An End

The sun’s retreated beyond the piney treetops as I’m driving in my rickety-red truck due south. The heavy, low-hanging clouds are reflecting the sunset so brightly that the neon pinks and oranges seem unreal—a dramatic sky spray-painting. I’ve been on the road for over four hours hauling a trailer behind me which is carrying a riding mower and I have to say I’m proud of my old truck for making it this far with a heavy load in-tow. I never thought I’d be someone who was proud of a vehicle yet, here I am.

On the passenger seat next to me in a dog crate is my hen, Wednesday Addams, and her three, newly hatched chicks. Without a working sound system in my truck, I’ve spent the last several hours listening to the peeping and chattering of Wednesday’s new, little family. They’re not sure what to make of this trip and I suppose, neither am I. It’s all just happened so quickly.

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A little over two and a half years ago, my new, little family moved to a small town in north Texas where we met a donkey named Bunny. She was included in the purchase of our home and really, I think she’s why we ultimately decided to purchase that home. Within that little more than two and a half years, we’ve adopted two more donkeys, Tink and Tee, and fostered twenty three other donkeys until we placed them in forever, loving homes.

It’s been a little over two and a half years since we found that home and several hours ago, I left it for the last time.

In front of me, King Ranch is driving a large moving van and behind me, my dad is in his own pickup truck and together, we three drivers have caravanned across a chunk of Texas in an effort to start anew. King Ranch started a new job several hours away and so the rest of us—Little Foot, Tucker, Bunny, Tee, Tink, Wednesday, her three new chicks and myself—have all followed along.

The clouds have faded into purple and gray as evening swallows the sunset and I’m hoping my three donkeys are doing okay. I delivered them a few days ago to our new house where they have a cozy barn and just as much land as they need. It’s traumatizing for them, I imagine, being loaded into a noisy box, driven at 65 to 75MPH between other whooshing vehicles and strange smells, only to jump out of the box with shaky legs and probably sore hooves in a place they’ve never seen. But if there’s one thing I know about donkeys it’s that they’re resilient—and luckily, they’ve got each other. I can hardly wait to get to our new home to see them again.

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Wednesday Addams’s three babies have burrowed beneath her feathery belly in the now-darkness of our drive and the peeping has drifted into sleep. Her marble, black eyes are mostly shut and I realize that I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a hen fall asleep. I wonder if they dream? It feels so silent now in the cab of this truck, the only noises left being the Rickety-red’s squeaky engine and passing cars.

I start to wonder if I’ll find a new place to teach yoga once we’ve settled in our new home. I haven’t led a yoga class in over a month being tied up in this move. I feel the tension climbing down my neck and behind my shoulder blades. Stress likes to sit back there, curled into a tight ball and it becomes more and more gravitational the longer I go without slowing down and stretching out properly. It begins to pull at the muscles along my spine and even down into my ham strings.

I think about the yoga class I led at my ranch several months ago—Yoga with the Donkeys is what I called it. I had so many friends attend that night and we raised several hundred dollars that went directly to saving donkeys. I wonder when I’ll see those friends again…north Texas will be a long way away. 

The moving van’s blinker begins to flash and as a caravan, we all change lanes in the blackness of this new night. We still have a ways to go.

An image of Little Foot’s bedroom (which I guess is now his old bedroom) appears in my mind. Hours ago, I stood in that doorway, nothing but indents in the carpet from the moved furniture and the dream-like memories left inside the room. I remember the first time I walked in there and saw him standing upright in his crib—he looked so big. He grinned with only a couple teeth, proud of his accomplishment. I don’t remember what I said to him, but he bounced up and down, giggling wildly. I remember once, when I’d come down the hallway, I heard him chattering in there and when I peeked in, I discovered that he was flipping through “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” and reciting every line as if he knew how to read it all by himself. I thought my heart might stop when I saw that. He emphasized the words just as I had when I’d read it to him. He loves his books. 

I blink my eyes a few times, the taillights of the moving van blurring through my tears and I glance at Wednesday whose eyes are still not fully shut. She must be exhausted. I am.

I wonder if the people who move into our old home will like the painting I’d left on the fence in the garden or if they’ll get rid of it. I always thought of my garden as my own, secret garden only instead of a robin, there were two cardinals.

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It’s all happened so fast—two and a half years have opened and shut so quickly and now, I’m driving away from what seems like a single, snapped Polaroid photo—the memories of it all stuck in that blurry, creaminess that appears before the picture fully develops. It’s done. Our time at the ranch where this whole Donkumentary began has come to an end, the shadow of the back cover of this large book closing all around me as I zoom down this dark, wooded highway.

I don’t yet know if there will be a sequel or a continuation of this here bloggery. This feels like a clean end and an opportunity to begin building new things upon a more solid foundation than when I began before. I also just don’t know what the days, weeks, or months ahead look like. I have no clue.

It will be some time before I’ll have internet up and running at my new place, so I suppose I have some time to think on it. I’ll unpack. I’ll love on my family, two legged and four. I’ll secure fences and hang paintings and learn which light switches belong to which lights. I’ll discover the nearest pizza place and find out if we can keep rescuing donkeys. I’ll take a break from the news and from the interwebs and begin to build again.

Until then, thank you. Thank you for following my story. I’ve loved having you along the way. 

Much love and namasBRAY,
Jess

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When Birds Fall

I’m sitting on the couch in my living room chatting with a friend of mine when a loud thump against the window startles us both. We whip our heads around to see what it could’ve been.

“A bird?” she asks, scanning the front porch.

I, too, dart my eyes around when they land on a small sparrow sitting upright and stunned by the leg of my front porch chair. “Yes!” I say, “There!”

I hop up from the couch, run to the front door, throw it open, and scoop up the small bird in my hands. I instantly recognize this sparrow because it’s been making a home with his or her partner in the birdhouse hanging over head. [that story here, if you missed it.] The tiny creature barely flinches as I hold its delicate, nearly weightless body in my hands. With the tip of my finger and as gently as I can, I stroke his or her back and whisper, “it’s okay, it’s okay” over and over again.

