Elena Passarello reads from her new essay collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, published in February by Sarabande Books.
excerpt from War Pigs
By the second day under mortar fire, the 77th Division—or the “Lost Battalion”—was half its original size, and that half was more than half-starved. They were counting out their remaining bullets and pulling bandages off the dead to apply to the half-dead. For water, they had to crawl into eyeshot of German snipers, who fired at the first sight of khaki. This was about the time when the French, unaware of the 77th’s position, began shelling their allies.
The planes had been no help, with their terrible aim. They threw down food and supplies within arm’s reach of nobody. One airdrop landed two crates of carrier pigeons—eight parachutes strapped to each box—right into the German camp. But you can’t blame the pilots. It was 1918, and man had only been flying for a decade.
Around two in the afternoon, a young lieutenant named Orem ducked through the camp, a pigeon basket strapped to his back. In the box were the outfit’s last two birds, and both were hooting and nervous. Major Whittlesey had launched two other carriers the day before—each tied to a missive saying that three hundred men were still trapped, still suffering—but both of those birds had copped a packet.
Orem’s hand slipped as he scooped a pigeon from that last box, and when that bird escaped, flew up and away from him, all that was left for the 77th was one Blue Check hen, US Army #43678. The last pigeon of the Lost Battalion. The message she’d carry was ready for her, scribbled by Whittlesey on a tiny scrap:
WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL 276.4. OUR AR ILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT.
They watched her take off, the message rolled into a crucial tube at her leg. She circled the whorls of artillery smoke and then settled herself on a tree just downhill from them. When both major and lieutenant threw sticks at her, she jumped to a higher branch and preened compulsively, so they threw rocks. Then the young Orem, still mortified over butterfingering that first pidge, shimmied up the tree and shook her from it.
She got high enough that most of the Lost Battalion could see her: the able-bodied buck privates piling the dead into a makeshift wall; the three remaining medics, crazed with duty; the wounded left useless on their backs in the ravine. Anyone not hunkered into his funkhole had to watch her lifting up and away.
And what a vertigo she must have created for the trapped and the crippled who saw her escaping. This stocky dove, this fist with wings, tamping down the contaminated air in her ascent, pushing away all that was lost and clearing a space for all that is home. A pigeon in the air, lifting out of the trench, is a gray flag of possibility, a final opportunity for the doomed to pull their heads up. A pigeon in war is a chance to keep imagining.
Then a shell exploded underneath her, killing five men and sending the shocked bird to the ground. And that descent is the last recorded remembrance of the 77th’s last pigeon by any lasting member of the Lost Battalion. Perhaps they all turned away because they couldn’t stand to watch further, and this is why no 77th saw the moment when she relaunched her body—one eye just gone and one leg hanging by a tendon, tin tube still affixed. Nobody saw her wobble in the air toward Mobile Message Unit #9, twenty-five miles southwest, picking up speed as she flew. And since nobody saw her, no 77th doughboy could possibly imagine what was going to happen next.
Mike the Headless Chicken
Mike quickly figured out he could no longer crow. The few times he attempted to—hunkering into a center-stage chicken squat and flexing his wings—he only managed a low rumble in his belly. It felt like being buried under a mound of mud. It sounded like a kitchen sink with drain trouble. The gurgle and choke made Oley run for the eyedropper to squeeze Mike’s clogged neck-hole clear.
A shame, thought Oley and Clara. They could’ve upped the admission at least a dime for crowing. I mean, look how the crowds clamored when Mike gave ’em the littlest wing flap. But charging more than a quarter for a bird that mostly sat there just wasn’t Christian, head or no head. Plus, the show already ran on sin; that head in the Mason jar next to Mike was bogus. Back home in Fruita, Colorado, Clara’s tabby had run away with Mike’s God-given head, so Oley pickled a decoy to take on the road.
