We’re so excited to announce Barn 8 as BuzzFeed Book Club’s April pick. The novel follows a small group of renegades who have decided to steal a million chickens off an industrial egg-laying farm in the middle of the night. The group includes Annabelle, a legendary undercover investigator who quit activism but has come back for this final mission, and her sidekick, Dill. In this chapter, Dill tries to convince a hundred more undercover investigators to help them. He has summoned them to his home and told them to put on ski masks before they arrive.
The hundred investigators didn’t like the ski mask crap but on the appointed day they pulled the masks over their heads to protect themselves from themselves. They left their cars in the field and filed into the same barn many of them had trained in. They sat on the few benches or on the floor, or leaned against the wall, arms crossed, silent and suspicious. They waited.
Dill came in. No ski mask. They shifted at the sight of him, his many bad qualities rising in their minds. But he didn’t give them time to start complaining. He stood at one end of the room and began.
He’d tell them nothing, he said. They’d need to decide for themselves. The particulars, yes. The plan, of course. The step-by-step, the exit strategy, the cut-and-run, if it turned out to go down that way — all that they’d go over and over, and yes he had an inside expert on the team. But he and Annabelle weren’t interested in explaining themselves or in debating the justification, in discussing whether this would “work” in any sense other than on the physical plane, the mechanics. The investigators were not to think of this action — the evacuation of nine hundred thousand hens (it was the first time they’d heard this and a chorus of investigator-gasps, followed by curses and groans, forced Dill to pause and then go on more slowly) — they were not to think of it as a publicity stunt designed to attract attention to the cause. It wasn’t a statement, a threat, or a manifesto. They were not all going to be friends after this. They would not be an organization. They were not organizing. If that was the only way they could think about this, they should just leave right now. Why Annabelle had made up her mind to do this was not their concern. She was inviting them to take part in the sheer physical operation end of it, solely for the sake of the individual birds who would benefit. Annabelle herself had selected each investigator in this room. She had chosen them. But they’d need to have their own reasons for doing it. The masked heads of Dill’s potential phalanx turned back and forth, following Dill as he paced. Now he stopped. She and Dill were asking them each to show up with two more people — trustworthy, stable, and physically strong — in two days, on Saturday morning. There were a hundred of them here and they needed at least three hundred to make it possible.
Hands were going up. They were trying to interrupt. But he shook his head. He placed a sheet of paper and a pen on the table. “Put an X on this page if you’re in.” He set a white digital kitchen timer. “We need you out in an hour.” He walked across the room. “Anyone who won’t be joining us, we know you’ll keep quiet. You’re all professionals.” He went out the door, shut it. The heads swung back.
There followed a moment of silence.
They all took a private moment to congratulate themselves. Annabelle had chosen them. They felt a little proud.
They all took a private moment to ask themselves: Did they know two more people who’d come? Probably. They each had a handful of weirdos in their back pocket. Investigators have fans.
Then they all took a private moment to come to their senses. What kind of crazy idea was this anyway? They began saying it aloud. What would this accomplish? What the hell did Dill mean this wasn’t designed to attract attention? How could you attempt the largest direct action any of them had ever heard of, that any of them had ever imagined, and say it wasn’t designed to attract attention? How could you take a million birds and not attract attention?
One voice said, “It’s impossible. Can’t be done.” They thought about that and reluctantly agreed he was right. The sheer logistics. It was unworkable. This made them a little angry. They’d come all this way — the dramatics involved! — only to turn around and go home? What’s the big idea anyway, dragging them here? They were a little sad because they’d thought they were destined for a great act of heroism, not the fantasy of modern mad people gone madder.
Somebody said, “Ten minutes,” meaning ten minutes had gone by. Already? Jesus. Well, were they going to do it or what? They looked around, faceless.
Not only that, they reflected, but this was not the sort of thing you get a night in jail and a day with the judge for. This gets you put away for years. This is called terrorism these days.
All right, in that case it made sense why some of them were there. They’d been arrested a lot. Some had been to prison. They’d done time for far fewer lives than these, for results far more humble. But were they willing to do it again? Most of them were in semiretirement these days, did little more than Feather-Free Friday protests and lunchtime leafleting, door-to-door donations, Songbird Day at the shelter. Those who were working did only employment-based operations — strictly legal, or at least arguably legal. And anyway, nobody — or almost nobody, apparently — did that direct action stuff anymore. There were the pet-shop parrot releasers, a handful of diehards letting birds out into climates where they’d never survive (no doubt those idiots were in there among them, face masks pulled tight) but even they would never come up with this.
