Will Purtill graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Science, Technology and Society.
All of the phenomena that occur in this story are real effects of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). One of the biggest issues of CAFOs is an overwhelming unpleasant odor. The scent is reported by the Center for Disease Control as being so awful that families living nearby a CAFO have trouble selling their houses. CAFOs dramatically affect property value and essentially force communities to stay where they are and suffer through all of the effects such as pests, pollution, and pathogens. While these effects mainly just affect local communities, CAFOs even pose as a larger threat to the environment by contributing to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases. All of these are caused mainly by the mishandling of the waste from the site. While all of these effects of slow violence impact the surrounding communities, it is important to remember that these all stem from the issue of abusing animal rights.
I was inspired to write this story after I reread Rachel Carson’s famous chapter, “A Fable for Tomorrow”. Carson’s chapter is a flash fiction story that depicts the slow violence caused by harmful pesticides. In the story, the pesticides are presented as being a supernatural or magical force. I used some of the same techniques as Carson like having a supernatural element to my story where Charlie, the main character, had a sixth sense by being able to hear the cries of the abused chickens. It was important that Charlie was a young child as the main character of the story. Charlie as a child was able to convey the quality of innocence, something that many victims of environmental injustice have. With the use of this trait in my story, I asked the question: can the quality of innocence broaden the size of a work’s potential audience? The story parallels common trends among communities that suffer from slow violence. People are typically blissfully unaware of sites that are detrimental to their health until the effects become fully noticeable. My story was written with the intent for people to understand how they share experiences with people who identify with different lifestyles and still suffer from environmental injustice.
Keywords: Fiction; animal farming; environmental degradation; animal ethics; magic realism
A Cry For Help
Once in a small town in America there was life and a landscape as peaceful as could be. The people of the town embraced the rural aspects of Smithville, Idaho. Along the outskirts of town, there were farms for as far as the eye could see that were accompanied by a backdrop of beautiful mountain ranges.
Running alongside the main road which drives straight through downtown, was tall and lush green grass. In the spring and summers, the town was greeted by an incredibly warm and welcoming sunlight. The air was rich and refreshing as it carried the scent of flowers, freshly cut grass, and the aroma of Douglas Fir.
This town was not only an exquisite paradise in the seasons of warmth. Even during the coldest winters, the town was illuminated by a series of festivities and lights which transformed the small American town into a winter wonderland.
Children all times of the year could be found laughing and smiling in the town. There was rarely an instance when two people did not know who the other was. And if they didn’t know each other then they quickly became acquainted with a friendly greeting.
In the town was a 10-year-old boy named Charlie Hogan. His father owned the town’s hardware store just at the end of the main road and his mother was an assistant teacher at Charlie’s Catholic school where she helped with the kindergarteners.
Charlie’s school was small but the majority of the town’s kids attended it due to the closest public school being a 25-minute bus ride to the next town over. Charlie loved school, he was friendly with the kids in his class and he even got to sit next to his best friend, Jason Jones. They didn’t get to see each other very much outside of school because Jason lived on the other side of town and on the weekends Charlie had to help his dad at the hardware store.
The school had a chicken coop just behind the play yard. At recess Charlie was almost always drawn to the fence that kept the chickens away from the children, but it might be more accurate to say that the fence was actually keeping Charlie away from the chickens. Charlie has never had a pet, though he always wanted a dog.
In this small town you were the odd family out if you didn’t have a pet dog. The days at school were filled with random laughs on the occasion that class was interrupted by a series of chicken clucks. Charlie liked to think that whenever they started clucking that they were calling for him to come outside. Since he did not have pets, he instead named the three chickens after popular chewing gum brands: Orbit, Bubba, and Stride.
Jason was never particularly interested in the chickens and couldn’t figure out exactly why Charlie was drawn to them. But he was indifferent and as long as they could still play catch and talk about their trading cards at recess. Jason had a big trading card collection and was proud of it too. His family was well-off, and his dad worked in the city about 45 minutes away. The Jones family was relatively new to the town since they moved there when Jason was 5 years old. Mr. Jones got a promotion for his company and was relocated from Oregon.
