(Best read with Papua New Guinea Kegabah Estate and a classic coffee cake.)
The feast of St. Anthony only comes once a year. I think it’s in the Fall, but can never remember exactly when. One day the trucks pull up in the paved school yard carrying the scissor barrel ride, the swings, kiddy rides and a wild mouse. Booths go up with spinning wheels painted with numbers that matched the numbers on the board table on the front of the booth where we bet the coins Monsignor Martin threw to us. We scrambled for the pennies—if you were lucky you found a nickel. It was really hard to concentrate on school work from then on. We would be let out early that day—2 p.m.
Last night we finished the novena to Our Lady of Fatima—nine evenings of prayers and songs of devotion. Today is the feast of St. Anthony of Padua—San Antonio do Padua. Even though our parish is dedicated to All Saints (actually Our Lady of All Saints), St. Anthony is the patron saint. I always thought he was Portuguese—San Diego (Saint Didacus) was. So was San Luis Obispo—well, he was from the Iberian peninsula—that put him in the ball park, at least. My mother told me that I have a good voice when we sing the hymns in Latin and Portuguese. I sparkle with the compliment but really am already tasting pan con soupos and strawberry soda. The festa will last three days—three days of rides, gambling and too much food. That was our definition of ecstasy.
This year I’ve saved my money. My sister saves everything she gets and writes it down in her little account book. I’m perpetually broke. Everyone knows that if I have any money, which is rare, all they have to do is ask me and I’ll “lend” it to them. No one ever pays me back. Everyone at school has more than I do. I guess that’s why they don’t think it’s such a big deal to just forget about it. I know that if I get stuck, I can ask either my sister or my cousin Ed to “lend” me money for this event. The last day of the festa is the auction. My mother has finally conceded that if I use my own money and win, I can have the animals that are always auctioned.
My father has recently changed jobs from construction to insurance. I heard him talking to Art, our Greek friend—the two of them standing with their hands in their back pockets until they spoke. Then their hands talked almost as much as their words. My father had been on the rafters with a guy. “Gus looked like he was sixty,” my dad said. “He’s only two years older than me. Josephine’s class.” Josephine is one of my dad’s older sisters. “It’s the weather. It makes you an old man quick.” The nuns would have rapped his knuckles for that one. We had just learned that it was ‘quickly’, not ‘quick’. Of course, I had learned long ago that it was safest to tune out of class. I learned the lessons; I just didn’t like it when the teacher would ridicule my classmates when she found a mistake in their phonics and grammar books. So, most of my pages were blank. The penalty was always the same for an empty page. I scribbled the answers inside the last page. When the nun found that, I’d have to stand in the corner. The corner was my friend—the place of my dreams. There was the crack that would grow with each earthquake and the smear of the little bug I squished with my finger tip.
“Give him a pencil and paper and he’ll draw anything. But he just won’t do his work books,” the nun complained to my father on parent conference night. My father would look at me with worried eyes. It didn’t bother me. My dream world taught me how to ‘go away’ when they tried to embarrass me.
But today was important. I cut the letters with the stub-nose scissors and glued them in the little boxes. I slowed down when I realized I was the first one done. Kathy noticed, but she wouldn’t tell. We look at each other. Her eyes were worried, like my father’s. She has an Irish last name, but her mother is Portuguese. She won’t tell. The penguins are Irish Dominicans from Chicago. They favor the Anglos and Irish. Latino kids have to be near genius to do the things Anglo kids get by right. My cousins tell me that I’m exaggerating. “Of course I am. I’m Pork-a-gee,” I tell them. “That doesn’t make it not so,” I protest.
My sister tells me not to get in trouble anymore or the nuns will call our father. “They keep saying ‘Why can’t you be like your sister?’ I mimic the nuns.
“Stop it. They won’t let you go to festa”, she says. That’s one of the few words of Portuguese she knows. I smile when I hear it. But she knows I got the message.
The glue on my fingers smells sweet. Today, my corner is occupied by Susan Marshall because she got caught eating the paste again. It’s not food, everyone knows that. Silly girl. She sees the smear on the wall and darts me a glance. ‘What smear?’ I stare back.
At the auction Saturday morning, Ed asks, “How much do you have?”
“Five dollars and seventeen cents.”
“What’d you do? Rob a bank?”
