I spied Tomás, our cook, on the cement driveway in front of the garage, squatting in front of a white enamel basin spattered red with blood. I paused for a moment, fascinated by what I saw, and then hurried down for a closer look. A headless white chicken weaved on unsteady legs around Tomás. I couldn’t understand how its legs kept moving or how it held itself upright without the head. Tomás appeared amused at the sight of blood pulsing from the chicken’s neck until it keeled over dead. I clutched my neck in sympathy for his suffering, then burst into giggles. The chicken did look ridiculous, walking headless on wobbly legs. Tomás rather absently picked up the chicken, plunged it into the hot water in the basin, and started plucking off the feathers. Would I ever treat my chickens like they were just food, not animals?
To get away from the blood and mess that would be our dinner, I left Tomás and continued nonchalantly to the chicken pen beyond the garage. I pulled open the door just wide enough to slip in. I wondered where Henny Penny was, my favorite white rooster whom I knew we’d never eat. He couldn’t have flown out the top of the coop because we kept his wings clipped. I turned around to look outside the pen for a handsome white rooster, prancing around the garden enjoying his freedom. Maybe he had slipped out when I came in. Then, through the chicken wire, I spied the flurry of white feathers settling around Tomás’ feet.
I felt queasy. The dancing chicken that had made me both giggle and gag must have been my rooster. I stumbled out of the coop, wiped tears from my eyes, and then stalked angrily over to Tomás.
“O meu galo branco não sta lá. Onde sta? My white rooster isn’t there. Where is he?” I demanded, afraid I already knew the answer.
Tomás, with not a hint of regret, solemnly pointed to the naked bird at his feet and said, “Vamos comer o galo hoje para jantar. We’re going to eat him for dinner today.”
My anger crumpled to despair.
I didn’t know where to go, whom to talk to. Everyone upstairs was sleeping and downstairs Tomás was acting calm and cheerful. He thought I was silly to be hysterical about my rooster. I flopped on the living room couch. The morning sun filtered through the sheer curtains on the double doors looking out to the bay. A lizard scurried across the wall above the couch. Was I the only one who cared about Henny Penny?
Tomás called to me when I went back outside. He snickered in an attempt to stifle a laugh. “Look in the toilet,” he said, gesturing to the small bathroom next to the living room.
Why should I look in the toilet? I didn’t have to listen to him. But Tomás kept urging me to look. I walked over and stood in front of the closed door and I heard something moving. Soft scratchy sounds. A low gurgle. I pushed open the door and there facing me on top of the toilet seat, under the pull chain dangling from the tank, was a large white rooster. We stared at each other. He must have been thinking, well, finally someone is letting me out of here, and I was wondering, who are you and why are you in the bathroom? Tomás was doubled up behind me, laughing, telling me, “É o seu galo mesmo. É mesmo. That’s really your rooster.”
The trick Tomás played on me has puzzled friends who have heard the story. Was he sadistic and cruel? Did he hate me? Or was this a cultural oddity? Because he laughed so much when I discovered the rooster, I tried for years to find humor in it despite my anger at the time. In truth, I had never known Tomás to be mean. He was easy going and cheerful, and joked around with me when I came into the kitchen. Pressed to explain him, I think his trick was a result of the common practice among Angolans to closely observe the habits of whites in their midst, and at times to poke fun at them. He had noticed what my routines were and how attached I was to the rooster. He had probably also been the object of a few of my father’s jokes. My father liked to tease with word play. In that cultural context, I believe Tomás planned his elaborate ruse as a compliment to me, to show that he knew me as a real person.
In the bathroom, I gathered the white bird in my arms, holding him tight across his chest. I could feel his heart beating fast, but his legs hung relaxed against my hip, his yellow claws extended. He swiveled his head and fixed me with his black eyes. I told him, “You’re going back where you belong, Henny Penny.”
“Well, then, who was that other white chicken?” I asked Tomás.
“I bought it at the market,” he answered casually.