Peepers by Chris Dungey

“”You’ve gotta move,” I’d shout above the roar, I don’t know how loud since I wore good ear-covers. No problem, apparently, after a few of those rocking-horse staggers like they do, just barely out of my path. “You’re gonna get sprayed!” Mulched clippings shot from under the machine, but that only happened once. Henny-Penny always foraged on the safe side after that.”

Peepers by Chris Dungey

Peepers was a good hen, I guess, as chickens go. But what am I, a recruiter for Tyson? I didn’t know from chickens when I first encountered her and I’m still no expert. I did Google her because of the peculiar coloration; not white but kinda medium brown with speckles of white throughout and splashes of red in the tail-feathers. Pretty. One of the photos of Red Stars was a dead ringer.

They could be quite aggressive, too, I used to believe. Borderline assholes. I might have gotten that notion from Big Bang Theory. Remember Sheldon’s childhood story of being terrorized up a tree by a neighbor’s rooster? “But Sheldon,” Leonard tells him. “Chickens can’t climb trees.” “Thank God,” Sheldon sighs.

The internet cleared that up, too. Red Stars are reasonably docile if allowed to interact with humans as chicks. That included being held. I had heard it said that chickens were pretty stupid, too. But they free-ranged right up next to traffic and I never saw one get hit.

At the time, two summers ago, when the poultry began their incursions into everyone’s yard, I didn’t know any of them by name. But I could usually count six of them in any view from my deck. Typically, two in the Hannon’s backyard scrounging in the shade of their trampoline. One that had wandered behind Deacons’ chain-link fence. (Rob and Bernice had likely taken the RV somewhere and left their gate open.) One patrolling the perimeter of my tomato patch, eyeing the tiny green fruit. Maybe she was intimidated by the pie tins dangling from a string to discourage rabbits. And the last two, with the half-acre of dandelions their owners, our back-door neighbors, allowed to flourish.

I was fascinated by the one eyeing my tomatoes. She circled at first, pecking in the grass. My pie-tins clattered, casting reflections across the plants. When she finally entered, I said nothing from my perch above her at the end of the deck. Really, how much could she possibly eat? Optimistically, perhaps she’d gorge on blister beetles or some other scourge. I’d say “hello Henny-Penny,” as I called her at first, whenever I put in some weeding. She’d cluck her reply, make those guttural chicken noises I could never quite imitate. Was she warning me back? Commenting on our fickle Michigan weather, or the profuse condition of my lawn? Who could say?

But fearless, never moving more than a few struts away from my outdoor activities, including the lawnmower. “You’ve gotta move,” I’d shout above the roar, I don’t know how loud since I wore good ear-covers. No problem, apparently, after a few of those rocking-horse staggers like they do, just barely out of my path. “You’re gonna get sprayed!” Mulched clippings shot from under the machine, but that only happened once. Henny-Penny always foraged on the safe side after that.

And if I left the back door to the garage open, I was apt to find her exploring, sampling the cat’s kibble. “You better scram,” I told her, the first time, before dropping a bag of garbage into the bin. “You and Ophelia will not get along.” That was another misconception. I learned later that house cats don’t really mess with them.

“Fritch, I hate those fuckers,” my neighbor Darleen Hannon growled when I told her that Henny must have found something edible under the deck. I wanted a break after putting the cushions back into the patio chairs. I’d heard her clucking under the deck, before I went next door. It had rained all weekend and I was stalling before climbing on the mower again.

“Why? I think they’re cool.”

Who do you hate now?” Doc Hannon came in from the sun room they’d added. Like me, he was another retired General Motors shop-rat.

“Those damn chickens. The grandkids step in their slimy shit out by the …” A coughing jag interrupted her but did not prevent the lighting of another Winston. “Trampoline,” she gulped. “Chloe was wearing the cute little Nikes we got her for her birthday.” Darleen poured me half a cup from a carafe. “You might want me to nuke that. I’ll make another pot.”

“OK, but I’ve gotta get after the lawn before I lose momentum,” I said. “Or before it rains again. And, they can crap all over my garden. It’s good fertilizer.”

