Chicks 5

Of Farmers and Fathers

By

1.

After 21 days I watch chicks both hatch and fail to hatch, life vibrating then ceasing inside the Styrofoam cooler that doubles as an incubator. Over half the chicks die, their shiver of energy and bright peeps fading, while the others—lucky or blessed—emerge dark and dizzy, to stumble over each other like drunkards. The only yellow chick, the one my omnivore sons name Delicious, comes out half-alive; her yolk sack hangs bruise-colored and lumpy outside her body, and she can’t stand. Days I hold her over food and water so she can eat or drink. When I approach the brooder, the near-dead chick tilts her head severely so her green eyeball looks straight into mine.

I see you; I see you too: an evolutionary survival technique if ever there were one.

Over time and gradually vibrant, Delicious begins to fly to my lap. Her feathers are filthy-white with specks of gold and black. She has a red comb and an assertive waddle. She is easily the ugliest chicken of the flock, and the most charming, too. When I sit in the chair in the corner of the run, she flutters skyward, lands on my lap, then tilts her head to lock eyeballs with me. It feels very much like bonding, which of course, is what it is. I hatched that bird. Despite her shaky beginning, she is eating and growing and surviving. She waddles to me when I enter her run and flies to my shoulder by way of greeting. She tilts her head and stares into my eyes, insisting that I stare back into hers. Each time she does this, it feels as if she is saying: “Me. You. Me. You. Meyou?”

Chicks1She spritely declines her boundaries of coop and run, wandering the unfenced backyard with her chicken friend, Maggie—the two of them puffing and preening near the back door of my house, then ducking and running each time an airplane flies falcon-like, en route to MSP.

One sad day at four in the morning, a pullet crows. I know this not because I hear it, but because my neighbor Pastor Chris, who sleeps with his windows open, tells me so. Roosters, with their raw, resonant cock-a-doodle-doo, are not allowed in my neighborhood. Not even in St. Paul in the heart of Lake Woebegone. Not even with a seminary in my back yard that’s shrouded by jack pines, not even if the house to my south champions backyard chickens, which it does not. The “roo,” as they’re called on chicken-lady blogs, will have to go.

Chicks are notoriously difficult to sex and most people who hatch them from eggs won’t know the bird’s gender until it crows or lays an egg. My husband assumes, immediately and without question, Delicious is our rooster. Why? Because Delicious is tallest. Delicious has spiky pinfeathers on the back of her neck that startle outward when she puffs out her chest and struts alpha-like past the other pullets. And Delicious—in hindsight this is telling—has begun mounting her friends. I research and discover that this isn’t unheard of, particularly in a rooster-less flock. Some people call such birds alpha hens, or lesbihens. The unluckiest of the lot, call them roosters.

 

2.

Our minds are capable of believing the absurd if it calms the heart. For years as a girl I imagine my father flies a helicopter around town to keep an eye on me. Instead of absorbing that he’s abandoned us—(still now, I think, is that the right word?)—I imagine he lands his helicopter on rooftops near my house so he can watch from afar. While walking home from school, sitting on the porch shrouded by overgrown lilacs, I suspect he is looking after me. It’s not until I become an adult and drive from Michigan to Texas for his funeral with my own kids snug behind me in car seats that I realize: 1) it’s not normal to have imagined him always watching me and 2) he was never watching me.

Bus

He does take us on one vacation, just after the divorce, and during that vacation he calls me not by my name, but by the nickname: Turkey. At the end of that one-time vacation, he pulls up in front of our house, idles the car, and seems genuinely sad when he says, “I’ll visit soon, OK, Turkey?”

I never see him again.

*

My two sisters and I, next of kin, are charged with clearing out his apartment after he dies at the age of 54. I wonder, irrationally, if we’ll uncover concrete proof that he thought about the daughters he never raised. When I say, “thought about,” of course, I probably mean “loved.” As I step inside the door of his apartment for the first time, my sister who has already arrived, greets me waving an 8×10-framed picture. It’s a photo of my sisters and me laughing and barely recognizable behind lip-glossed grins and late-80’s hair.

“I found this in his bedroom,” my sister says with a note of triumph in her voice. My first thought is that my grandmother has planted it to make us feel good.

I walk immediately to my father’s bedroom at the back of the small apartment and see a made bed, a bedside table with nothing on it, and a large TV against a blank white wall. On top of his television is a thin 8-inch clear strip in deep dust where the frame has sat, proof that the photo has been there for a long while; proof that he placed it there himself.

 

3.

