Tag Archives: rural life

Beagles Who Need Beagles

Just like that, he swipes the napkin from my lap and races with sheer, urgent joy into the living room, flying like only a 9-week-old Beagle puppy dragster can.

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The Bearded One and I are eating lunch in the midst of puppy chaos, and the very least of my concerns is a paper napkin — may it occupy him for a minute.  It doesn’t even make the growing list of puppy taboos, aka the Dogma.

“Would you like another?”  The Bearded One graciously hands me the napkin basket and I accept and dab it graciously to my lips, our universal skit of refined civilization out here in the sticks.

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“Did you hear that?”  Now Arly is at the front door whining which, at this stage of life, could mean that he has to pee or poop.  Like any second.  But didn’t he just have a long, lavish pee outside for which he was lavishly praised?  Our perfect new puppy has pooped in the house every day since I told my daughter he hadn’t yet.

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I put down my soup spoon and herd Arly across our tiny living room, past the pile of shredded napkin, to the back door and easier access to the yard.  I hold open the screen, but it’s raining and he hesitates.

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“Come on.”  I step outside and circle to the other side of the door, but Arly’s still not buying it.  “Do you have to pee or not?”

“Garfield is yowling,” says the Bearded One from the kitchen table.  “Sounds like he’s upstairs.”

I can see the upstairs balcony deck, which is Garfield’s refuge these days — Arly isn’t allowed upstairs — and Garfield is not there.

“No, he’s not,” I say.  “Is he inside?”

The Bearded One wipes his mouth with his napkin, which is on the table and never in his lap, rises and scales the stairs to check.

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Finally Arly steps outside and I shut the screen door after him.

“Not here!” the Bearded One shouts down to me from inside, upstairs.

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“He must be in the cat condo then,” I yell from outside, downstairs.  The cat condo’s what we call the enclosed front porch.

The Bearded One comes back down the stairs to check.

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From my perspective on the back deck, I see Garfield streak from the front deck and under the house.  “He’s coming around!” I call.  “Gar-field!”  Arly looks at me.  He’s forgotten why he is here and so have I.

I am here, I tell myself, because I want to live my life in the company of animals.  People who play with beagles are the luckiest beagles of all.

Suddenly Garfield climbs up the back stair railing and Arly and I both startle.

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I open the door and Garfield streaks in ahead of Arly, who barks.  I shut the door and join the Bearded One back at the lunch table, where he is just returning, readjusting the ice packs on his sacral, which was skronked after sleeping downstairs with Arly his first three nights here.

I unfold my new napkin.  Arly approaches, tail wagging.  Ready to go again.

“Ha, fool me once!” I say, and smoothe down my huge new bib.

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The Trail at the End of the Road

“This is where I stopped,” says the Bearded One.  We’re on a large knoll, built up by the long-gone machinery, at some future turn on this new road a couple of miles from the farmlet.

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The continuation of this wilderness road, which appears to have been plowed out this past summer, is narrower and more choppy, but at least it’s dry.

“Is that a ravine in the distance?” he asks.

The land dips and I see a darker area at the far end of this rough dirt road which, as I study the route, winds through a meadow first and then past two enormous piles of stumps and branch debris.

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“Is it water?”  I am profoundly lost.  But I’m catching the Bearded One’s sweet enthusiasm for the discovery of a New World.  It feels good to be in this new landscape together and to literally not know what is on the horizon.  Where are we?

Our mile-long gravel road dead-ends into a trail through the woods which heads west and which is called Bear Trail.

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We’ve never left the trail.  We always follow it until it turns and heads off south to distant homes.  Yesterday, though, the Bearded One discovered this new road punched through the woods at the turn.  He realized he hadn’t been on this walk in months and was excited for the new sights.

Now the Bearded One comes in closer to my side as we approach the mysterious silver line.

The sky is overcast and we walk through mist and over tire-sized dirt clods of the recently churned up forest floor.  Large roots poke up like snakes.  The road goes on and on.