“Did you know,” Doc began, pulling a dining chair on casters from under the table. “That chickens are so stupid they can drown in a rain storm? From staring into the sky?”

“I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of turkeys.” I sipped the inky, luke-warm brew. I’d been visiting the Hannons for decades. They were always sampling exotic beans which they ground themselves.

“Nevertheless, you’d have to call it natural causes.” He rubbed his hands together. “No suspicion of foul play. Hey, see what I did there?”

“Sweetie, how about just doing our lawn first?” Darleen glared at him. “You can play Wile E. Coyote later.”

The coffee mill howled, giving Doc a brief respite. “I suppose,” he said. “But I’m not doing it if the grass is still wet. Ruins the blade and rusts everything out.”

“Oh, of course it does.” Darleen blew a stream of smoke into the weak sunlight seeking asylum through the kitchen window. She dumped the coffee into a filter.

“Well, I kinda like those birds, too,” Doc announced with a diabolical smirk, though his slack features were thoroughly hangdog. He rubbed his hands together some more. “Listen, baby. Go online and find us a recipe for coq au vin. We’ve still got that merlot Christian sent us for May Day.”

After his retirement trip to Europe, the Hannons had cultivated an internet friendship with their socialist Paris tour guide. It turned out that Christian was a classic car buff. He had twice returned the visit to watch the Woodward Dream Cruise with Doc. As for the socialism, Doc rationalized that it wasn’t that much different than the UAW platform.

“You guys are terrible,” I groaned. Yeah, I’d caught Doc’s drift.

“You and Cheryl can bring a salad,” Darleen teased, before her next red-faced paroxysm.

*

I didn’t hear any more griping after that. Darleen invested in a few of those round lattice fences to protect her favorite ornamentals. The whole yard was too busy for my taste and many of her gardening impulses suffered from waning interest. At least two arched bowers wanted fresh paint while beds enclosed with landscaping blocks had been overwhelmed by their inhabitants. Frost, weeds, and romping grandkids had rearranged some of these into Stonehenge-like ruins. I don’t know how Doc navigated these obstacles without damaging his blades but he spent a lot of time tidying up afterward with a string trimmer. The chickens continued to trespass, but I didn’t suspect the Hannons when five of them disappeared the following August. Only Henny remained to keep me company through another harvest.

I figured the others had been culled out and were now at peace in freezer bags. Judging by her body language, Henny didn’t seem at all sad or lonely. Maybe she was thanking her luck, the whole coop to herself. She continued to cluck and mutter, no more plaintive than before. “You the best layer?” I asked. “Looks like you better keep up.”

I was pulling up plants which bore no more viable fruit, lugging them to my burn pile back near the property line. I still found decent tomatoes, some already with black spots but salvageable despite a few near-frosts. Wearing rubber gloves I dropped rotten ones into a garbage bag. Henny came even closer, grumbling as she pecked at old cherry tomatoes I’d missed.

“Help yourself,” I said. She gurgled her gratitude, foraging her fill. “You know, you may be queen of the roost now, but who’re you gonna snuggle up with in December? Have you thought about that?” Not even a “buck-awwk” in reply.

She continued to work the plot even when all the plants had been disposed of. After Halloween, the freakishly enormous silver maple in the middle ofour septic field began to shed its sere foliage. A last few laps with the mower only choked the belts and pulleys with leaves, so my fires were lit. I futilely raked and fed them into that burn pile. Henny followed me in the cleared spots where worms and grubs had sought warmth. She always waddled home in the failing dusk, ahead of predators which, I suppose haunted her DNA.

*

“Way leads on to way,” yeah? I’ll bet Robert Frost knew his chickens. After I gave up on the leaves, there was little reason to go into the back yard. I encountered Henny only a few more times in the garage though the cat was now being fed indoors. The only road I cared to take now, I’d do on my mountain bike.

I tried to put in eight to ten miles each day and had done since late March. But there, too, the handwriting was on the wall. I needed more and more layers: Under Armor, some kind of breathing polyester, then wool, then more polyester, and sealed with a couple of nylon windbreakers. By the 6th of December, I had ridden in 34 degrees, a new personal record. I put the bike away for the last time that day as the temp plummeted. The wind came up, thrashing the last leaves from their moorings. Sometime during my supper, a peppering, driven snow rode in on it.

