An Excerpt from “Chickens, 2019”

Claire Boyles

Just before Smith, that turncoat of an Agricultural Extension agent, showed up on my farm with the rest of them, Jerry and I stuffed my chickens into wax-covered produce boxes and threw them in the back of the truck. I had just shy of a dozen hens, plus Hitchcock, the rooster. We covered them with insulated blankets to keep the noise down, and we played it real cool while Smith and the other agents searched the place. Extension used to be all advice and suggestion, but they’re armed now, the agents, so now it’s more like monitoring and enforcement.

“I know you still have those birds, Gracie,” Smith said, the toe of his boot kicking open a fresh piece of chicken shit. “I’ve never known you without chickens. Why not just cooperate?” Smith looked awful smug for a guy who had soaked through the armpits of his shirt. I swear I couldn’t believe, right then, that I’d ever shared his bed.

Last month Congress banned outdoor poultry flocks on account of the bird flu, made keeping chickens a Class A felony worth ten years, minimum. An hour ago, my neighbor Fran called to warn us when Extension showed up at her house. Fran is a sweet, white-haired lady who made a deathbed promise to my mother that she’d look after me, but mostly she just knits me a hat every Christmas. Fran’s birds didn’t have bird flu and neither did mine, but Extension was going house to house slaughtering any chicken that even maybe could have touched a wild bird. They didn’t test them or anything. Raising chickens is regulated now. You need to lock them inside giant barns, install special ventilation and filters, pay for licenses and inspectors. Only millionaires can have chickens now.

I’m real attached to my chickens, the hens anyway. They’re Barred Rocks, and they have the loveliest black and white patterns, not quite speckled but not quite striped either, with bright red heads and combs. Each one has its own shades and markings, which is something you couldn’t tell unless you’d spent a lot of time with Barred Rocks the way I have. It’s like what they say about snowflakes and fingerprints. Each one of my girls is only ever exactly like herself.

I named my top hen Montana because her markings are just like the section of Rocky Mountain range that I can see, on clear days, from all the way out here. That range looks just like a woman lying on her back, knees bent, ready to take a lover, the peaks of her face raised to the sky, joyful and laughing, her hair all swept behind her into a shallow valley. Montana has those same peaks and valleys etched right on her back, like God held her up and traced the pattern to get it exactly right. Sometimes I wonder whether God repeated beauty like that everywhere on purpose, like maybe he hoped humans would learn to see and reflect it, to find a way to copy it in the things we make ourselves. God is probably so disappointed.

“Hey, buddy,” Jerry said, looking at one of the agents. “Smith here, your big boss man, is having visions, thinks he’s got some kind of psychic chicken second sight. You ought to make some kind of report about that.”

Jerry was shirtless and the bottom of his pockets were hanging out under the frayed edges of his jean cutoffs, flapping against his legs. I hate those cutoffs. I tell him all the time those cutoffs are too short, but Jerry says he needs ventilation to keep his balls from getting swampy in the summertime, and I hate swampy balls, so there’s that. He’s six-foot something, skeleton thin. He’s got a bald spot on top, but the rest of his hair is almost as long as his beard, which touches his chest even when he’s staring straight ahead. Not a looker, but he sticks close by, so he’ll do.

“Watch it, Jerry,” Smith said. “I stay here long enough, I’ll find those birds. This is an illegal chicken facility you’re running. New rules say you build them a special shed or you don’t raise them up anymore. It’s for their own good. For the good of everybody. Can’t be too careful with this bird flu thing.”

“Jesus, Smith,” I said. “Next you’ll come tell me that you have to lock all the people up inside sheds. For their own good. To keep safe. Is that what you want?” I know my history; I believe the government is capable of that, maybe even eager. The worst part of it, I think, would be the vicious establishment of the human pecking order inside the shed itself.

Smith stared at me for a long time then, but he only shrugged, and he didn’t find the birds.

“You better get these weeds taken care of, Grace,” Smith said, as he got in his truck, waving at my corral. That corral is a mess of puncture vine and Russian thistle since they took the water, with purple loosestrife blooms infesting the edges of my old irrigation ditch. “You know I have to report them.”

“Spray them yourself if you want,” I said. “The government is the only invasive weed I worry about these days.”

I worried for a while after Smith drove off, a plume of red dirt rising off the road behind him, about calling the government an invasive weed. They say we still have free speech, but it’s hard to tell for real anymore.

• •

Me and Smith were sweethearts in high school and for a couple years after, but he ended up on the government side of the water grab back in 2017, and that was the end of that. He’s good-looking, though. A lot better looking than Jerry. Smith’s looks are the only thing I know for sure about him anymore.

The water grab was hard to swallow because I was raised patriotic. My dad fought in Afghanistan and other places he wouldn’t name. Growing up, I spent Memorial Day at cemeteries, not barbecues, thinking about how freedom ain’t free. I touch my heart when I sing the national anthem. I remember at least half the 4-H pledge, too, and I take it serious, something about using my head and hands for the good of my country. I believed so much in democracy and liberty and such that the first time I heard someone say that the government was going to eminent domain our water rights, I thought it was a dangerous rumor and I said so.

My acreage had so much water attached I could never use it up, on account of my great-great-grandfather was one of the first with enough imagination to replace the eastern Colorado scrub plains with sugar beets and feed corn. I could have turned my property into a private lake, learned to jet ski. I didn’t, because corn was easy to grow and a whole lot quieter than a pissy little two-stroke engine, but I could have. Then drought, panic. Public opinion was firmly in favor of stealing my water rights. Everyone who didn’t own water thought that folks who did, like me, were greedy, hoarding bastards. The farmers out here put up a fight, of course, but the National Guard made short work of the standoff. In related news, nobody cares that I can’t put crops in the ground without water. Bacon grows in petri dishes now, corn comes husked and wrapped in clear plastic. People don’t care about farmers unless it’s Halloween and they’re looking to visit a pumpkin patch.

Hiding these chickens is real founding fathers shit. Straight justified civil disobedience. Anyone paying attention knows that birds belong outside. Seagulls follow the plows. Eagles glide on the high winds. Geese in V-formation still migrate with the seasons. Besides, you have to be exposed to develop immunity. That virus might soar for miles on the prairie wind like seeds of milkweed, of blue flax, but so does the dust that scours our noses and ears, the sunshine that bleaches us clean. My girls and their line will outlive those shed birds by a thousand years. They won’t have to be afraid of wind and sunshine, of seagulls and seeds.

Smith was with Extension that day, too, when they came out to lock all the irrigation system’s head gates. I’m ashamed it took me another two weeks after that to kick him off my farm, because every time he touched me it felt like he was stealing something else, but I have appetites, if you know what I mean. One reason Jerry’s here is that I can’t abide having a cold spot in bed. For a long time, I’ve been hoping I’ll start to love Jerry the same way I loved Smith. Jerry is a better man, soft-hearted, which is new for me, and I like it. Jerry’s kindness opens me all up inside, blows the stink right out of me. Jerry puts a bouquet on the breakfast table every morning, even when all he can find is milkweed or ditch sunflowers. He has strong opinions about the consumption of green leafy vegetables, makes us smoothies every morning and skillet greens for dinner. I never have to wonder whether Jerry’s on my team, but I don’t always know if I’m all the way on his.

. . .

Read the rest of this story by purchasing a print or digital copy of the Mar/Apr 2018 issue here.

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