It started as a simple comment, but for Linford, a comment is a prelude to action.
“We need some more animals around here,” he said in the middle of an ordinary conversation.
And I said, “The dogs and the fish aren’t enough?”
He gave me his squelching look. “We have all this land. It would be a shame for our children to grow up without animals.”
“Well, we have deer and raccoons and skunks and bears and mice. We definitely have mice. They don’t count?”
Apparently, they didn’t.
A day or a few later, he brought it up again as we swapped places at the bathroom sink, the give-and-take bedtime ritual instinctive after nearly a decade together. “We need some more animals around here. You have any thoughts on it?”
And I said, “No?”
That thought didn’t count.
Another time, out of context, he said, “I thought you like animals.”
“I do,” I said. “But animals mean work. The children will be excited about them for a few weeks, and then it’s just another chore to enforce.”
“It will teach them responsibility.”
And I thought, Hope springs eternal.
Yes, I really am that sarcastic. And that much of a squelcher. I am a bad woman and a worse wife.
Then there was that time I caught him looking at chicks online.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Well, don’t let the girls see you, or you’ll never hear the end of it.” I propped an arm on his shoulder.
“I found a kind that are supposed to be so friendly they’re more like family pets. Speckled Sussex.”
He made a few inquires over the next weeks, but none of the hatcheries had Speckled Sussex chicks available at the time. I thought that might be the end of it.
But he is as relentless as a glacier. He started collecting information on chicken coops.
“You are serious, aren’t you?” I asked, looking at the flyers he picked up at a home and garden show.
“I am,” he said. “The children need more animals, and we have all this space. It’s a shame to have only two dogs and a fish. I don’t know why you’re dragging your feet so much.”
It wasn’t chickens I objected to. It was the elephant that the chickens represented.
When I was a child, I loved a book called But No Elephants. It told the story of Grandma Tildy, who lived alone until a traveling pet salesman appeared at her door with a menagerie. Grandma Tildy allowed herself to be talked into a canary companion. As she took the bird, she eyed the largest pet in his collection and said, “But no elephants.”
(Of course there’s an elephant for sale. This is a children’s book. Every child wants a pet elephant.)
It was inevitable. Grandma Tildy, after acquiring numerous other pets, eventually owned that elephant, the salesman recognizing a softy when he sees one. But when all seems lost and Grandma Tildy and her pets are doomed to destruction because of the elephant, the elephant saves the day in a spectacular fashion. They all lived happily ever after.
But that is a storybook. In real life, the chickens lead to sheep, the sheep lead to goats, the goats lead to a donkey, the donkey leads to llamas, and the llamas lead to a cow that I have to get up and milk at 4:30 every morning. And the cow does not save the day. It kicks and balks and slaps a mucky tail at anyone brave enough to squat beside it.
So it wasn’t the chickens I had a problem with. It was the elephants I saw marching in the distance.
Linford found a hatchery out of state that would ship ten chicks to our door. He ordered them and then made a Family Announcement. The cheers deafened the neighbors, I’m sure.
And I said, “Where are you going to keep them? We don’t have a chicken coop.”
“In the garage,” he said. “We’ll put some sawdust in a box and set up a heat lamp.”
I could just see it. Our main entrance is through our garage. (We have a strange house. Someday, I might tell you about it, if I can get over my worry of repeating King Hezekiah’s mistake.) I had no trouble imagining the sawdust tracked into the house, the spilled water and feed, the trouble with keeping Micah from hugging the chicks to death, the—
“They’re going to make the garage stink,” I said. “All hens?”
“No, I got straight run.”
And I said, “We’ll probably have eight roosters. I hate roosters.”
Jenica asked, “Why do you hate roosters?”
“I hate what they do at 4:30 in the morning.”
Her eyes got big. “What do they do at 4:30 in the morning?”
“They crow. Loudly.” I looked at Linford. “What are we going to do with all the roosters?”
“If we have roosters, we’ll butcher them. You’d like some young chicken, wouldn’t you?”
My eyes got big. “You’d butcher their pets? Oh, that will go over well. And what’s this about “we” butchering?”
Excitement pulsated in the air. The box, the feeder, the waterer, the light—all was made ready for the babies’ arrival. My builder brother was appointed to build a chicken coop.
The chicks came when I was at the writers’ conference. The girls told me all about them on Friday evening while I drove to my lodgings.
“Oh, Mom.” Even through the phone, Jenica’s voice held the softness and wonder of new love. “They are so adorable. They are brown and black and yellow. They look so funny when they take a drink.”
“They are so tiny,” Tarica said, her voice high and sweet. “They say peep, peep, peep when we hold them.” She stopped and giggled. “One of them pooped on Jenica’s school dress, but she washed it off.”
I had forgotten to complain about that detail in advance.
On Saturday morning, I talked to Linford. He said, his voice a little weary, “The girls were up at quarter after seven to see the chicks. One of them died during the night. Jenica didn’t take it well.”
This is what comes of loving animals. Unless it’s a Aldabra Giant Tortoise, it dies before you do. My softhearted daughter would be shedding more tears before this was over.
I arrived home late Saturday afternoon. I walked into the garage, arms laden, and stopped beside the box of chicks. They darted about the box, startled by my arrival. I lowered my bags to the floor and crouched down.
The fuzzy fluffball nearest me cocked its head and studied me with a bright eye.
And it said, “Peep?”
And I said—oh, this is embarrassing—I said, “Hey, there, little peep. Aren’t you the cutest little thing?” I scooped it up, felt its sharp feet pushing against my fingers, its heartbeat against my thumb. “Don’t be scared. I won’t hurt you.”
Just call me Grandma Tildy.