True, Dill had said they had an expert on the inside, that there were escape plans in place. He’d said at every stage there would be at least two escape hatches. But people always say that, don’t they? The first hatch turns out to be the door of a cop car, and the second the sliding gate of an iron cell.
“But how many of us could they put away, after all?”
“A good many.”
“Why not all?”
“All. Of course they could put away all of us. Why not?”
Was the point to get them all put away?
They discussed this. Quickly. Twenty minutes had gone by. One said, “Aren’t we already accessories? Aren’t we incriminated just by being here? She goes off and pulls her stunt without us, couldn’t we still go to prison?”
Yeah, but they had known that when they’d gotten into their various modes of transport to come here, the smarter of them had anyway, and they’d come, which made them maybe not so smart. They were all traceable, culpable. They were already in the crosshairs, gotten.
This made them unhappy. Why had they come? they lamented. They pouted under their ski masks. What fools they were. Some of them were on probation.
“At least we can’t point each other out.”
“Who needs a finger? I know who you are,” said one and laughed.
“Oh yeah?” said another, rising. “Is that a threat?” It started to get a little heated.
“Annabelle came up with this,” one of them interrupted. “She’s got a reason.”
Hell, of course she had a reason. They were sick of it too. They’d done dozens of investigations. They’d gotten farmers into court, propositions onto ballots, they’d single-handedly bankrupted whole egg operations. They’d ruined their own backs, relationships, minds, futures, they’d given it all they had, put their lives in danger again and again — for what? Those barns were still standing, more than ever before.
“Barns going up all over the world. The disease is spreading.”
“My last investigation, they built two more. All I can do is drive by and spit.”
“My case was dismissed in court. Judge said that chickens don’t have standing.”
“I’m through with those fucking shmucks at the LA office with their fancy office and their fancy clothes and their fancy food.”
“Their self-congratulating books with giant pictures of themselves on the covers.”
“Their fucking celebrity fund-raisers.”
“Their vacations to India.”
“Nonprofit, my ass.”
“Making money off of our work.”
“Annabelle has always been old-style liberation.”
“No half measures. No compromise.”
“Until she quit.”
“She didn’t quit. She dug in.”
“Free or die.”
Then one said, “I’m doing it.” He got up, marked the pad with an X. He was playing it smooth but he had to be hoping another would hop up and say, “I’ll go with you,” be the number two. Alone you’re a stranger in a sandwich board. Two, you’ve got a waltz. Four, you have a band. He walked to the door. “Wait,” said another, “I’m coming.” The rest looked after them, jealous. They’d been beaten to being first. They’d meant to go all along, right? Others went. They Xed the pad and left singly or in groups of three. Some had obviously known each other for years and performed elaborate celebratory high fives and rushed out like they were headed to the game. Some were solemn, making their mark and slouching out cool.
The hour passed and the barn emptied, until there were only two of them still in the room. A woman on the right and a man on the left. They sat staring hard at the wide plank floor, which had the sort of arrangement of lines and right angles that instills comfort in all humanity to the exact level it craves. That must be what it does or else we wouldn’t see that pattern everywhere we look. The human obsession with the rectangle. Anything 90 degrees will do but a nice clean rectangle, that’s all we hope for in life: to be surrounded by them, to count them, to divide our belongings up in them, to give them to our grandchildren, to be lowered into one when we die.
This here is a bad idea, the man on the left, Zee, thought.
But he’d encountered so many bad ideas in his life. His entire existence could be attributed to a series of bad choices, often, like this one, not his own. But he’d gotten away. Had left, had a job for a moving company in Chicago, a girlfriend (sort of), an actual lease. He was shakily impersonating a regular person and no one could imagine how hard that was. But each day it felt a breath more real, because it was real, or almost, getting close. He shouldn’t have come here. But he’d come not for Annabelle, but for Dill, whom he didn’t want to let down.
And he believed in it, all of it.
If he could just keep out of prison.
“Annabelle’s got a hell of a shitty idea this time,” he said aloud to the woman on the right. He got up, drew a Z, and walked out. The woman on the right was the only one in there.
That final person, the auditor Janey, took off her ski mask, frowning: It wasn’t Annabelle’s shitty idea. It was her shitty idea.
But the frown didn’t last. A slow warmth reached from her stomach for her limbs. It was happening or could very well happen, they just might really do this. She closed her eyes and let the vision sweep over her: the birds lifting around her, the cages clattering to the ground like nests falling from trees, her mother’s voice amid the sound of flapping wings. She opened her eyes and left the barn.
Excerpt from Barn 8. Copyright © 2020 by Deb Olin Unferth. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of six books, including Barn 8 and Wait Till You See Me Dance. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes. She was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her work has appeared in Granta, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review.