Three chapters from
Tales of an Island Rooster
by Katha Sheehan

Illustrated by Antonio

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    Now Mattie was a glossy little pullet, light brown, black trim, with a rosy breast and a ring of black flames around her neck.

    Red derived great satisfaction from watching her in motion, although he couldn’t say why.  Maybe it was because she was “his” Clan.  Maybe it was the way the sun illuminated her feathers, bringing up an amazing purple sheen where at first it looked plain black.  Maybe it was the way she swung her full little body, and confidently crossed her shapely little green legs in front of her as she walked.  Or it was the comfort of the sounds she made when she was happy?  Her bravery the time she stood up to a snake, and forced it to back off?

    It was puzzling.  He found himself now following her around as she scratched and fed, positioning himself so he could glance down at her frequently.  He was especially drawn to look at that spot below the back of her neck, between the shoulders, where the feathers kind of jiggled as she nosed into her food.  When she expressed delight over a tasty morsel, he looked at that spot and felt his hackles rise.  It was a savory feeling.

    Red more actively sought out tasty morsels for her, to hear her make that sound.  One day he found the most beautiful palmetto bug any chicken could hope to eat.  He dropped it before her triumphantly.  She made that sound -- a sound which stuck in her throat, almost a choking sound, as if she were overcome with excitement. 

    Red felt his body go warm with pride.  He craned his head to see The Spot between her wings.  It was quivering as she worked the bug, slamming it on the ground repeatedly.  Red’s hackles rose, and his claw reached for The Spot. 

    Mattie’s wings popped out sideways in submission when she felt the weight of his foot.  Red grabbed the feathers on the top of her head with his beak, and now he was riding her and she was bracing for him.  He folded himself over her then, pouring his soul into her, and she fully accepted him.  In this moment of mutual surrender he spread his wings to their fullest and drew them forward, over his face and hers, as if to shield their rapture from prying eyes.

    It was over in a spasm of joy.  He stepped off, dazed, panting.  He wasn’t sure what had happened, but he felt it was good.  It felt like something he was born to do. 

    Mattie got up and shook.  She stuck a toenail in her ear and gave the ear canal a good scratching.  She seemed otherwise unfazed.  “Wow, now I’m REALLY hungry,” she said.


    This new activity, love-making, remained for Red a thing of undiminished charm.  They were now doing it several times a day.  Then Mattie told Red she urgently needed a nesting-place.

    Red threw himself into the Quest For Nest.  He began scouting along walls and under bougainvillaea, in abandoned washrooms and among the snake-plants.  Whenever he found something that looked like a good prospect, he called Mattie and she eagerly joined him.  Together they explored the possibilities of each location.

    Red would crouch down in the dirt and begin work on a nesting-bowl.  He scraped the dirt out from under him as he turned around in a circle, all the while clucking to Mattie and telling her how happy they could be with their eggs in this lovely bower.  She, meanwhile, would scamper all about and check every aspect of the location.  Then she would reject it.  They did this little song-and-dance innumerable times.

Art by Antonio

    Mattie was being difficult.  “This place is too humid.  Too near the street-- stray dogs.  Too low, might flood.  Too close to the snake’s burrow.  Bad lighting.  No air circulation. Smells funny.  Too far from water supply.  No emergency exit.  Just doesn’t FEEL right.”

     Red’s enthusiasm remained undiminished.  He was disappointed when she rejected another perfectly good apartment, but hope sprang eternal when he found a new spot to offer her.  Anyway, he had nothing better to do.  The bugs were running and life was good.

    Then, Mattie’s first labor.  She didn’t know what was happening at first.  She stopped in her tracks, panting, with her wings out.  She had a wild look in her eye.  Then she dove under Red’s breast, as if seeking shelter.  He looked down lovingly at The Spot, but something told him this was not the time for love-play.
    She soon came out of her panic and they grazed together for a while, but then she got that wild look again and took off.  Red could hear small noises under the bougainvillaea.  He scratched half-heartedly in the dust.  She would let him know what she needed him to do next, right?  This was taking forever!

    Then a squawk from the bushes, followed by cautionary cackling.  Red ran to see.  She was semi-crouched over a pink, humid egg, which she delicately rolled beneath her breast with her beak while she cackled her warning.  Red took up the call and together they celebrated The Egg.
    After a few minutes she said, “That’s enough.”  Red crowed the “all clear,” and the two walked away from The Egg.  It would not be there when she returned the next day-- the snake got it.

    She laid one every other day.  Sometimes they just rolled out of her when she was not expecting it, but more often she would try to go back to the place where she had laid last.  Sometimes she could not remember
where that was.  Red daily tried to help her find the right spot.


    Finally she found one which suited her:  under a coontie (arrowroot) plant in the sideyard, near a dripping air conditioner.  “Here I will lay my eggs from now on,” Mattie said, and she did.

    They lived an idyllic existence of pleasant duties and routine joys.  Mattie shared her mother’s love of The Egg but unlike Ella, was not obsessed with it.  From time to time Red and Mattie viewed together their stash of pinkish opaline treasures.  It gave them feelings that the best was yet to come, but it also gave them anxiety, to have such precious objects so exposed, so vulnerable to evil.

    Red had to fight a snake off, once.  The yellow corn snake came slithering down a tree, headed for the nest.  Mattie saw it and alerted Red.  He attacked it, beak, wing and claw, as if it were a rival.  The coward turned tail and fled into a crevice.

    Another day, another egg.  A couple more eggs, and Mattie would be ready to set.  Then the unthinkable occurred.

Katha Sheehan, captain of the volunteer
Key West Rooster Rescue Team and
founder of The Chicken Store in Key West, Florida, has appeared in the New York Times, London's Sunday Telegraph, and on major national TV news and entertainment channels, together with her gypsy chickens.

Tales of an Island Rooster is illustrated
by Antonio, a Mallory Sunset artist
who was born in Cuba.  He has lived
and painted in Key West
since 1980.  His work is in private
collections around the world.

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