by Sharon M. White

Ever wonder what defining event twists a person just enough to make them want to be a horror writer? News flash: There is no one single defining event. Usually, there is no cluster of defining events, either. There are just those of us who like scaring the hell out of people and as a result seek out a career in horror fiction (or filmmaking, script writing, game designing, painting, etc–you get the idea). Some of us are just cut from a different, darker ilk than most. Really, that’s all there is to it. Boy, wasn’t that the safe answer? And, wouldn’t we all like to think that’s how it really is, ‘some of us are a little different is all.’ Yeah, that’d be the safe, easy thing to say and believe. However, this is not always the case. The exact opposite is sometimes the reason a person turns to the darker side. Sometimes it’s the only way they can kill and maim without actually doing jail time for the crime. Nah, really, I’m just messing with you.

Want to know how one horror writer’s life was influenced by outside events? Well, here’s an example scene from a day in my life as a small child.

It was Monday morning, and as usual, before sunrise, my mom dropped me off at Granny’s house. Granny only lived a few hundred feet from our house, so the trek from bed to babysitter’s house wasn’t anything overly stressful for any of us. During the summer months, Mondays were killing days. We had chickens, loads of chickens, two coops that almost equaled the size of the barn, full to the rafters with clucking, pecking, scratching, setting hens and a handful of roosters. On Mondays, we killed chickens. The result of a bloody day would be about twenty chickens, some whole, others cut-up for frying, cooling in the freezer for our Sunday dinners. This one particular Monday that my mind keeps calling up was around 1978 or 1979–I was four or five years old.

The sky was bright blue, the color of blue that only happens at the beginning of summer in the Appalachians. White puffs of clouds rolled by and birds dotted the sky here and there. The breeze was warm, low and steady–just stiff enough to ruffle my hair and the leaves and grass. Granny had a portable cage that held about fifteen to twenty chickens, depending on how big they were. The cage, set up at the bottom of the large, flat yard, sat next to a milking stool and a chopping block, which was only a piece of a tree that did not end up in the fireplace.

Granny took to the milking stool. The chickens amped up the clucking from the small cage. With the hatchet-edge already tested and honed to near razor sharpness, Granny laid it in the grass by the stool. Pulling the cage a bit closer, she shushed the chickens with a singsong voice and a smile on her face. She was never mean about killing, see. It was just something that had to be done if we were to eat during the winter months. No guilt. No fuss. No passing the hatchet to someone else–it was just part of our job as the women of the large family.

Granny opened the cage door, reached in, snagged a fat hen and closed the door but did not lock it, just propped her left foot against it. She hugged the hen to her chest, still shushing and cooing to it, and reached down for the hatchet. With artistic, skillful, perfect timing and rhythm, (she held the hen’s feet with her left hand, hatchet with her right) she swung the hen down to her side, then up and over in an arc toward the chopping block. Smack! The chicken’s head made contact with the wood. Whack! Before the chicken could protest, its head was lobbed off with strength and precision that comes only with practice. Lots of practice.

Granny tossed the white chicken’s body, now blood spattered, out into the yard so it could ‘run it off’ as she sometimes called it when the chickens ran around without a head, blood spurting out of the neck stump in little geysers. The head she scraped off the block with a flick of the hatchet blade, maybe a little too zealous of a flick for the thing landed right between my bare feet. Its eye rolled around in the socket and its beak opened and closed, opened and closed. I remember its eye stopped moving and it was staring at me, its tongue trying to cluck. It blinked. I did not. We stared at each other. The wind stopped blowing. The clucking of the other chickens faded and I smelled fresh blood. Hot, coppery and mixed with chicken shit. That’s not a nice smell to remember. The chicken head blinked one last time and the eye fixated in the socket, glossed over, and I knew it was dead.

