Fiona Leonard - Photo by Nyani Quarmyne

EXTRACT: The Chicken Thief

An extract from Fiona Leonard's new novel

Alois smelt the intruders before he saw them–or rather, he smelt their anger first. He knew the smell of anger well. He had learned to smell it coming, and to duck and run. The chickens knew too; they were restless, wings brushing against the wire that caged them in. They knew something was wrong, and yet it was not him they smelt. He had been here many times before. Even though tonight his bag was lighter than it should have been, Alois pulled himself back up into the branches and waited.
On average, Alois stole five to ten chickens per night. Five was a good take, easily achieved: ten, and his spirits soared. He kept his operation tight, spacing each grab, with no more than two chickens per house. Any more than two and he figured he might as well be running bare-arsed down the road and in the front door of police headquarters. No bird will stay quiet forever while its sisters disappear head first into a flour sack. Solidarity amongst chickens had been the death knell of many a careless thief.
For all the town was overrun with thieves, he’d still had to learn the trade the hard way. He often wondered why there always seemed to be a manual for something you could easily work out how to do yourself, but with the important stuff, you were out there alone in the dark, trying to decide what the hell to do next, with someone taking potshots at your head.
A lot of it was simple like – it pays to be fast. Any idiot could guess a thief needs to be fast, which was probably why the streets were full of snatch-and-grab thieves with speed but no smarts. The trick was knowing when to stand still and when to walk, even though your heart wanted to explode in your chest. Then there were skills only a chicken thief needed to know – important lessons like never carry a full bag of birds over a fence. The weight slows you down, plump bodies slapping against your back as you climb. He’d discovered, too, that if you think too much you can feel a head here, a foot there, death lingering between your shoulder blades. Far better then to leave the bag behind in a tree so your arms and conscience can move freely. Besides, he found comfort in the sight of the waiting bag, hooked over a branch, swinging slowly with the passing of time. Placed right, it was only a quick grab on the way out: jump, snatch, run and you’re gone.
Sometimes he’d simply had to learn from his mistakes. The first time he hung his bag he’d jumped back over the fence to find no more than a hook and a few bloody threads. It had been a lesson well learned. Ask yourself, do you chase a pack of dogs through the night, bellowing with rage, until the entire neighbourhood wakes? Or do you check your anger, resolve to hang higher next time and keep well clear of that end of town?
Most nights Alois carried four or five bags: one sturdy weave to store the chickens and a few lighter empties for each new house. At the beginning he carried only two bags, one to store and one for the catch. But the birds weren’t stupid. After the first time death fell from the sky they knew. The first house of the evening would be fine, but by the second and third the smell of death was like a neon sign announcing his arrival. The squawking would begin before his feet touched soil. When he’d first heard it, he had crouched in the dirt and watched them, listening to their cries until he understood their fear. From then on, out of respect, he approached with clean flour bags and always with a handful of grain in the bottom.
These days, despite his reason for being there, the chickens greeted him. They strode forward, heads raised towards the bag. With one hand he tossed mealies into the dust, waiting until the heads were down foraging for the corn, and then with the other he reached into the mass of feathers. Surely, he thought, the first person to have spoken of ‘rubbing someone the wrong way’ was talking about a chicken – such a phrase could only have come from someone whose fingertips had caressed the soft down at the rise of a breast and known the harsh resistance of feathers on end.
Tonight there were no greetings. The chickens shuffled warily in the dust, awake when they should have been settled in their nests. Alois watched from above, as their heads turned towards the car slipping through the gate. It rolled slowly along the driveway with its lights off, turning before the house so that it faced the gate, ready for a quick escape. He knew it was worse when the intruders came through the gate. That meant it was planned, that someone who knew how such things worked had been intentionally careless: a lock not rammed home, a wire disconnected to allow the gate to slide silently on its tracks.
The chickens were silent now, too. Alois had always believed they were far smarter than most people gave them credit for. His family always spoke of chickens when they wanted to explain something or guide his way. As a child, when he asked his mother why she didn’t eat, she replied ‘The hen with baby chicks doesn’t swallow the worm.’ Later, years after he had become a man, when he stooped to come through the doorway and his mother’s hair had turned grey, Alois would say, ‘I’m not a baby chick any more, now you can eat.’ Still his mother would only smile and ladle an extra spoonful onto his plate.
He saw the irony in climbing a wall to steal a chicken, of course. This was Africa, after all, a land where chickens run free, a vast continent where even in city streets the urban chicken is there dodging between your feet. It would be easier to simply reach down and pick one up on the way to the store – ‘a loaf of bread please, and a bag to put my chicken in!’
But those chickens were different, they were the fighters– scroungers who ran through the streets. He couldn’t kill another soul scratching to stay alive. Over the walls the chickens were fat and slow. They had lost the cunning of the streets. They were content with their lot, stopping all the while to look up into the sky. None of the chickens where he lived ever looked up, they were too busy running.
Tonight, from his vantage point in the trees, Alois had a clear view of the driveway below. The car doors opened and five men slid out. They circled the house, perhaps looking for a window that had been left open. Then one, distracted by a sound, froze and turned towards the garden. In the moonlight Alois heard a woman’s scream: instinctive, loyal to the family who slept in the house. The woman tried to run, he saw, but the man caught her among the vegetables, a hand in the centre of her back pushing her down into the dirt between the tomato plants, soft fruit splitting with each blow.
There were lights on now, the family wakened by her screams. Alois could see shadows running along the corridors, ducking as windows smashed in their wake.
He counted down, waiting for the alarm. He’d seen it often enough before to know. Rich people react differently to fear. They call for help. There are no alarms in mud huts. You fight or you run.
As his countdown came to an end, Alois closed his eyes. He hoped they had triggered a silent alarm, that they were hiding, locked away behind a heavy door. He had heard no screams, so perhaps …
The men came out of the house, arms laden, arrogance in each step, televisions, computers and silver piled high. They passed each other on the drive, moving back and forwards like removalists, laughing and joking, working quickly, easily finding what they had come for.
As the car door slammed shut, one man called out, tossing beers to his friends. They spun the bottle tops into the garden as they climbed into the car. This time they turned the headlights on. The sudden flash caught Alois by surprise, bathing him in a wash of light. Instinctively he scrambled from the branches and began to run.
Only a fool would run the top of a wall without knowing what lay ahead. In some neighbourhoods there was nowhere to put your feet. Here the walls were old and wide, but they rarely ran smoothly. On some, broken glass was set into the concrete, jagged peaks that glinted in the moonlight. On others, razor wire snaked from pillar to pillar. All were deadly, and in darkness it mattered little which trap you ran into. He was glad now for the nights when he had run these walls just for fun. In his line of business surprises were unwelcome. It was always better to plan for the unexpected.
He ran knowing his father would have been disgusted – not with those men, but with Alois, for believing he was somehow better. You are all thieves. You bring shame to your families regardless of what is in your bag.
He didn’t know if they had seen him. But he wasn’t waiting to find out. As one wall ended he jumped, stretching forward, legs cycling in midair.
He was falling before he had time to register he had screwed up. He had jumped wide and missed the wall completely. Instinctively he tucked his shoulder and rolled, trying to break his fall.
It wasn’t the worst fall he’d ever had. Every breath of air was knocked outside his body but a tentative inspection revealed no broken bones. He probably hadn’t hit his head either, because the swear words rocketing around his skull seemed well enough formed. And his brain must still be working, for he could clearly make out the face of the man crouching beside him pointing a gun at his head.

Extracted from The Chicken Thief, published by Penguin and available from Kalahari.com.

Photograph: Nyani Quarmyne

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