Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Breathe (08/19/10)
TITLE: The Chicken Plucker's Daughter
By Sandra Petersen
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I attempt to scream but feathers fill my mouth. My nostrils clog with down.
In vain, I flail my arms to clear a breathing space. A mound of chicken feathers suffocates me. Layer upon layer, my prison walls thicken. Somewhere beyond the white layers, a hen cackles as if chuckling to herself. I kick furiously and emerge, choking.
“Aldith.” My mother strokes my tangled hair. She speaks my name and gently beckons my eyes to open. “'Tis time to begin the day's work. No delays. Be up and about.”
My mind rebels at her instruction but my body dutifully rises from the pile of straw in the corner where I sleep. My nightmare still haunts me.
I can hear the crackle of the wood fire and the squawk of the chickens as they await their fate. Soon a cauldron of water will bubble over the fire. Headless chickens will dance their stiff-legged saltarelli across the dusty court. Another banquet at the castle means there will be several chickens to butcher and pluck.
I wrinkle my nose. Another day of breathing in the pervading odor of drenched feathers. The smell never dissipates but clings to my clothes and mane of curls like the smallest downy breast feathers adhere to my fingers as I pluck.
Mine is an inherited occupation. My father and mother as well as my grandparents were chicken pluckers for the palace. I should resign myself to this fate but I can not.
Today the desire to escape that stench is greater than ever. For just one day, I long to breathe in something other than the constant odor of wet chicken feathers.
I slip out the door and dash to the stone wall by the chicken coop. Scrambling over the top, I land among grasses as high as my waist.
I hear my mother call but do not stop. Racing through the tall grasses across a vast field, I gulp in the heady aroma of rich earth and fresh air. When I return home, I will receive the stinging reproof of the willow switch against my bare legs. The thought slows my progress. That, and the sensation of my lungs about to burst with my exertion.
My flight has taken me to another low stone wall. Several snuffling snorts pique my curiosity and I hoist myself atop the wall to discover the origins of the noise. The stones at the crest of the wall scorch the soles of my bare feet. I peer over the edge.
“You! What are you doing?” The voice surprises me and I lose my balance. Thrashing my arms, I topple headlong over the wall.
The foul filth I tumble into coats my hair and plugs my nose. My eyes are mattered with it. Some of it gets in my mouth and I spit to remove it. Pigs surround me, nuzzling my face and arms with their snouts.
“Help!” I sputter. “Help!”
I breathe in a putrid stench. The smell surrounds me. I wear it like a second skin.
Strong hands grip me and lift me to my feet.
“Now, lassie, who are you under all that grime?” A rag scrubs my face. Freed of mud and pig dung, I gaze upon the face of my rescuer.
“You're the chicken plucker's daughter!” The speaker has intense green eyes and a careless smile.
“And you're the swineherd's son.” I feel my face turn hot with a blush. “I must look horrible.”
“Yes,” he agrees, “and you need a bath, but I'm afraid I can not escort you back to your own farm. We are butchering two pigs for the banquet. Would you care to wait?” His eyes implore me to stay. I nod and he leads me to the butchering yard.
I admire his muscled arms as he hoists the pigs on ropes by their rear legs to bleed them. By day's end, I realize there is an odor worse than that which I have known all my life. I wonder if he has ever sought freedom from his prison of smells like I have.
Yet this swineherd's son stirs something inside me. I hope he feels the same. By the manner in which he holds my hand when we return to my farm, I think he does. Perhaps someday we will escape together.
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