Don’t ask me how I know the sun has risen. In the facility, the lights are deliberately kept low, which makes maintaining any temporal sense nearly impossible. A low level of illumination reduces the frequency of scuffles between inmates, they tell us. It also helps ensure that any means of egress is shrouded in obscurity and darkness. As they are fond of saying here, obfuscation ensures obedience. From my cell, I can barely make out the end of the row of cages on the bank opposite to me. Still, I seem to have an instinctive knowledge of the movement of the sun as it ceaselessly revolves around the facility in a slow, measured march. Call it a feeling. Sometimes I wonder if it’s nothing more than a genetic memory.
Or no. I can vaguely recall a time when I was able to see the sun. I was young, so young that my existence depended solely on the will of others. The few details that remain embossed on my memory include the feeling of being cradled by rough hands, a pair of inquisitive brown eyes, a dark, rich scent that must have been wet earth, and an almost frighteningly vast arch of blue air, adorned by the single blazing jewel that warmed every living thing on the earth.
Yes, that was it. I must have been processed shortly after that time, because the setting of all of my other recollections is here, in this accursed place. In this exact space, as a matter of fact.
I’ve referred to the cells as cages, and in actuality, they are very little more than that. A cold steel mesh surrounds me on all sides. The floor slopes downward towards a narrow slit close to the ground, from which all biological outflow material is collected. A similar slit midway up the front of the cage allows me to receive sustenance. These slits are far too small to admit even my meagre frame — Back in the days when I had more energy, I would spend hours traversing those slits from one end to the other, almost compulsively probing for any weakness. Obviously, I’ve never found one. Besides, it’s clear that behaviour such as this is regarded as counterproductive.
A mind dedicated to admitting the positive in any situation might interject at this point with the assertion that at least the meals are regular. And that I never lack for fresh water. The water enters my cell via an overhead spigot. If I want to drink, I simply have to use my tongue to nudge a small metal ball slightly backwards down the excretion tube, permitting the water to pass through. Food is provided using a conveyor belt system affixed to the front of the cages, which allows the bland, textured meal to flow in a controlled stream down the stacks. A short siren wail is the signal for each of us to stand at the higher slit and wait for the sustenance to arrive. Then, we simply grab what we can eat as long as the stream lasts. It’s actually quite an efficient solution, if a somewhat brutal one. We can be fed right in our cells, which eliminates the need for transfer within the facility. Automating the system reduces the need for communication and minimizes the chance that one of our keepers might actually connect with any of us, or, even more unlikely, take pity on our situation. Lastly, removing human interaction allows for a greater density of cells within the building. No corridors, no wasted space. Merely an unceasing tangle of glinting mesh, gurgling pipes, and sterile belts.
Sometimes a metallic flavour pervades the food and water, reminding me of my earliest days in the facility. Then, all the food tasted tainted, somehow. Disjointed whispers about “inoculation” and “gene maturity” and “the latest strain” floated through the empty spaces of my mesh prison, but I never fully understood what was happening. And of course, nobody bothered to explain it to me. Why should they? I was merely a lower organism to them. Unworthy.
After only a few of those first meals, I quickly became aware of changes in myself. As my body rapidly expanded and matured, I came to realize that they were accelerating my development, trying to stimulate the natural urge to parcel up my genetic material and place it out there in the world. After all, I was a Producer. It was why I’d been selected. Still, I felt stretched and bloated. Swollen. Unnatural.
Of course, I’m used to the routine by now. The days simply blend into one long string of repetitive occurrences, as bland and featureless as the feed we receive. Aside from the small actions necessary to the preservation of life, and the few moments of rest I’m able to catch over the anguished shrieks of my fellow inmates, all of my time is devoted to Producing. Breathing deeply, every cell seems concentrated on the creation of a new life inside me. It starts as a single bright spot against a formless, foggy-edged darkness. Soon, complex strings of genetic code overlay this spark, twisting, tangling, twining around themselves. And growing. Rapidly growing. Once this process has reached a certain point, the embryonic materials are harvested and transported. I’m not sure what happens to them after that. All I know is that the structure of my entire existence has been precisely trained for this.
Once or twice, I’ve experienced an overwhelming urge to just get out. It felt like I was actuated by a spirit other than my own, or perhaps a flash of who I might have been under different circumstances. At those times, I joined my cry to the frenzied din of voices, a desperate longing for freedom straining every syllable. However, the dull, glassy eyes that received my pleas showed no indication of being moved by my speech, or even any hint that it was understood. At such times, I would sink back against the mesh in despair, and my Production would drop. A dangerous situation, as Producers that did not meet the expected Quota always seemed to disappear.
