Scene: March, 2009. Winter is officially over but the sky is still leaden and heavy with rain. The nascent plants and flowers are peeking though the soil tender and bright, offering a hint of the fullness of our summer ahead. Seed catalogs fill the house. The first chicks come into the feed stores, a sure sign of the growing season to come.
I will go get some, because I’m insane.
I had recently ended one chicken experiment but was ready to begin another on its heels. I had just sold three enormous hens who had torn up our garden (an expensive experiment), but I wasn’t quite ready to give up the chicken-dream yet, so I decided rather foolishly and hastily to go get bantam chicks to stick under our fourth and final hen.
Gigi, all glossy black feathers and disco boots, had no other thought in this world than sitting on non-existent eggs fertilized by an invisible rooster. She had been sitting on her empty nest stubbornly and stupidly for five weeks; that chicks hatch from eggs in just three weeks made clear that this girl, our big fat dumb bird, was determined–biology and lack of eggs be damned. I admire this sort of tilting at windmills.
I felt I could both fulfill her biological drive and further my pathological need to have chickens by making her a foster parent. So when I heard that spring chicks were at the nurseries, especially the banties which only grow about a quarter of the size of big farm hens, I decided the iron was hot.
I bought a half-dozen day-old chicks, hedging my bets that a few would be roosters when they grew up. I kept them warm under a heat lamp until evening when chickens become even dopier than usual; relying on Gigi’s biological desperation and the fact that chickens can’t see well in the dark, I took one lone chick out with a flashlight to meet Mom.
Gigi glared at me as though a predator, and when she saw this defenseless critter moving towards her she struck out with her beak, all feathers and fury. Tiny chick shrieks mingled with my throbbing heart–Good grief! She was savage!–and Gigi’s beady night-blind eyes searched wildly in the dark for shapes she could peck to death.
This wasn’t going well.
I took the poor traumatized chick inside, having the sinking sense that I might need to raise the six chicks myself. I watched them sadly as they peeped their way around their cardboard box. Peep. Peep.
To hell with it, I thought. I carried the whole damned box with me outside into the dark of the coop, and one by one shoved chicks unceremoniously under Gigi, who was flittering nervously and starting to cluck. She was going to have to take on six defenseless chicks, dammit! Sure, she would win the contest, but maybe in the confusion a chick would find its way into her avian heart.
Actually, a chick found its way under her avian breast, which is exactly what is supposed to happen. All the sudden the clucking harpy of doom became a purring hen gathering up chicks and shoving them under her breast feathers as fast as she could. Soon all six chicks were invisible. Gigi’s breast had swallowed them up and she was cooing gently.
The Virgin Mother was beaming with pride. “Hallelujah!” she thought, “It’s a miracle! I knew that if I sat on an empty nest long enough, the gods would provide!” I moved the happy family into the roosting house where Gigi could safely keep her growing chicks warm and dry. She was a fabulous mother. And I was glad I didn’t have to sit on them myself.
We’re not a phobic lot around these parts. Calm, mostly unmotivated by irrational fears, but one phobia my husband and I shared from the moment we met was an all-encompassing fear of puking.
“Sure,” you think, “who likes to puke?” and I know what you mean. There’s nothing, NOTHING enjoyable about it, except the part when it ends. But unlike you, we’ve made our life goals to never, ever ralph again in this lifetime. My husband spent a great deal of his teenage years not drinking booze with friends to avoid throwing up–not, like some would believe, because he was a “nice boy.” I also spent my teen years assiduously not yacking, though in retrospect I should have, so pickled at moments I was probably a short trip away from the emergency room.
We really, really understood each other on this point. We also understood the pitfalls of having a child, too: there would be ralphing involved and there was very little we could do about it. We were just going to have to man-up. The tot was going to puke, and we were going to have to soothe him during the awful illness, neuroses be damned.
“The cats broke me in,” my husband tells people when we talk about the terror. I suppose that’s true. One of them used to “hoover and horf” back in the day, sucking in food at high velocity and then yucking it back up because she’d eaten too much; she was the only cat I knew who actually had an eating disorder. The other one would just puke. Not fur-balls, not because he ate too much. Just to test our resolve, I think. He was that kind of cat.
So the cats warmed us up for the norovirus, which came around at last. We’ve dealt with all the parental woes children offer their completely naïve parents, including inscrutable behavior and poop in such quantities it’s hard to fathom where it all fits in such a tiny package. But most importantly we’ve learned that we can survive the puking.
Early in the spring, our son picked up a nice bug and brought it home with him. And, being our son, puking for him is also a horror; unlike other kids who just sort of yawn and yack and move on, he’ll do just about anything to avoid it. How can one be genetically predisposed to fear puking? I have no idea, but it seems to move through our family like mitochondrial paranoia. And yet, being in a position of responsibility, neither my husband nor I can cave in to our own better instincts to flee the scene of the ralphing–we must stay and help our poor, terrified son by being the rocks of strength neither of us feel we are.