“I saved it! It’s my bottle money.” I went from house to house asking people if I could take back their deposit bottles. It took me half the summer to save this much.
The auction starts. The first stuff is junk stuff—doilies, table cloths, tea pot cousies. The auctioneer holds one up of a chicken cousie. I bid a dollar.
“What are you doing? You said the real chicken!” Ed politely reminds me. (Well, I prefer to remember it that way.)
“Vovi made that.” Vovi is our grandmother. Her name is really Maria, but my older cousin, Kristine couldn’t say ‘Va Marie’. It came out ‘Vovi’ and it stuck.
Ed’s in a panic. He’s always in a panic. He’s half Italian. He hasn’t bid anything. The auctioneer blurts, “Sold to the gentleman for one-dollar!”
‘Oh, shit,’ I think. ‘I bought it.’ I’ll give it to my mother, then she’ll have to let me keep the chicken. Ed is glaring at me. “You can pay me half and we’ll give it to my mom together.” His mouth drops open. Where’s a corner when you need one?
“How much do I hear for this Rhode Island red?” the auctioneer yells. “Healthy, good laying hen, egg-a-day, double A.” The main event is up.
“Two dollars!” I bid.
“”Three dollars!” Ed yells. I look at him shocked.
“What are you doing?” He shrugs.
Who said that? Some one else is bidding?
“Three…” I hesitate. I count my coins. “…Seventy-five!”
“Four dollars!” someone else bids. The three-fifty guy waves off with his hand. Too rich for his blood.
“Four-seventeen!” My last bid. I’m broke. Everyone but Ed and I are smiling. What’s so funny? This is business.
Ed whispers in my ear, “I can lend you something if he bids.” My attention is wrapped on the phantom bidder. He squinches his nose and wags his head at the auctioneer.
“Sold! To the gentleman with the chicken cousier.” I won. I own a chicken! I feel faint. I walk up to the table and put my coins on it. The auctioneer counts out four-seventeen, then writes me a receipt. I own a chicken. I turn toward the crowd. My mother is in the last row. She has that look on, ‘I’m raising a farmer.’
“Here’s your hen. Her name is ‘Henrietta’,” he says. She is in a wire cage-box. She turns her head and looks at me with one eye. I smile back at her. The cage is heavy and Ed has to help me carry it.
“What’s the opening bid for these fine homing pigeons?” the auctioneer bleets.
“I’ll pay you back half,” I tell Ed. He almost bounces up and down agreeing.
“Three dollars!” he yells. I stare at him. Hasn’t he learned anything.
There aren’t any other bids. The auctioneer smiles at us as he says, “Sold!”
I hear my Aunt Celia exclaim, “Oh, Eddie.”
We race over to her. “It’s alright. They can live with my chicken at my house.” My aunt gives us a look that later I learn meant ‘you have sand for brains, both of you.’ We haul off our pigeons. The man who put them up walks over to us.
“Do you know anything about homing pigeons?” We purse our mouths and shake our heads. Our hands are in our jean back pockets. We need a hay straw to complete the Norman Rockwell. He explains that we have to feed them everyday. “Put some grain on your palm and let them get used to feeding from you hand. They won’t hurt you. You do that for at least six weeks before you leave the cage open. They’ll fly around and come back to their new home.” I look at the birds. He might see pigeons. I see hawks. The birds are nervously looking at me first with one eye then turn their heads and look with the other. They’re hawks and I’m Godzilla. Just as long as they know the rules. He shakes my hand and wishes us luck. His hand feels like heavy grit sand paper. Mine feels like soft over ripe apricots that split and bleed their jam all over when you pick them.
My father walks over to us. He has tried to calm down my mother. She doesn’t appreciate my growing menagerie of animals. He says, “You’ll have to build hutches for them. You can’t keep them in boxes.”
He said hutches; I hear ark. “Do they have to float?” I ask.
“No. They just have to keep the dogs and cats away.”
I see my grandmother in the crowd. I show her the cousie I won. “God, that thing just won’t leave this family. Va Rita made it.” Va Rita was her mother. She smiles at me. I give it to my mother. It will grace her toaster for the next decade.
