Short story week, and I normally put a little ramble in here about how the idea for this particular (and slightly weird) short story occurred to me. You know, a kind of “behind the scenes with the author” type thing. Minus the empty tea cups, cat hair-festooned desk, and cookie stash in the top drawer.
Which is all well and good, except when you sit down to write a story, and the story you write has no relation to the story you intended to write, and you have no idea where it came from. I guess I just call that the creative process?
I intended to write about a vegetarian werewolf who runs a bookshop, but when I actually sat down I realised that I didn’t really have a story to write about him. Not yet. It’ll come. But I wanted a short story for this week, and I spotted a Lovecraft book on my shelf, which set me wondering what would happen in the strange little universe of my stories if someone got all keen about summoning ancient cosmic beings into existence (please don’t shout at me about the fact that this story has, in fact, very little connection to the Lovecraftian universe or the Cthulhu Mythos. Let’s just call that a starting point).
And then the SO said that there needed to be more stories about chickens, because chickens are cool.
The Chicken & The Universe
The sunset had been low and red, staining the stretched black clouds that littered the horizon and turning the leafless trees into blasted, skeletal remains. In the darkness that followed, the fire was the only light on the moors, and the wind whined and spat around it, stealing embers and flinging them aloft. Somewhere in the distance a dog howled, but up here was only rocks and brooding silence, and a grinding, angry dark that seemed to resent being held at bay.
“Here, move the tablecloth,” someone said. “It’s going to catch light.”
“It’s not a tablecloth,” another man said, sounding irritated. “It’s the cloth for the altar.”
“Well, it were a tablecloth when I bought it. And it’s going to be a fire hazard in a minute.”
There was some grumbling, then someone emerged from the deep shadows around the fire and crouched to gather up the altar cloth (which still had a Tesco Home sticker on it), a bag of black candles, and a cardboard box that clucked in alarm as he lifted it. He tripped on the hem of his dark robe as he turned to move away from the fire, and almost dropped the box.
“Careful! She’s a good layer, that chicken. Don’t want to lose her.”
Still clutching the box, Scott glared at his companion, a big man with thinning hair wearing a large plaid dressing gown over a worn winter fleece.
“Why on earth did you bring a chicken you don’t want to lose?”
“She was easy to catch,” the big man said, and took a mouthful from a can of lager. “Not that she probably will be again after this.”
“Well, no. She’s – it’s – a sacrifice, Glen. You won’t need to catch her after this, because her soul will have been offered to the Eldritch Ones.”
Glen frowned. “You didn’t say anything about a sacrifice.”
“I told you we needed to make an offering.”
“Yeah, but I thought we’d just sort of offer her up, and they’d say, well, thanks, but we don’t really want a chicken. No one ever really says yes to that sort of thing, do they?”
Scott put the box down safely out of reach of the fire and pinched the bridge of his nose. What had he been thinking, getting Glen involved in this? The man was wearing a dressing gown, for the Old Ones’ sakes. He tugged on the sleeves of his own black robe and took some comfort in the heavy material. With any luck the Eldritch Ones would just eat Glen and his damn chicken at the same time.
“Glen-” he began.
“Have a lager. You’re very stressed.” The big man was holding a can out to him, smiling encouragingly. “Look, it’s a beautiful night and you’re all wound up. We can sort this chicken thing out later.”
Scott took the beer with a sigh. He may as well. It was only six o’clock. He was going to have to put up with this sort of male bonding ridiculousness until midnight.
Scott watched as Glen threw another log onto the fire, sending sparks belching up into the darkness. The stars were out, cold little pinpricks above them, but there was no moon. Not tonight. It was the perfect night to bridge the gaps between dimensions, to draw unseen terrors into being and send the world reeling into madness. He sipped his beer and smiled contentedly. The only downside was having to put up with Glen, but he had needed some extra muscle for carting all the wood about, a Landrover to get them here, and also the potential for a human sacrifice handy in case the chicken didn’t do the trick.
He’d been planning this for a long time. A long time. His grandfather’s old books had held all sorts of hints and conjectures, and it had taken Scott most of his teenage years to really understand what the old man had been hinting at. Power. Eternal life. Riches. Adoration. But most of all, yes – power. He’d spent the last two decades deepening his research, even earning a PhD in obscure religions and philosophies. Amazing the material libraries and museums gave you access to as soon as you mentioned writing dissertations. And now – here. Here, in the heavy night of the winter solstice, on one of those terrifying nodes of land where nothing wanted to grow, that even the birds avoided, here with the fire burning and the darkness pressing down around them, and he could almost touch the cosmos, almost taste the glory of-
“You want a sandwich?” Glen asked. “I’ve got roast beef and horseradish or cheese and pickle. I couldn’t remember if you were vegetarian or not.”
