The Chicken Family
We were standing there, chicken coup door ajar, listening to my sister name our three hens when it happened.
My parents had moved from suburbia to a farmhouse that spring. The move was as sudden as our immigration from Russia to the US twenty-three years ago. There was no questioning it; bags and boxes were packed in less than a week, no photos were taken at either event to commemorate the end of more than two decades of life. My siblings and I had grown up and grown out of that suburbia townhouse. That summer marked our first visit to our parents’ new life.
Within a month of the move, the farm housed four goats, three chickens, two horses, and a dog. Plum, apple, and pear trees couldn’t stop giving fruit, and the only ingredients in our salads were what we picked from the garden. As if it were a matter of simply deciding, “yes, now it is time, now I will be happy”, and poof. My brothers, sister, and I flocked from disparate corners of the country like moths to a flame eager to see the house that none of us could call our home.
That day my sister had arranged for friends to visit; the four of us gathered inside the chicken coup where we suspected any tour of a farmhouse should begin.
The chickens were of the Rhode Island type – large, as far as chickens go, all brown, and indistinguishable. They fussed about the coup with a smug unhappiness that only the air of entitlement breeds. We once tried to introduce a different breed of chicken into the coup, but the three ganged up on the new breed, relentlessly pecking at their heads. Innocent bullying, I thought, until they had pecked through the bloody skull of a newbie leaving the brain exposed for the free viewing of the passerby. The three racist spinsters got their way, we took back the chickens not of their prestigious breed.
The hens gave us eggs (2-4 depending on the day), but made a habit of laying them in the most inopportune, out of reach, places. Instead of the hay-filled lofted shelves we had built for the purpose, they hid the eggs on top of the shelves in tidy corners. We gave them back the empty eggshells, which they had come to expect in return for their services. They devoured the shells for the protein by morning. I couldn’t help but feel that if the shells weren’t empty and if instead of an egg there was a chick inside, these particular hens wouldn’t change their behavior in the slightest.
I asked again about the name my sister had just given to the third hen. “Tallulah”, she repeated. A momentary silence just long enough for something to happen snuck in through the agape coup door. Ever the opportunist, our dog, Ginger, gingerly followed the silence in.
Ginger was a peculiar dog my parents had recently adopted. She never showed much interest in protecting the farm or obeying orders, but would jump at our backs out of jealousy when we pet the horses or goats. She practiced tight rope walking on the edge of sidewalks and not infrequently refused to eat anything but grass and blackberries. She would have made a perfect companion for a Tom Sawyer, but needless to say she didn’t take her responsibilities at the farm seriously.
Once inside the coup, with one bold pounce Ginger announced her presence, sending the hens into a frenzy. The four of us scrunched into barrels of hay, grabbing our necks and closing our eyes as the chickens flew over us. The air from their weakly flapping chicken wings hit our faces but we didn’t dare move. Duck and cover: the only emergency preparedness we were ever taught in school.
By the time we recovered from the earthquake drill, two of the hens were gone. I suppose the smart one, Zoe, stayed behind for the food she would no longer have to share with her xenophobic clan. One of the chickens had hoped the fence into the hills that dropped off steeply from the property, disappearing in the long yellow grass. The farmhouse was surrounded by golden hills on all sides. I hadn’t yet figured out whether the fields were hay or some other grain. From far away they looked as soft as earth clouds, but one step in and you were covered in thorns to your knees and prey to the likes of rattlesnakes. It seemed unimaginable to me that we would ever see that scared hen again.
The other chicken, Daisy, was now in Ginger’s paws, fighting for her life. She flapped her wings vigorously, then rested to recalculate strategy, then again a round of flapping. Ginger jumped back and forth as if she were both pitcher and catcher in this game, but never relinquished control. A cloud of dust formed around the dog and chicken – I half expected the white “Yikes” and “Ouch!” signs to pop out from the struggle, followed by floating stars and “X’s” across the eyes of the defeated. Trilled at having somebody to play with, Ginger chased her game behind the shed where I assumed she took all of her unsuspecting friends once they had outlived their entertainment value.
Dumbstruck, I listened to my sister alternate between yelling at Ginger, and placing her hands on her cheeks to grieve the loss of the chickens. The “oh no!” repeating with the horror-stricken face of somebody auditioning for a reality TV show. Her reaction left me to assume that the massacre had already happened. My thoughts couldn’t have been further from chasing the third chicken, Tallulah, down the hill. Quick to write-off loses, I was already saying in my unaffected tone that its okay, that these things happen in the countryside, that we have one more hen left, that we will have two more chickens delivered to us next week.
I was still at the foot of the chicken coup door rationalizing what had just happened when I saw my father coming down the driveway. He wore his usual jeans and white sneakers, so typical of a Silicon Valley engineer. I had grown accustomed to seeing him behind a computer screen in his room, playing with radios or aduinos. This farmhouse where the Internet crawled at the same speed as the perspiration from the beer bottle on the sunny deck was a big change for him, I imagined. I had no doubts that this move was my mother’s dream – that she had willed it into existence – but I wondered how my father would adapt.