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Cedar needles rain down on the neon orange property line flags and blue spray-painted water lines.

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The Bearded One says this would be a great place to bring a new pup, and we talk about Corky, the dachshund mix we applied for, but not soon enough.  He was already adopted.

Mushrooms are under every tree, in every nook and cranny. Whites, creams, browns, and bright oranges and reds that the Indians used for dyes.

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This is a record-breaking year for mushrooms.  There are 5,000 kinds and around 50 are edible.

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Mycologists make the front page of the Kitsap Sun.

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“It’s a road!”  The Bearded One identifies the mystery and he isn’t disappointed.

“There’s a house in those woods,” I say and I pick my way across a raised track in the mud puddle we’ve encountered and hop down onto a paved road.  I can’t see another house or car or anything, just the distant outline of a blue house.  Neither of us knows where in the world we are.  We’ve walked farther than we thought.

“Let’s go this way.”  I head to the left where I can see the road curves.  Then I see mailboxes on the side of the road and a row of tidy homesteads with lots of barns and sheds on big lots.  Some have elaborate gardens.  There are RVs with charming built-on decks and awnings.  There are ship-shape mobile homes with lawn ornaments.  It’s about noon, though, and the entire place is deserted.  I can’t find a street sign.

And then out of the mist comes the mail truck.  It zooms up beside us, and our lovely, good-natured, fast-driving, crazy mail lady has a big grin on her face.  “Do you need me to give you a ride home?” she says, laughing at the sight of us.

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The Bearded One hoots and I giddily explain how we got here.  I point and describe.  The whole road project is news to her.

“Where are we?” I say, finally, distilling the entirety of my psyche and laying it before her.

“You,” she says, wide-eyed and hugely amused as she waves goodbye, “are in a trailer park!”

We have really stepped out, I think.  We’ve widened our territory and had loads of fun.  But — gracious — we’ve still got to make it back home.

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“Where are all the chickens?”  It’s just after 8am on a cloudy Saturday morning that was supposed to be clear and sunny.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Bearded One sleeps in.  When he gets up, we relocate the raccoon together to the wilds several miles away.

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We work out a plan to fortify the aviary roof.  I show interest in his amazing new automatic chainsaw sharpening system,

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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.

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The Blessing

Three goats lay in the hay on the barn floor, chewing their cud, while nine hens cluck around them.

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The hens love the barn in the winter for the light from the clear plastic roof, and I’m watching them while the Bearded One is over checking the rat traps on top of the chicken coop.

LaLa chews side-to-side with his back molars.  I can see the clean white row of front bottom teeth and then he stops, pauses … as if he’s heard something.  He swallows, and a lump the size of an egg travels down his throat.  Leah flaps and pecks the hay.  LaLa ignores her, burps up another wad of hay which I watch travel up his neck, and then he starts chewing, side-to-side, again.

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Leah is at the end of her moult, and is less scraggly than she has been.  So is Sweet Tart.  Moulting hens don’t lay, but I am pondering the fact that none of our hens is laying.  We had a tiny fraction of our usual eggs in September and no eggs for the entire month of October.

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Hens need fourteen hours of light to lay eggs, and right now, in mid-October, on the 47th Northern Parallel (that’s north of Toronto and Montreal, Canada), we have about ten.  Plus the sun is low in the sky and blocked half that time by surrounding forest.

So we’ve started extending their light exposure by leaving a light bulb on for a couple of hours at both ends of the day — as we did last year with success.  They seem to just sleep right through the added light.  We hope to get the gals laying again soon.

I know I could drive into Gig Harbor and get a dozen eggs, but my seeming snobbery about the wonderfulness of our own home-grown eggs has become considerable.

Eggs aren’t essential, for heaven’s sake.  I love to bake cakes and cookies, and the Bearded One likes eggs for breakfast once a week or so.  We are mainly oatmeal folk now, to the Bearded One’s slow acceptance over time.  Still, we’ve had so many fresh beautiful eggs these past two years, we’re a bit spoiled.

