The Ambush

Yesterday was the first rainy day in many moons.  No field work, no chainsawing.  I knew I could not leave for long.  Not with Courtney, over 40 weeks pregnant, at school, potentially calling at any moment saying, “Come and get me!”

I beelined to the answering machine when I got home.  No dramatic blinking lights, though.  No good news of great tidings.  I recalled that the dog was a little weird in her welcoming me home.  I called her to come inside.  She did not come.  Strange again.

Stranger yet was the sight out the window in our bedroom: the chickens, spread across the chicken yard as usual, were not moving.  No, those could not be chickens.  They were…lumps of…something—something else.  But, though some 50 yards away, the truth was starting to sink in, like blood into straw.

As I followed Tierra, as if in a dream, to the scene, several alternative realities suggested themselves to me, and each successively was dismissed, crushed by reality.  The chicken-size shapes on the ground were not giant leaves.  They were not all taking deep dust baths in the rain.

Drifting closer and closer, dazed, I wanted to wake up, to open my eyes, turn over in bed, and try a different dream.  The silence and stillness was stark and surreal, the quietest space I had ever been.  Not a cluck, not a twitching feather interrupted the absence of sound.  No alarm clock clicked on to save the day.  The dog and I, stopped and stunned together, were in a sort of netherworld, a timeless lacuna, stuck between suffering and acting.

My feet somehow carried my swirling mind through the litter of carnage.  Facts of the massacre piled up like dirt filling in a grave: the fence pulled down, chunks of chickens missing, scalps of feathers strewn about.

Wishing for a miracle—for a fantasy—I rolled the stones away from the door of the coop.  The floor of straw litter was grey and black and wrong.  The home was quiet as a casket.  More broken, stiff bodies.  The bustling metropolis of a few hours before had turned to ghost town, echoing with only the silent screams of mangled spirits.  I had let my flock down.  I believe Tierra felt this too.

One of our two roosters, Bono, was our constant companion of almost five years, years of crowing his heart out every day like a rock star.  I could feel his last pangs of rage and honor.  I could feel also the mass panic and terror—desperation—that swept through the crowd of 60 hens, four-year olds, two-year olds and nine-month olds.  But mostly I felt the unsettling calm after the storm and my broken promise to protect my family.

How do I tell Courtney?  What if she sees this?  What do I do?  Where am I?

As I headed out of the coop, I heard a movement.  A shocked and awed Astralorp nervously fumbled in place atop a feed can in the corner.  I knew what she had seen and my heart broke for her.  I wanted to explain.  A big mistake.  I am so sorry.  My compassion and apologies stretched all round the war-torn world.  Whose eyes could ever recover from watching their family mercilessly murdered, one by one?  What would “I’m sorry” be worth?

My mind revolved around to the impending birth of the fully-formed life in Courtney’s belly, the overpowering polarity of life and death, the single heartbeat that divides the two, the eggshell fragility.  And the untold billions of bodies swallowed by time. 

 *                     *                     *                   *               

On April 16, 1998, spring break of junior year in high school, I was visiting my grandparents in Nashville.  My grandfather was out grocery shopping while my grandmother and I watched an old movie.  By the time we figured out that something sinister was happening and made it to the bathroom, the event was over.  The tornado, with winds up to 200 mph, had come and gone.  I witnessed a new world as I emerged from the house.  All was eerily still and uncannily changed.  The world, at that moment too, was unworldly.

Trees bowled over and strung about as if discarded children’s toys, including one atop my dad’s Camry I had driven and numerous ones crisscrossing the driveway and Rosebank Avenue.  With all the old, tall trees taken down, the quality and quantity of light in the sky was different.  The carport was gone, to later be found several back yards down the street.  It is a rare blink of the eye in which reality is profoundly altered, but, when it occurs, there is no rubbing one’s eyes and recovering the vanished vision.

I do not much trust my memory.  I am curious how long the stillness lasted.  However long, it existed enough to buoy my faith in black holes.  At some point, though, after an infinity, consciousness comes back on.  From the great void resumed the familiar sound of chainsaws, men and women talking, crying, strategizing.  The pieces were picked up, but could not entirely be put back in place.  It was some time before the roads were cleared, and eventually we heard from my grandfather.  And, luckily, he was all right and that much reality was restored.

*                *                  *                   *                    

Luckily, too, Bonnie was home yesterday afternoon.  The task before me—alone—seemed so huge.  When she opened her front door, I only had to utter, “I need your help,” and Bonnie sprang to action.  Together we gathered up all the birds, dead, dying, and alive but shocked.  In the end, we recovered 57 bodies, 13 of which were alive at last count, though they are still dropping.

John Grant helped me bag up my old friends.  Then the three of us went on a search party through the wet weeds and blowing rain.  I found a couple feathers leading to our neighbor’s place, and John and Bonnie saw their dog with a chicken in its mouth.  Tierra’s nose discovered a body in the tall grass behind their house.  By dark, the case was closed and we were drenched.

Later in the evening, Bonnie came back and we doctored the casualties.  She packed an antibiotic cream into the missing, maimed flesh and puncture holes, while I held the poor creatures in place.  In times of deepest distress, we survive by the power of courageous human kin who pick up the chainsaws, or don the rubber gloves and fighting spirit, and pack the wounds and care for the living.  What would we do without angels?

 *                 *               *                  *                 

I believe in the opening of eyes.  I believe in instantaneous transformations.  I believe that the very walls around us can collapse, and, so long as we have community, the beautiful human spirit will rise up from the rubble, bridge the broken bones and troubled waters, and rebuild, one precious life at a time.

Yesterday, when all the surviving chickens had turned up, save one, I was heading to the house from the coop again when I espied a mirage-like shape in the distance by the house.  Soaked and a few feathers missing, there stood Little Richard, our other rooster, bewildered-looking, making his way back to his ravaged home.  My heart leapt up when I beheld him.  A humble triumph.  Thanks be for survivors.

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