Beggars can’t be choosers, the old saying goes.
I’d been unemployed for weeks, when I learned that old Thomas Maier was looking for help around his chicken farm.
To be honest, I was weary. I never imagined myself working at a chicken farm, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
There was also Old Thomas. I’d heard more than a fair share of rumors about him. He was said to be an eccentric, hard man who worked his farmhands to no end. Over the course of the past years, almost a dozen men had worked for him and none had lasted for long. Even stranger, none of them talked much about the old man and his chicken farm.
Yet I was out of options. I needed work, and I needed it fast and old Thomas chicken farm was the only option out here in the middle of nowhere.
I knew old Thomas wasn’t an industrial farmer, and he ran his place the old-fashioned way. No modern technology or machinery and none of that new, genetically altered chicken feed.
As I drove my car along the country road, I could already make out what was said to be his pride, his hatchery.
Multiple additions and various extensions had transformed what must’ve once been a barn into a huge patchwork monstrosity housing thousands upon thousands of chickens.
The moment I arrived, the old man was already waiting for me. I was nervous when I stepped out of the car and the old man’s probing gaze and deep frown didn’t help.
Before long, his demeanor thawed a little as he led me around the farm.
There wasn’t much to it. The garden his late wife had run was now almost completely fallow and what few fields he worked were used only for chicken feed.
Soon enough, he led me to his hatchery. A proud smile showed on his face as he led me inside.
I couldn’t help but gasp as stepped inside. The place had been huge from the outside, but seemed gigantic inside. Rows upon rows of nesting boxes were stacked upon another, reaching high above your head. As I followed him through one of the many aisles dividing up the place, I felt almost claustrophobic.
As we walked, Old Thomas described the basics of the job to me. The old man made sure his chickens were always well fed. For that reason, he filled the feeding troughs in the center of each aisle twice a day. Once around noon and once in the evening so the chickens would never run out of food.
“Only happy chickens lay eggs that make people happy,” he said with a smile on his face.
After that, he went to explain a few more of the ins and outs. He explained how he mixed up the different ingredients of his chicken feed, how to not disturb the chickens too much and how to get the eggs.
There were a lot of intricacies and some of his instructions seemed overcomplicated. I tried my best to listen and to remember it all, but there was just too much information.
Before long, the old man seemed to realize so himself. He sighed, gave me a pat on the back, and said it was only a matter of time till I’d get the hang of it.
I told him I hoped so, and that I’d do my best.
For the first couple of days, we took care of things together, but I could tell why the old man needed help around the farm. More than once I saw him wince when he picked up a sack of chicken feed and I could see him wheezing and panting as he filled the troughs. Old Thomas was getting too old for the job.
Starting the second week, I assured him I’d taken care of feeding the chickens by myself.
I regretted my decision almost instantly.
With the old man around, it had been nothing but work. Hard work, sure, but still only work. On my own, I couldn’t help but feel differently about the place. It was almost disorienting walking all these long aisles on your own. There was nothing but nesting boxes and chickens around you.
Occasionally, things felt a bit strange, and I could’ve sworn that an aisle seemed longer than it should be. While I dumped shovel after shovel of chicken feed into the troughs, I couldn’t help but feel as if the hatchery had grown in size.
In those moments, an image of the hatchery going on forever snuck into my mind. I imagined nothing but nesting boxes and chickens going on forever.
I always pushed those thoughts away with a laugh. The hatchery was huge, sure, but it was still just a place. All those weird thoughts and ideas were nothing but tricks of the brain or optical illusions caused by the mundanity of the work.
And yet, on certain, rare occasions, I couldn’t help but feel I was losing time in there and that work took me a tad bit too long.
Over the course of the entire week, these strange feelings persisted, but I shrugged them off. I was new on the job and I wasn’t used to the damned hatchery yet, that’s all there was to it.
And so, whenever the old man asked how things were going, I told them they were going well. At times I could feel him looking at me, as if he was waiting for me to say something else.
The hatchery felt always worst in the evening hours. After the sun fell, the ground was almost entirely deserted, and most of the chickens had retreated to their nesting boxes. From there they’d stare at me with half-open eyes, watching me as if I was an intruder, and they readied themselves to pounce on me.
During those late hours, I was always unnerved, slightly apprehensive even. I felt misplaced in this giant hatchery and as if the place was warping and changing all around me.
On Friday evening, as I pushed the wheelbarrow down the aisle, shoveling chicken feed into the troughs half-heartedly, a cold shower went down my spine.
When I looked up and stared down the aisle, I couldn’t make out an end.
I blinked, rubbed my eyes and looked again, but all I could see were nesting boxes and chickens seemingly going on forever.