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“Shh, shh, little sparrow.”

From inside, my friend opens the window and asks me if the bird is okay, to which I reply that I think so. It’s breathing and nothing looks broken.

Several minutes pass and I stand to try and transfer the sparrow into its house where I can hear his or her partner chirping and as I lift my hands, the tiny birds hops onto the birdhouse, looks at me, and cocks its tiny head.

As the day goes on, I keep an eye on the front porch to ensure that there’s no injured sparrow and much to my delight, I catch both sparrows returning to their birdhouse later on in the afternoon and disappearing inside of it. I’m pleased to know that I didn’t scare them away: I worried that might’ve happened as soon as I cupped the bird into my hands.

This sparrow situation comes on the tail of two weeks in which Andre, one of my Rhode Island Red Hens, has been missing. You may remember her, she was the broody one who ultimately hatched Bowie, our bright and boisterous rooster [that story here]. She’s also the one who habitually pecks at the back door to get my attention and hopefully, table scraps.

I let my hens free range most days (especially in the humid stillness of summer) and two weeks ago, she didn’t come back to the coop. Had it been any of my other hens, I wouldn’t worry so much, assuming they’d decided to go on a walkabout and perhaps they found love on someone else’s property and decided to stay. Andre though, well she’s a homebody; a mama’s girl. At this point, I’ve assumed the worst and it just breaks my heart. I love that hen. I love her so much so that I had a t-shirt made with her photo on it earlier this year because well…just because.

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In addition to that gut-tugging sense of loss, I’m feeling like a failure that Andre has gone missing, like I should’ve done more. In hindsight, however, her being out of the coop in the first place was me trying to be a good chicken mom. I wanted for her and her sisters to have some breezy, fresh air and those really juicy, flicking bugs that hop around in the summer grass. Sometimes, I suppose, things just happen beyond our best control and despite our best intentions.

I never thought I’d miss a chicken so much but then again, there’s a lot that I didn’t know about myself until I moved here and there’s a heck of a lot I’m still figuring out. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is just how deeply responsible we are for one another, human and animal alike. It is our responsibility to be kind, to help where we can, and to try and understand one another even when we think we have no obligation to do so. We should lift each other up, hold each other, keep an eye out for one another so that when someone falls, you’re there to lift them up and help them home. There’s a lot of finger pointing going on these days—a lot of hearts sealed shut and it’s destroying us. 

Perhaps Andre is off finding herself. Perhaps she’s doing exactly what I’ve been doing for the past several years—taking a grand adventure to meet new characters and discover her own strength—and one day, I’ll hear a little tap tap tap on the back door and open it to find two little orange eyes looking up at me. I can only hope with all my heart that that’s the case.

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Andre the wonder hen

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Until then, I’m glad to know I’ve not scared the sparrows off yet. I’m tickled to know that the two of them are floofed up together in that gently swaying birdhouse that we built. I fully intend on keeping a close eye out for them, there to catch them if they fall. 

Two Worlds Diverged in a Summer Afternoon

It was high, hot noon as I drove along the gravel road that leads to our house. As I pulled up, I stepped out of the pickup truck to open the rusted gate. The pink crepe myrtles along the front fence were in full, summer bloom—their tiny flowers winking as if to welcome us home. The railings of the gate were hot against my hands as I pulled it open while flicking, grass bugs darted around underneath its squeaky, rolling wheel. I climbed back into the truck and pulled into the driveway—gravel crunching and popping beneath the tires.

Little Foot was asleep in his car seat as I pressed the brake down with my left foot and moved the truck’s stick into neutral. Bunny and Tyrion were grazing slowly in the front paddock but had stopped to watch me pull into the driveway. I leaned back in my seat and turned up the air conditioner.

In the yard, I watched one of our red hens, Andre, scratch underneath one of the magnolia trees with her newly hatched chick, Julep. This hatching came as a surprise to us. Andre had started brooding in our mint plant a few weeks back and honestly, I thought she’d just gone a little batty. It was too hot to be brooding, I thought, and certainly an odd spot. Then, just two days ago, she hatched another chick: right there in the shade of the mint.

Bowie, the chick who Andre hatched a couple months ago [that story here] follows them closely and it’s really something to watch—mom, baby, and new baby. Little siblings. Little family.

Andre and her chicks disappeared beneath the shade of the tree as I laid my head back and closed my eyes—the a/c vent aimed right at my face. When I closed my eyes, I saw a scene in my head that just a couple of hours ago, I wish I hadn’t witnessed. I tried to shake it but I couldn’t, so I opened my eyes—the light painfully bright.

I won’t give you the gritty details because I don’t want you to see it in your mind’s eye either. But for a long story made short, a few hours ago, I saw a man getting jumped by two other men at an intersection in the next town over on my way to teach a yoga class. There were screams and there was blood. And in that moment, I was helpless to assist because number one, I had Little Foot in the car and number two, I was scared of the men who were being violent.

I did pull across the street into a bank parking lot and called the police. I stayed with them on the phone until police showed up, all the while, describing to the phone operator what I was seeing in as much detail as I could.

As I drove away, I cried. I cried a lot. I called King Ranch and my mom and cried to them, unsure of what to say or think.

I’ve never seen anyone get jumped. I’ve never seen it outside of movies or TV shows. With as much violence as there is on TV and in movies, I guess I thought if I ever did see it in real life, I would be desensitized.

But in real life, it is terrifying. It is bone-rattling. And it is shocking.

I noticed then that from inside our house, our dog, Tucker, was watching me curiously from the front window. His tongue hung down low and his ears were perked enthusiastically, so I turned the keys in the ignition and opened the driver’s side door. Little Foot must have felt the silencing of the engine because he fussed until he saw my face; then he grinned widely. I pulled his stretching body from his car seat and from the front paddock, both Bunny and Tee brayed.

With Little Foot propped up on my hip, I closed the front gate and reached over the fence to pat both Bunny and Tee’s noses before walking up the driveway to the front door. As I walked, I kissed Little Foot’s cheek over and over again. Andre and her babies hopped out from beneath the tree chasing a flicking bug and I could hear Tucker barking with excitement.

