The Beheaded Chicken- Horacio Quiroga
The four idiot children of the Mazzini-Ferraz family spent the whole day sitting on a bench in the patio. Their tongues hung between their lips, they had stupid eyes and they turned their heads with their mouths open.
It was an earth-floored patio closed off on the west side by a brick wall. The bench ran parallel to it at five metres distance and they sat there unmoving, with their eyes fixed on the bricks. As the sun went down behind the wall at sunset the idiots had a fine time. At first the blinding light called their attention, and bit by bit their eyes lit up; they ended up laughing out loud, red in the face with their anxious hilarity, watching the sun with a bestial pleasure, as though it were food.
Other times, lined up on the bench, they hummed for hours at a time imitating the electric tram. Loud noises shook them out of their inertia and then they ran about around the patio, biting their tongues and grunting. But they were almost invariably shut away in the sombre lethargy of their idiotism, and would spend the whole day sitting on their bench, with their legs hanging still, soaking their trousers with glutinous saliva.
The oldest was twelve and the youngest eight. It was clear from their dirty and destitute appearance that they were completely lacking in maternal care.
Those four idiots, however, had once been the treasure of their parents. After three months of marriage, Mazzini and Berta expanded their narrow love of husband and wife, wife and husband, towards a broader and more vital future: a son. What greater blessing could there be for two lovers than that honoured consecration of their tenderness, set free from the base egotism of a mutual love with no end and, worse still for love itself, with no hope possible for renovation?
That is what Mazzini and Berta thought and, when the son arrived, fourteen months into their marriage, they thought that their happiness was complete. The child grew, beautiful and radiant, until it reached two and a half. But in the twentieth month it was shaken one night by terrible convulsions, and the following morning did not recognise its parents any more. The doctor examined it with that kind of professional attention that is manifestly looking for causes in the parents’ illnesses.
After some days the paralysed limbs of the child regained movement; but its intelligence, its soul, even its instincts, had completely gone; it had ended up as a complete idiot, blubbering, hanging, dead forever on the knees of its mother.
“My son, my darling son!” she sobbed, over that shocking ruin of her firstborn.
The father, desolate, saw the doctor out.
“I can trust you to tell you this; I think this is a lost cause. He could get better, with education up to the point that his idiotism allows, but nothing more than that.
“Yes. Yes…” agreed Mazzini, “But tell me: do you think it is hereditary, that…?
“Insofar as hereditary illness on the paternal side go, I already told you what I thought when I saw the child. As for the mother, well, she has a poorly-functioning lung. I can’t see anything else, but there is a fairly rough sound there. Have her properly examined.”
With his soul rent with guilt, Mazzini redoubled his love for his son, the little idiot that had to pay for the excesses of his grandfather. He also had to console and support Berta continuously, who was wounded to the heart by that failure in her young motherhood.
As is natural the couple put all their love into hopes for another child. This child was born, and his health and his clear laugh relit the fires of their forgotten future. But after eighteen months the fits of the firstborn fell again, and the following day saw him an idiot.
This time the parents fell into deep desperation. Their blood then, their love, was cursed! Their love above all! He at twenty-eight, she at twenty-two, and all their passionate tenderness was not able to create one atom of normal life. Now they did not ask for beauty and intelligence any more like they did with the first; but a child, a child like other children!
From the new disaster new flames of painful love flickered, a crazy desire to redeem once and forever the purity of their tenderness. They had twins, and the same process that befell the older ones was repeated, point by point.
But, above and beyond their immense bitterness, Mazzini and Berta had great compassion for their four children. They had to pull out from a limbo of their deepest animal nature, not their souls, but their very instincts that had been wiped out. They did not know how to swallow, change places, nor even to sit down. In the end they learnt how to walk, but they bumped into everything through their lack of awareness of objects. When they were washed they bawled until their faces went red. They only showed interest at mealtimes, when they saw bright colours or when they heard thunder. Then they laughed, sticking out their tongues and emitting trails of spit, lit up by a bestial frenzy. On the other hand they had a certain facility for imitation; but nothing more could be expected.
