Chicken Sit

Mom and Dad rarely ask me for anything. I’m only 30-minutes away. They are in their 80s and still living on the same 25 rural acres where I grew up. They could use a little help. But they rarely ask. So when they needed someone to stay at the house for five days while they visited family in eastern Oregon, I jumped at the chance.

My chores are minimal: bring in the mail and paper, open and close the drapes, build a fire in the woodstove. But the most important task is looking after the chickens. There is a rooster and five hens in the chicken yard between the pasture and the backyard. The chickens don’t know it, but without a guardian angel to close up their house when they roost at night, they would become the main course in a raccoon buffet.

So I chicken sit. I come to Mom and Dad's in the evening, and walk through the dark wetness of the back yard to the small chicken house. There is a line hooked by a loop to a nail on the outside of the house. The cord is connected to the top of a small plywood door. Pulling the loop free allows the panel to slide downward over the only opening. This makes the place raccoon proof. Then I return to the human house and light a fire in the wood stove. Tonight the rain is thrumming on the flat roof, ticking against the skylight above my head. The skylight is as effective at allowing the dark song of rain into the room as it is channeling sunlight in during the day.

Mentally I channel Marty McFly and travel back in time, but without Doc’s help. I am surrounded by vestiges of my life long ago. My bedroom is the same one I slept in when I was a kid. Dad added this room onto the rest of the house when I was about eight. I shared it with my younger brother. For a few years we were stacked in bunk beds, which were then separated into two twin beds along opposite walls. Mom used to weave rag rugs, and she made a large one with brown themes for the middle of the bedroom. My brother and I were were terrible housekeepers. The rug was always filthy, always littered with our stuff. There were litters of puppies were born on that rug, too. We weren’t supposed to have the dog in there, but we snuck her in anyway. Who knew she was pregnant? In her old age, the cocker spaniel finally became infertile. She also became deaf. At night her brain would trick her into thinking she heard things, and she barked from beneath our bedroom window. Because she was deaf, the only way to quiet her was to get out of bed and bring her into the house.

From that familiar past I rocket back to the present. The bedroom is quieter now. My brother isn’t talking in his sleep along the other wall. The cocker spaniel has been gone for decades. The sound of passing cars still rises from the highway. The rain thrums. The twin beds have been replaced with a queen in the middle of the room. Despite all the memories, all those formative experiences, I am now many years removed from them, far down the trail of my own life. Yet carry these things with me. I hope they are useful.

In the predawn I build another fire, then make coffee from Dad’s instant crystals. At home I’m a coffee snob; Cafe Mam, organic, shade grown, with beans ground while the water boils. Here I’m content with instant. Years ago when I was using coffee crystals on a field trip, my teaching assistant declared that it wasn’t coffee, it was a drug delivery system. I didn’t argue.

Daybreak comes and it’s time to let the chickens out. I squooge through the backyard to the chicken house. I pull on the line to open the plywood door, then secure it by hooking the loop back over the nail. The golden-maned rooster exits the opening first, walking down the plank into the muddy pen. He immediately crows. I’ve not paid careful attention to a rooster’s crow. It’s a hoarse dotted eighth, rising upward for a quick sixteenth, then holding there for a quarter note, and finally descending for the last quarter note. Crowing in three. A hen appears in the doorway and starts down the ramp. The rooster is having none of it. He flogs her back into the house. Then he struts his stuff, crowing and surveying his domain. All clear. Some unseen signal passes between he and the hens, and they are allowed outside. Growing up, I thought chickens were stupid. Clearly I wasn't paying attention.

It’s odd being here without Mom and Dad around. I’ve slept pretty well in my old space. But last night I awoke at 3AM, my usual insomniac time, listening wide-eyed to the drumming rain. Behind the soft noise of water falling gently to earth came a throaty call from some place in the future--rhythmic, rising, cocksure. I listened intently. It was the voice of Change.