I couldn’t help but laugh and shake my head. My stupid brain was acting up again. Just keep going, dump the rest of the chicken feed and get back out, that’s all there is to it.
The longer I stared down this never-ending aisle, however, the more I stopped trusting myself. After I’d dumped the last of the chicken feed, I left the wheelbarrow and shovel behind and continued on.
This was insane. The hatchery was huge, sure, but there had to be an end to it. There had to be! And yet, I just kept walking and walking and walking.
After long minutes, I stopped again. What the hell was going on here? Even if this was some sort of optical illusion, I’d been walking long enough to reach the other side of the damned farm! And yet, the aisle just continued on.
I took one more step, then another before fear washed over me, and I told myself to get the hell out of here. Something strange was going on, something extremely strange. The moment I turned around, however, it was the same thing. No end in sight.
Eventually, though, I set out. I kept my eyes open for the wheelbarrow and shovel I left behind, but no matter how far I walked, there was no trace of them. They were gone, just like the end of the aisles, and I realized the walls of the hatchery. All I could see were nesting boxes and chickens.
As I looked around, all I could see were the staring, half-empty eyes of chickens. These stares, they felt almost oppressive to me, as if the chickens were watching my every move, measuring me up and mocking me for being lost.
I continued on walking, intent on finding my way about. At first I was walking normally, but the longer the aisle continued on, the more unnerved I got.
I told myself that I’d just have to go a bit further, that I was imagining things and that I was almost out, but eventually, I couldn’t anymore. There was no end in sight, no walls, nothing! All there was were nesting boxes and chickens!
Before long, I was running, dashing past nesting boxes and the few lonely chickens who were still out.
I ran for long minutes, driving myself on faster and faster, desperately trying to reach the end of the hatchery, but nothing changed.
At least, that’s what I thought at first. When I stopped, panting and out of breath, I realized my surroundings had become more chaotic, bizarre even.
What had once been rows of meticulously constructed nesting boxes were now nothing but haphazard stacks that looked more like something that had grown than being constructed.
These strange constructions soon grew higher and higher, turning into towering monstrosities of impossible design. I laughed. How could something like that even fit inside the hatchery? But as I stared upward, I couldn’t see the ceiling anymore. Where once had been a wooden ceiling was now only a strange, colorless void.
The aisle I’d been following for so long deteriorated as well. Stacks upon stacks of nesting boxes sprouted from the ground here and there. It was as if all sense of order was gone.
I was confused, freaked out and scared, but my feet kept moving forward, kept dragging me deeper into this mad, bizarre world. And as I walked on, I stared at all of it with a horrible fascination and in an almost dreamlike trance.
All the towering stacks of nesting boxes around me were filled to the brim with chickens, chickens who were still staring down at me, still watching me.
And yet, before long, these chickens too were subject to bizarre changes. Some had bodies so bloated they almost didn’t fit into their nesting boxes, while others had long, dangling necks and strangely emaciated bodies.
I stared at these twisted creatures with a mixture of fascination and disgust.
More than once I turned around and tried to flee from my ever-deteriorating surroundings, but it didn’t matter which way I went. The longer I walked, the deeper I was thrown into the bizarre, further and further towards deterioration.
Eventually, the design of the nesting boxes made no sense anymore. What had been towering stacks before became physical impossibilities. They were leaning over one another, creating long bridges and wide arcs, constructions that could, no should, collapse at any moment.
As I stared ahead, I could see towers so high, so massive I couldn’t fathom them anymore. It felt like I was staring at distant cities, at a skyline comprising nothing but nesting boxes.
But it wasn’t just the nesting boxes, the chickens too continued to change. The further I walked, the stranger their forms became. At one point, a chicken with multiple heads and legs rushed past me. Others were flying high, souring through the skies on multiple wings, wider than should be possible.
The worst I saw was a chicken-centipede comprising nothing but chicken bodies, slithering around one of the nesting box towers. As my eyes trailed after it, I saw it slithering upwards before it vanished out of view.
Other chickens grew in size. From a distance, I could see a deformed chicken the size of a pig or cow, sitting in a nesting box the size of a garage.
As my eyes wandered around, I told myself there was no way a place like this could exist. A sound that should’ve been laughter escaped my mouth, but it was something different. I shivered when I realized it sounded almost like the cluck of a chicken.
I stopped, looked down at my body, lifted my arms and touched my head, half-expecting to find feathers and to having turned into some sort of chicken-hybrid.
But all was normal, no changes to my body and no feathers sprouting anywhere.
And yet, relief didn’t come.
This had to be a dream! Somehow I must’ve fallen asleep in the hatchery.
