Writing exercise, or something like it

Given as long as it’s been since I’ve made a blog post, this feels a little like when I was in elementary school, and would return to class after a long summer. It was almost tradition for a teacher to assign a “what I did over summer vacation” assignment, much to all of our dismay. The teacher would suggest picking one activity or incident that happened over the three month span rather than try to talk about all summer, as if we, as eight and nine year olds, had done so many exciting things it was difficult to choose just one to write about, rather than the fact that the majority of us just learned at what time and what channel we could find every rerun of our favorite shows from six in the morning to midnight.

Even as a child, I understood the exercise. It was, of course, to get us back into the habit of writing after such a long break, to jog our imaginations– and what better way to do that than to talk about something we liked? Focusing on the self is one of the easiest ways to get back to writing, given you need no other opinion or experience but your own. And so that’s what we’ll be doing here.

As a grown up, I don’t have much in the way of summer vacations anymore, outside the part where I don’t have to drive kids to school and monitor tedious homework in the evenings. I still go to work, still have to shop and cook and pay bills. This summer, though, was chock full of strange and stressful things, as well as interesting and fun. My kids are at an age where they’re both self-entertaining, and also hilarious to talk to. We had storms that did major damage to our city, a death in the family, and even a surprise surgery on yours truly. I’ve never been fond of talking dramatics in my own life, though, so, instead of my appendectomy, I’m going to tell you about my chicken.

If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you’ve probably gleaned that I love animals. As a child, I was the one who went looking for cats in peoples’ houses and had to be restrained from running right up to strangers’ dogs on the street. I went to zoo camp and still tell people the story of feeding a giraffe out of my hand. When I got older, I had to have outside influences prevent me from collecting pets– I’ve often told my husband he’s the only thing standing between me and being a crazy cat lady.

When I was writing my first novel, one of the main characters had chickens. There is a specific paragraph describing how gently he handles his chickens, and a later scene where he and his son are cleaning up their coop and preparing for winter. Given my love of research, I did some on chickens just for these passages, and fell in love with the idea of having my own flock.

At the time, we lived in a townhome, with an 5×8 slab of concrete for a backyard, and an HOA that had been known to come over with a tape measure to make sure your trees were the right height. A year and a half ago, we bought a house with, frankly, too damned big of a yard. This meant, however, I could finally get my beloved chickens.

We bought a coop kit off the internet, and some 12 week old hens from an acquaintance at work. It was everything I dreamed of, except: the chickens didn’t really like us. They scattered and ran when we came out, and wouldn’t let us pick them up. If you’ve ever known an animal person, this is devastating: all you want is to cuddle all the animals of the world!

The following spring, we decided to buy chicks to hand-raise. We got four, one for each of us: four little balls of puffy feathers, cuter than even the cutest kitten by a long shot.

One of them, Springtrap (named by my son), developed a condition called “pasty butt” which is basically exactly what it sounds like. It also requires that the keeper monitor the chicken’s backside, and keep it clean so the poo doesn’t cake together and block the vent, thus killing the chick.

I’m nothing if not obsessive, particularly when it comes to the health of my pets (though, you know, with my kids I’m a big fan of “if you’re not bleeding, you’re going to school”). I checked on her throughout the day, wiping her butt when needed, drying and warming her to keep her from catching cold. She was our runt, our littlest chicken for the duration of their tiniest phase. Despite “my” chicken being a different one named Lady Mary, I became attached to Spring through these treatments, and was proud that she not only survived this hiccup, but grew into a lovely large chicken with the feathered feet of her breed.

Recently, she started acting strange. She spent all day in a nest box and made growling, trilling sounds when approached. The internet informed me: she was broody. Because we have no rooster, as they are not allowed in the city, she would have no babies. She had to be broken.

A note on chickens: they are not like cats. They possess a tiny, lizard brain that makes them both forgetful, and constantly convinced that the next second is their doom. While they can be convinced to be cuddly, it almost seems as though it’s under duress. Every day is their last. I’m obviously just hiding an axe somewhere to come after them when they least expect it.

According to advice, we put Spring in a metal dog crate up on blocks of wood to “air out” her nethers. I felt terrifically sad for her, and would take her out in the afternoons, after the other chickens had laid eggs and I could close the coop. I thought I was doing her a favor. She acted as though I were the cause of all her anguish, and started taking to chasing me when I came out into the yard, pecking at my feet when I fed them, and, on two occasions, bit my arm hard enough to draw blood.

She earned the name “Bitch Chicken.”

The chicken seemed unbreakable. Every morning, I’d haul her out of the coop and put her in the crate, where she’d huddle right back down and give me angry glares anytime she saw me. In the afternoons, I’d shut up the coop and let her out, and she’d mostly behave like the others but, at night, when the coop was reopened, she made a beline for it, threw herself in a nest box and hissed at anyone who came near.

I thought for sure she would be broody forever. I’m not above hyperbole, ever, but she definitely seemed as though none of our efforts would prevail. I started sneaking in when it was dark and putting her on the roosting bar so she would forget where the nest was. In one dramatic and ill-conceived plan, we filled the kitchen sink with cool water and dunked her backside and chest in. The entire room got wet, including me. She kept chasing me through the yard while my husband cackled from the doorway.

And then, she stopped. One morning, I opened the coop and she was the first out the door. She spent all day scratching and pecking and wandering, and then seemed protest going to bed that night. She was cured. The chicken gods had finally smiled on us.

So that is what I did with my summer vacation. Oh, I wrote, too, a book that apparently has decided it’s never going to end, or will actually be three books, I haven’t decided. I’m hoping to finish it by 2030.

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