Ed comes over to me after an animated discussion with his mother. It would be better for the pigeons to go to his house tonight, he explains. I’ve been down this road before. We had gone in on chipmunks, I paid for one—he the other. Then he decided that they would be heart broken if we broke them up and one came to live with me. My mother colluded with him on that one. So, I decided it might be best if I didn’t fight Ed on this one. I didn’t have the money to pay my half anyway. So, off go the pigeons to Aunt Celia’s and Cousin Ed’s. But, Henrietta is mine. She is a handsome bird even sitting down in her cage. I can tell this girl had been around. When I get close to the cage, she gives me a ‘kid, don’t mess with me’ glance.
A few days later, Ed calls me and asks if I can come over. Seems that the pigeons have gotten out of their box. I don’t have to think very hard to imagine how that happened. I walk over. It’s over a mile to Ed’s house. My mother tells me to call her to let her know that I got there alright in 20 minutes. I know what she’s doing. I’ll have to walk/run to get there in 20 minutes. She won’t baby me because of my heart murmur.
When I get to Ed’s he takes me out to the garage. It’s attached to the house, unlike ours that stands free. There on the bare rafters sit six defiant pigeons. On the floor below them and across my aunt’s car is evidence that they have been sitting there for a while. She comes in to the garage and let’s Ed know that he and I have to catch the birds then off they go to my house—no arguments. Hey, I wasn’t arguing before, why start now. Ed wants to know how we are going to catch the birds. (“What do you mean ‘we’, white man?” I think remembering a joke I heard our Greek friend tell my father about the Lone Ranger and Tonto when they were surrounded by Indians. Now, I understand the joke.) He has already tried climbing up to the rafters. I’m dumbfounded. Did he really expect that the birds would just sit there as he climbed up to them. He argues that these are domesticated birds. (He was always using words that were longer than I was tall. Once he told Vovi that he had witnessed a collision on the Bay Bridge. Later I found out it was just a car crash.) I point to his mother’s car and noted that the birds aren’t house broken yet.
My mother was big into buying me books. One day a project book for naturalist kids showed up on my bed. It was filled with all kinds of practical knowledge like how to skin a deer, tan the hide and make moccasins. Wow. All I had to do is to find a dead deer. My mother suggested that I might want to try one of the woodworking projects first. Since my father was a carpenter, I considered it.
On page 38 there was a section on how to catch rabbits in the wild. It showed ways of snaring them using a sapling and a lariat made from deer sinew—it didn’t explain what that was. Or, if you had a box, a stick and some string—you could trap one. Where you were going to get a box in the wilderness didn’t occur to me, but the idea seemed like a good idea at Ed’s garage. We walked over to Mr. Cunha’s grocery store two blocks away and asked him for a box. He had a crate that we could have. Great! We were about to become trappers.
Seven hours later the first pigeon walked under the box. Only five to go. At this rate, we should capture all of them in only 4 days. Fortunately, the birds thought differently. Around 2 a.m., all of them were in the crate/cage that they had come in. In the morning we would take them down to my house.
The birds lived in their box in the garage until my dad and I went to the lumber yard, bought some fir 2x2s, metal grid cloth and a roll of chicken wire to build hutches. He had some old hinges at home that I used for the hutch doors. He drew out the plan with me. But, I had to build the hutches by myself. I make the roof of scrap wood he had from his contracting days. I tack gritted roofing paper on top of the hutches. When he gets home from work he inspects my craftsmanship. Most of the cuts are almost square. “Only two bent nails,” he remarks. He doesn’t say anything about the wholes left by the other bent nails that I removed. “Why the gaps in the wire at the corners?” he asks.
“I cut first then measured.” Busted. A cardinal rule.
“Measure twice, cut once.” I hadn’t measured at all. How was I supposed to know that 2x2s were only an inch and a half by an inch and a half.
We carry the hutches over next to the dog pen against the side fence. I’m panting by the time we get them over there. My father won’t cut me any slack. If I need a rest, I’ll have to ask. But I’d rather sleep well tonight than let him know how tired I am. “Let’s get the birds and chicken,” I pant at him. We carry out the boxes. I put the pigeon box in the middle of the hutch, then flip open the box top. My father reaches in and turns the box on its side.
“There. Now they have a perch.”
