Memories of beasts gone by

I WAS AWAKE before 6 this morning and listening to the chickens.

I have a history with chickens.

The poultry next door are the most recent. Around 6 or so, they begin to wake up and converse. It’s not the rooster, which has a distinctive morning call. No, it’s the hens, which also explains the constant chatter from their apple tree roost.

I was born in Atlanta, but I’ve hardly ever lived there. My parents and my sister lived in Atlanta for decades, but not me. When I was about six months old, we left Atlanta and headed to my maternal grandparents’ 500-acre farm in Southwest Georgia between the towns of Sylvester and Albany.

In later decades my parents and my sister returned to Atlanta, but I never went back except to visit. It’s a beautiful city, especially in the Fall.

Among the Herefords, rabbits and cats on the farm (we never messed with pigs and there was just one dog. I’ll get to him later) there were chickens, about 2,000 of them at one time.

The chickens were my father’s doing. He intended to make a living off chickens while becoming a famous writer. Neither of those notions panned out.

One dark summer night in Georgia, a large chunk of those 2,000 chickens was stolen. I remember Sheriff Andy and Deputy Fife standing in the kitchen the following morning. We never did get those chickens back.

New ImageDuring those chicken days, my father would give me baby chicks that he figured were not going to survive.  You read that right. My father gave me dying chicks as pets, and they did. Die, that is.

But I played nursemaid with each for a few days, keeping them in shoeboxes. They didn’t look ill to me when I got them. But they always died.

On that farm, we raised rabbits for profit, but my sister and I had one rabbit we considered a pet. We named him Rusty due to his color. One afternoon at dinner, as we were finishing up, it came out that we had just eaten Rusty.

I’ve written about some of these events, years ago, so it may sound familiar.

There was a dog on the farm too. He was named Pepper. He was a frisky, middle-sized dog of unknown mongrel heritage, and the only (almost) dog my sister and I ever were allowed to have.

Pepper was still there when we left the farm after six years. We then saw him only during our frequent visits up from Florida.

For First Grade I went to a Catholic school in Albany, even though we were not Catholics. Between First and Second grades, we abandoned farm life — chickens, cats*, Pepper, rabbits, Herefords — and moved to Jacksonville, Florida.

I never lived in proximity to poultry again. Till now.

The neighbors’ apple tree in which they roost abuts the property wall, and the chickens on occasion jump down to our yard and walk around. I’m not fond of this because chickens are nasty animals, and then there’s the poop.

But their visits are short, and they’re capable of the brief flight back to the apple tree, back to their own home where they belong.

Especially when I shoo them!

And every morning they greet dawn with chatter, reminding me that I once lived with their ancestors, thousands of the bloody things.

* * * *

* Sometimes there were up to 25 cats!

Fading to black

skilletTHE TWELVE-YEAR-OLD boy walked into the kitchen on a warm summer day. It was time for breakfast — eggs and grits and ham steaks or bacon. A coffee percolator on the counter plucked away, but he didn’t drink coffee, not way back then.

The only way to get into the kitchen unless you entered through the long screened porch from the back yard was from the dining room, so he entered from the dining room.

The first thing one encountered was the old refrigerator immediately to the left. Just beyond that was a heavy, antique table covered with oilcloth. That table abutted a casement window that opened to the yard where things also were eaten at times, dinners and watermelon and apple pie.

New ImageHe was sitting at that very table one evening with his grandmother when he heard the harp music coming through the window.

He was a bit older than 12 when that spooky thing happened, and the source of the harp solo was never explained to anyone’s satisfaction.

To the right was a fireplace which was always lit on winter mornings, but this being summer, school vacation, up from Florida, there was no fire. And just beyond the table was a wall-to-wall counter, left to right, and cabinets above.

Lemonade, and tea too, would be made on the left side of that counter. Glancing toward the right, you’d see a sink and beyond that the stove where cornbread, which was wonderful with red-eye gravy, was cooked in a cast-iron skillet.

An eternal fixture on the left side of that counter was a heavy, gray ceramic jar open at the top. That jar was always full of salt that you pinched and sprinkled with your fingers.

Above the sink was another window, one that looked out not at the yard but toward a pasture for Hereford cows and the one, happy bull. That was when the boy was 12. Later, that pasture was turned into a grove of pine trees, when the government started paying farmers to take it easy.

Back to the kitchen. The wooden walls were shiplapped, as were the walls in the entire house, and there was a nice-sized pantry just to the right before you walked out the door to the screened porch. The kitchen floors were linoleum.

After breakfast on a summer morning, there were a number of  options for a 12-year-old boy. Here’s a good one:

He left the dirty dishes for Willie the maid, and walked out the kitchen door, continued about five feet to the screened porch door, and stepped down to concrete steps. There were plenty of cats, sometimes up to 25.

Granny liked cats.

revolverAbout five years later, the boy turned a .32-caliber, chrome-plated, Smith & Wesson revolver on one of those cats, a mangy, sickly one who was suffering. Gunning down a cat is not a pleasant experience, even if it’s best for the cat in the long haul.

But that came later. Today is a sunny summer morning, and the boy walked straight ahead, passing the small building on the left that had been his sister’s playhouse and then a larger building, also on the left, where his father had written short stories after World War Two. Then there was a gate.

Stepping down about foot on the other side of the gate, there were dirt ruts of a road heading left. It was a good route to walk because it was not public. It was private, though people from far and wide would come, knock on the door, ask permission, and then drive down that road to fish in the pond,

On this summer day, the boy aimed for that pond. The dirt road separated the pasture on the left — the same one visible through the window above the sink in the kitchen — from a grove of pecan trees on the right. The farm made money from cotton, corn, peanuts, beef and pecans.

The walk to the pond was not long, maybe a quarter mile, and the pond was somewhat sunken. You had to walk down an incline to the pond’s shore. The word pond is misleading.

It was a large lake though it was called a pond, and it was surrounded by towering cypress trees, many of which grew in the water itself, providing shade. Here is the experience of the pond: silence, at times broken by bird songs.

boatAn old rowboat rested on the water’s edge.

A man with silver hair and wrinkles, though far fewer wrinkles than many his age, awoke, and there was a beautiful Mexican at his side. He popped a Hershey’s Kiss in his mouth, bit down, smiled, and was soon asleep again.