The frightening offspring appeared to have come to an end with the twins. But after three years they again desperately wanted a child, and were confident that the long time that had passed would have changed their fate.
Their hopes were not realised. And they became embittered with that burning desire that was frustrated because it was not fulfilled. Until that moment each one had accepted his own part in the misery of their children; but the lack of hope for redemption, faced with the four beasts that they had engendered, forced out that imperious need to blame, which is the special patrimony of base hearts.
They started with the change of pronouns: your children. And because the insinuation was loaded on top of the insult, the atmosphere grew charged.
“It seems to me,” said Mazzini on night, having just come in and washed his hands, “that you could keep the boys a bit cleaner.”
Berta continued reading as if she had not heard.
“It’s the first time,” she replied after a while, “that I have seen you take an interest in the state of your children.”
Mazzini turned his head slightly towards her with a forced smile:
“Of our children, it seems to me?”
“Oh well; of our children. You like it that way?” She looked up at him.
This time Mazzini expressed himself clearly:
“I think you are not going to tell me that it is my fault, are you?”
“Oh, no!” Berta smiled at him pale in the face. “But I also suppose you won’t…That would be the limit!…” She murmured.
“What would be the limit?”
“If anyone is to blame, it’s not me, understand? That’s what I wanted to say to you.”
Her husband looked at her for a moment with a brutal desire to insult her.
“Let’s leave it!” he said, drying his hands at last.
“As you wish; but if you are trying to say…”
“As you wish!”
This was the first shock and there were others to follow. But in the inevitable reconciliations, their souls were joined with redoubled fury and mad desire for another child.
Thus a girl was born. They lived for two years with anguish in their souls, always expecting another disaster. Nothing happened, however, and the parents indulged the little child so much that she reached the furthest limits of soft treatment and bad parenting.
If even up to recently Berta had always looked after her children, when Bertita was born she almost completely forgot the others. Her memories alone were enough to horrify her, like some atrocious deed she had been forced to commit. The same thing happened with Mazzini although to a lesser degree.
This did not mean that peace had settled on their hearts. The slightest sickness of their daughter now brought out, with the fear of losing her, their resentment for their rotten offspring. They had been collecting ice for more than long enough for their glass to be brimming and at the slightest touch the venom spilled over. From the first poisonous interchange they had lost mutual respect; and, if there is one thing that a man feels himself drawn to with cruel delight, it is humiliating a person totally once he has begun the exercise. Before they held themselves back because of the mutual lack of success; now that success had arrived, each one, taking the credit, felt even more the infamy of the four offspring that the other had forced him to create.
With these feelings, it was no longer possible to have any more feelings for the four boys. The servant dressed them, fed them and put them to bed with evident brutality. They were scarcely ever washed. They spent almost the entire day opposite that wall, abandoned and far from the least caress.
In this way Bertita reached her fourth birthday and that night, as a result of the sweets that her parents found it absolutely impossible to deny her, the child had a shivering fit and some fever. And the fear of seeing her die or turn into an idiot reopened the eternal wound.
They had not spoken for three hours and the reason was, as it almost always was, the heavy footstep of Mazzini.
“My God! Can’t you walk slower? How many times…?”
“Well, it’s just that I forget. That’s enough! I don’t do it on purpose.”
She smiled disdainfully.
“No. I wouldn’t have thought you would!”
“Me neither. I would never have believed so much of you… little consumptive!”
“What! What did you say?”
“Yes. I heard you say something. Look: I didn’t tell you, but I swear that I would rather anything than to have a father like yours!”
Mazzini went `pale.
“At last,” he murmured through tight lips, “at last, viper, you have said what you wanted to.”
“Yes, viper, yes! But I had healthy parents! Do you hear? Healthy! My father did not die in a delirium! I would have had children like any others! Those are your children, all four yours!”
Mazzini in turn exploded.
“You consumptive viper! That is what I said to you, what I wanted to say! Ask! Ask the doctor who has the greater guilt for the meningitis of your children: my father or your clapped out lung, viper!
