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August 18, 2009

Everyone hated the chickens. The way they moulted and crapped and scratched with their terrible red feet. The birds’ stupidity was most provoking. There was always a chicken or two lost in the barn and squawking for rescue, or one wedged beneath the stile. Even the farmer thought they were a bunch of rotten hens, but this was as it should be – as their executioner, it was best he not grow attached. Once they plumped up from chicks to stout, white hens, the farmer no longer saw them as fowl but as supper, smoking on the grill, and as income, propelling toward retirement. He’d spent his life surrounded by silos, tractors, livestock and hay, and barring any surprises, would finish his life that way. The farmer was a farmer; those rugged implements, backdrop to his days. So, too, the scalding tanks, chunky knives, cleavers and assorted tools of poultry slaughter. Facts of life.
Another fact: the farmer’s life wasn’t easy, though he could proudly call it simple. Except for when others made it complicated. Each summer, his five young nieces migrated from city to farm to breathe the fresh air and to help his wife with her pickles and jam. At least, that was the idea. Instead, the girls tumbled from the car then scattered, a few to the orchard to gorge on pears, the rest to hunt kittens in the barn. Along with their luggage in shades of yellow and pink, the girls brought high voices and high drama to the farm. They weren’t sucks, but one would skin a knee or bark a shin hopping the fence, another would grass-stain her favourite pants, and now and then, they’d demand the farmer settle some crazy fight. There were tears for this, and tears for that, and always, always, the girls shed tears for the chickens. Chickens they refused to touch and hated to eat.
It was the same thing every summer. The farmer believed his nieces were delicate flowers in need of tougher pollen, so chores were assigned, shit was shoveled, animals were pointed out in the pasture and later, on the plate. “It takes a smart girl to get a chicken’s beak and feet off and cook it up delicious,” he’d declare, while the girls toyed with their meals and asked for more milk. Chats like this took the shine off the farm and made the nieces pine for home. This year, they’d get their wish: their visit would be cut short, but it wouldn’t be the farmer’s fault. No, the farmer would lay blame where it belonged, squarely on Lemonade. Because, of course, the farmer exaggerated just a little – not quite everyone hated the chickens. His wife, Lucille, was practically in love with the damned rooster.
Lemonade wasn’t an attractive bird. His feathers were dull as mud, a shade of brown that took the fun out of everything. He was short two toes from an incident with a reluctant hen, and his ruff looked mangy and plucked. At least he wasn’t mean – the neighbour’s rooster was always driving someone up a tree – but, in the farmer’s opinion, Lemonade’s temperament was the worst part. The rooster wasn’t really anything. He was Lemonade, a lady’s drink, watery and weak. Content to scuffle amongst the dumber chickens, eyes to the ground seeking feed. And, when he wasn’t eating or strutting, he’d ride in Lucille’s arms like a docile old cat. Gathering the bird like a loaf, she’d tuck him in the crook of her elbow, cooing and stroking his feathers and peppering his back with sharp little slaps. The rooster’s eyes would close like wrinkly leather shades and his comb would shake like a disgusting, livid dumpling. “Oh yes, Lemonade,” Lucille would prattle, “You’re a pretty, pretty boy, aren’t you?” It brought out the farmer’s arms in goosebumps and he couldn’t decide if he was more revolted by the likeness of his own skin to poultry, or his wife sweet-talking a cock.
Under Lucille’s affections, Lemonade, like the five nieces, grew lax and shiftless, shirking his morning crow to lounge in the coop until Lucille arrived to collect eggs. Cued by her voice soothing the brooding hens, Lemonade would splay his toes and twitch one leg then the other – shake shake stretch stretch – then settle at Lucille’s feet. From across the yard, the farmer watched his wife tickle the rooster’s spine with her chubby fingers. Even if he’d spent a long day hauling hay, Lucille never stroked him that way, not even when hinted and groaned and clutched at his back. The farmer could go mad with these thoughts, so he did his best to quell them with chores and chicken feed and smokes in the shed. Mostly, he did a good job forgetting Lemonade, but then came the nieces, who shook his routine and his resolve. By the time the girls packed for home, Lemonade would rise in the farmer’s esteem from rival to hero, but those events were safely stowed in August. Now, the season was inching into July and the nieces had just come sprinting up the drive.
For all their fussing, the girls were quick to settle on the farm, each claiming a bunk in the loft. Three girls up top, two down below, with promises to rotate every third sleep. The empty bunk housed a growing collection of debris, things the girls collected like midway prizes: special rocks, long feathers, shriveled flowers, and a branch shaped exactly like a lady dancing. Abandoning their sunhats the second day, their cheeks freckled up nicely, and the one with hay fever developed a funny pink crease above the ball of her nose from swiping upward with her palm.
The farmer accused the sniffly one of being full of more trouble than snot, though to hear her sneezing, he wasn’t sure some days. Between swipes at her nose, she egged her sisters on to feats of daring, most of which concerned varieties of barnyard dung. They’d begin with who could draw the biggest breath without gagging from the manure then ramp up to grosser trials. Crap in the pasture was a lucky find and they’d poke at it with sticks, shrieking with grossed-out delight as they foraged and drilled. This game, like most they favoured, would end when one girl dissolved in tears, the target of an carelessly flicked stick. Lucille would smooth things with a biscuit and fresh shirt for the crier and a stern look for the flicker, then hustle the nieces back outdoors. “Do something helpful, for pete’s sake,” she would scold, “but be sure and leave your uncle be.”