Inside, the running a/c and Tucker’s wagging tail welcomed us. I set Little Foot on the ground in the entry way and he took off running towards his box of blocks. I sat down at the kitchen table and stared out the window unable to hold my tears once again.

There were no words I could conjure and still, I have nothing profound to say—just that there is a whole, beautiful, vibrant, life-giving world existing alongside a very violent, angry, unfair, and hurtful one. I wish we could all live together in the nice one. I really do. I hope that one day, we all can.

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Black Chicken Bloomed

One year ago today, I posted this story on my blog. This was the story of the Unicorn and the first death of a chicken here and how King Ranch refused to let one of his own die in vain. It poured and it broke our hearts.

This morning, I decided to wander over to the spot beneath the rosebushes to pay my respects. I found this:

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Black Chicken is alive. She lives in her blooms.

Across the yard, White Rooster crowed on the fence. I don’t think he’s forgotten. Neither have we.

 

The Last Little Rockstar

The mid-afternoon air hung heavily around us as King Ranch and I stood behind the wooden back house with chipping red paint that sits a ways back on our property

The back house is a dilapidated structure that we were told was the original house on the property. One side of it appears to have been a chicken coop at some point with netted fencing and wooden boxes, although, now it was a tangle of vines, weeds, and spider webs. The main part of the house — one small room with a concrete floor and rotting, wooden walls — had become a storage space for scrap wood, miscellaneous ranch tools, and old Christmas decorations that must have belonged to the little, scratchy woman from whom we purchased the property. On the other side of the house was a garage that was, in comparison to the rest of the house, in pretty good shape. The door had clearly been replaced and within it were extra water troughs and wood pallets. Still a lot of spider webs, though.

We stood behind the house where colorful weeds lined the base of the structure — thick, tangled weeds with flicking bugs and spiked leaves — because our last, little Rockstar rooster had finally been found.

He had been missing for three days. Of all the chickens and roosters at the ranch, the last Rockstar was the most social. He was a bouncy bird with a blueish, green tail that looked like slick oil on concrete. The rest of his body was jet black. He had made our back patio his home — specifically, he would sleep atop the firewood pile all on his own — and every morning between 4 and 5, he’d let us know if was time to wake up.

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King Ranch placed his hand on my lower back and said, “I’m sorry.”

Tears stung the corners of my eyes. In front of us, our once shiny, hip-hoppity Rockstar was now a graying pile of loose, lifeless feathers. His head was buried in a hole near the base of the back house and his body hung limply down into the jagged weeds. He had gotten himself stuck.

I leaned into King Ranch and cried.

I wondered how many birds at this point had died at our ranch and recalled them all:

There was Black chicken who had gotten out of the yard and was hit by a car early last summer when the Unicorn visited. There was another Rockstar rooster who’d been attacked by something while we were out of town whom we found dead in the corner of the coop. There was the Rockstar who was stomped out by the donkeys late last summer when Nikki came to visit. There were the three chicks who tried to hatch who didn’t make it and then the most recent tragic death of Prince, our other chick, who drowned in his water dish after being alive for only one week.

Now, the last of the Rockstars dangled out of the back house after what I knew was a struggle until his end.

I felt awful.

Behind us, Bunny snorted. She nosed her way in between King Ranch and I and King Ranch let out a sound that, I think, was somewhere between a laugh and a frustrated exhale, although I couldn’t tell which.

He said, “Well excuse me,” to Bunny. She raised and lowered her head a few times and pushed against me harder.

I laughed behind my tears and squatted down in front of her.

King Ranch scooped up Little Foot who was nearby flailing a stick and walked back towards our house. As he did this, a low rumble of thunder rolled by in the distance.

I’d have to pull the Rockstar out of there and give him a proper burial. I wasn’t sure how best to go about this because I wanted to preserve his body as best I could and I didn’t know how strongly wedged his body was in there. I imagined, pretty tightly to have been his end.

For now, I cried for him. Bunny stood with me, her head on top of mine, and I cried for him.

I cried because I felt awful that he was gone. I cried because I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. I cried because life is so freaking fragile. I cried because how stupid must this bird have been to get stuck in a hole and how stupid was I to allow myself to get so attached?

But he wasn’t stupid. No. He was probably chasing a delicious bug that outsmarted him by scrambling into a hole in the house just large enough for the Rockstar’s head.

Damn you, bug. Freaking bug. It was that bug’s fault.

I wanted to hunt that bug. It was probably a big, fat cockroach with long, spiked, antennae because roaches never bring anything but terror and trickery. Why is it that when you turn on a light in the garage and spot one, they scramble right towards your feet? Bastards. In Texas, cockroaches even fly. Yes. They FLY. In FLOCKS. You’re a dead man, roach.

Bunny exhaled heavily. So did I as I stood up. She pulled her top lip back and pressed her upper gum into my shoulder. I think it was a donkey kiss.

Warm drops sprinkled down from the sky as another barrel of thunder tumbled by towards the west. The red, chipping paint on the house started turning a deep, brownish tint in the growing wetness.

Rest in peace, sweet Rockstar. I hope you’ve found your friends in the afterlife and that you’re alerting everyone to the sunrises. You really did do a good job with that.

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Life. Death. And Somewhere in the Middle

As part of my morning routine, after coffee and a stretch and in addition to feeding the dog and giving the donkeys a pet, I check the chicken coop for any newly laid eggs in which to collect.

For the past month or so, however, I have been unable to collect eggs because one of my Rhode Island Red chickens named Andre has been brooding – sitting atop an ever growing pile of eggs in an attempt to hatch some.

I suppose I should have known that this was a strong possibility – that one of our chickens would go broody. White Rooster has staked our home as his territory (it’s been months now since we’ve seen Rainbow Rooster) and well, it’s that time of year. Birds and the bees, and such.

I’ve tried, on several attempts, to collect at least a few eggs from beneath Andre, but her pecking and snipping at my hand just isn’t worth it, so I decided to just wait and see what happens.

