“I have bad news.” Louisa, my five year old, tells me this as she stands over me in bed. I’m awake, formulating thoughts, but haven’t opened my eyes yet. And I don’t want to.
Still, I can’t help but let my mind wander through possible scenarios. Dog shit. The most likely one. Dogs stole food off the kitchen counter. Also likely. As is dog barf –which the kids have become surprisingly adept at differentiating from dog shit.
“What is it?” I ask, eyes still closed.
“Open your eyes.” She says.
Then I remember we have chickens.
“Look,” she says.
I really don’t want to. I’m now pretty sure Louisa is holding a dead chicken in front of my face.
I open one eye. Yup. There’s a dead chicken in front of my face. She’s holding it by its feet, it’s head wobbles slightly as she dangles it. I’m grateful it managed to close its eyes before it died. I sigh deeply and look up at Louisa. She has one of those “shit happens” smirks on her face and her head is swaying to a silent, singsongy tune of “God, I love being the bearer of news, any news”.
I furrow my brow at her. The upside down dead chicken dances in front of my face.
“Can we get more?” She asks.
“Should we bury it?”
I’ve grown to hate burying animals with the kids. The parenting questions, for one: Do we need to give a eulogy and kiss goodbye each of the five dead rats that drowned in our recycle bin? Maybe it teaches empathy? So that when a pet dies instead of immediately asking for another one, they’ll take four good seconds to mourn it’s loss before asking for another one? And then there are, of course, the tough, philosophical and theological questions every parent struggles with … does a ground hog head go to heaven just as a whole ground hog would? And if Angie (our dog) killed, and beheaded, this ground hog, won’t she go to hell? Thankfully, some questions are easier to answer for the kids than others.
Then there are the burial plots; a logistical nightmare in our backyard. It’s getting crowded, for one thing, so finding virgin dirt can be tricky. Then we have to figure out things like should a Koi fish (left to us, sadly, by the previous owners, and proven too big for the toilet) really get prime real estate next to the Easter Bunny (a wild bunny dispatched two Easters ago by the dogs amidst an otherwise bucolic neighborhood Easter egg hunt).
Then there are the unaccounted for. While burying a chipmunk –still have no idea how the dogs caught a chipmunk– we actually dug up a dog. A full dog. I excitedly brushed away dirt from the black Hefty bag we hit with the shovel. I’d seen a lot of movies where people dig up bags of money like this. But this bag was different; it just had clumps of orange fur and bones in it. The previous owners bred golden retrievers in the garage so we surmised this, with the orange fur, was a golden retriever. I, of course, had to tell Louisa, no, we couldn’t keep it.
I should note: My wife, Kate, and I have moments now and then –moments when being out in the backyard just feels really nice. The kids are playing in a tree or on a roof somewhere, the dogs are stretched out, snoozing in the sun. One of us inevitably says to the other, “THIS is why we moved out here.” Which means we spend much of the rest of the time looking at each other and wondering, “Why the f– did we move out here?” Well, on burial days, it becomes clear to me that we moved out here for more space to bury our dead.
“Yeah, we should bury it.” I say to Louisa.
“Ok,” Louisa says, “let’s see what we have now.” This is our game. We run inventory. She takes a seat on the edge of the bed, still holding the chicken by the feet.
“Ok, a ground hog…” she starts.
“Four.” I say.
“Yep, four groundhogs.”
“A groundhog head.” I add.
“Yep, a groundhog head.” She scrunches up her nose as she smiles.
“A skunk.” She says. “Just one skunk?” She asks.
“Yeah, think just one.”
“Ok, a lot of rats.”
“Not all Angie and Greeley’s fault.” I add.
“Nope. A lot drowned.”
“Possums.” I offer.
It goes on like this. We get through most of the native fauna of northern NJ as well as some store bought.
“But no raccoons.” Louisa says, emphatically shaking her head and smiling.
I have often remarked to Louisa how interesting it is that the dogs have never gotten a raccoon, considering how many there are round here. And she’s always liked this fact, kind of held on to it like a life preserver in a swirling sea of inexplicable death.
“No raccoons.” She repeats.
