We live on a hill. The tops of the trees descend down its steep banks revealing a view of the lands beyond and to the southeast. There are two main layers to the many subtle strata of horizons; the darker ridge in the foreground are the low-lying hills just to the east of the Hudson river, the paler profile behind are the much larger Green Mountains of southern Vermont. I love to look out over the vast scape and contemplate the land on the ‘other side’. I picture the countryside’s bucolic scenes, the tiny farms and undulating topography. I don’t often have reason to drive there, for it’s a haul just to reach the foothills – a commitment of 50 miles there and back – so when I have a quest east of the Hudson, my heart quickens at the thought.
Yesterday, Elihu and I had a reason to cross the wide river valley and explore the hills beyond. I should have been excited, but I was not. It was raining and I’d forgotten my hat, I’d not slept more than three hours the night before and I discovered my driver’s license was not in my pocket but probably still at home in my purse (farmer business does not include a purse; important items are transferred to the interior ‘man’ pocket of my farm jacket). After having a little talk with myself, pointing out how there was no benefit to remaining angry, I managed to coax myself out of the pissy mood that had been incubating for the first ten miles of our wet commute. This was our Big Day, and I’d do us both right by just dropping it and welcoming the adventure that awaited us on the other side of the Hudson. We were going to the Fall tailgate poultry sale at the Schaghticoke (say SCA tih coke) fair grounds to find hens for our red golden pheasant, Timothy, whom we’d just purchased the week before. As she does quite often for us, the angel of serendipity came to our assistance that night as we stared in disbelief at our new avian acquisition by placing one Jim De Graff, former zoo owner and breeder of exotic pheasants, in our path. He’d told us about the bird sale this weekend. We were lucky; this event happened just twice a year. He was nearly 100% sure we’d find just what we were looking for. That he could be so sure that we’d find these hens was an indication to me that we were in for some serious, bird-intense sub-culture. We’d waited anxiously all week this very morning. This very rainy morning. Oh well, this was going to be fun no matter what I’d forgotten to bring, no matter what the weather. As Elihu sat in the back seat enthusiastically playing air drums to the radio, his face radiating joy, I began to lighten up too.
Driving south on State Route 40 from Greenwich to Schaghticoke is like driving through a model train set layout. The farms are tidy, complete with outbuildings and vintage tractors, hooved animals and ponds. There is a new scene to be admired around every curve, at the crest and valley of every hill, plus each scene has an expansive view to the west of the great Hudson river valley lands beyond. The forested hills rise to our left as we continue south towards the mysterious convocation of bird lovers. The road winds and winds. Elihu, not usually a child who asks ‘when will we be there?’ (as he thrives on the times when he’s left to live in imagination, something his near-sighted eyes promote on long car trips) finally does. Thankfully, I spy the town’s water tower ahead, and I can tell him we’re almost there.
When we pull in to the fair grounds, we see a makeshift village of tents and awnings. I’d hoped the event might be indoors, and later I discover some of it is, but the bird sales are out in the open. Hmm. Just how wet will we be getting? I wonder. Looking around the car, I find a broken dollar store umbrella and so no longer lament my missing hat. Elihu throws his hood up, we park in the first space of grass we see, and we’re out the door.
Each vendor has backed his vehicle to the gravel drive, rows of cages and boxes spread out on the grass. The breeds are identified by hand-written labels now folding in on themselves in the rain. Some birds are sheltered by newspapers on top of their cages, some are not. Ducks crowd into the corners of their wire cages sopping up the new puddles with a rapid-fire quivering of their bills. The most elegant breeds of chickens are sodden and sorry looking. Thankfully, the customers here can see past the cosmetic handicaps that the day has cast on these birds; every last person here knows his birds, dry or wet. Just like us, everyone here has come looking for a bird, most folks for one specific breed in particular. The very first tent we come upon has game birds of some sort. Two round women in their later years sit on old fashioned lawn chairs while their cigarette smoking husbands in red and black checkered flannel shirt jackets stand in front, greeting passersby. I wonder if it could possibly be this easy. It’s not a huge place, but there have to be at least thirty vendors. As we get closer, I can see these birds are in the right neighborhood – the shape is close, their movements are quick and timid… Could these be young pheasants? I tell the smoking man what we’re looking for. “Red Golden Pheasant hens, two of ’em.” He didn’t miss a beat, nor did he seem overly satisfied with himself that he just so happened to have two Red Golden hens right here in this box. “What?” I asked. “Red Goldens“, I repeated. “That’s what we’re looking for. And hens.” Yeah, he’d heard me. And they were, as he said, right here in this box. I peered in, and saw four brown somethings. Game birds, for sure. Females probably. “I got a Cinnamon too” he offered, holding the flaps open so I could get a better look. Wow. This was the place. Seriously, it was this easy? I asked the price, he told me $15 apiece. I remembered being advised not to pay more than $10 a head. I surveyed the grounds and wondered if there might not be dozens more red golden hens out there. But this was so perfect, and I was just talking about $10 here… I told the man I was interested, but had to look around for a bit. So Elihu and I went off to learn what this thing was all about.
