Casimir grabbed my sleeve as I turned towards the sacristy after crown rosary. "Columba, you busy now?"
"I was going to prepare the cases for the outlying masses."
"But it's only Tuesday.ţ
"I just like to be sure everything's ready in good time." Perhaps I was being excessively cautious, getting everything ready so early? Ned stood beside Casimir by the church door, looking off to one side at nothing in particular. We were becoming used to Ned═s trance-like withdrawals when he wasn═t immediately involved. Also, he had decided that ´Raymond═, his religious name, ˝naturally abbreviatedţ to its last two letters, with a verb to help them out, and that we should simply continue to call him ´Ned═. I thought that if, or when, Brother Gabriel found out about this, his investment in Ned being first to depart might merit a further flutter of a couple of hundred Hail Marys.
"Well you could leave them an hour or so, couldn't you? Half an hour. Maybe even less." Casimir nodded his head in response to his own question, as though to persuade me to nod as well. Casimir's cowl was too big, and looked as though it was swallowing him, his small head in danger of sinking irrevocably into its enveloping darkness.
"What do you want?"
"Come on out to the chicken run and I'll show you. I've got everything ready."
We walked round the cloister in silence. Inside the back door of the novitiate, Casimir handed me an old cane chair he═d found somewhere, and Ned a splintered cricket bat. He led us out into the afternoon sunshine, carrying a spade that was almost as big as he was.
"Terence won't help me, but Ned's offered and I knew you'd pitch in."
I lifted the front of my habit walking up the couple of steps towards the chicken run, holding the chair in my right hand, waiting to discover what I was pitching into. Casimir pulled himself up the steps like an old man, using the spade as a support. He seemed reluctant to continue.
"What are we supposed to do?"
"Symbolic stuff," said Ned, letting out a quick barking laugh. Casimir looked up at him with a frown. We stopped by the end of the coops. The cock came rushing across to attack us, smashing into the wire and screaming wildly. Casimir shouted above the din, standing imperturbable a few inches from the snapping and screaming beak.
"He's our problem." He tapped the heavy wire mesh fence with the spade, driving the cock wilder. "They call him Andy. The last lot of novices did." He stopped again. I put the chair down.
"Look, I don't get it. What's the idea? What are we supposed to do?"
Ned was practicing swipes with the cricket bat, supplying approving grunts after each stroke. Casimir looked down at the tip of his spade.
"We've got to kill him."
"Look at him! He's crazy. They should have done it last year. He's smashing himself up tearing at us or the hens' coops. And he's no good at his job either. If you let him in at the hens he goes berserk and tries to tear them to pieces. The young cocks are able to handle all that now anyway. He tries to mount the other cocks when he can get near them. We can't even get in to clean the coop. Look at the shit all over. Brother Gabriel said he'd pluck and cook him for the feast of St. Francis if we kill him."
The cock gave up shrieking and strutted back across his pen, pecking fiercely at the base wire.
"What am I supposed to do with the chair?"
"Well, I reckoned that if one person could hold him off with the chair, Ned's got a long reach and can knock him out with the cricket bat, and then I'll chop his head off with the spade."
There was a few moments silence. Casimir looked up at me with an appealing grimmace.
"You're kidding. There must be better ways of doing it!"
"What? I've been working this out for days." He pointed indignantly at the spade. "Brother John said this is the sharpest blade. He even sharpened it more for me."
"Was he laughing while he did it?"
"No. He agreed it was the best way. So does Ned. Right, Ned?"
"Oh, surely. Man against the wild beast, with his ingenuity and technology."
"Doesn't anyone have a gun or something?"
"I don't think so. Anyway, I've never shot a gun."
˝I've done some shooting," said Ned. "But this is more poetic." He stopped swinging the bat and came to look down at us, suddenly serious and didactic. "I think this is how the cock would prefer it. A fair fight for life. Or at least a chance of scarring your antagonist." Then he spun away to practice his sweep again, the bat whooshing down at knee-level.
"Terence wouldn't help," said Casimir. "Said it was un-Franciscan."
"He's got a point there."
"I don't think so. Unless we could cure it, like St. Francis did with the wolf. You want to go in and try? I think Sergius is just scared stiff. He wouldn't even go in the next coop with food. I've always had to do that."
"So I'm supposed to hold it off with the chair while Ned takes a swing with the bat?"
"That' s it."
"What if it goes for Ned and not the chair?"
