Welcome back to “Best of Anything That Strikes Someone’s Fancy” series. This is from 2012. It’s a pleasure to share a piece from Writers Forum Program Chair Sharon Owen.
Maudie was five years old when Papa put her in charge of the chickens. The first thing he taught her was how to feed them.
“Don’t use but half a can of grain. And scatter it around so they all get a chance at it.” He dipped into the grain can, cupped a handful, and tossed it lightly out into the chicken yard. “Here chickee, chickee,” he clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Here chickee, chickee.” He scattered another handful. “That’s the way it’s done girl, now you try it.”
Maudie hugged the can against her chest with one arm while she tried to scoop out the grain the way he had shown her. Most of it fell to the ground at her feet, but Papa just said, “That’s it, girl. From now on, these chickens are depending on you.”
Next he taught her to change the straw in the nests where the hens laid their eggs. She quickly learned to arrange each nest with just enough straw to cushion the rough boards.
Her favorite chore was checking on the baby chicks. She peeked at them every day, opening the roof of the brood box just enough to reach in and touch the downy yellow babies. Sometimes she took one out and cradled it for a moment, marveling at the soft, weightless life she held in her hands.
Papa’s chicken house was divided into two sections. One side for the layers and the other for the fryers. When Maudie’s chicks were grown, Papa put some in each section. She fed and watered all the chickens, and she gathered the eggs from the layers’ side every day. Maudie wanted her chickens to be happy, because Papa said when they were happy they laid eggs with double yolks.
Every time Mama broke an egg with a double yolk Papa said, “Give it to Maudie. She takes good care of her chickens.”
One Sunday after church Mama said, “I could use a fryer, Roy.”
Papa said, “Come along, Maudie, let’s tend to it.” They walked together down the path to the chicken house. “Go on inside and bring me one of the fryers, girl.”
Maudie went inside. “Here chickee, chickee,” she crooned. One of her brood came toward her, jerking its neck, turning to fix a curious yellow eye on her. Was it time for grain, or had she come as she often did with special table scraps? Maudie picked up the young hen and took her outside to where Papa was waiting.
“Stand back,” he said.
Maudie stepped backward and watched while Papa took the hen’s clawed yellow feet into one of his giant brown hands. He flopped the chicken down so that her head lay across a block of wood, and with one swift, sure stroke he brought a hatchet down across the bird’s neck. The head dropped to the ground, and Papa let go of the feet. The bird’s wings flapped, and it ran headless across the yard, showering the vegetable garden with dark red drops of blood, careening wildly until it finally crashed against the trunk of a plum tree, where it lay still at last.
“Go fetch that fryer, girl, grab it by the feet and take it to Mama. Hold it away from you, head down, so you don’t get blood on your clothes.”
Maudie’s eyes streamed with tears and she felt a choking lump in her throat, but she obeyed Papa. She had never disobeyed him. She had never even considered it. Mama had a large vat of boiling hot water in one of the deep cement sinks in the laundry porch. She took the bird from Maudie, held it by the feet and dipped it into the water. “We’ll just scald this fryer for a minute, Maudie, then the feathers will come right out.” She pulled the bird up, dripping and steaming, it’s severed neck exposed. “See this?” She grabbed a handful of its feathers. “See how easy it is? The feathers practically fall right out of a scalded bird.” She reached out and took Maudie’s arm. “Come here, Honey, take a handful.” Maudie gripped some of the wet feathers and pulled. They came out easily, leaving a ragged circle of exposed white flesh.
“There,” Mama said, “see how easy that was?”
Maudie’s hand was smothered in damp, clinging feathers. She tried to brush them off, but they stuck to the fingers of her other hand. Mama watched her and laughed. “You’ve gotta rinse your hands with water, Maudie, you’ll never get ’em off that way.”
That night Maudie picked at her mashed potatoes while Mama and Papa talked over their day, laughing and passing the fried chicken back and forth across the table.
Maudie didn’t eat the next day. For a week she didn’t eat or talk or go near the chicken house. Finally Papa said he guessed they couldn’t keep chickens if Maudie wouldn’t take care of them.
“I’ll just have to butcher the lot of them, Mama. I’ll tend to it tomorrow.”
After her parents went to sleep that night Maudie sneaked out of the house and went to the tool shed. The hatchet lay on Papa’s work bench, still stained with blood. Barefoot, she walked the moonlit path that led past the chicken house to the pasture gate. She held the hatchet in one hand, and dragged Papa’s shovel in the other. Stepping cautiously to avoid goat-head vines and fat summer toads, she made her way to the farthest corner of the pasture where she bent to her work. The field had been irrigated that day, leaving the ground muddy and soft, but the shovel was so big she had trouble getting leverage. Finally she gave up and fell to her knees, digging at the damp earth with her hands. If she made the hole deep enough Papa would never find the hatchet. Thistles tore at her fingers, but she kept digging deeper and deeper.
“Girl, what are you doing out here?”
Maudie jumped at the sound of Papa’s voice, twisting her body around, trying to hide the hatchet from his view, but it was too late.
“Is that my hatchet, girl?”
“Yes Papa.” She bent her head in shame.
“What are you doing with it?”
“You killed my chicken.”
“But girl, didn’t you know we were going to eat the fryers?”
“No.” She raised her chin and faced her father in the moonlight. “You said I should take good care of them. You said they were my chickens.”
Papa hunkered down next to Maudie and took her bleeding fingers into his hands. He turned them over and touched the raw, dirt-filled blisters on her palms. Then he picked up the shovel and stood above her .
“You dug a pretty good hole here, girl, but it’s not quite deep enough.” He anchored the tip of the shovel in the shallow cup she had made and brought his boot down hard on its heel.
He lifted the spadeful of dirt and set it aside. “There, that’s about the right size for a hatchet.” Maudie looked up at her father, but a cloud had covered the moon and in that moment he was a faceless giant towering over her in the darkness.
“Well go on, girl,” he said, “drop it in there.”
She picked up the hatchet and dropped it into the hole they had dug.
“Those chickens of yours are all layers now, girl. That means you’re gonna have to work twice as hard collecting all those eggs.”
The cloud drifted past and Maudie saw her father plain as day. “I will, Papa, I don’t mind.”
Papa knelt down beside Maudie, and together in the moonlight they packed the little grave with soft, damp clods of earth.
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