We soon figured out the deal. While there was just about every type of outdoor domestic bird available for sale there, we noticed that there were not quite as many of some, and rather a glut of others. Some vendors had even sold their whole lot by this time and were packing up and heading out. I didn’t want to blow the whole reason for our trip, plus if we just got the hens bought and safely stowed in the car, then we were free to explore. Before we got too far into the flooded grounds, I turned back for the car. I told Elihu to wait at the pheasant man’s tent, I’d be back. I pulled up, paid for the gals and presented the farmer with our luxurious dog-sized kennel in the back. He wrestled the hens from the box, and placed them inside. They were a lot smaller than I realized, their bodies about ten inches long. There were so many questions I’d wanted to ask, but the rain had started up again and I just felt rushed. “They look young, our guy is mature already. Will that be ok?” I shouted over the noise. He nodded and assured me they’d be fine mates. Not much more I could do but continue with the adventure as it swept me along. There was more to see, more to learn, and as I’ve been saying to my dear son since he can remember “you never know until you go”. What we didn’t know about breeding pheasants we would learn as we went along.
I parked the car again and we were free to enjoy the rest of the morning. It seemed the breeds of the day were the Banties. Many vendors had them and lots of folks wandered through the grounds with the sweet-looking chickens in the crooks of their elbows. I guess the appeal of these miniature breeds is that they’re portable, easy-going and make nice pets. Elihu was able to smooch a few of these as they passed by. He was in heaven. In his element. Finally surrounded by people who felt just like him about birds. As a mother, you can imagine how pleased and thankful my heart was as I followed behind my son, watching him stop at each new cage as if it were the only reason we’d come. He was fit to burst and after a while I could not keep up with his wanderings. I’d stop to chat with folks, my quest for information on birds turning more into short interviews: Did these sales actually net them money? (No, not really.) Is this your business? (The layers pay for the rest of em.) Do you do this for a living? (Oh no – I’ve got a real job.) Is this a hobby? (Yes! No one here’s makin any money. This is a hobby. And it takes money!) Well then. I learned something important, that this was a hobby, not a rent-payer. Kinda discouraging (I’d begun to count my exotic pheasant chicks before they were hatched. Think of the money we could make selling them! Piece of cake!) and yet the bit about the layers was good to hear. Our layers had once made us money – until we began to lose them. Layers, wait… We need layers! I was shaken out of my bird-daze and came to my senses. We needed layers, and where better to find em then here? Screw the auction house! This was the fountainhead! I told Elihu our new agenda and we set off on our new quest.
After scouring the entire grounds we found but one vendor who had suitable laying hens. She had two fine looking Aracaunas, one single Barred Rock and a bunch of dark colored Leghorns. Five apiece for the Leghorns? Wow. Seemed we’d found a really good deal. As I learned from the woman selling a pair of Mute Swans, birds you buy at the auction house are likely to be questionable; sick perhaps, behaviorally challenged or some such deficit, usually the very reason they’re being sold to begin with. Here, these were all breeders, folks who sold healthy and well-loved birds. It made sense to buy our layers here if we could. It seemed we’d found our girls. The booth was just across from the food stand, and I thought it might be good if we had some lunch before we wrapped things up. If I hadn’t known it before, I learned it then. Not a good move. Shoulda paid for those birds to secure them before I walked off. After a quick lunch (I ate, he didn’t’) we returned to find the Leghorns gone. Elihu started to sniffle. While it is true that this is a breed he’s long talked about wanting, I still didn’t see the need for tears. Besides, if nothing else, this event had taught me a lesson, which made it worth the loss. Pay for something as soon as you know you want it. Got it. Next time. But for now we weren’t entirely let down; there were four fine hens remaining, two of which were the lovely looking Aracaunas. We paid for them and Elihu begged to move them himself – from the cage to our back seat bin. Elizabeth, the woman at the vegetable/hen stand easily agreed, and when she saw how handily Elihu removed the hens, restrained them, and transported them to his box she complimented him warmly. I watched, proud of my boy. If you’ve ever tried to handle and move a bird, you’ll get it. If you haven’t, all I can say is it’s a gift. Natural to some, unthinkable to others. Definitely takes a knack.