The girls hardly needed cautioning in that regard. Hang around idle and their uncle would have them holding pails while a chicken got its guts out, or would distribute rakes and instructions to smooth out the gravel in the yard. Their uncle was a bottomless well of chores, and the chores? Always disgusting. More disgusting, even, than a field full of cattle poo. The nieces were “disgusted” by everything that summer, this expression replacing last year’s habit of tacking “you know?” onto the end of each sentence. The girls were experts at turning up their noses, and the farm gave them plenty to practice on. Country smells that choked and gagged, hay bales churning with mice, muck fused to sneaker soles, spiders traversing the toilet seat like a mean surprise. Messy sap in the orchard, burrs snarled in long hair, the musty smell that blanketed the farmhouse and made everything smell old. Most of all, they crumpled their noses at the chickens, but, like cats drawn to peril, they couldn’t get enough of the birds.
They’d approach the coop in a tight clutch, jostling to stay one girl back from first. Then, the allergic one would start on the others: who’ll take the most steps into the pen alone? Who’s brave enough to poke an arm up the coop hatch? When Lucille comes with her basket, will anyone retrieve a fresh egg from beneath a hen’s ruffled bum? These dares wound up the girls, and they wound up the chickens, and the birds remained testy long after the farmer declared the hen house off limits. The hens’ unease wasn’t lost on Lemonade, who considered the nieces an affront to his station and competition for Lucille’s attention. The rooster puffed and blustered and kicked at the gravel. If Lucille regarded the girls or the rooster a little more critically, she might’ve detected the link between the girls’ games and Lemonade’s discontent. But, that just wasn’t Lucille. She loved the nieces and the bird with a heart as doughy as the arms Lemonade liked to nuzzle. As the girls bickered and Lemonade soured, Lucille grew more doting, spoiling the nieces with biscuits and the rooster with rides in her arms.
Summer wore on. It wore on the calendar, where August arrived; it wore on the farmer’s patience, which had never been generous; it wore on the nieces, who were out of gross contests to pad their days. And, summer wore on Lemonade, whose already troubled plumage dipped from dull to bedraggled. While July had blazed, August clouded over to deliver endless rain. The girls transferred their boredom indoors, scuttling around in old rubber boots and ratty vests, and daring one another to stick a hand in that crawlspace or slowly limbo under a cobweb. One bonked her head doing a gymnastics move between two bunks, and another ran a two-inch splinter into her heel sliding down the attic ladder. Lucille used the poor weather to catch up on her pickles, and Lemonade, poking his comb from beneath the barn’s shelter, pined for Lucille with his rusty whine. Half-mad from the clamour and the smell of brine, the farmer installed himself in the shed, mechanically raising cigarettes from hip pocket to lip.
One rare Thursday, the clouds broke and a swath of blue spread across the sky. Cicadas droned and Lucille made haste, laying the table for lunch in the orchard. The nieces set to arguing, pissy from the long string of days inside. They shuffled and shoved on the picnic bench, drilled fingers in one another’s sandwich bread, and pretended to backwash in the pitcher of juice. Then, in a turn of generosity, they offered to clear the table, probably banking good behaviour against whatever fights broke out later. Relieved of the dishes, Lucille wiped her hands on her thighs, huffed out stale air, then headed for the coop. “Come on, Lemonade,” Lucille coaxed. “We’re overdue for our walk.”
The sun hung like a bright bulb as she set off through the pear trees, Lemonade restored to her arms and muttering his content. At the orchard’s border, they followed a rutted path toward the meadow, crickets springing as Lucille brushed the long grass. The trail was mucky from so many wet days, and Lucille picked along carefully, watching for hazards on the ground and missing what was happening overhead. And so she was caught when a fresh storm zipped the meadow to the sky. Lucille cupped Lemonade to her chest and ran as best she could, squeezing little bleats from the rooster with each step. Already, the path was a river so Lucille veered left toward the trees. Perfect shelter from the thunder, which rolled out of the north like fast boulders.
Lucille came to dreaming of dinner, a smoky aroma strong in her nose. Her muscles felt coddled and uncooperative and something tickled her brow. It had been a direct hit, which everyone would declare Lucille was lucky to survive. Clutched to her heart, the rooster absorbed most of the bolt, cooked right there in her arms. Little Lemonade, his modest brown feathers blasted and smoking, saved the farmer’s wife’s life. The farmer wasn’t sure what to make of this, and would grumble forever about the rooster that didn’t know its place. If not for Lemonade, Lucille might’ve stayed closer to the kitchen, tending to the lunch dishes instead of strolling with a bird. But after the nieces were hustled into their mother’s waiting car and the dust settled in the drive, after Lucille’s scorched palm healed up nicely, and a new rooster came to strut in the yard, the farmer would slouch in his shed with a smoke, and privately thank goodness for Lemonade.
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