Archive for the ‘chickens’ Category

Chicken-sense

January 3, 2010

When we settle in to the château in Saint Araille and Pete and Rosie leave, one of our responsibilities is to take care of their thirteen free-range chickens. We don’t know much about chicken-care, but Pete and Rosie give us what seems to be straightforward and simple instruction: go down into the attached stable through the kitchen in the morning, unlock and open the door to the outside, open the door to the chicken coop, scoop a plastic bowl of corn from the bin, take it outside and scatter it on the grass. If we go out, we are to lock the stable along with the rest of the house and not to worry about the chickens, in or out. We should gather any eggs they lay for ourselves, though apparently sometimes a hen will decide to hide out and brood a batch and then we’ll have chicks. (Izzy is delighted at this possibility.) At sundown, the chickens wander back into the coop (best if we’re home and the stable door open then so that they don’t roost in the trees), and I am to lock up the coop door and the stable door at dark. Rosie says that occasionally a buzzard or a fox or something will get one, but not to worry. She understands that there may be either fewer or more chickens when they return. This is life with chickens.

The chickens wake me every morning for the first weeks of our stay in Saint Araille, while Pete and Rosie are still home. The roosters start crowing well before dawn and continue for several hours after dawn. They walk around the extensive grounds in small or large groups doing chicken stuff—eating bugs, pecking at seeds, clucking. We begin to recognize the individuals and give them nicknames: Mr. Fancypants, the huge chief rooster, who is quite shiny and hysterical to watch run, the feathers of his “pants” shaking as he goes; Raggedy Rooster, who is a small grey rooster with feathers that stick out every which way; Brown Hen, who has a teenaged chick, with whom she is very sweet and very protective; the Brothers White, matching young white cockerels; etc. Izzy loves the egg hunt, and she and I take on the chore within a week of our arrival. James, on the other hand, thinks the chickens are out to get him. He begs Izzy and me not to make them mad by taking their eggs, though he’s quite happy to eat them later. The chickens show up when I dig up my winter garden plot, and we soon understand their habits and haunts. They’re part of the life of the château, something to watch when I look up from my writing desk and out the window.

I have been struggling with a short story for my collection, Frost Heaves, for some time when we arrive in France. I have a great opening scene where the protagonist hits something that his young daughter thinks is Tinkerbell with his car. I know that the story has to do with freedom and flight and responsibility, but I can’t quite work out the scenes to my satisfaction. The story is set in rural southern Vermont, and my protagonist is one of those young professionals who has settled there to raise a family in a pristine and “carefree” natural world. As I sit there watching the chickens pecking around the chateau garden, it seems only natural that my protagonist and his family would keep chickens too.

“There are too many cockerels,” Pete says, and he plans to slaughter the extras before we leave. “It’s not fair to the hens,” he says. And it’s true that the poor hens seem to be jumped by roosters at every turn. I’ve seen it from the window over my writing desk. Even the kids have commented on it. Pete asks if I have any experience with killing chickens. I politely decline. I like fried chicken, but I’d rather not participate directly in the death of the meat I eat. Perhaps it’s a weakness or flaw in my character, but there it is. I don’t like blood on my hands, literally. Pete and Rosie have decided that it’s their “responsibility” to the chickens to do the deed—“We owe it to them,” Pete says. They wait until the kids have started school, put out a chopping block, and do in one a day for about a week. We are careful not to step in the blood or guts left on the ground. We tell the kids the truth: we eat chicken, they eat chicken, Pete and Rosie have to kill some of their chickens. I listen carefully to Pete’s description of the execution; I may need some of these details in my story.

Rosie reviews the predators in the area and the chickens’ names before they leave. The buzzards, which look to me like hawks, will occasionally snatch a chicken from the yard, leaving a heap of feathers. Sometimes a pine marten or stone marten or fox will take one, leaving a heap of guts. Mr. Fancypants is really Bertie (from P.G. Wodehouse), and Raggedy is really named Orpheus. He quite likes being stroked, she says. “He’s never quite been the same since his mate [Eurydice, naturally] and their lovely little chick were killed by a buzzard,” she says. In the Greek myth, Orpheus, the god of music, travels to the underworld after his wife, Eurydice, dies and there sings such a beautiful sad song that Hades allows her to leave with him, on the condition that she follow him and he can’t look back at her… of course, he does look and she goes back across the River Styx.

For the first weeks after Rosie and Pete leave, I am hyper-vigilant about the care of the chickens. I go down the four flights from the tower every morning at 7:30 or 8, slide open the glass door from the kitchen into the stable, and say “Morning girls and boys!” And they cluck and rustle feathers while I walk through the big empty space to the blue door, which I unlock and swing open, fastening it open with a shutter dog. I go back inside and open the chicken wire door to the coop, step inside, scoop up corn from the metal garbage can, and walk out to the yard, the chickens following along, flapping and stretching their wings, occasionally crowing. I scatter the corn and count them to make sure all thirteen are there. It’s not a bad way to start the day. They’re happy when eating, simple creatures. During the day, I talk to them when they show up in my part of the yard, or just stop to watch them when I need a break from weeding. The dogs seem to completely ignore them. When Izzy comes home from school, she and I hunt for eggs. When one hen decides to hide her eggs in the flower bed, we watch her until we discover her secret place. We eat a lot of scrambled eggs. In the evenings, I round up those chickens that are still out—usually only the red hen and her chick—close up the coop and lock up the stable, go in through the kitchen and upstairs. The chickens and I have a simple routine. They are a little stupid, but they are happiest when everything stays the same every day. In this very strange new life in a village in France, the routine of chickens comforts me too.