I teach creative writing in prison. Once in a while it strikes me that I am a fatherless woman, teaching a classroom of mostly fatherless men. One might assume I read stacks of essays about gangbangers and crime. I do see those, but seldom. Far more often, I read essays about childhood. A boy learning to rub his grandfather’s arthritic joints. A boy whose father disowned him after the hearing. A man whose sons no longer visit or send letters. A man whose mother worked in a diner, smelled like bacon, microwaved frozen burritos, and served lukewarm Cherry Coke for movie night. (I’ve obscured details to protect their privacy.) The essays that move me the most are those where the somebody who steps in—an acquaintance, a teacher, a store clerk—would never have had to, but does so anyway, and though there aren’t many of these, there are more than I would’ve expected. Whether the essays feature a mother, father, a teacher, or neighbor, they seem to be written by two different writers: those who feel they were loved well and those who know they were not.

prisonwriters

In some essays, love is a verb. She fed me. She forgave me. She rubbed the small of my back. In others, it assumes an unwavering presence, not a verb exactly, but a heat source, like a pilot light that burns in a quiet, crucial way.

A denial of love, on the other hand, gapes like a chasm. The authors of those essays tread the edges, hollering down—hello? hello—waiting for some faint, familiar greeting to answer back. No sound, I assure you, can be a very loud sound.

 

4.

It happens early one September morning when a hawk dips and soars through our backyard. The pullets sprint-waddle to the coop and Delicious takes up post in front them. With her chest thrust out and her beak open she crows. He is wild and bold and loud. Whether he does it to alert the hens or divert the hawk or just to hear himself thrive, Delicious crows a crow that resonates between the jack pines and the maple trees—so clearly, Cockerel Reporting for Duty, that three neighbor kids run over to watch the display. Delicious discourages the hawk and outs himself and becomes, instantly in my eyes, the model of the perfect rooster and also, a soon-to-be-homeless bird.

Lacking other options and encouraged by my husband who hates nothing more than breaking the rules, I venture to a cluster of farms that hug the Wisconsin border near the St. Croix River. Nobody, it seems, in the history of the world ever sat around wishing for another rooster. Each farmer who does not want Delicious is quick to offer a name of another farmer who might. Farmers politely pass me off to their neighbors until I visit the last farm on my list. I pull into a small, fence-lined orchard and immediately feel hopeful. Not only does this farm have row upon row of apple trees with fruit-heavy branches and box elder bugs, it has cornfields and pumpkins and a wooden train. Most heartening, for some reason, is the solitary goat, grazing in a pen. Not a herd of goats, not a pair, just one. Like a pet.

I see the farmer, mid-eighties, standing in the corner talking to a customer. His cheeks are wrinkled and wind-burnt, and he has a quarter-inch gap between his two front teeth. He holds a paring knife in callused fingers while he explains to a customer that apple warts don’t hurt the apple’s taste, they just make it strange to look upon. He opens it up, and sure enough, inside, it glistens like every other apple.

I stand in line until I have a chance to talk to him about Delicious—playful rooster; nearly-died-as-a-chick-rooster; runs to me when I approach, eats from my hand, stands on my shoulder, leans in close and will not desist until he makes eye contact, too special to die but too male to stay, rooster. I give him a knowing glance and he does not give me a knowing glance in return.

“I can’t keep him in the city,” I say, finally.

He shifts his weight. Now he has a knowing glance. He sighs. I think he even shakes his head. His is my last farm, he my last good idea.

The gracious thing would be for me to offer him an out, to say, Don’t worry; thanks for your time; it was only a thought. I’m not gracious.

I stare. I wait for his eyes to return to mine and when they do, I hold eye contact, shamelessly.

The farmer’s eyes grow soft, then amused, then kind.

“Alright,” he says with the smallest of smiles. “Bring him tomorrow.”

*

The next day I return, cradling Delicious. The apple shack buzzes with people and the air smells sweet. The farmer stands in a corner speaking with a customer. Between sentences, he glances up and grins at me and makes a clucking sound. It’s not the bwak, bwak of children’s books, but the real chicken sound, the quiet brrp, brrp, I’ve learned from the birds in my backyard. The farmer nods toward Delicious, who sits calmly in my arms.

“That rooster’s used to being held,” he says with what I choose to believe is admiration. Without another word, he leads me to an empty grass-bottomed pen between the wooden train and the pygmy goat. I settle Delicious inside and—despite my best efforts to prevent it—I start to cry. The farmer pretends not to notice as he closes the door. He’s raised animals, of course, but never one this special. I remind him again of the yolk sac that dangled outside this rooster’s body and his near-death and his favorite perch, also known as my shoulder. The farmer listens quietly with an impatience likely born from embarrassment. I press upon him a plastic baggy half-full of chicken scratch even though he assures me has a 20-pound bag in the barn. A boy near the wooden train watches the scene then says to his mother, with some alarm, “Mama, why that lady did hold a chicken?”