We’re better at it now. Both of us have faced the beast head-on and we’re able to stomach it. So this particular spring night, so sloppy with rain and now a puking child, was for us just another part of the joys of parenting.
Except in my case, I too had come to feel a bit less-than-awesome.
After the early flurry of stomach misery, both my husband and I taking turns soothing and cleaning our unhappy kid, sleep seemed as though it might visit our house at last. We stayed up watching television until sleep became irresistible. Because my husband was feeling better than me (though I didn’t tell him that–I figured he had enough to deal with) I went to bed while he stayed downstairs with the tot.
Sleep enveloped them around three a.m., Papa curled protectively around his boy.
At about quarter to four, an unholy cry woke my husband and he sat upright to find the source of the noise. Grasping for his glasses he spied a chicken streaking across the yard. Gigi was cackling wildly, raising the alarm, and my husband leaped up from the sofa in his boxer shorts and jumped into his shoes.
Cold, miserable, raining and dark, a chicken shrieking into the void: my husband raced outside and grabbed a two-by-four just as he glimpsed an enormous possum loping lumpily down the chicken ladder in the coop. The front door of the roosting house was hanging off of its hinges, Gigi having broken it when she wrestled with the scavenging marsupial looking for a delicious meal deal. The nest box was empty, the chicks nowhere to be seen. Gigi screaming in the yard, my husband deciding whether or not he had the wherewithal to brain a possum with a board in his boxer shorts at four in the morning. In the rain.
Deciding between rescuing Gigi or bludgeoning a possum proved easy once he realized his primordial blood lust took him about as far as his laptop and his love of fine wine; he picked up the crazed Gigi and shut her back in the coop again, propping wood against the sagging door. Then he chased the possum away, choosing (wisely I feel) that he wasn’t ready to snuff out a possum just yet.
But where were the chicks? Gigi having taken to her fostering responsibilities with the seriousness of a zealot was keening inside the coop, desperate. My husband, now drenched, white legs glowing between sockless shoes and boxer shorts, and jacked full of adrenalin, worried that he was too late and the chicks had become a little possum snack.
Two chicks were sitting on the ground in dumb terror, refusing, thankfully for my husband, to run away. He put them in the nest box and Gigi crammed them under her with relief, immediately beginning to purr and croon to her adopted kids. More chicks appeared like tiny sprites which he chased through the yard, knobby knees flying after startlingly agile chicks which eluded him through wet plants and shrubs. One by one he tracked them down, each one a relief to him: he was not going to have to tell me about six Possum McNuggets. Maybe just three. Now two.
One chick was missing. He had chased and rescued five chicks. Gigi, missing a couple of chunks of feathers and a few years off her life was busily fussing over the five and settling in for the morning which was just now peeking iron grey through the heavy morning clouds. He looked all over the yard, trying to figure how best to break the news to me. “‘A funny thing happened last night while you were sleeping…’ That’s terrible. ‘So, it seems there’s a possum in the neighborhood…’ Ugh.” Finally he gave up and went inside, dried himself off and crawled back to sleep around his sweaty son, still green with sickness but sleeping heavily.
He drifted off to sleep…
With joy in his heart and a spring in his step, my husband leaped up, threw on his shoes and ran out to find the last chick, peeping frantically under the dining room window. And though it was about as large as his fist, that final chick ran him around the yard, a man almost naked save for his underwear and shoes, bald head steaming in the chilly pre-dawn as they darted in and out between leaves. From the jaws of a Chickensian tragedy my husband had snatched six chicks and been thrust into an episode of Green Acres. Had there been a laugh track the episode would have played out with all the dramatic depth of Eva Gabor chasing livestock around in her petticoats; a Benny Hill soundtrack running behind my husband running behind a chicken running through the rain at five in the morning.
He crawled into bed next to me at about eight. I was feeling pretty rough, but hadn’t shared my woe yet. I thought he would be impressed with me weathering our darkest fears all by myself, being so grown up as to not whine even a little.
“Let me preface this by saying that the chickens are all right,” he said.
I listened as his tale of adventure unfolded. There were highs and lows, all the twists and turns of The Odyssey and all of the comedy of Catch-22. We laughed in relief and sheer disbelief. I even forgot how crappy I felt.
“You didn’t hear anything?” he asked. Not a peep, no pun intended.
“Stomach flu saved our chickens,” he said. He was right. We would have never heard the kerfuffle outside unless one of us was, as he was, downstairs. My hero, the dark knight of poultry, wielding the two-by-four of justice.
Stomach flu has it’s place, but I suppose we can’t rely on it as a security measure in the future. We’ll just have to make sure the door is locked. It has been ever since.