Published on March 16th, 2016 | by Andrea Lani0
THE CHICKENS: Andrea Lani on Life and Death on the Farm
One spring a friend incubates a clutch of eggs for you, and on a rainy Earth Day you bring home a baker’s dozen balls of yellow fluff and place them in a cardboard box near the wood stove. Your children gather around, holding the downy babies, listening to them peep, lying eye-to-eye with them on the floor, laughing hysterically when they poop. When the chicks sleep, they lie face down in the wood chips, looking dead, so you poke them and they wake up cheeping, which makes you feel bad and reminds you of how you used to wake up your own newborn children from naps because you were worried they’d stopped breathing.
Within hours, the chicks outgrow their home, and you expand it by cutting off one side and taping on a second box. After a few days, your oldest son builds another addition with little doorways and roosting shelves and half-roofs. The plan is that your husband will build a coop by the time the chicks are ready to move out from under the heat lamp.
At just over a week, the chicks turn from cute little pompoms into gawky, awkward adolescents with long necks, bulging eyes, and scaly pin feathers. They look like tiny dinosaurs and it astonishes you that it took paleontologists so long to figure out the genetic connection between birds and prehistoric reptiles. The chickens are a breed called buff orpington, large birds good for both meat and eggs, with feathers the color of late-summer wheat.
Your husband fences off an area near the garden so the chicks can play outside on sunny days. He worries they don’t get enough fresh air. Your children herd them around their outdoor pen and, having just seen the movie Rio, give them flying lessons by holding the birds a few inches above the ground and letting them flap off their wrists on newly-feathered wings. You take a chick to school on your middle son’s show-and-tell day. He checks out library books about chickens and writes a comic book about a chicken called Tiny Legs.
The boys name some of the chickens after meteorological events and natural disasters, others they leave nameless. Those, they say, you can name. The kids claim to be able to tell them apart, but the birds all look the same to you. All, that is, except for the one your middle son named after himself, which is smaller than the others, and a darker reddish color than its yellow siblings, a mix of buff orpington and golden comet. You can’t yet tell which are hens and which are roosters, and thus destined for the cooking pot. You hope fervently that your middle son’s eponymous chicken is a hen.
Near the end of May, you go away for a weekend and when you return you see that your mother-in-law has created an outdoor home for the chickens using scrap wood, plastic yard toys, wire fencing, metal roofing, and a plywood box. It’s shanty town for fowl. You print chicken coop plans off the internet, give them to your husband, and borrow a chicken “ark” from a friend––an A-frame structure with an enclosed roosting area in the top part of the A, and a fenced area below, where the chickens can cavort on the ground.
The birds have grown big enough to hop out of the pen near the garden and now range freely about the yard during the day. This worries you. What if a hawk flies by, or your brother-in-law with the chicken-killing dog stops over? They travel more widely each day. The first time they venture into the trees, your youngest son comes running and sobs, “The chickens are in the woods and I can’t get them back.” One morning when you leave for work, you see they have wandered far down your long driveway, having followed the kids on their way to catch the school bus, like puppies.
You think you are out of the woods. The chickens are big and feathered. They survived the fluff-ball heat-lamp stage. They survived the moves from cardboard box to shanty to ark. They survive foraging in the yard every day.
In the middle of June your husband goes away to work on an island for a week, and you find your days bracketed by rushing––rushing to catch the school bus and get to work, rushing home from work and to baseball games, rushing home again to get kids into bed. You enlist your children as helpers, and on a drizzly Wednesday morning you send your youngest outside to let the chickens out. He returns seconds later, sobbing, “All the chickens are dead.”
All the chickens can’t be dead. They must be sleeping, you think, even though you know that chickens are not in the habit of sleeping late. You go out to investigate and there, strewn across the floor of the blood-splattered ark lie the beloved chickens’ bodies, torn into parts.
You return to the house and take your younger sons into your arms. Your oldest, the stoic, turns his crumpled face away.
“They were like part of my family!” wails the middle one, on whose shoulder the chickens used to ride like overweight, butter-colored parrots. You read recently that your job as a parent is to be a vessel to hold all of your children’s big emotions. You’re not sure how to do this, exactly, but you do your best, mostly by holding their little bodies through each bout of tears.
As you make lunches and pack bags, the boys return to the scene of carnage again and again. The oldest one theorizes on the identity, means, and motive of the killer. The youngest one counts bodies, finding only eight, and raising everyone’s hopes that perhaps five chickens escaped and are hiding out in the tall grass.
Not wanting to put heartbroken children on a noisy bus, you drive them to school. It’s not until you accompany the younger two inside and tell their teacher what happened that you start to cry, right there in the first-grade classroom. You believe you are crying for your children, for the pain and sadness you are trying to hold for them––you liked the chickens, sure, but you did not love them the way your boys did. No one, you think, can love chickens that much.
The day passes in a fog of grief. Work feels meaningless and you want to be home with your children. Why, you wonder, can’t you take bereavement leave for dead chickens, for your children’s loss of innocence? Once you had thought keeping farm animals would be good for your kids to learn about life and death. Now you decide that’s bullshit. Seven-year-olds need to learn about death like they need to learn how to fill out tax forms.
In the early afternoon you give up on work and stop at a perennial farm on the way home to buy a twenty-dollar magenta peony. At home, in the rain, you and your oldest son dig a hole near the corner of the house. The kids go inside and with a garden spade you scoop the chicken carcasses into a bucket. Some are whole, with small, bloody wounds in their chests. Others have been eviscerated, their entrails stringing out from their bodies like tangled balls of yarn. Still others have been dismembered so that you find stray legs and wings and round purple purses you assume must be hearts. You recognize the reddish-gold feathers of the hen named after your middle son. You count the remains of ten, possibly eleven chickens, so you put your head into the bloody A-frame to see up into the roost and crouch down to look into the fenced area below to look for signs of the other two birds. The water in the bowl on the ground is stained red, with golden feathers floating in it, and a single leg lies in the grass. The ark is too heavy for you to lift by yourself, so you leave the leg there for your husband to take care of; its curled yellow claw will haunt you.
You dump the chickens into the hole, cover them with dirt, plant the peony, then call the boys back outside. You stand together in the rain, reading poems about life coming from death and death coming from life, which starts everyone crying again, so you hug each other and say, “Goodbye, Thunder! Goodbye, Tornado! Goodbye, Twister! Goodbye, Earthquake! Goodbye, Spark! Goodbye, Zephyr!”