“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves…”
—(Excerpt from Wild Geese by Mary Oliver)
The day before Adele died, I brought her a copy of Mary Oliver’s poem. I settled next to her to read it aloud while she sat upright on her bed for the last time. I had already read the poem to myself twenty times for courage, swallowed by a sorrow I wasn’t prepared for. I had not known Adele all my life; I was not her best friend and she was not mine. But while she listened, bald and tender as a hatchling, I stumbled through the words, teetering on the verge of failure because Adele was going to die.
I met Adele five years before she died, in a puppy obedience class. She had a headstrong vizsla named Abe, and I had Ecco, a jolly, stubborn Spinone – both dogs bred to point birds and love their masters. The dogs didn’t care for each other, but Adele and I clicked. She invited me to her farm to plant quail and test Ecco’s instinctive abilities, and even though I never intended to hunt him, I woke up before dawn on the agreed upon Saturday morning and drove thirty miles through rural farmland to meet her. I had Ecco in the back seat and, in the front, a gift of a dozen fresh eggs from my little flock of hens. A ghostly ground mist still clung to the fields on both sides of the road, the fineness of the landscape awakening with every mile. I still have a photo of that day — the two of us holding my dog on his point. Adele, in her blaze orange and khaki field clothes and me, the novice, in purple t-shirt and impractical blue jeans. She’s holding my arm, guiding me, telling me how to kick up the grass where a quail is hidden. Carefully, she says. Ecco is locked to the scent of this wild bird, waiting innately for us to flush it.
Adele was diagnosed with ovarian cancer five summers later. One month after her diagnosis, it took her on with vengeance, and while she wilted away before my eyes, I agreed to clear her closets. She had enough holiday decorations, home décor, and fake flowers to stock a couple of aisles of Hobby Lobby – her contribution to the garage sale I was planning. She told me to take something special to remember her by, and I picked out an antique enamel coffee pot. She made me take two. And a sage colored ceramic dog head. I packed it all up and lugged it home.
I was planning to be married that fall — a newlywed, again, in my fifties. It wasn’t the first time I was entering marriage, but it was the first time that I was really crazy in love. The blended households would mean a mutual ridding of trappings, thus the garage sale. But as well as I knew this wonderful man, I was not ready for the sheer volume of his possessions. The garage sale was postponed until spring, and once we were married, the living room became ground zero for my new husband’s things.
Deer antlers rested under the desk chair and something feathered was on the piano stool. Battered pots spilled out of boxes like live crabs escaping their nets. I found a Ziploc bag of duck wings in the freezer. “I’m not attached to any of this stuff,” he declared, “except my art things, business papers, and hunting gear. Oh, and my Christmas dishes. I want to keep those, too.” So while he was away on the last weekend of hunting season, I sorted and bagged and priced and boxed until the mountainous piles of my sweetheart’s things dwindled down to knee-high. And when he returned from the wild on Sunday, piling camouflage gear on top of everything else, I waved an arm proudly over the weekend’s labor and announced, “We’re ready for the garage sale.” Before I had finished the sentence, he was going through the boxes.
“I want to keep these.” Ten place settings of cheap flatware. “This, too.” A clunky set of pewter dinnerware. Weighed a ton, and I hurt my back moving it. “I want to ask the girls if they need any of this.” Aforementioned pots like renegade crabs. He kept twenty-nine baseball caps, four or five shabby leather briefcases, and a box of his father’s old clothes.
I should mention Adele’s things now. Adele, daughter of inheritance, childless and ambitious, died on a bitter cold day just before Christmas. Her husband called me a week later. “Please,” he said. “You won’t believe the stuff she had in the attic.” Bolts of upholstery fabric, quilt tops, bags of imported yarn. Price tags still on everything. Nineteen antique doorknobs and a rocking chair, beveled mirrors and glazed vases. Eight carloads of stuff she was saving for the new house they had planned to build near their farm. She never mentioned her attic stash as she watched me purge her home. Just in case she didn’t die. Her husband boxed it all up and piled it up in his dining room, and I added it to our garage sale inventory. Adele, too – a keeper of things.