“Please start laying again, Ladies,” I say.

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The Bearded One is over in the aviary (the chicken coop is inside the aviary) up on a ladder and shouts good news from the site of the rat traps — no birds, no rats, no rat droppings — and then he gets buzzed by a bird coming down the ladder and yells, “Whoa!  There’s a blue jay in here!”

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Garfield has noticed this also and as I approach, I see him climbing the corner post of the aviary.  A small Stellar’s Jay — powerfully, vividly blue with a black head — flutters around Garfield’s pole, panicking, even though Garfield can’t get to her.  The jay gets caught in the chicken wire reinforcement about halfway up the wall of wire and is flapping hard but making no progress.  Birds usually get into and out of the aviary with no trouble.  This bird seems young.

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“Get some gloves first!” shouts the Bearded One. Garfield has leaped up onto the wire just below the ever-more panicked bird.  She must be stuck.  I run back to the barn for the gloves, because wild birds and bare hands aren’t a good mix, and when I return, Garfield is like a horror movie showing against the aviary wall, glaring at the jay, vocalizing furiously.  The bird is wild now.  A bluejay tornado.

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I reach up and down between the overlapped layers of fencing and pull the bird out, sacrificing some underbelly fluff and feathers.  I don’t know if her wings or legs have been hurt.

Garfield has made his way back along the edge of the aviary, so I walk the other direction to the gate post.  I set the jay on the top of the post and let go.

Immediately she flaps hard and flies off to the northeast, the same direction as the trapped owl I released back in the spring.  Both times it feels like a blessing on this place flown in from deep in the forest.  I gasp with relief that she’s not hurt, with the thrill of touching her small body, and with the sight of her escape.  No more cats for her. I smile.

As if on cue, seven hens in a tight bunch come marching around the main gate and into the aviary all at once.  Straight into the chicken coop.  Maybe we’ll see some eggs tonight.

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The Invitation

Somewhere in the dark hollows of my disoriented sleepy brain, I hear a car door slam.  My eyes adjust to the dim room and I take out my earplugs. What was that?  What time is it?

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Another slam, and my eyes are wide open.  It’s 5:23pm.  Dusk.  Someone is in the driveway.  Well, okay.  We’re not expecting anyone, but this happens even out in the country.  Deliveries, politicians, clean-cut-polite-young Mormons.  How do they find us?  The Bearded One is downstairs in the deep end of his own late-afternoon autumn nap after working on the road all morning, filling the first potholes of the year.

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I’ll just peek out the window.  No need to sound the alarm, but I need to check.

I squint through the branches of the cedar tree that hides our bedroom window.  It’s a silver minivan parked at the end of the driveway.  Our old neighbors!  I see Batman circling the van, urging his parents out.

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We knew they might drop by sometime this week from an errand they had close by.  We invited them.

“They’re here!” I shriek to the Bearded One, but it comes out garbled.  I take the little nightguard out of my mouth, wipe my sleepy spit, and quietly shout “They’re coming up the driveway!”  I slip out of my warm bed and hobble to the bathroom.  I clip my wild hair into a ponytail, and look into the dim mirror. What day is this?

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The Bearded One moans.  “Whaaaa?”

I bump into the bathroom doorway to holler down to him.  “Hansel, Gretel, and Batman!”

“Huhh?”

“Honey, get up!”

The Bearded One mutters something, but I can tell he is up now because I can hear his belt buckle jangling.

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I find my socks and slippers, and yank them on as I peek out the window.  “All five of them are in the driveway!” I call out.

We love these kids — ages 9, 7, and 5 — and have missed them since they moved away this past June.  We saw them for the first time in 4 months last week — was that just last week?  They stopped by after Batman’s dentist appointment, and we took them up the trail to Jake and Ruby’s grave.

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They marveled at the dark autumn forest, the branches and logs they had earlier hauled to line the edge of the trail, artifacts from ancient times.

I hear the toilet flush downstairs and I know that the Bearded One is functional.  Garfield looks at me from the bed as if I’ve gone insane.

