“Creeeak, Rawwk! Cruck. Cruck…fwoo, fwoo, fwoo…” I woke dully. What was that sound? Did it come from downstairs? Glancing over at Pema, I saw that she was dozing serenely beside me. The silver light of the full moon shone through the window. The rest of the room was all black. What time is it? I wondered sleepily, and closed my eyes. “Crawwk-reeak,” it came again. Pulling myself awake, I gently picked my head off the pillow and poured consciousness into my hearing, trying to transform it into listening.
A few nights earlier, when Pema and I had first arrived at Silke’s for Christmas break, I woke to the sound of distant chimes in the night. I shook it off as make believe and quickly fell back to sleep. The next day at breakfast Silke informed me that Sparrow, who rents the attached apartment situated directly below our bedroom, had come home late last night with a gift from her boyfriend. “Some kind of musical instrument,” she said. But this wasn’t…
“Gawkk…eaakk…” There it was again. I sat up slowly, breathing softly so as not to make a sound. “Greak-awwk! Fwoo-fwoo.”
Sounds like chickens screaming, I thought. Then I shook my head at the notion, the foggy logic of night. I wondered if Silke had some strange alarm clock that sounded like beleaguered chickens. No, wait! The chickens! “Gawwk… eeak… grrubbuck.” Shit, that was the chickens. That’s not coming from downstairs. That’s the chickens. Outside.
I folded back the covers and sat upright, trying not to disturb Pema. I should run out there, I thought. I wondered how long it would take to find my clothes. Landing with bare feet on the hardwood floor, I stood tall and felt my naked chest erupt in goose pimples. It would be freezing outside. Maybe it’s too late, I thought, maybe I should at least tell Silke. I wrapped my arms around my chest and stepped softly to the door.
“Ting…tink-ting…tng” I turned the doorknob slowly, hoping not to wake Pema. I was trying to silence the latch, but the inner workings scraped and clattered like a piano wire stretched too tight. “Pechawk,” the latch gave way. I eased the knob back in place, and squeezed through the open door. At least the hinges didn’t squeak. Now considerably more awake, I held still and listened once again.
“Kalick, kalack, kalick, kalack…” Shady, Silke’s old dog, was slowly climbing the stairs, his stiff claws knocking at each wooden step. How many things happen at the same time? I wondered. Passing directly in front of me, as if I weren’t there, Shady turned the corner, passed the office and then Silke’s bedroom. I ignored him, straining to listen to the chickens, but I couldn’t make anything out. Glancing to my left, through the open bathroom door, I saw the window over the gleaming white toilet. Outside, by the light of the nearly full moon, I could barely distinguish the long gravel driveway, the dark bushes along the edges. The chickens were just around the corner. Then, slowly – was that my imagination? – a black figure made its way down the gravel drive, and disappeared into the night.
“Sssssklishshshsh…” The sound of running water called me back. I turned to the corner. Shady was peeing. You rascal, I thought, then quickly forgave him. It was dark in the hallway, but I pictured his sad old face and smiled. Then, as calmly as he had arrived, he turned and walked back down the stairs.
“Happy New Year’s Eve,” Silke said as she came down the stairs the next morning. Pema was already awake, wrapped like a burrito by the fire, quietly absorbed in sleepy thoughts. I had been up early, perhaps banging around a bit too eagerly in the kitchen as I got breakfast together. I had hoped to finish quickly in order to help Silke with the lodge. “There’s tea,” I said, pointing excitedly to the teapot, next to which I had set Silke’s owl mug, her favorite. “I’ll have breakfast ready in ten minutes.” I knew Silke wouldn’t care – she wasn’t going to eat, anyway – but I was in full regalia, house-dad mode.
“Thank you,” Silke said, smiling sweetly. “I’ll have a cup of tea, then go outside to light the fire.” She had invited her female friends to a sweat lodge, something she does about once a month. It being New Year’s Eve, and a full moon, it seemed like the auspicious thing to do. I was to tend the fire.
I turned to my pans on the stove, then frowned. Calling over my shoulder, I said, “I think something got into the chickens last night. I was going to wake you, but…” I trailed off, then turned back to Silke, pointing at her with the spatula in my hands. “Oh, and Shady peed in the hallway.”
“The chickens?” Silke said, sounding alarmed.
“What was it, Daddy?” Pema chirped.
“Shady?” Silke said, advancing toward the teapot.
“I’m not sure,” I said, reaching under the counter for some plates. “I didn’t go out there yet.” Setting the plates down noisily, I reached for a knife. “But yes, Shady. I almost ran out there in the middle of the night, but after a bit of cawing it got quiet and I decided there wasn’t much I was going to do at that point. I might have seen a coyote.”