So I tagged and labeled some more, and on the day of the garage sale, Chuck and I woke up at four a.m. and brewed a lot of coffee. After that, it was a blur of strangers and conversations and dollar bills and watching people find things among our discards that they needed to keep. And late that afternoon, when it was all over, we packed up the remains to donate to Goodwill, exhausted and ready for an evening of mindless TV. But out on the back patio there was Passion, my Partridge Cochin hen, sitting near the planter, passively watching the dogs sniff her. Not good. I shooed her toward the coop and watched her follow her sisters inside, but she didn’t climb up to roost. I lifted her up and made sure that her toes closed around one of the rungs, the other hens fussing and reluctantly shifting to make room for her. When I checked on her an hour later, I found her resigned to her failing. Her body was trapped between the bars of the perch; every appendage had succumbed to gravity. In the beam of the flashlight I saw the silhouette of her head and both legs hanging down from the roost, her feathered toes like curled tendrils. I tried to pull her out and could feel that she was still alive, but I couldn’t get her down. Chuck did it. He lifted her up out of her snare, and brought her inside. Washed chicken poop from the places where his arms had rubbed against the roost, brought the electric heater from his bathroom into mine, and watched me set her up in a big Rubbermaid container that I had filled with fresh straw. “Sometimes a little heat works miracles,” he said.
The Cochin is a breed developed by the Chinese and loved by many for its sweet personality and oversized fluffiness. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy says Cochins are “a good breed of choice when a large, astonishing chicken is desirable, which happens to have a docile, gentle disposition.” Passion astonished us both by surviving the night.
The veterinarian that treats my dogs agreed to check out this chicken, and I walked in to her clinic with a clear bottom line: I would spend $500 for Passion’s treatment if it meant discovering that I could prevent a similar fate for the rest of the flock. With Passion tucked in to her Rubbermaid container on the waiting room floor, I began to fill out the paperwork for the new patient while the receptionist tossed questions at me from behind her computer screen. “What’s your pet’s name?”
“Passion? As in passion?”
“Male or female?”
(Pause) “That’s not in our drop-down box.”
“Red. And black.”
“Red and black.”
Here’s another thing that is not in a drop-down box: The extent to which you will go to keep a chicken.
The form I was filling out was asking to check Yes or No to, “Tell us which procedures we have your permission to perform on your pet:”
Bloodwork? X-Rays? Ultrasound?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
“Thank you, Ms. Meaux. It will be just a few minutes.”
After her diagnosis, Adele insisted on a crippling level of chemotherapy in order to prolong her life. She demanded that her friends and family engage in constructive conversation only while in her presence. We weren’t allowed to cry. When I visited her once at the hospital, she was practicing positive visualization, imagining, with all the clarity she could muster, every cancer cell succumbing to exorcism. She asked me to leave so she could concentrate on the damnation. She lost her hair and vomited often.
Passion weighed less than six pounds when the vet weighed her. She was two pounds underweight. My instructions were to de-worm her and the rest of the flock and keep her isolated until her blood work came back with some answers. That will be four hundred forty-one dollars and thirty cents, please. Right on budget.
By the next morning, she was worse. Another one hundred twenty-nine dollars later, 700 milliliters of fluid had been drained from Passion’s abdomen, and I left the vet’s office with a high protein avian supplement, rubber tubes, syringes, and a chicken that was now nearly three pounds underweight. More than likely, Passion’s reproduction organs had run amuck, something not uncommon in heavy breeds raised for meat and butchered long before their ovaries kicked into production mode and perfected the art of ovulation. Did I want to spend another one hundred dollars to send the fluid off to confirm this diagnosis? No.
Three times a day, I mixed the powder supplement with warm water, sucked it into the syringe, and tightened the rubber tube to the open end. Three times a day, my husband, the keeper, slid the tube down Passion’s esophagus while I held her head up and kept her body wrapped up in a blanket. Besides the supplement, she ate earthworms and night crawlers that Chuck bought at a bait shop. I mashed apples into grits, mixed sunflower seeds into cooked rice, crushed grapes, lined the bathtub with cardboard so she could have room to use her legs, and I made sure she walked a little bit every day. I brought her with me to a weekend retreat on the bay with my best friends.