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That’s when I wonder why I haven’t heard a stampede up the front deck steps, or even voices.  I decide to check their progress one last time before going downstairs.  I look out the window.

No van.  No people.  The driveway is completely empty.  I heard nothing.  This is impossible.

They must have decided we were napping, I think.  One of us is usually outside or in the kitchen and greets them, and they are very thoughtful and know I sometimes take naps, but wow.  It’s like I imagined the whole thing.  I was pretty deep in sleep.

“Sweetheart?”  I’m at the top of the stairs now, staring down at my half-awake husband.  He has one boot on and has just tucked his own wild hair into his hat to greet our friends.

“I’m sooooo sorry,” I say.  “They left.”

“Left?”

“But they were here!” I say.

“A dream?” he says and smiles a little.

He will milk this for days….

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Look What the Cat Dragged In

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“What is going on?”  Garfield freezes and looks at me from the far end of the living room.  It’s early evening.  He is in mid-stride, and has just come in for the night of his own accord without me calling.  Something feels off.  This is not normal.

“I’m thinking,” responds the Bearded One, who studies his cards across from me at the kitchen table and assumes I am talking to him.  We are playing ritual evening card games.

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“Garfield just came in,” I say and put my cards down.  I get up and close the front door.

“Hm.”  The Bearded One never looks up from his puzzling hand of cards.

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It’s just 7pm, but it’s dark and rainy.  Of course that is why the cat came in so early, I think.  I sit back down, pick up my cards, and look into the living room.  Garfield is gone.

“Any day now, Honey Darlin’,” I say to the Bearded One who is taking too long to play.  This faux grumpiness does nothing to hurry him along, of course.  This time of year is all about slowing down some.  And being indoors more.  And being nice.

I cross and uncross my legs, which are tired from harvesting raised straw bed potatoes.

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My fingernails, which I examine at length, are stained yellow from the wet leather gardening gloves.

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The table and kitchen counters are cluttered with seed jars from my seed collecting operation,

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bowls of apples and pears and zucchini, and a pile of peach leathers I just took from the dehydrator.  It’s over.  The harvest is over.  Settle down, I tell myself.  Shift gears.  Be sweet.

Finally the Bearded One discards and I immediately draw a card and am studying my options when — THUNK!

The Bearded One looks beyond me to the living room and says, “What is the cat doing?”

“Sounds like he’s in the bathroom,” I say.  Garfield sometimes explores the lower bathroom cabinet, and he’s adjusting to autumn, too.

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We continue to play.  The Bearded One with an ice pack on his sore lower back, me feeling like the hens that are molting — prickly feathers sticking out, bald spots, ragged and not laying.  We raced for days to beat the weather and are beat up.

WHOMP!  WHOMP!

“What in the Sam Hill?” I snap and turn around.  I don’t see Garfield, but there are several more whomps and I get up.

It’s dark and I’m tiptoeing in my socks and calling the cat when I see his cute little face under the stairs where Ruby’s hidey-hole bed used to be, behind the little liquor cabinet I moved from the kitchen.

“You silly kitty,” I say.  “What are –”

And then I see the foot-long rat tail and the rat ears and waves of horror roll across my every nerve-ending, sparking a soul fibrillation and forcing a ghastly, unworldly shriek, “YEEEE-IKES!!”  I run into the kitchen.

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I can handle spiders, no problem.  But rats, especially big forest rats that grow fat in the aviary and move about on rafters in the barn, these are the creatures of my nightmares.  This one is quite a fine trophy for Garfield, but he has never before brought one into the house.

The Bearded One pulls out the cabinet and reports that the rat, and it is indeed a big rat, is dead.  “Garfield’s eating the head,” he says, completely nonplussed.

Was the rat dead or alive when Garfield brought it in?  We ponder this briefly — surely it was dead — but mainly I want it out of the house, and I want to be the one to do it.  I’m not so afraid of dead rats, and it’s my rat somehow.  “Out of my way, Sweetie,” I say, with love.  “I’ve got it.”

