Words by Sørensen

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Short Story: So They Fought for the Chickens?

Bebebebeep. Bebebebeep. Bebebebeep.

Tom rolled over to turn off his alarm. The iPhone’s screen glowed, making his eyes focus on the slender rays of light poking through the blinds. He wanted to stay in bed forever, but soon enough, he could see the little feet tapping behind the door. She knocked.

Careful not to wake up his wife, or the newborn across the room, he carefully peeled his way out of bed, then slid his feet into his worn-in slippers with a click, all before sliding his phone into his pajama pant pocket. Carefully, he snuck across the creaking oak wood floors, turned the handle, and greeted his daughter, who stared up at him with attentive brown eyes, holding her new book in her hands. Quickly, she held up the bright Jodhpur blue cover with golden flourishes as high as she could, then frantically opened it up as Tom carefully closed the door, gesturing for them to be quiet. “Did you know,” she started, her seven year old voice rising from whispers to squeaking with excitement. “That in India they grow rice and sugar cane just like you do?”

“I did not know that, honey.” Tom made his way to the kitchen as she promptly followed, still flipping through the pages. He pushed the start button on the coffee maker. It quickly began to brew.

“They grow cotton too.”

“Cool.” Tom turned on the small flat screen TV hanging from beneath the kitchen cabinet, as he rubbed his eyes free of sleep. He skimmed through the latest political interviews on YouTube, then did a quick scroll through Twitter to see if he’d missed anything.

“Dad,” Sofia said.

“Yes, honey?”

“Where does the food from the store come from?”

“Lots of places.”

“No, Dad. Really.”

Sofia was leaning across the table, staring at him. He knew she wasn’t going to drop it either. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. You help me cook Mommy breakfast, and I’ll tell you the story.”

Excited by this response, she let the book’s cover fall onto the table with a heavy slap and began to run towards him. The sound echoed across the ceramic tile. “Shh, honey. You can’t wake mommy up and hear my story. She’s gonna wanna tell it.” He winked at her. She giggled.

But as Tom fixed his coffee — two sugars, one cream — and began to wake up, it suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea how to tell this story. Where do you even start? he thought. He looked down at Sofia, smiling at him with her buck tooth poking out through her gums, and decided to start with whatever was in the fridge.

He opened the stainless steel door. The weight of the handle felt good in his hands. Suddenly, he was reminded of the awful white refrigerator he’d had in his apartment, back in the day, when he was still crushed by student loan debt. He never thought he’d actually get to own one of these appliances back then, when he was eating ramen and hummus every day. Then again, he thought, that was a lie. He’d always hoped he’d get here. He reached for the carton of eggs, the fresh slabs of bacon, and the organic butter; then shut the heavy door behind him with his foot. “Alright, let’s start with the basics, “ he said, before taking a large gulp of hot coffee.

“So you have your basic eggs and bacon here. As you know, eggs come from chickens, bacon comes from pigs. Now, back in the day, things weren’t so good for these animals. A little something called mass production. And you see this egg?” he took it out of the carton. “You see how hard and thick the shell is?” He handed it to her, the brown shell starting to perspire. “See how nice that egg is?” She nodded and handed it back. “OK, well this egg came from a very happy chicken. That chicken got to chase bugs, and dust her feathers with dirt, she got to see the sun. And all of that goodness and happiness from the chicken went right into the egg. Quick question: what do you think came first — the chicken or the egg?”

“Oh, oh! I know that one!,” she started, nervously trying to get the words out. “The chicken came first. And the egg was in it!”

“That’s very clever,” Tom admitted, never before considering that answer himself.

She smiled, “I read it in my book!”

He gestured for a high five, and she eagerly slapped his palm.

“Well, in your new book, did they have pictures of chickens?”

“Yes.”

“And were they outside?”

“Yes.”

“See, chickens in America, they didn’t always get to be outside. They lived in these dark, scary places and they were filled with medicine, and so the chickens weren’t happy. And so the eggs weren’t healthy. Their shells were thin and brittle.” He took out a skillet and placed a sliver of butter in the center before turning on the heat.

“So they needed to be outside?”

“Exactly. Same for the bacon. See, pigs are very intelligent animals. Very social. Like you and me. But back in the day, they didn’t get to be pigs. They weren’t in nature, they were in tight little cages and they got sick in there.” He placed another skillet on a hot burner, and placed the strips of bacon across. “And that made people sick too.”

“Who took them out of nature?” Sofia asked.

“We did,” Tom said, washing his hands before reaching for his coffee. He gladly gulped another mouthful.

“Why?”

“Well, mankind — people like you and me — they wanted to build things. They wanted to make life better. Easier. They wanted to make refrigerators and stuff. Keep their food cold. But you know, it’s really hard to make stuff. And back in the day, it was really hard to make a lot of stuff. And so a couple of guys got together, and they decided they were going to build something called a company.”

“A company?”