I open the chicken hutch. My father reaches in to the chicken box and grabs the hen by the legs. Out she comes upside down, wings spread, cackling trying to look at us one eye at a time. I chuckle. “Take her,” my father says. He hands me her legs. I take them one in each hand. “Not that way. With one hand!” I put the legs together and struggle to hold her. She is heavy. Her head is almost on the ground and her legs are almost at my chest. “Now easy, put her in the cage.”
I heft her legs with one hand and grab her on her back with the other closing her wings. She is watching me very carefully. The lady knows a novice is handling her. I lay her down in the cage and lay her over on her side. When I let go she springs up and looks indignantly at me. I chuckle with pride. My chicken. My father is amused with his farmer. I close the cage. “She’ll need water and grain everyday,” he warns me. I nod seriously.
My mother agreed that I could walk up town to the library. I want to check out a book on chickens. I won’t read a text book, but chickens—that’s my idea of literature. It takes me three days to read to page 17. Each page is crammed with do’s and don’ts. But, on page 17 it says that a hen won’t lay an egg without a nest box, preferably with straw. I stare at the page. Why isn’t that on page one? I’ve been checking Henrietta everyday hoping for an egg—but nothing. I run out to the dog pen. The traveling cage is on the ground next to the hutch. I use the cage as a shield to push Henrietta back as I put it in her hutch. Straw? I don’t have anything like straw. I turn and look at our field—a quarter-acre waist deep in wild barely—straw. It takes me most of the afternoon to collect 300 pristine pieces of straw, plucking off the roots at one end and the fox tail from the top. Henrietta is unimpressed when I try to lay them in her box and she tries to peck me.
“Oh, try that again and you’ll find out what it’s like to be a fried chicken!” I threaten. She shows no sign of being intimidated. We stare at each other. “Go lay an egg,” I suggest to her. She stares at me for a while more, then cautiously settles down in her nest. “What’d you know,” I say. I feel like a real chicken farmer now.
The next morning Henrietta wakes up my parents with her announcement of the arrival. Their bedroom is in the back of the house near the field. My room is at the other end of the house near the street. My mother comes and tells me to check my chicken. The egg is the biggest I’ve ever seen. Maybe she’s really a miniature ostrich. She’s strutting around her cage. I run to the garage and get a rag. Wrapping it around one hand I try to distract her and steel the egg with my other hand. She isn’t fooled and almost escapes the cage as I grab the egg. “Is this how you take care of your children?” I laugh at her.
My mother lights up when I present her with the egg. I think she’s had a change of heart about Henrietta. She gives me an empty egg carton and says, “Fill this up with her eggs.” I remind her that Henrietta is just one chicken. The book says that she’ll only lay one egg a day.
The eggs have dark yellow yokes and a rich flavor that you can smell even when they’re cooking. My mother makes sunny-side-up eggs for breakfast. The egg takes up half the plate. My father and sister get the first two eggs. A farmer provides the food. By the weekend, we all have our own eggs. When Vovi hears about the eggs, she gives me another carton. If I provide her with six eggs she’ll make Portuguese sweet bread. The offer is too important to refuse. We’ll just have to starve on oatmeal and pancakes for the next six days. Henrietta’s eggs are spoken for.
When my grandmother makes sweet bread, we can smell it all over the neighborhood even though she lives across the street from us. It’s no secret that she must have gotten up in the middle of the night to knead the dough for bread this morning. I go over to her apartment next to my Uncle John’s house with a large dish rag. She ties up a dozen loaves the shape of a knot about the size of my two fists in the cloth so I can carry them home. They are still hot—just out of the oven. I race home with them. Uncle John asks if they are made with Henrietta’s eggs. I gleam. That’s all he needs to know.
For six weeks I have gone each morning to feed the pigeons. I put the seed on my palm and offer it to them. In the past two weeks they waddle up to my hand and peck at the grain. It scares me, but I don’t move my hand. Today is the moment of truth. I’m going to leave the cage door open and send them on their maiden voyage.
I walk around the neighborhood to make sure that there are no red tail hawks lurking near by. I unlatch the hutch door, swing it open and walk a good distance away and watch. Cautiously, one of the birds peaks its head out of the hutch. I wonder if it’s the same bird that first walked under the box. In short order all six birds line up at the edge of the hutch. One finally leaps into the air. The remaining five take off at the same time close behind. I’m thrilled. They climb high into the air and start to fly in a circle. It’s beautiful. Just like fighter planes in the movies. The birds make ever wider circles. I figure that from their point of view I must look very close to the cage. So, I back off and watch them from the window of my mom’s laundry room at the back of the garage. The circle they fly gets bigger and bigger until I can’t see them anymore. After what feels like a week, I come out of the laundry room. The birds are gone. Maybe they are checking out the neighborhood. I come back to the hutch just before supper, but the birds aren’t there. Henrietta clucks at me.
