July 31, 2011

The willies

We had kind of a Stephen King moment a couple of nights ago while lounging in the yard and watching our chickens.
It’s become something of a ritual to spend dusk with our small flock, letting them out of their palace to eat some salad (grass, weeds, surreptitiously attacked vegetable plants), whatever Japanese beetles we’ve hand-picked from our bean plants and tossed in a shallow dish of water, and whatever bugs they peck out of the unseen population below our feet.
The reds, who hang together most of the time, recently discovered that the friable dirt around the trunk of one of our two dwarf peach trees is perfect for scratching out a shallow and settling in for a dirt/dust bath. The others, including Larry, soon caught on and joined in.
Sadie, fiddin' to take a bath
Now four at a time hunker down in there and roll around like pigs, scooping up dry dirt with the tips of their wings, throwing it over themselves and others, and generally having a terrific time ridding themselves of ticks, mites, and more invaders of their sleek feathers. We’ve watched wild turkeys do the same in a patch of sand next to our shed.
I’m going to mix up a custom dust bath for them, blending a lot of sand, a little dirt, and some diatomaceous earth. The latter is an all-natural powder made of finely crushed freshwater fossils. Harmless to larger creatures, such as chickens and humans, its microscopic silica is sharp and fatal to a variety of tiny parasites. It’s safe enough to toss on the chickens, but I’ll just leave it to the dust bath.
The reds take a dip
While we let our chickens range free at least three times a day, dusk is the best. It offers a break of five or 10 degrees from the mid-90s and higher heat that smolders during the day, with humidity in near-equal numbers. Even a little exertion produces torrents of sweat that stings your eyes and soaks your clothes in just a few minutes. There have been afternoons when my shoes were soaking wet from the inside.
Vicki is one of those wondrous creatures who never perspire, whose skin is always cool, and who under unusually harsh temperatures may be develop only a dewy sheen. But this weather makes her sweat almost like me. The humidity has the advantage, however, of turning her gold-and-copper hair into a wild, peasanty corolla.
The light at dusk is also at its best, coming in low just over the roof of our house, without glare, revealing even more of the vivid colors nearly everywhere in our yard and out into the woods. It is very flattering to our chickens.
Until yesterday, we hadn’t had rain in weeks. The sky and distant thunder had threatened the night before, but then moved on, leaving everything still covered in red-brown dust. That was when our chickens freaked, which in turn gave us a mild, but distinct, case of the creeps.
Tor Johnson, Vampira, and Bela Lugosi in Plan 9
The sky was ripe for it, increasingly lowering to the east, into the trees. There was a feeling of utter stillness – until such a condition really happened. I attributed it to the weather, but why this particular combination of factors which seemed identical to many dusks before?
The night before this we had frittered away watching Legion, a 2009 B-movie with a promising cast, including Dennis Quaid and Charles S. Dutton. It did very little business. But I’m a sucker for monster movies of almost any quality, having spent much of my early youth and many quarters going to triple-feature weekend matinees of everything from the original Dracula to Plan 9 from Outer Space, the infamous Ed Wood anti-masterpiece on everybody’s list of all-time worsts. (Incidentally, both films starred Bela Lugosi. He was at his mesmerizing peak in the former, and an ancient, dissipated has-been in the latter. Lugosi died well before Wood was ready to wrap his movie, and was replaced with an actor who was much taller, much younger, and appeared in all of his scenes with a cape-draped arm covering most of his face.)
LegionVicki indulges me, and this one, Legion, had at least camp potential. The monsters are a legion of hideously shape-shifting angels who, under the leadership of the archangel Gabriel, are unleashed on earth to destroy mankind for enraging The Boss. Just before they beset a desert diner in the middle of nowhere, archangel Michael shows up to defend the people trapped there. Not them, precisely, but a world-weary waitress, a chain smoker, who unwittingly carries “the hope for all mankind” within her distended belly. As a nice touch, Michael has split from the legion in a difference of opinion, and had his wings hacked off to express his seriousness, I guess. Mayhem ensues, it was entertaining, and didn’t require too much concentration.
So there we were, lounging in this lowering dusk in what seemed an absolute stillness – no thunder, no chirruping insects or chittering hummingbirds, not a fallen leaf disturbed by a busy squirrel, no gunshots, farm engines, or yapping dogs.
And our chickens froze.
They had been wandering along the paths between our gardens, pecking away, raising the occasional one-on-one challenge, popping into the air in a flurry of wings for no visible reason, the usual. Then all raised their heads, all but one facing east toward the deeper forest, and froze in place, not a feather moving.
We walked in front of them, around them, and among them and they didn’t even blink. It was an undeniably unsettling situation. We seemed to be the only moving things on our farm. A very brief chill breeze came out of the west and washed over us, but didn’t stir a leaf on the trees. Deep in the woods, patches of smaze appeared to be trapped among the trunks.
A lowering sky
Was it our first moment in Armageddon, with some invisible, inexorable force out there, moving toward us? Was there a knot of armed tweakers, jazzed on the latest tainted flake coming out of their shake-and-bake soda-bottle “lab” and creepy-crawling up out of the holler? Was it simply some beast not yet seen around here, looking for something to fill its maw and belly?
Why were we the only ones not to get the memo?
Was it the weather, and if so, what in hell was coming?
After a long couple of minutes, as though a switch had been flipped from off to on, wild birds burst out of the trees and made directly for our feeder. There were blue jays, a pileated woodpecker, an exquisite indigo bunting, robins, cardinals, and a contingent of mourning doves that rarely feed at the feeder, but prefer scavenging on the ground below. Best of all, the hummingbirds resumed their evening aerobatics.
The woods stirred gently, the sun continued toward the horizon, bugs resumed biting, the chickens picked up where they had left off, and all returned to normal on a lowering dusk at Shuddering Squirrel Acres.
There was no doom to follow its portent, no menacing terrestrial beings or vengeful celestial ones. But something unexplainable had pierced the visceral reaches of our minds and bodies, and in its disquiet, may have healed something there.
Maybe our more usual, unanchored intimations of a wet, raven doom could be just as ephemeral, just as conquerable, and equally finite.


  1. very nicely done...are you published yet? Enjoyed the entire synopsis...

  2. I'm not sure what you mean by published. Please explain.