A short story by Gary Quinn, originally published in the Book of Voices short story collection (Flame Books, 2005), to support writers in Sierra Leone
DID YOU ever piss on an electric fence? It’s not a good way to go, but then, I suppose you don’t know that until you’ve tried it. Our da put the fence up to keep the cattle from straying over the Border and not get him accused of smuggling. Which was funny given that he was smuggling but what can you do when they stick a border across your best field and your cows want to eat the grass on the other side?
They didn’t even put up a sign or anything. There was an old stream and it dried up and they just came along one day and said they were awful sorry but the border moved a wee bit and could we be awful good now and put in for an application to sign away that wee bit of our field. Well, our da said no and he wouldn’t do it and he got awful angry and went away down the town and got a bunch of men to come up and stamp all over the field smoking cigarettes. But it was no good and they were all shouting and arguing so old Tommy took them inside and said “Relax men, we’ll get it sorted. Leave it be and everything will be grand”.
So we all started pretending the Border wasn’t there and every so often the soldiers would jump across the hedge all commando-like and they would walk across that bit of our field and point the gun down at the house, and oh boy, our ma and da would get awful angry.
According to our Seán the plan is that the Border tells you where the South ends and the North starts. So we live in the South and over there is the North and we can go there if we don’t bring our cows but if our cows go over there we can’t go and bring them back. We have to get a certificate. But the North is a funny place because, sometimes, when we go to our ma’s people, we have to cross over the Border in the car and drive North for about two hours and then cross back over the Border. Then we’re in the South again – even though it’s more North than the North itself. So the North isn’t really North, or at least it’s not as North as my nana’s house, which is in the South. My da says we should just be calling the South the Republic and be done with it – but he says we still have to call the North the North. They don’t have another word for that.
I didn’t believe him, but that’s exactly what happened one night when my da’s favourite heifer lay down in the long grass for a sleep in the rain.
It’s a bit confusing and I think the cows agree. My da says they aren’t the smartest animals in the world but it’s kind of hard to teach them that a dead stream and a stretch of rich green grass are, in fact, a Border and they’re not to be going across it or they’ll be shot. And I always say, “Are you serious da, would they get shot?” and he always says, “They would son. That’s how bad they’ve got. They’d shoot a man’s cow”.
I didn’t believe him, but that’s exactly what happened one night when my da’s favourite heifer lay down in the long grass for a sleep in the rain. Did you know that cows lie down in the rain to keep the bit of grass they’re lying on dry? In fact, they lie down before it rains because they can feel it coming. Another reason why our da says they’re probably smarter than you’d think.
Well anyway, once it got dark one night, this soldier comes along through our fields with a few of his other soldier friends, like they do, and says to the cow that she has to get up and move back across the Border. Well, the cow just looks at him, because it’s raining and all and the cow isn’t going to be getting up off her warm dry bit of grass and move to a wet bit just because the soldier says she has to. I don’t know what a soldier would be doing talking to a cow anyway but that’s the way my da says it happened. Him and my brother were watching them from the next field but wouldn’t go over because my da was getting in an awful rage and my ma had told him that when that happens just stand your ground. So they did.
So next thing, this jeep comes raring up to the hedge and the soldier’s boss shouts at him and says “Come on lads, get the job done. There’s lots more cows to be moving tonight,”
Next thing, he says, the soldier gets awful annoyed because the cow isn’t moving back across the Border like he’s told him to and he gets his gun and he points it at her and he says “Go on now cow. Move. I won’t tell you again”. Very serious like and he goes to kick the cow. His soldier friends were laughing now and I suppose he must have been trying to scare the poor cow but, you know, cows don’t know an awful lot about guns and they’re better kickers so she wouldn’t have been that scared anyway. So next thing, this jeep comes raring up to the hedge and the soldier’s boss shouts at him and says “Come on lads, get the job done. There’s lots more cows to be moving tonight,” and all the other soldiers fell about laughing.
It wasn’t really all that funny to be honest, but you know how these soldiers are. They don’t get out much.
So anyway, the first soldier gets even more annoyed and my da’s laughing in the other field and whispering “Good girl cow. Don’t give them an inch.” Well Jesus, doesn’t the soldier take his gun and point it at the cow’s head and shout at her to move again. The other soldiers are like “Calm down now Roger, don’t be getting excited.” But he isn’t having any of it. He’s shouting about the Border and the cows and the rain and the Paddies and the next thing you know he’s shot the cow in the head, there’s blood all over the place, my da’s roaring like a bull and he’s wanting to go and attack the soldiers. And the soldier’s boss is going crazy saying “Pull out, pull out,” and he’s away with the jeep and all the other soldiers are following him, running like mad-things, all falling over the hedge and all and Roger’s storming around with the gun looking all triumphant because he’s killed my da’s cow. Like, he just shot a cow in the head. You know what I mean? You’d want to be a wee bit lacking to get any pleasure out of it. But that’s the way he was until a couple of his mates came back and hit him a slap and dragged him through the hedge.
