- The Week in Birds
On the morning of the day my mother, Susanna, was leaving for West Virginia, she called me in tears.
"There's another one dead. I don't know what to do."
An hour later, it was 88 degrees and I was shoveling not one but two bodies out of the henhouse (this after two the previous day and one before that). Susanna said that a few of the hens wouldn't even come inside, hadn't come in the night before, had slept out in trees instead. Who could blame them? Their henhouse had become a slaughterhouse.
In summer, Susanna's chickens normally spend their afternoons out of doors, and they truck and cluck back in around dusk. But because Susanna was leaving town, they would be stuck in their henhouse with its small chicken yard for more than a week. Susanna herself wondered aloud if she should just leave the door open while she was gone, let nature take its course.
No way, I said. That would make the hens easy prey for raccoons, neighborhood dogs, coyotes, possums. I promised her that I would protect the birds in her absence. While Susanna packed for her trip, I caught the two wayward (tree-roosting) hens and forced them inside, then spent several hours cutting and stapling pieces of wire mesh over all the holes bigger than a few inches. The place had patches upon patches from years of this kind of fixing-up. Some of the old wooden patches made new holes harder to see; some of the window screens Susanna had placed against holes in past years were torn and gave only the flimsy illusion of protection.
We had milked a series of family cows in this 12-foot-square shed, and in my earliest memories it was a horse stall. In fact, it was the second barnyard building my grandfather put up in 1950, long before I was born. As I [End Page 79] made repairs, I marveled that this spate of killings hadn't started before now, given how hopeless this old improvised coop was. Because of the way the side of the building was off its footings, when the door was closed, there was still a three-inch gap at the bottom; because the door hung crooked, there was another big gap at the top. Really, it was no wonder a hungry critter came in for a bite. I stacked bricks and blocks and wire mesh against the door and assured Susanna her chickens would be safe in her absence.
* * *
The following morning, I went to the farm early to discover a dozen chickens out in the little chicken yard, squawking. Cardigan, the rooster, paced wildly; his comb was bloody. Some of the bricks I had placed to block the gap under the door had been moved several inches out of the way, and there was a kind of sliding mark in the dirt there. Inside I found two dead Buff hens with hardly any marks on them, just blood on their heads. I cursed as I removed the bodies, but felt a tiny consolation that they were not the tree-roosting hens I'd forced indoors the day before. I apologized to the remaining chickens—especially to Cardigan, who was partial to the Buffs and undoubtedly had fought to protect them (hence the bloody comb and the wild gaze).
Disasters often occur when my mother is out of town at folk festivals. Last winter, while she was at the University of Chicago festival, the circulating pipes for her boiler burst in the attic, and hundreds of gallons of water poured into my old bedroom, soaked into the hardwood floor, filled the closet, shorted out electrical sockets. And now this. Having partaken so often of the eggs laid by this bunch, I could not just throw up my arms. Each of these mixed-breed hens was an individual, for crying out loud, and each laid a different-colored egg: brown, white, blue, or green. We make a deal with domestic animals. We use them for food or work or companionship, and in exchange we should make...