© Another Day in the Country
It is so cold, I feel guilty that I left the door of the chicken coop open last night. The wind howls still this morning, and before I go to take a shower I decide to brave the elements and close that door, to snug them in for a day of wind and chilly weather — maybe even snow.
Still in my sleeping garb, I grab the warmest coat in sight — a bulky, furry business with a scarf in the pocket. The scarf I tie around my head, the ends flapping, only heavy socks on my feet like some chilly silly child who doesn’t know better. And I launch out the back door to shut up the chickens.
When I arrive, they rouse themselves, alert, “Who is that?” the rooster asks, peering at me through the screen, and before I can answer Dove runs screaming into the yard. Dressed up like this with my scarf tails flapping in the wind, they don’t recognize me. I’m a stranger, something dangerous, fear grips their chicken hearts. The rooster, Dandy, sounds the alarm and Dove flutters and runs in the chicken yard screaming, “Thief, murderer, egg eater, help me!” She’s hysterical.
All I am doing is shutting the door with the latch that doesn’t work, jimmying the screwdriver into place, closing out the cold for my feathered friends who think I am suddenly the enemy coming to steal something, they know not what. “Their life? Their breath? Their one blue egg, laying snug in the nest?” I leave them to their folly, not even checking the nest for an egg.
Only Black Betty is quiet. She’s an old hen, a wise hen, a hen that’s weathered a thousand storms, dog raids and owls going “whoooo?’ in the night — when she’s been locked accidentally outside the gate. She’s scratching in the corner, amusing herself, looks at me out of the corner of her eye and says “Thanks for closing us off from the wind! You’ll have to excuse all the ruckus from the youngsters.”
Another day, a colder day yet, and I look at the birds at the feeder — they’ve cleared it out in two days, red feathers flashing to thank me for my expenditure. The chickens are pacing in their yard. “Open the door,” the rooster is saying, “we need exercise. The sun is shining. We’re bored.” Obediently, I trudge to their door and open it wide, throwing down some scraps. Dandy calls to the two girls. (Are they still girls at this advanced age? But I call them that anyway. I know how amused I get when some young upstart calls me a girl. It’s slightly affirming, depending upon the tone.)
Dandy sets the pace, as usual. He’s out the door and calls the hens to follow. Dove is close on his heels, chattering away at him. “Oh this is exciting,” she says, “What do you think we’ll find out here?” And Dandy calls back to Black Betty (aka V.M.) who hesitates to join them.
“C’mon,” he says, “stay with the group.” But Betty looks skeptical. She stops at the end of the ramp leading up to the tinier chicken house door. “I don’t know,” she says eyeing the small cozy door on the one hand and, on the other, the gate ajar to the wider world. “What’s out there that we don’t have here already?” she wants to know.
Dandy is getting impatient now. “Get with it,” he threatens, “before I have to chase you down!” She looks longingly at her home. There’s grain inside and water, albeit not so fresh as the stream, and the four walls cut the wind. There’s hay to scratch around in and all kinds of memories she could drowse over — nests full of eggs, all the fluffy chicks, the time Dove tried to raise a family — what a disaster, she remembers it all.
Our cat, Marshmallow, moseys toward the chicken house. He sees the gate is open and he feels it’s his duty to check on the “snow geese” inside. It’s really a mouse family, who “go south” every winter — as if they were going to Florida or San Antonio — to live under the heated bowl that holds the chicken’s water. One mouse relative or another is there every winter, basking in the warmth, their own pool — like a time-share with free food. Their only worry being the cat — like a Mafia boss, who comes calling for tribute. “Marshmallow is so fat,” says my sister, “All he wants to do is eat and sleep — a little like me,” she says with a guilty grin.
Dandy looks around, calls again to Black Betty as the cat moves in their direction. Thus nudged, she reluctantly moves toward the gate and the open spaces of the unknown. “We’ll go up to the Big House,” Dandy chortles encouragingly. “Maybe Pat will throw us some cat food — you know how you like dry cat food…” (It’s like going to get an ice cream cone for chickens, only healthier with all the protein. They think it’s a great treat.)
But I’ve already closed the back door and I’m inside typing on the laptop in order to remember exactly what happened on another day in the country.