Monday, March 25, 2013

She Flew the Coop—In Search of My Imperfect Chicken

She Flew the Coop—In Search of My Imperfect Chicken

Today I lost a chicken. I mean I misplaced a chicken. I don’t mean a live chicken. I misplaced an ugly, misshapen, ceramic chicken. This unfortunate bird is no poultry beauty. No self-respecting ceramic rooster would give her a peck.

She came into my life, my odd little chicken, from a display at one of the stops along the What the Hay route between Lewistown and Hilger a couple years ago. Her oddity is what drew me to her. She is so droopy of aspect, so overfed, so worthless looking that whoever made her didn’t bother to sign a name. Perhaps this hen had been cranked out on an assembly line in China, one in a long line of ugly chickens. I can’t imagine why anyone on a good day would buy her.

But I was full of chokecherry pie and good will and could not leave her abandoned on the midden heap. The vendor snatched the money out of my hand before I had the wisdom to reconsider. Once I got her home I wondered, why, in all the world of wonderful stuff, why this little beast. But, she made me smile.

If my chicken were real, she would be a setting hen. Too small to fry, beyond the age of a decent layer, too tough to bake. A bird useless except to tuck eggs beneath her feathers and wait for the hatch. I went down to the basement, found a basket, lined it with a linen napkin and snugged my little bird into her nest. My setting hen.

I get nostalgic for chickens. I think how nice it would be to have a dozen hens in my back yard laying fresh eggs with rich yellow yolks. Then I remember. Growing up, one of my responsibilities was the care and feeding of five-hundred layers. Of all the farm animals, I hated chickens, the nasty, dirty creatures. They are sloppy eaters with no manners. Chickens will stomp down the length of the feed trough, scratching feed onto the floor and like as not, drop squirts of manure in the middle of dinner. With seemingly no provocation, chickens are prone to peck one another naked unto death. The flock habitually squawks about in panic, scattering feathers, certain the sky is falling. Every week I had to scrape the chicken house clean, shovel droppings out the door, lime the floor and nests, and spread every surface thickly with new straw. Tomorrow that which I had cleaned yesterday would smell like an ammonia pit. Egg gathering was a pecking, scratching fight. Roosters, territorial tyrants, I don’t even want to talk about.

But that is moot. I have one chicken. This chicken is ceramic. I dust her once a week and ignore her. Now she’s missing. I had wanted her basket for a prop in a painting. When I removed her from the basket, my mind was on the painting, on making a pleasing arrangement. The napkin from the basket lies on the kitchen counter. The chicken is nowhere in sight.

There are only so many places I could have set my chicken. In my soul I am a minimalist. I dislike clutter. I abhor collections. What I have is arrangements. I have vignettes, specifically and artistically arranged. I looked around. Where could I have mindlessly put her in that moment of inattention.

I had set up my easel in the dining room to use the angled winter light against my large cream-painted table. The chicken is not on the table. She isn’t on the shelf of teapots. She is not on the kitchen counter, not camouflaged on the buffet. She’s not on top of the fridge. She’s not in the kitchen sink.

I tried to back-track my steps to when I emptied the basket. I might have been doing two things at once and inadvertently set her down when I opened a drawer or reached for a sweater. I expanded my search. I looked through the bedrooms, no chicken. She is not in the bathroom. Not in the library (although that might be the easiest place to lose her). Not in the living room. I took a gander through the shop. Back to the kitchen. Not in the cabinets. I opened the refrigerator and checked the shelves. And she’s not in the oven.

I give up. This is ridiculous. I’ve spent more time looking for this piece of misbegotten pottery than on my painting. I know she’ll show up once I quit looking. I’m a logical person. She must be in plain sight. She should be within arm’s reach of the table. She has to be near. Oh, bother, I’ll just search one more time.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

February 14, 2013

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