life and death

WORDS OF FAITH

WORDS OF FAITH
Standing at my kitchen window several times a day either pouring coffee or drinking filtered well water, I like to take in the depth and expanse of the view and count myself lucky for being able to live on hundreds of acres of bush minutes from the airport. I can get anywhere in Ottawa in under 30 minutes. I have made it downtown to Parliament Hill in twenty-five on a Saturday morning.

After ma died in 2014, we found refuge here after selling our house in small town Cobourg so we could be near my father in his final years. Missus was at Sick Kids in Toronto with her Little Bear having his critical heart procedure. I’d gone ahead to Ottawa to find us a place and after staying at my brothers for not even two weeks, this old homestead fell into my lap.

Bought in a land-assembly for a possible future subdivision, it’s old and run-down. Though, a kindly and conscientious owner did an adequate job getting it ready for tenants after it had sat empty for some time. The place is far from perfect: it is perfect for us. I’ll stay as long as I can.

I didn’t tell missus I’d rented this house. It was one she suggested I look at, whiling away the hours helping with the search while attending to the boy with daughter in tow. Instead, when she left Sick Kids and her room at Ronald McDonald House in Toronto for the last time, I just gave her an address. They arrived on the day in question before I did because I was still out visiting farms setting energy rates.  I’d unpacked a 28-foot van by myself all night the Sunday/Monday before. Nothing was put away. I had been sleeping on a mattress and decided the respectful thing to do was let the lady of the house decide how she wanted everything set up. At least, that’s my story of good intentions.

As I arrived, the children, who were five and almost three at the time, swarmed me, insisting on showing me around in their excitement, not realizing I’d been living there a week. It was the sweetest charade. Little girls teach men about love and Charlie showed me all the features she liked including a six-or so-foot pond chock full of frogs and critters. Every rock of any size had a yellow-sided garter snake under it with the odd red-sided one too.

We get to keep whatever animals we like, can even clear land and plant bigger crops if I was so inclined. That’s a bit too much work for me but I love our expanding organic garden in summer. And chickens. Farm fresh eggs are a true wonder of nature. Boil them up after a week or so in the fridge and the white part is firm and full like a soft meat. I’m an egg man and having chickens has been in the works for ages. I almost took my chances with By-Law and put some in my yard in Toronto before we moved to Cobourg. Now that we have had them a few years, I don’t think I’ll ever live in the city again if I can help it.

Looking out today, I spot a chicken stuck in the snow. We just got a dump of about a foot of soft stuff and the chickens are coming out to eat and heading right back into the coop. We have old hens, some in their egg-laying prime, a mature rooster named Little Dude, some immature hens and immature roosters, and two chickens who have just left their mother within the last two weeks or so.

I sat there admiring the chickadees dive bombing my feeder for oiled sunflower seeds. I can see two red squirrels gorging on their spillage. A group of five immature roosters and hens are hanging around in the shed, out of the wind while pecking through the gravel. Concerned red feathered hen hasn’t moved for five minutes has me mentioning it to the kids. “Looks like one of the Rhode Island Reds is stuck in the snow over the frozen pond,” I say. The kids are curious and quickly pull up a bench beside me —one I salvaged from my dad’s place, from the same set of benches where my nine brothers and sisters and I sat as children—and hop up to see. They see it out at the frozen over pond. It doesn’t move, 15 minutes.

“Who wants to go get that chicken and check on it? ” I say. Nothing. It’s a cold day, bitter cold. I paraphrase the same message. Nothing. “Who will go?” I repeat, getting specific. Nothing.

“I will give you ten cents” I say, remembering I picked up an American dime up off the floor somewhere in the house that morning. I pulled it out of my pocket and slap it down on the counter, at least as much as a dime slaps.

Mild interest.

“Which one of you will go and RESCUE that chicken & SAVE ITS LIFE?”

“I WILL,” says the boy. “I WILL TOO,” says daughter. “I’m a SUPERHERO,” adds the boy. I just needed the right wording looks like.

I help them get dressed. By now, their collective enthusiasm has turned competitive, each trying to get out the door before the other and be the one who rescues the chicken. I hold them back by the jacket sleeves and make sure they are adequately dressed. Off they go. I return to my window.

They race the fifty or so feet to the bird. It remains still, unusual for a chicken. Charlie picks it up gently and on the way to the coop Howie takes over. I see them put it back with the others. I’d be out later with the snowblower to give the birds a better run but had shoveled some space that morning during feeding.