I grab one of my yellow rubber dishwashing gloves, and stand before Garfield.  “Thank you very much,” I say as I take the headless corpse and march out the door and into the dark, wet, cold night.  I look into the even darker forest, which is solid black under the full harvest moon.

“Ah-woooooooooo!” I howl.  I throw the rat as far as I can, deep into the woods.  I hear it fall into the leaves.  Whew.  It’s over.

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Autumn has arrived.  Time for me to come indoors.  I think we’ll start shutting that front door from now on.

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Goldilocks and the Three Goats

The stroller has a duo-cab, thick rubber all-terrain 10-inch diameter double wheels, and a cup holder.  Our new neighbor pushes it and its two precious children through the cedar arches of our front gate and down to the cabbage patch.  The little 3-year-old girl has crystal blue eyes and a glittery barrette in her curly blonde hair and I think of her as Goldilocks.

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Goldilocks sits directly under her mother with a view of her new 4-week-old brother and sucks her pacifier.  She doesn’t get to see much except Baby, who sucks his own pacifier.  I’ve heard her outside playing, so I know she has a voice.

The Bearded One and the dad linger at the new deck construction,

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and the mom and I stand next to the stroller by the onions gone to seed and the cabbages

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and talk about childbirth, the stress of moving, and eating healthier.  I can’t keep my eyes off of the glorious Goldilocks, and she never takes her eyes off of her brother.

Then, quick as lightning, Baby loses his pacifier and Goldie crams it back into his mouth.  He winces.  “Gently!” says the mom.

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I bend down and chop a big green cabbage at the ground so there’s a long stem left.  I snap off the outer leaves and, “Voila!” I say, “A cabbage balloon!”  Goldie watches quietly.  She is not impressed.  Or the pacifier is really really good.   So I lop off the stem, the mom thanks me and tucks the whole thing into a lower back compartment in the SUV stroller and we head up to the goats.

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The men follow us up the hill, and I hear the Bearded One telling about how weasels got all of our Cornish Rock meat birds four weeks ago.  The new neighbors have chickens, too, they say.

“Would you like to pet a chicken?” I ask Goldilocks.  She casts her sea blue eyes upon me and sucks, uninterested.

“She’s been around chickens all her life,” the dad explains.

Still, I go and fetch Leah, our Rhode Island Red and one of our best acts.  She is such a beautiful red color and always up for a petting.  “Ta-da!” I say, as Leah dutifully crouches down to be picked up, and I pet her like a cat.  The dad is smitten, but not Goldie.  She turns her head away and studies the inside of the stroller before resting her eyes back on Baby.

The goats are scared to death of strangers and hightailed it across the upper pasture when we first crested the hill.

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Now Pearl stands atop Goat Mountain, a four-foot high cement hill the Bearded One made.

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The neighbor mom is charmed by the goats, and, behold, Goldie has noticed the goats and is interested!

“They are wild animals,” the mom says to Goldilocks, as she peers around the high padded side of the stroller.  All three goats stare back at her.

“Let’s see if we can get one to come over to the fence, though,” I say, and Goldie looks me in the eye — Hop to it.

In the barn we keep a jar of almonds, the most delicious treat to our goats.

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I fetch it and shake it and all goats freeze.  I walk back outside the fence, stand next to the stroller and shake the jar again.  I open the jar and all three tremble with desire.

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Sage is the biggest and the leader only because Pearl hasn’t had a baby.  Mama goats are supreme, but in our herd it’s Sage, then Pearl a close second, then LaLa comes in last.  Sage ventures straight over but stops halfway.  Pearl steps off of Goat Mountain, and then stops.  LaLa moves laterally, behind a group of cedars, and then zooms in ahead of Sage.

Goldie watches as I hold a nut through the wires.

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LaLa’s soft lips quiver around one nut and then another, and then, glory be, Goldilocks cracks a huge “just right” smile out the sides of her pacifier.  Her eyes crinkle and I hear a wee little giggle.

