Friday, September 22, 2023

“Riddle Me” • by Richard Zwicker

The road stretches in front of me like a two-dimensional wall, the straight line nature abhors. It stops me in my chicken tracks. Ironic, as the purpose of a road is to go somewhere. I sense a wealth of information, poultry and otherwise, but have no memory of myself prior to this moment. 

The smooth dark asphalt stretches as far as I can see: rolling hills in the distance, a whistling wind rustling the untended grass. I see no evidence of chickens. No footprints, no feathers, no excrement. What can I do here? I’m not built for travel. My fattened body balances precariously on stubby legs. Each step causes me to gasp.

I sense danger in weight. I could walk farther along this road, strengthen my legs, melt the pounds. But what could I do with a fit body? Go farther down the road, just to turn around? “You would feel better,” my thin interior chicken says. Carrying this weight is a burden, but if I just sit here on the side of the road, isn’t that the same thing, with less effort? 

I’ll think about it. I have time, I think.

Someone went to a great deal of trouble to build this road. It’s not new. Something, perhaps frost heaves, has pierced its surface. Perhaps its creators had grander visions for this area than an empty field. Did they see a thriving town, with hundreds of houses sheltering the hopes and dreams of hardworking people? But maybe someone had other visions and built a new highway, rendering this road superfluous. Is this the road less taken because it doesn’t go anywhere? Have its creators gone to other projects and forgotten it?

It took millennia to move enormous glaciers to shape these rolling hills. Such expended power, such effort. And I, a chicken standing on the side of a road. Somehow I know chickens are raised to be eaten. No chicken has made a mark on history, except indirectly. A poorly cooked or preserved chicken may have poisoned someone who’d otherwise have done something important. But the idea of chickens mobilizing is preposterous. They’re already penned together, and look what it gets them? A one-way ticket into the pot. I think of togetherness, yet I am alone, a chicken without a cause.

The roar of a passing car wrenches me from my musings, leaving a vacuum that pulls me several inches over the asphalt edge. My tiny heart beats like a spinning flat tire. A bright-eyed child in the back window points at me, a shrinking connection that quickly vanishes. Dazed, I scurry back to the safety of the adjoining field. The threat of the pot doesn’t inspire chickens to individual greatness, but could I use the danger of the road for my own ends? I felt a connection to that child. Though it wasn’t driving, it was going to a place beyond the hills, to do things I couldn’t imagine. I could hitch a ride with a car! The idea wilts like an old celery stick. Who would pick up a chicken? I registered on the child’s radar, but only in passing. “Look at the chicken!” End of discourse.

Limited options are not necessarily bad. Too many choices can be overwhelming and meaningless. No, the only reasonable challenge has been staring me in the feathered face all this time: I need to cross the road.

But what’s the difference? This road bisects a deserted plain rounded with rolling hills. Once crossed, the road would be behind me instead of in front, until I turned around. I would still be a chicken standing by the side of the road. Not only that, but the appeal of crossing would be diminished by the fact that I’d already done it.   

What if I never cross this road? Can I be sustained by the mystery of what might have been? Because there’s not much mystery in the life of a chicken. But I can’t resist, and somehow, I want to believe I’ve been put by this road for a reason. 

I place one claw in front of the other and feel the difference in surfaces. Asphalt possesses no give and I leave no prints. A strange sensation, as if my claws sleep. When I reach the white, straight, broken line, I remember from somewhere to look both ways when crossing a road. It lays deserted, as if closed for my trek. I feel no vibrations, the surface silent as a discarded drum. 

As I increase my speed, an unexpected pothole spills me to the ground. I scramble to my claws and complete the last few inches like a crazed mother hen. 

And here I am, on the other side. My sense of accomplishment hangs in the air like a feather, then flutters to the ground. The same hills, the same lonely breeze, the same road as I face east instead of west. 

I look around and see no one. Why did I do this? The question, everything, leads me to expect something grander. I turn and look at the road I’ve just crossed. The road looks back at me. And still beyond is the other side.

I laugh. 

Richard Zwicker is a retired English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with his wife and beagle. His short stories have appeared in Stupefying Stories, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Dragon Gems, and other semi-pro markets. Walden Planet and The Reopened Cask are two collections of his work. In addition to reading and writing, he likes to play the piano, jog, and fight the good fight against age. Though he lived in Brazil for eight years, he is still a lousy soccer player. 

“Riddle Me” first appeared in Stupefying Stories 7. See what you’ve been missing by not following us? His next story, “Possession is Ten-Tenths of the Law,” is coming soon in Stupefying Stories 26. Don’t miss it!  



Karin Terebessy said...

There is so much I love about this piece I almost don’t know where to begin. Okay, let’s start with the first line and the depiction of the challenge as a “two dimensional wall, the straight line” and compare that linearity to the circular nature of the ending. Then there’s the chicken as philosopher, paralyzed by the futility of action. Then there’s the allusion to “the road not taken” - a masterful work about choices written by a man for whom any choice would actually work out fine, so the stakes were low. But for a chicken with little or no power? No status? No prestige? Suddenly the road not taken is rife with treachery. I have so much more I can say about this piece but I’ll end where I began and say I love it!

Karl said...

Never has so much thought been given to poultry. I am truly impressed.