Peer into DARKNESS with Edward Bryant’s “Dancing Chickens”



With award-winning, superstar editor Ellen Datlow’s “superb sampling of some of the most significant short horror works published between 1985 and 2005” Darkness being featured as part of the Humble Horror Book Bundle, we’re sharing excerpts from nine select stories over the next seven days.

Our next glimpse comes from “Dancing Chickens” by Edward Bryant.

What do aliens want?

Their burnished black ships, humming with the ominous power of a clenched fist, ghost across our cities. At first we turned our faces to the skies in the chill of every moving shadow. Now we seem to feel the disinterest bred of familiarity. It’s not a sense of ease, though. The collective apprehension is still there — even if diminished. For many of us, I believe, the feeling is much like awaiting a dentist’s drill.

Do aliens have expectations?

If human beings know, no one’s telling. Our leaders dissemble, the news media speculate, but facts and truths alike submerge in murky communications. Extraterrestrial secrets, if they do have answers, remain quietly and tastefully enigmatic. Most of us have read about the government’s beamed messages, all apparently ignored.

Do humans care?

I’m not really sure anymore. The ships have been up there for months — a year or more. People do become blasé, even about those mysterious craft and their unseen pilots. When the waiting became unendurable, most humans simply seemed to tune out the ships and thought about other things again: mortgages, spiraling inflation, Mideast turmoil, and getting laid. Yet the underlying tension remained.

Some of us in the civilian sector have retained our curiosity. Right here in the neighborhood, David told us he sat in the aloneness of the early morning hours and pumped out Morse to the silhouettes as they cruised out of the dark above the mountains and slid into the dim east. If there were replies, David couldn’t interpret them. “You’d think at least they’d want to go out for a drink,” David had said.

Riley used the mirror in his compact to send up heliograph signals. In great excitement he claimed to have detected a reply, messages in kind. We suggested he saw, if anything, reflections from the undersides of the dark hulls. None of that diminished his ecstasy. He believed he was noticed. I felt for him.

Hawk — both job description and name — didn’t hold much with guesses. “In good time,” he said, “they’ll tell us what they want; tell us, then buy it, take it, use it. They’ll give us the word.” Hawk had plucked me, runaway and desperate young man, literally out of the gutter along the Boulevard. Since before the time of the ships, he had cared for me. He had taken me home, cleaned, fed, and warmed me. He used me, sometimes well. Sometimes he only used me.

Whether Hawk loved me was debatable.

Watching the ships gave me no answer.

I attempted to communicate every day. It was a little like what my case worker told me about what dentists did to kids’ mouths before anyone had invented braces. When he was a boy with protruding teeth, my case worker was instructed to push fingers gently against those front teeth every time he thought of his mouth and how people were making fun. “Hey, Trigger! Where’s Roy?” Years of gentle, insistent touches did what braces do now.

I tried to do something like that with the alien ships. Every time I fantasized smooth, alien features when I shivered in the chilly wake of an alien shadow, I gathered my mental energies, concentrated, shot an inquiring thought after the diminishing leviathan.

Ship, come to me… I wanted it to carry me away, to take charge, to save me from any sense of responsibility about my own actions in my own life. I knew better, but that didn’t stop the temptation.

Once, only once, I thought I felt a reply, the slightest tickling just at the border of my mind. At the time it was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, more a textural thing: slick surfaces, cool, moist, one whole enclosing another. (A fist fills the glove. One hand, damp, warm: the wrist — twists.)

Check out the Humble Horror Book Bundle which includes works from  Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Joss Whedon, Joe Hill, Max Brooks, Robert R. McCammon, and Dan Simmons.

For more info about Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, visit the Tachyon page.

Cover by Ann Monn.