“Oh, LaLa!” I say, “You have such big lips!”  He nibbles as many more as he can before Sage arrives and plows in for his due share.

It’s getting dark, we say our good-byes, and the new neighbors are almost to the easement, when I decide to give it one more try.  “Good-Bye, Goldilocks!” I sing out.

“Bye!”  I see a flash of blonde hair as she looks back over the side of the distant stroller.

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Strawdust in my Eyes

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There’s a bale of hay and a 50-pound sack of dry cob goat food under a tarp on the driveway that need moving up to the barn. The Bearded One usually does this sort of job, but I’m craving an outdoor break between all the jamming and summer cooking, some little task where the beginning, middle and end all fit nicely into twenty minutes.  I open the junk drawer under the bread-dough counter and grab the tractor key.

It’s a lovely 75 degree afternoon, the sky is blue, and when I pull back the camouflage tarp, the sweet hay smells warm and summery.  When I march down the trail to the tractor, bright light filters through the cedars and firs and birds chirp and tweet.  The breeze is from Puget Sound, which is just up the road.  Farm livin’ is the life for me, I hum to myself.

I lift the hitch on the trailer with one hand and pull the pin out of the back of the tractor with the other, and then I force the two together.

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And crunch the knuckle on my left middle finger so hard it turns purple as a squashed berry.  But the tractor starts right up and I shift into Gear 4, ease off the choke button, lift my left foot and the tractor lurches forward.

I crank the steering wheel left and make the sharp turn out of the covered parking spot onto the trail, zoom around the tool shed, past the storage shed and out onto the driveway.

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I can’t back up with the trailer — I can never make it work — so I circle out to the easement and get it all lined up just right.  Then I turn the noisy machine off.  I fetch the dolly from beside the garbage cans and recycling bins.

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My knuckle is hardly throbbing at all.

Hay is baled with baling twine so tight it snaps like a whip when you cut it with a knife.  I try to move the bale by wedging a finger — not the hurt one — under the baling twine and can’t, so I tilt the sofa-sized block of dried grass onto the foot of the dolly and then rock the dolly back on its wheels and push.

Flecks of hay poke into my clothes and whittle on my skin as I plop the bale next to the trailer.  I slip the dolly out and away and then crouch down, grab the hay bale’s huge bottom and heave it over and into the trailer.

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No problemo.  I don’t seem to have hurt myself.  The dry cob will be nothing compared to the bale, I think.  Just a few moments of dead-weight lifting.  We move a lot of 50-pound sacks around here.

And then — so what if I pull my gluteus maximus a wee bit — I get the sack into the trailer.  A small price to pay for victory.

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I pile the dolly onto the top of everything hillbilly-style and limp around to the driver’s seat.

It’s a heavy load and I have to shift into Gear 5 to make it up the hill.

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The dolly falls off halfway there, when I’m going downhill before I go uphill, so after I park the rig at the upper gate, where all three goats and most of the chickens watch, I hobble back down the trail to fetch it. And then I unload the hay.

Only now I’m also watching the gate and Leah, the Rhode Island Red hen who is fast, curious and persistent.  I angle the monstrosity, I mean the hay bale, on the dolly through the gate and then through the barn door and then through the interior gate until I finally wrestle it onto the platform.  The goats press in as close as possible every step of the way.

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With sweat dripping down my face, I cut the twine, and the hay bale explodes and sprinkles me with strawdust  flecks which will swim laps in my eyes for the rest of the day.

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Back to the jam.  Break’s over.

Weasel Wipeout

The dead Cornish chick lies wedged at the bottom of the gate, the bite on its neck as deep and bloody as the cut I was planning to make in just five weeks.  Weasels only want the blood.

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Three more dead chicks lay against the  fencing to my right, forty more are scattered here and there, a hillside of horror.