It was a Thursday morning that was expected to be an unseasonably hot one – highs were to reach 80 degrees and it’s only April. Oh Texas weather. There was still morning dew covering every surface outside, however, it quickly disappeared, little by little, as the sun’s rays extended. It almost felt warm and chilly at the same time. With my rubber boots slipped on, I took a peek into the coop to see if indeed, Andre was still brooding and if, by chance, there would be new eggs within reach to collect.

To my surprise, I saw 4 eggs sitting by themselves about 3 feet away from Andre and assumed that meant that one or two of the other chickens had laid them there. Ducking into the coop, I extended my left hand to grab the eggs when my gaze was grabbed by something slightly buried beneath the hay between these random 4 eggs and Andre. I couldn’t tell what it was, so careful to not get pecked, I used my right hand to pull some hay back when I realized what I saw.

I think I shrieked. Or gasped. Or maybe it was just a heavy exhale, but whatever my lungs did caused me to stumble backward. There, in the middle of this box, was a dead chick.

I sat there for a moment on the floor of the coop – the damp mud was cool and soaking into my pants beneath me – and tried to gather some sense. Why? What? How?

After a few breaths, I stood up and peeked into the box once more. The dead chick lay there without any feathers. It’s feet were curled up close to its belly and it’s beak was tucked way down towards its chest. This must be the shape that chicks are in right before they hatch. I briefly recalled that Little Foot was in this same shape in every one of his last few ultrasounds.

I backed out of the coop and called King Ranch who didn’t answer, so I called my mom and told her what I’d found, crying.

After our conversation, I realized that I would need to remove that chick as soon as possible to deter any predators who may have already caught its scent. Foxes, bobcats, and coyotes are not at all foreign to this area.

For a moment, I stepped back inside to make sure that Little Foot was still sleeping in his crib – which he was – stretched out with one arm reaching above his head and the other laid across his upper belly. His mouth was slightly open and his breath rose and fell smoothly. This made me grin.

Back outside, I retrieved the shovel from the well house and dug a hole in the backyard beneath one of the rosebushes that is completely covered in light pink blooms. The bush towers above me and I thought that this would be a good resting space for the chick.

With my gloves slipped on, I scooped the baby chick into my hands. It’s neck flopped, so I tried to ball it up again like it was. It’s weight in my hands was practically nothing – as if I’d been carrying half of a small onion.

What was most odd was that Andre only watched me scoop up this baby. Not once did she squawk, peck, or even fidget. She just watched me, her orange eyes wide and her head cocked to one side. I slid the baby into my left hand and placed my right hand on top of it, moving the chick out of Andre’s sight, as I stared at her for a moment.

“What happened?” I asked her.

She stared back at me.

“I’m sorry for this,” I said.

Andre shifted her weight and ruffled the feathers around the base of her wings before settling back down onto the pile of eggs that must be at least 30 by now.

With the chick covered in my hands, I turned to leave the coop when from behind me, I heard the faintest peep peep peep.

On my heel, I swiveled around and noticed that Andre, within that one second that I had my back turned, had turned around herself in the corner of this box where all I could see was the fluff of her bottom.

Peep. Peep. Peep.

My heart hopped in my chest as I took a step back towards the box. As I did so, Andre let out a trilled scream and all of her bottom feathers spread apart. Again, I stumbled back, noticing that my hands which held the deceased chick, were shaking.

I went out into the yard, laid the chick into the hole and watched it for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said and covered the tiny body with dirt.

Quietly, I crept back into the coop to try and see, well, whatever it was I might have seen, but Andre spread herself out so wide that I could barely see into the box at all. A low, glottal growl rumbled from her without pause, so I backed out and sat on the bench next to the side door.

I called my mom again, this time, frantic.

“I think there are chicks in there! I can’t see them! But I can hear them! What do I do?” I said.

I always call my mom when I don’t know what to do, assuming she has answers. She mostly laughed in reply to me and said a lot of, “I don’t know,”’s. My hands quivered with excitement, but also, I think, grief for the baby who hadn’t made it.

After spending about an hour researching ‘next steps for newly hatched eggs’ on the internet, and spending time with my own kid who had woken up by now, I packed us up and drove to the nearest feed store in the next town over. There, I picked up some ‘chick starter’ feed, a small feeder and small water dispenser that would fit in the box in which Andre and her newly hatched chick(s) were staying. The maternity ward, if you will.

I told the cashier my whole story about the dead chick and the peeping and asked her what I should do next to which she replied, “Ma’am, I don’t know. I only work here.”

In a flash, I was back home with Little Foot and a bag of supplies.

I put Little Foot in his wagon with a few toys to keep him idle and in sight while I tended to the coop. I’m not ready to just let him wander around the yard without being a few steps behind him yet. I don’t know when I will be, either.

Filling the new feeder, I stepped back into the coop and shut the door behind me to ensure that none of the other chickens would come in and interfere – in my research, I’d learned that other hens can get jealous and cause issues for the new hatchlings.

After setting it into the box – still unable to see past Andre’s puffed out feathers – I realized I’d left the water dispenser outside of the coop and as I went to retrieve it, the other Rhode Island Red, Big Mama, came tearing past me and into the coop and up the ramp to the box.

Screaming, I chased after her when I realized what I was seeing. Here is a video I shot that day right after Big Mama’s entrance:

I was dumbfounded. I could not believe the way that Big Mama and Andre tag-teamed in taking care of what appeared to be two new chicks.

Closing the door behind me, I left the coop, and left the mamas to tend to their babies.

For a few days, I checked on them several times and each time, was able to get a better look at the two, newly hatched chicks. Every day, they emerged from beneath Andre (and sometimes Big Mama) a little bit further than the previous. Each day, they got more fluffy and their marks became more defined.

On the 4th day, it became crucial that I retrieve the unhatched eggs from beneath Andre. In my research, I’d learned that unhatched eggs, if left under the mama, could become rancid and actually explode, putting the hatchlings and even mamas at risk. This would be no easy task because Andre and Big Mama were meaner than ever protecting these babies.

