Plague Rooster

Micah Hyatt

Story image for Plague Rooster by Micah Hyatt

I

Follow me, children, Grandmother says,

Across concrete bridges strangled by vines
Down deserted streets marked by meaningless lines
Around the metal husks of cars
Become the nests of beasts

We will stay away from the buildings
Where only the dead reside
Waiting on unpowered elevators
That will never rise

To the shrine that stands in the midst of the city
I will show you where our new beginning began

Grandfather grunts
Tell them the truth this time, he says, not the pretty myth you made
They deserve to know about—

I will tell it the only way they will understand, Grandmother says
Too many words have been forgotten, and the parts I’ve left out
Would mean nothing to them without a background in virology,
Parasitology and applied microbiology

See? Look how confused the children are,
Scratching their heads
Science is dead
You and I killed it
Best tell them my myth instead

II

Grandfather sees
A squat white building with busted out windows
And the skeletons of his former colleagues

The summer rains have come early
And flooded the stairs

He sees it the way it once was
Busy and alive

The stone globe in the courtyard
Three rooster statues crowing
One statue shattered by the bomb-throwing
Terrorist that gave him his limp

This is the place, Grandmother says,
The home of our ancestral tribe
And when the sickness came to us
We brought our babies here to die

See the moss-eaten rocks of vague avian shape
Clutching water-smooth stones with their feet?
This is where Lord Rooster was born
And mistakes we must never repeat

Find a dry place to sit, now
The tale is not long the way that I tell it

You tell it wrong, Grandfather thinks

III

Grandmother’s Myth

When your grandfather and I were young
Mankind had learned to fear
The curses beasts could pass to us
And their knowledge we held dear

Lord Rat was eldest bearer of these maladies
A black shape skittering through our heads
The fleas he carried with him
Would bite us in our beds

And in eight days
The bells would toll
Announcing you were dead

Lord Cow was subtle for his size
The madness he carried in his flesh
Would pass to those who ate him,
Even when his meat was fresh

And in a week
The brain you had
Would be a runny mess

Lord Monkey was a tricky one
Plotting from his treetop throne
His curse stripped away immunity
So other sicknesses could grow

And without fail,
The tamest colds
Would strike us dead in droves

But it was Lord Rooster we feared the most
For though his wings couldn’t take him far
The little birds he consorted with
Were numerous as the stars

And when they sang
At morning’s light
Lungs seized and ceased to draw

No one could stop the spreading death
When Lord Rooster walked the earth
But your grandfather defeated him
How? I will start with Rooster’s birth—

IV

Grandfather interrupts

They were viruses, you understand?
The sniffles? The coughs?

He tries to find a way to explain
Concepts that no longer exist

Small creatures, living things
Invisible and discrete

Were they ghosts? the children ask

No, he says
Lines of code in double helix

Do you remember when we
Grafted the peach and the plum tree?
When I cut a branch from the one and Inserted it
Into the other’s cleft
So we would have plums out of season?

Viruses are like that
They are the scion,
We are the stock

They graft themselves to us
And together we bear fruit

The children stare up at him, baffled
The littlest one asks if Lord Monkey was a tree

Grandfather tries to think of a better metaphor,
Until he sees his wife’s smile

He sighs
Just listen to Grandmother’s story, he says

And walks off a ways to sit alone
Staring at the rooster statues
Still crowing at the dead stone globe

V

Ignore Grandfather, Grandmother says,

Look over there
See where the rooster statues stand?
This is where our elders sinned
And gave their last command

They fought a war they could not win
But so wicked were their ways
They summoned up Lord Rooster
And used him like a slave

They sent him to their enemies
Without considering the cost
For when their enemies lay dead
Lord Rooster remained aloft

They built this shrine to summon him
Trusting glass tubes to hold him in thrall
Then brought their children as a sacrifice
And laid them on his claws

Come to this place, sick spirit, they cried
Voices rising above the wind
Come drink your fill of our children
We will pay in blood for our sin

Then with their knives they plunged deep
And reddened water from a bloody creek
Rolled down the comb and wet the beak

Lord Rooster was born in a droplet—
A bird thing, his mind gone thin

The statue cracked
The droplet dropped
The sickness took to wing

And In the dying dark of night
Lord Rooster began to sing

VI

Grandfather clears his throat

They were not children we made sick
He says,
Embryonic stem cells never lived
An egg is not a chick

Our work was ordained
Sanctioned from on high
By government officials
Who wished to never die

They told us to open the disease
We unzipped it
Read nature’s code like data decrypted

Rewrote its essence to be useful
And implanted our lie so well
The human body swore that it was truthful

Listen to me, my grandchildren,
Lord Rooster is nothing but the name
We gave it when it jumped from birds to men
The statue did not awaken
We are not paying for our sin

VII

Grandfather’s memory is going, Grandmother says,
But I remember it rightly

The sun rising, the fluttering wings
Shedding rock and debris to reveal
A skinny raw thing
With its mouth open wide
And to it we villagers kneeled

We nourished him with blood until he grew strong

White and crimson feathers sprouted
His granite beak took a yellow hue
And when we pointed him towards the east
To our enemies he flew

The littlest grandchild asks,

What do these words mean, Papa
In the place where Lord Rooster once perched?

My company’s motto, Grandfather replies
Our knowledge will light the Earth

How did you stop him grandpa?

Who?

Lord Rooster, the child says

Grandfather looks away
With shame in his eyes
He says, I did a bad thing

No, Grandmother says,
You saved so many lives

Tell the story how you wish, he says
But leave me out of it

He turns and walks away
Towards the ruined city

They will be safe without him
On their return to the homestead
A side effect of the cure:
All the muggers are long dead

He perches himself on some rubble, brooding
Mist rises from cracked streets like ghosts

The surest way to kill a virus
Is to kill every possible host

Which he has done

It was easy and over fast
Everything but the regret

He lapses into a long silence, thinking
I am the reason there are no more birds

Hours later, the sun rises over a dead city

Nothing crows

Orbit-lrg

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Micah Hyatt

Author image of Micah Hyatt Micah Hyatt’s work has appeared in Deep Magic Magazine, Shock Totem, Little Blue Marble, Flash Fiction Online, and Daily Science Fiction. He is a veteran soldier, freight train conductor, and graduate of the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA program.

© Micah Hyatt 2019 All Rights Reserved. Plague Rooster was originally published in Shock Totem #11, Shock Totem Publications.

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: lotek56 and Pixabay.

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