Monday, July 28, 2008

Toast to Two Good Chickens

Our neighbor Gene is an urban chicken farmer. Actually his skills are not limited to chickens; he farms turkeys and ducks as well. "The fowl trifecta," Tobin calls it with equal parts envy and admiration.

Seattle City Code allows 3 fowl per standard city lot. Gene laughs in the face of this code. He thumbs his nose at it! He pecks and scratches at its limitations! At various times over the last few years, he's had 20 turkeys, 10 ducks, and 8 chickens. Don't worry, these chickens aren't abused. There's a fair bit of free-rangin' going on, with chickens learning to check both ways before they cross the road (note the exercise of restraint on my part here-- ah, the jokes I could make!)

My children are friends of these fowl. Gene calls us whenever he gets a new batch of birds. He wants my kids to hold, touch, and tame the birds, so that they are used to being around people. He wants the birds to be good neighbors, which seems an obvious-enough goal when one considers that a call from a distgruntled one (neighbor, that is, not bird) could muster the city's Farm-Animal SWAT-team to his home (with, in my imagination, the Simpson's Chief Wiggum at the helm).

It's tricky business, though, this bird-loving that my children do. For these birds are not exactly pets. Their existence is less tenuous than that of their factory-produced counterparts; still, they come with an indistinct expiration date. Gene likes his paella, heavy on the chicken.

Last week Gene announced his intentions, and with good, sound reasons. Two of the chickens--Blacky-White and Whitey-White-- who were but wee chicks last Spring, had not been properly sexed. It turns out they are not hens, which are allowed by city code, but are males, which are strictly verboten. They spent each morning, afternoon, and night joyfully announcing their manhood to the neighborhood without one thought about the dire consequences. Thus, Blacky-White's execution date was scheduled, along with that of three old hens who were no longer producing eggs. Gene didn't mention Whitey-White, and so we assumed his death sentence had been postponed. This made sense, at least for Eleanor, who reminded us that Whitey-White hadn't "gotten his crow yet."

The death-day approached, and we stopped by Blacky-White's coop in order to pay our last respects. The girls collected worms from our compost pile and presented them to Blacky-White as a token of their friendship; the chicken equivalent of a prisoner's last meal. The girls blew iridescent bubbles, filling Blacky-White's head with visions of beauty on his last day here on Earth. At Eleanor's prompting, we took some photos so we'd "never forget our friend Blacky-White."

Later that day, Eleanor said coolly that she wasn't sad that Blacky-White was going to be killed. "Gene promised to give me some of his tail feathers," she explained. I was surprised she was coping so well.

The execution day arrived.

Tobin went with Eleanor and Sylvia to check on the extraction of the promised tail-feathers.

They returned home immediately, Sylvia looking dazed, and Eleanor crying hysterically.

Eleanor threw herself into my arms, where the following conversation ensued:

Eleanor: "Gene killed Whitey-White AND Blacky-White, Mama! It isn't fair! He didn't tell us that Whitey-White was going to be killed!" (sob)

Me: "Oh honey, this is a terrible surprise! You weren't prepared for this."

Eleanor: "We didn't even get to say goodbye to him. He didn't even get any worms to eat. His chicken friends will wonder where he's gone and they won't know! They will miss him!"

Me (In my head): Well, I'm pretty sure his chicken friends have figured out what happened to him, since they most likely saw him get the axe. I'm hoping there's no room in their little pea-brains for compassion or empathy.

Me: (Out loud): "I'm sorry you didn't get to say goodbye to him. That's really hard. Poor little sweetie. But I have a feeling that you'll miss him more than his chicken friends will. Chickens don't think about much other than pecking food, scratching dirt, drinking water, and roosting."

Eleanor: "But why didn't Gene tell us about Whitey-White? It isn't fair! Whitey-White didn't even have his crow yet!" (more sobs)

Me: (Choking back tears of my own seeing Eleanor in such despair): "I don't know honey. I don't know. But I think that Whitey-White had a good life. He had food, water, a nice coop, lots of bugs and worms to eat, and he earned the love of two little girls."

And so, please join us today as we raise our milk-cups to toast Blacky-White and Whitey-White, two good chickens. May their coop always be filled with bubbles.


bgirl said...

beautifully written wonder-mama!
wow, such amazing lessons and experiences your kids are having, just outside your front door, and evidently inside as well.

Alicia said...

What a very sad experience for the kids! They are learning about death at such a young age and show such compassion and empathy. My heart breaks with them.

Here's to the chickens!

BTW: I'm so glad to see two posts w/in two days! I've so missed your blog postings over the busy summer.

jen said...

oh babe. i see my future and it is already painful!

Little Monkies said...

Your farm experience as a child right there in the city...a painful, but beautiful world.

Love you!

Kate said...

glasses raised. My kids have friends who raise chickens, and so we can relate to the horror of realizing exactly what it means to be eating chicken on our plates....My nine year old went total vegetarian-- between the chickens and me reading Charlotte's Web when he was five. oops.

slouching mom said...

i actually think it's an interesting -- maybe even valuable? -- learning experience for your girls, even when pain and sorrow enter into the mix now and then.

thanks for sharing this.

and i agree with alicia -- i love all of this posting you're doing!

Arlene Winn said...

To the friendship of Blacky White and and Whitey White.

To the fun of Tail Feathers.

To a life lesson in a smaller dose.

Thank you for writing Allyson!

Kendra Joy said...

Wow! Two posts in one week! I've never been so thrilled! :)

And two very real, honest, and deep posts at that (in typical Zone Family style).

At this point I'm glad I didn't personally meet Blacky-White and Whitey-White while I was there. I might have been a mess too upon hearing of their execution!

Amy said...

Loved this. This is the kind of creative non-fiction writing I want to do and that's so much fun. We only have so many stories of our own and it's fun to go outside of our own world and tell someone else's. You're great at it.

Christina said...

Haiku for Blacky-White and Whitey-White

Bubbles fill their coop
At sunrise, two roosters crowed
Sunset is quiet.

Seattle Mamacita said...

I absolutely loved this!!had a giggle you told this so well but I also heard a little bit of Fern from charlotte's web in Eleanor's voice...those early lessons about life and death are hard...

itsgderic said...

Haha lovely story. I remember right before we slaughtered them, I read them the Celtic prayer of deep peace which is:
"Deep peace of the running waves to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the infinite peace to you."

which is cute, but I think it does more to sooth the conscience of those holding the axe when axe swinging isn't entirely necessary or life dependent. Learning to cope with death through animals is pretty interesting, and in a way prepares us for the departure of our human contemporaries.