Growing up, he and I had an unspoken pact measured in distance. It was not forged through common interest or time spent together – quite the opposite. I was off playing tennis and skateboarding, finding any excuse to exercise, while my father preferred the company of books, electronic keyboards, computer games, and airplanes. I deferred reading books for school to my mother, had a serious fear of flying, and nothing about computers interested me. We were so different I got the sense that under no other circumstances would our paths have crossed if he were not my father. Rather, our pact was something like a respect for the way things were. Not that either one of us was particularly honest outwardly, but we acknowledged our genuine disinterest in each other’s hobbies without offense and without a desire to change the other person. After all, why should he feign interest in my life when I had so little interest in his? The honesty of it made sense to me and I often found myself defending him on those grounds.
It wasn’t until I was almost out of the house that I came to suspect that our unspoken pact had deeper roots. There was a moment of epiphany and resonating fascination with science when my father showed me how to derive the laws of motion on paper. When I began to tirelessly strum on the guitar, he listened, and on several occasions we found ourselves wandering the streets of Habana without a destination. Hints as dull as time that perhaps our common ground was there but buried underneath layers of life. But by that time, I was all but out of the house.
After college, no longer living under the same roof (and most often not in the same country), we updated each other on our lives in bullet points. I took a job building mathematical models of human physiology, went on vacations all over Europe, and lived with a man I gave scant detail about. Meanwhile, my father started travelling, rock climbing, and even joined the army reserves. These updates were not devoid of genuine curiosity but hid a deeper something that neither one of us had words for.
Coming closer now, my father took one look at the disheveled chicken coop scene and without a word disappeared behind the shed. I had already forgotten that somebody must go back for Ginger before the freedom of the chase inspired her to go after our neighbor’s chickens, or worse, to take a nap in the mud somewhere far away. Within seconds and without the least hint of a struggle, my father reappeared from behind the shed, chicken in one hand, dog in the other. The hen was tucked under his armpit: still, comfortable, and happy as a clam. To my surprise, Daisy was not only alive, but in fact completely unharmed. Ginger, too, despite being restrained by her collar, was keeping up with my father’s steps energetically, her tongue out and tail wagging. Chicken, man, dog under blue sky in the fresh summer heat: the portrait of a happy family.
Eyes like camera shutter, I stood there blinking while my father disappeared once more, this time into the fields to look for Tallulah – the remaining chicken. He called out for somebody to get Ginger’s leash from the house. I found it on the garage door handle and darted back outside. With the fumbling urgency of the heroine in a horror flick searching for the car keys with the killer only steps behind her, I wrestled my feet into my shoes, foiled by the fact that I couldn’t get them on without untying the laces. My fingers throbbed from their effort to slide the heel into the shoe as I ran back clumsily to the fields to help my father.
With difficulty I tumbled over the barbed wire fence that chicken, dog, and father must have all hurdled effortlessly moments earlier. For a while, I didn’t see anybody and heard only what sounded like the ticking of a watch. I squatted on my knees to feign looking for Tallulah, hoping I wouldn’t have the unfortunate luck of finding her. I didn’t have the least idea of how to capture a chicken nor the courage to confront this particular hen with my intentions. I pictured myself pretending to chase the hen, only to pretend lose her again in the fields. Luckily, Tallulah was nowhere in sight.
Then, from behind a thorny bush, I began to make out the figure of a man. I readied myself to receive once more the image of my father, but it was not he that emerged. Tall and lean, wearing a loose white collared shirt and khakis, I was looking at a young man in his late twenties, my age exactly. His hand was reaching to part his way, his past like footprints made momentarily visible to me before they vanished in the tall grass.
I saw a young man who grew up in the countryside playing with grenades. A young man who jumped horses, jammed on his guitar dreaming of being the fifth Beattle, hacked into university computers, and joined a running team when he fell in love. A young man who had been knocked unconscious during a worker’s strike at a construction site and months later drank my mother’s New Year date under the table. A young man who spoke no English but left his country, left everything he had ever known to move his family to the US – a family who had long forgotten that they weren’t born this way.
As he came toward me, the young man grew shorter and thinner still until I was looking at a boy with a serious frown on his face. White socks covering his knobby knees, the boy held two chickens (one under each arm), and a dog in his fingers by the collar. Not a hint of the future in the boy’s eyes, he frowned at me as I handed him the leash with a shaking hand. The boy snapped the leash on Ginger, Daisy and Tallulah still securely under his armpits.
“Now, the only risk is that they have chicken heart attacks from the scare”, he explained, still frowning at me.
I got the sense that the boy had seen me somewhere before. Was it in Seattle where I woke up one morning suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to read? Or maybe he was on the sidewalk in San Francisco when I passed by jogging with the pained look of somebody who had tricked herself into exercise by choosing a new bookstore or coffee shop as the destination. Or perhaps he saw the light through my bedroom window in Madrid where I frequently made excuses to friends to spend Friday nights programming, perfectly content.
Like two kids on a seesaw, his deep frown on one end, my shaking hand on the other passed each other in fleeting recognition before rebounding in opposite directions again.