Scott almost crushed the half-full can, and forced his hand to relax with more than a little difficulty. “You realise this isn’t a picnic?” he snapped.
Glen regarded the sandwiches, one in each huge hand. Scott could see thick slabs of white bread through the clingfilm, and his stomach grumbled unhelpfully. “I don’t see how you can do your ritual thingy on an empty stomach,” Glen said. “I mean, it must be tough work, summoning ancient gods and so on.”
Scott peered at him in the uncertain light, not quite sure if his cousin was joking or not. He was such an uneducated lump of a man, it was hard to tell sometimes. Still, at least he hadn’t objected to Scott’s “experiment into the beliefs and rituals of certain early cultures that inhabited the area.”
“Cheese and pickle,” he said. “Too much red meat is bad for you.”
Glen handed him the sandwich, and sat down cross-legged on the rough ground. “Maybe. Probably more so for you office types. The rest of us burn it off.”
Scott opened his mouth to point out that it was less about metabolism and more about arteries and cholesterol, then took a bite of sandwich instead. There was no point arguing with someone like that. He’d be irrelevant before long anyway.
Midnight took a long time to arrive. Glen marched around their perch high atop the moors, dressing gown flapping about his legs in the wind, pointing out favourite constellations and talking about some irrelevant local history, while producing a seemingly never-ending variety of snacks from the cooler in the back of the Landrover. He even started singing at some point, and Scott seriously considered making some sort of pre-sacrifice of him, just to shut him up.
But finally the alarm on his phone went off, and he scrambled from the front of the 4×4, where he’d been sheltering both from the cold and Glen. Thirteen black candles circled the fire, nestled into tall glass sleeves to protect them from the wind (Glen had called them “very designer”, but Scott figured the Eldritch Ones wouldn’t mind too much), and he crouched to light the first one. He was surprised to find his hand shaking, and it took three attempts with the long kitchen lighter to get it started. Blood was roaring in his ears, and he started to mumble the words of the chant under his breath. They worked like a mantra, the harsh syllables focusing his mind, his tongue struggling with the familiar yet clumsy shape of them.
“Bring the chicken,” he commanded Glen, drawing an ancient stone knife etched with ugly engravings from under his robe.
Glen looked unimpressed. “I thought we were offering her to them? What’s the knife for?”
“I told you it was a sacrifice. What did you think – I was going to put a bow and a gift tag on it?”
“She’s not an it. Her name’s Elsa.”
“Elsa?” Scott managed to ease his grip on the knife’s cloth-wrapped handle. He didn’t want to damage it. If this didn’t work he was going to have to smuggle it back into the museum in Alaska. Only of course it would work, if his cousin would just give him the damn chicken.
“The girls named her.” Glen had picked up the box and was cradling it protectively.
“I’ll replace her. It.” Scott beckoned impatiently, and his phone beeped. Five minutes.
“You can’t just replace her. It wouldn’t be her!”
“It’s a chicken!”
The men glared at each other across the ring of firelight, the candles guttering in the wind and smelling faintly of liquorice.
“Give me the chicken,” Scott said, in the manner of someone who knows he will be commanding dark forces within the hour.
“No,” Glen said, in the manner of someone who loves his chicken.
“Glen. I need the chicken.”
“No.” Glen took a step back. “I did not agree to you slaughtering Elsa.”
“Stop calling it Elsa! You’re making it worse!”
“Stop calling her an it! And put the knife down. You always were weird.”
“I am not weird!” Scott forgot all about preserving the ancient knife, and ran at Glen with it raised over his head, shrieking the gutteral words of the summoning spell as he went. The night shivered and pulsed. Glen, half-turned to run for the Landrover, stopped mid-stride and stared in horror as colours writhed across the sky. They were greens and purples and reds, but not like any either man had seen before. They were the colours of putrefaction, of old bruises and rotting wounds, but worse, much, much worse, and they moved with unseen life, as if something terrible pushed against the sky from beyond.
“Yes!” Scott screamed. “Yes, yes, yes! Come to me, ancient ones! Come to me!”
