I see lots of cute little chicken coops for sale at hardware and farm stores these days. A friend of mine loves her layers. She houses them in what amounts to a palace in chickendom. Understandably, her feathers ruffled one day when I mentioned how much I dislike chickens once they outgrow babyhood.
The issue took root in my sixth summer. A carefree moppet in red polka–dotted coveralls a la Shirley Temple, and shiny new black patent sandals, I set out for a birthday party. My destination–a block from home–lay at the end of a familiar path alongside the highway through our small town. The trail bordered a vacant lot where free-range chickens scratched. And from which they sometimes escaped through or over a sagging wire fence.
I skipped along, daydreaming. Would I win a prize at pin the tail on the donkey? Would Mary’s birthday cake be chocolate? Umm—I could almost taste that favorite treat. Thus preoccupied, I didn’t notice the baby chicks and their mother outside the fence until I blundered into them.
Bedlam erupted. Cheeping, flapping their wings the chicks scattered like raindrops off a rock. Mother Hen, her red feathers ruffled, charged. I exited the scene in the opposite direction, braids thumping my back, sandals slapping gravel. My escape route took me into the path of an oncoming automobile.
I don’t remember the impact, only the struggle to crawl away from the fury at my heels. “Don’t let her get me. Don’t let her get me,” I shrieked at the gathering onlookers.
Old Biddy didn’t get me, but I’d have been better off to have taken a few pecks on the ankle. Instead of eating chocolate cake and ice cream that afternoon, I found myself in the hospital. A plaster cast imprisoned my lower torso down to my thigh on one side, mid-calf on the other. Connecting the two, a round bar provided a lifting device for caretakers.
Turns out that injured little girls are pampered by nurses, lavished with gifts and sympathy from grown-ups, and gratified by the envy of playmates. I enjoyed being a princess.
And then my parents took me home.
Dad had his job. Mom’s garden produced vegetables that demanded canning if we were to enjoy them later. Hopscotch and hide–and–seek soon called playmates away from our paper dolls, leaving me to lie and listen to their laughter and cries: “All–ee, all–ee out’s in free–ee.” I wanted to play hide-and-seek with them.
Hatred for that old hen grew.
The carnival arrived, a yearly event topped only by Christmas. Night after night I watched the lights on the Ferris wheel turn in the distance. The merry-go-round’s jolly tunes called my name.
Two months flat on my back in that cast gave me time to start blaming every miserable minute on that old red hen.
Forgiveness comes hard. Given the choice between raising chickens and washing windows for survival, I’d do windows. But my husband’s mother prided herself on her flock and sold their eggs. She and my father–in–law traveled often. Guess who got to tend those cluckers?
Family tradition called for egg-gathering at dusk.
The hen house on the farm was not a palace. Stepping into feather-moted gloom scented with chicken poop, I’d see beady eyes staring at me from the tiered nests on the wall beside the roosts. No one was talking about the female’s biological clock back then, but I always found one or two hopeful mother hens sitting defiant on their eggs.
Supposing chickens did have brains enough to come in out of the rain, I doubt those fowl would have flinched at the sight of the old broom kept at hand had they known its purpose. Sometimes a nudge with the handle did the job. Other times, eviction required several whacks on the chicken condo’s slanted roof. Flying out, the hens flung particles whose source I preferred not to think about, or smell again. Eggs lifted from the straw felt unpleasantly warm.
Those old setters eventually ended up in Grandma’s stewpot. She made mighty good noodles for the broth. But in my opinion, chicken fried up golden in its tender youth is the bird’s most fitting end.