After placing our new hens in the car, I’d tried to back up and retrace our route, but a line of cars behind me changed that plan. Instead, I drove forward along the perimeter of the grounds, and we passed some more stands we’d not seen yet. Finding space on the lawn, I parked again so that we could make one last walkabout before taking our hens home. A long-haired woman stood beside a handful of cages in which a couple of ducks, a fuzzy miniature chicken and one very cramped goose stood in the rain, waiting to go home. I love a duck, I really do, so I just had to spend some time cooing to these guys. Elihu too loves a duck and in fact had talked for several weeks about having a Muscovy duck instead of a dog. We’d long felt an undefinable absence in our home (not filled by a parrot – we tried that – and for Elihu’s allergies unable to be satisfied by a cat) and had thought perhaps – especially since Elihu was eight – this was the right time for us to get a dog. While the idea seemed pleasing, it just didn’t sit right with me – or him. So, he’d somehow settled on the idea of Muscovy duck. We searched the internet for “Muscovy duck as pet” and found a story of a particularly endearing pet Muscovy duck named Archimedes which seemed to confirm for us that this was a definite possibility. So I had to visit the ducks. There was even a Runner duck – the strangest looking duck you ever did see. Long and thin necks, almost vertical as they stand, they just don’t look possible. While I love all creatures and find Runners interesting, I’m not a huge fan. And they certainly don’t look, well, pet-like. Smoochable. Whatever it is that makes a pet a companion and not just another animal. Then I catch eyes with someone. A large head cocks to the side and a marble-blue, orange-rimmed eye looks up at me. “A goose?” I ask, knowing it’s a goose, but waiting for the story that comes with it. “He’s the only American Lavender Ice you’ll find anywhere around here” she offers, beginning to fill me in.
My experience with geese is that they are not very nice. Definitely not smoochable. Not an animal you want to get your fingers anywhere near. However, this guy’s been bred to be friendly. See? She inserts a finger into the cage and wiggles it into his back. He seems to like it. ? This is a first. “He won’t bite me??” I ask, still very hesitant to test her on it. She assures me, laughing. I tentatively move a finger toward his bill. Not much happens. He ignores it, in fact. Really? Another first. I let her talk a bit about him, his breed, what makes him so unique. While that’s all good to know, what I want to know is is he really friendly, I mean really friendly? As in ‘companion-to-an-eight-year-old-boy’ friendly? She assures me. She goes on to tell me that her best friend growing up was a goose named ‘Lucy’. I say, yeah, fine, but a boy? A gander? Males play rough, right? She goes on to tell me that years later she was to learn that Lucy was actually a gander! (They re-named him ‘Lucipher’ because he didn’t like a certain guy in the neighborhood… I kinda let that one pass; it didn’t add to her pitch, and frankly, by now I wanted to be sold on this creature). His eyes, oh his eyes. The same sort of look as a duck, only more substance promised to live behind them. Or so I hoped. Geese lived long, right? Twenty years, some. They get along with chickens? Sure do. They used em as sentries in WWI, would they do the same for me? Yup, they guard the flock, ward off foxes, raccoons. Are you sure he doesn’t bite? Sure. I stood there just looking at him. Elihu danced around, telling me why he had to have the other ducks, beginning to create his campaign for bringing home a final, unplanned member of the flock. Little did he know I was way ahead of him.
“Ok.” I said. “I’ll take him.” Two other birders looked on and nodded approvingly as they stroked the Banties they held in their arms, telling me they’d do it too if they only could. (I could, right? Again, quick mental list – I’d told her about our accommodations and she’d thought they were fine) really, could we? Really? Wow. Who was piloting this ship?? Had I been overtaken by an irrational alter-ego?? Ok, I’d bought an exotic pheasant last week, his mates this week, a car full of hens, yeah ok, but a GOOSE?
“Oh ho! Oh boy!” Elihu leaped into the air and ran to the goose’s cage. “Max!!” he shouted, “you’re coming home with us!”. Max? Sure, why not? Everyone laughed. Kim, the woman who’d sold us the goose, had kindly offered to throw the tiny Silkie rooster in with the deal. She didn’t want to go back home with a rooster (yeah, I hear ya sister). She insisted that Elihu could show this lil guy in his 4H group at the fair – he could easily take the $100 blue ribbon prize. While that wasn’t necessarily a selling point for me (but still mildly compelling), the idea of a tiny bird that Elihu could easily take around with him – perhaps in the crook of his arm at the next fair in spring – was just icing on the cake. Why not? The little fluffy white chicken was docile, sweet and accommodating. Kinda like the bird version of a toy poodle. Perfect. Throw him in the car with the rest of em. Oh heck, he can ride on your lap, why not. After locating a box and shifting the cargo around some (again, praise for Elihu’s deft maneuvering of animals) we were ready to go.
Somewhere inside, I had a feeling our lives had changed forever. I went to Kim and hugged her – in light of the way she’d contributed to the new direction of our lives it felt absolutely natural. Whether the result of her effortless sales pitch or the next step of our destiny encouraged by subtle forces, our lives were now different, our family now larger.
Duck? No. Duck? No. Goose? Why not….
Post Script: While animal’s names are usually something we like to sit with for awhile and often don’t choose until after an animal has lived with us for a bit , ‘Max’ just seemed perfect from the first moment Elihu said it. His full name is Maximus, and it fits as he is the largest member of our flock.