An Exhale

It’s just after lunch and I’ve turned my rickety-red pickup truck into my small town of Nowhere, Texas. The days have begun where in the sun, the Texas heat continues to beat down in her typical fashion—the kind of beaming that makes you feel like you’re a lizard under a heat-lamp trying to digest after a long meal. But as the sun lingers on with her usual strength, there are now moments of hope hiding in the shade—tiny hints of fall air are beginning to collect in the shadows, even at a high-noon sun. I love this time of year: warm in the light, cool in the dark.

Little Foot is singing the ABCs from his car seat for the five-thousandth time and I’m still not tired of hearing his little voice articulate the letters. In the slow drawl of his “I”s and “y”s, I can hear that he’s adopting a bit of my southern twang. I drive on, the creaking of ole’ rickety-red increasing as the roads become gravel.

I follow the long, curved road that cuts through town under heavily blooming pecan trees when suddenly, I slam on the brake and pop the truck’s shifter into neutral. Gravel crunches beneath us and dust quickly rises like a gray blanket in front of me. As it settles, I see a woman about twenty feet or so in front of me kneeling in the gravel, her hands reaching behind her head like she’s pulling her own hair and she’s sobbing. Beneath her is a golden-brown dog laying on its side, a small pool of blood drying in the dirt and rocks around its belly.

A man comes running out after her and he kneels next to the woman who turns and buries herself in his chest. Even with my windows rolled up, the A/C running, and at least twenty feet of road between us, I can hear the woman wailing in heartache. The man holds her and I see him lift a hand up to swipe a tear from his own eye, too.

“What happened?” Little Foot asks with a small voice from the back seat, his ABCs having stopped.

“I don’t know, bud,” I say, fully knowing what’s happened.

He’s quiet and so am I. The man turns to see my truck sitting there and I see his immediate inclination to get this scene out of our way. I don’t want him to feel rushed, so I back up and pull the truck to the side of the road. Do I say something?

“What you doing, mommy?” Little Foot says as I swerve the truck in reverse and into the grass.

“I’m backing up the truck, bud,” I say.

The man is saying something to the woman now and she nods, slowly stands up, and walks back toward a house to the right. Her arms are wrapped around herself and she’s still crying. The man adjusts himself over the dog that looks to be some kind of golden labrador. I decide then to open my truck door and step out.

From now twenty-five feet or so away, I call to the man, “Do you need help?”

He turns his wrinkled face to me and says, “Oh…no thank you ma’am. I’ve got it.” He smiles a sad smile and then looks back down at the dog. From the right, the woman is standing on the covered porch of a small, brown house. She’s got her hands balled up in front of lips like she’s saying a prayer.

The man slips his hands beneath the dog’s neck and behind his back legs. I hear the woman whimper from her porch as the man stands, the dog limp in his arms. A small tinkle of a collar clangs as he turns and walks toward the house.

I climb back into rickety-red and Little Foot says, “Hi mommy!”

I say, “Hi honey.”

I press the clutch, shift the truck and drive forward, swerving around the small, dark spot of bloodied rocks, and then onward toward my house.

In the driveway outside of my house, I pull Little Foot from his car seat and grab the stack of five new library books we’ve just checked out from the library in the next town over. As I shut the truck’s door, Bunny begins to bray from the pasture, then Tink, then Tee.

Inside, Little Foot takes two of his new books into his bedroom and begins to sing his ABCs again. I stand at the back window where I can see that Bunny, Tee, and Tink are all up wandering around and I’m so relieved because last week, I thought we were going to lose Bunny.

The day after I came back up north from Houston where I was helping my folks out in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I noticed Bunny acting strangely—not eating, laying down a lot, walking very slowly when she was up—and I know enough about donkeys to know that if they’re acting like anything is wrong, there’s likely something very wrong. They’re quite stoic and show pain only when it’s gotten really bad.

I’d called the emergency vet and they arrived, examined her, and determined she was likely experiencing colic which can be deadly in equines. They had to pump her stomach right then and there and then we had to keep her off of food for a while. It took her several days to recover and for those several days which are crucial after a stomach pump, I thought my sweet donkey was going to die.

I stand at the window now, watching her nip at the other donkeys, graze, and walk without issue and I’m so grateful for her health that it hurts. From this distance, I can see the little swirl of fur that’s between her eyes—the spot that I’ll rest my head on when she’s got her nose in my chest and I realize how much Bunny and my other donkeys mean to me. Thoughts begin to poke in my mind…the “what if she’d died? What if she colicks again? What if…” and I stop, and I breathe.

And then Houston appears in my mind. The flooded streets of my childhood rushing like rivers as babies cry on small boats that have pulled them from their homes. Blank faces of residents who can’t comprehend what’s happening to them. Military trucks in my town transporting families with wide eyes and wet hair. Scared and shaking dogs, cold hands, brows beaded with sweat and rain.

I stop, I exhale heavily and suddenly, I’m bawling.

I sit down on the ground and I cry. I cry into my hands, tears and snot pooling in my palms. I cry for my hometown, for the people who are still struggling. I cry for the people pushing air mattresses carrying children and pets down river-roads while the rain continues to pour. For the people who are still in shelters unsure of what comes next—the people who can’t answer their children when they ask, “what’s happening?” I cry for the fat tube that was run up Bunny’s nose to pump her stomach and for the way Tee and Tink stared at her through the fence, breathing heavily and terrified.  I cry for the woman who couldn’t find her husband and for the man that I saw coming off of a military truck only two days after I ran into him at the creek not yet swelled taking pictures with his cell phone just like me. He lost everything. I didn’t. I cry for the realization that Bunny will die one day. So will Tee and Tink. I cry for the dog in the road and how much its owners must ache right now—seeing the insides of their companion on the road because someone wasn’t driving cautiously enough or at least wasn’t kind of enough to stick around. I can hear the woman’s heartbroken cries and can see the hurt on the man’s face. 

I cry and I cry and I cry until nothing but heaving remains and when I lower my hands, my own dog, Tucker, is sitting in front of me with his ears laying back. His brown eyes look right into mine and he lowers his head. I pull Tucker into my lap and stroke his back over and over again.

A minute or two later, Little Foot comes running in and says, “Mommy, let’s sing ABCs.”

I wipe my face as Tucker steps out of my lap and as I stand, turning to my curly haired boy, I say, “Okay, bud.”

He grabs my hand and leads me toward his room and as we walk, Tucker following behind us, we sing the ABCs together. I squeeze his soft, little hand in mine.  

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Bunny: my donkey, my friend.

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.

Andre
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.