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It’s late Saturday morning.  I let 57 healthy 2-1/2 week old chicks out of their overnight coops several hours ago.  And then the Bearded One returned from his morning walk and found me here in the kitchen frying our next-to-last chicken from last year.  “Oh my darling, you know that meat birds are not pets,” the Bearded One says, catching and holding my eyes with his.  And then, “Because weasels got ’em all.”

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Blood drains from my face and then my whole head as I register the massacre.  I must make meaning of this, but I’m racing up the hill.  My soul is already searching, but the event is still happening.  I can’t make meaning on the fly, though I keep trying.

We find four survivors huddled in the far corner of the pen, and a fifth shows up later, while I silently dig the mass grave and the Bearded One gathers the little corpses in a wheelbarrow.

“We didn’t keep them safe,” I say.  The Bearded One parks the loaded wheelbarrow near the three-foot deep pit and says, “Sorry, Meat Birds.”

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“Let’s count them as we go,” I say.  I’m surprised and comforted by the simple ceremony, how the enormity builds until I cry.  One…TwoThree…FourFiveSix….Fifteen….Twenty-ThreeTwenty-Four Twenty-Five…Thirty-Six…Thirty-SevenThirty-Eight…Forty-OneForty-TwoForty-Three…and finally, Fifty-Two.  We fill the grave in and resolve to do better.

The Bearded One calls Momma Goose and Brooklyn Man, our neighbors and poultry mentors.  We ordered the Cornish chicks with them last month.  They have 59 identical birds in their non-weasel-proof coop.  Brooklyn Man is horrified.  Another neighbor got wiped out precisely this way a few weeks ago.  He says that they’ve never lost any birds to weasels.  He knows that weasels can not only climb and dig and get through a one-inch hole, but they can also cross the road to his place.  His chicks are doomed.

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So we make plans to move his chicks to our aviary that evening.  We’ll do the work and split the birds with him.  The aviary isn’t Fort Knox, but it’s dig-proof (cement trench all the way around), there’s doubled chicken wire on super tall walls, plus goats patrol the perimeter.  Our layers have been safe in there for almost two years.

Cornish fryers and grown layers would fight if they were housed together.  So for now, the layers will be fine shut out of the aviary until we harvest the meat birds on August 2.

As he backs out the tractor and trailer to move Brooklyn Man’s chicks, in broad daylight, the Bearded One sees one of the supposedly nocturnal weasels loping across the tractor trail — long and dark and about the size of a stretched-out squirrel.  We see them on the road once in a while.

It’s the hottest weekend of the summer so far, up to 90F, and sweat drips into my glasses as I move Brooklyn Man’s feeders and waterers into the aviary.  The Bearded One catches dozens of chicks and then hauls them to our place.

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The transfer takes a couple of hours and we are exhausted when it’s all over.  “I’ve reached full kaput,” says the Bearded One.  The house is an inferno, and before I go to bed, I look outside and ask the wounded Barred Owl I removed from the aviary last week to please eat the weasels.

Sunday is blissfully uneventful.  Only Maybelline and Kimber, two of our bossiest layers, are out of sorts, furious about not having access to the aviary and their old nest boxes.  They pace the aviary perimeter while the meat birds mock them, dust bathing and stretching their drumsticks in the sunray.

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All is relatively well for two nights and half of Monday.

And then the Bearded One hurries back to the kitchen after just finishing lunch — “Six or seven meat chicks are dead,” he says. “Weasels again.  I think it just happened.  I heard a loud squawk.  I left Ruby up top guarding the place.”

We move fast, I’m in the lead, and I see a dead chick by the aviary door, a deja vu of Saturday at the meat bird pen on the other side of the property.  There are five more dead, but all the rest are still alive.

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“You caught them in the act,” I say, and the Bearded One agrees.  He gathers the bodies.  “They’re still warm and loose,” he says.

I look up and around.  “You know the weasels are watching us,” I say.

“There’s no safe place on this property,” he says, “except inside the house.”

“I’m entering the anger stage,” I say.

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We decide that we have to move the chicks back to Brooklyn Man’s.  At least they’ll make it through the afternoon.  The weasels haven’t discovered his place yet.  They’ll be back here the minute we leave.

