When I first moved to the farm I’d been in the city for 29 years. I was viewed with gentle humor as a kind of exotic transplant. You know, Big-City professional with a ‘tude. It took the garden as a way for me to earn my chops. In the meantime, I was an avid observer of the dynamics of this small farm. I have come to believe that everything in life is personal.
Shortly after I arrived, the farm took in thousands of “used” chickens. (“That’s right, folks, these babies have had only one owner and only laid on Sundays!”) Elmer had a chicken-farmer friend who was retiring. These days that usually means that a small farm is going out of production. The college-educated children of farmers have little interest in farming. More and more, farming is being relegated to agribusiness, by default.
So, the chickens were transferred to one of our empty chicken houses. More often than not, I don’t understand the movements of livestock around farms. Cows, sheep and chickens are on the move all the time around here and, aside from the obvious management of grass length, I understand little of it. But this chicken transfer was a simple move; as a recent transferee to the farm myself, I understood it very well. It was a busy day, trucks with trailers stuffed with chickens in cages, rolling up the lane for most of the day, then deadheading back down the road to the retiree’s farm, empty cages bouncing and clattering, to collect more chickens. As I’ve since learned is often the case with a big transfer, a number of chickens usually escape. It takes a few days to round them up and get them back into cages.
That same day I was having a water problem. I didn’t want to bother Elmer in the middle of so big an operation, so I laid low until after the trucks had made their last run. Things go from full speed to dead pretty quick on a farm. When the work is done, the day is pretty much done. By the time I went looking for Elmer, the place was deserted. I checked the house, several of the chicken barns, even Number Four—but no Elmer.
Finally, I peeked into the chicken barn where the new chickens should have been settling in. Hardly. Chickens don’t like changes to their habitat and the barn was a cacophony of poultry, with feathers flying as chickens reestablished the pecking-order in their new digs. The cages in the chicken house hang about hip-height, and another tier above that. Now, below that, scores of the escaped chickens were roaming the floor, clucking up at their caged compatriots. Some jumped, wings flapping, in vain attempts to get back into the cages! I stood in the opening of the barn’s rolling door, flummoxed. If ever I thought chickens were smart—this cured me of that notion. Other than the escapees, there was not a soul in sight. I watched those loose chickens in their desperate antics, crestfallen. It flew in the face of my own recent flight to the country. Those dumb chickens wanted back into their familiar confines! (And let me tell you, the familiar for an egg-producing chicken is not a pretty thing.) Still, there is that old saying, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” I recoiled from any message that might lurk there, for me.
Peering into the darkening expanse of feathers and dust, I yelled out, “Run Chickens! Now’s your chance, make a break for it while you can!” It fell on deaf ears. Mostly.
Out from behind a rack of tall cages, stepped Elmer, his eyebrows knitted quizzically. “What are you telling my chickens?” he laughed. I blushed, relieved that the cool, dark of the barn kept this secret. Elmer shook his head, still chuckling. I decided to pretend that the only words I spoke in that chicken barn were about my water problem. He nodded and said he’d get up to the tank-house to fix it.
Most of the chickens were retrieved and repatriated over the next few days. All but one—a feisty little hen that eluded capture. Apparently, she’d taken heed of my message, made a run for it and wouldn’t let anyone near her. On a farm that houses tens of thousands of chickens, no one is going to waste a lot of time and effort pursuing just the one. Over the following weeks she grew fat and bold, feeding on spilled chickenfeed and bugs. Over time, her feathers filled out. She preened in the sun on the apron of the barn. We saw her frequently as she made her rounds. She became the talk of the farm, as one tenant after another alerted Elmer, or the farmhands, that there was a chicken on the loose. They’d nod, “Yup.” A loose chicken will usually fall prey to any number of hazards. There are dogs, foxes, hawks and coyotes around here, any one of which will gladly make a meal of a fugitive chicken. Still, she survived.
After about a month, this hen settled in the garden area around Elmer’s house. It became sport to spot and collect her eggs. Emboldened by freedom and the realization that no one was after her, she started hanging around the farm shop, especially when the farmhands took their breaks. They fed her treats from their lunches. They took a poll to name her. Some of the suggested names were getting crazy. Well, after debate, Elmer took the farm-owner’s prerogative and put his foot down on the matter. The chicken would be Henrietta.
I watched this unfold with some measure of mirth. Here this one chicken had, by force of stubborn personality, managed to elevate her status from escapee to pet. She made it personal. One of the farm hands brought her raw sunflower seeds. They argued such things at break-time like whether it would be okay to feed her popcorn—you know, because of the salt. They were teaching her to catch treats tossed in the air. The best of it was that everyone saw the humor (not to mention the irony) in it—a chicken farm with a pet chicken.
One day Henrietta mysteriously disappeared. Not a trace, no evidence of “foul” play. Folks would ask each other if they’d seen Henrietta. Everyone kept an eye out. This really shouldn’t have been a surprise; we all knew the risks. But still, nary a feather to be found. And it did seem odd, since she generally stayed so close to where people were. As you would expect, her absence sounded louder than her presence ever had. Break-time talk lapsed back into the work at hand and any funny story of the day. (Farmers are such gossips!)
We have a guy on the farm, Bill, who works the chicken houses. He mostly keeps to himself and doesn’t come down and hang with the other hands at break-time. He’s developmentally disabled and is more comfortable taking his breaks in his quarters, or out wherever he’s working that day. He’s nice enough, but shy, and uncomfortable trying to keep up with the ribald conversations in and around the shop. Well, about a week after Henrietta’s disappearance Elmer mentioned it to Bill. He nodded, “That loose chicken? Yeah, I finally got her.”
“What? You caught her? What did you do with her?” Maybe Elmer’s tone was a little too strident. Bill, who thought he was just doing what he was supposed to, got defensive and flustered. “I put her back in the cages.” “Which cage?”
“I dunno—over in Number Six, somewhere.”
Elmer couldn’t exactly be angry. A farm hand had put a loose chicken into a chicken cage. It’s what’s supposed to happen. How was Bill to know that this was no ordinary chicken? It had never been explained to him that Henrietta was now a pet chicken. I know that Elmer spent some time looking, walking the aisles between the cages in Number Six. I think most of us did. You’d think she would have been easy to spot, but it’s difficult to tell one brown hen from all the other brown hens, in a barn with thousands of other chickens. Whatever it was that was special about her, she didn’t stand out when you were peering through the wire.