RT Wenzel

Author’s note: Although the pecking order drives domestic roosters to be the sole male in a flock, a surge of poultry-dumping in Tasmania leads abandoned roosters to form unconventional all-male gangs to survive.



Before, life was easy. He’d been a king with a red pointed crown, the commander of an impenetrable fortress. Sex ten to thirty times a day. As much grain as he could scoff down his long, sleek throat. Fat mice too, when they tried to steal the grain. It was a sweet conquest to swallow a mouse. The way the tail smacked against his beak, the furry meat wriggling down his neck, warming his belly with sun and life.

Nothing threatened him, until some of the chicks began to change. He’d thought them harmless, fluffy weaklings. They’d wrestled against their own birth sacks when they first sprawled from their shells. But after a season nestled under their mothers’ bosoms, half of them pushed the scalloped armour of warriors through their down and grew out their crowns as if they would be kings, too. The king smelled their maleness, viscous and sour, and he choked on it like a mouse too large to swallow. He raised his comb to new heights, crushed the would-be cockerels against the wire boundary of his kingdom until their stiffening quills snapped, pecked their princeling crowns from their heads.

Next thing he knew, the wingless ones came, the tall, pale creatures that brought him food and crowned him king. They caught him and stuffed him in a dark place so small his crown crumpled against the ceiling while the ground shook and purred. When they finally released him into the bright and blinking sun, his feet stinking of his own urine, he was alone.

Alone, except for the other feathered shadows in the pines, beady eyes glinting between the leaves. The king tried to raise his comb, but it was weak and flaccid. He growled in his throat and flapped his wings. At last, overwhelmed by the strange smells and the bright sunlight and the countless eyes glinting in the bracken, the king folded his wings and ducked his head.  

They came for him.

Afterwards, the former king lay broken in the grass, his neck pecked naked and cold. Holes whistled in his neck as he sucked his breath. He tasted the forest, green needles in his throat. One claw drew up like a dead roach, an eye dangled half out of his head. The rooster flock scratched and pecked around him as if it were any other day, as if he were no king at all. The former king rolled his working eye around to the clouds drifting overhead, soft pink with blood.

He spent the next day letting flies crawl his wounds, lay their eggs in him like he was a nesting-box, until the storm came. The cold rain fell into him, shooed away the flies and washed away their eggs. The former king opened his beak to let the water fall on his tongue. There was life in the rain, and it soothed him. The violet of the sky blurred with the green of the rustling canopy, and he closed his eyes.

When he woke, the green of the conifers was in his lungs, his blood. It gave him the strength to push himself to his feet. Not knowing what else to do, he bowed his head and joined the flock, pretending to peck bugs as they did. Hunger crawled his belly like a long, ravenous slug as his throat stitched back together. After a few days, his dead eye shrivelled and dropped onto the ground. The Alpha of the flock pecked it up and ate it. With that minor concession, the former king felt his acceptance into the clan.

The Alpha of the pack was black as the night sky and speckled with stars. Green threaded his tail, as if the pines had claimed him one leaf at a time. It was the Alpha who tore the hole in his neck, and the Alpha who now cared for the former king and showed him what to eat. All the roosters fawned on the Alpha, all but Blue-Eye, who didn’t keep his head down like the others. His blue beetle eyes were always tracking the Alpha, judging, assessing, watching.


The challenge happened during a dust bath. The Alpha lay flat with his feet tucked into his breast, wings spread out across the warm earth. Blue-eye landed between his wings, claws plunging into his back to hold him down, pulling at the green feathers first. The Alpha let out a scream from his broken beak, twisted his neck to roll himself free, and squared his good eye to his aggressor. Blue-eye didn’t break his gaze, but shivered now the Alpha was on his feet.

They attacked, wings and claws extended. Talon found flesh, clutched feather, strewed blood, seeking, ripping, tearing, pulling, mauling. Blue-eye found purchase under a wing, and tore a clawful of feathers from the root, shredding the skin that held them. The Alpha’s blood sprayed across the dirt, and he collapsed on his ribs.

Blue-eye screamed his victory into the Alpha’s face. With a movement so gentle he might have been plucking the bloom from a dandelion, the Alpha darted his beak into Blue-eye’s scream, and pulled out his tongue.

Blue-eye didn’t scream again after that. His eyes grew wide and seemed even bluer against the whites. He seemed alarmed by the proximity of the flock, meeting each rooster gaze in turn as the blood pooled from his beak and darkened the soil.

Something moved in the shadows, in the scrub behind the fallen. A long, sharp snout, sniffing the blood on the air. Whiskers. Teeth. Eyes assessing the fallen.

The former king rounded the others up, clucking. The roosters long assimilated, the newcomer, soldiers all. They gathered behind him, burbling nervously and watched him for cues, eyes bright with admiration, as he crested his tail and stalked the front line. They made a feathered ring around the two fallen. Blue-Eye, bleeding out from the mouth, the Alpha, taking deep breaths that sunk him into the earth with each exhale.

The former king met the eye of the rat and screamed the same scream the Alpha had torn from Blue-Eye’s throat, as if the former king snatched it from the air. The rooster next to him opened his beak to sing the same scream, and the next, until the rooster army defended their own with a wall of sound. The rat laid her ears flat against her head and scampered back into the trees.

The former king swallowed the scream that was the legacy of his brother. The others closed their beaks one by one, until the only noise in the glade was the death rattle of the Alpha. The wind picked up, carrying his last breath back into the trees. The two fallen birds mirrored each other in death, eyes half closed, pupils rolled into their heads, beaks open, wings limp and primary feathers splayed.

The former king extended a foot, took a tentative step. The wind glanced the feathers of the fallen, but their breasts were still. None of the others stepped forward. He nuzzled at Blue-eye’s open neck and gently pulled at the meat there. He stretched his neck long and thin and swallowed a snake of meat down, neck slipping down neck. He nudged the cut further open until the skin split to the breast and the belly. The warmth inside clouded the air. The former king breathed deeply, took that warmth into his lungs.

The expectant clucking behind him swelled to insistence. The former king swivelled his eye to survey them. They nervously scratched at the earth, tilting their heads in question. The former king took a step back, and the others crowded in, foraging the still-warm bodies for sweetmeats.

The former king slipped his beak into the soil, grooming the blood from his smile. His rump sought the warm, living earth, and merged with the green running through the violets. Life. His tail quivered with it. He watched brother devour brother, until only a small pile of bloody bones and feathers remained to feed the trees. The brothers who tore his neck open alongside the brothers he initiated. Brothers once leaders, consumed by those who had been led.

The former king puffed his chest, settled into his earthen throne. The others murmured around him. The former king breathed in their maleness, revelling in their sharp pine greens and the sour tang of feral. He smelled the same scent on himself, part of the humming, inseparable mass. It sang along the scream in his scarred throat, pushed up the tines of his crown.





RT Wenzel is a writer and artist on Melukerdee country, Tasmania, exploring mythology and ecology from an animist perspective. Recent publications include short stories in Dark Mountain, Hecate, Cunning Folk and Folklore for Resistance.