chicken is a chickenOn Aunt Carmella’s farm I would get up long before the others. In the morning darkness, when a foot high fog held its place over the field and went through the trees like a continent in another dimension,  I would stare at the steaming cow, close enough to feel the animal heat radiate from its enormous body. How could my cousins, who lived here, bear the excitement, day after day?

I came to the farm only for a weekend. The smell of the hay and the grass and the cows and the barn, the terrifying barn where swallow birds could somehow sew your ears together in a passing snap using their scissors shaped tails, and the mice in the hay of the barn, and the dust of the barn smelling so strong and good that you risked the mice going up your pant legs just to lay all the way back and feel, even for one second, utterly and completely unafraid.

In the morning, when I would walk on Aunt Carmella’s farmland, the water would wet my dungarees and shoes and socks to above my ankles, just from the dew on the tall grass, and I would go over to the chicken coop and stare at the chickens who made their pop corn sounds. I loved the look of them. They had soft red combs that hung over their faces, on one side, like a Scottish warrior’s cap,  and the pre-thought way that they would take each step, first in their minds, to see if it would work, as if to get it right and then, reassured, their bodies would suddenly follow as a surprise to them. I memorized, to draw or paint their yellow ostrich claws, and the limp back toe or thumb that followed their steps. How could my cousins stand the aching excitement of it all, day after day?

When everyone woke up, hours after I had roamed and re-roamed all of the fields, I was allowed to feed the chick-ens. My cousin Ronny would give me their pail and smirk, red faced, to see that I enjoyed feeding the chickens. I filled the pail with grains from a burlap sack kept under a piece of sheet metal to protect it from the rain, went inside the wire fenced chicken yard and shut the gate behind me.

Inside the chicken coop fence, I filled my hand with the grains, ignoring the aluminum cup, and made a sweeping gesture, clucking to call them out from the long white chicken coop. I became an old time painting, the man who fed all the chickens that ever were. I became him. They dove for the grain like magnets, and I threw it here and there to out-wit them and keep them apart, throwing some to the dumbest ones who never won the race. They popped hysterically with every cast of my hand. I was feeding the chickens.

On the long ride from Aunt Carmella’s farm back to Buffalo, I would sit in the back of the car with my two sisters, and wait for the time when the forest was just across the slowly rotating field of my view. I stared at how the landscape turned like a slow motion record player. Whatever tree you fixed your eyes on would become the center of the landscape’s great rotation. What was close to you would move swiftly by, and what was far on the other side of the central tree would move by in the opposite direction, like a great disc turning. As long as you kept staring at the tree, everything would rotate around it.

The forest was what I loved the most on the way back home from Jamestown, Sunday after Sunday. Sundays would never be mine. I would stare out the window when the forest came by, and my body was casually set. If the car slowed down, ever, to where I could leap from it, I would have flung open the door, and run. I would have run back to the forest, and hid. I would have fashioned a secret home, beneath the ground, with twigs on top, and hunted and fished and painted myself with colored clay, and made a drum, chanted and lived out my life as an Indian or a holy man. I would have spoken to no one, ever again.

On the two or three hour drive back home, after visiting Jamestown where my mother saw her father, and sometimes we went to Aunt Carmella’s farm, we would at some point pass the ice cream stand called Fosters. We would all, in unison, call out, longingly, Fawwwww-sters. But I do not recall that we ever stopped.

I was perhaps eight years old, maybe nine. We went to see my mother’s father, who was blind and played the mandolin, and we saw our cousins and aunts who lived in that part of the country.

When we came home, it was always Sunday night; we would have a late dinner. It was such a Sunday night when my mother had made dinner and we sat down to it and began to eat. As I ate dinner, a puzzling question came to me. Eating dinner made me think about words, and how they should be more carefully used. People had names for one thing that should, I believed, be kept to that single thing. For example, one should not use the word house for anything other than a house, because it caused confusion. To call a balloon a house as well, could lead people to say things like, “my house burst,’’ or, worse, “we are saving up to buy a small balloon in the country,’’ which made no sense. As I puzzled this out, being eventually very certain that I was correct in my thinking, I ventured to share my understanding at the dinner table.

When the timing was right, and everyone was silent for the perfect amount of time, I proposed my idea in a round about way.

“Why do people use the same word for different things?’’ I began.

My mother asked me what I meant.

I ate a little more dinner. “They use the same word for things that are totally different from one another. Like, for example, on Aunt Carmella’s farm, there are chickens. Then, when we have dinner, this is called a chicken, too. They shouldn’t do that. They shouldn’t have two separate things have the same name.’’

There was a silence after I proposed my idea. In the right amount of time, my mother said. “But, this is a chicken. They are the same thing.’’

In the next silence, an understanding first began to seep into my mind, and then it burst into it like an exploding dam. It was the same thing! We were eating a chicken!  We ate chickens! A chicken is a chicken!

People were at once much smarter than I had thought they were and more horrible than I’d imagined. I jumped up from the table and emptied my mouth into the kitchen sink. I screamed that I would never eat another chicken! My mother demanded that I sit down and stop it. We screamed at one another. As I ran up to my room she shouted that I wouldn’t get any more supper until I came back to the table and ate. I went up to my room and angrily hid in the bed. I was fed by my anger for nearly an hour. Eventually, I became hungry again. I thought about never being fed. I thought about the chickens on Aunt Carmella’s farm. I thought about how hungry I was. I thought about never eating again. I pushed my face into the covers and cried, long and deep. I cried for all of the chickens I would eat.

Excerpt from Buffalo Boy by Ross G. Drago available as an eBook through this link:

Buffalo Boy, book of short stories: $4.95 as eBook through link above.