They carried on more and more violently until a groan from Bertita instantly sealed their lips. At one o’clock in the morning the slight indigestion had disappeared and as inevitably happens with all young couples who have loved each other intensely once, the reconciliation came, as effusive in its coming as the hurts were wounding.
Dawn announced a splendid day, and Berta spitted blood as she got out of bed. The emotions and the bad night she had spent no doubt were to blame. Mazzini held her in his arms for a long time and she cried desperately, but neither of them dared to say a word.
At ten o’clock they decided to go out after lunch. As they scarcely had time they ordered the servant to kill a chicken.
The radiant day had drawn the idiots off their bench so that, whilst the servant was in the kitchen beheading the animal, parsimoniously bleeding it (Berta had learnt from her mother this good manner of keeping the meat fresh), she thought she felt something like breathing behind her. She turned around and saw the four idiots, shoulder to shoulder, watching the operation with stupefied faces. Red… Red…
“Señora! The children are here, in the kitchen.
Berta came; she did not want them to ever set foot there. And not even in those moments of full pardon, forgetfulness and happiness, could she avoid that horrible vision! Because, naturally, however intense were her feelings of love for her husband and daughter her mood of ill-humour towards the monsters was that much more intense.
“María, get them out! Throw them out! Throw them out, I say!”
The four poor beasts, shaken and brutally pushed, went back to their bench.
After lunch everyone went out. The servant went to Buenos Aires and the couple went to walk through the allotments. They went back when the sun was going down, but Berta wanted to say hello to the neighbours opposite. Her daughter got away from her and went straight back home.
Meanwhile the idiots had not moved in the whole day from their bench. The sun had passed the wall already and was beginning to go down and they continued to stare at the bricks, more inert than ever.
Suddenly something appeared between them and the wall. Their sister, tired of being with her parents for five hours, wanted to look for herself. Standing at the foot of the wall, she was looking thoughtfully at the top. She wanted to climb over it, that was without question. In the end she decided on a broken chair, but it still did not quite reach. She resorted to a kerosene can and her topographic instinct made her turn the piece of furniture upright and in this way she made it.
The four idiots, with an expressionless gaze, saw how their sister patiently managed to get balance and how on tip toes she rested her throat on the top of the wall, between her pulling hands. They saw her look all around and look for s foothold to pull herself up further.
But the gaze of the idiots had become animated; the same insistent light was fixed in all their pupils. They did not take their eyes off their sister, whilst a growing sensation of animal greed started to change every feature of their faces. Slowly they advanced towards the wall. The little one, who having managed to find a place for her foot, was about to pull herself up and drop over the other side safely, felt that her leg was being grabbed. Beneath her the eight eyes boring into her own made her scared.
“Let go of me! Let me go!” she shouted, shaking her leg. But she was drawn back.
“Mummy! Oh mummy! Mummy! Daddy!” she cried out imperiously. She still tried to hold on to the top but she felt herself being pulled and fell.
“Mummy, oh, mu…” She could not scream any more. One of them squeezed her neck, pushing her curls aside like feathers, and the others dragged her by one leg to the kitchen, where that morning the firmly-held chicken had been bled, its life drained second by second.
Mazzini in the house opposite thought he could hear the voice of his daughter.
“I think she is calling for you,” he said to Berta.
They listened anxiously but did not hear anything else. Anyway, a moment later they said goodbye and, whilst Berta went to hang up her hat, Mazzini went into the patio.
No one replied.
“Bertita!” he raised his voice, angry now.
And the silence was so funereal for his ever-fearful heart, that his back went cold with a horrible foreboding.
“My daughter! My daughter!” Now he ran desperately towards the end. But as he went past the kitchen he saw on the floor a sea of blood. He violently pushed the half-open door, and let loose a shriek of terror.
Berta, who had already started running when she heard the anxious calls of the father, heard this shriek and replied with another. But when she rushed forward to enter the kitchen, Mazzini, as pale as death, put himself in her path and stopped her:
“Don’t go in! Don’t go in!”
Berta managed to see the floor inundated with blood. She could only throw her arms over her head and collapse alongside him with a hoarse sob.