Prelude for a Chicken
IT’S HARDER TO CHARM A CHICKEN than you might think.
I guess it’s because they have such tiny brains. Nothing against the chicken, of course—it’s not like it asked to be stupid.
That’s just the way it is.
Not that I’m in any sort of position to judge.
After all, I am lying flat on my back on a ground definitely covered in chicken poop, my upper half wedged under a shed and my flute clenched between my lips as I shimmy farther in. It’s hard to charm a chicken in any position, but doing so while wedged under a shed is not exactly ideal. I’m pretty sure my music teacher would confiscate my instrument if she saw me like this.
But sometimes, life requires you to rescue a trapped chicken with a bit of magic, even if it means getting a little dirty.
Taking my flute out of my mouth—after thoroughly wiping my grubby palms on my jeans, of course—I try the regular, nonmagic route one more time:
“Here, chicken, chicken!”
The little rebel I’m after is crammed just above me, between the shed and the fence on the other side. She’s attempting an ambitious escape, pecking at the metal fence wire.
Sighing, I turn my head just slightly and purse my lips over the flute’s embouchure. It’s an awkward angle, with my face half planted in dirt, and I wonder if this is really worth the five dollars Mrs. O’Grady offered me.
“Just a simple chicken charm, Amelia,” she’d said this morning, standing on our front porch, her cheeks ruddy from working in her little vegetable garden. “It’s that Rooter. She’s got herself jammed again, I’m afraid.”
Well, I do need the five dollars.
My fingers find the flute’s keys, arranging themselves in preparation.
Before I start, I take a few deep breaths. It’s no good playing when your heart’s bouncing around your chest like a basketball in a washing machine. I might set Rooter and me and the whole chicken coop on fire.
As the First Rule of Musicraft states: A spell can charm or do great harm. Before you play, clear the way.
When I’m good and still inside, I purse my lips, then launch into the spell that usually works on Rooter: “The Ants Go Marching.” A simple tune, good for calming someone’s nerves and, if that someone’s a chicken, luring them out from under a shed. I could play it in my sleep, but it’s not just about hitting the right notes. It’s also about keeping tempo and staying focused, or I won’t produce any magic at all. Go too fast or slow, and the spell will fall apart. Play it in the wrong key, and its effects could reverse, and I could end up scaring Rooter away rather than drawing her to me.
Anyone can pick up a flute and blow into it, but to turn music into magic, you have to play it right.
Mrs. O’Grady could have probably played the spell on her old harmonica and done the trick, if she weren’t going tone-deaf. And I know she is because I once saw her try to summon an apple off a branch too high to reach.
The apple exploded instead.
So you can see why her attempting a charm on Rooter might end . . . badly.
A few notes in, the spell starts to work. The magic isn’t strong—a few white wisps of light curl away from my flute and fade, shimmering, into the muddy ground. They reflect in Rooter’s black eyes.
On the second repetition, the chicken’s head perks in my direction and she stops her mindless pecking at the fence. Her head twitches this way and that, her feathers ruffle, and then she scoots my way. Curlicues of light swirl around her, the spell drawing her along and infusing her tiny chicken brain.
That’s it, I think. Come on, you old featherbutt.
The magic swirls around like white feathers, and when it lands on my skin, I feel the slightest tingle. Sort of like snowflakes, there and then gone.
I focus on Rooter, directing the flow of magic to her and not some other chicken in the yard. Playing while distracted is dangerous; the magic could get out of control fast without my willpower harnessing it and giving it a clear target. So I force myself to keep all my attention on the bird.
But Rooter stops dead, then begins to reverse, chicken rump wiggling this way and that as she shimmies back to the fence.
I’ve lost hold of her.
My stomach clenches with frustration.
I don’t have much time till I have to catch the train to the city. Before then, I’ll have to shower, pack lunch and my sheet music, and squeeze in a last-minute practice session.
“It’s not like my entire future is on the line here, McNugget,” I growl, catching my breath before trying again.
“What’s that, dear?” Mrs. O’Grady calls.
I turn my head till I can see her feet—woolly socks in sandals below the hem of her flowered nightgown. Mrs. O’Grady has reached the age where it’s perfectly acceptable for her to wear a flowered nightgown no matter the place or occasion.
“Just making conversation,” I say, adding under my breath, “with a chicken.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” she replies. “Rooter’s a good one for a chat. Understanding eyes.”
I look at Rooter’s eyes.
They wobble at me.
Wincing, I start playing again. It takes two repetitions of the melody before I can get Rooter’s attention once more. This time I give it all I’ve got, keeping my gaze locked on the chicken’s, until she starts moving forward again. Shimmying along, flute glued to my chin, I dare not go a smidgen faster or I’ll risk messing up and breaking the spell.
Finally, I clear the shed, still playing, and Rooter’s just a few chicken steps behind. The minute she’s in the open, Mrs. O’Grady scoops her up and cuddles her, cooing and fussing. I finish the spell, then lie in the dirt and chicken poo a moment, catching my breath.
“Oh, Amelia, thank you, dear!&rdquo...