Well, that’s an awful thing to do to a poor cow. It broke my da’s heart and so he gave in and he put a fence up and he signed away the bit of field and threw the money they sent him in the fire and spat on it. But he didn’t just build any fence, he threw up an electric fence. The first one in the townland. He says he’ll not lose another head of cattle to any soldier boy and he hopes they fall on it themselves and says he would turn up the current to be ready for them only it might hurt the cows too much.
I said, “Will it not be sore?” and he said “Sure of course it will, you eejit. But the charge will give you just the growth spurt you need and then you can get down to business with any girl you want.
Well, it wasn’t long before word got around that the fence was up and it was electric. The boys around Monaghan don’t need a lot of encouragement and I heard that the latest was that it was a bit of a dare to come up and piss on it. I asked our Seán what the story was and he said that they’re trying to make their boyos bigger. I says “Their boyos?” looking down at my jeans and back up at him, ready for a cuff around the ear. “Yes,” he says. “Your boyo. Do you know nothing? Lookit, come over here to the field ’til I explain it to you.”
Well, according to our Seán, the reason his boyo is bigger than my boyo is that he’s been with a bunch of girls and I haven’t and he says that since the chances are looking slim I need to be away up the field and piss on the fence. That’ll make it grow.
I said, “Will it not be sore?” and he said “Sure of course it will, you eejit. But the charge will give you just the growth spurt you need and then you can get down to business with any girl you want. And believe me, young fella, a wee bit of pain will soon be cancelled out when you meet the girls.”
Well, it sounded good to me and when I asked my da he said, “aye, sure, whatever” and carried on watching the match.
So there I was, up in the top field, getting ready to piss on the fence. I’d made sure and drunk a few pints of water first so that I’d be ready but I wasn’t feeling very eager. I took my boyo out and looked at it. It looked awful small so I was getting braver but I didn’t really want to hurt it at the same time. It was a wee bit windy, but fresh enough, and I could hear the cattle shifting down below. Both sides of the Border were quiet and I’d swear the metal fence between was winking at me. I took a deep breath, stepped a bit closer and aimed myself at the wire. Then, just as I was about to let rip, a voice cut across my shoulder.
“Whoa there captain. You don’t want to be doing that.”
Well, I didn’t need to be told twice and I stuck himself back inside double quick. Sure enough there was a man standing staring at me a few feet away. Laughing, he stepped closer but he wasn’t familiar so I backed away and prepared to run.
“No, I’m not laughing at you,” he says, all familiar-like. “It’s just it reminded me of a time when I was working in the chicken factory. Do you know it?”
“How could I not know it?” I said back to him. “Sure doesn’t half the town work there?”
“You’re right, of course.” he replied. “Does your da work there?”
“No, he works here. On the farm.” says I “But he said if them soldiers could get their way he’ll be up the factory before the year’s out.”
“Because of the fence like?” said the man.
You didn’t have to ask me twice to recite my dad’s stories about the field and Border and the soldier boys. I stepped up a bit and said “He says they’re eating away at him, bit by bit and they’ll take him for sure before the end. But he says he’ll go out fighting.”
“You tell him not to be worried,” says he. “They’ll not go no further.”
“Who will I tell him said so?”
“Tell him I said so, the man you met walking the Border. Now come here till I tell you about those chickens.” He stepped closer.
Now, people around here tell an awful lot of stories about animals. You’d think some of them was married to animals they way they get on, all gentle like. Well, there’s a simple enough rule and it goes like this – if you meet a man up a field on a dark night and he says to you that he wants to tell you a story about a wee chicken, well you’ve had your warning. You wouldn’t want to be hanging around to see how the story turns out.
So I goes “You’re alright there boy. I’ve got to be heading off home anyway. They’ll be waiting for me.”
“Fair enough then so,” the man said and started to turn to go. But then he just started telling me the story anyway and I’m standing there like an eejit trying to get a word in and say “listen, I’m away now. Stop your talking.” But sure I was only a young fella and I wasn’t clear what to do. So your man keeps talking away.
He says “But Jesus it was awful funny altogether. There was this lorry did a sharp turn on the ground there in front of the factory. You know where the ramp is where they unload the birds? So he spins her around, tyres burning and the brakes squealing. Just for the craic like. So, of course, he loses a couple of boxes and one of them breaks open.