I babysit the chicks while the Bearded One calls Brooklyn Man at work, and then we spend the afternoon catching and transporting 58 chicks back to the hopefully weasel-free zone.

At least for now.  Any place is safer than here.  We quarantine the aviary to clean it up for the layers, all of which we now wonder if we’ll lose.  That’s how weasels are.

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Something in the Woods

Ruby is doing that growling thing again.  It’s not her normal grumble at all.  She’s all frizzed up as she stands on the deck with an aggressive posture.  She lifts her nose to sniff the air with a purpose.  Something is in the woods.  Something new.

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All ten hens are screaming bloody murder at once.  They usually freeze and go silent.  This is different.

The goats are in the same alert place.  All three run in wild circles and stop on some cue to stare in the same direction for long seconds.  Pearl, the head goat, leaps up onto our concrete goat mountain and stamps her foot repeatedly.  Wait a second — has anyone seen the cat?  Where is Garfield?

MamaRed, an oversized and rusty-colored coyote we spot occasionally on the road, is always suspect, because she’s always around.  We worked on coyote-proofing the fencing for years because of the coyotes.  The cougar that killed a goat about a mile from here is heavy on our mind.  That’s been a couple of weeks ago.  We don’t really worry about the bears.

But it makes us wonder about Hansel, Gretel and Batman.  They’re out in the woods.

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The kids are 9, 7 and 5-years-old, they have a fort in the forest between our neighboring houses and they like to spy on us.  We see their bright red shirts darting from bush to bush, and hear them giggling as they watch our 22-year-old son build a new back deck.  They know they are welcome on our trails.

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“They’re just now getting into the woods and we’re moving,” their mom told me this week, when I told her about the mysterious noises around here and how Sage the goat had actually growled.  Then I stopped in my tracks.  “Moving?”

“At the end of the month.  To save money.  It’s not our first choice, believe me.”

I am stricken.  We love these kids.

The next day, Hansel and Gretel appear at our front door to return an egg carton.  They are here saying goodbye, or at least one of many goodbyes, and I get them all to myself since the Bearded One and His Majesty have gone to Home Depot for lumber and cement.

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I give the kids another dozen eggs and a jar of jam.  Then we walk around to the deck building site and I show them where the former deck stairs gouged the 150-year-old cedar tree next to the house.  Gretel bends down and runs her hand gently along the scar.  She says they don’t know anyone in their new neighborhood.  Hansel says he goes to work on the new rental house with his dad, and Gretel says, ah, excuse me, she goes to the new house and works, too.

“Tell her what happened last night,” Gretel says excitedly.

“OH, BOY,” Hansel says and rolls his big brown eyes.  He tells how the whole family went to Godfather’s Pizza for dinner, and there was an old lady, maybe 70 years old, who had fallen on the floor with blood on her face!  They had come to her aid and called 911.

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Gretel nods enthusiastically.  Then she tells me that before that they went to a ton of garage sales and got a 1000-piece Lego set.  Hansel even knows the price.  Ten dollars.  A very very very good deal.

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Finally we talk about the fort and the woods.  They’ve heard the coyotes, and seen the deer and the owls.  But have I seen the bees???  “I’ve been stung at the fort TWICE,” Gretel says grimly, lisping between her missing teeth.  “Want to see?”

She means see the fort, she says, and I squeee with happiness.  I have just been invited to see their inner sanctum.  The fort!

“I’ll follow you,” I say, and Gretel heads for the gate.  Hansel brought his bike, so he’ll ride around and meet us at the fort.

Gretel carries the eggs and jam and leads the way across our backyard, past the potato garden, and I open the gate for her.  She marches ahead of me up our trail, chatting away but I can’t really understand her.

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Finally we turn off onto the fort trail and I see it.  A huge old stump.

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Their sanctuary, complete with its own bee colony.  Gretel turns and smiles big, showing it off, but then they start to swarm.

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Something in the woods, indeed.  Bees.

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