Bodega Road went nowhere, literally. The GPS showed that it dead-ended at the bottom of a hollow about six miles from where I was now. It’s one of those red clay dirt roads, the kind that sticks to the bottom of your shoes and sucks 4-wheel drive trucks down to the axles when they veer off the packed bed. After the thunderstorms, it was the consistency of thick pancake batter. Acres and acres of nothing except oak, black gum, and hickory ablaze in color surrounded the road on both sides. The woods fairly glowed in the October gloom. Sunset was three hours away, but twilight had gripped the damp landscape all day.
Though the road was visible on maps and GPS, it was nearly impossible to find with your own eyes. You had to know where to look, and even then you could miss it. I missed it twice. As a brand new detective with the Yell County Sheriff’s office, I was driving down Bodega Road — in 4-low, slow, and white knuckled — looking for answers because no one else wanted to.
The reason I was here may seem trivial to folks outside of rural flyover country. Reports of small livestock — rabbits, goat kids, suckling pigs, and even a calf — disappearing from a circle of around a mile or so with Bodega Road in the hub had finally reached the point where something had to be done about it. Or at least someone needed to look into it. As the new guy, that someone was me.
My destination was the one residence on Bodega Road. The smallish wood-sided shanty squatted on the only clearing along the entire road. Waist-high switchgrass and blooming golden rod lined a rough pasture bordered by rusty chicken wire anchored with graying cedar posts. The cool, damp autumn weather had summoned forth green patches of chickweed amid the dying Bermuda grass. I pulled alongside the only car in the home’s narrow dirt driveway, a 1977 Thunderbird in that ghastly stock cream color. One hideaway headlight cover was on the fritz so that it was locked in a perpetual wink. A red feather danced across the yard in an afternoon breeze as I closed the truck door and started down a gently rutted pathway to the front porch.I knew the homeowner’s name was Becky Orpington. My research said that Orpington was a widower of three decades and nearing 90 years of age. Orpington didn’t look it.
A perky shock of stiff red hair bounced as she waddled with an odd smoothness to the screen door, her pear-shaped form gliding across the hardwood. Before reaching the door, she stopped mid-stride, one leg lifted for a full second before carefully completing the step toes down first. She side-eyed me with narrowed pupils, her irises the color of butterscotch.
“How do,” she said in a peculiar halting fashion. Her voice was throaty and hoarse. I introduced myself, showed her the badge, and asked if we could visit for a while. “I reckon,” she replied dryly. “The parlor is this way.”
The house was mostly well kept and modestly furnished. Birds were a theme. There were reproductions of James Audubon’s naturalist paintings of North American birds covering nearly every available space. Tacky ceramics of chickens and turkeys sat on end tables. A colorful feather arrangement headlined by the magnificent brilliance of peacock tail plumes spilled out of large glass vase on the kitchen table. A wall of blue ribbons stood behind the vase with 30 ribbons total. “First Place: Yell County Fair,” they read.
“What can I do for you?” asked Orpington, her tone lilting from the croak into a higher range caught me off guard. A crow cawed and clacked from somewhere in the woods beyond the open window. I noticed a stiff black feather pressed against the wire mesh screen and swallowed hard.
I knew Orpington raised a few animals, or had in the past, so I asked if she had lost any livestock as of late. I asked if she’d noticed anything around her place that would make her suspicious. Orpington said she hadn’t, that, yes, she did keep a few animals, though, mostly chickens, but all were accounted for. As I scribbled her answer on a notepad, soft rhythmic clicks, the sounds of something clawed walking on wood, pulled my attention toward the kitchen.
A chicken stepped into the parlor doorway.
It was a standard looking red hen, likely a Rhode Island red as I recalled the yardbirds my grandmother kept so many decades ago. The hen stood still as stone staring at me in that chicken way, head turned to the side, saurian eye locked onto mine.
Goose pimples rose on the back of my neck.
I turned my focus back to Orpington, who was also staring at me intently.
“So… so… you don’t recall any strange goings-on around these parts here lately?” Orpington said she hadn’t, that things were “just peachy back here in the holler.” She hadn’t lost a chicken to human or varmint for a long while and even her garden okra had produced a bumper crop this summer. “Haven’t seen a deer or raccoon back here in, oh, I’d say five or six years,” said Orpington. “Just the crows and birds, and my chickens.”
When she finished speaking, Orpington turned toward the hen who then sauntered to Orpington’s feet and hopped up into her lap. They both turned their unblinking gaze on me. We sat in silence for some time, I’m not sure how long, when a cacophony of cackles erupted from the backyard, jarring me from the stupor. “More of your chickens?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve got 20 or so laying hens,” replied Orpington. “I call ‘em my blue ribbon gals. Those hens are the ones responsible for the awards I saw you eyeballin’,” she said. “They’re likely feeling a bit peckish. Haven’t fed em since early this morning. You can come watch if you want; it’s quite the spectacle.”
I followed Orpington down into her basement expecting to find sacks of feed, but instead she walked up to a huge glass tank writhing with the furry little bodies of more than 20 rats. “This is my secret ingredient for those blue ribbons,” said Orpington. “Lots of protein. But we’ve been runnin’ low lately. This is the last of em, and I’ve been tryin’ to ration em out. Dang rats just ain’t multiplying like they used to for some reason.”
The old lady then climbed a stepladder and lowered a five gallon bucket into the tank, scooped it full of rats, and deftly snapped a lid on it.
You’ll see lots of weird stuff as a rural law officer, things that even with an explanation seem too bizarre to be real. Watching a 90-year-old woman load and carry a five-gallon bucket of rats with the fluid athleticism and ease of a 30-year old, and then dump that bucket into a chicken pen nears the top of the list. But it doesn’t beat what happened next.
I know a little about science and biology. I know that birds are descended from — actually, they are in fact — dinosaurs. I’ve also been around chickens my whole life. I’ve watched them eat June bugs, lizards, and frogs. But watching 20 chickens descend on a bunch of foot-long rats like a pack of velociraptors was a new and disturbing experience. After the frenzy, which lasted maybe five minutes, a few chunks of pink rat flesh and some disturbed topsoil were the only indications of the wholesale carnage that had just occurred. The hens were quickly pecking though the leftovers as I stood mouth agape.
An insidious slow smile stretched Orpington’s thin wrinkled lips. It was the first time any expression had crossed her pallid face since my arrival. “There’ll be some boomer eggs tomorry,” she said with a wink. “Nothin’ puts weight in an egg like fresh red varmint meat. Puts some weight on me, too.” Orpington’s clucking chuckle made me uneasy.
“Wait, have you been… have you been eating rats?”
Orpington’s smile wilted and her face went cold again.
“They ain’t much different than squirrels,” said Orpington. “Not as tasty, and they sure don’t measure up to those big white rabbits.”
The awful truth came to me with clarity, but as every last scrap of rat disappeared into ravenous craws, I knew that the truth would be impossible to prove. Then, suddenly, the hens went silent. They gathered at the fence in a slow synchronized cadence. Every yellow eye was focused on me.
“Of course, the best eggs come from more pinkish meat, but my hens ain’t had the good stuff in 30 year or so,” said Orpington. “I been hankering to try it again, myself. If I could just work up a little more nerve.”