There must have been something under Gabriel’s basket of folded laundry. It was tipped enough that each time I tossed the pair of socks into the pile, it bounced out and landed on the floor. I gave up after a while. I thought about a game at a tucked-away amusement park that we had discovered on a family vacation during a camping trip to the western states. If you played one of the games long enough, you just might figure out the trick that would lead you to a poly-stuffed monkey with an obscurely screen-printed face, this animal that you would carry proudly on your shoulders as you made your way to the Tilt-A-Whirl or the Himalaya as onlookers coveted such a grand carnival prize. I did not, though, know the trick to getting the socks to stay in the basket on this day. I had to pick them up from the floor, all the while wondering if this would be the last time I matched this boy’s socks before he moved to his own place.
I had three placement calls from DCFS last week: one for a fifteen-year-old girl, one for a twelve-year-old boy, and one for a five-year-old boy. Though we are over our capacity with a sibling waiver, these calls always leave me feeling a bit hollow, almost powerless to the grip of the unknown. Three young lives disrupted and uncertain…what is going to happen to these children?
Tending my chickens has become a form of therapy for me, right beside my longtime love of gardening and, more recently, the defining of my emotions through writing. I visit the chickens several times each day, to take care of them; to watch them scurry with curiosity toward me as I open the run to lure them outside with this morning’s treat: celery, leftover coffee cake, sunflower seeds, or a pinch of basil; to clean under the perches and to toss some fresh pine shavings into the coop. They are no longer just steps away from me at all times. They are growing, they have transitioned to their outside hen house, and soon I will be checking the nest boxes for the first prized egg. Much of the winter had been devoted to studying about chickens, and I knew my hens would teach me what I needed to know along the way. I wanted to be prepared. I would start with all girl chickens, for roosters will fertilize the eggs and can cause trouble, even becoming aggressive to their human caregivers. Heaven knows we have enough combative behavior here at the farm. We don’t need the chickens chiming in.
My little boy has grown up. He is looking to move to an apartment with friends. I know; that is what is supposed to happen. It will hardly be an empty nest when he leaves the farm, with five children still at home, and, of course, ten chickens in the backyard. I won’t be lonely, but I will be lonely for him. I will be lonely for those long ago days, when we would lay in the grass and look at the stars on a clear night, when I didn’t have to think about such uncertainties.
And then the day came when we could no longer deny that Wendy…Wendell…was a rooster. From our early brooder days, Aaron had noticed that “Wendy was the leader.” My intuitive six-year-old chicken helper had known all along. The bossy behavior, the bright red comb, the distinctive ruffly feathering, and the way he carried himself were adding up to punctuate my worries. Suggestions poured in. We could sell him. We could give him away. We could break his neck. We could eat him. We could let him out to become prey to the visiting hawk. Or, we could keep him. He could protect his flock from predators. And we would have fertilized eggs. Nearly every morning, Wendell is first to emerge through the chicken door. Some might say that he is surveying the territory for safety, but I like to think Wendell wants to be first in line for his breakfast treat.
The little boy’s resilience, if only for this day, astounded me. He read the street signs as we drove through the country, into the city, and back to my house again. I wondered if he, at seven years old, had learned to read so well to keep his mind from some of the less comprehensible things in his life. He stayed with me just for the day. I was looking after him because his foster family (where he had been for such a short time that he was not yet enrolled in school) had to attend an out-of-town funeral. Another family had kept him on the weekend, and he was with yet a different caregiver until the first family returned from out of town. He came to me on this day, though, while his third caregiver was at work. He wanted me to play checkers with him, and he asked if he could have peanut butter pie, a Whopper, and chicken fries from Burger King. He also wanted me to take him to the park. We spent eight hours together that day, and he was pleasant company. I marveled at his stoic presence in the midst of such chaos, such transition, and such uncertainty.
“Here. I know how to do that.”
I gave him a handful of chicken feed. He tossed it with a strong, confident motion which led me to believe that he had grown up an apprentice to a chicken keeper.
“You’ve done this before?” I asked.
“No. But I watched them do it on TV. You know, farmers. Can I have a bag of popcorn, please?”
He asked if he could stay with me that night. Of course he couldn’t; we are at capacity, and I was only watching him for the day. I wonder where he is now. I wonder how he could possibly be okay. I bet he knew how to win the carnival prize, and I hope he did.
The day will come when Gabriel will have the keys to his new place. I am better off not knowing when that will be. My little visiting friend found comfort and meaning in his own curiosity during what was certainly the most turbulent time of his life. In our time together, he has reminded me to be aware of the path, to forge ahead and to trust what we know, even if it means a little detour, and always, always, be open to learn. Those fertilized eggs are going to taste just fine.