I managed to push both chickens off the eggs using a feed scoop and a piece of cardboard long enough to pull all the eggs out of the box. Andre and Big Mama, of course, flailed wildly (you’ve heard the phrase “running around like a chicken with your head cut off” – that’s got nothing on new mama chickens) and the newly hatched chicks peeped frantically beneath them.

I felt awful doing this – taking the eggs. Andre and Big Mama must have been devastated to have someone stealing what they thought were their unborn babies. But at the same time, I couldn’t put them all at risk because these eggs had been here for well over a month now and something in there smelled like rotting death.

Indeed it was rotting death. Two more dead chicks – two that looked as if they’d been trying to hatch but didn’t quite make it.

After removing them all, I left the mamas and the chicks to calm down for a while as I disposed of the eggs and partially hatched embryos. It was gut wrenching. I remembered the baby I’d buried just a few days ago and assumed that it’s little, weightless body had decomposed by now or been eaten by something in the ground. This tugged at my heart.

A few more days went by and both mamas and both chicks emerged from the box to start exploring the rest of the coop.

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Andre and/or Big Mama stay a step or two behind the chicks at all times – their orange eyes constantly scanning their surroundings. If any of the other chickens or White Rooster for that matter approach the coop, one of them chases them away, squawking and flapping.

There are few words I have to describe the intensity of these events: the pure life and death of all of it. How, in one day, some died and some lived. Some are now in the ground while the others explore. It’s very difficult to know what to say about that except that it is powerful.

Moreover, to see the way that Big Mama and Andre cooperate in protecting the chicks is astonishing. They’re incredible mothers. I should know, I got pecked more times than I could count. I’ve also never run out of the coop so many times while being chased by a puffed up chicken.

I get it though – protecting your child. I still follow Little Foot around the yard, positioning myself between him and what I perceive as danger. I would certainly attack anyone who I thought might be there to hurt him. I’d give it everything I got without hesitation.

There’s a sadness in feeling the fragility of life. The weightlessness of the first dead chick in my closed hands on that first day is a feeling that I don’t think I can, or want to, forget. I’ve wondered since then if perhaps Andre knew it had died, and she pushed it out there for me to see. She didn’t want to expose her other hatching chickens to that. I wonder if that chicken hatched first and then died, or died in the process like the other two that I found a few days later. Of course, I also wonder what I could have done differently to save the chicks.

Then again, I think that all of this is beyond my control. This is the vastness of life. This is the beginning and the end and everything in between.

We have all been born. We will all die. If you’re reading this right now, then you’re somewhere in the middle with the rest of us. And that’s life.

I am honored to have had at least a small part in the first few days of life for these new chicks. I remember how much I needed help in the first several weeks – even months – that Little Foot was alive.

This is a whole new journey for the mother hens, as it is for us here at the ranch. How grateful I am to be in the middle of life and death right now – to be living and participating in the world around me. To be able to extend a hand. To be able to feel the grief of a creature who has died. To have the opportunity to connect, on an emotional level, with an orange-eyed chicken.

The in between is an opportunity to be someone. Indeed, we’re all in this together. Humans and chickens and donkeys alike.

Life – the vastness of it and the beauty of it – is so frighteningly yet beautifully temporary.

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Growing Pains

When King Ranch and I decided to make the move to this property a year ago, one of the things I couldn’t wait to get going was a garden. I so desired the opportunity to build a homestead – to live off the land.

It’s taken us a whole year, but we’ve finally done it – planted a garden.

I’ve never done this before. I watched my mom and dad grow a small garden on the side of the house where we grew up in northwest Houston. I don’t remember much about it except for my mom in a big hat, my dad with a wheelbarrow, and a few fruit bats that started hanging upside down outside my window at night, peeping as I fell asleep.

My lack of experience has me a little apprehensive about this process. It’s so new and fragile. Although, thinking about it, this time last year, I was saying the same thing about owning a ranch – wondering how on Earth I could do this. Then I said the same thing about becoming a donkey parent – what was I thinking? Months before that, I said the same thing about becoming a human parent, too. I was responsible for raising a human baby?

I suppose all things are new and fragile until you’re used to them:

 – Parenthood, for example – I remember crying my eyes out one day (okay, more like every afternoon there for a while) because I was so afraid that Little Foot wasn’t getting enough to eat. And, seriously, I just knew he was going to die if I wasn’t there to pick him up the second he started to cry.

 – Lifestyle – city life to ranch life? The closest grocery store was how far away? And how often do we need our well serviced?

 – Relationships – I think they all go through a ‘polite’ stage where, you know, it’s all ‘yeah, I’m down for whatever because I’m so laid back and just want you to be happy’  and ‘Oh, it’s fine that you left dirty dishes in the sink for three days because you’re just so freaking beautiful that I don’t care.’

 – Pet ownership – donkeys and chickens?

 – Home ownership – a mortgage?

 – Even new jobs – right now, King Ranch is delicately stacking up the blocks of his days at his new job with the utmost detail because it’s all so…new and fragile.

DELICATE: Handle with care.

Nevertheless, it’s now in the ground: tomatoes, peppers (bell, poblano, and jalapeno), an eggplant, several types of lettuce, onions, snap peas, cucumbers, two types of grapes, and raspberries. Planted in pots on our back porch are herbs (mint, cilantro, basil, and dill) along with an over-sized pot filled with potatoes.

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I’ve been out every day to check on it – the new garden. The baby plants. I’ll admit, I’ve talked to them a bit. “This is your home, little lettuce. We’re gonna take good care of you.”

Gardening

 

—-

Last night, a severe storm pushed through the area. Springtime in north Texas, we’ve learned, is dramatic. Funnel clouds reach down from the sky like bodybuilders reach down for kettlebells in front of one another – glamour muscles flexed, veins popping – it’s intimidating albeit, impressive – but also kind of annoying because unless you’re into that kind of thing, you’re ready to move onto more peaceful scenery – like the repetition of an expert rower or the gazelle-like strides of an intermediate to advanced runner on a treadmill.