That wind lashed at the front of the house, whistling under the eaves, plastering the snow onto the bay window in the front room. I heard the fiberglass garage door trembling and the back door slam. The wood-stove roared with a sucking draft. I adjusted the stovepipe flue. Cheryl phoned to say she was staying put at her babysitting job with our grandkids. A winter storm warning scrolled belatedly across the top of the Pistons game. But, like any Michigander, I knew that in two weeks we might be worried about having a white Christmas. I had run the generator just a week ago and it sounded fine. So no worries. After Stephen Colbert, I slept like hibernation.

*

So why don’t I own a snow-blower? Pride? The stubbornness of age? Yup. I’d bought the riding mower, sure, but the back yard was always lumpy and uneven, twisted ankles waiting to happen. There was no such excuse for the paved driveway. And really, what was all that bike riding for?

I dug in with my ergonomic shovel as I’d done many times before.

I wasn’t afraid of the eight or nine inches we’d gotten. I was in decent shape and I knew how to dress for it. I made good progress–one path down the drive until I reached the mail-box. Then I turned my back on the still fierce west wind and began the return trip. For now, I’d make it wide enough for my vehicle so I could go into town. I’d clear Cheryl’s spot later.

One more length and I’d be able to get out–if the county plow didn’t come by pushing aside its avalanche or if drifting didn’t plug up my work. A private removal crew was already clearing the parking lot of the township elementary across the road. Oh yeah, I realized–no busses had woke me up. I put my head down, into the wind. Scoop, toss, scoop, focusing on the aerobics of it, tempting the God’s of cardiology.

“Hello? Neighbor?”

I looked up with a start, part of an aborted shovelful blown into my face.

“Am I?” I squinted into the low noon sun now blinding off every white surface. I didn’t recognize the petite, bundled figure whose voice I assumed to be a female, nor the two smaller bundles behind her. Her face was swathed in a scarf which matched her ski jacket. Her black pants were filled out like yoga-wear. Brown leather boots up over her calves. The kids on cross-country skis completed the equation: Snow day.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Heather Webb from across your back yard.”

I straightened and faced her, leaning lightly on the shovel.
“OK. Of course. I’m Hector Fritch, with no good excuse for not introducing

myself.” I extended a rime clotted mitten. “Great day for winter sports, yeah?”

This Heather rolled her eyes. “Believe me, I wouldn’t be out here, except…”

“Have you seen our chicken?” Profiling the pink and purple gear, the white fur flaps of the hat, I guessed it was a little girl who’d spoken.

“Oh, you mean Henny-Penny. Haven’t seen her around since, nearly two weeks, I’d say.”

“Her name’s Peepers.” The brother was a shorter, chunkier version in Ski-Doo coveralls and goggles. He dragged a nylon sleeve across his nose.

I stepped in front of the mailbox so I could turn away from the gale. A gust of airborne snow from the schoolyard engulfed us. Everyone looked away for a moment. “Yeah she’s been a regular visitor. I shooed her out of the garage the last time, oh, probably before Thanksgiving. It was getting dark. I thought maybe she’d gotten harvested like the others.”

Heather’s eyes above the scarf widened with panic. “Oh no! We think coyotes got her sisters. You can hear the damn things back in the woods, yapping and howling whenever there’s a moon.” Now she added a wink that was so fast, I might have been mistaken. My own eyes were tearing up in the cold.

“She’s our favorite,” the girl groaned. “We were lucky when they didn’t get her.”

The little boy began to whimper. “Them coyotes wouldn’t be out in a blizzard, would they?”

Mom gave me a nearly imperceptible shake of her head.

“Geez, young man,” I sighed, playing for time to pull some encouraging blather out of my butt. “I don’t think so. It was pretty bad out there. She probably found somewhere to hole up.”

“That’s what we’re hoping. We have to try. We’ll look all over,” the girl said.

