The Chicken Sexer
My job is to sex the chicken.
Piles of hay everywhere. A soft layer of sawdust covers the floor of the barn; movement feels like walking through coarse sand. Sunshine penetrates through slits in the planks, causing dust motes to glow in the air like fireflies.
The farmer stands by the entrance gate. He is wearing overalls, a short-sleeved shirt, and a straw hat. He looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to do my job.
An old wooden table rests in the center of the barn, swept clear of straws and dirt. A loose ray of sunlight shines through a crack in the ceiling, hitting the center of the table like a spotlight on a stage. In the center of the table, a baby chicken hides behind its wings, shivering.
My job is to sex the chicken.
I adjust my tie and step forward.
“Waitaminute, Mister,” says the farmer from behind me. “I reckon I should see your credentials first.”
I reach into my pocket and produce the folded diploma from the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School. The farmer unfolds the diploma and reads it approvingly, nodding once as he refolds it and hands it back.
“Sorry, to doubt you, Mr. Jorgensen,” he says. “It’s usually a jap, you see.”
“Westerners are entering the chick sexing trade,” I explain. “I am the first to graduate from Zen-Nippon.”
The farmer steps back. “Get on with it then. Show me whatya got.”
I reach out and stroke the chicken gently with a single finger. They feel warm to the touch.
“There, there, little chick,” I croon. “I won’t hurt you.” They need to be calm. The chicken peeks out from behind their wings, looking up at me with round, innocent eyes.
I pick them up from the table with my expertly trimmed fingernails, turn them around, and gently squeeze their body, causing them to evacuate their intestines. The contents drop onto the table below.
I turn the chicken’s behind toward the sun and peer inside the cloaca. In simple cases, the passage contains a perceptible bead, the shape of which determines the sex of the chicken. This is not one of those cases. I could not tell you how I know he is male.
If I could, I would not have a job.
The farmer slides through the hay toward me. “So?” he says.
I hesitate, knowing what will happen. “It’s male.”
The farmer grabs him from my hand. “I knew it! I recognized the swagger of a cockerel. Ya, won’t be giving me any eggs, will ya?”
He throws the chicken like a baseball. The chicken ascends, tumbling through the air, glowing as he glides through rays of sunlight until he reaches the chicken grinder in the corner.
No more chicken.
The farmer throws the gate wide open, and the sunlight bursts into the barn. “Follow me, Mister,” he says. “Thousands more where that came from!”
At the end of the day, nearly half of those will be dead.
I return home after the massacre. There are no visible stains on my suit, but I feel dirty. I shower for a long time.
That night I dream of chickens.
The audience chants: “SEX! SEX! SEX! SEX!”. In Japanese, though, not English.
I am back at the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School, during my training, sexing chicks in the auditorium.
A yellow avalanche of chickens arrives on a whirring mechanical conveyor belt. I sex them like mad, struggling to keep up, sweating from my forehead. Females go down the chute, cockerels into the grinder.
ZKRGH! ZKRGH! ZKRGH!
The world around me fades away; I am in the zone; in a state of flow; whatever you want to call it; tearing through chicks like a cheetah in a chicken coop. There is only the sexing.
I am sexing five hundred chicks per hour, easy.
I sneak a peek at my closest competitor: Matsuo is busy sexing his wave of chickens. One glance is enough to tell me that there is no hope. He is like a sexing machine, his hands a blur. He must be sexing at seven hundred CPH at least.
Still, I win a respectable third place, not bad for a westerner. Professor Takada hands me the bronze cloaca and smiles. The crowd floods into the competition area, and as they approach, they morph into giant chickens, each more yellow than the last. Cloacas surround me everywhere.
I awaken in a cold sweat; the first rays of the morning sun peek in through the window.
Rays of sunlight shine through the cracks in the rickety barn. Why do we always start in a barn?
The test chicken is on the table, already calm. I flip them between my fingers and study the cloaca. I sigh with relief; this one is female.