“A coyote?” Silke said, bringing the owl mug to her lips.
“Well, I can’t be sure. I saw a black something…in the driveway…in the middle of the night.” Between each phrase, I placed pieces of fresh baked bread in the toaster, pushed the lever, and opened the fridge. “But I might have been making it up. Could have been an owl.” Spotting the butter on the top shelf, I placed it on the counter.
“An owl?” Silke said, now standing with her back to the fire and cupping the hot mug with both hands.
“Yeah, I mean… How could a coyote get in there?” Picking up one of the pans from the stove, I began portioning eggs onto plates. “There are two doors on each side, er walls.”
“Were any of the doors left open?” Silke asked.
Setting the pan in the sink, I continued. “Well, like I said, I haven’t been out there yet. There are those little holes, though.” I meant the cat-door sized cuts in the coop and the perimeter fence, both solid wood. “But no coyote could get through those. Maybe a weasel. I don’t know.” I picked up the second pan, full of carrots and broccoli, “But when was the last time you heard of a weasel out here?” I squinched my face, shrugged my shoulders, then set the pan back on the stovetop. The toaster dinged.
A year ago, while at home at New Buffalo, we lost a handful of chickens at the start of winter. The chickens were one thing, but what had been particularly mysterious was the fact that something was taking out our turkeys from the roof at night. The turkeys are big birds, and mean, and ours were wild turkeys, meaning they could fly (hence the roof). We had had seven or eight turkeys at the time, but by the end of the week we were down to three, though we had recovered a few dead bodies.
I don’t know why it took us so long to figure out. We kept wondering if one of the male turkeys was attacking the others, which they were known to do, whether maybe a bobcat would climb onto the roof, or if a coyote would pick up a dead carcass and run away with it. Then one of my housemates saw an owl in the chicken yard late at night. Two days later, the same owl, which had had no trouble before, got hopelessly caught in the fishing line strung above the chickens. It was a sad case, because the owl, though it was eating our birds, surely had our respect. The fishing line had only been meant to deter such raptors, not ensnare them.
I wrote about that encounter in a story titled Catcher in the Rye. One of the saddest and most intriguing parts was seeing the owl, now caged, with a gruesomely injured wing. An apex predator, it stared back at me with nothing even approaching humility. Though caged and hopelessly injured, it had nothing but survival in mind. A deer will run away from you. Rabbits flee. A fish will hide. But this owl, even in death, was alive in such a way that I could not, as with chickens, easily disillusion myself with superiority.
“Tchuk,” I pulled back the metal hook and let it fall against the wooden gate. Stepping on an old piece of warped plywood, where the gate always gets stuck, I pulled open the gray and splintered door. I could now see plainly that the second door, the door to the coop, was wide open. “Oh well,” I thought, and walked in the fence.
“Caw, cruck…” I could hear the tentative calls from the hens inside. The sun was already out, but none had ventured down from their roosts. I felt a lump of softness for them. Dogs, sheep, squirrels, cats – I have primarily a mammalian sort of kinship. But these hens were behaving uncommonly, and there was something pleasant, if sad, in that. Life.
Coming to the open door, I glanced inside the coop. Straw, wood poles, shelves… No sign of scattered feathers, the telltale sign of a dead chicken. Bending over slightly to avoid the door frame, I poked my head inside and followed the clucking up and to the right. There were the hens, the golden orpingtons, the Rhode Island reds, and the hawk-like ameraucanas. Silke calls them Mabels, Friedas, and Georgias, after distinguished ladies of the southwest.
“Hey girls,” I said, speaking comfortingly, “I’ve got some food for you…” I stroked one or two, these birds being so docile that the kids often pick them up during school. Meanwhile, I counted – one, two, three… There should be eleven. Last spring, there were thirteen chicks. One died before she was full grown. Then Shady killed one, sort of by accident. I counted ten.
Glancing down to rest my neck, I discovered another bird laying in plain sight on the ground. A Mabel, its golden feathers blended in perfectly with the yellow straw. I reached down softly and touched her back. No movement. Her feathers were cold, but as I gently rolled her to the side and put my hand under her breast, I could feel the warmth lingering in her body.
I stood up and cradled the bird in my arms. Her eyes were closed and her neck was limp. There were spots of blood, but no obvious trauma. No guts and offal and… Owl, for sure, I thought, must have been scared off by the other chickens. I shrugged. It didn’t even get a real meal.
“Okay, ladies,” I said, backing out the door, “I’m taking Mabel with me. You guys should come out and eat.” Stepping out into the sun, I propped the hen in my arms in as dignified a manner as I could, and headed towards the gate. Ten little hens followed, and if you’ve never seen a flock of chickens running cheerfully after you, bobbing from left foot to right, you’ve missed something.