Some of my earliest memories are of burying animals. As a kid we had tons of them. Some lived in cages, others didn’t. The ones that roamed free weren’t really the ones you’d want roaming free. Like the tarantula, Fred, who surfaced every few months to scare the absolute shit out of visitors. Or the milk snake that lived in the fold-out couch in the den. Or the ferrets that lived in the heating ducts and came out now and then to crap in a corner. Some went off to die on their own. Our beloved English Setter, Maggie, did that. We think. Took a month or so before anyone realized she was gone. The one’s who did die on our watch, we buried, out of respect. The hamsters, the gerbils, the dogs, the cats, the fish. Some of them weren’t even dead yet. A visiting cousin once buried one of our frogs because, as he said, he wanted it to grow. I guess he was sick of that frog being so goddamn small every time he came over.
So, when Kate said she wanted chickens, I felt like it could be an opportunity to pass along some of those hard won childhood wounds to my children. I knew we would be burying them shortly. I also knew that no matter how certain of this I was, there was no talking Kate out of getting them. She’s always wanted chickens. But like most things with her, it’s not the actual chickens she’s wanted. It’s the pond, gazebo, and frolicking, well-quaffed English children that come with the chickens in the photo in one of the magazines she buys to make her feel shitty yet hopeful about her unsatisfactory home/garden/body/clothes/husband that Kate wants.
I told her there was a 100% chance that the dogs would kill any chickens we get and that those are very good odds. But she said she wanted to try it anyway. Because, I guess, you never know. Even when you do.
The reason I was so sure goes back a few years to when I lived on a farm in Eastern Pennsylvania, about a year prior to my meeting Kate. The farm was part of my dramatic New York escape plan –quit job, buy a VW camper, get a dog, go on a road trip, end up on a farm, find self. With phase one and two completed (job, van), I drove to the Brooklyn animal shelter on Kings highway (a notorious “Kill” shelter) to get an old city dog that I could offer a beautiful last hurrah on a farm he/she had all but given up on.
Two dogs arrived just behind me on that fateful day at the Brooklyn pound. One dog, an old mutt with a matted, scruffy coat and a wily look in her eye was skittering about on an ad hoc string leash. The other, her daughter, lay sleepily along the huge forearm of the man who brought them both in. She was probably 8 weeks old. Her breath still smelled of her mother’s milk.
I felt bad 20 minutes later when I held this adorable puppy up to her mom’s nose to say goodbye. But, I reasoned, it’s not like I could take two dogs. And I would’ve taken the mom but she was old and probably had bad habits I wouldn’t be able to fix.
So, by the time I finally settled at my friend’s family farm in Eastern Pennsylvania, Angie was about four months old and had already proven herself untrainable. On our first day at the farm, Angie killed two chickens. This wasn’t a chicken farm. Nothing bad was ever going to happen to these chickens. They all had names.
For the next few weeks I did everything I could to keep Angie away from the barn but she eventually got another one. Bonnie. I had chased Angie as she made a break for the barn and got there just in time to pry the lovely-feathered chicken out of her mouth, still alive. I should’ve left it with her. Another ten seconds in Angie’s dingo jaws and the chicken would’ve found peace. Instead it endured about ten minutes of me flinging it around by the neck to try to kill it like I must’ve seen in a movie at some point. My arm would get tired after a few whirls (the chickens here were enormous) and I’d have to take a break and spend a few awkward moments with this chicken just looking me in the eyes as if asking, “Why? Why are you so mad at me?” Having no luck breaking its neck, I decided to hit it on the head with a rock. Kicking at a circling Angie with one foot and trying to hold the chicken’s neck (quite a bit longer by now) under the other, I grabbed a large rock and threw it down on the chicken’s head. Over and over. It was very muddy so each rock pounding just sent the chicken’s poor head deeper into the ground. The rock was heavy too, of course. I took breaks and, again, the chicken looked at me. This time it seemed to say, “Please. Please just give me back to the dog.”
After a while, it died. I dug a hole and buried it.