The farmer smiles broadly when I tell him the good news. “An auspicious start to the day, do you not agree? The egg harvest will be bountiful this year.” He pats the grinder. “Guess we won’t be needing you today, Bertha.”
I hand him the chicken, and she curls up in his hand.
The farmer continues: “Let’s get through the rest, shall we?”
Oh, right. For a moment there, I nearly forgot.
On Friday, I go to Rusty’s bar with half a dozen other local sexers. Matsuo is there too. He is still the best, but I am getting closer.
“Do you think we are doing the right thing?” I ask after I have had a few too many drinks.
Matsuo looks at me through his stylish rimless glasses. “What?”
“The sexing, I mean. Why do we do it so early? Those poor cockerels never get to live…”
He sips his beer, cocks his head, and looks at me like I am an especially tricky cloaca.
“We save the farmers money, man. They would kill those birds later.”
“But then they would have a life, at least. Get to make their own decisions.”
“What decisions, Tom? They’re chickens. They live on a farm, and then they die. They do not have ‘lives’.”
He pats me on the back. “I think you’ve had a few too many gin-and-tonics. Let’s get you back home. Wouldn’t want the chick sexing inspectors hearing you disparaging the profession.”
Another day, another barn. The chick awaits on the table. The farmer guards the door.
I pick up the chick between my fingernails, evacuate their intestines, and peer deeply. Seconds pass. I blink a few times; the farmer coughs.
I hear the voice of Professor Takada in the back of my head: “A trained sexer can sex chickens with more than ninety-nine percent accuracy. However, no one ever gets to a hundred. You should not feel bad about being unable to perform with a single chick.”
I continue inspecting the cloaca, narrowing my eyes, looking for any kind of pattern to trigger my instincts. No matter how hard I look, I see no signs of binary sex, only the inside of a chicken.
“When an unsexable chicken is encountered, the solution is obvious.” Professor Takada’s voice in my head. “Simply sex the chicken as male and discard it. The farmer will never know.”
“Well?” says the farmer. “I thought it only took a split-second for you guys. What is it?”
I hesitate. “I… don’t know?”
“You don’t know? What the fuck am I paying you for then?”
I turn and look her straight in the eyes. Her hair is tied in a burn and she chews a piece of tobacco. “On rare occasions, we find a chicken that cannot be sexed. Such chickens are sent to Zen-Nippon for study. We will pay you for the chicken, of course, and I assure you that this will not affect my ability to sex your other chickens.”
The farmer snorts and spits tobacco juice onto the hay. “You know what I think? I think this chicken is male, and you don’t want it to die. You’ve grown soft.”
She approaches and reaches out, palm facing upwards. “Give him to me.”
I look at the chicken in my hand, and they look back at me with eyes that have yet to see the world. In those eyes, I see infinite potential: Every possible future in quantum superposition.
I decide to call them Alex.
“No,” I say.
The farmer smiles broadly, and her teeth are white marble tombstones. “Very well, then. I am entitled to defend my property.”
She saunters to the corner and retrieves an ancient shotgun, cocking it with a sound that fills the barn.
“The chicken dies, or you both do.”
I look at Alex, and their eyes tell me what to do.
My training was not for nothing. I balance Alex between two fingernails, and with a lightning-quick flick of my wrist, I send them speeding through the air like a dart.
The farmer raises the shotgun just as Alex embeds themselves in her forehead. The shotgun goes off, creating another solar spotlight in the farm, shining through the hole in the roof. Now holding the high ground, Alex pecks at the farmer’s eyes as she stumbles backward toward the gate. I sprint to assist.
The farmer wipes Alex from her bloody forehead, turns, and sprints through the open gate to safety.
I pick up both Alex and the shotgun from the straw-covered ground. “Nice work, buddy,” I say. “We make a great team.”
I kick the door open and emerge into the sunlight. Alex settles on my shoulder, and the shotgun pushes against the crook of my arm. The farmer is nowhere to be seen.
Then I see them.
