They Came For The Guineas: An Allegory For These Times


by David Asia (January 2011)

They came first for the Communists
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up. 

– Pastor Martin Niemoller, circa 1946      


Our catastrophe will come more slowly,
Never actually arriving,
As the space between each of us
And the end of the world gets continuously divided
By a steady stream of seductions
Soft enough not to disturb our slumber. 

– Anonymous, yesterday


The chicken yard was a fenced, rectangular opening in the middle of the meadow. Inside the yard, in addition to an area for feed and water, a sturdy, wooden shed with a galvanized metal roof served as nighttime roost, shelter from the sometimes overpowering sun, and as protection from the winds that breathed life into the little devils of dust sleeping just below the surface of the soft, yellow powder covering the ground. Beyond the fence, an expanse of open ground buffered the yard from the encircling tree line. That line of trees blocked all information about what lay beyond, and had become known to generations of chickens as the door from their familiar world to a world of everything unknowable and sinister.

As far back as anyone could remember, the clearing just outside the fence was where the guinea hens lived and worked. Their job was to raise an alarm at even the hint of an event happening anywhere within their line of sight.

For the chickens, these hair trigger guineas, and the routine of more than an adequate supply of feed and clean water, was all they had ever known, an eternity of now, blurring lines between past and present, lines which gave each moment its transience, the very quality which made each moment worth noticing.

The guineas vanished suddenly.  One day, they squawked and fretted around the perimeter of the yard, the next day they were gone. In their place was a company of foxes, each trailing an elegant tail. Gathered in the middle of the yard, the chickens eyed every movement of these new creatures with their sideways nods, speaking to one another in hushed, worried tones. The foxes, acting as if they had always been there, just outside the fence, purposefully paced the perimeter of the yard, ignoring the chickens huddled within, their own quick eyes darting to and fro across the landscape, ears cocked conspicuously towards the tree line.

In reality, none of the chickens had ever seen a fox. Older hens always tried to scare young chicks with stories of strange night noises and rapacious beasts with orange eyes and real teeth, but over the years, the villains of these stories had assumed mythical proportions in their young minds, and had to have been a race of giants in order to wreak the havoc elaborated in bloody detail by some of the more garrulous hens. Besides, like everything else which could threaten them, these mythic beasts were confined to the wild spaces beyond the tree line. The foxes, with their beautiful tails, and their obvious respect for the sanctity of the yard, certainly could not be they.

As dramatic as was the loss of the guineas, there were no changes inside the yard itself, a fact which went a long way to eventually settle even the most edgy hen. There was still ample food, clean water, and the familiar safety of the community roost.

But it wasn’t long before there was another shock:  the chicken house, usually closed up each evening, now remained open.  This ruffled the flock, and few birds were able to sleep for several days. After some time, however, many of them began feeling their way down the cleated ramp into the dark, quiet yard. It wasn’t long before the roost was abandoned by most of the hens, as more of them began to sleep out in the open, each claiming her own, separate space.  Sensing the anxiety, the foxes announced that they would provide extra security to the hens by patrolling inside rather than outside the fence. This would make everyone safer, and, if there ever were an emergency, shorten the foxes' response time.

Soon the most nervous hens came to accept this, and eventually, even the proximity of the foxes to the flock felt natural. And as the hens relaxed, so did the chicks, many of them becoming skilled at riding those wonderful tails while their mothers and aunties ate and gossiped.

With the community of the roost gone, the hens developed a very different sense of  themselves. Relationships formerly strengthened by those dark hours of quiet, settling sounds, the stillness, and the warmth and breathing of familiar neighbors, were gone. It didn’t take long for this to be understood as a good thing as well, another necessary adaptation to a changed world.

During the long, warm days, the foxes spent more and more time with the chicks, who invented games of peck and chase in groups around the yard, bringing the foxes in and out of their play as the latter’s duties allowed. As the bonds between the chicks themselves tightened, the bonds between the chicks and their mothers went slack. Like everything else happening in the yard, these changing relationships were simply accepted as the new normal. Eggs were laid, chicks hatched and grew into hens and roosters, the flock prospered, all under the benevolent eyes of the foxes.

Weeks of sun, adequate feed, and unaltered routine made the air heavy. But it felt like it had been this way forever, would continue this way forever, as if everything had been building towards just this time, this place. Everything seemed inevitable and indestructible.

The changes happened slowly. A hen here and there showed up missing a wing. No one knew quite what had happened, least of all the hens themselves, who told everyone that, well, one wing was better than no wings, and weren’t there always those who had lost more, suffered more?

Soon, hens appeared missing both wings, while a few others appeared missing a leg. Since the birds in the yard never bothered to fly, it seemed minor to lose your wings, and the birds missing a leg accepted that having one leg was better than having none. The appearance of hens with both legs missing made that seem all the more true, sharpening the edge of gratitude among those to whom such things had not happened.

Birds missing wings, birds missing legs, birds missing both wings and legs, became an increasingly common sight in the yard. Many could do no more than lay in the dust, beaks open, panting. Then those birds began to disappear altogether. This too seemed part of the changing world, part of the inevitability, and, now with little sense of themselves as a flock, each bird calmed herself with the private arithmetic of her own good fortune.

The foxes, of course, prospered. But soon, their numbers became unsustainable. Eventually, there were no wings, no legs, no emaciated birds. Finally there were no chicks. One day, the foxes too were gone.

The fence, the abandoned roost, leaning as if in flight from the prevailing winds, and the wheels of blown, yellow dust, are all still there. Now, though, there is the silence of a place emptied of life, punctuated only by the whistle of wind and the slap of the roost’s dull, metal roof against the remaining rafters. And there is the steady encroachment of the tree line as the patient forest marches to reclaim the yard.


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