Last night we visited Martha to report on Elihu’s first week of Waldorf. She herself was a supporter of his going there, and he was excited to sing “Simple Gifts” to her, as he’d learned it in his class and knew it to be her favorite song. I could now better explain why Martha’s farm had been named “A Place Just Right” from the lyrics of that song. As we turned into her driveway I slowed and pointed out the sign in front of the large farmhouse. He was pleased to now know from where it came. “What are those two clumps underneath the letters?” he asked. I told them they were clusters of grapes, they represented the vines that our friend Mike and Uncle Andrew had been planting in the fields there over the past few years (in anticipation of selling them to New York state winemakers.) We had a sweet visit, which ended with Elihu pooping out and laying on the floor, using hound dog Maisie’s tummy as a pillow. Uncle Andrew showed up to help Martha with her evening routine and after Elihu showed off his rubber band powered helicopter to my brother, we hugged Martha goodbye and set off for home.
It was a later night than we would have liked, as we tacked on a quick visit to my folks before going home and having a late supper. That’s the danger of a leisurely rising on the weekend; it’s a bit harder to get to back to a school night schedule. We were both glad that I’d cooked earlier, because dinner was quick and easy. Then it was off to bed, where we finished our book and then turned out the light.
This morning I awoke earlier than Elihu, and sleepily rose to attend to my chores. I thought since it had been a late night, I’d let him sleep a bit while I went to the cellar to feed and water the chicks. I guess I was too groggy to notice the absence of the now familiar and constant cheeping of the tiny guys, because the first thing I noticed that seemed different from usual was a glob of some unidentifiable substance on the concrete floor. Water? No. Pinkish, but gel-like. What was it? Then my heart stopped. No noise. Nothing. I knew before I even saw the three tiny mangled chicks on the floor what had happened. I’d opened the cellar door the afternoon before to let in some fresh air, but in our late night had forgotten to close it again. I’d remembered to close it every goddam day but yesterday. My heart sank to my toes. No matter how many times this happens, it’s always just heartbreaking.
I kept it to myself and tried to steer the morning away from chores. Usually Elihu would have run downstairs first thing to see his beloved chicks, but even he was moving a little slow this morning, so we had a mellow breakfast in the kitchen with the electric heater purring alongside us. I drove him to school where he ended up needing a quick session with the nebulizer in the school office (something his old school would never have allowed) before he went up to join his class. I returned home to clean up.
We’d had six baby chicks, but I could find only three. After I began to pay closer attention to the mess, I detected two other blood-stained sites where another pair had met their demise. At least that what it looked like – it was hard to tell for sure. I found three distinct pairs of feet, so I’m just guessing about the rest. One must have been carried off, for there was no evidence at all of the last chick. I tossed what was left of their bodies (the heads are almost always ripped off when they’re killed by wild animals) far into the woods to prevent my grown hens from snacking on the bodies. Why did this matter to me? I wondered to myself. Protein is protein. I was returning them to the woods for some other critter to eat anyway. Silly the rules we make for ourselves, crazy the ways we assign meanings to things.
Last few days Elihu has been watching some pretty horrible and graphic films on Youtube about factory chicken farming. Originally I’d wanted to discourage him – I myself certainly couldn’t watch along side him – but in the end he’d said to me quite seriously that he had to know about this. He wanted to know the truth. I’ve been bringing up the conversation about us making a solid effort to be vegetarians for a long time now – in fact I myself hardly eat meat anymore. I love it, but I make it for Elihu alone. He knows this, and lately he’s been wrestling with it. Facebook is full of ‘shares’ showing graphic images of the factory farming industry. It’s a discussion that is unavoidable in my immediate world. And my son is just beginning to think more deeply about this himself, and I’m glad to know it. We’ve also discussed the possibility of eating only the chickens that we ourselves raise. I point out to him that in most parts of the world, meat is not consumed as it is here; people eat far less of it as it’s not so cheap and abundant in other places as it is here. I tell him that part of the reason we’re used to eating so much meat here in America is because it’s affordable for us. Why? Precisely because of the brutal factory-raising of these creatures. It’s possible for us westerners to eat meat in large quantities specifically because of the inhumanity with which we raise these animals. Elihu is deeply conflicted. He loves meat. He really does. Must be something to the blood-type thing, I don’t know. But he seems to crave it. I love meat too, but can go weeks without it. Not Elihu. And so he is beginning to grapple with this. His thinking has essentially come to this: if we do not eat meat in a respectful and grateful way (offering prayers of thanks to the animal for her life before we eat) then we are simply letting the animal be consumed by less thoughtful, less thankful people. Essentially, she will have lived and died this horrible life in vain because there was no one to appreciate her life, no one to redeem this horrible event. I get it. And he means it. He’s not trying to create a weak justification for eating meat. I know what he means. But still.
Just now my work was interrupted by a sound I know well. I can often hear the chirping of my hens just outside the basement windows, but they’re never this loud. Besides, it’s raining out today, and even if they were just outside I wouldn’t hear them like this. I stop and listen. That’s a chirping sound – I know that sound! That’s not a grown chicken, that’s the sound of a chick! But now? After hours of silence? I’ve been in my office over an hour and have heard nothing. Could it possibly be?
In a word, yes. Somehow this little creature managed to escape the attack. It had had the sense to hide, to quiet itself, to wait until the danger had passed. And upon seeing me, it came directly towards me, peeping its hunger, its fear, its relief. How lucky this tiny bird was – is – for it is perched upon my shoulder, quiet now after some food and drink. I marvel at how this creature seems to understand that I will give it safety, that it needn’t fear me. Amazing. I don’t want to anthropomorphize this little chick – it’s obviously nothing personal that it has found comfort with me – but nonetheless there is something very touching, very moving about its show of trust. I feel a sense of connection with this creature.
Wouldn’t you know – I began to hear another cheeping sound. I searched in vain for a good half hour as I simply could not pinpoint the location of the second lost bird. Finally I asked a friend to come over and help me look. After more searching, and even giving consideration to making a hole in a wall to see if it hadn’t somehow become trapped inside, another chick suddenly emerged from behind the shelf on which my LPs were stored. Wow. Once the two chicks were reunited, all peeping ceased. So that’s some relief. Two little ones remain. Although Elihu has weathered this kind of loss before without even shedding a tear, I’d feared today’s loss might hit him harder. Something just told me there’d be tears of heartbreak today. There may yet be, but having these two survivors somehow softens the loss. And it has me even more conflicted about continuing to turn a blind eye to the horrors of treating animals as if they had no feelings. Chickens experience pain and fear. They also experience peace and comfort. This I know.
The first survivor emerges…
The chick takes a rest…
and peeps to its lost sibling…
Finally, the two survivors are reunited.