“Where are all the chickens?” It’s just after 8am on a cloudy Saturday morning that was supposed to be clear and sunny.
I wish I could answer the Bearded One’s question, but I only see two hens of our nine. They are usually all outside the coop and pecking around in the aviary by now, ready to be let out. We’ve been doing it the same way for a couple of years. “Look at all those feathers,” I say. Several hens have moulted recently, but there are way more loose feathers scattered around the aviary doors than yesterday. Something is going on.
And then I see a large pile of dark red feathers against the back corner of the aviary. I hurry to inspect Anna’s decapitated body. I search around the back side and find two live hens, Leah and Cheetah, huddled in the far southwest corner. Dang it all.
The Bearded One is doing his own reconnaissance and together we figure out that there are five live chickens — Spot, Stevie, Maybelline, Leah, and Cheetah — and one dead — Anna — in the aviary. Where are Kimber, Sweet Tart, and Danielle? After weasels killed 58 two-week-old Cornish meat birds this summer, we first suspect them. But they suck the blood and leave the carcass, and three hens have just disappeared. Gone.
There are feathers stuck up on the high wires near the tarp roof ten-feet up where there is a gap that can’t be easily sealed. The water trough is dirty. Outside the aviary I spot a scattering of Kimber’s feathers, and the Bearded One finds a chicken leg bone with foot attached, both leg and thigh bone chewed clean except for a ruffle of golden Sweet Tart feathers. Raccoons. It has to be raccoons.
I want to linger. By this time, though, the goats are tired of waiting for their grain and start begging, and the Bearded One takes off toward the barn, and I say, hey, let’s feed the goats together. The Bearded One agrees but not enthusiastically enough.
The fact that he is here at all is amazing since the morning chores are mine and he is usually still in bed. He is pure night owl. Mornings are not his time. But he was up early — achy chain sawing muscles — and offered to do the chores. I said that I’d love to do the chores together, and he said okay but not enthusiastically. And now I’m asking again. To feed the goats together.
This lack of enthusiasm peeves me, although my heart is breaking over the dead chickens and I don’t yet know it. They were pets. So I irritate him as he scoops out the grain — “Is that three cups? I feed them more than that. That was only two cups.” He clams up. Back at the aviary, he suddenly turns and marches back to the barn alone, then eventually returns with a plastic trash sack.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Getting Anna,” he says and opens the aviary door. I say something about him just deciding what to do here, wanting to discuss what to do with the body. He turns, says, “Here’s a bag. You do it then,” and walks away from me toward the upper pasture.
I am in shock. I feel something, but can’t seem to place it. “I am gone!” I shout back at him, and march the opposite direction. And keep marching. I walk our road and cry myself silly.
Tears roll down my face and threaten to choke me. Spider webs drip from the trees and the fog rolls in. A lone rabbit on the road doesn’t even run away as I walk by through the mist.
At home, I find out that the Bearded One has put Anna in the trash can, and I yell at him. I slam the front door, get the shovel, retrieve the plastic trash bag from the garbage and cry the whole time. As I bury the body I can hear the Bearded One starting the chainsaw to continue with his never-ending, exhausting, wood-supplying operation.
Then I go upstairs, realize I haven’t eaten anything all day and don’t care, and cry myself to sleep. Maybe a raccoon will come and attack me in my sleep.
When I get up, I check on the remaining birds and see that Leah is off by herself, hunkered down. I pick her up and see that she is wounded. The back of her head has been bitten. So I doctor her in the house with hydrogen peroxide and Neosporin and then set her up in the hoophouse so she can recuperate without being pecked.
The Bearded One returns and we finally talk it out. “I am sad,” I say. “I am sorry,” he says. He says, “I was insensitive. I am not tired of your company.” “Tell me your side,” I say. He says, “I was trying to help you to duck the chore and get away from the hard karma of the moment. I was also irritated in the barn, yes.”
“I needed to linger,” I say. Together, remembering.
Poor Sweet Tart, we say. She came to us back in April after a dog bit her and tore open her thigh to the bone, and now this.
Kimber was our very first chicken, a lovely little banty rescued from an abandoned greenhouse, just over two years ago. She came with her seven babies.
Spot and Stevie are the last left. Kimber laid our last egg on Friday.
Danielle, Kimber, Leah, and Anna were the core of the Founding Fowls of the Farmlet. They were all named after our son’s past girlfriends.
So we make a plan in the face of this new level of discouragement. First, we decide to completely lock down the coop at night. We set the raccoon trap in the aviary with aromatic pepperoni and Ritz crackers. We do this together. “Thanks for fortifying the coop,” I say, noticing how he’s hauled timbers from the barn to block any digging at the entrance. Then we check on Leah in the hoophouse. “Good catch about Leah,” he says.
Inside, he makes a fire and then we watch a Netflix movie together. The miracle here is that I don’t like movies, but tonight I am willing to watch just to be together, and the movie is “The Impossible” about a family of five and the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and how love and compassion is more important than survival or efficiency.
The next day, we proceed to be wonderfully loving beings. There’s a raccoon in the trap when I do the morning chores, and I speak softly to it and feed it some crumbs.
The Bearded One sleeps in. When he gets up, we relocate the raccoon together to the wilds several miles away.
We work out a plan to fortify the aviary roof. I show interest in his amazing new automatic chainsaw sharpening system,
and make him popcorn to eat in front of the football game. And we both check on Leah repeatedly. So she won’t be alone.