Edition 8: Fairest Fowl by J. B. Rockwell
When you offend the gods and snub tradition, things can go badly wrong, and they can occur in the most unlikely places and circumstances. Rockwell’s story was a worthy finalist in the 2012 Story Quest Short Story Contest and it was worth the wait to include her story in this special edition. GH
All the world was burning, and as she stared at the devastation below, Keiko knew that her beloved chicken was to blame.
She’d found him on the lower slopes of the mountains, huddled miserably in a stand of bamboo, his feathers dull and dirty, missing in places as if he’d molted out of season, and torn away in others where he had fought with some other creature and survived at least, if not won. She’d taken pity on the poor, half-starved bird, and tucked it under one arm as she turned and followed a narrow path back to the village that was her home.
The hills were steep hereabouts, and were densely covered with cedar and pine and cypress, and the ubiquitous stands of bamboo. She could just see the roofs that marked that sprawling collection of homes and barns and shops as she descended toward the flatter lands where the village and the surrounding fields lay. She supposed it wasn’t really a village anymore. What had started as a small farming community had grown over the past few decades to become a bustling market town. But Shimizu was still a farmer’s town at heart, and she a farmer’s daughter.
So Keiko brought the little chicken home with her and stowed it safely inside her family’s coop with the other chickens, never thinking to tell her father about it. The laying hens took to the new arrival straightaway, for it was male and there had not been a rooster in that coop for a year and more, not since the last one had finally died of old age. They’d meant to get another, but somehow never got around to it, and though he was sad and bedraggled and scruffy looking, Keiko was pleased at her find, for it meant she would not have to spend her few coins at market for another.
The rooster grew stronger in the days and weeks that followed. His dull, ragged feathers fell out one by one and were replaced with new ones that were bright and shining and jewel toned. The starved, tattered looking chicken Keiko had found in the bamboo grove was gone now, replaced instead by a magnificent rooster with rust colored plumage on his head and neck, and belly and legs, while the feathers on his back and wings were a deep, emerald green. The cockscomb on his head was golden yellow and flaring, a proud pompadour that wagged and waddled from side to side as the rooster strutted about. ‘Basan’ Keiko named her wayward rooster. A joke, of sorts, for no one truly believed that the mythical mountain monster truly existed.
Basan quickly adjusted to his new life and could often been seen strutting around town, usually with his harem in tow as he poked his brightly colored beak into every house and shop and barn that had an open door to allow him entrance. The townspeople stared at him at first, wondering at this strange, bold chicken, and then they’d smile and laugh as he strolled the dirt streets. But they soon grew accustomed to his visits, and before long people were purposely leaving their doors open and even laying kernels of dried corn at the threshold to lure him in. The villagers considered Basan to be lucky and believed that his decision to enter one structure or another was a sign of favor, his presence alone imparting health and wealth and good fortune to those lucky few inside for all of their days.
Basan wandered all about the town, yet he always returned to the modest, little chicken coop where he lived with the laying hens that were his consorts. And if he was endowed with some magical form of luck, Keiko and her family never saw it, for their home and their lives were as plain and humble as they had ever been. But Keiko loved her little Basan all the same, for he was a beautiful creature with his brightly colored feathers, and much admired by the other townspeople. Some even offered to buy him from her, but she refused their offers, every one, though her father would have beaten her if he’d known. Perhaps it was her imagination, but Basan seemed to remember that it was she who had rescued him from the mountains, and when Keiko came to collect the eggs each morning, he would strut to her side and rub his feathered body along her legs, almost like a cat preening on a beloved owner. And as he did, a most unchicken-like sound would issue from his throat: a sort of cooing purr which was (Keiko assumed) Basan’s way of showing his affection.
And it was not just she that Basan showed affection to. Her proud rooster was prolific, and very protective of his little hens. He hadn’t been with them a week before the hens started doubling their daily egg output. And a month later it had tripled. Keiko gathered them all each morning, sometimes dozens of eggs and brought them to her father, who would take them to town and offer them at market. He sold them, every one, and once the villagers learned that Basan was their sire, they would fight over the few that Keiko’s father brought each day, paying double and even triple what he asked for them. They were modest earnings, but more than Keiko’s eggs had ever brought at market before, so perhaps Basan had brought her family luck after all.