When Angie wasn’t killing the chickens, my visitors’ dogs were. My dad came to visit one weekend with his beloved Vizla, Goose. Before letting Goose out of the car I asked my dad if Goose had ever shown any ill will toward a chicken. My dad said something like, “Goose? Of course not. Goose, you wouldn’t hurt a chicken, would you?” He then let Goose out of the car and Goose made a b-line for the barn. My dad and I just watched, stunned, as Goose trotted out seconds later holding a limp chicken in his mouth. “Well,” my dad said, “I guess that answers that question.” I told him this was bad, that these chickens are like pets here and there aren’t many of them left. So, before he left he dropped off a whole Purdue chicken he’d picked up at the grocery for the farm owner. I still don’t know if he was joking.
Kate knew all these things…Angie’s history with the farm chickens, the mass grave that it is our backyard… and still she decided the best thing for us –and chickens– would be to get chickens.
Kate ordered them online. They arrived in the mail one day old.
Here’s a video I took of their arrival. Cute baby noises abound, as does some keen observation from me. Also note the ominous foreshadowing around 00:38.
We kept them in the kitchen, where they grew fast under a heat lamp and atop a lot of chicken shit. It was gross. But the chicks, I had to say, were very cute. I feigned indifference as I scuttled downstairs each morning to pick them up, cup them in my hand and pet their little heads. They feigned displeasure.
When they outgrew the plastic box I built them a bigger wood one in the corner of the kitchen.
It was going well. The kids grew attached. Theo, especially loved them.
And I think they started to love him too.
Mother’s day rolled around, unfortunately, but the timing worked out quite well this year. The chicks were at peak cuteness to offer Kate that picturesque country farmhouse vibe she loves so much on the day she demands nothing but the best.
I tried putting more chicks on there but more isn’t necessarily better with chicks on food (never showed Kate this pic)…
We were on our way. Our hydrangeas were in bloom. We had a chicken coop. Inspired, I even put up a rope swing in the back of the yard. It wasn’t a gazebo and our kids weren’t yet frolicking in woolen pants and suspenders but we were getting there.
Back in bed, Louisa and I are sorting out our eulogy for the dead chicks and George is trying to get dressed and growing angrier about a lack of pants.
“There are NO PANTS!” He screams.
“George!” I yell back, “Be quiet, you’re going to wake up Theo!” It’s morning but I still want Theo to sleep as long as possible.
I then hear that dreaded, “eh, eh, eh, ehhhhhh.” It builds quickly into a full cry.
“GEORGE!” I yell. “You woke up Theo!”
George marches in, still pantsless and super mad. “I don’t have any PANTS!” He then catches sight of the dead bird in Louisa’s hands.
“Dogs get them?” He asks.
“Yup.” Louisa says, relishing her role of finder and point person for all house drama.
“Did they get the other ones too?”
“Yup,” Louisa says.
Theo is crying hard now. It’s hard to concentrate on the death toll.
“Are we going to get more?” George asks.
“Yeah, we are,” Louisa says. “Daddy said so.”
“What? No, I didn’t…”
“I’ll go get Theo,” Louisa says confidently, strutting out of the room, dead chicken bouncing at her side.
The fact that Louisa has never once successfully gotten Theo out of his crib without injuring him or her or both seems lost on her. Also lost on her is the fact that she’s carrying a dead chicken. I take a moment in the comfort of my bed to consider the possibility that this could all go ok this time.
“Weeza! Hold up.” I yell. She looks back, “What?”
“Put down the chicken first.”
Downstairs, the chicks are strewn about the kitchen floor. I pick them up as Louisa narrates behind me, “Yup, that’s Dot. She’s dead all right… That’s Reaves.” (George named it after former Jet’s cornerback, Darelle Revis). “Georgie, that’s your one. He’s dead too all right.”
“Louisa,” George says, sitting at the table, waiting for his cereal. “He’s a girl. And you should be more sad.”
I call Kate. The phone rings and I try to work out how I’m going to tell her.
“Hi honey.” She answers.
“I have bad news.”
Louisa tries to grab the phone from me. “I want to tell her,” she whines. I pull it back and whisper sternly, “NO, I’m telling her.”
