Bye Bye Birdies

By Anna Mitchael

Moving on without leaving home

Every time one of our animals dies, I think about moving back to town. The city limits don’t protect against death, but there the delivery is different. Here we have more carcasses and vultures circling. Lately there has been a rash of literal foxes in the henhouse, vicious gypsies who cruise through while the moon is high. They leave trails of feathers and scare the remaining birds so badly that we wake to find the brood cowering on our front porch.

“They came to say hello,” my oldest will giggle, erupting with joy at our kinship with the animals.

My mothering skills are notoriously blurry before coffee. On Christmas Eve the timer for the coffee machine is as important as the reindeer carrots and Santa cookies.

“Sort of,” I manage to say.

“If they poop, we can clean it up!” he sings cheerfully. Partly because there is nothing a 4-year-old boy loves to sing about more than poop, and partly because he thinks the promise of a clean porch will quell my unease. I pour my coffee, eager to play along.

The roosters and chickens aren’t the only animals who die, but they are the ones I mourn the most. Our paths often cross and because we run low on people in these parts, from time to time I stop to chat with our fowl.

I’ve been told I should stop naming them. “Once you name them, it’s easy to get attached,” they say. Just once, I wish they would be wrong about something, but annoyingly, their advice is always spot on. There was one chicken who never got a name and when it passed, I felt less of a tug on my chest. But that lack of sadness troubled me. There are ways you want a country life to change you and ways you don’t. So, I continued with names. And on days the carnage is high, I romanticize returning to the city.

My plans aren’t very exciting — they include a house located so close to a grocery store that sometimes I might go there to purchase nothing but a gallon of milk. We’d have neighbors to borrow sugar from. Maybe kids who live close enough that mine could just run across the street to play.

I always thought the big, shiny parts of city life would be what I missed most. But concerts and restaurants with funny-sounding fusions pale in comparison to plain old predictability. I’m not being naive; I know there are plenty of vultures in the city. But when you’re examining the grass from the other side of the fence, you don’t take time to notice the black birds sailing through the downtown skyline.

A city dweller cannot guess when a pet might die. But just last month our family dog lost her left eye — and almost her life — in a face-off with a rattlesnake. When I lived in the city, I never guessed that would happen in the circle of life I touch. I still haven’t worked out a way to be at ease with the delicate dance that happens outside our front door — all this life and death.

When a creature goes to the big food trough in the sky, I usually give myself a chunk of time to think about leaving. When that is done, I go outside and sit with my one-eyed dog for a while, the two of us watching this unadulterated life pass by in measures of chicken steps and swaying trees and clouds passing by. Before long the grass on the other side of the fence — the grass plotted neatly in a suburban front yard — starts looking like less and less of a good idea.

“The city can wait,” I say to the dog. Because what is it they say? That once you have lived on the land and made it your own, once the fresh air is in your lungs and the freedom is in your blood, you can never truly leave.

My dog must agree because, plain as day, she gives me a wink.

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