At the end of every school year, the town hosted a small parade down the main road for the Catholic school in celebration. Since the majority of the town’s children were enrolled there and it was the only school in town, the day was practically a holiday. The parade had each class walk down the main road of town as their families cheered and applauded. At the front of the march were the pre-kindergarteners followed by every grade in succession ending with the 8th graders.
The appeal of the parade was that all of the townspeople celebrated each other and enjoyed the final days of the spring season and welcomed the summer. Charlie had always been particularly fond of the parade because of its overwhelming sense of community. However, this year there was something off.
Charlie couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong. After the march began, there was a noise that grew louder and louder. It wasn’t a part of the cheering from the crowds on the sidewalk. It was its own distinct noise. In the background it almost sounded as if something was crying.
“Can you hear that, Jason? It sounds like crying or something.”
“What? No, there’s no crying. Stop being weird.”
At the end of the parade Charlie was greeted by his parents. There the crying seemed the loudest. While it was still faint, it sounded like it came from beyond the farms on the outskirts of town, maybe even from the mountains.
“We’re so proud of you, Charlie!” Mrs. Hogan exclaimed. “Another year down. Our boy is going to be a big fifth grader in the fall!”
Despite all of the excitement and cheer, Charlie was noticeably uneasy.
Mrs. Hogan tried to lighten his spirits by saying, “What’s the matter, Charlie? You look a little down. Is it because you’re going to miss your friends this summer? You can still have play dates with them, and you’ll see them again this fall!”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Charlie didn’t want to bring up the crying again. He figured if Jason said there wasn’t any then he was probably just imagining it.
As the festivities slowly faded with the arrival of the nightfall, the next day would finally bring the first day of summer. During the summers, Charlie spent the first half of his day helping out his father at the hardware store and from lunchtime on he was free to do whatever he wanted.
The hardware store was just at the end of town; it was the closest shop to the mountains. The store overlooked fields for miles. Almost every day an old married couple, Jim and Jayne, would sit on the store’s porch and admire the view after they finished their daily walk through town. They rarely went in the store but on occasion Mr. Hogan would offer them water and strike up a short conversation.
One day late in June, Jim left Jayne outside and came into the store with a disgusted face.
“Now Mr. Hogan, I don’t mean to be a bother but there is just an awful odor outside. I think there must be something on the end of the property. I’m sorry it seems like I’m complaining but I just wanted to bring it to your attention.”
“Oh, you’re not a bother at all, Jim. Thank you for telling me about it. I’ll have Charlie go take a look and handle it. I hope you and Jayne have a lovely rest of the day.”
Mr. Hogan had Charlie walk Jim out of the store. When he got outside there was an odor that tainted the fresh summer air.
“Over there is where you can really notice it.” Jayne said while pointing further down the street.
Charlie started walking down where Jayne was pointing, and he didn’t see anything that could be the source of the smell. As he kept walking the odor became increasingly noticeable. It wasn’t anything particularly overwhelming, but Charlie could imagine that had the odor been stronger it would be entirely unbearable.
He kept walking in the direction Jayne pointed looking for something, anything that could be the source of this stench. He finally stopped walking and gave up on his search for the mysterious scent. Charlie figured it may have just been brought by the wind and would go away soon.
He stood there and stared off into the distance to admire the view. Charlie understood why Jim and Jayne liked to take their walks and admire the land. As he was lost in his own thoughts and the beauty of the scenery, something broke his focus. The cries were back. But this time there was nothing that could drown them out. They were louder and clearer than before at the parade.
The cries were cries of pain and suffering. It sounded like they were coming from beyond the fields, perhaps even as far as the mountains. Charlie couldn’t quite make out the sounds, but they certainly came from animals. Not just one animal, this was clearly a pack of some sort. There was no way one animal could make all this noise on its own.
Charlie stood there listening. The cries lasted only for about a minute until they stopped. Concerned, Charlie walked back to the shop to tell his dad that he didn’t find anything.
“Huh, that’s weird. I would’ve thought you’d find roadkill or maybe some droppings from some critter,” said Mr. Hogan.
“Well, it was weird, Dad. I heard this sort of crying from off in the distance. It sounded like animals were being tortured or something.”