But the eggs were not Keiko’s only source of income. Once a week she would venture into the mountains to collect herbs and flowers, mushrooms and lichens, and a dozen other things that she sold to the apothecaries. She returned from one such trip to find her father sitting on the porch of their small house with a smile on his face and a stack of coins at his side. As always, he had gone to market that morning, but the array of coins beside him was far more than they had ever gotten for Keiko’s eggs.
“Can you believe it, Keiko?” Father asked, smiling widely as he scooped up the coins and held them out to her. “Lord Kanizaga gave me all this for that raggedy little chicken you fetched from the mountains!”
“From the—” Keiko began in confusion. And then her eyes widened and she gasped in dismay as she realized it was not Basan’s undeveloped offspring he had sold, but Basan himself.
“Basan!” she sobbed heartbrokenly as she stared at those coins, and then she turned her back on her father and ran away as tears of anger and sorrow streamed down her face.
“Keiko! Keiko!” her father yelled behind her, but she ignored her father’s calls as she raced along the trail, seeking the safety and solitude of the mountains.
She stayed there the rest of that day, huddled sobbing in the bamboo grove where she’d found Basan all those months ago. And as night fell, she stood and stared down at Shimizu village, seeing the dark squares and small spots of yellow-white that were the buildings and the lights inside. Keiko studied the village for several minutes and was considering whether she should return when saw the first of the flames spreading outward from its center. She was puzzled at first by what she saw, for the flames were a ghostly blue-white, not the red and yellow and orange of a normal fire. But when the first of the buildings fell, collapsing and disintegrating in a cloud of dust, Keiko began to suspect the truth.
That first building had been the inn—the largest and best appointed of the village’s structures. It was there that the wealthier travelers stayed, and it was there that Lord Kanizaga would have spent the night before returning to his distant manor house. Keiko was scared then, for it would not go well for the village if the Lord died here under such strange circumstances. But as she studied the village from the slopes of the mountains, Keiko realized that she had much more to fear than the loss of Lord Kanizaga. She could see the flames spreading from the hole where the inn had stood, creeping across the ground and climbing the walls of the buildings on either side to consume them as well. The blue-white flames spread like wildfire, and building after building began to disappear. It wasn’t long before the entire village was engulfed, those strange flames dancing across walls and roofs and licking up trees. Nothing stood in the way of the ghostly fire as it burned ever outward, consuming the fields and the forests as it marched towards the mountains and the sea.
“No,” Keiko whispered in despair and raced back down the mountain to the home she shared with her father, fearing all the while what she would find.
The flames reached their small plot of land as Keiko came within sight. She sprinted toward her home, shouting her father’s name as she climbed the steps to the porch and threw the door open. But the house was empty, her father having either fled the flames or been caught in the village when the conflagration first started. Keiko searched the tiny interior all the same, and when she’d convinced herself that her father was gone she hurried outside, realizing she herself was now in danger. But she froze as she reached the front porch and stared in terror at the huge, glowing wall of light that loomed before her.
To her amazement, the fire slowed as it drew closer, and then turned aside, slipping around her little house and the coop set nearby before continuing onward. This close, that fire should have been searing, but there was no heat to the blue-white flames that danced around her. And yet, it burned all the same, spreading like water and licking at the foundations of the nearby houses before climbing high into the rafters. She could see her neighbors running frantically about with buckets in their hands as they tried to extinguish those ghostly flames, but water only spread the fire further. Dirt smothered it, but the villagers could not dig and throw quickly enough to stop the advance of that wall of flames. Keiko watched in agony as the fire destroyed her neighbors’ homes and burned the flesh of those too stupid to run from its reach.
And in the wake of the fire came a rustling, an eerie sound that grew louder with every passing moment. At first she thought it was some great wind approaching, but as that sound drew closer, Keiko could hear a noise of crackling and crashing, and her eyes flew wide with terror as she realized that, behind it all, she could distinctly hear the basabasa that the folktales said was the sound of the Basan’s (the real Basan’s) passage. It was Basan, her Basan who had done this she realized, and now he approached in his true form. The fire breathing chicken monster Basan had come to Shimizu village and evidently he was pissed.
