“I’m not so sure you boys are ready to hear this,” Tom said to his three grandsons.
They were sprawled in various positions on the family-room floor. The youngest, seven-year-old Liam, pulled himself to his knees. “Tell us!” he demanded. Tony, nine, sat up and crossed his legs in front of him. “Yeah,” he agreed. Peyton, eleven and the oldest, propped his chin on a palm. “Ha, I’ll bet it’s nothing bad at all,” he said.
“Oh, it’s bad all right,” Tom said. He rocked once in his recliner. He turned his head slightly to check where his wife was. “Okay, here goes. It was a long time ago. When I was about Tony’s age. My family–your Aunt Billie, Uncle David, and me–we lived on Key Biscayne in the 1950s.
“Back then there weren’t that many people. There was a lighthouse, a zoo, and miles of beach, hammock and wild places. One of our favorite things to do was explore the old, abandoned Matheson coconut plantation. We’d ride our bikes to the shopping center, check out the comics at Vernon’s, buy some candy, leave our bikes there, then run across Crandon Boulevard; me, my pal Wayne, and Uncle David.
“One day after school–this was probably in the spring of 1959–the three of us decided to go on another expedition to the plantation. We scampered across Crandon, pushed through the thick vegetation at the edge of the road, and kept on going until we reached tall, yellow grass and palm trees. We were full of ourselves that day; we climbed sloping trunks and threw down coconuts. We stripped leaflets and stuck the spines into the tops of little, immature coconuts, which we whirled around and around and released; we called these buzz-bombs. We made a bunch of them to take with us, in case we ran into anything unusual.
“We walked for a while, then passed some empty cottages where the plantation workers used to live. The world around us was filled with the rustling of palm fronds. The sky was very blue and deep above. But everything else was gone. We were alone. Completely cut off. We felt nervous, so we laughed more loudly, chattered constantly. I hurled one of my coconut bombs and almost broke the window of an abandoned, decaying building that appeared out of nowhere on our right.
“We immediately walked over to the place, because we’d never seen it before. We began circling the structure; it was barely intact, ramshackle, stilted on blocks of wood. My big brother, your uncle, found the smoldering fire-pit first. It was on the opposite side –a fire still smoking inside a ring of colorful stones in the middle of cleared ground. ‘Hey, look at this,’ he called.
“Wayne and I trotted over. Wayne suddenly shouted, ‘Ewww,’ and grimaced. I looked where he was pointing, and saw it too. Just to the side of the fire-pit lay the scattered remains of a rooster. We could smell the poop and the blood; the thing was fresh. There was a head in one place, a brightly feathered body a few inches away, and the feet nearby–severed just above the shank; two rooster claws with spurs.”
“Yuck,” Peyton said.
“Definitely, yuck,” Tom agreed. “We crept close to this collection of body parts, not talking. Finally I asked my brother, why would someone cut up a chicken like this, and leave all the blood everywhere, and not pluck the feathers? I stuck out the toe of my shoe and prodded the red comb on top of the bird’s severed head. Suddenly the rooster’s eyes blinked, and the beak began to move up and down, and the stringy remains of the neck began to throb and vibrate. I yelped like an animal, I was so startled. I jumped backwards.
Wayne and David felt more brave because I was so scared, and they both kicked the head and torso. All at once, those claws, those feet that were lying all bunched up in a heap, leaped up. I mean, they didn’t just jerk or twitch, they sprang to a standing position. Wayne was speechless; I don’t even think he could breathe. He slowly backed away, in my direction, as the rooster claws seemed to paw the scrabbly ground, flexing and fisting, the spurs really big and sharp. David shifted so that he stood between those dead rooster claws and us. He swung his buzz-bomb around and around and let it fly; it hit one of the bloody rooster feet and knocked it over. But instantly, the thing righted itself and the two claws started sprinting towards us.
“We screamed, I’m not ashamed to say. We yelled and hollered and pushed each other nearly over trying to run as fast as we could, back the way we’d come. We never ran so fast in our lives. When we got to Crandon Boulevard, all bent over and huffing and puffing, our noses running, we hesitated for cars, then tore across the street, heading for the shopping center, our bikes, and the safety of civilization.”
There was silence.
Tom gazed placidly at the upturned, wide-eyed faces of his grandsons. “It’s the truth, a true story,” he said preemptively, raising one hand for emphasis. “Looking back on it, I guess we ran into someone’s secret ritual, one of those Caribbean religions like Santeria. Maybe the rooster represented one of their gods. Did we disturb them, make them scatter before they had time to finish a ceremony?” Tom noticed his wife hovering in the doorway to the family room, beckoning them for dinner. “Well!” he said loudly, bringing the recliner to upright. “Your grandma says it’s time to eat! Guess what we’re having?” He smiled, seeing the blank expressions on their faces. “Roast chicken!”
“Ugh, no!” Liam shouted. He hopped to his feet and raced for the stairs, his two brothers right behind him.
Tom stood slowly, stretching. He smiled at his wife, now standing inside the room. She did not look happy.
“You did it again, didn’t you,” she said. “Every time I cook chicken….”
“Guess it’s time to order the pizza,” he said, nodding with satisfaction.