“Don’t tell me it’s the chickens,” she says.
“Yeah. We’re down to one.”
Kate is silent.
“Which one?” she asks finally, her voice breaking apart.
“No, which chicken?” She’s now fully weeping. “Which one survived?”
”Clarinda, I think?”
“Clarissa.” Kate says. “What happened?”
I tell Kate I thought their wing feathers had come in just enough to get them up on to the rim of the enclosure. Then, I guess, the dogs snatched them from there. Neither of us brings up the sad lack of lid for the enclosure that was inevitably going to become useless at containing animals blessed with the gift of flight.
“Oh Hooooooney,” she moans. “I really loooooved them.”
“I know. I know you did.” I say.
“They trusted us.”
Her moaning stops. Her voice grows solemn and serious. “We need to get more.”
“You can’t have just one chicken.”
“Yes you can.” I say.
“No, honey, you can’t. They’re social animals, they don’t do well alone.”
I consider for a moment killing Clarissa and telling Kate I was mistaken, there actually were no survivors. Then I remember the heinous ordeal of trying to kill the farm chicken. Trying to break a chick’s neck would probably be much easier but it would also be considerably sadder.
Later that day, George, Louisa and I bury the three chickens and, while we’re at it, dig up another golden retriever, possibly the same one from before.
That night, Kate and I lay in bed. It’s the usual: Theo is between us, placed there more as a sex buffer than for any bonding effort. Kate’s reading, I’m on my phone, collecting trash tossed by careless visitors to my virtual zoo. (Why this game appeals to me after a full day of picking up after my three kids, wife and two dogs, confounds me.)
“There’s a trash can right there.” I say to my phone. “Sometimes it feels like they don’t even care.” I look up to see if Kate is as amused by my mock protests as I am . I see she’s staring at Theo. Her bottom lip is curled over and her eyes are pink and glassy.
“What?” I ask, as I sometimes do when I see her crying. I assume it’s the chickens but I don’t want to bring them up.
Kate has just weaned Theo at this point. And I’ve learned to expect a weepy period shortly after the weaning of her children. It’s a period, I’ve also learned, when she imagines our children dead a lot.
With our first kid, George, I was about as weepy. We were in Berkeley, CA. Our world was all about our new little creation. I remember lying in bed, both of us just staring at him. I looked up to see tears trickling down Kate’s cheeks.
“I don’t know what I’d do if anything were to happen to him.” Her soft voice breaking apart.
“I know. I have no idea.” I had tears in my eyes as well. We both just looked at him; both filled up with gratitude and love and fear.
With Louisa, our second, we were still in Berkeley and the scenario was much the same. She lay between us, newly weaned. Kate is staring at her, I’m reading.
Kate: “I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to her.”
I stop reading and look over at Louisa. “It’d be horrible. Unimaginable.”
Now, here we were four years later, in New Jersey, lying in bed with our third buffer between us. Kate is reading and I’m playing the zoo game on my phone.
“I love this little guy.” I hear her say. I glance over. She’s staring at him.
“Me too. He’s great,” I say as I collect my zoo trash.
”What would we do if something happened to him?”
I glance over again. Kate’s bottom lip is curling over, tears are forming in her eyes.
“We’d get more,” I say.
Kate doesn’t laugh. I don’t bother referencing the chicken situation to explain the hilarity of my comment.
I go back to the zoo. It’s quiet there, not much trash.
I glance over. She looks so cute with her lip all sad like that. I go to remove the buffer but she sees it coming and curls an arm tight around him.
“Well,” I say, “we’re not getting more chickens.”
I go back to my virtual zoo and inquire about the cost of a new orangutan.
A month or so passed. We got more chickens. They got a little further along but eventually met the same fate the first group did. It was less our fault this time –the dogs managed to grow opposable thumbs and unscrew a large plastic bolt to open the coop door. Still, we should’ve known they would will themselves opposable thumbs in the face of contained, semi-flightless interlopers. George had a friend over that day, unfortunately. They went to play out back and found them.
I sent the friend’s mom the photo below with a text saying the play date was off to a bit of a rocky start. Needless to say, her son hasn’t been back since.