Massive gusts of wind that travel, I think, down the southern end of the Rockies and tumble, gaining speed across the Texas plains, don’t just push over pots, but tear major artery branches out of trees and toss them over houses – usually into expensive things like cars or brick mailboxes.

There are sometimes the lovely, Earthy, peaceful lightning storms that resemble the cover of a mediation album, but then there are the flashy lightning storms – sequined, spinning ball gowns underneath sparkling chandeliers at a rich kid’s high school prom – the music heavy with bass.

Last night was a perfect, kettlebell, branch tossing, expensive, fluffy dress, kind of storm.

As the thunder rumbled the foundation of our house and my phone screamed with tornado warnings, I mentally noted my list of major concerns.

  1. Little Foot and King Ranch – both in the living room with me, ready to take shelter in the hallway at any moment.
  2. Thing One – under my feet. See #1.
  3. Bunny and Tyrion – still trying to convince King Ranch to let them inside when weather like this begins. For now, I peeked, they’re in their shed, seemingly okay. They’d probably prefer the space outside instead of the walls of our guestroom, anyway.
  4. The chickens: Big Mama Red, Youpullit, Andre, Psycho Brown, Resurrected Zombie, White Rooster, and Last of the Mohicans (aka Rockstar Rooster) – All will be in the coop except for Resurrected Zombie and Rockstar. RZ is a mystery to us. She only seldom shows up on the property. She doesn’t lay eggs (at least not in the coop) and when she is around, she’s a safe distance from the others. I don’t know if she’s been shunned or is shy herself. Rockstar is a rooster that sleeps in the pile of firewood on our back patio. He’s also responsible for waking us up before dawn. Anyway, with the exception of RZ, I can assume our chickens and roosters are all safely sheltered as they are night after night.
  5. The garden. THE GARDEN. Absolutely NOTHING is sheltering those plants.

I laid there and worried about it – the tomato plants, especially, because they’re, so far, the tallest and I think, most likely at risk of dying in harsh winds. Remember, I’m a novice at this – these are just my own conclusions.

I could barely sleep all night thinking of my garden. Every time I heard the chimes clang nervously on the back patio, I cringed at the thought of stems snapping, leaves detaching, and hail pelting these eager plants.

Between the mini blinds, blue lights flashed like paparazzi.

—-

It’s morning and King Ranch has left for work and Little Foot is awake and ready to run everywhere. I pull on some pants and open the curtains in the livingroom. To my surprise, it’s a brilliantly sunny day – richly green grass and saturated trees are tangled with bouncing squirrels, fleeting robins, and disappearing dew.

It’s also quite chilly – for March in Texas, that is. About 40 degrees.

Bundled up, Little Foot and I head outside to check on numbers 3 – 5 on the worry list. Bunny and Tee bray loudly when they hear the gate clang and trot over to us with alert ears. With the exception of a little extra mud around their hooves, they look just fine. Mornings after storms like this, I get the feeling that the donkeys come running up to me to tell me all about the storm last night. They’re extra clingy and by now, you should know I love that.

All the chickens and roosters are accounted for, except for Resurrected Zombie – but that’s not unusual – and they’re extra-energetic and excited with the bugs they’re finding in new mud puddles.

The garden looks just fine. Soaked, but fine. I do feel, however, that I should put stakes by the tomato plants in preparation for the next storm so I don’t worry so much that they could tumble over. So I do. I stake them.

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I fluff the leaves a bit and call Little Foot over so I can show him what I did. I don’t think he understands my words yet, but he certainly seems interested in things like wood, string, tools, and most especially, dirt. 

This is, undoubtedly, the first of many storms this season. This is also, I’m sure, the first of many gardens. I imagine one’s first garden is much like one’s first pancake – kind of a flop. Probably still edible, but the subsequent servings are far superior. You have to learn the timing, the texture, the temperature, and most importantly, the patience, to perfect pancakes. And gardens. And parenthood. And homeownership. And pet ownership. And relationships. And life. And, well, yourself. It all takes time and practice and inevitable mistakes along the way.

Little Foot is not only alive, but healthy. As are the donkeys. As is my relationship. There have been many times I thought that I’d ruin each of those because of my ignorance and/or inexperience and/or stupidity and/or a million other reasons why mistakes happen. But I just kept going. I still keep going. One day at a time.

Be patient. Be cautious and smart. But be patient. You’ll figure it out. Stake that shit and keep going.

Now go watch your garden grow; your story unfold.

 

Full Circle

It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and Little Foot has just gone down for his afternoon nap. For the past 45 minutes or so, he’s become increasingly fussy – throwing toys and arching his back – a key indicator that he’s tired. Nap time is a bigger fight than it used to be – he pulls out all the stops trying to stay awake. A favorite of his is the “Little Foot leg flail” whereby he vigorously kicks his long legs in any and every direction as quickly as he can. The closer he gets to sleep, the more violent these kicks become.

Despite the battle, he is now sleeping soundly in his crib and I’ve lounged back on the couch in the living room. I love this couch. It belonged to my grandparents and always reminds me of being at their bayhouse. It’s a white couch with over-sized pillows that are easily removed to open up to just about a twin-size bed. For guests, it’s the best kind of couch. For me, it’s a reminder of the bay.

As children, we would go the bay house and play for hours. My grandparents lived in a small, water-side community just before the causeway that bridged the border of Texas to Galveston island. It smelled of salt-water and was never perfectly quiet – although the constant noise was therapeutic: seagulls, waves, the occasional distant boat motor.

Both of my grandparents who owned that house have since passed away – my grandmother years before my grandfather. Still, I think of them often and feel lucky to have little reminders in my house of my time with them: this couch, a gray, ceramic dog in our living room with one ear missing that my grandmother used to call Max, a toothbrush holder in the shape of a white elephant with a yellow bird on its trunk, and a diamond mirror framed in pink and brown sea shells, to name a few. These trinkets remind me of the salty-smell of their house. They remind me how many late nights my cousins and I would compare headstands and cartwheels on the floor in their living room. They remind me that for some reason, my whole family – folks, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins – would spend hours standing in a circle with beverages and snacks to catch up before ever taking a seat on this couch – that was unless their was an important football game on television.