“What is it daddy?” Pema asked. We were in Bone Canyon, which seemed a fitting place to lay a bird to rest. Silke, Pema and I had walked out midmorning, after cleaning up breakfast and responding to phone messages. “Sweat lodge canceled,” Silke had variously texted and emailed, almost pleased to be released from duty, “The fire department won’t allow any fires, it being New Year’s Eve.”
The gently sloping side canyon, now full of rock towers, stick figures and other evidence of school days, was quiet and cold. We had ventured past the school yard, the Christmas tree, and even down past the guardian tree, deep into the canyon, where the walls give way to pits of sand and boulders, where petroglyphs and antique beer cans recall one’s ancestors. Silke and Pema sat on a giant rock with Shady. A hundred yards away, the small canyon gave way to the immensity of the Rio Grande gorge.
I was on a different rock, lifting Mabel awkwardly into the crook of a tree. Shady having come along, we decided a sky burial was in order.
“Um…hold on,” I shouted to Pema, “I’ll show you in a second. Let me get…” and Mabel’s head flopped clumsily to the side. “Hold on.” Repositioning the bird’s head, I placed her on the stiff bark of the juniper, which was covered in jade green lichen. Her head hung low, eyes closed. Sprinkled over her golden feathers were bits of red and yellow, dried rose petals with which Pema and Silke had anointed the body as Shady trembled nearby. Shady is patient, a good old dog, but instincts are hard to break.
“I think it’s a cloth,” I said. “I’ll show you in a second.” Glancing down at the bowl, in which we had carried the chicken, I found a small earthenware heart, painted a glossy red, and wedged it into the tree branch. “Good luck, little bird,” I muttered, the same sort of incantation I say over pretty much anything, wooden figures, dolls, food, poop. “Yeah! Good luck, poop!” the children often repeat, laughing as they pull up their pants.
The chicken now secure, I turned to the colorful detritus in the earth below me. The canyon, bone dry three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year, nevertheless gets occasional water flows after particularly heavy rains, as evidenced by the pools of sand and mud, the smooth rocks. Under my foot, a piece of well-worn, but colorful cloth had been half-buried in the dirt, God knows how long. I pulled at it, glancing back at Silke and Pema, who watched with curiosity. Over Pema’s shoulder, I could see a spiral petroglyph pounded into the stone, point by point, not scratched. That’s the real deal. Hundreds of years ago, maybe even thousands, some man or woman sat there and imprinted a stroke of their mind onto the earth. Nah, probably not thousands.
Standing up and shaking off the dirt, I held up the fabric, about the width and length of my arm, for Pema and Silke to see. Mostly tannic white, with flecks of color from heavily worn stripes, it was quite evidently moth-eaten and threadbare. I gave it a light yank to see if it would tear. It wouldn’t tie down a load of firewood, but it had integrity enough.
“What is it, Daddy?” Pema repeated.
“I don’t know, pup,” I said, placing the material in the bowl which had previously held the chicken. Crumpled up, the two were about the same size. The specks of color had caught my imagination, as if the cloth were an echo of the golden feathers flecked with flowers. “Probably some old scarf, or a piece of a dress… I don’t know.”
“Yeah, but why’d you get it?” Pema asked, as I walked back towards her and Silke. I was silent for a moment. I looked down at the fabric as I handed the bowl up to them for a closer look. The material itself seemed organic, probably wool or cotton. It didn’t have the look or sheen of acrylic or polyester, and the weave was thick and loose, not industrial tight. But what do I know? The colors, however, were vibrant enough that I guessed they were synthetic. It could have been less than ten years old for all I knew. But I didn’t care. I like found objects, the way they mysteriously come and go, sometimes from the side of the road, or a canoe. I could name fifteen prized possessions, all found or given to me one way or another, but I didn’t have any words for why I took this cloth. The world is interesting, I guess. Even beer cans are worth a look at now and again. Sometimes you can still read a few words, even after fifty or sixty years. You can see the way they knit the metal together, things that sometimes astonish my modern sensibilities.
“Why’d I get it?” I asked. I had a vague thought – I might wash it and save the cloth, maybe use it for something, stitch it onto a bag, a hat. Maybe I’d tie it to the chicken coop. Magic. Guts. Dead chickens. That kind of thing. I looked at Pema, then Silke and Shady, who had calmed down now that the bird wasn’t so aromatically dead right in his face. Then I glanced back at Mabel, golden winged and speckled with colorful dust in the ancient juniper. It was New Year’s Eve.
“Jeez Louise, Pema, why do you think I got you?”