King Ranch, Little Foot, our two dogs, Thing One and Thing Two, and I have been on the road back home to the ranch for the past 5 hours after a quick weekend trip to Houston to visit my family. The drive isn’t a bad one, especially when you’ve got good company and good music. We’ve made this same drive several times beginning in the early afternoon and we always pull up to our house just before sunset. It didn’t take long for King Ranch and I to really feel like this – this venture onto long, two-way country roads with slow speeds and fields full of hay for sale – was coming home. The exits become less frequent and the cars turn mostly into old trucks and travelling big rigs – that’s when we know we’re close.
The sky is pink lemonade blanketed with silhouettes of trees as we drive along the final gravel-covered country road that leads to our ranch. We pull up to deep-pink crepe myrtles sprinkling tiny flower bits like snow-fall as the dog’s tails thump against the inside of the car because they know they’re home, too. King Ranch hops out of the passenger seat to open the gate.
The rattle and rusty screech from the small wheel on the gate scooting along the loose gravel of our driveway has become such a welcoming sound. Bunny must hear the squeak and rattle of our homecoming because she begins to bray way out in the pasture and shortly after, Tee screeches even more loudly. I pull into the driveway as the dog’s claws start scratching wildly in anticipation of being let out. In the rearview mirror, I see King Ranch. With my foot pressed down on the brake, I study his movement for a moment – his shoulder blades rounding as he uses his upper body to pull the gate shut. Not once does he stumble in the gravel. That’s something about King Ranch – he’s incredibly graceful. He’s a man who doesn’t do anything or move in anyway without purpose. He is a soft-spoken man, but a well-spoken one. In the same way he moves, he speaks – with purpose.
Thing One suddenly bursts with a bark and I snap back into the present, noticing my cheeks are warm. I shift the car into park and turn off the ignition, keys jingling. I love silencing the car after a long trip. It’s satisfying.
I step out of the car and dear god, what is that smell? It’s a wet, hot, heavy, and dense slap-you-in-the-face-smell. Black magic death burn from the bitter depths of hell!
“Honey?” I call to King Ranch, “Do you smell that?”
He doesn’t have to answer because his face says enough. I pull Little Foot out of the back seat and he is rubbing his eyes, not quite crying. We follow our noses around the driveway and the garage when suddenly, “Here’s the smell,” King Ranch says, standing in front of the chicken coop.
With our noses in our inner elbows, we see it – a pile of perfectly still, black feathers in the back corner of the coop.
“What happened?” I ask.
King Ranch shrugs with a concerned look and ducks into the coop as I wander around looking for the other chickens. One by one, they bounce out from the bushes making staccato, glottal sounds. So far, there are only 5 (remember, we had 7 chickens). Of the 5, one of them is missing most of the feathers on the back of her neck as if she’s been tossed around like a chew toy. Terror has happened here.
King Ranch climbs out of the coop with his arm over his nose and says, “I think it was attacked. It’s all torn up.”
The sky has turned a deep indigo as King Ranch opens the garage to retrieve a shovel. With Little Foot on my hip, I peek into the coop from a distance. The pile, from my stance, is a dark shadow of defeat. These are free-range chickens. They only go into the coop to eat. So I start to imagine and wonder why this chicken has died here.
Moments later, King Ranch uses a large shovel to remove the carcass from the coop. Feathers of all sizes slowly float off of her, leaving a soft, shimmering, black trail to her final resting place.
We’ve been here before, King Ranch and I. Several weeks ago, we lost our egg-laying chicken to a hit and run out on the road. We’re equipped now to deal with the death of a chicken. But I can’t get over the terrorization of our chickens by whatever it was that trespassed here while we were away.
I imagine that this deceased chicken crawled into the corner of the coop because that’s where she felt safe. She surrounded herself with warmth, familiarity, and coziness in hopes that it would make everything okay. It’s all she knew. She went home.
Don’t we all do this? Come home? Whether that’s to our physical home with a roof or rather a habitual and familiar state of mind – don’t we retreat to our safe spaces when we’re scared or hurting?
When I was a freshman in college, I was sitting in an auditorium-sized Intro to Psychology class with around 150 other students when the TA who was leading the lecture clicked to a slide in her slideshow that bullet-pointed behavioral examples of individuals with different types of anxiety disorders. I had not been paying too much attention when at some point she said something along the lines of, “living in constant fear over things that haven’t even happened” and I immediately became present to her commentary. She went on to describe the feelings of hopelessness that these individuals often experience as well as lack of concentration, unrealistic views of arbitrary problems, panic, trouble sleeping and all kinds of other symptoms that I felt she was reading right from my ingredients label.
I began to panic. And then questioned my panicking. And then panicked some more.
The room seemed so small, suddenly. And very hot. I gathered my books and bolted out of class. I think we still had somewhere around 30 minutes left.
As I stumbled along the cobblestone sidewalks feeling the sweat gathering between my forearms and book covers, I started to cry. And then I started to run. I felt like everyone I passed was watching me. I felt like they must have thought I was completely absurd. My cheeks were surely bright red from the combination of panic, crying, and embarrassment.
I started playing all kinds of scenes in my head. Asking questions like why I hadn’t retained any friendships? Why was I afraid to go to parties? Why did I think I was so ugly and unworthy?
I didn’t even go back to my dorm room. I went straight to my car. It was a black, 1991 Pontiac Grand Am and there were ants living in my dashboard so that when I blasted the A/C, ants would literally fly out of the vents.
I drove home. It was a little over an hour drive to my parent’s house, so the sun was setting when I showed up. Being a Thursday night with no prior plans, my mom was startled to see me walk through their front door.
“Jess, what are you -” she said.
“Can we talk?” I asked.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, standing up. “Are you okay?”
I began to cry. She hugged me. Tight.
I went home. It’s all I knew.
King Ranch comes back to the house with an empty shovel and sees me standing there with Little Foot in my arms and with tears in my eyes. He drops the shovel, wraps his arms around the both of us, and tells me it’s okay. I begin to weep.
I keep thinking of that chicken and imagining her desperately seeking shelter in the corner of the coop and I hope that once she got there, she did feel safe. I hope that being in that place is what made it okay to let go.
We all go inside and King Ranch pours me a glass of red wine and grabs himself a Miller Lite. Little Foot is crawling around on the floor, stopping every so often to chew on his finger. I start to imagine that this will be the place that Little Foot will come home to when he’s lost.
We are, after all, home. Here at the ranch, we’re home.