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Saturday, July 20, 2013

A squawk in the night

The Star


Wednesday May 11, 2011
Story and illustration by

Wan Chwee Seng

The rooster’s crow which heralded the dawn of a new day, has long been replaced by the drone of traffic everywhere.

AT THE first light of dawn, the long crow of a lone rooster broke the silence of a village slowly stirring to life. Other roosters picked up the call and soon the undulating crow of roosters heralding the approach of daylight, echoed through the village.
The afternoons were filled with the raucous cackles of the egg-layers and the evenings with the clucks and chirps of chickens foraging for food. Night was a time of peace and quiet, broken occasionally by a sudden squawk.
In the small village of Batu Berendam, Malacca, where I grew up in the early 1950s, all the families in our neighbourhood kept kampung chickens or free-range chickens for their eggs and meat. The cacophony of chicken calls that permeated the air from morn to dusk had become an integral part of the village life.
Mother, too, kept a few hens for their eggs and most mornings we would have two half-boiled eggs for breakfast. We did not worry unduly about hypertension or high cholesterol then.
My cousin, Fook, had discovered a convenient and expedient method of consuming eggs. At the first sound of a cackle, he would rush to the chicken coop. The moment a hen laid an egg, he would pluck the egg from underneath the sitting hen, give it a gentle crack and gulp the warm content with relish. Sometimes the hen would sound a false alarm and sometimes when he was in a hurry, he would give the hen a helping hand or rather a finger. Today, he still vouches for the raw eggs’ exquisite taste and medicinal value.
Rearing chickens in those days had its attendant risks. Besides succumbing to diseases, the chickens would fall prey to civets or chicken thieves.
Back then, we did not have supermarkets where we could purchase dressed chicken and the nearest wet market was miles away. To buy or sell chickens, the villagers had to rely on the itinerant fowl-sellers who would go from village to village to hawk their wares. The chickens were packed in a woven bamboo basket strapped to the bicycle’s rear carrier.
Whenever there was a chicken theft, the fowl-sellers somehow became the prime suspects as it was said that they would visit houses during the day on the pretext of purchasing chickens and having studied the location of the chicken coop and getaway route, would return at night to steal the chickens.
In our village, the kampung folks relied on Mat, the affable fowl-seller from a neighbouring village, whenever they needed to buy or sell chickens. The squeak of pedals and the crunch of wheels on the pebble-strewn compound would send excited children scurrying out of their houses, while housewives with purses in hands strolled leisurely to greet his arrival.
“Eh! Mat, ni ayam curi atau beli?” (Mat, is this stolen or bought chicken?) someone would ask in jest.
He had become the butt of their jokes since the day he had unknowingly sold some stolen chickens to their former owner.
“Tentulah, ayam beli,” (Of course, they are bought chicken), he would reply with a faint chuckle.
While the children gawked at the chickens, the housewives busied themselves with selecting the choicest chickens. Long after the purchases had been made, continuous chatter followed by intermittent laughter could still be heard as the womenfolk lingered to gossip and listen to the latest local news.
One dark and rainy night, my teenage cousin, Swee, was awakened by the fluttering of wings and the squawking of chickens. Not daring to venture into the dark night, he called out in his best stentorian voice: “Mat, saya tahu awak ada di sana!” (“Mat,Iknow you’re there!”)L to R: The writer, Swee and Sunny

The poor guy, if he had been in the immediate vicinity of the coop, would have got the fright of his life, wondering how someone could recognise him in the pitch dark.
The next day, in the grey hour of morning, Swee was already making a head count of his chickens and he heaved a sigh of relief when he discovered that except for the few dislodged feathers, all the chickens were accounted for.
Now my cousins and I have all moved away from the village and settled in towns or cities.
One evening, my sister appeared unexpectedly at our doorstep with five cross-bred chickens in hand.
“Do you like to keep these chicks?” she asked.
One look at the cute and fuzzy chicks and I knew I could not resist the offer. The chicks were housed in a hastily built coop placed behind the house. It was not long before the chicks had transformed into four hens with dark brown feathers and a magnificent rooster with feathers of iridescent hues.
One evening when I went to check on the chickens, an empty coop met my eyes. Driven by their primeval instinct, the chickens had taken to roosting on the branches of a rambutan tree. A hen had also gone missing.
One night, we were awakened by a big squawk from the back of the house.
“Ah, most probably a nocturnal predator,” I thought as I rolled over and drifted into a deep slumber.
The next morning when we strolled into the kitchen, we noticed the kitchen’s window was wide open and a few cooking utensils lay scattered on the ground in the backyard.
We realised an attempted break-in had been foiled by the squawk of the chickens. Although we were proud they had become a substitute watch dog, we felt concern at the sight of them scratching and foraging for food in our flower beds. Chickens foraging for food

We knew eventually they would invade our neighbour’s garden.
Early one morning as I looked out of the kitchen window, a slight movement among the tall grass caught my attention. In the dim light, a long murky shape was snaking its way towards the house.
“Sir Hiss,” the word instantly came to mind.
As the shape emerged from the grass, I saw it was our missing hen with 12 chicks in tow. I watched the home-coming with mixed feelings. Raising five chickens was already a problem. How were we going to cope with 12 additional chicks? We knew sooner or later, we had to let go of all the chickens.
One evening when our old friend, Awang, came to tend our garden, I asked him: “Awang, do you like to keep these chickens?”
“But encik, these chickens make tasty curry,” came the reply.
I could not imagine my pet chickens ending up in a cooking pot. After a long pause, I said to him: “Awang, can you help raise these chickens?”
Late that evening as the chickens came home to roost, they were quietly plucked from their roost and loaded into the front basket of his motorcycle. I watched sadly as the motorcycle roared down the narrow road and vanished into the gathering darkness.
I did not find out from Awang what became of the chickens and perhaps will never know as our friend, Awang, left us a few years ago.
Today, the once familiar chicken calls of my childhood days have been replaced by the incessant drone and hum of traffic and the occasional blaring of a horn.
In moments of solitude, I like to reflect on those good old days – of days filled with the bedlam of chicken noises, the boisterous voices of children welcoming the arrival of Mat, the fowl-seller, and the excitement of waking up to the sound of a squawk in the night

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