Every night at dinner, we talk about what we did that day. I announce that my homing pigeons are flying around the neighborhood. No one says anything. After dinner I check again for the birds. At dinner the next night, my father asks about the birds. I tell him that I think they went home because, after all, they’re homing pigeons. His eyes smile at me. I check out his mouth. He’s fighting hard not to laugh. I’ve learned that grown ups laugh at kids a lot. I promise myself that I won’t laugh at my kids. “I don’t think they’re coming home,” I say. My mother’s shoulders relax. I don’t think she ever really liked my pigeons.
At least I still have Henrietta.
I had wrapped her cage in burlap bags for the winter. Even when the ice set, she fared very well. The year before I had lost my rabbit when it got too cold one night—I felt guilty about that. Poor thing. I dug a hole in the field for its grave and marked the spot with a stake.
Just before spring, I read an article about free-range chickens. It talked about how chickens could be used to weed gardens and that eating bugs was actually good for them—a great source of protein. I didn’t know what protein was, but if it was good for Henrietta and she would eat bugs, I thought she ought to try it. My fear was that she might not know that this was her home. I had never heard of homing chickens. Maybe the old girl would stick around.
I had only taken her out of her cage two times before. She pecked me good the last time and locked her feet on the grid cloth so hard that I couldn’t budge her. I finally grabbed her by her body and pinned her neck under my arm. I put her in her carrying cage/nest box while I cleaned the hutch. After I released her, she and I agreed that I wouldn’t try to pick her up any more.
This time I opened the hutch door and stepped back. Chickens can fly short distances, but she had been in the hutch since I brought her home from the festa. I found a plank about six feet long in my father’s wood pile, dragged it over to the hutch and made a ramp out of it. She didn’t waste any time coming down it to the field. She followed me around the yard then got distracted and started pecking at the ground. I didn’t see any bugs but was happy to see her working so hard.
That night I went out to her hutch and there she was asleep in the nest box. I locked the door so cats wouldn’t get in. At the library I found plans for a chicken coup that included a doorway. The chapter cautioned that some chickens would hide their eggs in high grass and must be trained to lay in the nest box. Henrietta was happy to produce an egg a day conveniently in the nest box without fail. So, I decided to trust her and left the door open for her to come and go as she wished. She still liked her grain, so, I filled her bowl regularly.
My mom told me a few months later that Henrietta would follow the kids down the block on their way to and from the local junior high a few blocks away. I had lost my dog, Petey, several years back to a truck when he ran across Winton Avenue. It was the only time he ever came to me when I called him—obedience wasn’t his strong point. I didn’t want Henrietta to end up the same way. But, my mother told me that she doesn’t go beyond the corner.
As I walked around the block, the neighbors asked me how Henrietta was doing. More people knew her than knew me, but she still laid eggs just for me. Not to mention that Vovi made all of her sweet bread exclusively with Henrietta’s eggs.
Early one Saturday morning, I woke up to a horrible scuffling under the house. I heard Henrietta scream. I jumped out of bed and ran to the back of the house. My father was already up and out the door. He saw the nasty dog from the corner neighbor scampering back to its yard leaving a trail of feathers. “Go get dressed,” he told me. I found Henrietta under the house. She was on her side and still. The dog had broken her neck. I wanted to teach that dog to cross Winton Avenue and maybe run in front of trucks. But, why? It was just being a dog. Henrietta had just been being a chicken.
The neighborhood mourned Henrietta for several weeks. School kids asked my mother where the big red chicken was that used to follow them. Vovi’s sweet bread was never as good again. Henrietta had lived with us for two years and three months. She was a great chicken. I took the shovel, dug a hole in the field and marked her grave with a stake. At this rate, the field was starting to look like a sub-division development filled with surveyor’s stakes. There was my rabbit’s, Henrietta’s and about a dozen salamander and lizard stakes. Of all of them, I missed Henrietta the most.