Hardly Noticeable

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Still Continuing...For at least two weeks more, actually...

“I got the nicest-looking cock on the farm,” my father announced to the entryway of the house. His voice was deep, rumbling like a bass drum. I was sitting in the kitchen eating a bowl of ice cream while my mother sat facing the sink knitting a scarf. At the time I knew there was something slightly off in the way he talked, but I couldn’t place why it was strange.
“That’s great,” my mother replied.
“This cock is something spectacular. Perhaps I’ll show it to you later.” He had by now taken off his shoes and crossed the house from the entryway to the kitchen. He leaned with both hands braced against the molding on the doorway to the kitchen. His face was grinning, but his eyes were festooned with the confused look of a man holding his wife’s purse. The whole time he spoke to my mom alone; as far as he was concerned I was invisible. I bit my tongue just to prove to myself that I existed, then got up and walked to the stainless-steel kitchen sink to clean my bowl.
“Yeah, maybe so,” my mother said.
“It’s strong and healthy,” he said. “And it’s sure excited to see you. It’s almost ready to crow.”
I turned off the water and put the bowl on the clean dish rack. I walked out of the kitchen trying to physically become the vaporous figure that my father took me to bed. My skin was hot; my father wouldn’t look at me. Every word he spoke was like steel wool, giving birth to microscopic abrasions in places where nobody could see them. He couldn’t see me. I was invisible. His jokes were incomprehensible. By this point in my life he must have felt the same way about me as silence feels about noise: It occurred; it is done; back to silence. I walked past him and out the back door without him knowing I was there.
The sky was cornflower blue, and the sun shone brightly on the earth. I could feel a creeping shadow coming from inside my chest. Perhaps this is just a function of me being the I that I am now, but I know now that I knew then that something about the scene was off, like a triangle that didn’t close. The new rooster was accosting the hens, because that is apparently what roosters do. By that time the chickens annoyed me on principle. When I thought of all the hours in the garden and all the cuts and scrapes I had from weeding I was annoyed that my father had merely paid his money and collected his chickens. He didn’t raise them from eggs, allowing the tiny chicks to sleep in the warm breast pocket of his flannel shirts. He didn’t watch them grow, watch their first stirrings, the first movements with which they announced themselves to the air around them by displacing it with their stubby wings. I had seen him take such care building the coop for the chickens, but still I could not understand how he could be so devoted to them.

The rooster was quick to make its presence known, and the next morning it announced to me and my family that the sun had yet again succeeded in conquering the night. For two weeks it did that every morning, and during that whole time my father doted on it and the hens, hoping the rooster would spread its seed among them. But on the fifteenth day after it came to reside at the house in the country, the rooster did not crow in the morning. At first I did not notice this non-occurrence; the rooster had only been there for two weeks, and I wasn’t yet imprinted with its schedule. The negative event brought with it some extra rest, uninterrupted sleep, dreams and phantoms of dreams. When I woke at 8, I strode out the back door of the house and into the geometry of the backyard. The lines of demarcation were usually quite striking, for the lawn was immediately abutted to the chickens’ pen, which was hedged by my garden. The heavy green contrasted the raw sienna starkness of the fenced-in pen, which in turn contrasted the deep coal black soil of my garden, which was further contrasted by the reds of my strawberries, the greens of my lettuce and carrot leaves, and the cool yellow of the roses I’d planted for my mother.
But when I walked down the back stairs and looked at the yard, I realized the lines of demarcation had blurred during my long sleep. The lawn was still a striking, heavy green. The chicken pen and my garden, however, had become a mess of black dirt, dead chickens, and uprooted crops. Globs of dusty blood spattered the straw-colored ground around the chickens. As I walked towards them, I realized that the hens were wrapped in the fence, and that they were missing their heads. Only their bodies lay ensconced in the wire.
The scene was disturbing, especially for someone only nine years old: the carcasses of the chickens lifeless on the ground, the fenceposts impaled obscenely through their bodies. But, if it weren’t so tragic, if it hadn’t happened to me, I think I would have been able to see some sort of grotesque beauty in it all. The way the chickens were wrapped up, the wire making a circuit around their bodies, under the left wing, around the right foot, straight up to the post doing the impaling. The color of blood on the ground and posts contrasting the white of their feathers, though the blood had darkened now to a copper stain. The severed rooster’s comb, its statement of pride stuck in its mouth in a way that seemed vaguely sexual, even at my age.
It wasn’t until I studied the garden that I started crying. My vegetables were all pulled up, some hewn by the tools that I had forgotten to put away the previous night. Most of the crops were scattered about the ground like refuse. I walked over to the fence, took off my shoes and socks, and stepped onto the tainted soil. I felt a flicker of the green electricity that runs through the topsoil in a well-tended garden, but the sensation was just a whisper of what I had felt just a day before. The carrots were all gone, ripped up, destroyed. The strawberry plants were uprooted; the tough pink wedges of fruit had been trampled on by heavy boots and were crushed under the black soil. The lettuce was nowhere to be found. The roses I had planted were ripped up, thrown out of the garden and onto the lawn. The flowers were cut off and the petals strewn maniacally about: it was as though whoever had destroyed my garden had done it with the express purpose of trying to anger me. Whoever did it destroyed everything so thoroughly, so methodically, so decisively that I was left with no way to replant, no way to fix what had been broken. My mouth tasted of copper and soap.
I ran my hairless hands through the deep earth as though I were somehow capable of regenerating all that had been lost. I let the moist soil stick to my fingers, get under my fingernails, clump and gather in the creases of my hands. For a moment, I thought I could bring it back. But then it set in: I was only a speck, a mere breath in the summation of existence, and I didn’t have the power of creation in my fingertips. For a child, this is an astounding revelation.
Pushing myself from the ground, I stood up and rubbed my hands together, letting the black soil flake off my skin. I dug at the lines in my hands with my fingernails, trying to eradicate every trace of soil from my palms. Wiping my hands on my shorts, I stepped out of my garden, picked up a few of the yellow rose petals from their open grave on the lawn, and walked back toward the house. In one hand I carried my shoes and socks, in the other the petals. In front of the back door was a welcome mat with a rough tangle of plastic hairs, and I slid my feet back and forth on it until they were red and burning. I left my shoes and socks near the door and walked inside.

This was the first moment of death that I had ever experienced. Previous to this, my experience of life was all circles, all unbroken lines. I had had no pets, no houseplants, and all of my relatives were still alive, as far as I knew. Every child, I know, must meet death at some point; yet some children meet it too early. I had read of death in Sunday school class during Easter, and I had seen Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, but neither of them was real. Neither of them could make my lungs forget oxygen, my eyes forget light. My parents had never talked to me about it. I was left to stand out there alone in my garden with the air around me like sulfur, tears on my cheeks, unable to deal with the emotions I felt. The fact that I didn’t like the chickens caused me to grieve for them almost more than my own garden, since I felt at the time that I had somehow caused their demise by my own evil will.


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