Merry Christmas to you and your kin from all of us at the Creekbank. This new short story, “Midnight Chicken”, is our gift to you. May its theme of It is more blessed to give than to receive resonate and bless your Christmas.
Curt and DeDe Iles
Dec. 23, 1943
Elizabeth Miller awoke to loud pounding on the front door. She shined her flashlight on the alarm clock: just after midnight. Nothing good, especially good news, travels at this time of night.
She peered out the crack in her bedroom door where Poppa stood in the open hallway in front of a young soldier. “Sir, I know it’s late, and we hate to bother you.”
There were two more soldiers besides their spokesman. Elizabeth wondered if the soldiers saw the shotgun leaning against the wall within Poppa’s reach.
“We’re shipping out in the morning by troop train for Europe.” The spokesman nodded at his partners. “When we marched by here today, we saw y’all had chickens. Anyway, we figure it’ll be a long time before we have fried chicken again.” The soldier nodded at his buddies. “Do you think y’all could fix us a fried chicken supper?”
Poppa placed both hands on his hips. “You mean to tell me you woke me up in the middle of the black night asking us to fix you supper?”
“I’m sorry, Sir.”
Elizabeth’s Momma’s voice echoed from the hallway. “Honey, what’s going on out there?”
“You’ve got to hear it for yourself.”
Her momma, a blanket draped over her, listened as the soldier repeated their request for midnight chicken.
Momma stepped forward. “Where are you boys from?”
“Me and Buck here are from Texas.” The spokesmen smiled. “Cohen here is from New York City but don’t hold that against him.”
Momma stepped aside. “You boys come on in here out of the cold. We’re fixin’ to make you a supper you won’t forget. Elizabeth, get your housecoat on, I need you to catch and dress three good fryers.”
Elizabeth detested dressing chickens, especially in the middle of the night. She caught up with her momma. “Why in the world are we doing this?”
Momma grabbed a butcher knife and motioned outside. “Baby, your brother’s in a German prisoner of war camp, and your husband is on some God-forsaken Pacific Island. I’d hope someone might show them the same kind of kindness. And besides, it’s Christmas.”
Elizabeth shivered as she went out into the cold. After dutifully killing and picking the chickens, she washed them in well water. When she returned to the kitchen, Momma was heating lard and rolling out fat cathead biscuits. “Elizabeth, if you’ll get the milk out of the well, I’ll whip up some sawmill gravy.”
On her way to the well, Elizabeth eased to the doorway of the living room. Poppa and the three soldiers sat in front of a roaring pine knot fire in the blazing fireplace, Poppa, with an old map of Europe spread on the floor, was regaling the young soldiers with Great War stories, or as folks were now calling it, World War I. He wasn’t talking about the war itself but was telling tall tales of the lights of Paris, French girls, horses, and food. Whether the soldiers were listening out of interest, politeness, or in anticipation of fried chicken, they were attentive as Poppa paced back and forth. “Boys, when you get to London, put your wallet in your front pocket. Those Limeys have some of the best pickpockets in the world and they’ll clean you out in a New York minute. Then I’ll warn you about that British food. It’s not bad, but neither is it good.”
Elizabeth hurried to the well and drew up the milk jug, hurrying in the house, she reported to Momma: “Poppa’s re-fighting the Battle of Britain in there.”
“Has he got to the pickpockets?”
“As we speak.”
“Good. Now Baby, go ahead and crack us a dozen eggs. We’re gonna give these boys a meal to write home about.”
About an hour and half after the first knock, the table was set and the food was hot. Elizabeth wasn’t sure if the glow in the small kitchen was from the coal oil lamp or the simple joy of strangers sharing a meal together. The soldiers scarfed down their food, commenting on every bite as they laughed and told stories about their time in Louisiana, as well as their pre-war lives. Elizabeth studied the soldiers as they told of their homes. They were on their way to a war from which they’d never return the same.
The Spokesman turned to Elizabeth. “Do you have a man in the Army?”
“Yes, my husband’s in the Pacific, and I imagine it’s been a while since he had fried chicken.”
Momma said, “And I’ve got a son who is an airman. He was shot down over Europe, and we just found out that he’s in a German P.O.W. Camp.”
New York spoke up. “Ma’am, I’m sure sorry about your son. I know y’all miss him.”
“Miss him like the spring rain.”
“When this mess is over, I know he’ll be sitting here enjoying a meal like this.”
“It won’t be soon enough.”
The three soldiers ate as if they would be fasting until they arrived in Europe. After multiple helpings of chicken, biscuits, eggs, gravy, and cane syrup, everyone was stuffed.
Coffee was served and Elizabeth watched New York’s eyes widen when he took a sip. “This coffee’s strong enough to stand up a spoon.”
Poppa drained his cup. “That’s how we make it down here. Grow some hair on your chest.”
Finally, the second Texan, who hadn’t said much, stood. “Boys, we’d better slip back into camp before daylight catches us and they discover we’re missing.” He removed his wallet. “What can we pay you for this meal?”
Momma wiped her hands on her apron. “You can’t. It’s been our pleasure.”
Second Texan wiped his eyes. “Why did y’all do this for us?
“First of all, you asked for it, and secondly, we’ve got family fighting halfway around the world. I’d hope at Christmas that someone might do something kind for them. And the Lord Himself said it’s always more blessed to give than to receive.”
The soldiers hugged all of the family and exchanged addresses. Poppa gathered everyone in a circle and prayed for their safety and travel. When he said, “Amen” the only sounds were sniffles.
Elizabeth and her parents stood on the porch as the soldiers disappeared into the dark. Poppa shook his head. “It’s been a while since we heard laughter—especially from boys—in this house. It was good.”
Back in the house, Elizabeth began washing dishes and was startled by Momma’s shout. “Lord, have mercy.” She was holding up a $20 bill. “It was under one of the plates.”
A quick inspection of the plates and saucers revealed another twenty, and a ten under the sugar bowl.
“Those boys left a king’s ransom.” Momma placed a stack of plates by the sink. “The joy of having those boys sitting around our table was way better than any amount of money. It’ll always be a Christmas we always remember. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.”
“Midnight Chicken” is from the future book, As You Were, by Curt Iles.
It is the sequel to A Spent Bullet.
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