It is gloriously sunny — one of the first times this year for us here in the Pacific Northwest — and our forest chicken pen sparkles with 27 healthy, happy white Cornish Rock meat birds. Not one of our ten laying hens is in the broody box, and Pearl, LaLa and Sage, our three Pygora goats, prance and wag their little tails.
I’m leading a farmlet tour of extended family and friends down the trail and out of the woods when I mention that we lost two meat chicks last week. One of my relatives stops in her tracks and groans.
“Something dies here every day,” I say. Everyone laughs nervously, and I scramble to explain. “Besides the chicks, yesterday’s deaths included a baby rabbit and several mice courtesy of Garfield.”
I don’t say that I actually sat with one of the chicks as it died. It flapped its wings, and then its beak yawned in death. Probably some bacteria got it. This is a normal loss.
The group appears to understand just fine as my commentary on death this week continues.
“Raccoons got all of our neighbor’s ducks two nights ago. Pulled them right through the fence. That was the same day that Nora Ephron died, but I’m not saying that’s the same thing.”
Everyone nods, acknowledging human deaths are somehow greater but that animal deaths are hard, too, and that you can’t have an abundance of life without death.
Hundreds of ripe red huckleberries hang from giant indigenous bushes.
Our 3-year-old fruit trees — Italian plum, sour cherry, and two kinds of apples — are laden with growing green babies, and the rhubarb leaves are big as umbrellas on thick scarlet stalks.
Six-year-old Red Riding Hood, the only child of the tour, finds an egg in one of the nests. She giggles and hands it off to her grandfather, jumps on the trampoline, and then she and her mother settle into picking ripe red huckleberries.
Three days later it’s still in the 70s and beautiful. The Bearded One and I walk the road and a friend stops in her truck. “Neighbor caught a coyote pup in her trap last night,” she says and shows us the photo on her camera. “Was trying to catch raccoons. Had to shoot him.”
“Oh, no!” I say, looking at the cute little carnivore.
“I know,”says the neighbor, “but we gotta let Mama Red know she’s not welcome here.”
The Bearded One saw the big red coyote everyone calls Mama Red crossing the road from our property recently, no doubt scouting our meat birds. I think of Mama Red discovering her pup’s body. I see a mental image of a raccoon yanking a duck through a wire fence.
Farm life is raw some days. We’re used to it. And so, it seems, we are a good place for comfort. Our Twenty-Something son calls, and I know something is wrong. “Mom?” he says.
“What happened?” I ask.
“Monty Carter, remember him? The music director at Northwest? He died yesterday.”
I remember a gifted young man, a virtuoso on the piano and a good friend to his students, including our son who played Rapunzel’s Prince in his school’s production of “Into the Woods” five years ago. He sang the song, “Agony,” with the hilarious punch line, “So much greater than yours!” in his rich baritone voice.
“How did he die?”
“An accident in the Wenatchee River,” he says. “Drowned.”
We talk about the tragedy of it, his young age of 43, what a loss to the world. Our son needs me to talk, I can tell this, but I don’t know what to say.
“What’s going on there?” he asks.
“No more chick deaths,” I say. He is very quiet.
“Your sister called from Spokane this weekend,” I say. “She’s on vacation, you know. She was laughing about a conversation she had with her boyfriend’s parents regarding her own parents back in the western part of the state. Us. Me. She said, ‘I told them you were unconventional — a hippie — and were probably this minute running around without a bra making jam.'”
Our son hoots. I love to make him laugh.
“And you know what?” I say, “she was exactly right! She’s psychic. I was making 10 pints of StrawBlue Hucklecherry Jam. Can I send you some, Sweetie?”
“No,” he says, chuckling, “but I appreciate the offer.”
“Is there another kid from school that you can call? To talk about Monty, I mean? Someone from ‘Into the Woods’? What about the Witch?”
“Yeah,” he says, “Danielle.”
“Call her. Share your memories. Keep him alive.”
We hang up and the Bearded One and I head back up the hill once again, stepping over yet another mole Garfield has proudly left for us on the back deck.