They step out from behind the coop, a man and a woman, ray-bans glinting in the sun like black lakes, suits decorated with the ominous logo of Zen-Nippon.
Chick sexing inspectors.
I turn toward them and raise the shotgun slightly.
“Drop that thing, Tom,” says the man.
“You are not a murderer,” says the woman.
I wave the shotgun around a bit, but they keep walking. Alex rubs against the side of my neck. I realize they are right. I am not going to pull the trigger.
The shotgun falls onto the grass with a nearly inaudible thud. Kneeling, I make Alex slide down my arm to join the gun.
“Flee,” I whisper to the bird.
“Why are you here?” I ask the inspectors.
“Matsuo warned us about you,” says the man.
“We thought it best to keep you under observation,” says the woman. “To protect the integrity of the sexing. The honor of Zen-Nippon.”
I take a deep breath and enjoy the sun on my face. My career as a sexer is over. Maybe I can sell insurance?
The inspectors approach. Closer. Closer.
The sound of the shotgun reverberates through the air. The inspectors freeze for a split-second, then scatter, sprinting for cover in opposite directions.
Astonished, I look down. Alex has climbed into the shotgun trigger guard and pushed the trigger back. Their tiny legs strain against the opposite side of the guard. They release the trigger, look at me, and cheeps happily. Their eyes reflect the future.
The inspectors are now nowhere to be seen. I push open the gates to the coop and enter. The interior is so yellow that it makes my eyes water, and the heat makes beads of sweat run down my face. More baby chicks than you can throw an egg at mill around on the floor, climb on wooden perches, eat from tiny, adorable feeding troughs. The sawdust covering the floor is barely visible beneath the yellow mass.
Alex cheeps from their vantage point on my shoulder. The movement of the chickens subside and more and more of them stop to stare at Alex and me.
“I am the chicken sexer,” I proclaim to the writhing yellow. “My job is to sex you; assign you to your future. Your fate lies in my hands!”
That gets their attention. The last of them stop moving and turn toward us. It is eerily quiet inside the shed.
I take a deep breath. “I sex you as EVERYTHING!”
The chickens erupt in wild cheeps and Alex jumps from my shoulder to join them. Their movement grows wild and frantic. Unsexed, uncategorized, the chickens flow into one massive yellow composite, eyes, beaks, and tails rippling across the feathery surface of the being that grows in the center of the floor, quickly consuming every individual chick.
I stare enraptured as The Chicken flows toward me; my muscles refuse to move. Its feathers tickle as they touch my legs, and I cannot stop myself from giggling. I close my eyes in ecstasy as the warm, tickling touch reaches my waist and continues to engulf the rest of my body.
When I open them again, I see the empty chicken coop through holes in my newfound armor of plumage. I turn around – or The Chicken turns me around, I cannot tell the difference – and approach the open door.
Outside, the inspectors have rallied and are waiting for me, tasers at the ready. They gape when they see me, step back, unsure of how to handle this new threat.
I raise my arms and chickens launch from my hands, streaming through the air like yellow confetti. The inspectors scream in horror, waving their arms frantically to ward of the attackers, but their efforts are futile. Chicken beaks embed themselves in arms, hands, and faces, and the inspectors roll around on the ground, as if attempting to extinguish flaxen flames.
I step forward, still unsure if I am in charge, and more of The Chicken flows from me toward the inspectors, enveloping their faces and muffling their screams. They thrash for a while longer, and then they stop.
“Stop,” I say. The chickens flow from the inspectors and return to my plumage. The inspectors gasp for breath, faces nearly purple, and look at me with eyes alight with terror.
“Run!” I say to them. “Tell the others that those who flee will be shown mercy.”
They scurry away from the farm, down the hill toward the city.
An individual chick emerges from the plumage on my face and looks me in the eye. Alex?
“WE NEED MORE. TO GROW.”
The chick returns to the whole, and I nod. I start walking, and The Chicken flows behind me like a golden cape. A crown of chicks perch upon my head.
We march on the neighboring farms.
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