Chickens, hawks and French chocolate
March 14, 2008
There are lots of things about my life that, in any given moment, make me take a step back, shake my head, and wonder–sometimes audibly and with expletives–how I ever got to be here. You’d think they’d get less so the older I get, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Thank god for that, really, that life–and often the little things in it–still inspire awe and wonder.When you get right down to it, I can’t deny that if I were still living in, say, Santa Cruz, I might not feel this way as often as I do living on the island. Moving to Maine happenned largely by accident; I fell in love with a man who wanted to be here. It was never on my list of places to live, much less visit. Paris, Athens, Ireland, Venezuela, Argentina: yes. Maine; not so much. But you should try it sometime; dump a born and bred suburban California girl in rural Maine and see what happens. Sure, she speaks the same language, but the culture shock couldn’t be any more dramatic than if it were another country.
Of course, it’s been almost eight years now–four since we moved to the island. So the culture shock has long worn off–but not the magic of falling in love with a place and its people that inspired me to stay in the first place. The little things that I mentioned before–the ones that inspire awe and wonder, the ones that challenge my beliefs, by upbringing, my education, the ones that aren’t just magical unto themselves, but magical also because I have a role in them–they still happen all the time.
This past Tuesday, after a wild day of running errands on the mainland, I returned home on the afternoon mail boat, loaded up the truck with my purchases, which included several shipments of French chocolate that arrived on the dock earlier that day, and, instead of going straight home, drove to Alan and Kristen’s house where I had a date with their chickens. Alan and Kristen, who were away visiting friends in Boston and had asked me to feed and collect eggs for a few days, live on the east side–about 5 miles from the town dock, 6 from our house. But this time of year, it might as well be in a different state for as often as I get over there.
I had just been telling Kyra at Lily’s Cafe in Stonington, how small my world had gotten since December. As soon as the temperature dips below the magical 0 degree mark, the roads buckle and crumble in protest. That, combined with snow and sometimes an inch-thick layer of ice, make driving around an unecessary risk. So, I don’t. And it’s not because I’m afraid of sliding off the road (I’ve done that plenty of times, and it’s really not as bad you might think). I don’t drive unless I absolutely have to because everytime we hit a pothole or a frost heave another piece of the truck falls off. Usually it’s nothing important, but it’s messy and, let’s face it, a bit depressing. Currently, we have a nice little pile of various rusted parts and pieces in the back of the truck. And despite how careful we are, the pile gets bigger weekly.
So, in an effort to save my vehicle (and not pay $4.20/gallon in gas–which is the going rate out here right now), I walk. As do many other westside islanders this time of year. And when the roads are icy, I don’t even do that. My world exists between our house, the woodpile and the barn.
As you might have already guessed, this can make a person a bit crazy. Sometimes it makes people crazy and they don’t even realize it. Thankfully, I live with a man who can let me know when I’m beginning to exhibit antisocial behavior–and thankfully, I tend to believe him. So when I went off-island on Tuesday, got in the car, and started to freak out because 20 mph felt WAY too fast, and the car was making all sorts of weird noises that I swear I had never heard before, I had the good sense to pull over and call, not the mechanic, but Steve. I told him the problem: something to the effect of “The speedometer reads 20mph, but I swear to god, I’m going 60,” and “The car’s making a weird noise and I think the wheel is going to fall off.”
To Steve’s credit, he doesn’t laugh. He even asks me to describe said “noise,” which I do: “I dunno, it’s like an engine noise.” He’s pretty sure the car is fine, and, somewhat assured, I go on my way.
So, back on the island that afternoon, I feel re-socialized and more normal than I’ve felt in weeks. I am driving the truck to Alan and Kristen’s (a bit too fast, perhaps, because I’ve been driving on the relatively smooth roads of the mainland all day and I totally forget about the frostheave at the Gravel Pit–another piece to add to the collection in the back), up their driveway which I have dubbed the La Brea tarpit of the island, and finally arrive at their house.
That people as normal as Alan and Kristen live in this spot never ceases to amaze me. And I mean normal, like I’m normal. Regular people that work for a living. Alan bartered for this land in the 60’s, and built the house here with his own hands. The floor to ceiling windows flood the entire first floor with light and celebrate the sweeping view of the eastern shore of the island, the sea, and the islands beyond. At today’s price of real estate, even with it taking a dive, the chicken coop here is probably worth a million bucks.
