Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Illustrate the meaning of “Don’t Try to Walk before You Can Crawl” (without using the actual phrase or literal example). (01/17/08)
TITLE: Death and butterflies
By Thomas Ortiz
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The only thing I could think of was the sound of the chicken coup and how I hated that smell, that ammonia smell. It smelled like death At night I had to go out into the darkness and close the door so the weasels and the foxes would not get in. Every time I went out there at night they seemed so ungrateful. Those stupid chickens cowered in a corner like they wanted to die. The ones in the front were the stupidest. They would be the first.
It was a hot June and I was twelve. The chickens were getting their white feathers and were eating like wolves. I saw the limp develop in three of them. When they ate too much, too fast, their legs gave out. Their feet would curl up and they could no longer walk. Apparently the treachery of chickens is gluttony and the others would peck away at them in scorn, like they were stoning a sinner.
I remembered my daddy. I thought of him as weak at the time. He was a barber, a humble barber. I saw him very rarely and when I did it was usually to the order of more chores and duties. I had heard of him being in the Special Forces but I could not imagine this humble man doing anything more than calling out menial responsibilities.
I remembered getting angry with my father that morning. I don’t remember what it was about but I remember clenching my fists like I had always done in the school yard. Sometimes that was all I had to do to win. He pulled his head back gently, in astonishment, when he saw the clenched fists and he said, “You wanna hit me? Is that what you wanna do?” I opened my hands and I realized it was not him I was angry with but those kids at school and I said, “No.” He shook his head like his memory tugged at his heart and he went outside toward the chicken house.
I knew what I had to do. I wanted to help him. I did not apologize. That would be weak. I asked him, “What are you doing?” He said, “I have to kill the cripples.” I knew what he meant. The other chickens would give them a long miserable death. It was the humane thing to do. I asked him if I could help and he shook his head. I followed him into that chicken house despite his words. I was excited to see something die. There was some weird attraction, like conquest, watching the ultimate demise of a living creature. He said to me, “You should be out there chasing the butterflies.” I did not yet have the wisdom to understand and my naivety made me stay with him.
I thought of the drama, a machine gun spraying the crippled chickens into a fine powder or maybe a sword hacking them into nuggets. What was he going to do with them? He had nothing in his hands. He picked up the first one and held it gently in his arms, petting its head. I watched him cooing at the chicken, it became tranquil. Then he looked me in the eyes and with a flick of his thumb and a gentle “crack,” the chicken fell lifeless.
We walked out of the chicken house without words, his arm around my shoulder. It was an unspoken understanding and respect. He had never laid a hand on me in anger and he never would. That day I understood my father and the butterflies were everywhere.
When I joined the Special Forces it was out of an underdeveloped sense of mortality and arrogant pride. When my head left my shoulders my mind was still alive and all I could think about was those damn chickens.
Then, I could see the face of Jesus, the savior, whispering the secret message of some Spanish artist through fluttering butterflies. Today war can only starve the hungry, apathy can smother the secrets of a reclusive artist and there is no longer any anger.
But my daddy still holds the memory of death and butterflies.
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