Back when we used to live in a little brick house on Ben Street, whose relevant coordinates to us kids were the polluted red dirt creek down the hill, the maple tree of our climbing pride and joy out front and the network of neighbors’ yards we loosed our rabbits on, most of our neighbors took a heightened interest in the Inglis family.
They figured out soon enough to be vigilant of their azaleas.
Our next door neighbor, Ms. B, went above and beyond the call of duty of watching over our street shenanigans and took to looking in on us at home as well.
She took her opportunities to advise our mom as they came.
Despite constantly carrying a baby on her hip for some thirteen years, my mom was not a big believer in taking Mrs. B’s advice.
In retrospect, I think she must have known what was coming.
At the farm we moved to after Mary Ashton asked how in the land a horse was going to fit in our back yard, we started our farming careers with potatoes and chickens.
It’s safe to say we hadn’t yet honed our business practices with the concept of cash crops.
Much like the feast and famine years we came to know for the potato crop, the chickens differed in their levels of society.
Some years, twenty five chickens came home to roost. Other years, that number dove to ten. Some others, Murray McMurray Hatchery sent a glut of roosters in our mail order deliveries, a terrible, traumatizing event to befall a hen house.
Still other times, hens had to be rescued from the Jaws of Death, otherwise known as the slobbering mouth of our obese cocker spaniel, Saluda, whose raison d’etre was eating chickens.
(She might look harmless, but consider her heft—and its chicken-pinning abilities.)
The hens who made it through the iodine treatments in the back porch infirmary after the Saluda attacks got names. Green Bean took to riding her favorite horse, Jade. Footloose and Fancy Free lived life as their names suggest, joyfully scurrying around their earthly Eden after narrowly staving off their heavenly reward. Lucky followed my mom around the barnyard, clucking her grateful companionship and her new-found wisdom on mortality .
They were the chicken heroes of myth.
Others not so fortunate joined their forbearers in the chicken cemetery in the hemlock grove. I remember one particularly cold spring night, stomping the shovel into the mat of hemlock roots to bury Saluda’s latest kill, looking up to see the Milky Way and cursing that deranged dog to the stars and back, crying for her cruelty.
Aside from the Saluda Behemoth and the crowing, cuckolding, otherwise useless roosters, there were other far quieter predators lurking the parameters of the farm as well. During the day, the hens might carry on a delightful conversation about the best dirt bath location, the most appropriate mixture of sprouts, seeds and insects for one’s feather health or simply peck together in contented silence.
By night, however, the foxes would steal into the coop.
And in the morning time, another one of the hen’s friends would be gone.
Only a few feathers left on this earth.
As the years went by at the farm and potato crops rose and fell, the Family Compound started to suffer even heavier losses.
As more and more kids were stolen away from the roost, the coop comparison started to flag and then just go ahead and drag in the barnyard dirt.
With the foxes, it was possible with some stretch of the sympathetic imagination to understand that they needed the chickens they stole. Maybe they had a kit of hungry foxes back home among the beech trees and ferns and underground springs that populated the woods of our childhood. They had as much right as the chickens to survive—and better teeth for it.
But when Time took away my siblings, the question of necessity surfaced like a teetering bubble and broke. After all,
It seemed so unlikely.
Why does time need those we love?
Yet as the years went by, the rooster weather vane swung and creaked in the wind on the top of our house, pointing to the corners each of us had left for.
Back at the home place or away at college, bereft at both, I kept a list of quotes from the books I read.
They were a little heavy on death and the classics.
At school, I wrote emails back home that I thought did OK at disguising my distress at the proceedings of life and pointed to what a normal human being I was as I dealt with it.
Meanwhile, Dad managed his crisis by printing out a snippet from these emails and attaching them to the refrigerator’s collection of political cartoons, novel quotes and magnetic strips instructing those still standing to be happy.
How mom dealt with it all, I don’t know.
Watching her get left once, then twice, then a hundred fold as each of us reached eighteen years old and kept on going, I wondered:
Did she know to suspect this when she married my dad thirty three years ago, there in that lace and shock of bolt-upright black hair and both of them just twenty two years old and fresh off the boat to living?
Can you look out over the expanse of your life and see the ghosts of the future, taking on their mantles as various types of goldsmiths and blacksmiths and leaving you and the dog, who can't understand anymore than you do why one day they're there and the next they're gone like the lilies of the field you used to read to them about, and the farm still standing with its figs and chickens and potato spuds waiting on the back porch for spring and the mountains deep blue and old, old as Methuselah, and you still there but wondering, do they come back?
Is there ever a way to get them back?
Of course, there is another way.