The farm is busy this fall day with people u-picking, people who drive out this way only once a year then head home to bake an apple crisp. People like me. The farmer looks at me—I’m crying in the center of his orchard, in the middle of his business in the heart of a peak Sunday, exposed before curious families and a bleating goat. “He likes to be held,” I reiterate for the twentieth time and then, in case he hasn’t understood, I say it a little differently: “He’ll want to be held,” and I continue on and on until finally, mercifully, the farmer cuts me off.

Chicks3

I’m a mess because I’m sad for myself and I’m sad for my chicken, and I’m a mess because this farmer was kind to me for no other reason than I asked him to be. I’m a mess because if I’d known my father and grandfather, I think they would’ve been warm like this farmer and I’m a mess because I didn’t know my father or grandfather.

The farmer, who is not my kin and never will be, smiles a baffled smile and says, not unkindly, “Alright then. Head on back to your urban farm now, Mama.” He pauses like he isn’t sure what the hell else to say. “Maybe I’ll read about you in the papers some day.”

 

5.

For reasons I’ll never understand, I am my father’s rooster. My life is filled with farmers. We find our farmers where our interests are, I guess. My farmers turned out to be writing teachers, people who’ve opened a gate, ushered me in, and inhabited my life however briefly, without DNA, without obligation.

There was Dr. Mazeika, who in addition to teaching linguistics, made a lifelong side study of Bob Dylan and love. A short man who grew up in Pennsylvania coal country, he was bald except for the white hair that formed a rim around the sides of his head. He wore a tweed blazer, could affect any accent ever spoken, and taught us the lyrics to “Tangled Up in Blue.” At some point during English 101, he made every student answer the question: where does love come from? I don’t have a copy of what my 18-year-old self wrote. I vaguely recall wondering if love didn’t come from love, a chicken-egg problem if ever there were one. I remember wanting Dr. Mazeika to tell me I got the correct answer. He never did, of course, but he called me up to his desk one afternoon and said, “Did you know you’re a writer?” He asked if he could share one of my papers with the class and this surprised me. I was the first person in my family to attend college; I didn’t know if I would graduate, let alone say anything worth sharing. That three-minute conference buoyed me for years. His words were chicken scratch and I devoured them.

Oh and there was Mrs. Nance and Robin and Steve and Robert and David.

Robert, who lists beside his office hours a quote by Kierkegaard: “One who loves cannot calculate,” Robert, who paid such razor sharp attention to the ideas within my sentences that I felt smart and important.

David who wrote, “Be-yoo-tiful!” in the margins and made me believe he meant it. More importantly, he made me believe he cared if I believed it.

Mrs. Nance who way back in Jr. High, said, “Why don’t you try it?” And, “I’ll show you how.”

Steve, who sat across a cup of coffee, looked me in the eyes and said, “You’ve waited your whole life for permission to write and I am giving it to you now.” Steve, who read enough of my work to know of my father and his helicopter in the sky, Steve, who signed with a felt tip pen the inside of his book “Oh, I am so proud of you. And I’ll be watching.”

*

I see you; I see you too.

*

Dr. Mazeika has been dead for over a decade and I’ve never seen a word about his study on love. Though I worry that my giving is a form of taking, I send my dearest teachers emails once or twice a year, small polite cheeps, and always, they send notes back.

Well hello! Mrs. Nance and Robin and Steve and Robert and David.

Oh, all right, fine. Bring her in. Brrp. Brrp.

Me. You. Me. You. Meyou?

*

I search online for Dr. Mazeika’s grown children so I can ask them if anything ever came of his love study. His son was the Men’s US Olympic gymnastics coach in the 90s. His daughters live down South. I send one daughter a message over Facebook but I never receive a response. On her Facebook page though, to my delight, she’s posted a picture of a chicken that had wandered into her yard. She hopes to find a home for the wayward bird, a Rhode Island Red, which she will care for until further arrangements can be made. In the meantime, she’s named her: Henny Penny.