The boy snuffled, a gloved finger slipped under the goggles to wipe an eye. “We can’t even find no tracks yet.”

“Hey now, don’t about that,” I told him. “See how your own tracks are already drifting in. Doesn’t mean anything.”

Heather moved around me. “We better get moving, troops,” she said. “Mom’s getting cold. We’ll go past that last house then circle back through the field.”

“Well, good luck,” I said. “She could be hunkered down under any of these decks. I’ll look under ours when I’m done here.”

“We’d appreciate that very much,” Heather Webb said, hugging herself as she resumed hiking at a brisk pace.

The girl pushed off behind her, poles digging in with each stride of her skis. “You can pick her up, too” she called over her shoulder. “She’s real tame.”

“And don’t forget her name’s Peepers,” the boy added, bringing up the rear.

“Got it!” I shouted, the wind trying to swallow my words.

The kid turned and waved, ski pole flailing on its lanyard. I went back to work with only the front of the mailbox to clear. I didn’t want to get a warning note.

*

I propped the shovel on the front porch and took the big flashlight out of my car. With no sense of premonition or foreboding, yet, my mind flashed on that back door slamming as the storm approached. I opened it and soccer kicked the snow off the single concrete step. Even a west wind can swirl up a drift in the lee of our garage–some kind of vortex. I clomped over to where the deck joined the rear of the house. I crouched and peered under there. I had painstakingly screwed spindles at 2″ intervals all the way around the bottom. There was one gap at the back of the house where we reached in to turn on the garden faucet. She wasn’t in there anywhere. Not much snow either; just the ancient windblown trash and leaves I never wanted to crawl in after.

What were the odds she was under the Deacons’ deck? Their backyard gate was closed and padlocked for the winter, the RV plugged in at some snowbird compound near Tucson. Their deck was only a foot above ground level, anyway, and walled in tight. Over by the Hannon’s I could see that the snowscape had been trashed earlier by skis and boots. The search party must have already inspected the potting shed with its door blown open, and the other shed packed with power-tool relics, and the rotting motorboat under a ragged blue tarp. All those likely places of refuge found unoccupied must have dampened the kids’ hopes from the start.

I brushed myself off and turned toward the back door. Just one more possible spot but now the foreboding crept in. I kept a double stack of old pallets between the deck and garden–emergency kindling. There might have been fifteen in each neat pile, about a foot between them and a tarp secured over the top. Now it seemed such an ideal refuge that I didn’t want to look. I reluctantly approached.

She was under there, alright, talons up. Not too much snow had blown in but she was stiff. “Oh, Henny,” I spoke out loud, my voice thickening. “I mean Peepers. Geez. Maybe you weren’t so bright after all.” Then I considered that under the deck might not have been much better, cold as it had gotten.

I reached in and pried her loose from the ground as gently as possible. I could hear the Webb children in the abating gaps of the wind as they returned home. There was laughter and the shrieks of a snowball exchange and Heather yelling for them to lean their skis against the porch. I left Peepers between the pallets for later so they wouldn’t see me carrying her. If any kind of healing had begun, maybe returning the carcass would ruin it. I took one last glance before I went in. Heather was sweeping everyone’s pants with a broom. I thought maybe I should call her to see what she wanted done. But if the girl answered, she’d probably figure it out.

In the kitchen, I poured a cup of coffee and peeled off a few layers. Should I just bury her? The ground wasn’t frozen solid yet. That seemed like an unforgivable waste. Even if I knew how to dress her out and pluck the feathers myself, I didn’t think I’d be able to partake. She’d been a sort-of friend, a dilemma I suppose every 4H kid has faced at some point. Now the Hannon’s, on the other hand, would have no reservations. I bet Chef Doc knew how to handle a boning knife. Coq au vin basted in a vintage merlot yeah? I guessed offering her after nightfall would be soon enough.

*

Chris Dungey is a retired auto worker in Michigan. He feeds a wood stove, sings in a Presbyterian choir, rides a mountain bike, follows local minor league soccer, and spends lots of time in Starbucks. He has work forthcoming at Magnolia Review and Far Off Far Off Places.

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