“You psycho little -” Glen lunged out of the smaller man’s way, losing his grip on the box as he stumbled over the rough ground. “Elsa!” The box tumbled end over end twice before the seams split, and a pretty but bedraggled bantam hen squeezed herself out and bolted, swerving drunkenly from side to side as she ran. “No, Elsa!”
“Shtlothgh! Agnoztheng! Grgneth bethngals!” Scott stood with his feet planted wide, his head flung back. He could hear blood roaring behind his eyes like the beginning of a migraine, and the colours swimming across the sky felt like they were drowning him. “Shtlothgh amngeron bectith! Awake! Arise! Come to me!” He knew the last words weren’t entirely necessary, but they sounded good. Wait until Glen saw what came down out of that terrible night to serve Scott. Let him see what the weird one could do. Let him see power. “Come, take this sacrifice I lay before you! Come, for he is yours!” Scott waved the knife meaningfully at Glen, and the bigger man looked at him in astonishment.
“Buggar off, you little monster. I try to help you out, give you a bit of family support, and now you think you’re going to sacrifice me? Bollocks to that.” Glen took a wary step towards the Landrover, not taking his eyes off his cousin.
“Don’t move,” Scott hissed. “They’re coming. Can’t you feel them coming?”
The fire gave a great, belching roar, lifting high towards the hideous sky then flattening out across the ground as if under an immense downdraft, burning green at the edges.
“All I feel is the need to get away from you,” Glen said, and scuttled off sideways, trying to keep an eye on Scott and not trip over at the same time.
“Shtlothgh! Agnoztheng!” Scott sprinted after Glen, the sickly light running off the knife and splintering at strange angles, describing arcs and ugly, meaningful shapes as it fell. The sky was pressing low, like the belly of some pregnant beast, and the movement within it was hungry and violent. The wind was building, cold and furious, tearing at the sparse vegetation and raking angry fingernails over the men’s clothing. Glen broke into a run that would have impressed his old rugby coach, who had always said he was never built for speed, and the world shivered and bled and groaned.
It was the robe that did it. That beautiful, expensive, special-order-from-America robe. That long, majestic robe that was really made for someone rather taller and broader than Scott (large had probably been the wrong choice). Scott stepped on the edge of it and pitched forwards with a yelp of fright, and Glen spun around in time to see his strange cousin go face-first into a cairn that collapsed obligingly. The sky shook with fury, rent with ugly splits that bulged open onto some eternal darkness then re-closed, as if some immense beast was struggling to tear its way out. Something howled at the edge of hearing, something that wasn’t a dog. It was a howl of terrible, furious pain and endless hunger, and Glen raised his hands instinctively to fend off something unseen.
Then it was gone, the echoes still rippling around the rocks and scrub of the empty moorland. The sky healed, folded, became smooth, and faded from green to purple to the plain velvety black of deep winter night. The stars ventured cautiously out again, and the fire crept back to its proper place as the wind faded away.
“My ndose!” Scott wailed.
“Ow,” Glen said, not entirely sympathetically. There was blood dribbling generously from his cousin’s face, and he appeared to have a sprig of heather embedded in one cheek.
“Ndamn you!” Scott said, struggling to his knees. “You bruined it!”
“Hey, you just tried to kill my chicken, and I’m pretty sure me as well. I’m not sorry.”
They glared at each other, then Scott looked down at the knife, still clutched in one hand. The blade was snapped off where it had been driven into the ground. “Ndammit.”
“What were you even trying to do? What was that?”
“De Edlritch Ondes,” Scott said, pinching his nose to try and stop the bleeding. “Dey would have gibend me grabe power.”
Glen regarded the smaller man, his robe pulled off one shoulder to reveal a skinny chest and a blood-spotted thermal undershirt. “I see.”
“I would habe ruled de world.” Scott looked at the knife sadly. “All ruined becaude of your stupid chicken.”
“Whatever.” Glen skirted his cousin. “I’m going to put the fire out. Then I’m going home.”
There were ice packs in the cooler, and Glen took them to Scott, still seated morosely in the ruins of the cairn. “They’ll help the swelling.”
“You don’t deserve it.”