I like to imagine boxes upon boxes somewhere, maybe in Dr. Mazeika’s daughter’s basement in a split-level house on a winding street surrounded by oak trees. Inside the boxes are stacks of yellowed papers on which young people, who are now old, test theories on what it means to love. How many of those students got it right? Do any love a chicken or a ferret or a dog more than they care to admit? Who remembers answering Dr. Mazeika’s question and who, all these years later, knows how to define love? I don’t know why some people make it their business to love deeply and well in the course of the day-to-day, nor do I know why recognizing that love can be so surprising, but they do and it is. If he were alive now I would want Dr. Mazeika to know that I still think about his question after twenty years, and instead of narrowing in on a definition of love, I’ve lost sight of one, which feels closer to the truth. It is not a strip of dust on a TV, or at least not just a strip of dust; it can be as simple as a black checkmark in a felt tip pen, checked once, twice, thrice, over a sentence that came together just right. I’m tempted, always, to correct myself, to say: Wait, that’s called teaching. It’s called doing your job. Two people can do the exact same job, hold the exact same pen over the exact same paper. One can do it with love and the other without, and somehow it is possible to feel the difference.

 

6.

The little boy at the farm gawked at me and I can’t say I blame him. When he asked with a frightened voice why that lady did hold a chicken?, I suppose he wanted to know why that lady with the chicken was crying. What did his mother tell him in answer to his question? She probably wouldn’t know to explain to her son, abandoned children don’t do well abandoning pets. She wouldn’t know to explain that Chicken Lady’s deepest fear is that she will detach from beloved others as beloved others have detached from her.

Chick 2I couldn’t have answered the boy because I don’t fully understand the Delicious-attachment myself, which is to say, I don’t fully understand the many shades of love. The boy could infer that I was sad and the man was helping me. I held a bird and then I didn’t. The pen was empty and then it wasn’t. A farmer was kind, but we aren’t sure why. Perhaps the mother told her son: it’s not polite to stare. I hope not. I was that boy’s age when my father—there one day and gone the next—was an invisible man who flew invisible aircraft in the sky. Years later an old man asked me to speak about the origin of love, his asking itself a loving act. If love comes from looking, if love is looking, his question was the embodiment of the answer. He is dead and I am 40. I have two sons, four hens, and I never knew my father. I loved a rooster and then I gave him away. The words “love” and “loss” seem weighty for a chicken that couldn’t stay, a stranger who said “bring him in,” teachers who said “go ahead,” and a father who wasn’t a dad. Yet one who loves cannot calculate. I learned this from a man whose pedagogy seems inextricable from attention—something Simone Weil tells me is the same thing as love—a life-guiding reminder that I think about often with gratitude and an urge to thank the man who taught me, the one who does not calculate, so wouldn’t take the credit anyway.

In this essay, love is a verb.

It bounces off the edges of empty strips and chasms.

*

Once a student of mine wrote a story in which his main character becomes paralyzed. The character can’t move his legs, his lips, his pinky, even an eyelash, but he understands everything happening around him. After laying alone on the edge of a pond most of his life, a random stranger happens upon him in the tall weeds. He talks to him, tells him tales, nourishes the perfectly hungry mind that exists inside his otherwise dead body. The man asks the stranger over and over, why are you being kind to me? And he says over and over in his mind, though of course the stranger can’t hear a word: Thank you. The students in workshop debated whether the story was too far-fetched. This nearly-dead dude? This man, out of nowhere, who comes upon him in the weeds and cares him for no good reason? Is there a grain of truth in such a story?

There was, to me, a startling truth. It wasn’t the unblinking eyelash or the weeds or the inexplicable paralysis, but the astonishment ringing through the character’s gratitude. For the first time, I could name a sound I’d known forever—the unmistakable tenor of those who’ve lost fathers and found farmers.

If I could answer Dr. Mazeika’s question now, maybe I would say to define love is to limit it. Sometimes it is not where you expect it to be and other times it is a grace note in a strange place, entwined with feathers or a stranger or another good day on the job. Maybe love is not proprietary or scarce, or dependent on DNA—no small revelation for a devout pessimist. Maybe love hides in plain sight, like a fallen apple on cut grass. Pick it up. Taste it. Turn it over in your cold, hungry hands and say thank you for the sweetness. Don’t try to define it. If we’re quiet, we can feel it; we can feel it when we are feeding our chickens and our children and our students and our minds; if we listen we may hear it in the strangest places, like the rustle of paper, like the scratch of a pen, like the far-off echo of a wild, resonant crow.

***

Rumpus original art by Estevan Guzman.


Jennifer Bowen Hicks’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Orion, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review online, The Rumpus, North American Review, and elsewhere, and has received special mention in Pushcart Prize XXXVI and Best American Essays. Her fiction is anthologized in New Stories of the Southwest and has received the Tim McGinnis Award. She was a 2014 Rona-Jaffee Bread Loaf Scholar and she lives in St. Paul where she is working on a large book about unraveling and a slim book about absent fathers. More from this author →