These Chickens, This Life –

These Chickens, This Life

One night last fall, my husband defended our chickens against an invading possum, armed with a sword and wearing night vision goggles, holding a flashlight and hooting like a madman in the darkness. I was standing on the shabby backyard deck observing, holding a baby on my hip while the rain fell, and the wind whipped my thin white nightgown around my legs. I wouldn’t have heard the scrabble and squawk of hens in danger, but my husband sleeps lightly, ever alert, and he roused me for back up. I wonder if he also wanted me to witness his work here; defending our home from attack. My gentle husband, who gets precious little opportunity to rescue us.

My husband was a stay-at-home dad for years, while I was out working in sales. His skills in information technology slipped farther and farther into obsolescence, but he quietly became the parent the toddlers cried for when hurt or sleepy. I pumped my breast milk at hotels and in the bathrooms at trade shows, and brought it home to him in freezer bags. When my commissions vanished, he lined up with scores of hopeful applicants at the most menial of jobs, and went through a series of interviews after which he landed a something that paid barely over minimum wage, and we were so grateful. We would have insurance. He was tearful in his quiet, strong way the night before he’d be leaving the kids for the first time. He almost never complains about his work, just says, “today was hard,” if I ask. He leaves it at that.

After that close call with the possum and the chickens, we started placing a big stone at the entrance to the coop each evening after they all make their way inside. Every evening, right as dusk sets and the western sun has dipped below the windows and the house is no longer filled with that golden light, the hens enter one by one, acting like they’ve only just thought of it, as though each time is their first: Hey, here’s an idea: why don’t we go into this here coop? No, after you.

We’ve come to rely on the eggs, and consistently get four or five a day. Dried beans can become monotonous, so this is thrilling reprieve. Scrambled, hard-boiled, poached, stirred into ramen noodles, mixed into pancakes that are more egg than flour—we’ve done it all. They skirt the rules our landlord has about no pets, as they’re not fur-bearing and they don’t live inside. Mostly they eat what they forage in the big backyard, which we’ve now turned over to them after futile efforts to control and contain the poop situation. They gather beneath the window when they hear it slide open, knowing to expect the pinched-off bits of stale heels of bread, and half-eaten apples that have turned brown sitting on the coffee table. They love watermelon rinds, and will pick at them until the striped green skin that’s left looks like a popped balloon, puckered and flimsy. It’s important nothing go to waste.

And it was last weekend that my husband and I crawled along the perimeter of the house, searching for rat holes we could block with wadded-up steel wool. They’re starting to pilfer the feed, and we can’t have them threatening egg production. The ants in the upstairs bathroom are of little concern to me. I look at them as I would look at dirt that moves, which doesn’t sound enlightened at all. But we have forged an uneasy peace. If they happen to make their way into the shower stall, they will feel the fatal sting of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, otherwise they are free to take shelter from the wet and cold along these baseboards. I address them with grudging tolerance. I see you’re still here. If you make your way to the kitchen, there will be trouble.

We have come a distance from our pristine life of suburban affluence, and when I look around at this crumbling underpriced rental that has provided harbour, it’s hard to remember what we had before. And now: the train whistle, the rowdy hoboes, our apple tree, our orange tree, the vegetables in the front yard, these chickens.