The Day The Chickens Died

So this is a rather bleak first blog entry but hear me out, it’s not all bad.

I return to this day in my head, a lot.

I was a kid, maybe 10 years old. It was summer and we were living in Houston. “We” meaning me, my younger sister, my mom, and my stepdad. One thing about my stepdad. He’s bipolar. When I say that, I’m not using the expression that’s annoyingly thrown around to describe someone who’s moody. No, he is utterly and severely a man suffering from bipolar disorder. What did this mean to me as a child? I can’t pretend like I fully comprehended it then. It meant that most of the time around him we walked on eggshells, never knowing what would alter his mood, never knowing if it was going to be one of those bad days, or one of those days we happily sang along to Cher in his truck and ate ice cream. Sometimes it was exciting, sometimes it was insightful. My stepdad is, after all, a brilliant man.

Most of the time, though, it was terrifying.

This day started off a good day. My stepdad was sleeping, deep into one of those cycles where he would stay in his room for days. These were the days when we were the most carefree. Usually, he would come out of hibernation in a good mood. It was hot this particular day, and I was running around the backyard with the animals while my little sister was hanging out next door with our neighbor. My mom was teaching summer school.

One thing about the animals.

An interesting and widely unknown symptom of bipolar disorder is extravagant purchasing. While we lived with my stepdad he randomly purchased all kinds of things, and in this particular phase he was into purchasing animals. Keep in mind, we lived in the city of Houston, surrounded by neighbors, but at this time we owned six dogs, a rabbit, fish, about 20 canaries, a parrot that hated everyone…

And chickens.

When I say chickens, I don’t just mean hens. We had those, and they laid eggs, which was awesome. But we also had roosters. And these roosters were probably just as confused about being kept in the backyard of an urban area as the rest of us were. So they would cock-a-doodle-do at ungodly hours. And our neighbors hated us at this time. But I was a huge animal lover, and I was on Cloud Nine. I would sit by the coops that we spent hours helping my stepdad make, and visit with the chickens. And that’s what I was doing on this particular day when my stepdad came out of hibernation.

“Hey, Tiger,” he said, as he stepped outside. “How are our birds doing?”

I immediately felt more at ease with his use of the nickname he had given me. Worst case scenario, he was about to give me some work to do, but it didn’t seem like I was in trouble. Whew.

“Good!” I replied in a sing-songy voice. “We have some new eggs!”

“Ok, we’ll get them out. In fact, why don’t you just open that coop door and let those hens roam around for a bit?” he said.

This was a weird request. Granted, we hadn’t had the chickens very long, but we had built them pretty big coops, and we had never let them just roam freely around the yard.

“Don’t worry”, he assured, “I already blocked the dogs in.”

Ok, so he must’ve been planning this. Seemed reasonable enough, and I was happy at the thought the chickens could enjoy a beautiful day with us in the big backyard. I complied, and opened the coop door that held three hens. They were reluctant to move at first, but with some coaxing and a few pecks at my hand, they finally came out of the coop.  They were clucking, and walking in circles, seeming uneasy. My dogs were barking like crazy inside. My stepdad was staring at the hens thoughtfully.

“You want to hear something interesting, Tiger?”

So today was going to be a teaching day. Great. Out of all the days with him, these were my favorites. It’s like his brilliant mind would open up and so much knowledge would pour out. I knew there would probably be a test at the end. I listened intently.

“Chickens are fascinating”, he said, “If you lay their heads down at a certain angle, they won’t move.” He went on into a scientific explanation that I don’t remember. Then he went up to a hen and grabbed it. Gently, he laid the hen’s head down, while she was standing on her feet. The image reminded me of an ostrich burying its head in the sand. The hen was quiet, calm. Even as my stepdad backed away, she didn’t move. My dad did the same to the other two hens. It was an amusing image, and I giggled as the three silent hens peered up at us, still as statues.

I didn’t even see him bring up the hatchet.

I don’t even know where it came from.

My mind didn’t even register what was happening as it came down quickly on the first hen’s neck. It wasn’t until the blood started pouring out of the hen’s now headless body that I started screaming. My screams didn’t even faze my stepdad, they didn’t even scare the other two into running for their lives. They just sat there, blinking up at us as I cried and pleaded, until the hatchet came back down, and their eyes remained open, frozen in time.

“I should’ve left one for you to do, ” he muttered then, as if the thought never even occurred to him that I would sooner die.

I hardly remember the aftermath. Sometime after the chickens lost their heads, those heads were strung up with twine on the side of the house, right by where we hung the dog leashes, the bodies were thrown into trash bags, and my stepdad went back to bed. I was afraid to remove the heads, but I didn’t want my sister to see them so I wiped away my tears and resolved to not let her in the backyard whenever she came home. I needn’t have worried, she went upstairs to read and was spared the horrors of that day. By the time my mom came home I had calmed down. I get my strength from her, it would have traumatized most people but we put it behind us.

The point of this story is not to show my stepdad as a cruel or crazy person. What happened that day made complete sense to him at the time, with his disease; for some reason he thought it had to be done and he wanted to educate me at the same time. He loves animals, and even the way they died was probably as painless as possible. We never spoke about it after that day. He continued to be unpredictable but I have never doubted that he is a good person.

Here’s the point of my story: We can’t predict tragedy. We can’t even prepare, as much as we like to think we can. What we can prepare for is how we let tragedies affect us. In all actuality, the chicken day was the worst day of my life. I’ve always had more compassion for animals than I have for humans, I’m definitely one of those. And so I witnessed three murders. You could say I was even an accomplice. But I made a very clear decision that day as I worked to slow down my breaths and I wiped away the tears from my face. I would not let this change me.

And it didn’t. True, I feel like my childhood effectively ended that day. I saw the world more for what it was, saw how screwed up and nonsensical things could really be. But the loving, trusting–often to the point of naivety–, and empathetic side of me did not get buried. I still see the good in people first, almost to a fault. I learned how to compartmentalize. I learned to search for what was happening inside people to make them do bad things. These are gifts I now understand that not everyone has. And as crazy as the world is today, I value this ability over any other, and I’m able to look back on the chicken day and see that good can come from any bad day.

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