I closed my eyes, told myself to wake up and to get out of this nightmare. When I opened my eyes again, prying to find myself back at the farm, back outside, away from the hatchery, nothing had changed. I was still there, still in this mad and absurd chicken world.
Madness, however, soon turned into terror.
As my steps led me past another tower of nesting boxes, I noticed movement ahead. I stopped instinctively, wondering what sort of twisted, nightmarish version of a chicken I’d see this time.
What I saw made me freeze.
It wasn’t merely a deformed chicken. No, it was a chicken that looked like it had been twisted into humanoid form.
I saw chicken feet, feathers sprouting from a two-legged, upright standing body and a head sprouting a dirty, sagging cockscomb. Its wings weren’t so much wings, but feathered appendages, sprouting strange finger-like extensions in which it held a heavy sort of bucket.
The worst, however, was the creature’s face. It was almost human, except for the same empty eyes and the giant, beak-like growth sprouting from it.
I watched as the creature poured something wet and sticky from the bucket into a trough in front of it. A disgusting, putrid smell reached me and I had to cover my nose.
The creature, however, seemed undeterred by it, and I heard it cluck a few times. These sounds they were almost tender, almost friendly.
Mere seconds later a bizarre zoo of twisted, feathered creatures descended upon the trough, gorging themselves on whatever was inside.
As carefully as I could and driven by a mad sense of curiosity, I climbed on top of one of the nesting boxes nearby to get glance at it.
The moment I did, I stumbled back, falling off the nesting box and barely able to cover my mouth to hide the scream that had formed in the back of my throat.
That feed, it was flesh, the flesh of people. I hadn’t only seen a meaty, grounded mass, but fingers, hands, and feet.
As my eyes wandered back, I could hear the chicken-beasts feeding on it, saw a strange snakelike creature swallowing up what might once have been a hand.
A terrified yelp escaped my mouth, one I couldn’t silence in time.
At that moment, something stirred next to me. My eyes grew wide when they were met by the empty, staring eyes of another chicken-creature.
I was frozen in terror as I watched an elongated neck shot forward, further and further, towards me. The creature’s beak opened, and a strange, horrible, distorted cluck escaped it before it came for me. I barely avoided the creature’s attack, beating its head aside. A moment later, my hands, almost by instinct, closed around its neck and twisted it.
I gave it one jerk, then another before I felt something break.
In an instant, I was thrown aside as the creature’s body went wild. The now-broken, long dangling neck was thrown left and right while the creature’s huge wings flapped and beat against the nesting box. Within moments, the wood gave way. The creature went on, struggling for a few more moments before it lay still.
Its death, however, had been noticed, and I heard the concerned clucks of thousands of chickens all around me.
And then, terror washed over me anew when I saw the outlines of more of the strange chicken-hybrids in the distance who’d come to find the cause of the ruckus.
In that instant, I ran.
My feet pounded hard on the ground as I dashed past nesting box towers and abominable chicken-creatures. The sound of my steps caused many of these creatures to awake, to freak out, and to throw themselves from their nesting boxes. Soon I was running through a madhouse of feathers and twisted bodies.
I felt wings slap against my body, felt chicken feet scratching over my arms and legs, felt beaks tearing at my skin, but I continued on.
More than once, I had to wrestle something feathered from my body and throw it aside.
I didn’t know where I was running, didn’t know for how long, but all I wanted was to get away, to get out of this mad, surreal place.
I drudged on for what felt like hours, running, stumbling, before I tripped over a trough in front of me. Eventually, I fell to the floor and crashed hard against the wheelbarrow I’d left standing.
In an instant, I fought myself to my feet, tipping over the wheelbarrow before I realized where I was.
All around me stood the meticulously constructed rows of nesting boxes with chickens sleeping in them. To both sides, I could make out an end and the walls of the hatchery.
For long moments I stood there, in shock and disbelief, wondering what had happened. It had to have been a dream, a hallucination, but then I noticed the wounds covering my arms.
When Old Thomas put his hand on my shoulder, I cringed back, staring at him with wide eyes.
When he saw my quivering lips and the scratches and wounds all over my body, he led me from the hatchery and asked what had happened.
At first I was reluctant to speak, but then I told him I’d ended up… somewhere. I expected the old man to laugh, but he asked me where I’d ended up and what I’d seen.
As I rambled on, he merely nodded, and once I was done, there wasn’t much he said. Neither did he say much when I told him I was done working at his farm.
And yet, when I turned to get into my car and to leave his farm forever, there was something in his eyes.
I couldn’t make out what it was. It was a hidden secret, some hidden knowledge that sent yet another cold shower down my spine.