“Yeah, it’s when people get together to make stuff. And those people discovered that if they did certain things, they could make a lot of money, and if they made a lot of money, they could buy all the eggs and bacon they wanted.” He cracked a shell and placed an egg in the skillet. He repeated the motion until there were four bright orange yolks staring back up at them. The bacon began to sizzle.

“But who was making the eggs and bacon?”

“Well the farmers were. Like in your book. I’m sure there were people tending to those chickens. But see, eventually farmers and companies met. And then they became friends, along with some politicians, and then they all started the agriculture industry. And all the people who made our food were now stuck with all these company people and their government friends, and it worked for a while. But see, not all company people really understand the important process of growing food, like farmers do.”

He moved the eggs about in the butter.

“See, if you’re a farmer, you know that it’s important to have a relationship with the earth. You want to make sure the soil is good and healthy, because the soil runs into the rivers, and then the rivers run into the oceans. And then soil produces so much for us in return for keeping it healthy, like sugarcane, and corn, and beans, and grass. And then there are animals that need to be with that soil too.”

He flipped over the bacon.

"You see, the animals have thick and heavy hooves that stir up the soil, and they eat the grass, and because of that, grass seeds are in their poop, which goes into the soil and makes everything grow. It’s a circle, you see? The land needs the animals, and the plants need the animals, and we need the plants and the animals — but none of that can happen without clean water and soil. Got it?”

“Got it,” she said. “Bread?”

“Yes!” Tom said, completely forgetting about toast. “See — you’re smart! Lots of people didn’t get it. Lots of grownups. They didn’t understand this circle.”

“Why not?”

“Because some companies — not all of them — but some — they only think about profit. They want to make money. And there’s nothing wrong with making money, but when it comes to farming and making food, it’s more of an art form than a get-rich-quick kind of thing. First off, there’s the weather — never know what’s gonna happen there — and there were some really bad storms before you were born, lots of flooding. But see, company people didn’t get this. They just wanted food produced, packaged and sold. They put a lot of energy into selling that food too. Colorful commercials, famous actresses, catchy jingles — but see, now all these people wanted the food from TV, but nature doesn’t produce food that fast. Nature’s not a machine — and these company people, I tell you, they just love their machines. So then they got together with their government friends and decided that we should all make new food - stuff that could be made and sold really, really fast. Well, before you knew it, farmers were putting chemicals in the soil to make things grow bigger and faster, and then they put their animals in cages, so chickens didn’t get to see the sun or catch grasshoppers anymore. And all of that got worse and worse, and everybody got sick.”

“Why didn’t someone do something about it? Why didn’t people stop them?” Sophia asked, handing her dad bread for the toaster.

“Well, because people needed money. And people wanted food. And they wanted it now. So then scientists made fancy seeds — science seeds.  They wanted all the farmers to use ’em. And if farmers didn’t use the seeds, and didn’t put their chickens in the dark, or cage their pigs, they had their corporate funding - their money from those government people - taken away. And then some farmers were spraying their plants with pesticides that were killing all the bees — and you just can’t have food without bees.”

“Why would people do that to the bees?”

“Well, no one was doing it intentionally, honey. Nobody was like, ‘I’m gonna kill all them bees!’ It just sort of happened. People knew it was happening, but they didn’t know what to do about it. And they didn’t live on a farm like you and me. Most people don’t have bees and chickens in their backyard. You’re just lucky like that.” He smiled at her, and she scowled back, impatient for her answer.

“So, what happened?”

The toast popped up and Tom began to butter each piece, “Well, people eventually decided to stop it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, people got together and decided that they didn’t like the way things were going. They knew their food was bad. They knew that the old ways of doing things were better — more natural. They knew that we had to go back to nature.”

“How’d they do it?”

“Well, there was this election, and everyone was yelling at each other — but they all finally agreed on one thing — we had to save the environment, or there’d be nothing left. We had to keep the soil clean, and the chickens happy, and the grass growing. We couldn’t let these people who didn’t understand nature kill it because then everything would die — the cows, the pigs, the companies, the farmers. And then you wouldn’t be here. And your little sister wouldn’t be here. And mommy wouldn’t have her business from home, so she can spend more time with you. And we wouldn’t have our windmill, running this entire house on clean electricity. And we wouldn’t have our farm, and our chickens wouldn’t be able to see the sun.” He plated up their breakfasts, then put his wife’s meal on a tray, along with a wild flower. “You see how it’s all connected?”

“What happened to the company people?”

“Well they went back to doing what they do best — running companies and making profits. And their government friends were voted out of office, and we got new friends in government, who wanted to protect the soil and the water. Then the farmers were able to do what they do best, which is growing healthy, nutritious food for our stores and communities. And then farmers made their own companies, special ones that understand these kinds of things. And their new government friends helped them. Like me — I had no idea how I’d afford to start this farm, but here we are — all because a bunch of people decided to come together and fight for change. And they fought so hard, they won.”

Sofia returned to her book, and opened it back up to the section on farmers in India. She looked up at him, “People fought for the chickens?”

Tom smiled, and picked up the tray for his wife, “They fought for everyone, honey. And the chickens.”