzled him. Sometimes, he thought, ruminants made more sense. At least they were predictable.
“You will have to go out and find one.”
“Yes, you. What are you doing at the moment? Lounging about reading a two-hundred-year-old newspaper. Besides, you know how it all ended. You collected the dead from Waterloo.”
“It’s my day off.”
“It’s mine as well, but someone has to tidy the place up.”
“I never did before you moved in.”
“I noticed. There were cobwebs that came from paleolithic spiders.”
“I rather liked those. Gave the place a lived-in look.”
She snorted. “Oh, go on. Get us a turkey.”
Thus it was that Death found himself out on his horse, with the raven for company, making his way from one turkey farm to another. Some turkeys became alarmed at the sight of him and scuttled away gobbling and fussing as if their demise was imminent, which, given the nature of the caller and the time of year, it was.
The raven squawked in delight.
“Stop laughing. It isn’t funny.”
The admonishment merely made the raven laugh even more.
“Anyway,” said the farmer, “as I was saying, we ain’t got none spare. Should have called in weeks ago. All this lot have been claimed. There’s a shortage, you know.”
Death turned from the farmer and looked from one bird to another, noting grimly to himself as they swallowed when fixed with his gaze, that this didn’t look much like a shortage to him. Indeed, it looked the exact opposite of a shortage. He smiled, nodding at the birds, before lifting a bony finger to the hem of his hood in salute.
“I’ll be back…”
The raven cawed.
Somewhere in Indonesia.
The ayam cemani is a chicken. It is black. As black as you can imagine and then even more black. Blacker, it is said, than a black hole and that’s pretty black by most standards. Its feathers are black, its eyes are black, its beak is black and so is its comb. Beneath its black feathers is black skin concealing black organs flesh and bones. So when referred to as a black chicken it is super black, so black even Death would struggle to compete. Indeed, the blackness impressed him and he wasn’t easily impressed.
Aulia was an ayam cemani chicken. She had been specially bred because of her pigmentation. She was expensive, too. The breeder could make thousands of dollars from just one chicken and he was breeding them continuously. What he remained cagey about was that they were being bred for sacrifice. It was good luck to pour the black blood of an ayam cemani as a ceremony to start a project for example – in this case, breaking ground for a new office building. Lucky, that is, for everyone but the hapless Aulia.
There was a small, select gathering that grew in size, person by person, as curiosity combined with invites brought people in to see the goings on. The local mayor and a few other dignitaries along with the project manager were waiting for the crowd to settle. The mayor was to dig the ceremonial sod to start the project and then pour black chicken blood into the hole as a sacrifice for good luck. It occurred to Aulia with her limited intelligence that this didn’t seem very lucky at all. Indeed, she felt that it was extremely unlucky. Confined in a small cage awaiting her debut for the big event, she looked about her and saw on the fringe of the crowd a cloaked figure carrying a scythe.
Death looked at the scene, desultory as it was, in the drizzling rain. Collecting the soul of this small bird was one thing, but the thought crossed his mind that maybe he could kill two birds as it were, smiling to himself at the pun. If there was a shortage of turkeys, then a chicken would do. War would see the symbolism of an all-black bird as well. It would go with her leathers and makeup, he thought, nodding to himself as he engaged in a moment of self-congratulation.
He leaned on his scythe as he watched the small crowd gather and grow. The project manager, puffed up with self-importance—almost as much to match that of the mayor—stood with the cage in his hand as various people gathered around the small podium. When everyone had settled down, he leaned to the microphone and gave a small speech—well, longish to Death who was growing bored with his failure to just get on with it.
What is it with these people who like the sound of their own voices? It’s going to be a building site. No one is interested. They are here to see the chicken get its throat cut, but on and on and on…
He stood up straight as the man stopped. Death glanced at his watch. The man had been wittering on for nearly twenty minutes. If it was possible for people to fall asleep standing up, Death thought here would have been a few who would have nodded off by now. Certainly, scanning the faces in the small gathering there was a blankness in the eyes as they glazed over with the stupor brought on by boredom induced by a bore.
Then the mayor stepped up to the microphone. Death could almost feel the sigh as the assembly collectively lost the will to live. He groaned inwardly.
Get on with it, fer cryin’ out loud.
Not that anyone was listening to him, as no one could see him. The chicken could though, and she was giving him the evil eye. Not that it bothered Death. The evil eye was something that he was used to. It just bounced off him. The raven cawed in delight.
It was nearly half an hour later when the mayor had run out of verbal diarrhea and things looked like happening. He stepped down from the podium and took a spade handed to him by a workman clad in high visibility clothing and a hard hat.
He lifted the tool with a broad grin to allow the assembled photographers to get a shot and several flashguns fired as he turned from one to the other, the fixed grin stuck on his face.
Good God! Are you ever going to get on with it?
The mayor, having satisfied himself that there were enough pictures taken to fill the following morning’s newspapers, took the spade and dug into the ground, turning the sod to expose the soil underneath. He then turned to the project manager who lifted aloft the cage containing Aulia for everyone to see. Reaching into a pocket, he pulled out a knife. There was a hush as he opened the cage to take out the chicken and slit her throat. Pouring her dark, inky blood onto the turned ground would put a blessing onto the new building.
Not from me, Death thought with a sour scowl. Bloody stupid idea.
That was the moment when Aulia made her break for freedom. With a loud cluck, she spread her wings, flapped them as hard as she was able and launched herself into space. There was a brief kerfuffle as people stepped out of her way and the project manager stared at the escaping bird, his jaw slack as the carefully choreographed ceremony descended into a feathery pandemonium. The mayor likewise watched in horror as the cameras flashed and he realised that the front pages would not be looking as he had planned.
