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The Great Chicken Massacre
       This happened last summer, but I am only getting around to writing about it because it seems all of a piece with the terrible  year we had.  Starting in the spring time a lot of people we knew died, and it went on an on until we felt we were walking through a mine field.  Mothers of friends died, mostly suddenly.  An old friend of the farmerís, a new friend of mine, the janitor at my school, my brother-in-lawís parents within a month of each other, ten deaths by the middle of the fall.  The chicken story happened in July  and though itís only chickens that died, it seems to represent some horrid truth about the summer of 2006. 
       In the spring time of 2005 one of our old hens started sitting on some eggs, and we were pretty excited, being new to the chicken business  (our flock consisted of a very randy, irritable but beautiful rooster which was given to me by a friend and three old ladies, Buff Brahmas, who had been show chickens but whose 4-H owner had outgrown them), so when three of the eggs hatched and turned out to be two roosters and a hen, we decided to keep both roosters.         By that time Spike, the original rooster, had been sent  up the road;  I should say that our chickens are bantams  and the chickens up the road are full sized, the friend who kept them needed a rooster and we gladly consigned Spike to the equivalent of a womanís prison, where he flourished until a year later when he died of, I assume, exhaustion.
       I named the hen Susie after one my grandmother had and she and her mother, Aglaia, supplied us with eggs until last spring when Susie began to sit on some eggs which were, we assumed, hers and her motherís.
       Meanwhile I had found a charming chicken house at our local Agway and bought it without consulting anyone, leaving the farmer to fetch it home in the truck and set it up in the back yard (we live across the road from the farm, not on it) and as soon as the eggs (six of them) had hatched out we installed the mother, the grandmother and the babies in it.  The coop has a little wire yard attached to it, but we let the chickens out during the daytime and shut them in at night.  Like the rest of the east coast we have coyotes in town and are careful about small pets and the chickens are also prey to hawks foxes owls and raccoons, which we have in abundance. 
       Every year for 17 years I have gone to sing for a week with the Berkshire Choral Festival, and this July I was set to sing Verdiís Requiem. So off I went to the Berkshires and a week of rehearsal.  The Requiem is difficult, rewarding, harrowing, and being immersed in it for a week is the kind of experience that changes you.  I felt that I was in the middle of some terrible beautiful truth about the universe - forgive the purple prose, but like a sunset that is too colorful to be in good taste but is nevertheless real, that was the experience.  
       I arrived in Sheffield on Sunday.  On Tuesday morning, at breakfast, my cell phone rang.  It was the farmer, and he was terribly distressed.  He had not shut in the hens, and during the night something had gotten into the hen house and eaten three of the babies, eaten the mother hen except for her feet, and left Aglaia stunned, standing in the yard unmoving, her head terrible wounded, one eye shut. 
       Well, things like that happen when you keep animals, and I listened and told him it wasnít his fault and went back to my music.  He, however, went into the back yard and buried Susieís feet and one of the dead chicks who had not been eaten, and sat by Aglaia for hours, until he finally persuaded her to take sips of water from a teaspoon, thus saving her life.  The farmer has more patience than anyone I know, and he never gives up.
       That night he set up a Hav-a-Heart trap near the hen house, and caught a very large possum, who came back for the second act.  What did you do I asked.  I shot it, he said, five times.  Five times?  One for each victim, he said.  Itís a vendetta. 
       Did I mention that heís Sicilian?