Scott watched as Glen turned the Landrover headlights on the dying fire, swigging from a hip flask as he collected the tablecloth and the candles. It was true, he didn’t deserve it. He’d been so close! That pregnant, bulging sky, the screaming wind – it had been going to work, but all because of a stupid chicken… He closed his eyes and put the ice pack over them. He shouldn’t have involved Glen. That was clear. Next time he’d just hire a 4×4 and buy a goat or something. If there was a next time. The conditions wouldn’t be right again for another twelve years, and he’d have to find another meteorite knife in the meantime. That wasn’t going to be easy. The museums were starting to cotton on to the fact that things went missing when he was around, although they couldn’t prove anything. Plus he was getting older – what good was eternal life if you had bad knees and got up twice in the night to pee?
Glen’s voice sounded strange, and Scott supposed it was stress. Probably had no idea how to deal with what he’d just seen. Probably on the verge of a breakdown. Feeling somewhat superior, he took the ice pack off. “Yes?”
“Come look at this.”
Groaning, Scott pulled himself out of the wreckage of the cairn and tottered over to his cousin, crouched next to the remains of the fire with a torch in one hand. “What?”
Glen pointed with the torch, wordlessly, and Scott followed his gaze. For a moment he couldn’t see what Glen meant – it just looked like a little scrap of shadow, maybe a small piece of cloth torn from his robe. Then it moved, and as it moved it swam with ugly, ancient colours, with the flesh and texture of different dimensions, and Scott heard an echo of senseless howling in his ears.
“What the hell is that?” Glen asked.
“I – I’m not sure.” The creature, the terrible scrap of horror, was still moving. Moving towards them, scuttling over the ground with many legs, or none – it was impossible to see. There might have been tentacles, or tendrils, teeth or claws or horns, but the mind turned firmly away from identifying them. The mind, in fact, refused entirely to accept what it was seeing, and the thing crept closer, carrying with it a stench that stained the soul more than the senses.
“Is that what you were summoning? Your shag-zag thingy?”
“I – well, I don’t know. No one’s ever described one before.” The creature made a sudden dart towards the men, and they both straightened up and stepped hurriedly back.
“Well, command it or something.”
“I don’t think that’s an Eldritch One.”
“If no one’s ever described it, how do you know?”
“Well-” The thing made a rush for Scott’s foot, moving with a horrifying stop-action stutter, and he shrieked, falling backwards over a clump of heather and kicking himself away.
“Tell it to stop!” Glen shouted, keeping the torch on the creature. “Command it, go on!”
“Stop!” Scott screamed. “Stop, stop, I command you, as master and – and – nooo!” Because the thing went through the heather as if it had no concept of how physics worked in this dimension, heading single-mindedly towards the man that had called it so clumsily into being. Scott could hear that howling, lonely and gleeful and greedy and utterly, utterly soaked in madness, building as the thing got closer, and he was aware he was still screaming, but he couldn’t stop. His vision was swimming with terrible colours, and the night was colder than anything he had ever experienced, ever imagined, and oh, he’d made a mistake, he’d made such a mistake. This was why no one talked about his grandfather, this was why he’d just been forgotten, this was why the books had been put out to be burned before he’d saved them in his teenaged foolishness, and now what had he done? He would be lost, lost –
Something small and round and brown dashed over his belly, and suddenly the howling was gone, cut off as completely as a power cut. He could hear nothing but his own screaming, and the night was dark and clear and star-pocked above him. He blinked, gulped, and gave another hesitant little half-scream, but his heart wasn’t in it. Two wide yellow eyes peered into his curiously, and the chicken swallowed hard a couple of times, then jumped off his belly and pattered towards Glen, who was clutching the torch in one hand and a large rock in the other.
She pecked his boot and looked up at him expectantly.
“Good girl,” Glen said, his voice uneven, then put the rock down and tucked the chicken under one arm. “Well done.”
She burped, swallowed again, and clucked a few times.
“Will that thing kill her?” Glen asked Scott.
Scott pushed himself onto his elbows and stared at Elsa. “I have no idea,” he admitted. “Nothing in any of the books said anything about Eldritch Ones being eaten by chickens.”
“Well,” Glen said, then stopped, thought, and shook his head. “I’m taking her home. I don’t know how I’ll explain this to the vet if she gets ill.”
Scott stayed where he was until he heard the Landrover start up, wondering if a chicken had just saved the universe.
She had certainly just saved him.
And there we go, lovely people – never underestimate a hungry chicken…
Do you keep chickens? Are they more family or egg supply? And are you a Lovecraft fan? What’s your favourite story? Let me know below, and thanks for reading!