I get stuck on the story and switch to work on something else. One gorgeous blue-sky day I chase off two buzzards circling the flock of chickens in the back meadow. Then we have a few days of bad weather, cold grey winds from the west. I dream about the chickens one night in late November.

That morning, I head down the stairs with Izzy, on our way to the car before school, and we go through the kitchen and slide open the door to the stable. Total silence. “Morning boys and girls,” I call, though it’s a false front. I already know the truth. “Something’s wrong,” I say to Izzy. “What, Mom?” she asks. “I don’t know,” I say, trying to remain calm and confident for her. “But I think something’s wrong.” Feathers float in the air of the stable. There is a weird metallic smell. Something gamey. I keep Izzy behind me and hustle her to the stable door, glancing into the coop as we pass. The two white cockerels are lying on the floor, bright in the dim light. “Something bad has happened,” I tell Izzy, guiding her into the yard, trying not to let her see the coop. “Something’s killed the chickens.” I tell her stay outside. I suck in the cold fresh air, steel myself, and go back and into the coop.

There’s a blood splatter on the stone wall. In addition to the two white cockerels, there are heaps of chicken bodies everywhere. The red hen moves, but she’s not in good shape, and by the time I’m back from the school, she’s dead. The big rooster, Mr. Fancypants, is completely missing. The slaughter is shocking, senseless, cruel. Whatever it was that got in killed everything that moved. Certainly more than it could eat. The poor chickens had no hope. A predator. A frenzy. Only Orpheus has survived, but he’s clearly suffering from PTSD. I lure him outside with some corn, but he doesn’t eat, just stands there looking stunned under a rose bush all day. I put on old clothes and find some pink rubber dishwashing gloves in the utility room. I fill the wheelbarrow with chicken bodies and haul them to the edge of the ravine and throw them in, one at a time. Several of the corpses are headless. It takes three trips. I am horrified, repelled, shocked. I want to stand, like old Orpheus, under a rose bush and mourn. I rake out the coop. I get the ladder and a hammer and nails and try to tack the chicken wire to the rafters at the top. I think this is where the predator got in. The stable itself has huge gaps. There is no way to completely seal off the coop with the materials at hand, but I do my best to improve security. I install two new bolt locks on the rickety chicken wire door. I get Orpheus back inside before dark.

I email Rosie immediately, and she is kind and understanding in her response. I know that it is not my fault—the coop is just not secure enough—but I feel so sorry for the stupid defenseless creatures. I feel responsible. Rosie says it was probably a stone martin, what the French call a fouine. I research them on the internet—cute, deadly, fond of biting off the heads and drinking the blood. The M.O. fits. She gives me options—it’s fine to give Orpheus to her friend, or to get more chickens, or to just wait until their return in spring. It’s my decision. I can’t sleep. My dreams are bloody, dangerous. The imagination that serves me so well as a writer of fiction makes it far too easy to see the scene in the coop that grey windy night.

Orpheus is killed two nights later. We have no chickens. I throw his sad little raggedy body into the ravine and clean the coop out completely. I empty the straw from the nesting boxes and move everything outside to be washed by the rain. I rake and sweep and take the board from over the window to let the air circulate. Feathers float around me. I turn my turtleneck up to cover my nose and mouth as I work. Afterward, I take two hot baths in a row. I wish Orpheus well in his journey across the River Styx, feeling awful that I didn’t take him to the neighbors right away.

I tell Rosie that we won’t get any more chickens. It would be like serving them up to the predator. The coop is clearly not secure enough. Maybe by spring, the marten will have moved on. Maybe by spring I will have been able to tighten up security. Maybe by spring, I will have recovered from the trauma.

A month later, I know that the chickens need to play a central role in the short story I’m writing. I know that the slaughter will be a scene in that story, but I’ve spent the month not writing that scene, working around it, trying to understand the story. I know I will have to tear apart much of what I’ve written so far on the story. I open a new Word document and begin again. Twenty pages later, it’s a much better story.

It’s not the first time I’ve processed my personal tragedies into fiction. Those who are close to me recognize this in two of my novels, Getting to the Point and, especially, Backslide. I used the fiction to help make meaning of what seemed wrong in my life, even to correct it or imagine a different reality. This short story with the chickens is a little different. My protagonist is not much like me. It’s not a story about me or my own issues (not much anyway). This time I’ve taken the material of real life and recycled it into a new situation. I’ve asked myself what this set of events might mean to my protagonist, what it might cause or inspire in him. It works. It fits.

Fiction is, in some strange way, truer than truth. The chickens in my story don’t die for nothing; I sacrifice them to move the narrative along, to force my protagonist into a realization of his own humanity, his own essential needs, a recognition of what matters. The chickens die to make meaning.

In the real world, I look down from my writing desk in the tower, and the grounds just seem empty without the chickens. It still makes me sad to think of them. I miss them. I miss greeting the chickens in the morning, and their quiet rustle of anticipation for the day. I often remember that simple pleasure of holding a perfect egg in my palm, still warm from the hen, the potential of all life inside that brown shell. When I go into the stable to get firewood, I hesitate at the door, watching for some stealthy little movement, listening for the predator. The slaughter still seems senseless and mean, ugly. Meaningless.

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