"We'll be behind you. You might have to hurt it with the chair, but the quicker Ned gets a swing at it the less it'll have to suffer."
"It beats packing vestments for next Sunday, I suppose."
"I knew you'd help. Are you ready?"
I looked at the cock, still hacking at the wire. Then remembered it flying at us as we came up beside the coop.
"Let's get it clearer first. Do we stay close to the fence, or am I supposed to move out towards the middle of the coop?"
"Just enough for me to get my swing in, old man."
"How far's that? Where do you suppose? About to that mound of crap there?"
"Let's see how much room I need," said Ned, moving behind me, then jumping to the side, knees akimbo like a Samurai warrior, and swinging the cricket bat. "Oh, I could manage with only a few feet, I think."
"What if it goes round to your side, Casimir, after running into the chair?"
Casimir was silent for a few moments. "Can you angle it so that you push him towards Ned?"
"I don't know. I don't even know if I can stop him at all with this." The chair seemed something less than the ideal tool for the job.
"Well that's our only hope."
"If that's our only hope, I'm not going in."
"Not only hope like that. I mean that would be easiest. Come on, he can't kill us. We know roughly what we've got to do. Are you ready Ned?"
"Ready for action, commander," Ned saluted, cricket bat on shoulder.
"Come on, Columba. We've got to move fast or else it'll be on top of us before we're inside properly. Get ready. Sidle up to the gate. I'll give the word and open the gate. You dive in first, Columba, then you, Ned, and I'll follow and close the gate behind us."
My stomach tightened with the approach of the action. Hadn't I heard of people being killed by cocks? I wasn't ready for it, and wanted to suggest some more planning.
As soon as Casimir jumped for the gate latch, the cock looked up. I found myself inside the coop as the cock was screeching and running at us, wings flapping and dust and crap flying around him. I moved forward a few more steps, eyes riveted on the crazy scarlet head as it seemed to fly right at me, its feet barely touching the ground. I angled the chair down a few inches. Its neck stretched, eyes staring, blood rimmed. Then a soft thud as it hit, the screech stopped in it's throat. Then yowling like a wounded cat, tearing at the ground, claws flying, spumes of dirt everywhere. I felt the filth splatter my ankles.
I was amazed at its strength, and strained to lower the chair to prevent the mad animal clawing its way under. My feet were forced into the soft muck, and a chair leg caught in the hem of my habit. The yowling head was nowhere visible, but it seemed to me it would at any second start tearing at my bare legs.
Ned jumped out to the side, bat high. But the cock was entangled in the chair legs, a terrible mad choking shriek. I pushing with all my strength, trying to turn it towards Ned, feeling the body of the animal scraped round in the dirt.
"Ned! Get it! I'm going to push it."
I heaved the chair out to arms length, then pulled it away and backed up to the wire. The cock was clear, rising shrieking and tearing forward. Ned swung. The body thudded into the chair again. He'd missed! I still had the chair leg tangled in the hem of my habit, and the cock was caught by an angle of one leg of the chair and one of its rungs but also was flailing against my habit. I scraped it around in the dirt again, having difficulty keeping my own footholds in the soft, loose dirt. I put a foot against the fence and pushed the screaming bundle out towards Ned again.
"Now Ned!" Pulling the chair away again. Casimir═s silver blade poked towards the animal. The bat smashed the small head. Crack like a wooden ball. It slowed, head up again looking round, silent. Ned smashed again. Crack! Legs tearing at the earth, it still came forward and slammed more softly into the quickly lowered chair. Then it was down on its side, one leg jerking at the dirt, the other clawing the air. Casimir was in quickly with the spade before the chair was away. A flash down. The legs jerked faster, pulling the body upright. A huge spurt of shit as it rose. Suddenly silent, except for the scrabbling feet. I backed against the fence as it came to its feet. Gorge rising to see its head was off. I jumped sideways out of its way as it tore headless into the fence. The three of us stood watching it claw the earth, the bleeding neck through the wire. The red-eyed, scarlet-crested head lay beside me, bespattered with its own shit. Its body subsiding, jerking finally and falling sideways, the neck slipping inside the coop.
The animal's shrieking wildness all finished. We watched the legs give final tiny twitches. My stomach pushed up against my chest. I looked up at the pines swaying gently against the calm sky.
"Thanks you two," Casimir said quietly.
"Pleasure old son," said Ned.
"Perhaps you can help me pack vestments some time," I suggested, leaving the chair and walking quickly toward the woods.
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