“Well, this big fat chicken comes rolling out onto the concrete. It’s seriously big, right, and the lads up on the ramp spot it straight away. They’re grand lads that work up there on the ramp but they’re a bit mad. You know how they kill the chickens? They hang them up by their feet on them big metal hooks and they go along on a conveyor belt and are put through a stream of electrified water. To kill them like. It’s the cleanest way, what can you do? Sure, it’s better than taking the heads off of them or standing there all day breaking their necks by hand. That’s what they used to do before – but that was a woman’s job. Once the electric came in it turned into a man’s job. Funny that.”
“Well, anyway,” he says, hardly taking a breath. “They’re hanging up there squawking and squealing, as you’d imagine, because they’ve been locked up in a box since the day they were hatched and now they get their first sniff of fresh air and it doesn’t smell very good. So they’re always trying to leap off of this thing and the boys on the ramp, they have this game where every time one tries to make a run for it they, well, they have a wee game of football. With the chicken.”
“Look, get away out of that,” says I. “I’m away home. You’re making that up. Everybody round here’s always talking about animals or poultry or something. Our Seán says none of you are half-wise.”
“Fair enough, maybe your Seán’s right. But, my God, it was a spectacle. They feed those birds with all sorts. Chemicals and everything and by the time they get to us they’re so fat they can’t even walk. Their wee legs are breaking under the weight of them. Sure they’ve never been allowed to use them. And what can they do? They just try to get along with things as best they can. Figuring, sure, this is normal. This is the life of a chicken. I’m a chicken and I’m living in a box. I’ll do what I’m told and eventually they’ll let me be. So they just sit there, squashed in, eating and eating and then they’re carted off to us to be strung up and ready for the dinner of a Sunday.”
So I cut in then because this was getting a wee bit off the point and I really did have better things to be doing.
“And that’s what had you laughing? You really aren’t half right mister. Laughing at chickens.”
“Slow down,” says he, “sure I’m not finished yet. That’s not the end of it. So this fat bastard of a chicken is dragging itself across the forecourt. Now, I’m not messing. An awful lot of chickens go through that factory but this girl was massive. You couldn’t even see her wee legs as she tried to waddle away to freedom. They were all coming back from their lunch and were gawking at it and having a laugh. Well the boys on the ramp couldn’t be letting a chance like that go by. So down they hopped and with a quick whistle and a shout the chicken was surrounded and the game was on. Boy, they made some use of her. I swear to God, one of them lifted her up and kicked her clear over the heads of the others. They were all cheering and the girls were screaming and Jesus it was great craic altogether. It was some sight to see a poor wee chicken flying through the air.
“It was one of those slow motion moments and suddenly everybody knew that they had done something wrong. Even before it hit the ground. It just clicked with everybody at the same time. You just had to look at it. A terrible way to treat another living thing.”
“That’s not a very funny story mister. What did you tell me that for?”
He was all hunched up now and leaning against a fence post. He lit a cigarette and the flame burst bright right across him. As it did, I saw this dark patch appear on his chest. “Jesus, what’s that?” I said, without thinking. He looked down and smiled. “That’s where they got me. A lucky shot.”
I swear to God it was blood. It was growing darker and, I’m not messing, my legs started shaking. “Are you alright but?” says I, not really knowing what I would do if he said he wasn’t. “I’m grand. I’d better be getting on and you should too. I’ve a lot of Border to be checking tonight. And listen to me. Don’t be pissing on that fence. Apart from anything it could kill you, but if it doesn’t it’ll be terrible sore. Seriously now. I have enough to be doing watching young fellas crossing the Border every night. I can’t be worrying about lads pissing on it as well – although it’s not such a bad occupation ordinarily.” He smiled and went to turn away.
“But what about the chicken?” says I stupidly.
“Well, they strung it up didn’t they? They lifted it up off of the ground, hosed it down and stuck it on the hook and sent it through the electric water jets. Some wee girl from the town said she was going to complain. Animal cruelty and all. But they just hung it up on the wire anyway. Passed it off as normal business and sent it through to be somebody’s lunch.”
“But surely somebody would have said?” says I, “Took it down and done something with it?”
“Well, sure, who’d be listening? Sure it was just another chicken to them. Anyway,” he says, “it seems they were all looking the other way, even me. It was just some kind of game. Not for the chicken though. Terrible thing to do to another living thing. Good luck to you now.”
And he continued his walk along the Border.
Swear to God.
By Gary Quinn (2005).
[First published in the short story collection Book of Voices, Flame Books, 2005. Edited by Michael Butscher.]
From the back cover blurb:
“The Book of Voices is a short story collection aiming to raise funds for, and awareness of, the work of Sierra Leone PEN. All of the stories in the book highlight the guiding principles of International PEN, and the power that storytelling has to change thought, opinion, friendship and even culture.”