Ten minutes later, there’s Howie walking around with the red hen. They are returning to the house and the boy still has a bird cradled in his arms. When they get inside, I realize it’s a different red hen. They found her in trouble and knew to bring her in. It’s one of the new birds and she’s in trouble alright, ice has formed on her feet. She’s immobile but blinking.

Missus steps in and dons her gloves. She’s not optimistic. I think it’s good for the kids and so, as a team they attend to the stricken member of the flock. She’s blistered up bad. Missus predicts her feet could turn black and fall off. I remind her of Daphne.

Daphne was one of our first birds and a rescue. Some gal closer to the city had been cited by the authorities and needed the birds gone. Missus is a hustler that way, only Daphne had a badly infected foot. Despite miraculous care by missus, the bird pulled that foot up and never used it again. She hopped around for two years. She was the bird I made sure to toss bread scraps to first and picked up in the snow while helping her move from the chicken yard to the shed and back in winter. She laid eggs as regularly as the others too. She sort of got used to us handling her here and there, like she knew. Missus had saved her and she was our underdog chicken, if there is such a thing.

Sadly, I came home from work last spring to an eerily silent yard only to find a great Marsh Hawk eating her while the others cowered under the far spruce tree. I chased it off but it was too late. Missus had resurrected that bird as surely as if she was God and if she wasn’t a hen, we could have called her Jesus.

I had tremendous faith in missus before but the care she showed this bird reminded me why I agreed to let her have my children. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised yet I think it’s good practice: we should reserve more than a little awe for each other whenever we can. Nevertheless, Daphne would never be quick enough to evade a hungry bird of prey moving through in springtime. Nature is like that.

So, there is a bird in my laundry room once again. By now, we have a system of sorts, though each time it’s a bit different as context demands. It just means we have equipment like cages and puppy pads and fences and overhead warming lights if needed. My gal is a pro at it now. Daughter Charlie wants to be a vet. We opened an educational savings account for her in case. She helps her ma. She pets bees in summer.

It took Charlotte almost a year to realize we were eating some of the rabbits we were raising. She came to me last summer, “Daddy, I know sometimes we turn the chickens into meat, but I would not like it if we do that with the bunnies anymore,” said in that quiet little-girl-voice, looking at me as if everything she believed about me and in me was on the line. Little girls teach men about love. We have three pet rabbits now and she feeds them and lets them out every morning. Chinese Zodiac says she was born in the year of the rabbit so there you go. Since rooster is my totem animal, after prolonged conversation and deliberation a couple of weeks ago, she has claimed the rabbit as hers.

But, this bird is hanging in there and I’m inclined to give it a couple of weeks. I may have to dispatch this little hen and I may not. If we can save her what a stance that is. It’s where we all live after all, right in between life and death. We think we have time, but the truth is none of us do.

It’s the Daphne precedent, you see.

Until those legs fall off completely, I want to give her a shot at life. If only one leg falls off, she’s still good, right? Missus is using low dose aspirin in her water dish to help her deal with the pain. She’s eating and drinking. Seems to be working. She’s not chirping constantly like she did in the yard. Missus disagrees, pragmatic soul she is.

I don’t know, maybe this little bird represents something bigger for me. For many years, I didn’t care for such things. More accurately, I couldn’t care for small mercies. I either didn’t know how or had forgotten what it meant. Maybe it’s just that you don’t get to be my age without realizing all of us are special. I’m not sure.

It was what my ma said to me in our last conversation. We managed to get her home and gave her a matriarch’s vigil her final two days. After much prayer and goodbyes, she went on a Friday afternoon, surrounded, touched and loved by her nine adult children while her husband of sixty-two years sat near her head holding her hand and whispering sweet reassurances. The family dog keened mournfully at the very moment she underwent the change at 4:30 pm.

The Monday prior, at the hospital while she was still lucid but in pain, for some time, alone, we had talked of things we had not before. We spoke of her service to her church and kindness to people. She’d had ten pregnancies in twelve years and remained faithful and dedicated to her church and all of us to the best of her ability. I told her I was leaving room in my life for mystery.  She had patted my hand, looked at me with the love and wisdom of the dying and said, “You’ve got to have a bit of faith, Christopher.”  

I do ma, for all our sake, I certainly do

I gave each of the kids a nickel. Canadian.

Stay powerful and never give up
cw

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