I’d like to interrupt this steady stream of depressing news (Vegas, North Korea, 45, Puerto Rico, violence, you know the rest) to introduce to you a little red hen named Chili. Her left foot is crooked. She doesn’t lay predictably. She poops on our front porch and eats the cat food. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they have a chicken that thinks she’s a cat (thankfully our cats don’t poop on the porch). But since this silly little porch chicken came into my life I’ve had something to laugh about and laughter feels a lot better than the alternative right now.
On Tuesday night my husband sent a group text to a few friends and family: Chilli chicken in da house. After taking the picture Michael promptly put her into her pen in the front yard.
We’ve been living for the past six years in an intentional community that keeps chickens for eggs and meat. We have about 75 of them and they live far from the houses on a field with movable fencing. Similar to this one pictured here:
Following the farming practice made popular by Joel Salatin the chickens aerate and fertilize the soil where the cows had grazed. Though they live a happy life of pecking and scratching in the ground by day and roosting in their stylish mobile chicken coop by night, chickens never meant much to me until Chili showed up at our house.
It was the morning after the total solar eclipse (We had 99.67% here but drove to SC to see 100% - but that’s another story). Some of our friends who had come down from Philadelphia for the big event woke up to a loud clucking on the porch. “So does that chicken always sleep on your porch?” Angela asked as I filled her cup with black coffee.
“What chicken?” I wondered aloud. Maybe the bird’s little internal homing mechanism got interrupted by the partial darkness the day before, maybe she wanted in on the party with the Guesses, maybe God sent her as a feathered messenger from above bringing me good tidings of great joy but for whatever reason she found in our porch a home and we decided we’d keep her.
Her head was bloody on top. We get the phrase “hen-pecked” from that practice of chickens ganging up on weaker chickens. Like I said before her foot is crooked so she doesn’t fit in. There was no way that I was going to put her back in the pen with the sharp-beaked flock. We pulled over an old bottomless cage that we once used for tending rabbits and made it her new place to sleep in the front yard. The kids started calling her Chili, perhaps for the ruddiness of her feathers, perhaps because it rhymes with silly.
Chili is a people chicken. She runs up to greet us as we come and go from the house. She stares at us through the door and pecks at the glass begging to be let in. We don’t let her, and we curse when she poops on the welcome mat. She doesn’t mind being held. When I sit on the rocking chair on the front porch I scoop her up onto my lap and smooth her silky feathers. She doesn’t flap and squawk. She lays an egg now and then in an abandoned terrarium, and when she does our daughters rush to bring it, still warm, into the house. She likes to be talked to. Every morning we have a little chat- I do most of the talking.
One afternoon, about a week after Chili started roosting with us, a friend saw the chicken on the porch and thought she was doing me a favor by plopping her back in with all the other chickens. I tried to hide my consternation when she told me, but I think I was visibly disturbed. I’ve gone all these years without a chicken in my life, but the idea of losing Chili made me ache as I ran toward the fence and scanned my eyes across a sea of anonymous birds. Here was the test- did I really know her at all? Did she really know me? I stepped into the pen and looked at each bird. I knew she wasn’t one of the white or speckled ones but there were dozens of reddish brown hens.
“Chili, hey Chili chicken,” I called out to the feathery ones but I was met with empty birdie-eyed stares and absent-minded clucks. “Hey Chili girl, c’mon now.” Then a little chicken sidled up to my leg and gave a little, “Brr-bruck?” She pointed her crooked foot toward mine and I scooped her up into my arms. All those Bible stories about shepherd and sheep rang true as I was assured that we actually do know one another by name- this bird and me.
A few years back I went to year Alice Walker speak at the Morton Theater in Athens, GA. At the time I was a bit bemused that this writing legend, speaking to a packed auditorium (the most diverse crowd I’ve been in since moving down south), who could have spoken to us about anything in the world chose to share her delight in raising backyard chickens. It had something to do with love. She wanted us to realize that peace is a practice as fragile and miraculous as a fresh laid egg and that if a heart can feel the tragedy in cracking an egg with a half formed chick we can feel the tragedy of greater losses.
I wish it were that easy, that peace on earth were as simple as each creature knowing and being known by name. That our hearts would stay fragile and open and willing to keep breaking. But even Nazis and Klansman can be kind parents, farmers and pet owners. Loving the ones close to us doesn’t always lead to love of the ones far away, the ones we think of as others, the ones we kill with drone strikes, the ones whose blood we have not seen. But still I cling to the hope that tenderness to any living thing might soften us to one another.
I know a man who arrived in the US as a refugee from Congo. Before war pushed him and his family from their land, he lived with cows. While he was staying at Jubilee he accurately predicted the birth of a calf based on his lifetime of nearness to the life rhythms of cows. He lives in a city now, works in a chicken plant where white gangly birds who never see the light of day are hacked and chopped into convenience food. We saw him a few weeks ago and he confided to a friend of mine that when he has trouble sleeping he turns on his smart phone and looks at a photo of a cow. It helps him to feel at home.
I’m sorry, I wanted to write something to help us all laugh a little bit and now I feel like crying again. I want you to know that I’m a hypocrite too. I still eat factory farmed meat. I’ve witnessed and plucked but still have not directly killed my own food. In his book The Witness of Combines Kent Meyers has this beautiful chapter called “Chickens” about how quickly our affection toward chickens can be transformed as they become chicken, but how even the process of butchering –when done with care- can feel sacramental.
I can hear Chili clucking now in the yard. I have a feeling that even if I become a woman who butchers her own supper, Chili – my first chicken love- will grow to a ripe old age
Since this little Chili bird came my daughter, Seraphina, who is usually the last one out of bed, has been waking up early to let her out, give her grain, talk to her. My son wants to kill her on account of the poop on the porch. Our porch is actually cleaner than usual because of all the sweeping and spraying and the shoes are stacked up neatly because no one wants poop in their shoes.
On a day when the sky turned dark a silly little bird came to our home for solace. She brought us extra work and joy. Her head is healed now and my heart, my ever breaking heart, is happier for her arrival.