At six years old I tiptoed out the screen door, around the back of the shed, and darted into the lee of the ancient pine at the back of our property.
I sighed with relief. Safe.
Keeping a wary eye on the back yard, I wiped the pine needles off my hands, opened to the first page of my book and – the sound of taloned feet shuffling through dead pine needles stopped my eyes in the middle of the first sentence. I heard it the way the last human on the face of the planet hears the zombie hoard mounting the stairs of the safe house. Slowly, I looked up.
Five hens stared at me with soulless black eyes. And in the middle of them, the rooster – red and ruddy with an iridescent green tail. He was like the kind you see in idyllic farm paintings posed majestically on the white barnyard fence. A Rhode Island Red. In later years I would hear my mother explain that Rhode Island Red roosters are nefarious for their aggression. Fear vibrated in my fingers as I clutched the book to my chest and remembered the many times he had chased my siblings and me around the house. The woods became dark and cold. The shadows in the yard long and foreboding. The flock’s talons cut through the pine needles as they closed in. My back was to the tree.
They clucked to each other, asking that terrifying, throaty, guttural, unanswerable question, “Whaaaaaat? Whaaaaaaat?”
I screamed for my mother. And I ran.
Even though this is one of my first memories of the farm life, it was not until I returned from my first semester at college that I realized I did not love the lifestyle my family so cherished.
I love living in rural areas – the way back roads burst into color in Autumn, how fireflies light up the roadside on cool summer drives, the trickle of the creek as it winds through the woods, and the shush of the wind through the trees – and I have always managed to squelch my frustrations with farm life by clinging to my image of the idyllic farm (the one photographed in every Country Living magazine): majestic red barn roosted on a grassy hill, the cows lowing as they meander through the nearby pasture; a creek runs through it and the ancient deciduous forest stands proudly next door, sheltering the land in a swath of cool shadows while the chickens peck peacefully on the hillside. Martha Stewart’s vision of farming.
But college taught me what it was like not to have a hoard of animals running over my feet. There were no dogs begging to be taken out at six in the morning, no chickens to be fed, no eggs to be gathered. I did not have to worry if wearing shoes into the dorm would track in mud, poop, or whatever farm dirt I had accidentally picked up while trying to enjoy a walk around the property. When I stood in the barn door after that first semester, I saw the chickens scratching through the dirt and the poop. I saw the hen whose neck was only red bumps and gooseflesh because she was at the bottom of the pecking order and the other hens picked on her. I saw the hen who had developed a cedar chip allergy – shedding profusely. I cringed. Fifteen years of living with my mother’s chickens, and I finally acknowledged the disdain blooming in my chest.
It felt like a betrayal of self. And of family.
I know my collection of chicken horror stories should not be enough for me to turn away from farming. Even my mother has a horror story collection: the time she accidentally beheaded a rooster when she (following the instructions she read in A Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow) tried to snap its neck by laying a broom handle at the base of its head and pulling on its ankles, the headless body slapping her in the forehead; or the time my family came home to find that a mink had eaten the head off every single chicken in the coop; or the time the rooster latched itself onto the back of my sister’s collar and beat her on the head with its wings until my dad knocked it off.
Hoping that I might be able to reteach myself a love of the farm life, I ask my mother why she continues to keep chickens. Her voice grows sweet and soft as she tells me she likes how the flock cares for each other, how she cares for the flock and the flock cares for her. She tells me how when one hen finds food, it will call the rest to share a meal; how she feeds the flock and it feeds her; and how Grandma told her she is always more content when she has chickens.
As we talk it becomes clear to me that my mother loves the chickens unconditionally. She knows how mean the pecking order can be and how gross the hens sometimes look. She knows all of the horror stories. Yet, she builds a relationship with her flock and deeply appreciates the affection they return.
Just as my mother loves the chickens despite their imperfections, she loves me. She loves the things I am learning about myself as I grow up and is never bothered by my lack of love for the chickens. I had been waiting for the chickens to show me how to love them, but it is my mother who shows me how to love unconditionally – chicken poop and all.
Morgan Foster is a writer and educator who grew up in Genesee County. She recently moved to Jackson County where she works as a job trainer, enjoys the company of friends from her alma mater, Spring Arbor University, and writes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and articles for her blog, The Arcadian.