The body, however, still seemed pretty upset about losing its gearbox. The body ran, flapped, fell over, got up and ran. Straight at me. It was coming for its head. Some ghost story of a dead man’s ghost coming back to retrieve his leg or arm came back to me. I looked at the head. Still dead. The body hit my shins. I couldn’t move. The wings beat at me, blood squirted up onto my shorts and legs, shit hit my feet, claws tore at my skin; yet I could not move.

Granny laughed. She laughed hard. Had to wipe tears from her eyes over that one. Yeah, it was funny. But only in retrospect. I didn’t want to hurt the thing that was flogging me, heck, Granny had just cut its bloody head off, that was plenty bad enough. So, I sidestepped and kind of knocked my knees together so it would lose its hold. The headless body flapped past me, ran in a circle three times and keeled over dead as a hammer. Finally.

I looked at my bloody, scratched legs and shat-upon feet, and felt thankful that I’d been barefoot and in shorts–that way at least my tennis shoes and good pants wouldn’t be stained. It’s the small things in life that we were taught to be thankful for back then.

When Granny was all done and finished laughing at the scene, she reached for the cage door again. This time she was set-to on the task. She wanted to finish and clean up before lunch. That’s when I noticed the artistic way in which she killed the chickens. The rhythms and beats of a hard life all being played out right in front of me.

Feathers rustled, foreign tongues clucked. Swish! Cluck!

The cage door opened. Squeak!

The hen was caught. Rattle!

The door was closed. Click!

Granny’s foot propped against the door. Whump!

She cuddled the chicken. Shhhhh!

She swung the chicken…Whoosh!

Chicken’s head contacted the wood. Thunk!

Hatchet. Whack!

Sling the body…Scrape off the head…Thump the hatchet in the grass.

An orchestra of life and death played out in front of me, and I soaked it all in, baby. Couldn’t do otherwise from where I was standing. One day I’d have to wield that hatchet and maybe I’d have my own style, my own rhythm. Maybe one day I’d be the artist in control.

Swish…Cluck…Squeak…Rattle…Click…Whump…Shhhh…Whoosh…Thunk…Whack… Sling…Scrape…Thump. And when Granny was in with the beat, she could really go. She went through twenty head of chickens like nobody’s business.

And there I stood, ten feet away, little more than a toddler, surrounded by half-dead chicken heads and bodies. My legs and feet sported more blood from the killings. More heads and bodies piled up around me. Blood soaked into the soft green carpet of grass that I played in, lay in, rolled in every day in the summer. Feathers wafted on the breeze, some stuck to my bloodied legs and others just floated on the air, up, up, up to wherever it is feathers of dead chickens go.

Granny and I cleaned up the mess, washed off the chopping block and put it back in the barn where it was used as a step-up so we womenfolk could reach the top shelf in the milking room. We gathered the heads into a pail and chucked them over the bank for the crows, opossums, raccoons and rats. We picked up the bodies and placed them near the gravel drive, lined them up nice and neat so that when we plucked the feathers we could toss them in the general direction of the heads. This was futile, in my opinion. With the slightest breeze, the feathers would swirl up and away, covering the hollow and all therein with sticky, blood-soaked feathers. Without a breeze, some of the feathers made it into the head pile, but not many and only until the next strong wind came up the bank.

I was too small to cut up the chickens, so Granny did that, too. I only got to pull the guts out and toss them into the pail we had used for the heads.

And I never could get that rhythm out of my head. I felt no horror at being attacked by a headless chicken, or that I was covered with blood, feces and feathers. That’d all wash off. But, that beat would never go away. It would wake me up at night. Call to me from the darkness. Whisper things–ugly, beautiful things into my ears. I listened. I was a good student.

There was a distinct beat and rhythm to the cleaning and packing procedure but I won’t go there. Not this time. That’s another story for another time.

Sharon White lives in the rural town of Erwin in the hills of East Tennessee with her husband and their children. Her works have been published in both print and online venues since 2004. For more information and free reads, visit the author’s Web site, Inkspot.