Daybreak. This one feels… different, somehow. Quieter. What few rays of light filter in seem to reflect at an odd angle, and the air is eerily still. Stretching, I cast a cursory glance over the confines of my cell. And that’s when I see it. An opening that wasn’t there before. Heart pounding, limbs trembling, I slowly make my way towards the square portal and carefully extend my head into the open space beyond the mesh. A narrow walkway that resembles our sustenance conveyor belt stretches into the dusky distance, sloping downward.
Step after step, I follow the walkway as it wends its way down. I feel like I’m wrapped up in a dream, entranced. As I pass the surrounding mesh cells, I notice apertures similar to the one through which I escaped. The strange stillness of the morning makes sense, now. Everyone housed in my stack must have followed the same path. A couple of times I think I can spy a form in the gloom ahead, but it’s always just out of the scope of my vision. Overtaking them, if they exist, is quite out of the question. I’ve been in the cage far too long, and it takes everything I have to simply continue walking.
Eventually, I reach a featureless, silver wall. A small rubberized flap guards a doorway, but it doesn’t appear to be locked or barred in any way. Well, there’s no going back now. Pushing the flap aside, I emerge into a searingly bright space. Long accustomed to the dimness, I’m almost instantly incapacitated by the violence of illumination. In the moment before my eyes were overcome by the dazzling glow of fluorescent tubes, I caught a glimpse of four or five people, along with a small stack of cages on wheels.
Coarsely gloved hands seize me. Panicked, I fight with all the feeble dregs of strength that remain, but it’s no use. My flesh feels the familiar embrace of mesh as I’m roughly shoved into a cage. Dizzy, and sick from pain and lack of nutrients, the world seems to heave and bounce under my body. Without warning, the lights gently fade, and an unaccustomed wind roars through the steel. When I’m finally able to open my eyes, the world still seems to be pulsating with motion.
Wait, am I…? There’s no doubt about it. I’m Outside. In a transportation cage, undoubtedly, but moving steadily away from the facility, and at a good pace, too. The sky is blue velvet, shot with twinkling silver. I’m being pummeled by air currents, but the smell. Oh, that scent takes me back to early days. A cacophony of clattering metal resounds throughout the structure. If I shouted out, nobody would hear me.
Rattle-rattle clunk, rattle-rattle clunk. A rhythmic tattoo from the bottom-right corner of the cage catches my attention. I notice that these are different from the cells inside the facility, in that they’re secured by a hinged panel and locking mechanism. They’ve obviously seen a lot of use, since the mesh is weakened, broken, and even rusted through in some places. The sound I can hear is emanating from the hinges of my cage. They appear to have been damaged in some way, as the pieces are no longer precisely aligned. The broken pavement causes them to clash and clank together, and shed flakes of rust.
Almost halfheartedly, I give the bottom of the panel a nudge. And it moves. The teeth of the hinge have separated a tantalizing fraction. A surge of energy seizes my limbs, and I deliver several more frantic blows to the hinge. With a groan and pop, it finally disintegrates, leaving the door hanging on only by its locking mechanism.
It’s an easy drop, maybe two or three feet. A mechanical switch from red to green, and the truck speeds away, leaving me in the delicious solitude of the open road and night sky. Freedom. Is this what freedom feels like? My feet embrace every pebble of the roadway like an old friend. Molecules of air dance gently across my face. The silhouette of crops in nearby fields seem to release enchanting scents with every breath I draw. Each star points to a new destination, a new opportunity. After all this time, so many possibilities. And it all starts right here, in this moment.
A deafening roar. An unbelievable blow, coupled with the feeling of all the air being forcibly driven from lung tissue. Petrification. A descent into crushing darkness, just before biological materials succumb to the unyielding physics of cargo hurtling down the highway at 100 kilometres per hour.
Passage out of this existence marked by a scattering of white feathers.
Ugh, hit another one, mused the man, as he gently piloted the semi truck back into the centre of the lane. Those damn chicken farmers oughta be ashamed of themselves, lettin’ their trucks get into such bad shape that they can’t even hold the cargo properly. Those scrap heaps can’t hold a candle to ol’ Rascal here. A small, proud grin played over his lips.
Besides which, it’s just bad business. I reckon I’ve flattened probably a coupla hundred dollars worth of them feathery bastards by now. Margin for error my ass! That’s just sloppy. In more ways than one.
He chuckles under his breath, enjoying his attempt at wry wit. Why didn’t the chicken just cross the goddamn road, anyway?
*Note: Story idea courtesy of my dad, who imagined things from the chicken’s perspective after encountering a thoroughly flattened one on the road. Also, I feel like I should make it clear that I’m not a vegan, and I don’t actually believe that chickens have the cognitive faculties as delineated in the story above. This was simply an attempt at some narrative fun.