“He’d look great on a platter,” Aunt Jo says as her broad-chested rooster paces back and forth as we sit in the quiet country. His legs are massive and strong, and could rival those of Thanksgiving turkey.
That’s Dirty Harry — a.k.a. Dirty Fred — the rooster who calls the shots over 17 hens at Jo’s country home bordering Lockeford and Acampo.
He’s confident and handsome with deep gold and red feathers, and very protective of his ladies. It especially bothers him that one of his favorites, a Rhode Island Red named Dirty Red with lap-dog characteristics, is seeking refuge on the arm of my plastic lawn chair.
“You’ve got that chicken spoiled,” Jo tells me. Red’s eyes, normally wide open and alert, close halfway, then completely as I run my finger from her leathery red comb down her soft beak — a trick I learned from one of Jo’s neighbors.
Dirty Harry isn’t happy about this. He hasn’t been for quite some time. I think he has it out for me, this “townie” who’s been protecting his trophy hen.
So his feathers were really ruffled when Aunt Jo left me in charge of the homestead, to feed his ladies dry cat food and white bread and to carry Dirty Red in my arms across the yard when he’d come sauntering up with that look of intimidation and lust in those amber eyes.
For one week, I had the roost to myself. Well, it was me and Dirty Harry — and the cat (the one really in charge), 17 hens, a family of bunnies living under the wood pile, a gaggle of geese, a flock of ducks and four donkeys. There was no pressure. None.
The pressure was on the second Aunt Jo’s truck rolled away.
When it comes to being city slicker or country girl, I have a case of mistaken identity. Though I mostly grew up in the country, I hated the long drives to the market and extra chores that came with all that space and quiet. I had dreams of the big city, which I eventually tried. But nope, I didn’t fit in there either; they thought I should to go back to open ranges and mountains or wherever they imagined this “Nor Cal” girl was from.
To real country folk, I’m a townie, which is probably the truth. I’m a good tent camper and don’t mind getting dirty, but taking care of farm animals was a first.
The animals knew something was up, that their mom was gone, that I had big boots to fill. See, Aunt Jo can do things — a lot of things — and she makes them all look easy. A little cowgirl, a little hippie, a little dairy farmer in her blood, she is that person who can turn a block of wood into a decorative bowl, a few oils into bars of fragrant, earthy soaps and a cast-iron pot into survival dinner with a dozen hot coals.
My only job was to keep things alive, quite literally. With my five-page packet of instructions, complete with home and cellphone numbers of every person on the rural street, I remembered everything she’d said the many times we went over chores.
I’d been warned that donkeys can lift gate latches if left unlocked (and I’ve seen them gnaw at the bulky chain to make sure I have, indeed, locked up properly). I knew if they got out on my watch, no one would be able to catch them — ever. I had to collect fresh eggs daily, because if a hen were to sit on one too long, I could crack open a baby chick while whipping up a batch of breakfast quiche. And if I forgot to close up the chicken coop at night, I might wake up to a bloody chicken massacre in the yard, courtesy of night-prowling coyotes. Shovels were out back, she told me before she left. Just in case I needed to bury something.
But no worries, I reassured myself. I am a farmer now.
“I’m farm girl,” I chanted meekly into the morning air. “Hear me roar. Er, crow with the rooster?”
I started waking up before the sun cast those purple and orange sherbert stripes on the horizon. That soon became my favorite part, the morning light and the silhouettes created in the pastures. The coffee always seemed better when sipped outside on the porch. Every morning I’d smile as the donkeys would begin to bray and beg to be let out into the pasture before daylight. The chores never dulled, and I found myself anxious to peek into the hen houses and lure the donkeys with pockets full of tomatoes.
“Good morning, ladies,” I’d announce to the hens as they hopped out of the coop and pecked their heads into a box of chicken scratch, chatting away amongst themselves and greeting a new day with their throaty squabbles. They eventually continued about their routine, bouncing around the yard pecking for maggots in the gravel around the trash cans before retreating to their morning perch on the old plow.
News-Sentinel reporter Maggie Creamer kept me company and helped with chores some days. We became the subject of several head nods and eye rolls after saying naive city girl things like, “This is fun,” and “It’s like panning for gold,” while raking nuggets in the donkey corral every morning.
We lounged on a the lawn in the afternoon sunlight with a chicken who pecked at my shiny, grenadine-infused champagne glass. I learned it’s possible to bond with a favorite chicken.
But even with all of this outside, I knew I succeeded with the most important job — keeping one 17-year-old kitty happy, reading her mind to find out if this hour’s preference is Fancy Feast chicken liver or ocean whitefish. I’ve read her gaze, too, the one that says, “It’s time for my whipped cream dollop, and you’d better not skimp.”
I’m only her staff, after all.
Every day, I was a little surprised. I must really be a farm girl, I thought. I gave all the girl donkeys — Zipper, Zamora and Smooch — their hoof-protecting hormones and kept the only boy, Smurf, out of their bowls, skillfully tricking him into thinking he was getting the same maple-flavored treat. The donkeys started following me around, and Zamora pressed her giant Tyrannosaurus rex head into my side when she wanted a little extra cuddle time. The chickens were never eaten by coyotes. Even Puss Puss, the cat, accepted me as her second momma and kneaded my neck at 3 a.m. That’s love, I’m told.
But it wasn’t only golden sunsets and cute chicken garbles. I learned lessons on my own, too. Like that I really shouldn’t wear flip-flops in the corral (because things can get messy, if you know what I mean; not to mention stepped on). I learned not to leave the water on too long in the duck pond because it will flood and leave the wild bunnies homeless. I watered the strawberry tower until the soil seemed soaked and the leaves lush, only to return in the afternoon to a tower of yellowed leaves and dried fruit. And maybe, just maybe, I should turn off the sprinkler before trying to fix its bad aim.
Aunt Jo returned to find that everything was alive (well, maybe not the strawberries), and I returned to suburbia. It’s been several weeks, and I still feel drawn to the country. I miss the donkey nuzzles and those chicken conversations. And that quiet. Oh, that quiet — you just can’t get that anywhere.
And as far as Dirty Harry, we’ve come to an understanding. He gets his ladies, but only until its time for this reformed townie to visit again.