This couch is more than a reminder though – it’s a goal. It’s what I want for my family.

Little Foot was a huge surprise to King Ranch and I. A few months before I found out I was pregnant, I was actually told by my doctor that I would probably not be able to have kids – and even if I did, somehow, get pregnant, that my body would have a difficult time hanging on to a pregnancy. So when I found out I was pregnant and months later, went into pre-term labor with Little Foot when I was only 28-weeks along, I was terrified that this was the end for him. I was so fearful that even though I hadn’t given much thought to being a mom before, that now this was the end for the potential of parenthood. 

Here we are though, two years later and Little Foot is alive and well. We’re a family – King Ranch, Little Foot and I. I don’t know that another kid will happen or will even be possible in my future – but at least with the three of us, I want what my grandparents had: an oasis. A family gathering spot that years later, still exists in all of our bones. I guarantee that all of my aunts and uncles and cousins distinctly remember the smell of that house. I know for a fact that they all remember what the carpet in the living room felt like beneath their bare feet and what Joan, the mother goose of the canal, sounded like at 7 in the morning.

I know it’s early on – but I hope our ranch in this someday. I hope that it becomes a sanctuary of unique and heartwarming smells and sounds that can’t be found anywhere else – at least not like this. I hope that one day, our grand kids are fighting over who gets what belongings of ours so that they can think of us when they get older.

Outside, a hear the engine of a large truck drive down our road and I turn to see the back end of a passing white pick-up truck. Bits of gravel kick up behind the truck as it drives off and a trail of dust lingers for just a moment before vaporizing into the brightness of the blue sky. In the yard, our chickens are pecking around and scratching for bugs.

At my feet, Thing One is almost asleep – one ear is still standing up and every few seconds, turns like a satellite towards any sound. I pat his head and lay back on the couch.

King Ranch will probably be calling me in an hour or so to say he’s on his way home from work. With his new job, his commute is much longer than before – about an hour one-way. It makes for far shorter evenings for us – we’re trying to adjust our dinner time and bedtime routine for Little Foot to maximize our time together – but it’s a process, I suppose. I’m so grateful that he’s found a job and one he’s so far, seeming to enjoy.

It’s an odd thing, though – him starting a new job now. It was this time literally one year ago that King Ranch interviewed for and accepted his job up here in the first place. It was precisely a year ago that we made the decision to move up here and it was almost exactly a year ago that we toured this ranch and met Bunny for the first time.

How little we knew.

A year ago, everything was so new. North Texas. Living on a ranch. Fresh eggs in the morning. Donkey ownership. Being a stay-at-home mom. I was so scared. I was so insecure. I was so anxious that I would fail.

I relax my shoulders a bit more and close my eyes. Chickens chatter outside. Thing One is breathing heavily.

I relax even more – letting go of the muscles that lie beneath my shoulder blades. I let go of the muscles along my spine. With a deep breath, I let my legs, ankles, and feet melt into the softness of this iconic, white couch.

And then I remember that it was just about a year ago that I was doing this exact same thing – relaxing every single part of me – when I realized that our dogs were attacking the chickens outside. (that post can be found here.)

I remember that I had to leave Little Foot screaming in his crib so I could go out and save the chickens. I remember doubting myself as a mom, as a homeowner, and as a ranch owner. I remember wondering why on Earth King Ranch and I thought we could pull this off.

I remembered that on that day, I found that the ranch breeds forgiveness. That despite being attacked, the chickens were okay. That despite being left in his crib for a few minutes, Little Foot was okay. Even the dogs after getting in serious trouble were okay.

In time, I’ve learned that even the donkeys forgive – they’re furious when we try and trim their hooves, but they always forgive and come back around.  I’ve learned that King Ranch is forgiving when I have an anxiety attack over what looks like to him, nothing.

Most importantly, in the past year, I’ve learned to forgive myself. I’ve not handled everything in my life perfectly, but then again, who has? I haven’t always made the right choices or handled things maturely – but so what? I can honestly say that I’ve always done my best. MY best – not someone else’s best. Mine.

That’s what it’s all about, I think – doing your best, being kind, being honest, and extending forgiveness (to others and yourself) along the way.

I think my grandparents to whom this couch used to belong understood that and I think that’s why our whole family was and still continues to be so close. They did their best, were honest, were kind, and were always forgiving. So even though that bay house has been sold and is out of all of our lives physically, their example and their impact still lives on.

That’s what I want for us, for our family. I want kindness and gentleness. I want forgiveness. I want unconditional love. I don’t think anyone should settle for anything less.

I have no idea what the next year of our lives could possibly have in store for us and I guess I’m okay with that. In one year, we’ve learned to run a ranch, care for donkeys and chickens, plant a garden, build a fence, raise an infant, survive without an income, be supportive, and to love without end. Imagine what the next year has waiting.

How little we know.

Outside, Bunny brays. I haven’t been out to see the donkeys today, so I get up to grab a few carrots out of the refrigerator. I slip on my boots by the back door and step outside – the smell of livestock and barbecue spice beneath the chattering birds in the pecan tree and the slamming shut of the screen door behind me. These are our waves. Our seagulls. Our sounds.

I open the gate that leads out to the pasture, Bunny and Tee trotting up to greet me. Their eyes are wide and ears are perked.

This ranch life. We’re doing it. 

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Beginning a Garden

Wearing a bright green sweatshirt that’s sporting a brown t-rex, Little Foot is stumbling around through dried, crinkled leaves while waving a short, dry stick in the air and giggling uncontrollably. Just in front of him is Thing One who seems only mildly okay with being chased in circles through the yard. I’m watching this adorable scene over my left shoulder while holding a chunk of  brand new, chicken-wire fence steady with my hands, as King Ranch is looping circular nails through its wiring to secure this new fence to tall, forest-green posts buried deep in the ground.