Death stepped into Aulia’s path as she landed awkwardly and started to run. She sidestepped him and as he turned the raven swooped down, swung through his legs and caused him to trip. He lost his grip on the scythe and it went down with a clatter. Unbalanced, he followed it and landed face down in the mud with the scythe’s blade poking up between his ribs.
The raven cawed.
The raven cawed again and Aulia clucked as she kept running, the mayor and project manager in hot pursuit, closely followed by the photographers who were enjoying themselves immensely. As the chase made its way through the crowd, people stepped aside to let them through, some tripping back into the person behind and some slipping on the slurry beneath their feet. Several people ended up falling over and landing with a whump on the wet muddy ground. Others stood and watched, laughing at the absurd spectacle going on around them
The project manager made a leap mid-stride and closed in on the chicken reaching forward ready to grab her. The raven swung to its left mid-flight and dived, piercing the man’s right hand with its beak. The project manager let out a howl and stumbled, falling to the ground, the knife clattering away as he gripped his bloodied hand with his good one. He swore. The raven cackled.
“I saw that.”
Death picked himself up and dusted his cape down. Looking about him, he could see people laughing and pointing at the project manager who was by now muddy and his trousers were torn at the knee. His hard hat was lying in a brackish puddle and his expensive suit was now a muddied, ruined mess along with his dignity. The mayor was no longer among the crowd. Death looked further afield and saw the mayoral car pulling away briskly as the man tried to save what face he had left.
The chicken was now sitting on the pommel of Death’s saddle alongside the raven who cawed again. It stretched up, flapped its wings, puffed out its chest feathers and was looking pleased with itself for a good morning’s work.
Death glowered at it but to no avail. The raven was immune to admonishment.
War had been dozing on the sofa with a glass of red wine. After the morning’s vacuuming, she felt that she deserved a break. She looked up as Death came in.
Death said nothing. He turned and stepped aside so that she could see the two birds that followed him through the door.
She stood and looked at the raven and the black chicken. Then she cast an expert eye over Death, noting the muddied cape. Her eyebrows went up, one at a time as she folded her arms. For a moment that seemed to stretch from one aeon to the next, she said nothing. Then, nodding at Aulia.
“A chicken. I thought you might appreciate it being black and all.”
“You had one job to do.”
“I know, I know, but I couldn’t get a turkey.”
War sighed. “I suppose it will have to do.” She narrowed her eyes and looked Aulia up and down.
“Mmm, it will be big enough, I suppose. You will have to kill and pluck it.”
Aulia clucked and skuttled behind the raven who cawed angrily.
“But I don’t know how to kill a chicken.”
More squawking and clucking emanated from the two birds who were now making a rapid flutter to the door.
War ran ahead of them and slammed the door shut, blocking off their escape route. The raven cawed irritably but shut its beak when she glared at it. She narrowed her eyes, piercing it with a hard stare until it gulped.
“You are Death,” she said, returning her attention to Death, who leaned heavily against his scythe. Sometimes, he thought, he was getting old. All this chasing about after chickens was demanding work.
“Yes, but I don’t actually kill anything. I’m just there to lend a hand, you might say. Make things a bit easier for the transition from life to death. I don’t do the deed. Never have.”
War disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. Death could hear her clattering about opening and closing drawers. A few moments later she returned, wielding a cleaver.
“Here,” she said. “This should do the trick.”
The raven squawked and fluttered about cawing and complaining. The chicken clucked and ducked behind Death’s cape, peering out with a beady eye at War, who stared back with an equally beady stare.
War sighed. “Then I suppose I will.”
She lifted the cleaver above her head and advanced. At that moment, two things happened.
There was a flash of lightning outside and a clap of thunder. Before her eyes, while the lightning fizzled its ethereal light across the room, Aulia became nothing more than a black chicken skeleton with glowing eyes—although how black can glow remains one of those mysteries that no one can successfully answer, including War. And Death’s phone buzzed. As the lightning flash faded away and Aulia returned to her normal fleshed out chicken shape, he reached into his cape and pulled it out, staring at the screen.
He held the phone out to her. War dropped the cleaver and took it. She looked at the screen.
“What am I looking at?”
Once, long ago, before the IT crowd got involved, Death had a repository that went on forever with row upon row of shelves, each with an hourglass that contained the sands of life of everything on the planet. Now he had a phone. This, the IT guy assured him, was better. Death wasn’t sure that it was better, but he had no choice and accepted it with bad grace. To their credit, the developers of the new life clock app had designed it to look like the real thing. On the screen was a life clock that looked just like the real hourglasses from Death’s beloved repository. It was Aulia’s life clock. War stared at it.
“It isn’t doing anything.”
“No. It has stopped.”
Aulia clucked and gulped. The raven cawed.
“What does it mean?”
“It means that she is one of us, a supernatural being. You cannot kill her and neither can I for she cannot be killed.”
War reached into the oven and brought out the meal, placing it before Death who looked at it. He picked up a fork and held the green stuff on it aloft.
“What is this?”
Death put the fork to his mouth, took a bite and chewed.
War shrugged. “Well…”
Death sighed. “I know, I know…”
Outside, the raven was impressed with the new henhouse. He snuggled up to Aulia making the most of her body warmth. He was getting used to the lightning zombie chicken thing like it was a party trick. Outside the wind was cold and moaned through the trees, but inside the wooden structure it was cosy and warm. Yeah, a part time zombie chicken was something he could live with.
Life, the Raven decided, wasn’t so bad after all.