Laying hens are the only animals that develop an ovarian cancer that is similar to humans, and medical researchers are studying them closely in hopes of discovering a means of earlier detection of this cancer that is so deadly among women because of its asymptomatic nature. There are, somehow, key similarities between the ovarian cancer of this chicken and that of humans, in spite of their evolutionary distances. Are these friendly, feathered, miniature T-Rex descendants the key to an early detection and intervention for women with this lethal disease? With all my heart, I hope so.
When Adele got home from the hospital, she was too weak to stay alone, so I often stopped by after work to relieve her husband, who was taking time from his medical practice to care for her. Her diet had shifted from soft foods to liquids only, and the juices and broths were prepared from organic, high-vitamin fruits and vegetables. One night, she was weak and asked me to help her in the bathroom. “I have no more shame,” she said, shuffling down the hall. “Do you think you can handle emptying my tube?” While she stood near the toilet talking about her blood count and level of something-or-other, I opened a valve on a length of tubing that she pulled out from under her nightgown. What I thought was blood for one dreadful moment was nothing but pomegranate juice. Pomegranate smell, pomegranate fluid, in all its antioxidant glory, draining, unprocessed, from a failing body that housed a will to live.
Passion rallied for three weeks to the day. For most of that time, I thought she would make it. I figured out that I could swaddle her in a thick towel with her head poking out and place her bundled upright in a bucket so that I could tube feed her by myself. I knew that she would have become the pariah of the flock, so Passion’s daily convalescence was limited to the fenced part of the yard where we had planted new grass. On one of those fine spring mornings, she caught sight of a June bug on its back, legs twisting away with admirable ferocity. Passion stared it down with a reptilian eye then pecked it up and swallowed it whole. I guess that’s when I was most hopeful – that particular day of the June bug. But pretty soon, she was surviving strictly on tube feeding, completely uninterested in drinking or eating on her own.
I called the vet on a Monday morning and made the appointment to bring Passion in for euthanasia. No, I didn’t need to be present. Yes, I did want to bring her body home to bury her. No, I didn’t want to purchase the cardboard coffin. Yes, I would like the free personalized clay footprint. It costs seventy-five dollars and eighty cents to euthanize a chicken.
How far should we go to keep things alive, whether they are memories or hopes or hens? I can still picture Adele on her couch, surrounded by books that offered spiritual guidance and stories of divine intervention, stacks of holy relics and prayer cards donated by her church. Her rosary was never far away. She believed that she would be saved by a miracle, and there were evenings that I left her home believing it, too. And when she died on that cold gray day and was buried on an even colder one, my grief for Adele was the weight of a thousand unspent days of friendship — the dog training, the egg sharing, the antique shopping that we planned and promised each other while a thriving cancer carried a cruel secret around inside her body. Hard, undulating grief that appeared while I sorted through the collected keepsakes for her new home that had been staked out even as the imperceptible dying began. Grief that collected in my throat while Passion wasted away and skated though my lips when I argued with my new husband over his dusty vestiges.
It’s summer now. The sun sets more reluctantly than at any other time of the year, and as it slowly drops behind the canopy of live oaks and crepe myrtles, my remaining twelve hens drift nearer and nearer to the coop, pecking and scratching along in a lazy, singular unity. I feel so strongly about these hens. As oblivious as they are to love and anything else that is neither food nor peril, they seem to carry with knowing authority the solutions to all mysteries, as our solutions are somehow in rosary beads, old pots, and June bugs. If they miss Passion, they don’t show it. Somewhere between earthworms and hawks, they carry on, finding the best spots for dust baths and squabbling over the grapes I feed them from my hand, until they inevitably make it home as the sun sets. And rather than leave an empty space where Passion once perched on the roost, they will scoot closer to each other and fill it in, knowing that the world goes on and knowing — announcing, maybe, as Mary Oliver would say — their place in the family of things.
Lisa Meaux was born and raised in south Louisiana where she shares her home and life with her husband, two dogs, and a flock of ten hens. Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Slice Magazine, and Blood Orange Review. Her fiction piece, “The Property,” was also nominated for the 2008 StorySouth Million Writers Award for Fiction.