“Can you hold it steady?” King Ranch asks under an irritated sigh.

“Oh,” I say, turning back to the fence, realizing that I’ve let it sway. “Sorry.” I peek one more time at Little Foot running around and then focus on my hands.

We’re fixing to get our garden started – an impressive, 24’x 100’ lot that has been carved out of the paddock closest to our backyard. Big plans are in store for this plot – tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, zucchini, squash and an array of herbs. Fruit trees are also being considered – pear and peach, perhaps.

Just on the other side of this project are the donkeys seemingly confused by the rising barrier. Bunny stays in line with me, only the wiring of the fence separating us. Every few seconds she turns her big brown eyes back to me and blinks heavily as if she’s searching for understanding.

Tyrion the mini donkey is pacing back and forth along the erecting fence, stomping his back, right hoof every few steps. He’s not happy. Change, I think, is something in which donkeys are not fond.

“It’s okay, little girl,” I whisper to Bunny while leaning over the fence to see my reflection in her eye. She lowers her head.

“Honey,” King Ranch huffs.

I glance back down to my hands and realize I’ve pushed the fence towards the donkeys.

“Sorry,” I say while shifting it back in line.

King Ranch is wearing a cream-colored cowboy hat that’s covering his face, so I can’t tell if he’s actually frustrated, concentrating, tired, or a mixture of all of those. A dolphin-croak behind me and I turn to see Little Foot a few paces away picking up a small, broken pecan. He opens his mouth and raises the pecan.

“No!” I shout, releasing the fence and scrambling towards Little Foot. Before I can reach him, he throws the pecan and runs away from me. This spooks Bunny who trots away with her ears straight up. I hear King Ranch exhale heavily and drop something metallic on the ground.

We’ve been out here for a while now  trying to get this fence up. King Ranch was out here well before Little Foot and I and although it’s still technically winter, the sun has beat down on him long enough to make this the most frustrating project in the world.

“Sorry,” I say, turning to King Ranch. “I didn’t want him to choke.”

“No, I know,” he says. “It’s fine.” He stands up and cracks his dusty knuckles.

Tyrion walks past King Ranch and around the fence that isn’t yet nailed into the final post and slowly saunters towards Little Foot who is using a stick to push dried leaves around on the ground. He lays his ears back and noses Little Foot’s shoulder gently. Little Foot turns for a second to acknowledge Tyrion before focusing back on his crispy, lifeless leaves.

“Any news?” I ask, rolling up the sleeves of my shirt while walking towards King Ranch who’s staring at the last post not connected to anything yet.

He pulls his phone out of the front pocket of his dusty jeans and holds it up to his face. He presses some buttons on the screen with his thumb and focuses for a moment. “Nope,” he says without emotion.

I wrap my arm around his back and lean my head against his shoulder.

King Ranch is possibly very close to landing a job not too far from here. He’s had a couple seemingly successful interviews with this particular company and several encouraging followups from the assigned recruiter. Now, we’ve just been waiting.

I don’t think that either of us want to give our hopes up about this potential job, but at the same time, we want to pour good vibes into the possibility. It’s exhausting to go through application after application and interview after interview without success. I, myself, have been interviewing with various full-time jobs around the area but unfortunately, have not been extended an offer that would cover the cost of child-care for Little Foot.

King Ranch runs his fingers up and down my spine twice before walking back towards the house in a tired shuffle. He leaves long, sliding boot-prints in the dirt.

Little Foot is hitting Tyrion in the nose with a stick.

“No, no, no,” I say, putting my hand in front of Tee’s nose. “Sweet donkey, see?” I gently pat Tyrion’s snout. “Sweet donkey.”

Little Foot grins and throws the stick down. I squat down next to him and pick up a different stick.

“Stick,” I say, holding it in front of his studying, blue eyes. “It’s a stick.”

Little Foot grabs the stick from me and pokes a few tired, tan leaves beneath him. A warm exhale behind me and I turn, bumping my nose into Bunny’s snout. She snorts and actually shoots a bit of donkey snot onto my cheek.

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I think she might have a cold or allergies or something. She’s been a little snotty-nosed and crusty-eyed the past few days. Wiping the snot from my face with the inside of my arm, I giggle to myself. Warm donkey snot. Why does that seem cute? I’m astonished with how little bodily fluids affect me these days. When you have a toddler and live on a farm, you get covered in stuff. All kinds of stuff.

Bunny noses my hair (likely getting snot in it) and then rests her jaw on my right shoulder. I’ve read before that this is a sign of affection for donkeys. I lean my weight into her as she leans hers into mine. With his ears back and his eyes half-open, Tyrion is standing close to Little Foot who is now drawing lines in the dirt with his index finger. The breeze picks up a few leaves and sends a faint smell of sawdust, as well as a few feathery specs of white, past us.

King Ranch walks back into the yard carrying a Miller Lite in one hand and a red solo cup in the other. I stand up, patting Bunny on the snout who starts to back away.

“Whatcha got there?” I ask, extending my hand.

“Hydration,” King Ranch says, handing me the red cup with a small, sideways grin.

I laugh.

As he’s swallowing a gulp, King Ranch says, “Let’s get this last part done, then we can go in.” He points his beer to the end of the fence. I nod and place my cup on top of a blue barrel that’s been sitting in the yard since we moved here.

Little Foot is still drawing shapes in the dirt and every so often, grabbing handfuls of loose sand and tossing it in the air with a smile.

I return to my spot on the fence as King Ranch squats down with a box of nails.

“Thanks for helping me,” he says.

“Of course,” I say.

——

The next day the fence is complete, gate and all. It’s a perfect fence ready to have the growth of a garden within it. Our options seem endless. There’s so much space for so many fruits and vegetables. We’re ready to till which brings us even closer to being ready to plant.

The next day, King Ranch gets a confirmation from this company – he’s been offered the job and all pre-employment processes have been confirmed and completed.

He built that fence. He got that job. He did all that.

Now, as we move into spring, we get to see what grows. And we are so excited.

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