The rustling drew ever closer as Keiko stood on her porch, frozen with fear, and with it came another sound: the strutting stomp of huge chicken feet. Keiko strained her eyes, looking for the huge form that hovered at the edge of the blue-white light the ghost fire cast. She could not see him, of course. Not his body anyway. No one could, for the Basan wrapped himself in the night’s shadows as it stalked from house to house and barn to barn, burning everything that crossed its path. All that could be seen him as he stalked through the darkness were his eyes, which were bright blue and glowing, and the fire which leapt from his mouth, which was cold and ghostly blue-white.
The folktales held that the Basan was a massive creature, chicken-shaped and yet larger than any chicken had any right to be, being that it supposedly towered twenty feet and more above the ground. That part seemed to be true, at least, for the bright blue eyes that floated high above the ground were huge and round and large enough to be attached to a monster of that size. But those same stories held that the Basan was peaceful and timid. That its cold fire did not burn, and that it would disappear as soon as someone turned to look at it. These last two facts the storytellers had gotten utterly, horribly wrong. The devastation that Keiko saw around her proved that. Basan killed the people that turned to face him, destroying them along with the homes and shops and lands that they sought to protect.
Basan drew ever nearer and as those eerie-looking blue eyes turned to stare at Keiko, hundreds of others appeared behind it. They were smaller, though just as brightly glowing, and shone with that same cobalt blue color. And while the Basan’s eyes stared at her from high above, those smaller eyes hovered close to the ground. The sea of eyes drifted ever nearer and the rustling sound of the Basan’s passing grew to a roar, like the sound of waves as they crashed against the shore. The small spots of blue that followed in the Basan’s wake winked on and off as they moved, creating a undulating pattern that travelled across the horde of followers, moving from one side to the other and back again. This then was the Basan’s children, the offspring that had come from the creature’s union with Keiko’s own little hens.
“All those eggs…” Keiko whispered to herself, remembering the dozens that had gone to market and realizing now that none had ever been eaten.
The Basan’s children marched behind their sire, and a wave of blue fire spread in every direction as they advanced, breathed from the mouths of that huge creature and his tiny offspring. She knew the massive beast was her Basan, though she could not see him, for as he came near she heard that familiar cooing purr that was Basan calling in greeting. And Basan’s children took it up as well, mimicking the happy sounds of their great father as he reduced the earth to ash.
“Basan!” she sobbed, and a huge shadow swept by her, pressing gently against her side a moment before passing on, the sea of tiny blue eyes following behind and running willy-nilly by her feet.
Basan and his children moved on, and the fire went with him. She would not know the extent of the destruction they left until the sun rose the next day. It had, in fact, spread itself in every direction, consuming rock and wood and grass and everything else that came in its path for a hundred miles. The blue-white ghost fire burned all the way to the sea, and though the salty waters could not quench it, it found no fuel there to feed its flames, and licked uselessly at the shore before sputtering out. There were other villages that had lain in its path, and towns and cities as well. And when it reached those buildings of stone and steel it burned them as easily as Shimizu’s structures of wood and reed, melting the metal and cracking the chiseled rock from which they had been erected before turning everything to slag and dust.
The waves of fire that moved away from the sea climbed the lowest slopes of the mountains. But there it stopped, for reasons that Keiko could not explain. And while the land all around those mountains was dark and sere and reduced to ash, the mountains themselves were green and nearly bursting with life, for the animals had run ahead of those flames, seeking the safety of the high altitudes. Some of the people had made it there as well, and they wandered back to the village in a daze to stare at the disaster that had been wrought overnight. At the wasteland that had once been their home.
And yet, in the midst of all that destruction sat Keiko’s home and the little chicken coop where the hens had huddled, clucking and squawking in terror as the cold, blue-white flames rolled by. They emerged as the sun rose and pecked about the tiny yard that had been left to them, an almost perfect circle which surrounded Keiko’s home and theirs. And as Keiko stood and stared about in disbelief she saw the first bright green shoots of bamboo poking through the ash that was all that was left of Shimizu village.
J.B. Rockwell grew up reading fairy tales, folklore and mythology, as well as anything everything about ancient cultures and their history, and never lost her taste for any of it. Unsurprisingly, her college studies focused on anthropology with an emphasis on investigating mythical events and trying to tie them back to historical fact. After several years of low-paying, unsatisfying jobs, she went back to school and earned a very practical (and very boring) Master’s Degree in Business Administration which landed her a job in IT- a career which is neither boring nor unrewarding. She continues to write in her spare time and has several published short stories.