The newshounds came out to Fruita with their notepads, as did the zoological types with their magnifying lenses. They ate up Clara’s gravy pie and gawked at Mike’s spared brain stem and filed their stories from the field: “Beheaded Chicken Calmly Lives On” and “Headless Chicken Alive and Gaining Weight.” After the mentions in Life and the Guinness Book and the all-expenses-paid trip to the lab in Salt Lake—around the time tongues were wagging about Oley’s new-bought hay baler and his fresh-off-the-lot Chevy pickup—another rumor must’ve brewed that Fruita water helped chicken blood clot. After that, you couldn’t swing an axe without hitting some Fruitan who’d pinned down his own Wyandotte, first squinting himself as cockeyed as they imagined Oley to be. They’d miss the opening stroke on purpose to heat the blade, then they’d slice through the hackle feathers at a diagonal, sparing the base of the neck, where most of the chicken-brain hunkers low in a corner. Then the family would watch as the rooster’s head rolled.
The birds usually staggered off the blocks and stepped—one, two, three—before toppling into the dirt. A few stayed alive for the afternoon, or past sundown, or maybe even into the next day—the whole farm white-knuckled and unblinking until the birds bled out, or bashed into the stovepipe, or fell off the porch, or something. Mike could’ve told them: staying alive without a head is tricky.
The old men at Fruita’s Monument Café went on record that they couldn’t care less. Outside the Monument, though, the little girls with jump ropes demanded answers: “Mike, Mike, where is your head? Even without it, you aren’t dead!” One article answered the girls, saying Mike wasn’t dead because his will to live was “almost human.” But where in a headless chicken does this almost-human willpower lie? Nobody thought to ask that, and Mike obviously wasn’t talking.
It can’t live in his cocksureness, since crowing was off limits and his gone head scared the hens away. Could the will be vascular, then? A coagulative will? The simple will of platelets, thrombin, and myelin to keep godlessly plugging and sheathing? Or could Mike have the same will of those brachiosaur bones hanging tough in the Fruita shale, waiting for their second acts as hair combs, figurines—curios you have to be careful not to break while dusting the mantel?
He could have willed himself to fight the sure thing that is human folly, a noble course for any animal in the kingdom. Perhaps he already knew, that sharp night on the block, that Clara’s mother was visiting and making Oley’s axe hand anxious. He couldn’t help but reckon that, at some point, Oley would let that head-thieving cat out of his sights. He probably bet his bottom chicken dollar that one of these evenings, after the show, in one of these dank motor inns, he’d choke up, only to learn that Oley had left his crucial eyedropper at the last tour stop, two hundred miles in the dust.
What if Mike stayed alive, ghost head shaking in disgust, just to see what those two would cock up next?
But perhaps it’s best for all involved to think that Mike’s will was something else altogether. Some living things harbor another nervous system—one that pushes them past simply crowing, past just chasing hens, and even past the natural order. What’s the harm, really, in saying that Mike stayed alive for the promise of a tiny tent twisting with reverb? Or for cheers so loud he could feel them in the bumps of his skin? For the good burn of hot lights sizzling with moth wings, Clara’s starstruck touch on his back, or the soft fuzz of a hotel blanket in place of chicken wire and an apple box. For fan mail simply addressed to “the Headless Chicken in Colorado” that the post office knew to deliver to Mike’s farm.
Let’s tell ourselves this was what pushed him forward—eighteen months past one final lap around the yard and a headless roast. Maybe that same will to remain a rooster for five hundred unseen sun-ups is the will of Ziegfeld, of flash bulbs, of Borscht Belts, of gotta-dance. Of take my hen, please, (badump bump) and “Doc, my head hurts when I do this!” “Well, then you better not do that,” (badump bump) and Momma always said don’t count your chickens before they’re axed, (badump bump) and Rooster? I barely know ’er! (badump bump).
Maybe Mike always knew that, in this world, baby? You’re gonna need a gimmick if you truly wanna get ahead.
From Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello (Sarabande Books, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Elena Passarello. Reprinted with permission from Sarabande Books.