By Ryan Bloom
By Inessa Chandra
Feathers fluffed over glinting scales, and talons gouged the dirt. The boy’s eyes clung to his shoes, slowly inching away from the advancing creature, hands clutching the cool handle of the bucket. He brandished the container in front of him like a desperate shield, hearing the shift of sliding grain within as he maneuvered it to parry any incoming strike. Its bloodthirsty beak and beady eyes were just beyond the edge of his vision, but still the lump where its venom sack nestled loomed large. Behind him, past the tall crooked slats of the wooden fence, the sound of busy efficiency clacked its way to his ear, and he tensed. It was close enough to call, close enough to run.
The boy stumbled back as the creature jerked its head forward, its forked tongue snaking out from the frightfully curved beak. An invisible noose tightened from within his throat, its knotted end knocking against his chest. Desperately unfocusing his eyes so he could see without actually seeing, the boy’s blood flipped through his veins, ready to leap out at any break of skin. Don’t make eye contact, he chanted in the place past his eye sockets and above his throat.
The sucking sound of air whipping past the fowl’s cobra-head dance drummed up the beat in his soles, and the pounding rhythm begged him to run in gasping rushes.
Its grunge-garbed wings reared up, expanding the creature’s size and presence.
Boots stomped up dust around the indignant creature, and it squawked its shrill stringent protests as it hopped backwards, wings flapping to regain balance, tongue flared like a fire cracker. The cockatrice pivoted drunkenly on a scaly foot, turning to flee back to its hay-filled den.
Carmine leaned her weight on the leg closer to the boy, eyes unrolling from where they’d been set high in safety against the cockatrice’s death glare. Her smirk announced her satisfaction at out-bullying the bully and silver-knighting the dunce-in-distress, but the boy really had no pride left to be offended at this. Instead, he kept his eyes on the hand propped on the jauntily cocked hip, nearly as afraid of the girl as the beast. His hands flew around the handle of his bucket-shield, and his eyes slid to the trough where his feed was supposed to go.
“Don’t let that grumpy worm scare ya’.”
The boy dipped his head in solemn agreement, reserved and quietly accepting in his lack of bravery. He scuttled towards the trough, sadly worn shoes scuffling through the dirt and droppings. His toe caught a rock, and the boy lurched forward.
A strong hand clasped his elbow, and he flinched, gingerly withdrawing his limb once he regained his balance. The proud dirt-crowned boots stared back up at him, and he waited while he tipped the bucket to fill the trough- for what he wasn’t sure.
“You ever need a hand, give me a whistle.”
The boy started at this abrupt order, and made the mistake of looking up. Her smiling eyes grasped his gaze, and a translucent sincerity exuded from the bright pupils. The exuberance radiating from her caught him unguarded, or perhaps they just rolled through his barriers. He chanced a small smile, and her grin swelled until he was afraid she might burst from the vivacity of it. Hesitating, he pursed his lips and let out three quick flips of a whistle. She nodded, matter-of-factly.
Then, she grinned out some words, and the brilliance of her teeth framed by happy cheek deafened him. As the initial amazement faded, his mind processed the words.
“The trough is overflowing.”