Karen Donley-Hayes is a regular contributor for several medical publications in the Modern Medicine collection (Dermatology Times, Cosmetic Surgery Times, Ophthalmology Times, Drug Topics magazines, etc.). Her work has also appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and in numerous horse magazines (Equus, Dressage Today, The Horse, etc.). She has essays in the anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul – My Cat’s Life, and forthcoming in The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, a Holy Cow! Press anthology to be published in October 2013. She has an M.A. in interdisciplinary studies, an M.F.A. in creative writing and is editor at Hiram College. She lives in Ohio with her husband, several geriatric cats, a German shepherd, four hens, and one horse.
Hens on a Porch
I sit on a white wooden bench on my back porch, being careful to avoid the frozen clots of chicken poop. It’s dusk, and despite the cold, I’m spending some quality time with “the girls,” our four golden laced Wyandotte hens. It’s March, but winter in Ohio doesn’t care much about the calendar. It’s so cold frost laces the porch screens, and I wouldn’t be sitting out here at all except for the evening sun … it’s bright even as it slides northwest and sinks behind the hills and woods of our neighbor’s property.
A year ago at this time, the sun set through a thick stand of winter-naked trees; this year, it settles over a thinner, sparser stand of trees, survivors of a clear-cutting free-for-all last fall. A year ago, during the months when snow covered the ground and the leaves were off the trees, I watched winter in the woods, saw things one didn’t see in the summer – the way the land sloped uphill, and a band of wild turkeys that lived along the crest of that hill. They foraged along the woods’ floor, sometimes chasing each other, bickering. When I had braved the cold on the back porch, I listened to their turkey songs, the chorus of their society.
During the lumber rape in the fall, I had often wondered what would happen to the turkeys. This evening, I see much more of the hidden floor of the lost woods – much flatter than I’d realized, just one small rise of a hill, the rest dull and uninteresting, flood plain from the creek that runs through there. I used to want to ask our neighbors if I could walk through their woods (when the woods were still there), but now I have no desire to walk through the refuse left from the plunder, scraps of wood, discarded branches, swathed now in snow, lying like corpses. But they hadn’t massacred the entire woods, just this section of it, and beyond this hack job the trees huddle together again. The setting sun – vibrant in a way it hasn’t been in months, a way that warms me even though it’s not warm – winks behind those untouched trees.
On the porch at my feet, our hens work on the two ears of corn I’ve given them. They love it, not just the corn, but the activity – pecking the kernels off the cob, scratching away husks with their claws, turning the cob, investigating the possibilities. The girls murmur, chuck-chucking and clucking, looking up at me with curious purr-puuuuurrrpps when I squat next to them, pulling a little more of the husk down the corn cob. They pluck the cob right out of my hand and go back to work at it, and I sit back on my bench.
The hens are sequestered at our screened and covered back porch because in December, when there was two feet of snow on the ground, hawks became risk-taking famished and killed Ezmeralda, our black Jersey giant hen, a bird much too big to carry away. We found Ezmeralda rammed deep into her own snow-grave, her crop and breast meat devoured. Black feathers and down drifted across the snow’s surface, broken only by three indentations the hawk’s wings made when it tried to but could not carry off the hen.
Now I wonder what the hawks think, those who have survived the winter so far, that the chicken buffet is screened off. They can surely see the hens, hear them, smell them (can hawks smell?). And I wonder, too, if the newly denuded landscape behind our house benefits them at all; surely hunting would be easier with fewer trees, but do those fewer trees also mean fewer small woodland creatures scampering across the raptors’ menu? Has this logging I abhorred for its plain ugliness been a boon or bane to the creatures inhabiting the area? I have not seen the turkeys, nor heard their song, at all this winter.
But a few times in the last week or two, I’ve been awakened late in the night by a new song, ancient as the hills and snow, one I’d never heard before yet knew instantly: coyote. I think they’re new here, perhaps finding some appeal in the ravaged woods. Several nights, I listened to their yelps and howls, yips and cries, all weaving together, moving like one voice through the woods, nearer then farther, back toward the fence-line again, then dancing up the hill and fading south. Their chorus seemed haunting – mysterious and joyous and as old as the denuded hills. Those nights, snugged in the warmth of my covers, spooned against my husband, I lay still and listened, awed.
It’s getting dark. The hens have finished their corn cob activities and are chuck-chucking their way to the “stunt-coop” we set up when we evacuated them to the porch: a giant dog crate, inverted, with tomato stakes wedged through the vents to serve as perches. The girls seem entirely content with it. As I leave the porch, clean my boots off in the snow and get ready to go inside for the evening, I hear something I have not heard all winter. It stops me in my tracks. I turn to scrutinize where the woods had been, squinting into the fading light. I don’t see anything other than snow and rubble branches, then deepening shadows where the trees throng together again.
But I hear it again – a little farther away than in previous years – yet clear and conversational and entirely unperturbed: turkey song.