So taking care of these chickens is no big hardship. I come, change the water, make sure they have food, and collect the eggs. I don’t even have to break ice out of the water because it sits on top of its own little heater. How cool is that? The only real pain in the ass about it is Kristen’s pain-in-the-ass rooster, Hawkeye. He’s aggressive and cranky and beligerent. In the spring he has an insatiable libido, endured heroically by the 10 hens he lives with. My arrival at the house is usually trumpeted by his crowing, and he doesn’t stop until I leave. When I enter the chicken house, he stays inside to guard while the hens scatter out into the yard. He pecks and crows and fiercely guards the nests. He is thoroughly unloveable, and to some degree I dread facing him.
And so it’s surprising that when I got out of the truck on Tuesday I didn’t notice that Hawkeye wasn’t crowing. It wasn’t until I stepped into the chicken house, and found the hens huddled in the corner–and not racing for the door–that it occurred to me that it was strangely quiet. I looked for Hawkeye in the pile of softly clucking birds, and couldn’t find his plume of irradescent green feathers. And why weren’t the hens leaving? Usually they’re so spooked by me that they can’t get out into the yard fast enough. And then it occurred to me that the chickens weren’t spooked, they were terrified. By something way scarier than me.
I barely had time to do a quick headcount when I heard terrorized squawking from the yard. I ran outside to find a young hawk pressing a fat, rust colored hen into the spring mud. I banged on the fence and shouted at the hawk, who released the hen in surprise, flew to the end of the fenced yard and promptly got tangled in the chicken wire. The hen high-tailed it back into the house where I shut her and the rest of her sisters in.
And that’s when I discovered him; right there where a small ramp leads up from the yard to the little door of the hen house, was the haughty tell-tale plume of the rooster’s tail feathers–and a little beyond that, Hawkeye himself.
His head had been eaten, all of his neck and most of one wing. He lay in a magnificent pillow of irradescent feathers, his body still warm and bleeding into the mud. I grasped him by one of his feet, carried him out of the chicken yard and plopped him rather unceremoniously onto Alan and Kristen’s front lawn. I still had the hawk to deal with.
Still tangled in the fence, the hawk was complaining in bravely subdued “scree screes” from the far side of the chicken yard. He was big, looked hurt and sounded pissed. I stood there in my street clothes, hatless, gloveless, and thoroughly unprepared for this Wild Kingdom drama unfolding before me, and decided I definitely needed help.
The island has no law enforcement, no stop lights or signs and no leash laws. We do, however, have an animal control officer. His name is Gerry, and 15 minutes after I hung up with his girlfriend Denise, they pulled up the drive in their truck.
There were no cages, no leather braces, no special gloves. Gerry just simply walked into the chicken yard, untangled the bird from the fence, walked out, and after a few minutes of us admiring the fierce raptor up close, he let him go. The hawk spread his wings, circled dizzily for a few minutes, then found a perch in an island spruce where he, presumably, stopped to gather his wits before embarking on anymore predatory adventures.
After Gerry and Denise left, I packed up Hawkeye in a few plastic Hannaford shopping bags and placed him in Kristen and Alan’s refrigerator. He wouldn’t be good eating, but I knew that Kristen would want to see her fallen soldier and give him a fitting goodbye. Because that’s the kind of people they are.
And for as much as I disliked that bird, I couldn’t help but feel that he did deserve the honor of a decent burial, and not to be scavenged unceremoniously by crows or coyotes. If he had no other purpose, that rooster lived to guard his flock. A noble death to die like that–claws out, screaming and fighting, doing the one job he was born to do–and in the end, ultimately, success.
I drove home, unpacked, and only then remembered the French chocolate I had ordered as a possible replacement for the Venezuelan stuff I’ve been having trouble getting. I usually don’t dig into my chocolate as soon as it arrives, but something about the day–feathers and blood and mud on my street clothes, the thought of a torn, unplucked bird in my friends’ refrigerator, a small death by violence–I just wanted to come in contact with something fine. First, an almost palpable wave of chocolate aroma…a small chunk in my hand, then smooth on my tongue, exquisite and utterly delicious. And, yes, fine. As fine as life.