“Maybe you heard a bear! You know when I was about your age a bear got lost and managed to find itself downtown right by the church. It was all the town could talk about for weeks!”
Charlie knew that it wasn’t a bear. This time the cries stuck with Charlie for the rest of the week. He wasn’t able to think about anything else. While Charlie kept reliving the horrors of the screams, Mr. Hogan began to notice that awful smell that the old man Jim told him about. Except now it seemed like the scent was growing stronger and could even be smelled downtown, not just by the hardware store.
But this phenomenon continued to happen on into the summer. People started to notice this smell as it made its way across town. However, no one besides Charlie was hearing the cries. Just as the smell became stronger each day, the cries Charlie heard were louder and happened more frequently. Charlie was nervous about telling someone about them because no one else had mentioned that they heard them.
Late in July one night after dinner, Mrs. Hogan took the trash out and was greeted by a rat running around the neighbor’s trash cans. Hearing his wife scream from outside, Mr. Hogan jumped up from the table and ran to see what was wrong.
“What’s going on? Why’d you scream?”
“I saw a rat! Look! There it is again!”
The Hogans have lived in Smithville their entire lives and never once seen a rat in town until now. But that was not the only pest that made its way into town. This summer the townspeople had been bombarded by bugs. The town was used to having to deal with bugs in the summers but for whatever reason this summer seemed like going outside was unbearable. The abundance of flies and mosquitos accompanied with that terrible smell made the outdoors just unattractive.
Every day the town seemed to deteriorate more and more. The smell and the bugs became so unpleasant that Mr. Hogan and Charlie hadn’t seen Jim and Jayne on a walk since the beginning of the summer. In fact, Mr. Hogan had even heard rumors of the couple trying to move away. Though they had been having a difficult time trying to sell their house because of that awful smell.
It was August and for the first time all summer Charlie was supposed to have a playdate with Jason. It wasn’t until last minute that Jason’s mom called Mrs. Hogan to let her know that Jason had been feeling terribly ill and wouldn’t be able to make it. Jason was having stomach pains along with nausea and a fever.
It seemed like there was a flu going around town as almost every house had someone sick. Charlie never got the illness, but he was terrified of catching it. All of these phenomena were making him paranoid. The cries that he had been hearing all summer started to sound more like chickens.
Charlie began to think that everything going on had to be related to each other. As the cries became louder the odor also began to pollute the town. The arrival of the smell also brought with it pests and sickness. He realized that the scent and the cries were strongest out past his father’s hardware store and decided that he had to search for what has been causing all of these terrible things.
One day in the middle of August, Charlie ventured out past his father’s store after lunch when he was free for the day. He kept walking along the main road as he left town. The smell became increasingly stronger the further he went. Charlie must have walked for a couple of miles until the sight of a huge building in the middle of a field.
Walking off of the main road, Charlie headed for the building. For the first time since he was at school, he knew he was hearing chickens and they were not just noises in his head. The building was far bigger than any barn he had seen in Smithville. It looked like a warehouse with no windows.
When he finally got to the building, he looked around for anyone but the closest person he could see was a few hundred yards away operating a tractor. Sneakily, Charlie found a door and let himself in the building. The sight that he saw had his mouth drop to the floor. It seemed like there were one million chickens all in the same room. The noise and smell were the strongest they have ever been. Chickens were crying out as they were stepping over ones that had died from infection and had been left on the floor to rot. Bugs were eating the carcasses on the floor and were pestering the other chickens.
Having never even owned a pet, Charlie wondered how people could let animals live in such a way. As he stood in the room with the countless chickens, he began to think of what he could to save them. And before he could even do anything he felt a hand on his shoulder as a man asked him what he was doing there as he escorted Charlie out.
The man was nice enough to drive Charlie back to Smithville as Charlie had explained that he just wandered away from home. Coming up on the hardware store, Charlie said that the man could stop there, and Charlie could walk the rest of the way home. But before leaving the car, Charlie asked the man how long that farm had been there. To which the man replied that he had just set up his operation at the end of the spring.
As he closed the car door behind him, Charlie began to realize that this had only been the beginning. Smithville was going to continue to suffer from the effects of that operation.